In a difficult economy, you have to be even more adept at creating value for your clients and their employee population. You need to go beyond being perceived as the point of access to benefits product information and services, and transcend your client's expectations. But that's no small task. How can you do that in these economic conditions when most are being forced to do more with less? Well, the best way we know is to create a multi-year benefits strategic plan. And now is the perfect time of year to initiate such discussions with your existing clients and prospects as well. It is a powerful planning process that will enable you to guide your client's benefits planning for the future.
A benefits strategic plan articulates how the benefits program will continue to support the attainment of the overall business plan and corporate objectives. It will explain how the benefits component fits into the total compensation plan and provides rewards and incentives to employees to achieve the corporation's goals. By using a strategic planning process as a tool, you will establish greater credibility with clients' senior management and elevate your interaction to that of a trusted adviser.
For many businesses, the corporate strategic plan is a roadmap for how the entity will conduct its business affairs. In most firms, the chief financial officer is the author and repository of this important plan document.
The CFO generally also oversees the human resource, compensation and benefits functions. This is likely true for most of your clients and prospects as well. Logically, the CFO is accustomed to preparing strategic documents to help steer the enterprise. That's why creating a multi-year strategic plan for the benefits program is such a logical fit.
Think about this in the context of your points of contact at client firms and see how this approach will dovetail with the entire enterprise planning process. This will get you connected with the CFO, president, or CEO faster than any other marketing strategy you may have ever tried. Ensuring the alignment of human resource initiatives and corporate business strategy has never been more important. The traditional "functional" approach to benefits planning must adapt to one that is more strategic and longer term.
Here's a winning action plan outline that is designed to stimulate your thinking:
During the next 30-45 days, review and assess the prior and current year's benefits offering, the enrollment process utilized, and the overall results. Note any appropriate changes and lay the ground work for future benefits decisions. Then, propose the development of a three-to-five year strategic plan to the pertinent decision makers at your client or prospect organization. Encourage HR, benefits, finance and members of the C Suite to participate. If possible, get the CFO involved in the process. If you are not the Broker of Record, this is your way to get inside the tent. Challenge your client to think outside the box. Raise their expectations about the services a benefits adviser - one that is a trusted adviser - should be providing.
The strategic plan needs to address your client's key organizational goals (each firm's goals may be different, and therefore key elements will be different in each strategic plan). Schedule a brainstorming session with your client to get all the issues out on the table. Your role will be that of facilitator. Employ a consultative approach.
Facilitate a high-level discussion about your client's organizational goals. Potential sample topics include: target employee retention goals; compensation and benefits integration objectives; benefits options for executives, full-time and part-time employees; budget forecasts for premium increases for group health insurance; contingency plans should those premium increase targets be exceeded; plan redesign considerations; creation of coverage gaps and discussion regarding how to fill those gaps; consideration of the intelligent integration of voluntary benefits; improving employee benefits communications and how to pay for it; leveraging technology (if appropriate) and how to pay for it; and any number of other topics that are relevant to your client's current circumstances.
Encourage your client to think broadly, strategically and holistically about their compensation and benefits plans. Ask open-ended questions about the business and its overall goals. Are there acquisitions expected? Plans for expansion into new markets? Will their firm be retrenching and eliminating positions? Is their culture evolving toward merit-based compensation? Be a good listener. Take copious notes. And commit to providing all attendees copies of the notes from your session(s). It may take more than one session to get all the issues, and possible solutions and strategies out on the table. That's OK. You now have your client's team members engaged in a very meaningful strategic discussion.
Ultimately, from the notes a strategic roadmap will be created. It will be a written document that maps out what the organization wants to accomplish during the strategic plan period (a three-, four-, or five-year timeframe).
Topics to cover
At a minimum, the final written document drafted by you and your key strategic planning participants should address the following:
* Overarching strategic goals to accomplish (i.e.: maintain health insurance premium increases to 8% annually; corresponding changes to the group health insurance plan design, including raising deductibles, increasing co-pays; implementing CDHPs with HSAs; self-funding; contingency plans, etc.)
* The document may also include the organization's target employee retention goals, benefits costs per employee, employer's defined annual contribution to defray benefits expenses, etc.
* It may include the scheduling of annual employee attitude or employee benefit option surveys. Or the scheduling of employee focus group meetings.
* For each year, it should state what benefits actions will be taken: reduction in medical insurance options; cost-shifting strategies to be employed; introduction of new voluntary benefits offerings; acceptable target premium increase percentages; introduction of new employee benefits communication tools (i.e.: 'second paycheck' statements); technology(s) to be deployed, etc.
* It should specify all the strategies and tactical action plans that will be implemented and affect the employee benefits programs to achieve the desired results, including the benefits communications plan, enrollment resources, overall project management resources, ongoing communications during the rest of the year, off-cycle benefits (voluntary) introductions, etc.
* Make sure that it includes a section for executive sign off and approval on the plan document. Secure the buy-in and commitment of all relevant constituencies, and put yourself in the driver's seat. Still having difficulty visualizing how this could work? Perhaps the graphic seen above will make it clearer.
The creation of a benefits strategic plan document is a win-win for you and your client. In the process you will have made yourself an invaluable resource to your client or prospect. After all, you co-authored the benefits strategic plan. And you can charge a consulting fee for facilitating the strategy session and developing the written plan document, so you will be adding a revenue stream to your business. Some advisers we know are using benefits strategic planning to morph a portion of their practice to a consultancy model.
Now that's a winning marketing and client retention strategy.
Kwicien is managing partner at Baltimore-based Daymark Advisors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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