Annual Enrollment boot camp webinar

HR pros: Is your team at peak “benefitness”? Fine-tune your annual enrollment game plan with this one-hour boot camp

 In this webinar sponsored by EBN and Businessolver, our Senior Consultant Lindsay Kohler discusses best practices for engaging employees during annual enrollment. She joins Gruppo Marcucci Vice President Rhonda Marcucci, Lenovo Senior Benefits Plans Manager Robin Sgutt, and Businessolver Chief Strategy Officer Rae Shanahan, for a walk through:

  • Communication techniques for engaging and educating employees
  • Proactive tips to help make ACA compliance seamless
  • Ways to protect employees’ and dependents’ health and benefits data

Sign up to view the webinar and download the slides. You can also view the full transcript below.


 Webinar Transcript: Annual Enrollment Boot Camp Webinar

Speaker 1: Now without any further delay, let's begin today's event. Once again, sponsored by Business Solver and hosted by Employee Benefit News and Employee Benefit Advisor, it is my pleasure to introduce your moderator for today, Rae Shanahan. Rae, you have the floor.

Rae Shanahan: Thank you, and good afternoon. Let's jump right in. We have a lot to cover today. As we go on to the next slide, the first thing that we want to do is have a poll. Which of the following best describes your role? Are you an Employer, Broker, Adviser, Carrier, Analyst, or Technology Consultant?

I feel like I should have some background noise.

Robin Sgutt: We could sing.

Rae Shanahan: Should we sing a little bit? There we go. Alright. I think that gave everybody time, so let's take a look at how we've broken it up. A large percentage of us are employers, right? Is that what I'm seeing? Good. So we'll make sure we tailor the conversation for all of you, but we'll definitely hit on some of the employee things.

Second poll question: On a scale of one, not at all prepared, to five, 100% prepared, how ready are you and your team for annual enrollment? And I guess we're assuming this is a one-one and you're preparing for one-one, even though there are some clients that handle their annual enrollment outside of that normal plan year. How ready are you, Robin?

Robin Sgutt: We're ready.

Rae Shanahan: 100% ready?

Robin Sgutt: We've got decisions made. The system is being built.

Rae Shanahan: Nice. It's not even September. Alright. Let's see how other people are feeling. So what do we have? Two. Are we seeing three? Have the midway kind of prepared? Alright, that's good! That's good.

Robin Sgutt: Better than I expected.

Rae Shanahan: For any of you that would like to engage with us on social media today, please feel free and you'll see that it's down in the bottom right-hand corner, #bsolverchat. Now let's get started! And I love the benefitness. I feel like I need to do a workout after this, right?

So here we are, we're heading toward Labor Day and it's the official start to Fall, which can only mean one thing: annual enrollment is near. There's no crash diet to get you and your team ready. It's a marathon, not a sprint. However, there's always room for one more prep session to make sure you're in top shape when enrollment starts, and that is why we're here today.

This year's Annual Enrollment Boot Camp will strengthen your preparation to make enrollment season more successful, including communication techniques, educating employees, practice tips to help you prepare, and a final checklist to keep you, your team and vendor partners aligned. With that, I'd like to introduce you to our speakers.

I'm pleased to share with you Robin Sgutt. She's a Senior Global Benefits Manager at Lenovo. She joined Lenovo in October 2014 and has more than 26 years of benefits experience spanning all aspects of employee benefits including plan design and strategy, compliance, vendor management, and benefits communication. This year will be her 26th Annual Enrollment. Woo! We need to get you a crown for the day. That's awesome. Now it's Rhonda's turn.

Rhonda, Vice President of the HR Benefits and Technology Practice for Gruppo Marcucci, which is a division of Gallagher Benefit Services, Rhonda launched Gruppo Marcucci in 2005. It’s a boutique consulting firm focused on the HR in benefits administration technology outsourcing marketplace. In 2017, Gruppo Marcucci was acquired by Arthur J. Gallagher and now serves as the HR in benefits consulting practice for Gallagher Benefit Services. Welcome Rhonda. This is your 20th AE.

Rhonda Marcucci: It is.

Rae Shanahan: Wow. Now for Lindsay. She is the Senior Communications Consultant at Benz Communications, a benefits communications and marketing firm based in San Francisco. Lindsay has worked in benefits communications for nearly a decade. Since joining Benz in early 2013, she supported some of Silicon Valley's largest tech companies with their employee engagement efforts. She is a frequent contributor to industry blogs, white papers, webinars, and has presented at the Silicon Valley Benefits Communication Summit on applying behavioral economics to communications. Prior to joining the Benz team, she lead benefits communication at Nordstrom. This is Lindsay's 10th Annual Enrollment season.

Lindsay Kohler: Thanks, Rae.

