Identify critical needs, raise your status

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In order to become more of a human capital consultant and not be perceived as a product peddler, a benefit adviser must focus on a client’s critical needs. If the client is going to offer employer-paid benefits, including medical coverage, what are the most critical needs that need to be addressed that are relevant to that employer’s values, culture and human capital goals?

The beauty of this approach is that by becoming much more consultative you are making yourself relevant and valuable to your clients, while beginning to morph your business practice.

When engaging the client, simply focus on being collaborative and articulating critical needs. Build consensus with the client participants, and make absolutely certain that one of those participants is the CFO. That’s the pivotal executive position focused on strategic goals, managing expenses and critically evaluating financial options, not the least of which are their benefits expenditures. Benefits represent 9%-11% of total operating expenses for most employers.

Also see: "Trust and transformation."

This is not the time to be in a sales mode; it’s the time to be consultative. This is not, “I’ve got a widget to sell. Do you want to buy my widget?” Instead, you should be asking lots of open-ended questions and taking copious notes. Being facilitative and consultative will help you to engage the client in a discussion — not a sales pitch — and it will enable you to make more informed recommendations that are responsive to the client’s values and needs.

Find the solutions
Once you have jointly identified the critical needs, you can turn your attention to solutions. And yes, your recommended solutions will likely entail group medical insurance plan design, or utilization of an exchange; benefits communication and enrollment strategies; the application of technology, perhaps in the form of a benefits portal; and the intelligent integration of voluntary benefits, among other products and services.

With all the plan design and redesign of the last decade, there inevitably were gaps in coverage created. However, the needs of employees have not diminished. If anything, they have increased. At a minimum there are opportunities to offer employee-paid: permanent life insurance; disability income; critical illness; auto and homeowner’s insurance; long-term care; pre-paid legal services; household budget and debt counseling; and retirement plans.

Also see: "Critical questions to ask in a merger."

The commissions from the sale of these voluntary benefits can more than make up for the loss of group health commissions. You also need to assess their executive benefits, which may be woefully outdated, and may impact that employer’s ability to retain key executive talent during this “slow growth” economy.

Finally, you need to memorialize your mutual discussions in a written document. Your clients need a roadmap, a strategic plan, to guide their tactical decisions; both their actions and reactions. And it needs to include contingency plans because of all the possible changes that are completely out of their control. To do this you will need to become much more consultative in your approach. And you will need a formalized process, training and tools in order to make this transition successfully. But your clients need you to do just that, and they will be demanding their adviser(s) provide this kind of counsel and expertise, or they will find a resource that will.

Kwicien is managing partner at Baltimore-based consulting and advisory services firm Daymark Advisors. Reach him at

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Practice management Advisor strategies Client communications