Jim Christenson, CEBS, director of workplace, Emerson, Reid and Co., has been selling voluntary benefits at the worksite since 1990. He has been successful in enrolling over 12,000 employees. But now, more than ever, Christenson is excited about selling voluntary benefits, such as critical illness (CI) insurance, disability income (DI) insurance and life insurance.
As health-insurance costs increase and employers pass on these costs to employees, it’s logical to assume that this will hurt the worksite market. But Christenson says: “What I do see is more and more people buying products through payroll deductions. It’s getting easier to go in and make a sale. Employers want voluntary benefits to be part of their core plans. People need disability income, critical illness and life insurance, and getting it from work is a good way to do it, and people perceive it as a good way to do it.”
What to sell and who to target
While it’s not easier or harder to sell voluntary benefits to any particular group (small—fewer than 250 employees, medium—250-1,200, and large—more than 1,200), Christenson’s favorite group to work with is the one with 250-1,200 employees. “You can offer them expertise,” he says. “You have some freedom to make product choices. Owners are the ones making the decision. That's easy to deal with.”
Christenson always sits down with each employee one on one and explains the voluntary benefit. He spends about 15 to 20 minutes with each employee, which he considers a generous donation of the employer’s time.
Three products that are well received at the worksite are DI insurance, CI insurance and life insurance. Employees don’t realize that 96 percent of all disabilities are due to illnesses, he says, adding that, “unless they are very lucky, they will face a time when they will not be able to work because of an accident.” Life insurance continues to be undersold, and employees need an advisor to explain its features, benefits, policies and types. CI insurance works as a strong supplement to the health insurance that employees already have, he says.
Making a worksite sale
Christenson thinks of a worksite sale as a sale with four levels. First is the meeting with the office manager, the HR department or the controller. You need to find out the company’s benefits plan and ask the officials this closing question: If you could make benefits available to employees with no direct cost to your employer, would that be something you would like to do?
The next step is to get the owner’s permission. “You don’t want to be in someone’s house without their knowing that you came through the door,” Christenson says. “You don’t want to be in the middle of an enrollment and have the owner stop and ask what you are doing.” Again, you have to help the owner figure out why he should sponsor a voluntary benefit plan. “It should be the same reason why the owner sponsors benefits—to attract and retain employees,” he says.
Then you have to make a sale to middle managers because they are the ones who will let you have access to their employees. “Even though the owner and HR people have said yes, you need to sell middle managers the idea that voluntary benefits are going to be good for them and the people who work for them,” he says.
Finally, when he meets with employees, Christenson avoids telling stories about how a particular insurance saved his client. “It”s a subtle form of pressure when you’re meeting a person one on one,” he says. “It takes away from the time you have to teach people about the products.” Instead, he focuses on explaining the product, its features and cost. He then asks: Is this a benefit you would like to have? If the employee agrees, Christenson maintains continuous contact with the employee and visits him once a year.
Christenson has found great success in working with nursing homes, doctors’ practices and car dealerships. “We know those businesses and we know what to do with them,” he says. For example, the majority of nursing-home employees are low paid, and advisors need to offer them less expensive products. In car dealerships, sales, service and parts work as separate entities. “Whichever business unit you’re going into, you need to be able to speak their language,” Christenson says. A major benefit of working with car dealerships and nursing homes is the word-of-mouth advertising. “If you do business with a car dealership, it will tell another dealership,” he says. “It’s the same thing with nursing homes.”