Rae Shanahan: So glad to have the three of you. Let's have some fun with this today! To continue with our benefitness theme, we're going to be talking about engaging our core, and that really, at the core, is your employees. It's all about that employee experience.

The bad news about all of the wonderful communication that goes out, it appears that International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans say that 80% of the plans sponsored admit their employees aren't reading their communication materials.

Robin Sgutt: Because they're so exciting.

Rae Shanahan: They must not be written very well, because everyone should want to read about benefits. But before you let that stat get you too depressed, there's hope. We have seen over the last several years, nearly 81% of the employees are completing their enrollment online through Benefit Solver, at least from our client base. We're seeing continued uptick as you'll hear us talk about with mobile as well.

Going a step further, there's a study done by Fluent, that 78% of all interactions occur on mobile devices, and I'm not talking benefits here. Prudential reveals that almost a quarter of employees prefer to access their benefits via mobile. All this is really leading us to, "Is mobile the silver bullet?"

Lindsay, you're our communications expert today. Is mobile the silver bullet that benefit teams have been waiting for all this time, and how can we tailor annual enrollment communications to be most effective on a mobile device?

Lindsay Kohler: I don't think there's any one silver bullet for communications, but with the number of apps supporting HR constantly growing, I can see how it would be tempting to think that eventually one app will solve all communication and engagement challenges. Instead, we should be thinking about and planning for a company app store where a suite of apps can work together to take care of employee needs, but just make sure any app you promote actually delivers a good experience.

I'm also a really strong advocate for a benefits website that is optimize to look good on all devices so employees and their families can make benefits decisions together and on the go. We do continue to see with our clients that the trend for employees, after seeing benefits information on mobile devices, does continue to grow. For some of our clients, now we see almost 20% of the traffic on their website coming in from mobile devices and we know everyone's on their phone constantly, so I think a good mobile strategy for AE could include text message reminders about enrollment deadlines and emails that link out to your benefits website.

Rae Shanahan: That's fantastic. What I'm hearing is it may not necessarily be a "one size fits all" approach to that communications strategy. Do you ever see clients that will have different communications for different generations or different parts of the workforce?

Lindsay Kohler: In terms of different parts of the workforce, absolutely. There's a big difference between those that work in the offices, so they've got a lot more access daily to computers and emails, versus those that maybe work on the floors, so think retail or manufacturing. With those groups, we see a lot more in-person communication instead of mobile, but for your office workers, mobile tends to work.

In terms of the generation gap, I know that question comes up a lot and we've been finding that there's actually a less of a difference in terms of what different generations really value in terms of their benefits. When we communicate them, it's really just about making it clear and there's not as much differentiation needed as I think a lot of people may assume.

Rae Shanahan: Interesting. Interesting. Now, Robin, your organization actually creates mobile devices.

Robin Sgutt: Yes, we do.

Rae Shanahan: From a business perspective and a benefits perspective, what tips can you share for how to keep AE and year-round benefits information mobile accessible but still secure.

Robin Sgutt: I think as the site says, a lot of our employees spend four hours a day on the train, so keeping benefits accessible is important. Also, a lot of those people have family members at home taking care of things, so there's a balance between keeping the high-level information accessible, but also I think it's important to keep things secure. One of the big bits for me is that never, ever, ever have an employee use their social security number. All sites and apps that you use should allow people to put in a pin or some unique identifier that only they would know so that their information's secure when they go into the app and look at their personal health information or deductible information.

But it's also important, as Lindsay said, to keep things rendering well on mobile devices, so that if somebody leaves their laptop, they get the same experience on their phone or on their tablet.

Rae Shanahan: Good, good. When you say not having the SSN there? Is that a company policy or is that just a recommendation? I'm curious.

Robin Sgutt: It's really a policy of our information protection team. Lenovo is part Motorola and part Lenovo. Motorola employees were subject to the Anthem breach several years ago. Most of our employees are very sensitive about information being shared such as social security. Some would freely give it, but really it's it our best practice not to have that visible to anyone.

Rae Shanahan: Good, that's helpful information. We'll look at the next slide. Prudential finds that a quarter of employees prefer mobile benefits access, which means three quarters still prefer something else! Rhonda, what are you seeing among companies of all types and workforce demographics around effective communication?

Rhonda Marcucci: So here's what I'm seeing. I'm seeing that everyone expects a personalized experience. So we're now seeing literally five modes of communication. We're seeing paper, we're seeing chats, we're seeing mobile, we're seeing online, and that's what we're all expecting. I don't like to chat, but if I like to chat, I expect to be able to chat, right? I personally like to talk on the phone so I expect to be able to call someone. What I'm seeing is the generations demand of different modes of communication and unfortunately, in my opinion, every time you add a mode of communication, you add a level of expense. At the same time, hopefully you're also adding a more powerful message to those folks because they're using a mode of communication that they're most comfortable with.

