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How to Maintain a Healthy Broker Relationship

Evaluating broker relationships

As employee benefits continue to be a key differentiator among employers, HR and employee benefits professionals—especially those working in smaller organizations—may struggle to meet employee expectations within the constraints of a tight budget. This is where a strong relationship with an employee benefits broker can help.

But what does that type of broker relationship look like? Employers hire brokers to take advantage of their knowledge of the market, carriers and how employers can best balance their needs and budget to create the best possible benefits offerings. However, not every broker is right for every employer.

“Benefit needs change as the economy and trends evolve, and it is important that employees are able to elect benefits that are meaningful to them and their families,” said Shelby Gartner, a Kansas City, Mo.-based vice president of sales in TransUnion’s broker partnerships division. “This begins with an active, energized and engaged broker.”

Many employers consider the right broker to be one with experience working with organizations of a similar size, in the same or a similar industry, or who are dealing with similar challenges, such as setting up benefits for a remote workforce. In some cases, employers can develop the type of relationship they need by resetting the terms of their relationship with their current broker, while others find that new benefits priorities or strategies require new broker talent.

Where to Begin

When looking for a new broker or evaluating the effectiveness of an existing broker relationship, it’s a good idea to start with a clear sense of what the organization is trying to accomplish and its key priorities. Only with that insight is it possible to determine if the existing broker relationship is helping the organization achieve its goals or, if not, how best to identify a new broker that can deliver on as many of those goals and priorities as possible.

This process also helps set clear parameters for comparing different brokers. If an employer can communicate its needs, goals and key challenges clearly and consistently, it becomes much easier to make clear comparisons among potential candidates.

“All brokers can pull information,” said Jim Cichanski, founder and CHRO of Flex HR, an HR consulting firm in Johns Creek, Ga. “It is the work they do to present a comparison that is apples to apples in a way the client will understand [that is important]. Some brokers don’t want to do all that work.”

Ultimately, it is up to the broker to explain exactly how and why it is the right fit for an employer’s needs and how and why it can deliver on the employer’s goals.

“A good broker will tell you upfront if they may not be able to change your premiums, but they will strategize the best approach for getting what you want and serve as your advocate,” said Sandy Kenslow, vice president and director of small group benefits at Mylo, a Kansas City-based insurance firm that specializes in the small employer market.

Ask the Right Questions

When benefits professionals have compiled a list of potential brokers, perhaps including the organization’s current broker, the next step is to interview each one to assess the fit between the employer’s needs and goals and the broker’s experience and strengths. It is a good idea to involve everyone in the organization with any responsibility for employee benefits, including finance, HR and senior executives, during this process. This can begin with a discussion of the current state of benefits programs and any plans for the future.

“You can share upcoming business changes you may be considering and tackle pre-renewal planning as you get closer to renewal,” Kenslow said.

During broker interviews, employers should insist on meeting with the people who will be managing their accounts on a day-to-day basis and not just during the sales process. These interviews can include questions about:

  • The broker and that specific team’s work with similar companies.
  • How they work with and assess insurance carriers.
  • The time required to handle your project or requirements.
  • Their technology and long-term client support.
  • What the employer can expect with regards to regulatory and overall administrative support.
  • Access to specialized expertise to deal with unique situations, such as specific administrative and legal issues.

This also is the time to ask about existing client relationships, including industries served and the average length of these relationships.

“Clients stay with their brokerage firm because of strong teams and resources, so having long-term clients is a good indicator,” said Suzanne Haslam, senior vice president with insurance brokerage and consulting firm Woodruff Sawyer in San Francisco.

Kate Moher, Minneapolis-based president of employee health and benefits for Marsh McLennan Agency, suggested some pointed questions for broker candidates: What is their approach to service? What are their response times? What is their compensation structure? How would they evaluate our current plan? Based on their service model, how often can we expect to meet?

“And don’t forget to consider their approach to your employees’ experience,” she said.

For example, if the employer is looking for a broker that will support employees when they have issues with insurance claims, it is important to ask whether and how the broker will work with the carrier to resolve the situation.

“That is a sign of a good broker if they will do that,” Cichanski said.

Once it has covered these basics, the employer can move on to questions related to its specific challenges. For example, this can be a good time to delve into the broker’s data capabilities, including sources and the depth of benchmarking data necessary to assess the competitiveness of benefits programs. With the rise of artificial intelligence, employers should be asking about how the broker will be able to use such capabilities in concert with new and existing data mining to identify key cost drivers in claims and identify potential solutions.

Asking about the expected frequency of communication, including planned monthly or quarterly meetings or phone calls, is a good way to gauge how well the broker is likely to manage problems and requests and stay current on what is happening with the employer’s benefits programs and any upcoming renewals. That may happen in unexpected ways. For example, when a broker is able “to find the best arrangement for both you and the carriers, that positions you favorably for future renewals,” Kenslow said.

Finally, it is important to take a close look at what the broker is saying and what it is offering.

“Brokers bring the bigger picture to clients, understanding market trends, best practices and novel offerings that can help an organization distinguish itself,” Gartner said. "A lack of innovative, relevant solutions can be indicative of a complacent broker.”

Joanne Sammer is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.


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