Voluntary Benefits:Leveraging voluntary benefits for client success

By Cynthia Coverson

Henry Ford is said to have quipped that customers could have their car in any color, as long as it was black. Fast forward a century, and customization is everywhere. In our digital age, experiences with the online world are causing consumers to expect all their experiences to be similar to their digital ones: individualized, curated, customized.

So it comes as little surprise that American employees are expecting customization in their employee benefits too. 

How can you help your clients keep up with the expectations of today’s workforce?

One of the easiest ways is by leveraging voluntary benefits. By including voluntary benefits to round out your clients’ health and retirement offerings, you can create a “customized” benefits program in which employees can create benefit solutions that best fits their needs, by choosing products from a “curated” list of options prescreened by their employers.

As healthcare costs continue to rise, employers don’t want to break the banks, yet are looking for more ways to offer benefits options to their employees. A wider choice of benefits is a win/win for both employer and employee.  Studies indicate that employee loyalty increases with access to voluntary benefits, even when the employee is paying for the benefit. There is also a win/win for brokers here: the employer meets the employees’ needs without having to spend additional dollars, and you are the hero.

Too good to be true? Consider that MetLife’s 16th annual Employee Benefits Trend Study (EBTS) found that 53 percent of employees are interested in non-medical benefits that they can purchase. Additionally, over half (54 percent) are willing to pay more for their benefits if it means having more choices. Ultimately, there is a payoff for the employer: three quarters of employees say that having customizable benefits would increase their loyalty to their company. Since employee retention—even more than cost savings—is the number one benefits goal of employers in this time of low unemployment — brokers can provide a tremendous value-add by helping their clients to retain their trained workforce.

It’s easy to advise your clients on starting a “customizable” benefits plan. It just takes the answers to two questions: who is their employee base, and what products will meet those employees’ needs. Think of “life stage” marketing and apply it to their workforce, so you can identify the segments they employ and the voluntary benefits that are best for them to offer. As a bonus, it works for employers of all sizes, be it a firm of 125 eligibles, or one of 4000.

A benefits experience can easily feel fairly customized by segment. Here are some examples:

  • Parents with young children

Taking kids to constant doctor’s appointments, and sometimes the ER, is not only scary and time consuming, but co-pays and deductibles can really add up. Supplemental medical (accident, hospital indemnity) can help parents manage the higher out-of-pocket costs associated with today’s health plans.

They’ll need a will and guardianship for their minor children. A voluntary legal plan can help them create their first will. (Half of Americans do not even have one.)

Worksite life and disability can protect their future income beyond the employer’s standard offering so their family is protected in the way they choose. 

  • Parents with teens and early-adult children:

Additional life insurance will help make sure college costs will always be covered. They can save money and hassle with payroll-deducted voluntary auto and home insurance.

  • Young singles:

To help them find products and services that can ease them into a lifetime of good financial choices, employers can provide access to products that meet their immediate needs, rather than a menu of products that don’t seem applicable.

Renter’s insurance and pet insurance, both voluntary options, prove popular with younger employees.

  • Older workers:

Employers are having trouble replacing the sought-after skills and experience of employees who have been in the job for many years. To help keep older workers satisfied and loyal:

Supplemental Medical can ease some of the financial strain of the additional medical costs they incur as they age.

They can use a legal plan can find an excellent lawyer to help plan their estate or oversee a closing when they downsize their home.

Critical Illness can be an important financial backstop in the case of a covered disease.

  • LGBTQ employees.

More people than ever are “out” at work, and a legal services plan can help them navigate some of the roadblocks of a binary world:

While same-sex marriage is legal in all states, adopting children or arranging for surrogacy can be expensive and require significant legal oversight and input.

Transgender employees may need assistance with a flurry of documents to have birth certificates, passports, and other legal matters adjusted to their gender identity.

As a bonus, most carriers have low to no minimum participation requirements for voluntary benefits, so even if there are only a small number of people in any given demographic, the employer can still offer the benefit. 

The next step? Communicating the importance of benefits.

MetLife research has found that three in 10 employees chose not to enroll in non-medical benefits due to a lack of benefits promotion from their employer. Employees are concerned and confused about benefits choices, saying they cannot navigate the benefits information they received, they don’t have the time or energy to look at them in depth, and they don’t know where to turn when they have questions. They may, however, be passing up opportunities to protect themselves and their families from financial exposure.

Here are some proven practices that you can discuss with your clients:

Streamline enrollment. Given that employees feel overwhelmed by information they receive during enrollment time, de-cluttering the information is an important first step. Employees need succinct information that’s relevant to them, so prioritizing the content to help them find the most important information right away is key.

Integrating voluntary offerings into their existing benefits program and offering them alongside traditional benefits will make the experience more streamlined, and will highlight the benefits that meet the needs of the employee segments that you are targeting. 

Simplify. Yes, benefits may seem complicated, but all the disclosures don’t have to go up front. Put simple content, such as brief product descriptions, up front. Employees will feel less frustration when they can quickly digest the information that’s relevant to them and then dive in to make an informed decision.

Easy ways to do it: encourage employers to add a “Did You Know?” section on their benefits website, post quick highlights articles on their company intranet, and make new-hire training videos explaining benefits offerings available to current as well as new employees. 

Provide resources.  Only about 60 percent of employees agree that their company’s benefits communications effectively educated them so that they could select options that best meet their needs.

A proven best practice is one-on-one consultations with benefits enrollment representatives. These can be internal in the company’s HR department, resources from your firm, or outsourced to a benefits communications firm. These firms have proven to help increase enrollment dramatically and therefore to help employers to meet their benefits goals.

Suggest leveraging internal communications channels to answer questions. Many companies now have internal social networking sites where employees can post questions and get answers. Those with benefits questions can engage both with their peers who have the benefits already, and experts who can explain them. Your benefits carrier can supply support and resources to keep the discussion moving.

Don’t stop communicating. Just because open enrollment may be over, employees don’t stop thinking about their personal and financial wellness. Employers can easily communicate at any time using the channels above, and MetLife’s EBTS found two-thirds of employees agree that they want their employer to communicate with them year-round about their benefits, not just at annual enrollment. Participation can increase if employees find the information they need, whatever time of year it may be.

Tying ongoing benefits communications to national events or recognition months, such as National Caregivers Month, National Adoption Month, or Financial Capability Month, can keep the conversation fresh, and a brief story can then contain a simple link back to the benefits page.

Financial education workshops are another way. Even though only one-fifth of employers currently offer financial wellness programs, they are popular with employees. They can be given with new hiring, or tied to a season such as year-end, tax time, or back to school. Many carriers offer such workshops and will work with you to set up programs that work for your clients.

You work hard to provide your clients with the resources they need to meet their benefits goals. Take the conversation a few steps further to understand and communicate how voluntary benefits can help them meet the needs of today’s changing workforce.

Cynthia Coverson is senior vice president, regional business, group benefits at MetLife.