I also see larger employers are starting to be very demanding about how communications look, where they're sent from and how they're sent. You've seen a lot of plan sponsors sit down and say to all of their carriers and all their administrators, "Look, here's the deal, it's all going to come from us. It's all going to look like this with branding and I don't want anything coming directly from you, Mr. Carrier or you, Mr. Administrator."

I'm starting to see a lot more solid marketing and good marketing people help with communications, whether they're benefits-related or not. I don't know, Robin. Maybe you have some thoughts on that or maybe Lindsay does.

Robin Sgutt: I totally agree, Rhonda. We actually sit down with our carrier partners and vendors and we review everything they send out. Preferably, we would like to co-brand most of it. If somebody shoots an email, which is a great mode of high impact, nine times out of ten, and it's not branded like it's coming from us, the callers call the call center saying, "Is this spam? Is this real? Is this really from our benefits?" It all has to be cohesive.

Rhonda Marcucci: Yeah, I'm seeing big demands for being more consistent in the way we communicate.

Rae Shanahan: Good. Lindsay, anything you would like to add?

Lindsay Kohler: Only that it makes my heart sing to hear that you're having these conversations with your carriers and vendors, because I 100% agree. I think employees don't recognize communications that don't come from the company or at least have your logo on it. I would even argue that half the time employees don't know who even runs the program. They don't know the carrier name, so to make sure that everything is co-branded as much as you can with that consistent voice is going to really go a long way.

Rae Shanahan: I was talking to a client not too long ago and she does not let her carrier send anything directly to the employees. They all need to go through their communication channel so that the communications are very consistent. Is that doable? Can you tell the carriers to not send communications directly to employees?

Robin Sgutt: I think you build that relationship, and yes, it is doable. Our carriers will now say, "Hey, we're rolling this out to our employer populations” and we always have the option to opt-out. They know we don't want general communications to go to our employees.

Rae Shanahan: I think controlling that experience is really important. Just in one year, we saw a 353% increase in people enrolling through a mobile device. Within our platform, Benefits Solver, we don't consider an iPad a mobile device. Incredibly, the chat volume has risen significantly where our phone call volume has not increased much at all, even with onboarding new clients.

To add to that, Lindsay, I want to go onto the next slide and talk about the balancing act. What ultimately makes the bigger difference in engaging employees? Is it the medium or the message?

Lindsay Kohler: It's really the perfect combination of the two that ultimately will drive engagement. The message needs to have a really clear call-to-action and be easy to understand. It should be sufficiently motivating so someone wants to actually take action. I think that the delivery is just as important, because if no one hears what you have to say or have the chance to read it, then the words don't matter. So that's why your enrollment communication strategy needs to have the right mix of medium to reach everyone, and then you can think through what messages are most appropriate for each medium.

For example, a video. It’s probably not the place to give a 10-minute overview of everything that's new for AE. That might be more of quick hit piece to get people excited and motivated to act.

Rae Shanahan: While we're talking about perfect balance, I continue to hear from clients that they feel they have to put every detail in all of their documents. Benefit guides are 30, 40, 50 pages and I know that there's that desire to put in a lot of detail. How do we help people not include quite so much detail so that the message doesn't get lost?

Lindsay Kohler: I'll go first on that one. So we are a huge advocate of keeping the message focused on the "need to know" motivation. You can always link out to your summary plan descriptions and you can link out to benefits guides. You have to remember that every piece doesn't have to do everything. A postcard has a specific purpose, an email has a specific purpose, and they work together with all of your other forms such as your webpage, your summary plan documents. Thinking about what you’re trying to do with each piece is a really helpful way to make sure that you are not stuffing every last detail into everything you're trying to do. It's really about how they work together and complement each other.

Rhonda Marcucci: I think sometimes...This is Rhonda. If you're a benefits professional, you're really proud of all the work that you've done and you want to share that plan design information to the nth degree. I think it's just overwhelming sometimes and to Lindsay's point, I think you've got to pick your pieces and communicate accordingly.

I do think that there's a level of “I want to show you what a great job I did with the benefits for the company.” I don't know, Robin. Am I wrong about this?

Robin Sgutt: The grass isn't greener. We have all of these benefits for you. We're even noticing that our employees are so focused. We just had some big Moto product launches recently and Lenovo is watching, so our employees are very heads down and focused. How do we get the key pieces of information to them so they understand, "Hey, your paycheck is going to change a little bit this year." "Your deductibles are going to change a little bit this year, but everything is staying the same." How do we get something quick and snappy that's going to grab their attention so that they understand what's going to change?
We’ll give them the full benefits link within that if they really want to go read all the nitty gritty details.

Rhonda Marcucci: You have a lot of engineers and I'm sure they do want to read the nitty gritty, right?

