NOTE: This was written in 2016 but don’t think I ever published it.
With firms like Fidelity entering the benefits business, others like Zenefits and Gusto raising tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, and the national firms continuing their rapid pace of acquisitions, one must wonder whether the benefits game is changing in a bigger way. Is all this money resulting in an improvement in the business? Are the rules of the game changing? Not only the rules, but one must understand what league they are competing in. And if the rules and competition change can one continue to compete? Is the price to compete greater than many firms can afford?
In business as in sports it is important to understand the rules of the game and what league you are playing in. How you staff your team and how you play the game will change as the rules and competition changes. And as we all know we don’t get to make all the rules and control how the competition plays the game.
To compete in an individual sport like golf you need a single talented person. In basketball, you need anywhere from 7-10 skilled people. In baseball, the number is around 12-15 while in football you need 20-25. At lower levels of competition, you generally have athletes playing more than one position. In high school football, I played quarterback, safety and was the kicker. In college I was the 5th best QB so I became a safety, and my kicking skills were such that nobody would have ever called me a kicker. At the professional level, you have very specialized skills and the number of skilled athletes you need to win is even higher. Some NFL teams even have two kickers, one to kick-off and another to kick field goals. At the professional level, you need 40 – 50 quality players.
In some businesses, all these rules also play out. To compete at the highest levels, you need more players with more specialized skills. Smaller firms have fewer employees often playing multiple positions. I heard this the whole last quarter where people would say, “I’m too busy, call me after the first.” So, their 2017 plans are on hold because they could not handle fourth quarter business while planning their 2017 or even starting their marketing or sales efforts. They are playing baseball with 5 fielders and don’t recognize it. Others however, in larger firms, have staff making their 2017 plans and do have the time to start their marketing and sales efforts. They have 9 players and a bench creating a competitive advantage.
How many benefits brokers wear the hat of the sales person, the finance person, marketing, and even service? In these firms, it is not possible to deliver the results that larger firms can deliver simply because of number of resources and skills needed to compete. Some larger firms also struggle because they have the numbers but because of their structure they don’t properly leverage their size or skills properly. I once spoke to a producer in a national benefits firm creating her own brochures. Certainly, not an effective use of time or skills. I am also quite sure the marketing piece did not have a professional quality.
I always felt that lead generation or telemarketing is a very different skill than sales or benefits consulting, yet in many benefits firms the person who dials for dollars is the same person that makes the sale and then does the consulting. They play the QB, safety, and kicker. And speaking from my own experience, most often not very well.
I started creating a list of all the things a benefits firm can do for themselves, their customers, and the employees of those customers, that would be of value that most brokers simply don’t do or struggle to do. If I were to start a benefits firm from scratch today this list would be my opportunity to be different in the market. At this time my list has 54 items on it. I know many benefits firms across the U.S. yet I can only think of one firm that is executing on many of the items on my list. A few others have the ability to do so but more than likely lack the vision. So, I believe the opportunity still exists.
With new entrants to the market looking to disrupt the current benefits community and driving desire to win I don’t think my 54 items will be a secret forever. The bar will get raised and raised again, in a way that the price to compete is more resources and more specialized skills. This often means more money. It can be equivalent to the difference between playing high school football and professional football. My quarterbacking skills would not have won me any games against the pros.
The benefits game may be changing faster and in more ways than people think or see. Sometimes these things sneak up on you and if it does you could be caught off guard, ill-equipped to respond competitively. There will surely be changes coming to the healthcare market from the Trump administration. These changes may be much different than most anticipate.
This benefits game may no longer be a golf event where a single skilled player can compete. It may not even be a basketball or baseball game where 5 and 9 players are adequate. It may require the army of a professional football team with 53 highly skilled players. The increased competition in sports and business is all around us.
You can choose to compete in places where there is less competition. Many assume this is in the small group market but there are a number of new competitors going after that business too. You can sell your business. You can also choose to build your team. To do so you can raise money and hire a team like Zenefits and Gusto. To do this you will need a unique product or value proposition that can scale. You can grow organically like a Fidelity or a Paychex but that takes capital, risk, and time. Alternatives would be sharing resources with your peers as we do at N4one.
So stop stocking your shelves with new technology tools or looking for that new idea at some conference. The technology vendors want to sell to everyone so you won’t end up with anything unique. And I couldn’t imagine finding some grand idea at a conference. I certainly wouldn’t share our secrets at some conference. Even if you found some grand new idea, getting this idea to market effectively will require resources that many benefits firms don’t have. The place to start is with a vision and a plan. Or you can call us at N4one. We have created a plan. Built an army. And we have 54 things or more we are doing that most others are not.