Clients Pull, Zenefits Pushes Benefit Brokers to Adopt Tech

“The question is not if benefit agencies will go digital. The question is when. The answer … 2016.”

That’s how I began my technology talk at the California Association of Health Underwriters’ TechSummit on September 29th in Universal City. Several in attendance  asked for the presentation. Since the slides are mostly key words and graphs, I thought sharing the content here over a couple of posts would be more helpful.

I’ve been engaged in sales technology since the 1980’s (yes, Millennials, we had technology back then). However, the need for successful producers to embrace technology has never been greater. This first post explains why. Tomorrow I’ll offer a checklist brokers can use when selecting technology.

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Consumers Pull, Competitors Push

Going digital is inevitable. Customers want it. Competitors make it necessary.

Customers are increasingly running their businesses with technology. They use digital tools to keep their teams informed and aligned, preserve and transfer documents, reach customers and track sales. Even traditionally low-tech companies—plumbers, barbers, dry cleaners—use technology to schedule appointments, process payments, track invoices and speed work flows.

Or consider this: in 2013, nearly half of Staples sales were over the Internet. This makes Staples the nation’s third largest online retailer behind Amazon and Apple and ahead of Walmart. The same survey found Office Depot was the ninth largest online retailer. That’s a lot of businesses, both large and small, using technology to buy something as prosaic as office supplies.

Digital activity by clients is creating a gravitational force pulling more-and-more benefit brokers into the tech orbit. After all, if your clients are using technology and conducting business online, shouldn’t you?

If customers are pulling brokers to go digital, competitors are pushing them in the same direction. In poker, if you look around the table and don’t see the sucker, you’re the sucker. Similarly, if you’re not using technology to grow your business, someone else is using technology to take your business.

Zenefits and Others Push Brokers Toward Tech

Exhibit A: Zenefits—the Donald Trump of benefit brokers. Like Mr. Trump, Zenefits can behave like a rich, arrogant bully. Yet, either because of or in spite of this character flaw, Mr. Trump and Zenefits have shaken up their worlds and highlighted weaknesses in established players.

Like Mr. Trump, Zenefits’ strategy seems to embrace trash talking competitors. Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad has promised that “If you’re an insurance broker, we’re going to drink your milkshake.” (At minute 1:30 of the linked-to video). He claims competing brokers “barely know how to use email.” (At minute 38 of the video). Mr. Conrad’s prognostication concerning today’s professional benefit brokers? “All of the existing brokers today are all f**ked.”  OK, even Mr. Trump doesn’t drop the f-bomb on his opponents in public, but that’s most likely just a generational difference in styles.

Some brokers complain that Zenefits is using its riches (the company has raised over $500 million dollars in capital) to post arguably misleading comparisons between itself and specific independent brokers—a tactic Mr. Trump might applaud. As I’ve written before, even though I find the comparisons unfair, this isn’t a new marketing tactic nor outside the norm in America.

Yet, for all his bombast and bullying, Mr. Trump has forced other Republican presidential candidates to step up their game (a task at which many are failing). They may not like him, but his opponents need to adapt to his presence. Zenefits and similar companies like Namely and Gusto are forcing brokers to adapt to new realities. In this new world, simply delivering value is no longer enough. Clients now need to perceive that value.

It’s Perceived Value that Matters

Benefit brokers have long provided considerable value to their clients. They shop the market and find the right solution for clients’ unique needs. They answer questions and resolve problems. They provide informed, personalized, professional counseling and advocacy on behalf of their clients before and after the sale. Simply put: they earn their commissions.

Yet, for too long, too many brokers have been hesitant to highlight their value. In fact, they often undermine how clients perceive their worth by claiming their services are free. This is both inaccurate (health insurance premiums include brokers’ commissions) and diminishing (consumers tend to undervalue what they don’t pay for).

Zenefits takes advantage of brokers’ modesty. They offer businesses free HR and benefit administration software in exchange for being named the employers’ broker-of-record. That’s an attractive deal when the software has perceived value and the services of the incumbent broker is hidden.

Technology can help put brokers’ value on display by providing greater insight into what brokers deliver. Increased transparency can lead to greater perceived value.

Significantly, Zenefits’ leadership knows this. When asked about the company’s competitors, Sam Blond, head of sales at Zenefits, claimed they had none. He grudgingly acknowledged that professional brokers could fill that role, but “what you get with a traditional health insurance broker is no technology.(At about 28:30 in the video).

Zenefits and new firms like them have seized on this digital gap to tilt the playing field in their favor. When your competitor points a neon arrow at your problem, it’s smart to pay attention. Many brokers are and that’s what’s pushing them toward increased use of technology.

Successful Brokers Leverage Tech

Competition from well-funded technology firms has never been greater, but there’s nothing new about the role technology plays in helping brokers get ahead. My book, Trailblazed: Proven Paths to Sales Success, grew out of a study of 200 health insurance brokers in six states. The study sought to identify what practices, processes and perspectives fast-growing sales professionals shared that their less successful colleagues did not.

Among our findings was that high-growth producers were significantly more likely to incorporate technology into their business than the others. They were more likely to use technology across a broader range of functions, too. Brokers whose business was declining were the least likely to have incorporated technology into their practice.

When I led individual and small group sales at WellPoint (now Anthem) I championed the 1999 launch of AgentConnect, which enabled our agents to sell individual coverage online through their own websites. While competitors (think PacifiCare) were trying to displace brokers using the Internet, we used it to empower brokers. The result: WellPoint increased our market share while hundreds (and eventually thousands) of independent agents launched online sales initiatives. Many of them ranked among WellPoint’s top producers.

WellPoint’s AgentConnect launched 16 years ago, but was not the first sales technology adopted by successful benefit brokers. I was helping program the quoting system for Multiple Services (the small group general agency my father, Sam Katz, founded in Los Angeles) in 1983. And there were digital sales tools available before then.

Not If, When

Technology has been a part of the employee benefit world for a very long time. The increased pull of clients and push of competitors just makes the need to leverage tech tools more pressing ever before. As noted at the start of this post, the question is when will brokers will go digital. I believe the answer is early next year.

Many brokers have already adopted innovative technologies. The majority, however, have not and now face a dilemma. Do they deploy new digital tools—or ask their clients to deploy new technology—in the middle of open enrollments, ACA calculations and the host of other time-consuming, business-threatening challenges all happening between now and the end of the year? Or, do they wait until 2016 to leverage the tools available to them?

I have a stake in the answer (as disclosed, below), but even if I didn’t, I’d bet most brokers will fight their way through the rest of 2015 with the tools they have before transforming their agencies with new technologies.

Being thoughtful about the technology you embrace is important, because the decision is critical. Not only are you entrusting your livelihood to the technology, you’re entrusting your reputation and your clients’ well-being to the platform you choose. Adopting technology costs more than money, there’s a host of hidden expenses as well. I’ll discuss these and other factors, as well as offer a checklist to help you evaluate your technology options, in tomorrow’s post.

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Full Disclosure: I’m a co-founder and CEO of Take 44, Inc., a technology company which, in early 2016, will launch NextAgency. The NextAgency platform will integrate quoting, CRM and enrollment tools to help brokers sell more with powerful HR and benefit administration tools they can give to clients for free. This is in pursuit of our mission: to help benefit brokers level the playing field against high-tech disruptors like Zenefits while spotlighting their high-touch value.