With apologies to Al Gore for ripping off his title, there are some things we can learn by analogy to his movie.
First, the inconvenient truth about benefits communication: It is incredibly important but usually not done well.
At least three major changes over the last few years have made it particularly important. First, companies made benefits flexible and asked employees to make their own decisions about what they needed. But to make informed decisions, that meant they had to understand them.
Second, to help bring down the cost of health care, many companies have moved to “consumer driven” health care. That meant that employees have to take an active role, but that doesn’t work if the employees don’t get the message.
And third, the high cost of recruitment and training combined with a shrinking skilled workforce as baby boomers retire means employers have to pay more attention to the need to cut turnover and retain quality employees.
Key to each of these is understanding benefits, but if you ask most employers “do your employees understand their benefits?” most say “no!”
When asked why not, the most frequent answer is that “They just don’t read.”
Using today’s convenient technology, employers have turned to web-based self-service enrollment programs as their primary tool for communicating. But, while these programs can do an excellent job of recording decisions the employee is ready to make, they do little to help the employee make decisions. They are not a substitute for real communication.
That’s where “The Inconvenient Truth” is such a great example. Without getting into his subject matter, Al Gore’s movie demonstrated a great truth about communication. Imagine how successful he would have been in getting his message across if he just sent an email to everyone he could saying, “I’ve got this great website. It has in-depth information about climate change. Go there and you can learn all about it.”
The effectiveness of doing that would have been close to zero. People just don’t go on their own and dig out this kind of information.
Instead, he put together a presentation and delivered it to the audience. He didn’t ask them to read it. He read it to them. The movie may have been a PowerPoint presentation with Al Gore delivering it, but it took the Oscar. We need to get to ‘Oscar level’ benefits communication.
What a wonderful basic of successful communication. Deliver the message. Don’t ask the audience to work to get it. Deliver it to them.
But it didn’t’ stop there. What made it so effective was that it used a second highly successful communication process – create participation – get the audience involved. He stopped, challenged the audience to think, and to the extent you can in a movie, created participation.
Back to Communicating Benefits
Benefits are about as dry a topic as climate change, less global but more personal. How can they be communicated so people will really get the messages management want to communicate?
For clients of BenefitVision, we’re building on several of those strong basics of communication…deliver the message and get the employees involved. And we’ve found a way to do this and save clients money in the process.
Basically, to enroll for benefits, employees are instructed to call their company’s enrollment center, which is actually outsourced to BenefitVision. A benefits representative, not just a recorded voice with instructions about punching 1 for this and 2 for that, answers the phone in the company’s name. Callers are often pleasantly surprised to be talking to a real person.
This trained benefit rep takes the employee through a structured and very consistent presentation. The caller follows along in a workbook that matches the rep’s computer screens as they are guided through the presentation. So, as the benefit rep delivers the presentation to the employee, the employee is following along screen-by-screen in the workbook. Since most employees call from home, they can take as long as they need – ask as many questions as they want, and feel confident in making informed decisions.
Interactivity and Participation are Key
As the presentation moves from the agenda screen, to the data verification screen, to the value of benefits screen and then the screens describing each benefits plan, there is specific personal information that comes up on the benefits representative’s computer. The employee has blanks in his or her workbook. When they get to those key points, the benefits representative asks the employee to fill in the blanks, to write in those key pieces of information in the workbook.
For example, when presenting the value of benefits, the benefits representative has that information, personalized to that employee, on the screen. The amount is told to the employee and the employee is asked to write it in the blank spot in the workbook. Now we have real interactivity, real participation. The act of writing the amount down imprints the information so much more than just hearing it…or just reading it…or just knowing that it is available somewhere…that there is no comparison. This is highly effective communication. And something the employee will remember.
As the employee learns about the benefits available and indicates which ones he or she wants, the benefits representative records that information in the computer and the employee is enrolled. There are no forms to fill out. (Everyone hates filling out forms.) From that point, the process has all the efficiency of the web-based self-service program, but it was full service and the employee goes through the process feeling comfortable with the decisions made.
Back end processing, including confirmation forms back to the employees and feeds to the employer and its vendors has all the advantages of any of the electronic programs, but the interface to the employee was someone who could really help the employee understand the benefits messages the employer was trying to get across.
Making Effective Communication Affordable
The problem with all of this is the cost. During open enrollment, typical enrollment sessions run from 15 minutes to 30 minutes or more for each employee. During the year, new hire orientations and life-events changes are available every day. Making people available year-round to talk to employees is an expense beyond what most employers are willing to spend.
To make the process affordable, BenefitVision has developed a creative funding model that not only deals with the cost but goes further by helping employers enhance their benefits offering.
We work with the employer to add a voluntary benefit such as universal life or critical illness to the menu of what is available to the employees. While considering the range of options before them, the employee is permitted to select from these additional products if they wish. Income from the optional voluntary benefits pays for cost of the communication program. The result? Employees love having more options, the employer gets to enhance the benefits package without extra cost, and better communication is provided to all. This is a real win-win.
One very measurable result of this better communication is reduced turnover. A study done by a major benefits consulting firm found that organizations that had better benefits communication had lower rates of turnover than did organizations that had better benefits but did not communicate them as well.
Perhaps that is an intuitive result. But, it tells us that organizations with limited budgets are better off spending money on communicating their benefits than just enhancing them. That’s an important lesson.
Going a step further, BenefitVision analyzed turnover results among its client base, looking at the effect of enrollment in voluntary benefits. Those results showed a striking impact. Employees who enrolled in voluntary benefits had much lower rates of turnover than those who did not.
Putting those two factors together, better benefits communication and commitment to the organization by being enrolled in more benefits, compounds the likelihood the employee will stay with the job and that turnover rates will be reduced. Given the staffing challenges organizations will be facing due to demographic change (sounds almost like climate change, doesn’t it), cutting turnover is becoming ever more important.
Talking to a Parade
Another key to success in communication is to remember you are talking to a parade. That is because there are new employees throughout the year that need to hear the message. And even though you deliver the message once, people’s lives change and they will hear a message differently based on their needs at any given moment.
BenefitVision’s model is available for new hire orientations every working day, not just open enrollments. It is available to handle life-events changes so that employees can talk to an informed benefits representative when they’re most receptive to learning.
Making it Convenient
BenefitVision typically works with large organizations, usually clients ranging from 3000 employees to groups over 100,000. But regardless of size, the same principles of deliver the message, create involvement, find a way to make the messages available repeatedly and specifically when the employee is ready to receive the message, are all critical to success in benefits communication. One more brochure or one more webpage just will not do it.
About Ron Kleiman
Ron Kleiman is CEO of BenefitVision, Inc. based in Long Grove, IL. BenefitVision provides benefits communication and enrollment services to major corporate, union, and public sector clients across the country. The firm’s foundation reflects Ron’s experience as television reporter, in corporate communication with Ford and GE, and 15 years of communication consulting with leading benefits consulting firms. Learn more about BenefitVision at www.benefitvision.com.