BROKER BOOT CAMP
by Jeremiah Desmarais
Agents and advisors were slow to adapt to the Internet at first, but they have found an unlikely bedfellow — the Affordable Care Act. About five million people per day visited healthcare.gov as the Obamacare registration deadline neared. This sounded a death knell for the 40,000 insurance brokers and agents who sold insurance the old-fashioned way (office visits, phone calls, mailers and the like).
As a result of the health care reform law and its economic impact, between 2010 and 2011 nearly 11% of insurance agents planned to leave the industry, according to a survey by the National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU). The knowledge curve was too daunting for these brokers and agents, many of them senior producers. Retirement was a preferable alternative. Some hedged their bets and diversified, going into such things as property and casualty.
For others, however, the shift in the health care playing field presented an opportunity. The dizzying array of choices, computer overload, and constant online glitches has created an enormous opportunity for proactive producers to address a growing need. The tens of thousands of health care customers who experienced frustration, delays and difficulties accessing the official Healthcare.gov website, needed somewhere reliable to turn. They needed someone who could answer their questions, explain the options, and walk them through it.
“I can assure you that employee benefit brokers across the country are transforming their practices to help their clients with the challenges of healthcare reform and allow their business to survive after reform,” says Thomas Harte, president-elect of the National Association of Health Underwriters and president of employee benefits broker Landmark Benefits, Inc., of Hampstead, New Hampshire. Harte’s company pulled out the calculators to determine the penalties their clients might face for ignoring Obamacare mandates. He held seminars to educate existing and potential customers about nuances of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and came back every two weeks to provide updates on the latest regulatory reforms being handed down in the nation’s capital, sometimes on a daily basis.
NAHA launched an ACA decision support tool online that enables brokers to do customized reform impact analysis on particular business segments. Then NAHA went even further, offering a 10-course program that enables individuals to become certified on the ACA reforms, after which successful graduates would be listed online under its Find an Agent feature.
Easily accessible web and social media tools also allow brokers to fulfill the growing demand for general knowledge about Obamacare and clarity in the insurance choices offered. Thanks to digital marketing tools like LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook, hundreds of agents stepped up to the plate and got ahead of the curve, offering the much-needed information and occasional hand-holding required.
In 2009 only 18% of producers surveyed by LIMRA used social networking sites such as LinkedIn. Fifty-seven percent said they had no interest in using these sites at all.
By the fall of 2013, this had changed radically. Though three in 10 continued to express no interest in social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, a clear 53% of producers had become LinkedIn users. In four short years, more than half of those who expressed no interest in using social networks had become regular users of select online media.
One reason suggested for the increase in LinkedIn users is that LinkedIn was perceived as the professional social network, whereas Facebook and Twitter were seen as more personal and non-business oriented. However, a greater general awareness of the need to connect with clients via digital sales channels is no doubt the primary reason for the increase.
Advisors have been slow to adopt digital marketing, but we’ve seen a recent surge in insurance advisors investing in their training in these methods. Randy Pifer, an insurance agent from Grand Junction, Colo. recorded a simple video to help those struggling to sign-up for Obamacare, then uploaded it to YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=UO9T5QiPnnE). In a matter of months, Pifer, who had shied away from the Internet, topped 19,000 views using some online strategies. Like Pifer, Virginia-based insurance broker,
Another example is a fifth generation, 26-year-old insurance broker Bobby Huffaker. He thought he’d graduate Ole Miss and step into his father’s shoes selling health plans to area employers the old-fashioned way. But as he was picking up his diploma, Congress passed Obamacare. That was a game-changer of epic proportions.
Rather than steer away, Huffaker saw a new insurance market opening up and teamed with veteran insurance broker and call center manager, David Yoder. A former United Healthcare manager, Yoder knew from his experience with Medicare a decade earlier that customers would need help making the right health care choices, especially with trying to keep their own doctor in the network. Together they launched American Exchange last year. “I saw that a lot of small businesses couldn’t afford insurance anymore and the individual market is much more competitive with the tax subsidies being provided through the Affordable Care Act. There’s a tremendous market opportunity here that we’re trying to help meet,” Huffaker said. From its call center in downtown Chattanooga, American Exchange has since signed up 1,100 people on private health care plans, not just locally, but across the country. And it continues to receive applications at the rate of 100 per week, with operators typically taking an hour or more to explain Obamacare in lay terms and walk through all the relevant options.
Nonetheless, brokers have a lingering fear that they will become irrelevant if the exchanges make it easier and cheaper for employees to shop on their own. “It will not be as lucrative for us. We have to expand services and make up for it in volume. Longtime specialists will play a greater role and continue to add value, but it’s naive to think it’s going to be business as usual,” said Alex Miller of Millennium Medical Solutions Corp. in Armonk, New York.
For brokers, it cannot be business as usual. In addition to becoming longtime specialists, and diversifying and expanding services, insurance brokers need to master the online experience. Local and regional business is good. But today, customers can come from anywhere with tools like Linkedin targeting strategies, Facebook custom audiences, and YouTube as an -educational platform. You just need to find them and inform them. In that way, nothing’s changed from the way it was 20 years ago.
Though Obamacare is a U.S. phenomenon, interest in how it works and how our economy is responding to it is worldwide. The health care challenge is a global one. Advanced medical technology has never been better and more accessible, and people are living longer. The resulting stress on the medical delivery and pharmaceutical industry affects the entire economy. But it presents an opportunity. Sure, with millions of new customers shopping for insurance online, a large volume of sales will take place without an agent or broker getting involved. But for advisors like Katz and Pifer, times couldn’t be better and consumers couldn’t be happier. q
Jeremiah Desmarais is one of the Top 40 Marketers Under 40 in the U.S, responsible for historic revenue growths when at the marketing helm of insurance SAAS platform companies GoHealth and Applied Systems. He’s since consulted insurance advisors, vendors, carriers and general agencies on four continents who seek to leverage new media opportunities. As the founder of the Agency Growth Academy, he provided complimentary training to the health, life, voluntary benefits, and property & casualty industry to help advisors be prepared for the digital way that consumers shop for insurance coverage now. He has received 23 marketing awards from such prestigious groups as the Web Awards, Marketing Sherpa, Interactive Media Association, and Direct Marketing News. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.