Robin Sgutt: Probably 50% of our engineers. The rest of them, don’t want to be overwhelmed with too much. I don't want people to have to scroll a page if they're reading something online because if they have to scroll too much, they’ll get lost. They're going to lose it, and they’re not going to pay attention.

Rae Shanahan: Resist the urge to put the details in and make it easy to access, is what I'm hearing. That's the balance piece. Good. Which really leads into our second portion of our conversation today: Strengthening Your Agility and Flexibility. As we all know, annual enrollment puts the biggest, brightest spotlight on us all year and sometimes in our efforts to get things just right, we get a little too caught up in the little things such as the colors of the AE poster, the salutation in the employees' emails, or the precise layout of the medical plan comparison chart. All those nitty gritty details, and not to say that those aren't important, but this time of year, it's critical to get agile and flexible and never forget the big picture.

So Robin, from the employer's perspective, talk about how you find balance between being fiscally responsible to the company, while also addressing employees' needs with your benefits program.

Robin Sgutt: It's a fine balance, and again, going back to our customer focus, it's important to get the employees engaged. I think it's about starting early. We start early by looking at our prior years' experience and talk about what we think we should do in the next year. Annual enrollment will wrap up, we'll file, and then it's time to start planning again early for next year.

April is a nice time to start having that conversation, and we usually do that with a big strategy session. It's fun to bring everyone together and we usually have our consultants and our communication consultants with us together in the room. We're all around the table doing the planning so we can move along and keep leadership in the pipeline. That way there are no surprises when we need to set the rates and start building the annual enrollment system. It's all about the planning.

Rae Shanahan: Good, I like it. You take a small break after annual enrollment happens and then it starts all over again. Right? I hear you. Rhonda! How about you, in that same thing? How can pros take a more bird's-eye view toward costs and coverage without getting buried in the tactics and other small details of annual enrollment? I know you love to talk about costs and coverage.

Rhonda Marcucci: I do love to talk about costs and coverage, so I hope I'm not boring everyone with the same message every year, but every year my shops opens up our psychology office in October and we close it in February. We get many calls about how terrible enrollment is going with all of the service providers. I say to my team, and I say to myself, and I say to everyone who calls the psychology office, there's a special hotline that will tell you, "Look, first be calm.Let's take a yoga breath here."

If the problem does not relate to costs, meaning rates are not loaded correctly or the files are not getting over, and if the problem does not relate to coverage, which means the files are not going to the carrier so people cannot get coverage, please don't worry about it. It's okay that the 10 confirmation statements went out with the wrong salutation. Those can be fixed.

Rae Shanahan: Good news! Nobody reads them anyway!

Rhonda Marcucci: It's not a big deal. If the problem is related to the way the screen looks, the colors on the screen, the logos on the screen, the pop-up box, those are not real issues during open enrollment. It can be fixed later. The real issues, in my mind, are when we are affecting the most important things that we're trying to deliver, which is coverage, and then obviously the cost portion of it. That's really where I come from every year when we open the psych office. We stick together as a team and talk about how are we going to counsel everyone on what these issues really are?

Rae Shanahan: So how do they take that?

Rhonda Marcucci: “I don't like it.” But I think it's logical, right? You have to put everything in perspective. I think benefits administration is a really hard business, and there's a lot of things to control. There are a lot of things going on at one time and everyone's fighting for the same set of resources who are tired.

Rae Shanahan: Gotcha. Having ego gets in there though, right? Robin, this is your time to shine and how do feel about what Rhonda just talked about, because it's a reflection to your employee experience and a reflection on you?

Robin Sgutt: Yeah, I do get a little annoyed if a period isn't where it should be, or something's not-

Rhonda Marcucci: Be calm, Robin.

Robin Sgutt: I know.

Rhonda Marcucci: But Robin's got a very good point. It's really about engaging. Make sure your rates are correct and when people go through the system, they know exactly what's going to be coming out of the paycheck, because in January, if it's not, you're going to get a lot of phone calls. It's going to blow up, and it's very important to start planning early. We keep our payroll team engaged as well. They know annual enrollment's coming and we try and get them involved as much as possible along the way to make sure there are no surprises with files and other parts of enrollment.

It's kind of like building the system, getting the rates in the system, testing my choice and making sure everything is in a good place. Behind the scenes, we're also working on the communications and how we build that all into one piece that has the "wow" factor so that it looks consistent and the employees go "Oh, yeah! It's that time again. Here I go."

Rae Shanahan: Good advice. As we move to the next slide, we're going to continue with our fitness theme. Robin, how does your team approach planning and prepping to make sure the system is ready to go? How do you make sure the updated plans and rates that you just talked about and the communications reflect accurate information, you’re in sync with payroll, and that those details don’t take away from your overall strategic execution?

