By

Diversity.

Thats a corporate mantra, and its probably a quality that is affecting the way you sell benefits. It should be increasing your interest in voluntary, employee-paid products.

Advisors might have had an easier time designing benefits programs that could please everyone back in the 1950s, when the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was managing Frank the Foreman, who was in charge of a group of workers who could have been neighbors, or even siblings.

But that world is gone. Today, there are more women in the workforce, more working mothers, more baby boomers, and more members of a variety of demographic groups who are used to a society that tailors products and communications to suit their particular needs.

The bottom line is that coming up with benefits programs that can meet the needs of a wide range of employees can improve employee satisfaction and increase retention rates.

One recent survey found that among employees who are highly satisfied with their benefits, 69% say their benefits are important reasons to stay with their current employers.

The general unemployment rate might be higher than it was, but the truth is that turnover is still costly. Its about as hard to find motivated employees with the right skills and the right work ethics as it ever was, and the difficulty is likely to grow to crisis levels as the economy improves.

One obstacle is that in an effort to offset the impact of dramatic increases in health care benefit costs, many employers have implemented strategies that shift more responsibility for funding and selecting benefits to their employees.

The result: only 31% of todays workers are satisfied with their benefits, according to the 2003 MetLife Benefits Trend Study. Thats a drop of 9 percentage points from the 2002 satisfaction level!

To increase employee satisfaction with benefits and align the benefit offerings with the needs of your clients employees, take the time to understand the specific demographic trends and needs of your clients workforce to identify options that will work best for them.

As a benefits advisor, youve seen employers move to voluntary benefits programsprograms set up so that employees pay most or all of the cost. Voluntary benefits are popular because of limits on employer resources and the fact that health care is eating up a higher percentage of the benefits budget. But adding voluntary benefits is also a cost-effective way to help employees cope with the diversity of the challenges they face outside of work.

If, for example, a clients workforce has a large population nearing retirement, financial planning programs or income annuity products could be attractive voluntary benefits.

College savings plans and long term care insurance plans might be attractive to employers who employ large numbers of middle-aged employees with children.

Chances are you already are selling voluntary risk-reduction products such as supplemental term life insurance, critical illness insurance and long term care insurance. But have you ever considered selling life insurance for dependents, income annuities, auto insurance, group legal coverage, banking services, mortgage loans, auto loans or estate planning services at the worksite?

Any of these products might meet the needs of a particular category of employees.

Most employees put little thought into the benefits decision-making process63% spend less than an hour making benefits decisions during open enrollment. That means that clear, effective communication programs are vital to producing meaningful voluntary program participation rates.

You should make sure that the voluntary program provider understands how to reach your clients mix of employees. Parents who are saving for retirement or middle-aged employees who are thinking about retirement might appreciate decision support tools. Web-savvy employees might prefer to get their benefits information through the Web, but employees who rarely use the Web for their work might prefer to use call centers. For other employees, getting communication materials in languages other than English might be important.

At larger employers, introducing a voluntary benefit outside open enrollment season can increase employee participation and satisfaction. When a voluntary benefit is offered during a time when no other benefit choices need to be made, employees are able to devote the time necessary to assess their needs and make an informed purchase decision. This is particularly helpful with more complex products such as long term care insurance where the decision-making process is longer and more involved.

Other voluntary benefits, such as group legal, can be structured to fit into an employers annual open enrollment. This approach works best, however, when employees have to enroll each year and do not simply default to their prior years coverage.

is a senior vice president, strategic planning, at MetLife, New York.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, August 5, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.