United Benefit Advisors Insight and Analysis Blog

All That Glitters Is Not Gold in Employee Benefits

By Michael A. Fleck, Vice President, Corporate Development, for Hanna Global Solutions, A UBA Partner Firm
  Jan 19, 2017 10:54:03 AM

user interfaceThe Magpie Effect

Why does a magpie decorate its nest with shiny objects? The randomly gathered trinkets serve no practical purpose. Scientists suggest, and it seems likely, that these most intelligent of animals simply like the way they look.

When something is pleasing to the eye, we – like magpies – are drawn to it. Beauty can, and often does, cloud our critical assessment. This occurs in the world of benefits and benefits technology when we assume the outward appearance of an object (what we see) and what’s beneath the surface (what we get) are the same.

Indeed, the Internet has changed the world. Today’s buyers tend to judge the capabilities of a system by the “prettiness” of its user interface (UI): The Magpie Effect.

But, we’ve all learned the hard way that choices made on appearances alone can lead to disappointment.

The Big Three

As the creators and managers of Benefits Passport – United Benefit Advisor’s (UBA) open architecture exchange – understanding what goes into highly successful relationships between benefit advisors and the employers they serve is essential to our work. That’s because our primary purpose is to give benefits advisors more freedom to create and deliver value to their clients, while we empower employers to take maximum advantage of that value. In our quest for greater understanding, we have found three things you need to know:

  1. The Magpie Effect! Sometimes (too often, actually), what advisors offer and what employers find attractive are not things upon which highly successful relationships can be built.
  2. All employer/advisor relationships go through a life cycle.
  3. An outcome-based relationship is essential for the successful navigation of the life cycle and optimal ROI for every dollar spent on employee benefits.

Let’s take a closer look at why The Magpie Effect occurs and the damage it can cause. I will explore the life cycle and outcome-based relationships in parts two and three of this blog.

Technology For Technology’s Sake

Being part of an HR company that develops and delivers technology has made me acutely aware of how often technology is seen as a panacea. With insufficient – if any – critical assessment, advisors sell and employers buy a shiny new online portal featuring enrollment, multimedia employee education, and FAQ-driven issues resolution. With a sexy user interface, paperwork-replacing-automation, and anytime, anywhere accessibility … it’s all very bedazzling and it’s easy to see why The Magpie Effect is so powerful. That’s why being aware of The Magpie Effect adds even more validity to that old, old adage, “caveat emptor” (i.e., let the buyer beware).

Let the buyer beware means it is up to the employer to critically assess what their benefits advisor is offering. It also means that lying beneath the shiny surface of traditional employer/advisor relationships are some less than attractive things. When the buyer must beware, the relationship is not built on sound decision-making driven by verifiable, relevant facts and mutually beneficial outcomes. Instead, it’s an adversarial relationship driven by sentiment, opinion and, too often, opposing goals.

A Culture of Convenience and Commodities

Two powerful cultural forces give weight and power to what lies below the shiny surface of traditional employer/advisor relationships.

One is the belief we are entitled to more and more convenience. Developers, marketers, and sellers have long preyed on the images of a technological utopia deeply embedded in our collective consciousness … think the Jetsons. In the case of employee benefits, this belief has contributed to the rise of a “set-it-and-forget-it” attitude; simply set the technology in place and forget about it as it does the job of keeping employees happy.

In addition to the demand for convenience is the perception that health insurance is a commodity. This perception leads to an environment where the price is the dominating focus of the annual renewal selling/buying conversation. Made increasingly acute by unsustainable annual premium increases, the focus on price precludes all but the most cursory discussions about why benefits are being offered in the first place. There is little room for any thought of aligning the benefit program with the employer’s strategic, social, and ethical goals.

Beauty Gets into the Eyes of the Beholder

Beauty (a beautiful UI) lures us along an easy decision-making shortcut that stifles awareness and bypasses logic. Bright and shiny sells because it makes it easier for us to convince ourselves we are making a wise choice. By giving us an excuse, and permission, to not critically assess our current reality and honestly appraise the true value – the outcomes we can expect. Beauty too often leads to getting far less than we paid for … and, far, far less than what we need to be truly successful.

Admittedly, breaking free of The Magpie Effect is not easy. Becoming fully aware of what is actually happening and why – and our complicity in making it so – can be painful and embarrassing. And, embracing logic before beauty compels us to look at the root causes of the problems we are seeking to solve. Embracing logic means being honest about the challenges we must be prepared to face on the road to our dreams.

Say, “Bye-Bye Birdy!”

There are many examples of employers who have broken free from the cultural conditioning that continues to trap the vast majority in a win/lose relationship with their benefits. The catalyst in these cases is the relationship they’ve developed with their advisor – one focused on the relationship and not on selling solutions. The best advisors know their job is to navigate the employer-advisor relationship life cycle starting with a deep understanding of their client’s world. And the most progressive employers partner with advisors who have the courage to have open, honest conversations with clients about the outcomes that count. Fueling their success is a relentless commitment to playing an essential role in making those outcomes happen.

In parts two and three of this blog, I will share what we’ve learned about how to best navigate the client relationship life cycle and how you can initiate and sustain a relationship based on the outcomes that count.

Topics: Benefits Passport, employee benefits advisors, Michael Fleck, employee benefits technology, Magpie effect, user interface, group benefits platform