Robin Sgutt: It's really about weekly communication. We're with our admin team every week, and have an hour-long call. Early on, it may take the whole hour as we walk through all the details. As we get closer to enrollment, it's more like a 30-minute check and we say, "Okay, how does this look on this site? How does it look on this site?" It's really giving yourself enough time to make sure that everything's lined up and that there's enough time for testing.

We like to go live with annual enrollment in October because this year's dates are set for October 17th to October 31st. When that window closes, then the team has the whole month to work with the carriers to make sure that the carrier files are correct, to make sure that they're going to the carrier correctly, and that cards are getting out of the mail before January 1st. It's really a process of just staying connected and working together. Even though it seems like a lot of meetings, it's so worth it in hindsight.

Rae Shanahan: Exactly. So keeping those communication lines open. Lindsay, how do employers best structure annual enrollment communication so that employees don't get buried in the minutiae either?

Lindsay Kohler: Sure. I have to say that I first have to share a story I was reminded of when everyone was talking about not focusing on the little things of your communications like, where the period is. I once had someone ask me to, and I quote "universally eradicate pea grains". I hear that and then I have to ask, "What did you think of our communication plan?" And they were so focused on pea grains that they hadn't even reviewed anything else, and it's just one of those funny things where I think a great way to prioritize your energy is where should you be reviewing and what's important.

I think for employees, that it's really about focusing on what's changing. We need to make sure that it's really clear so employees can first see if they even need to or want to take any action in light of the changes you're making. Try to resist the urge to make annual enrollment kind of a catch all time for every benefits message you could possibly want to send to employees. We need to keep it really focused on what's changing.

I think the other rule for prioritization is to ask yourself, "What if the biggest gap your employees have been asking for but you weren’t able to fulfill this OE?" That is your core message, that is your story, and that's the big win for employees, so I would say start there. Also, be sure to align with any executive priorities there may be. I'm sure some of you have leadership teams with incredibly strong opinions, and so if they've got a PET program, there is a way to work that in there without losing the overall message.

Rae Shanahan: Good. Like it. One of the questions that's come in and Robin, I'll put you on the spot here. To what extent do you find management executive sponsorship, cheerleading, et cetera helpful to drive the engagement?

Robin Sgutt: I think it goes back to keeping up with all the connections and we do keep our executive leadership involved along the way. We like to do it in little snippets, because their time is busy. For example, take medical. This month, we're going to sit down for 30 minutes and we're going to go over medical, the plan changes, dental plan changes we're thinking about, and then maybe we'll lump in something else together. The is getting it to the point where, by the time we're at the end of July, we're all ready to go and everybody is behind it.

To Lindsay's point about the PET projects, we have one of those this year and so we'll be able to deliver on that. It's all about the executive sponsorship.

Rae Shanahan: Good. I like it. As we are now going to find our rowing rhythm, I want to talk about some additional stats.

55% of employees say that benefits enrollment is too confusing. 89% end up picking the same benefits year after year because they don't understand their options, and 30% would rather have a root canal than go through open enrollment. I think I've even found another one that says, "57% of people would rather clean a toilet than go through open enrollment." We knew that early on, 80% aren't reading their materials and then 20% ignore or throw it away completely. There's countless studies and surveys to name about how little time is spent choosing benefits. how overwhelmed and stressed they are by the enrollment process, and how they want help to make decisions.

Supposedly, they want more choices, which I'm not sure about. Sometimes choice is too much, and we struggle to get them to pay attention to anything we tell them.

Part of the issue is silent information from our vendor partners, so let's spend our final segment today talking through a checklist of how to keep everyone rowing in sync during annual enrollment.
Rhonda, let's start with you. What are your three best tips to help employers effectively streamline and find consistency with vendor management?

Rhonda Marcucci: Number one, I would definitely make sure that you sponsor a vendor day. I don't like the word "vendor", I like to say, "service provider”. Get everybody in a room together and walk through what everybody does so everybody knows each other so we can have some coordination.

Secondly, I see especially as we outsource more and more, a lack of what I call "management governance”. This is lack of simply strategically touching base with your vendors on a regular basis and I'm not talking about the day-to-day. I'm talking about from a strategy perspective. So often, we're involved in things where, if the company's strategy would've been shared with the vendor partners, the vendor partners would be able to perform better. Again, I'm not talking about the day-to-day, I'm not talking about the weekly call or biweekly call, not even a monthly call, but more of maybe twice a year. I don't know, Robin, how often you do this, and strategically say, "Here's where we're at, and here's what we're trying to achieve."

I'm a big fan of face-to-face, that's why I'm on an airplane almost every week. I know we can do a lot of business over the phone, a lot of business over email, but getting everybody together face-to-face truly works better for me.

Those are my three big ideas.

