With employers seeking to show the value of all their benefits in this ever-increasing competitive job market, Benefitfocus, a benefits technology company, recently debuted an online marketplace for employees to shop for benefits, voluntary products and more.

The company unveiled the fully customizable HR InTouch in late April. In the marketplace, similar to any online shopping portal like Amazon.com, employees can shop for their benefits and other offers from their employer and explore how to best spend their defined contribution dollars. If employees need help while in the store, there are avatars standing by on the ready, as well as a live chat option.

To learn more about this new feature, EBA spoke with Benefitfocus President and CEO Shawn Jenkins, who also founded the company.

 

Please describe the new exchange.

We've been working for 12 years now, sort of perfecting the ability for employers to manage all their benefits on the web and now through mobile technology. Three years ago we really began to build ... HR InTouch [as] we began to see a pattern emerging of employers becoming owners of the marketplace, putting together insurance packages and wellness programs. We thought these things are really a marketplace.

[Employees] are shopping online, like going to Amazon.com for benefits and so we really focused hard on designing and engineering a new capability ... which allows a single large employer to put together their own defined contribution exchange. They put an amount in for their employees and then they go in, get greeted by video and we support avatar technology and the employees shop.

It was unveiled at our event in Charleston, S.C. Some of the neat themes with the marketplace are that in addition to the employer being able to define the contribution - which we think is a material part of a marketplace functioning - the employee can use multiple forms of payment. They can use payroll deduction. They can also use credit card payment, their bank account, a PayPal account; we also introduced a new mobile payment technology so they can use their phone to pay using any one of those sources.

All the themes are moving to mobile and tablets and phones and the new devices that we are so familiar with. We wanted to empower individuals; we call them consumers, even though they might be the employee or the spouse in this shopping retail environment. We wanted to really take a giant leap forward and we think we have done that.

 

How often do you want employees to visit the marketplace site?

In a traditional online retail marketplace the idea is to get people back and have them shop longer, have them stay longer and that's consistent with what an employer wants. We win when the employer wins at Benefitfocus. The more they can communicate about their compensation and benefits and all the things the employer is putting in front of them, the employer wins.

[It's] the kind of thing where you want to see people online preferably every single day. Obviously, open enrollment is the significant period, that's when most of the purchasing is done, the big items like your health insurance. But there's so many other things now that are showing up now and can be made available through the marketplace capability. And the desire for the employer to have their employees plus their dependents interact with all the programs and understand the benefits they utilize them. They are paying for them and seeing more and more the higher they utilize the preventive services and the voluntary services, the lower the utilization is on the core health plan. Therefore more activity on that side creates a return on investment on the medical plan usage.

 

Does this tool help push voluntary sales?

In the traditional sense when you say the word voluntary, people in the business a lot of times are talking about out a voluntary insurance policy, critical illness or so forth, and those things are involved. We've got great apps from Allstate and Unum and Aflac. But in addition to that, anything that the employee voluntarily signs up for and utilizes is now voluntary and that includes identify theft protection or wellness challenges that their co-workers might involve them in and charitable giving and interacting with their community in a voluntary way, and more and more employers offer perks around that.

We have a great customer, Brooks Brothers. They've created something called a total compensation app on the Benefitfocus platform and other employers are using it. It shows all of [an employee's] compensation, including all their voluntary benefits, but also their perks. And at Brooks Brothers, as you can imagine they've got great perks. They wanted a way to get those company perks ingrained in that whole conversation.

I think the word voluntary became so much deeper and more colorful. It enhances even the voluntary insurance programs because they are not this sort of one of thing that happens secondary or on the outside of your core benefits.

 

What type of sales do you expect to do on the new site?

We did cross a major milestone. We crossed 16 million consumers on the [main] Benefitfocus platform. ... The adoption of our technology is increasing at an accelerating rate. This HR InTouch marketplace really just adds additional fuel to that. It isn't necessarily a totally separate capability that we expect to pick up customers that we wouldn't otherwise interact with.

It really just motivates large employers, insurance carriers, and voluntary benefit providers to move that much faster to online to save money on their benefit plan. Some of the things holding them up from doing that was the administrative complexity.

So we think this just accelerates our growth. The marketplace's technology can be adopted by single large employers to put all their benefits in one place. Likewise, we also have insurance companies, particularly health plans that are adopting technology to set up private exchanges for their small-employer businesses or for their consumer.

 

Discuss the company branding in it. How important is it to say this is Company X's site?

I think it's very important. As an employer, usually their largest expense is the personnel, is the human capital, salary and all the benefits and taxes that can go into that.

This is a really fresh new way of trying to take credit for all the great things they are already doing. What's unique is the employer really puts their own styling and branding [on the marketplace.] A customer like Westfield, which is a large retailer, it looks just like their retail website.

We have a lot of hospital systems, a lot of school systems like Howard County Schools. So each one is just as unique and the personality is just as clever and creative as that particular employer, but without losing the benefit of the insurance brands that is so important for the employee. You see BlueCross BlueShield, you see Aetna, and you see Allstate. And those brands and those investments that are in the companies kind of come through and make the marketplace that much more trusted and powerful. So you get the employers brand but yet the employer doesn't have to act as if they are the insurance company, so they are not hiding anybody else's brand.

 

What feedback have you received so far?

It's been kind of overwhelming. The folks that attended our conference were clamoring for more one-on-one demos and we've got a wave of follow up meetings. We had been designing this for several years now. We are a long-term thinking company. ... As we have been designing the marketplace, we worked with a lot of our premier customers and folks that have also long-term investment they were making in private exchanges for carriers.

I think some of the things that we showed last week that no one had seen except our design team. I know we got rave reviews from folks that even been our inside. ... But our affinity for really eloquent user experience regardless of what device you are accessing it on. That tends to blow people away; we say it melts their face off. We got the highest marks for our execution on the final design

 

You have to have poured millions into this, so you see a return on investment that makes it worth it?

We are a cloud-based technology provider of great web-based technology for benefits and health care and because of that we sort of have this software as a service ongoing relationship with our customers.

The better the software the more they use it and that in return generates more revenue for Benefitfocus - our ability to invest in the platform is all hinged on adoption and utilization. Everything we can use to enhance the utilization get more eyeballs ... drives up sort of our core business proposition and also means that the employer or the insurance carrier is getting a better return because they removed paper, they get a better return with their constituents.

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