Brokers add value to the products they sell.
Granted, telling readers that professional health insurance agents matter fails to achieve the heroic stature of, say, telling a group of tri-corner hat-wearing Tea Party members that Fox News is neither fair nor balanced. Or informing the MSNBC-watching leadership of the Howard Dean fan club that Michael Moore is more propagandist than documentarian. But still, someone has to say it, “Brokers add value to the products they sell.”
As we start a new year this message is more critical than ever. We’re talking 2012 here and 2012 is far more than the stuff of apocalyptic specials aired on the Discovery channel at three in the morning. This is the year in which many of the changes to America’s healthcare system conjured up by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act move from the file marked “Theoretical” to the one named “Holy Cr*p, They’re Doing What?”
2012 will be a year when decision makers make decisions that matter. Not that last year or next year are unimportant in this regard. But 2014 is when the most far reaching aspects of the PPACA take effect (think guarantee issue, individual mandates, exchanges, more standardized products). While still two years away, the life cycle of public policy is akin to dog years, which makes two years a matter of moments.
Many of the decisions being made in the next 12 months will greatly impact the future of brokers. Yet they are being made by people or being reported on by people whose understanding of what brokers actually do is somewhat limited or non-existent. After all, how many of these policy shapers have even worked with a broker in the past? Cal-PERS, the state government’s healthcare program, doesn’t use agents. And in large companies, employees (e.g., reporters) may never meet their company’s benefit consultants.
When they do hear about insurance brokers it’s often in the context of: 1) someone doing something they should not have been doing; or 2) as a punch line in need of a reference to a pushy salesman. As a result (and as someone who has written a book on selling it pains me to admit this), most folks hold insurance agents, brokers, and consultants in low regard. You know you’re in trouble when lawyers, politicians, mortgage bankers, and tobacco executives are needed to make yourself look good.
Yes, there are exceptions. Some decision makers and the reporters who write about them know in great detail what insurance brokers do and why it matters. But they’re less common than those whose understanding is based on Woody Allen films or the loud guy at the Chamber meeting talking about the premium-paid trip to Hawaii with Acme Insurance he took.
The point here is that professional health insurance brokers play an important role in today’s healthcare system. Those who will greatly influence the role brokers play in the future healthcare system don’t know what that value is. They don’t know about the time spent helping clients identify their real needs, finding the best solutions, administering enrollment, explaining their benefits, resolving problems, and on and on. Decision makers too often perceive brokers as merely sucking money of the system — money that could go to lowering costs or expanding coverage instead of understanding that brokers help clients gain the most value for the money they put into the system.
And before you start condemning decision makers for their ignorance, keep in mind that it’s not really their fault. They don’t know what they don’t know. They’re busy people with lots of decisions to make. They’ve got hearings to attend, press releases to release, fund raisers to raise, and time to hang with the lobbyists, and all the other time sinks that make America’s government work. They also want to have time with their families, keep up with the latest developments on American Idol, and a host of other homework-interfering activities, which means if they are to understand what brokers really do then it’s up to brokers to teach them. The days of being content with simply delivering value are gone. Now brokers need to demonstrate value.
For brokers who dwell solely in the world of paperwork (exchange one piece of paper called a “check” for another called “policy”) this is bad news. Computers can do this kind of transaction far more quickly, painlessly, and cheaply than commissioned sales people and they increasingly will.
On the other hand, sales professionals who understand that they’re providing health and financial security to their clients and act accordingly, these folks have stories to tell – stories that need to be told. These are the brokers who do more than simply ask clients what they want and then find it, but who understand market trends, who are up-to-speed on the latest products, and who lead their clients as well as attend to them. For these brokers the only challenge will be making explicit all that they do rather than counting on the actions to speak for themselves.
Those actions need to speak not just to their clients, but also to policy shapers as well. This is where it gets interesting because, by making the value brokers are providing to clients explicit to those clients, brokers will be recruiting their best advocates: those very same clients. When CAHU brings hundreds of brokers to Sacramento to meet with lawmakers the impact is great; were those brokers to each bring one client along to meet with lawmakers, the impact would be powerful.
Regardless of the political activity, getting clients engaged increases the effectiveness dramatically. Brokers talk about their value and it may be viewed as self-serving. Clients speak about brokers’ value and elected officials will take notice. These clients are voters. Whether the audience is legislators, reporters or Exchange Board members, in 10 minutes clients explaining why they need and want their brokers can convey delivers a more powerful message than brokers can in a day.
Of course, this means that brokers have to be needed and wanted by clients. Fortunately, the brokers who have moved beyond paperwork and are looking out for the financial and personal health of their clients should have several of those kinds of clients. Brokers who haven’t progressed, won’t have these clients.
So I’m happy to state the obvious: brokers add value to the products they sell. Now we need to enlist clients to do the same.