Rae Shanahan: I love the concept of a vendor day. I don't know if it's a fear, but why wouldn't you have all of the vendors have a conversation to understand holistically what's going on? It makes sense to because they all play an important part of the experience.

Robin Sgutt: Exactly, and in my past experience and even at Lenovo, we've done that. We call them partners, they're our partners. We give them our Lenovo customer values and we tell them, "This is who we are. This is what's going on, and this is how you can help us." And we look at you as an extension of our team because we're a very small team.

Two of the carriers for the partner, they've all said "Wow, thanks so much." They really value that time together and how we work together. Get your PBN talking to your medical carrier. Make sure if deductibles aren't flowing, find out why not? That face-to-face time gives them connections like Rhonda said and a chance to say, "Hey, I can pick up the phone and call Joe." Then Rae, because we have a relationship, we've been around the table.

Rhonda Marcucci: Robin, I got to believe, and I don't know Rae, if you've experienced this, but I hope that from those days, they go back to their teams and they share, right?

Robin Sgutt: Yes, they ask for information. Can we take this? Can we share that?

Rhonda Marcucci: That's really powerful because in this outsourcing world when we are truly an extension of everybody's team, it's really important that the whole team understands what's really going on.

Rae Shanahan: I love that, and there's so many handoffs in this business. Data coming in, data going out and then just because we send a file to the carrier doesn't mean that they necessarily loaded it. We continue to follow up so they understand the person. These are real people that we're talking about not just data.

Robin Sgutt: We do have the day-to-day meeting, sometimes weekly, sometimes biweekly, and some of those are really short. But it's twice a year that we do the strategic planning and look at how the plan is running and where do we think it's going to go and what do we think we might want to do for the future?

Rae Shanahan: A good question just came in. Let's talk about the agenda or outline for what you do on a vendor day.

Rhonda Marcucci: My agenda would be the same as Robin's. The first item would be introductions. For example, "This is what I do for Lenovo.” Then Lenovo says, "Okay, here's our strategy for the next year. Here's what's going well, here's what's working, and here's what's not working amongst everyone and here's what we need from you."

It's not for the vendors to come and sell anything. That's for another time. This is more about understanding what everyone's doing so they all understand how they interrelate and for Robin to say, "This is what's working with you guys and this is what's not working, and this is what we really need to achieve our goals." What is Lenovo trying to achieve specifically? What is the benefit strategy? What is the human capital strategy? What is the business strategy?

Rae Shanahan: It may make sense at that meeting to also map the employee journey or map the employee experience. Perhaps document in a flowchart and really look at what all the different touchpoints are that employees experience? That helps everyone talk through it.

Robin Sgutt: What we talked about this year was employee experience and how it’s key and we're very passionate about that. We're very passionate about the innovation in mobile space. A lot of my employees commute by train so we think about how they can get their information in a way that's helpful to them while they're commuting. That's really key to being successful and showing employees updates in that.

Rae Shanahan: So Rhonda, I think we'd like to get some more specifics. Another question that came in: When we talked about vendor management governance, what does that really consist of?

Rhonda Marcucci: For me, it's like the vendor day, but it's a different level and a different frequency. It's probably a quarterly touch base, could be less, but at least two times a year. It's not an hour meeting. It's a two to three-hour meeting and it's more around how the one-to-one relationship is going. This is not amongst everybody, but the one-to-one ongoing relationship. It's a lot like the vendor days. The vendor days are more for the overall summary and conversations of what you're doing well and here's what you’re not doing well with.

By the way, especially in our outsourcing technology world, what's going on with you guys, Rae? What's new down the pipe that might be good for us to be thinking about? In my mind, it's kind of like a trading of those two things, but both really important. I will tell you that the vendor community doesn’t do this. This is where we talk to folks all the time and when they're not being taught at a strategic level, it's so easy for them to justify saying, "Goodbye, we're going somewhere else."

In my opinion, it's really the employer's job to manage those relationships. If you don't manage them, they're not going to manage themselves.

Robin Sgutt: Everybody's used to the standard guarantee. How many calls have you taken? What's the abandonment rate? We're like "No, we don't really care about that." The question is, "How are you impacting our employees?" Let's put something around that, and then those quarterly discussions are going through that and saying, "Here's where we hit it, we're on target, we're above target or we're below, how are we going to fix that.”

Rae Shanahan: Good. I like that. Let's get away from the SLAs that everybody's used to and how are you touching, impacting our real people. So let's carry on with you as we talk about your three tips. So, Robin's going to share three tips to get it done on time.

