Marketing benefit plans at the front

A lot of people may have noticed job responsibilities changing while titles stayed the same. Take the benefits administrator…

“I’ve found it’s not enough any more to just sit there and do benefits calculations,” says Caroline Nabozniak of her job as plan administrator for the Seafarers Union in Quebec.

Cost containment is at least as important as ever, some say more so with an aging workforce; keeping on top or regulatory changes remains a challenge; benefits have to help attract and retain employees and today’s workers are looking for a lot more answers than they used to.

All this means administrators need to have a much better understanding of how and why benefit plans are structured so they can assist employers meet manage their benefit plans.

As the academic director of the certified employee benefit specialist (CEBS) program in Canada, Ann O’Neill, speaks to a lot of people in the benefits industry. It’s obvious that what worked in the past isn’t necessarily working today, she says. “What I’m hearing from folks is that the context in which benefits are being delivered is changing dramatically.”

Naturally taking care of the business side of administration is still important, but they are also doing much more than that now. The challenge is to recognize the new context and be able to understand what the effects will be.

As a result of these added pressures and new responsibilities falling to the administrator, there has been a greater interest in establishing clearly defined standards of competence for the people who tend to the day-to-day maintenance of benefit plans, says O’Neill.

There are certificate programs like the one offered at Humber College in Toronto, that are designed to improve bottom-line performance through cost-effective management. And the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Providers offers a professional CEBS designation through Dalhousie University in Halifax. The program strives to give students a comprehensive background in benefit plan administration.

The courses have to change constantly, says O’Neill. Some of the basics of benefits administration stay the same, but there is a greater emphasis on benefits philosophy.

Today’s worker is generally more knowledgeable about pensions and benefits. They also tend to be more inquisitive. It used to be people had no interest in what went on behind the scenes by managers of pension or benefit plans — but no more.

If part of their salary is going into a group benefit plan, today’s workers want to know how it is being used. And benefits administrators need to have the answers.

There are lots more what-if questions being asked — What if I retire in 10 years? And in 15? Young workers are asking about investment strategies for their pension fund. Unheard of “in the old days.”

By the same token a lot of employers still struggle to explain to employees how costly plans have become, says Nabozniak. But since administrators are the people dealing with the members, it’s a good idea to find people who can satisfy member questions and explain the philosophy behind plan changes.

“They are the front-line marketers,” says Nabozniak. By helping employees understand why decisions are made as they are, administrators help improve the relationship between sponsor and member.

“It is no longer sufficient just to be a technician,” she says. “Our knowledge base has had to expand tremendously.”

That requires administrators to have different competencies then they did in the past.

“In order to market it, you have to know what is behind it. Why was it designed this way? You have to know a lot more about the plan,” she says.

Similarly, when employers have made unpopular decisions around changing benefit plans, administrators can explain the decision to members.

“All you can do is be very honest with people,” says Nabozniak. It may not necessarily make them happier, but it has to be explained to employees that some things are beyond control. And in the current environment of escalating costs of benefits with a shrinking pool of contributors some of those decisions are made in response to forces beyond the control of sponsors.

Without question it can put a lot of strain on the front-line person. But if that person is well-informed, knows and understands the issues, and can explain them to the employee it can be made more palatable, she says.

Latest stories