By Jennifer Carsen

The NCAA has March Madness, and HR has its own brand of Fall Madness: open enrollment. It’s a busy and stressful time for practitioners, but a good benefits broker or consultant can mean the difference between a successful, smoothly executed process and months of frantic nail biting, confusion and muddled deadlines.

What’s the best way to find the right benefits partner? And how does HR best leverage and maximize that business relationship?

Businesses first must clarify their own needs and priorities, according to Donna Miracle, executive human resources consultant at HR Strategy Group.

“[A]re you a startup that will be growing rapidly? Are you an organization with a workforce that is virtual and spread across the country?” she said to HR Dive in an email. “In the marketplace today, brokers are looking for ways to differentiate themselves. Some are focusing on technology, others wellness, others employee engagement, etc. What is most important to your organization? What value added service will be the most beneficial to your employees?”

8 Interview Questions

Once an employer is clear on the top priorities, research is crucial. Shelley McLean, principal at OneDigital Health and Benefits, said it’s important for employers to interview multiple firms and ask a lot of questions.

Miracle suggested employers seek out a broker that specializes in employee benefits — you don’t want it to be their “other thing,” she noted via email. “Just as you would want a professional accountant, you want a professional broker.”

She advised handling the broker selection process like an employee interview, with prepared questions such as the following:

  • Describe for me the renewal process with your firm. When should I expect to begin the process? What information will you need from me and when? How do you approach the marketplace? What tools do you have in place to help us make a decision?
  • How does your firm handle problems? Is there a team assigned to our company? Can employees contact your firm directly?
  • How often should I expect to hear from your firm before and during the renewal period?
  • What resources do you offer to help us stay informed about changes and reporting requirements?
  • How often should we expect your firm to be in touch with us when we are not in the renewal season?

McLean offered these questions to ask:

  • Do you provide the backbone to look at a benefits package with a holistic approach? How will you bring that to my employees?
  • What resources do you provide outside of benefits? Is there an expanded footprint?
  • How are you, consultant, going to help us build a strategy?

Both McLean and Misty Guinn, director of benefits & wellness at Benefitfocus, mentioned the importance of long-range, multi-year strategic plans.

“When creating 1- 3- or 5-year strategic plans, can the broker help map out the strategy? Can they help model different plans with a variety of voluntary solutions to meet the overall budget number from the CFO? These tools and modeling capabilities should be a deciding factor and can be a great asset when presenting your benefit plan designs to your executive team,” said Guinn via email.

McLean noted that a data-driven strategy is a key differentiator: “Everyone can say they have data, but do they have data that can provide an actionable plan, and understand what the data means?”

It’s also important to find a broker that knows the days of cookie-cutter benefits are over. “Employers should find a broker partner that offers creative solutions to make sure the company is maximizing their current offerings through plan designs and carrier programs and offer new solutions as part of the overall benefits strategy, rather than just another shiny toy to add on top of the benefits package,” said Guinn.