Robin Sgutt: Start early, and if you're going to do an RFP for a particular plan and if you're going to add a vendor, start thinking about starting earlier. Most large carriers will want you to give them at least six months to ramp up. If you’re like us and do it during annual enrollment time, we really have to start looking at that process and planning an FRP in January and then we're losing it no later than February to stay sane. Because when you go through your first collection, you're finalized processed and everything so really take a look at what you're doing, where you think you're going, and start early. Make sure you keep your partners involved along the way and your internal partners. Keep your leadership up to date when necessary if you're putting in a new plan that's going to cost a little more, it's probably better to go sooner than later to leadership about that and keep payroll involved. If there's going to be a new deduction added to a paycheck, it's important to make sure they can do that in enough time and then plan the communication.

We've always had, perhaps in the last several years, our communication partners at the table with us while we're going through all this. They hear all of our brainstorming and all of our information that's being thrown around, and they're taking good notes so that they know how to hit the nail on the head.

Rae Shanahan: Good. Good. Lindsay, guess what? It's your turn. How about you share your three tips on how employers can distill all of the competing carrier information into a consistent voice for the employee?

Lindsay Kohler: Sure. First of all, I actually love Robin's tip about inviting your partners to the table. As a communications person, I can tell you it is so much easier to craft and hit the nail on the head with your communication. If you're in the room, hearing the goal, hearing the reasoning behind the strategy, hearing the benefits of the employee, it makes our job a lot easier, so I love that, Robin.

But if I had to choose three tips, I think my first one would be making sure that the communications are focused on the employee and not the product. I know that you'll want to convey the futures of your program, but that shouldn't be the centerpiece of your communications, and we see that a lot with carrying out information.

Instead, I would focus on the benefits to the employees. For example, maybe about convenience or financial support. It’s really about that "what's in it for me" lense. When you carry it out through all your communications regardless of who they come from, that helps to create a consistent voice and story.

My second tip would be to align your strategy. We've touched on this several times, not today, but to push to ensure any care communications are fully aligned with your brand and what you're trying to achieve for open enrollment. An "off the shelf" communications could end up hurting your engagement down the road. So at a minimum, we say to at least co-brand, so the employees know that it's coming from you.

Finally, put it all in one place. We don't want employees to have to go to eight different websites to figure out what you're offering or try to understand the program. A good challenge for the benefits team is to really pull together that story and make it easy for employees. We don't want to make the employees to do the work.

Rae Shanahan: Fantastic. One of the questions that came in that I'd like to get some feedback from all of you is, in your opinion, what is the optimal length of time for an open enrollment window?

Robin Sgutt: I indicated we're starting September 17th and ending October 31st. That starts on a Tuesday, so Monday's your busy day. Everybody's in, they're looking at emails and then we have a lot of employees who travel a lot of the time. We really use a two to two-and-a-half week period so that we can capture them. There is some difficulty in getting the attention of folks who are traveling overseas. It might be hard for them to get online and get connected, so we like to give them that window with at least two weekends so that, if they're at home with their spouse, they can have time to sit and talk about it together. We've found that's been very successful.

Usually after the 31st, we're near the end of the week and if somebody woke up on first and went "Oh, my God! I have to do enrollment,” they'll be able to call in to the center and get assistance.

Rhonda Marcucci: So I'm with you, Robin. I like a two-week window, with exceptions afterwards. I think when they're spread out over three and four weeks, I just don't think it's productive to do that.

Robin Sgutt: The stats probably show, too, that people go in right away on the first day and then the last day.

Rhonda Marcucci: I don't know, Rae, what you think. What do you guys see normally?

Rae Shanahan: Number one, I recommend to not open on a Monday. I think opening on a Saturday is awesome because it gives you a chance go to through, gives you a chance to test things out, feel good about it before you have the flood of people, so that's something I'd recommend.

Don't close on a Friday. Right? Everybody wants to have it nice and neat. Is that maybe part of our benefits tendencies? It doesn't have to be on the first. It doesn't have to be on a Monday. It doesn't have to be on a Friday. I encourage you to talk to your platform, such as Benefit Solver, I think it's good to also talk to your client team.

Everyone tries to staff the best they can for the busiest time of the year and have trained people, but if all clients are opening on the 1st and closing on the 15th, you're probably not going to be happy. Right?

Rhonda Marcucci: It's a balancing act because of the shortened amount of resources at that great time of the year.

Rae Shanahan: Yes. Those are the things that I would recommend. Let's see here. We have a couple of other questions as we wrap up, and I'm not sure if anyone has this answered. Do you have to have approval from employees to accept OE materials on mobile. I think you have a license to spam.

Rhonda Marcucci: I don't know that the law is, so we should probably find that out.

Rae Shanahan: If there's an app, then it's fine because they would have already approved that.

Robin Sgutt: And if it's via text, they're already going to have to opt-in to that as well.

Rhonda Marcucci: I don't what the legal answer is, though. Lindsay, do you?

