It’s annual enrollment time once again, but this year there are more options than ever when it comes to how you enroll. Brokers need to be aware that a major shift is occurring in the enrollment landscape; paper and other traditional enrollment approaches are still available based on a customer’s needs. However, these methods are now being supplanted by evolving technologies that are gaining a foothold in the market, helping to alter how benefits are offered and accessed at the workplace. The changing nature of enrollment is best exemplified by the type of questions and expectations being raised by employers.

How it was before…and is now

In the past, employers would ask their adviser, “What products do you offer?” And, “What communication methods do you use to educate and enroll employees?” Today, however, the conversation has been raised to a new level, with corporate clients inquiring about the type of technology that a carrier can make available.

Some of the questions that brokers currently hear most often are, “What type of technology do you use?” “Who are you connected to and how are you connected?” “Which products are available through that connection?” In fact, the acquisition and proposal process is already being defined more by technology breadth and connectivity possibilities than by available benefits and price considerations.

Over the past five to ten years, enrollment technology tools have evolved rapidly, necessitated by the need to provide flexibility and convenience in marketing to companies of all sizes, industries and cultures. Recent research shows that the U.S. workforce is aging, and that there will continue to be more diversity in the racial and ethnic composition of workers over the next ten years. In addition, today’s employees comprise baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials, with each age group preferring different ways of getting information and education about their benefits.

Another factor affecting enrollment processes is the passage of health care reform, putting pressure on employers to meet the challenges of balancing employee risk and budget constraints. One strategy many employers are using to deal with changes in medical benefits is offering financial protection coverage through employee-paid coverage options. These voluntary benefits, such as disability, critical illness and hospital indemnity, among others, enhance an employer’s benefit offerings, but also require distinct methods of educating and enrolling employees. Most importantly, employers must communicate the value of these benefits as clearly as possible. Clearly, a one-size-fits-all enrollment strategy just doesn’t work anymore.

Meeting a range of enrollment needs

Fortunately, brokers can present their corporate clients with a wide array of enrollment methods, from face-to-face options to self-educated and self-enrolled scenarios. And with a growing number of technology options available, including those best suited for small companies to those geared for industries with more sophisticated technology expertise, there is an enrollment solution to meet every customer’s needs. Some of the enrollment technologies widely in use today include:

  • proprietary standalone enrollment systems;
  • enrollment apps embedded as a link into a host system;
  • deep web services integration where a partner’s host system accesses a carrier’s underwriting/rules/rates/data running seamlessly in the background while maintaining control of the user experience;
  • hosting that allows a partner to build a carrier’s products standalone on their system.

Because these enrollment tools represent a range of options, they enable a broker/carrier to “meet employers where they are,” allowing easy integration with whatever method may currently be in place.
Frequently, employers are relying more heavily on benefit administrators and third-party technology partners for enrollment support. Consequently, carriers are working hard to develop links between enrollment, the benefit administration system and the employer. For example, online enrollment is the most technology-based approach and is appealing to customers with tech-savvy employees. This approach works best when a third-party’s technology system is connected to a carrier’s enrollment platform, and employees experience a seamless transition.

No matter what tools are used for enrollment, employers should remember that all employees need multiple communications about their benefits, a variety of educational tools and sign up methods and ample time to review and discuss the information. A good rule of thumb is:

  • a minimum of three communications in easy-to-understand language; and
  • three weeks to review the communications prior to enrollment.

In developing a successful enrollment strategy, brokers should consider their corporate client’s goals; technology familiarity; employee eligibility and accessibility; benefit programs changes; language needs; and participation expectations. These criteria will help to inform the most effective employee communication and education strategy and determine which approach will be most helpful.
While most carriers are still trying to second guess what technologies may be needed in the future, it’s safe to assume that for the short- to mid-term, those carriers who have a broad product offering, flexibility and strong technology partnerships will be the most effective. And today, the future surely belongs to those brokers who can offer their clients a broad selection of enrollment methods and technologies. Are you ready for the challenge?

Jeff Smith, is assistant vice president for voluntary benefits operations at Unum.

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