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With so many benefits consultants in the marketplace, it can be daunting for HR and benefits professionals to find the right one and build a relationship. Following is a sampling of guidance on conducting a search.
Tap colleagues and industry groups for trusted referrals. “If you belong to a trade association or have a network of contacts in a similar industry to yours, ask them what agents have helped them,” says Madelyn Flannagan, vice president of research and development at Alexandria, Va.-based Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, a national alliance of independents who offer insurance and financial services.
Check an agent’s or broker’s disciplinary record. Start at your state’s insurance commissioner’s office; its consumer hotline will provide the information. Ask whether the agent or broker has ever been sued by a client.
Pay attention to licenses and designations. Agents and brokers must hold licenses in the states where they are selling, soliciting or negotiating contracts of insurance. There are also specialized designations that agents and brokers can earn, says Nicole Allen, vice president of industry affairs for the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers, an association for commercial insurance and employee benefits intermediaries based in Washington, D.C. “These will demonstrate their expertise,” Allen says, but “it comes down to choosing an agent-broker that you feel comfortable with and trust.”
Map out your precise needs. “Think of it like any hiring situation,” advises William Stafford, vice president of member services for United Benefit Advisors, an alliance of more than 140 independent benefit advisory firms in Indianapolis. “Examine the core areas you need help and expertise with, build your criteria from that, and stick to it to find a consultant who will satisfy the job requirements.” Another consideration: When most of a broker’s systems are designed primarily for large employers, a small employer’s needs may not be met.
Ask questions. Good ones include:
Where do you think the employee benefits market is heading? “The answer will speak volumes about whether a broker is up to speed on new business and legislative trends,” says Candace Walters, president of HR Works Inc., a consulting and outsourcing firm in Fairport, N.Y. “And it can help start a discussion about options that might apply to your company.”
Will we have a dedicated account manager? “Familiarity, frequent contact and timely response are the level of service you want,” Walters says.
Watch for disruptions. Some consolidation in the broker business could accelerate through 2010 and into 2011, as negative impacts of health reform play out, cautions Michael Main, a Chicago-based partner with the Health and Life Sciences practice of international management consulting firm Oliver Wyman. The downside: “Some brokers’ relationships will become financially unviable—leaving employers to navigate the complexity of change unaided,” he predicts. Such outcomes will call for nimble reactions by employers.
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