Lindsay Kohler: I hope this is the legal answer and we use this as kind of our rule of thumb: If it is compliance related, which your OE materials are, you don't have to have approval. Now, if you're trying to do some fun marketing sayings, in that case we like to have email opt-in rather than pushing out to the whole group, and there usually has to be an "unsubscribe" option on the marketing stuff.

If it's not compliance related and it's marketing and you're using their email, you need to give them the option to opt-out.

Rae Shanahan: If you're texting and it's compliance materials related, we'll confirm all this, but it sounds like you feel that we can justify that. We wouldn't need an employee to opt-in.

Lindsay Kohler: Correct.

Rae Shanahan: Lindsay, here's a specific question for you. What do you mean by "specific employee-focused communications?"

Lindsay Kohler: Sure! Instead of saying something like, "The plan covers preventive care at a hundred percent" which is very feature focused and product focused, you could take that same message and say something like, "Get the care you need, when you need it for you and your family and we pick up the full cost for you." So it's just a slight reframing, but you put yourself in the employee's shoes rather than your shoes communicating the details of the benefit.

Rae Shanahan: "What's in it for me?" We keep that front and center. I like that. Do we have any other suggestions to help get people to not wait until the very last day?

Robin Sgutt: I say you make it a contest. There's something really awesome that you could win.

Rae Shanahan: I had a client last year, and I think this is a great idea. They were working to drive people to only enroll online and not to call. They had a contest where they drew names. Everyone that enrolled online got entered had a chance to have their medical premiums $0 for the year if they won.

Robin Sgutt: You're kidding!

Rae Shanahan: But if you think about, though. I thought that was an interesting approach. You could do something like that. Everybody that enrolls on the 5th day, or the 1st day, or enrolls within the first 7 days gets to be in drawing for something. Anything to drive some fun. Lindsay, would you have anything to add to that?

Lindsay Kohler: Yeah. One of my favorite kind of behavioral science hacks on this is actually the idea of implementing intention, which essentially is the act of writing something down to make it more likely that you're going to follow through. For some of our clients, we have a little space on the OE materials that go out to employees that says, "I pledge to go online on such and such day to complete my enrollment", and then there's a space for their signature. I know that it sounds silly, but implementing intention makes the act of getting them started easier, so we've found that to be successful.

Rae Shanahan: That is really cool! Nice. And that is a good way to wrap up. Do we have any more questions, Cynthia? Any final parting thoughts from you, Rhonda?
Rhonda Marcucci: I'm going to repeat what I said. When things are kind of going maybe a little bit awry during open enrollment, take a big long yoga breath, be calm, and think through how important this is. So that's my one parting.

Rae Shanahan: I like it, I like it.

Rhonda Marcucci: And then you can call my psychology office.

Rae Shanahan: Robin, how about you? Any parting thoughts?

Robin Sgutt: Keep your partners engaged. Keep your internal partners engaged because open enrollment is going happen, it's going wrap, and it's really the behind the scenes stuff that impacts that first paycheck that you need focus on. That's what I stress.

Rae Shanahan: Cost. It doesn't end with open enrollment closing, right? Lindsay, how about you? Any final parting thoughts?
Lindsay Kohler: Sure. I would say stay focused on the employees. They're the reason you do what you do every day, so keep their best interest in mind. The story that you want to tell for them tends to be a pretty good compass when designing your communications.

Rae Shanahan: Since we still have a couple minutes left, I'll take one of the last questions. Do you make OE meetings mandatory?

Robin Sgutt: We do not have OE meetings.

Rhonda Marcucci: Do you make enrolling mandatory every year?

Robin Sgutt: No, not every year. We highly suggest it and to that point in keeping it focused on the employees. This may be how your paycheck will change. We strongly encourage you to go take a look at everything.

Rhonda Marcucci: So I know there are good things and bad things about making everyone either go to a meeting or enroll, but I truly believe that given the cost of benefits, this is the second largest expense on the income statement. It's kind of important that people take the time and be forced to take the time to understand that. That's just my own personal opinion. I know, Rae, you wouldn't like if every one of your clients wanted to go through a positive enrollment every year, but I will tell you that I personally believe this because it is such a large expense, and because it is your health is so personal. I think it's important.

Rae Shanahan: Lindsay, any comments there?

Lindsay Kohler: No, not really. I've got a lot of clients that have OE meetings. They don't make them mandatory and with enrollment, it's hard to insist that everybody do an active enrollment. I say save that for a year when you've got a big plan change and it's imperative that people go through the enrollment process. If it's a pretty status quo year, keep it passive. Don't make it harder on them than it needs to be.

Rae Shanahan: Good. I like that. With that, we're at the top of the hour so I'd like to thank all three of you, as well as the audience for hanging in here with us and learning about benefitness.

Robin Sgutt: Let's go work out!

Rae Shanahan: Yes! Getting ready for OE. Thank you everyone. Have a great day.