Are you hoping to strengthen and enhance the benefits package offered to your employees and executives? Concerned that your current program may be outdated and/or overly expensive? Confused about the wide array of products and services? Wondering where to start?

A well established, reputable employee benefits consulting and brokerage firm can provide all of the answers you're seeking. Such firms specialize in delivering leading-edge solutions to meet the changing needs of employers and their employees in today's fast paced world of business.

Working with an experienced and knowledgeable benefits broker allows you to leverage the strong relationships the broker has built with health care and insurance companies over the years. Benefits consulting has become a highly specialized discipline and not every firm has the people and resources to design and deliver comprehensive, cost-effective programs and services that reflect your unique corporate culture and business objectives.

In addition, new approaches like Integrated Disability Management are blurring traditional boundaries between employee benefits consulting and property & casualty risk management, making it increasingly important to select a broker who can provide integrated delivery of a full spectrum of products and services.

While broad product offerings and market clout are important characteristics of top benefit consultants, the "best of breed" distinguish themselves through an unwavering focus on understanding their clients' operations, business objectives and needs in short, they establish themselves as consultants and trusted business advisors.

Top firms view themselves as an extension of their clients' operations , evaluating options, recommending the best possible course of action and, perhaps most importantly, playing a proactive, hands-on role in effecting positive results. Quality employee benefits brokerage firms are staffed by executives who participate on many professional and legislative advisory boards, positioning their companies at the technical "leading edge" of their industry.

The best firms will also conduct ongoing research in risk reduction, benefit plan design, cost containment, and other issues affecting employers. They place a premium on professional development and communication and are the first to learn about the latest developments and innovations in group benefits.

How do you find these firms? Here's what to look for.

When selecting your employee benefits broker, it is important to establish that any firms you are considering can both understand and effectively respond to your specific needs.

In general, find out if the firms provide objective counsel in the design, funding, and administration of group benefit plans.

Do they negotiate effectively on your behalf with health care providers, insurance carriers, and administrative service companies? Do they know your business and work with other clients in your industry? Do they have the expertise and market clout e.g. how much of the firm's revenue is derived from benefits consulting? What other insurance and risk management products and services can they provide? Can you confirm these things in discussions with current clients?

Once a firm has met these general criteria, here is a list of specific capabilities to focus on. The best brokerage firms will:

- Conduct a thorough program assessment and needs analysis

- Recommend a benefits strategy which reflects your corporate culture and business plan

- Present you with alternative and options, analyzing the pros and cons of each

- Comprehensively design and implement group benefit plans

- Deliver in-depth financial analysis and expense management strategies including benchmarking your programs against those of "peer" companies

- Support and enhance client communication and services with state-of-the-art Internet-based technology tools

- Conduct periodic evaluations of employee satisfaction and the competitiveness of your programs

- Offer employee communications services and enrollment support

- Evaluate the capabilities and effectiveness of provider organizations

- Offer a full spectrum of products and services (e.g. 401(k), Executive Benefits, TPA services, workers' compensation programs, integrated disability management, employment practices and employee benefits liability)

- Monitor and interpret legislation

Top employee benefits brokerage firms understand that every organization is unique. Your business goals and objectives, your management style, the attitudes of your employees all of this and more distinguishes you from every other company and it must be central to the design of an effective employee benefits strategy. True broker / consultants know this and use an approach that is highly customized and solution based. Through a tailored analysis, they identify specific client needs and shape an action plan to address these issues quickly and effectively.

The importance of designing human resource support systems to fit the nature and economics of an organization is another factor that should not be discounted. To achieve a workable balance, an account management team of benefit professionals should be formed. That team should begin by gaining a thorough understanding of your business needs. After an exploratory meeting, the team should go to work following a detailed action plan designed to address your specific benefits objectives.

To illustrate the process, here's how one brokerage firm, HCM / ABD, generally approaches program development and implementation for their clients.

- During the first 30 days, the firm concentrates on their homework. They study the client organization and determine employer and employee attitudes about current programs.

- The account management team helps the client set the right priorities, develop strategies, and establish financial and human resource objectives for benefit programs.

- They develop workable program guidelines, delivery systems, financial arrangements, and administrative procedures looking at local, regional, and national alternatives. Throughout the review process, they evaluate a range of alternatives to find the solution that best meets each client need.

- HCM / ABD then anticipates and initiates, acting as a catalyst for change if change is appropriate.

- Finally, financial arrangements with carriers and health care providers that achieve client objectives are negotiated and administrative procedures to complement or improve on existing systems are developed and implemented.

Your employee benefits brokerage firm should assist in all phases of plan implementation. Their account management team should ensure a smooth transition of administrative responsibility; develop and carry out an effective communications strategy; participate in management and staff orientation and training; conduct employee presentations and enrollment meetings at various work sites; and watch for changes in benefits legislation which may impact objectives and strategy.

Ultimately, the success of any organization depends on attracting and retaining the right people. An effective employee benefits strategy , designed, implemented and supported by a qualified employee benefits broker / consultant , can play a critical role in determining the future of your company, itit's stake holders and it's employees.

Bob Volkel and Gary Delaney are officers of HCM Benefits, Inc., an employee benefits brokerage firm. In October of 1999, HCM merged with ABD Insurance and Financial Services.

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