Help Employees Be Savvy Benefit Consumers

Employers should embrace lessons from the online retail world

By Ann Mond Johnson July 16, 2015

Think back on the past 15 years and how much technology has changed our lives. Today, we’re less likely to use travel agents, we can execute trades for stocks and bonds on our own, and we can go shopping at 2 a.m. We can even view a property for sale without leaving the comfort of our home.

These advances have also shaped consumer expectations with respect to employee benefits. This is particularly true with regard to the growing adoption of private health care exchanges that serve as online marketplaces for employees to select group health coverage, and the growing prominence of high-deductible health plans that give employees financial incentives to consider costs when choosing doctors and hospitals for nonemergency health care.

What expectations do employees have as they navigate health care and other benefits in this new landscape of benefits consumerism? Here are the top five:

  • Convenience. This refers to the ability of consumers to do what they want, when they want and with nearly instantaneous results. For a time-crunched person (which includes most of us), this is key.
  • Seamlessness. While there used to be a disconnect between the brick-and-mortar experience and the web experience, the dots are increasingly (and deliberately) being connected. A seamless shopping experience might be exemplified by a mall, for example, where stores send personalized messages to consumers’ mobile devices while they are in the store or nearby.
  • Personalization. Thanks to online shopping, the expectation is that consumer recommendations are personalized and that consumer services quickly learn and reflect their preferences.
  • Transparency. Information asymmetry, or the imbalance of information between the buyer and seller, can contribute to a frustrating shopping experience and has been virtually eliminated in many arenas, most notably when car shopping using sites such as Edmunds and TrueCar.
  • Choice. The range of products available—from different types of Coca-Cola products to different styles of Levi’s jeans—reflects our demand for options. And we have no patience for sites that make it difficult for us to assess these options. Sifting through hundreds of health insurance choices, as an example, is a nonstarter for most consumers. In contrast, reviewing options based on the most important of variables (looks) is part of what makes Tinder such a highly trafficked site in the dating world.

The health sector has seriously lagged behind other industries in its adoption of technology and in efforts to be more consumer-centric. Fortunately, there are signs that this is changing. Private exchanges show promise, precisely because they are designed as a retail experience.

While purchasing health care products and services is different from buying a car or a house, consumers increasingly enter exchanges with the same expectations they have when they go online to Amazon. This provides an opportunity is to engage people in ways that make sense to them.

Down the road, consumer-centric entities such as private exchanges will continue to borrow from the retail sector. What are some tools they are likely to adopt?

  • Curation. We may not subscribe to TheNew York Times, but we do rely on Skimm, Vox or Flipboard for a distillation of important events or content. We’ll increasingly rely on tools to identify what we should know about, given our health, our health history and our risks.
  • Personalization in context. Beyond inserting consumers’ names, ads and items of interest are sent to them as they walk through a store, thanks to tools like geo-targeting and virtual beacons. Imagine getting a rebate from an insurer or employer for bypassing the emergency room and going to a walk-in clinic at Walgreens instead.
  • Tracking apps. If a person loves a pair of boots but only wants to buy them when they’re on sale, he can download Shoptagr as a browser extension and be notified when the price decreases. Now imagine needing a diagnostic exam, but the soonest one available is one month out. Sometime soon, a smart app will notify the customer of an immediate appointment time, and, to ensure he takes it, a smart provider will waive his co-pay to get him to fill an otherwise empty time slot.

What does this all mean for HR professionals and the employee benefits world?

  • HR benefit managers must understand how different variables play out for their employee population. While a millennial worker may prefer a high-deductible plan and make use of the wellness program’s gym membership to stay fit, a 45-year-old with three kids might be more focused on lower medical premiums for the entire family (although many 45-plus individuals also work out regularly and have no children).
  • When researching different vendors, examine their capabilities through the eyes of a consumer. Are the offered services making available a variety of options along with choice navigation tools and resources (and education on how to use them), so that the number of options doesn’t lead to choice overload?

Employees know how to be, and will act as, savvy shoppers when given the chance—whether for electronics or for health benefits. Employers who embrace lessons learned and tools used in the online retail world will have much to gain in the coming years.

Ann Mond Johnson has been a leader within health care technology for the past 25 years. As an advisor to ConnectedHealth, she is responsible for strategy and business development as well as evangelizing consumerism in health care.

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