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State of the Union II: Reflect­ing on COVID-19’s impact on the vol­un­tary marketplace 

Hear the episode below.

Matt 00:01

So hello and welcome to Assurity's Focus on Voluntary Benefits. I'm your host, Matt, and I'm excited to once again welcome Eastbridge Consulting Bonnie Brazzell to our show. Bonnie was our first guest in our first state of the industry podcast a year ago. And we're eager to see how things have changed since then, and they certainly have. She's been with Eastbridge now for more than 20 years managing projects for both worksite and group clients as well as helping to produce the high quality market analyses and business line assessments that Eastbridge is known for. Also, on our show today, as the surety is vice president of worksite sales, Jack Douglas, Jack joined Assurity in October of last year and has previously held leadership roles with Allstate Benefits and Colonial Life. So we're excited to welcome him to the show as well and get his take on the state of voluntary benefits as an industry and to share what he's placed within it. So thanks to both of you for joining us, it's gonna be a great show. Let's get started. So Eastbridge, over the last few months over the last year has produced several surveys regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the voluntary benefits face. So what have these recent Eastbridge surveys shown or told us about the impact COVID-19 has had on the voluntary market?

Bonnie 01:09

Well, thanks, yes, we've tried to do we did a lot of different surveys over the year and 2020, to try to keep on top of what was going on with the COVID. And it was interesting to listen and watch the way things changed. And we can talk about some specifics in a little bit. But, you know, it was definitely a year of major impact, there's no doubt about that. Sales, sales were down, quote, activity was down, enrollments, everything was pretty much impacted by the pandemic. But you know, this is a pretty resilient industry. And as the year went on, some of the things that people thought were going to be, you know, huge deals during the course of the year really didn't turn out to be as big of a deal. But nevertheless, the industry was definitely impacted. And unfortunately, most of the impact was somewhat negative, but not completely. One of the things, you know, industries that had a lot of layoffs and furloughs, those were more impacted than other industries, some industries seem to kind of move through without too much problem. And employers were pretty optimistic about still being able to serve their employee needs, even despite maybe work from home and everything else that was going on. But the biggest impact I think beyond the obvious of people not being at the worksite was I call it paralysis, everybody was afraid to make changes. Employers kind of wanted to leave things as status quo employees were not real sure what to do. So a lot of what happened in the industry was a result of people not being sure what the future was going to hold. And so we've we're just kind of frozen, if you will, about making any kind of changes during the course of the year. And I know that you know, had an impact. One of the things we often see is, quote, activity, that's usually new cases, and new cases are a lifeblood of the industry, in addition, of course, to serving our existing cases, but quote, activity was way, way down, because so many employers were not looking to introduce any new benefits during the pandemic. So that's kind of an overview of some of the things that the surveys have told us.

Matt 03:39

What are some of the specific results that carriers have reported?

Bonnie 03:43

Sure, well, we've just wrapped up in the last month or so our annual sales survey, and have reported out to the industry, we were never sure exactly where we were going to end the year. We had projected back during the summer, I think, or early fall that we were probably going to end up between 15 and 20%, below where we were in 2019. And that is indeed where we ended up we ended up with the market being down 15 1/2 percent compared to 2019. We had total voluntary sales of about $7.5 billion, which was down from $8.8 billion in 2019. But interestingly, not everybody was down out of the 70 or so carriers that participated in our survey and reported their results 40 excuse me, not 40, 20 or so had increases and the average increase among those with increases was 18%. So you know, that's a huge number when you consider everything that was going on. Now we of course had you know a lot of companies with decreases and those with decreases, the average decrease was around 23%. So when you kind of look at all that together, it all worked out to be the 15 or so percent down. Group companies or companies that had a lot of group business as opposed to individual product business tended to do better than did companies that sold a lot of individual products, usually, because individual products were probably more dependent on the face-to-face enrollment methodologies. And group products had kind of moved beyond that, even though they may be doing some face-to-face, it was not the dominant thing. So that's kind of overall what the industry did. Down, but and by the way, this is just the second time ever since we've been tracking that the industry has had a decrease. We had a decrease again, back in our before back in 2010 when the employers were in the middle of implementing the Affordable Care Act, but other than that these are the only two decreases we've ever seen in the industry. Like I said, it's a pretty resilient industry.

Matt 06:03

And Jack, how does that align with what Assurity experienced last year?

Jack 06:08

That's a good alignment for what Assurity did as a company, we increased about five and a half percent 5.55 to 5.5%. And that was a, like Bonnie said part of the group that increased and in, as Bonnie indicated the, quote, request the proposals, those numbers were certainly flat or down. But our team is a very resilient team. And they sought all sorts of different ways to try to keep the business the quotes the business, the enrollments alive, including the electronic means. Call Center means any means necessary was on the table for the for the group to remain successful. It gave us a 5% increase, which is which is amazing in in the year 2020.

Matt 07:13

It absolutely is. Now the data also suggests that some brokers experienced an increase in quote, activity and sales while others experienced sharp decreases. Bonnie, what do you think caused this? Could it be these innovative approaches like Jack has mentioned?

Bonnie 07:29

Yeah, I really do think it is. And at the end of the game, or the end of the year, we had about 23. So almost a quarter of brokers said that their 2020 sales were higher than they expected. And, you know, number had about same as expected. So, you know, we had quite a few brokers saying that they had pretty decent results. I think that there were a couple of things. First of all, like Jack said, those brokers that reacted quickly, and tried to make the best of the situation, use virtual tools, learn how to do virtual meetings, and all of those kinds of things, were certainly more successful, those that just kind of waited to see, well, maybe this isn't going to last, maybe we're going to come out of this pretty quickly. So I don't really have to do a lot of I don't have to learn a lot of new tools or things like that. Those had a harder time catching up because by the time they realize that, hey, we aren't coming out of this anytime soon, these lock downs and things are going to continue. It was kind of lighten the game for that. Brokers who focus on the traditional voluntary business voluntary brokers, they they tended to be more likely to have worse results than brokers who are also group brokers and selling employer funded products. And I think the reason it has nothing to do with the products, I think the reason is those voluntary brokers were more likely to depend very, very heavily on face to face enrollments. And those pretty much disappeared during the course of the year. So it again, they didn't necessarily have the tools to address the virtual environment early on. And so they tended to do a little bit worse during the course of the year. Another thing I've talked to a bunch of brokers over the course of the last year, or certainly the last six months and one thing stood out to that some of the brokers told me as they said, you know, we found early on that we had to be very persistent in talking to our employer clients. They said the first time we call they may not have wanted to talk to us because they were busy adjusting workforce, environments and all that kind of good stuff. But he said we stuck with it not being passed, but still being very persistent and continuing to touch base, communicate contact. And they said, that really paid off because one broker told me, he said, I had a client tell me that I had another broker that called on me one or two times. And when I said I was too busy to really think about it right now, they quit calling me. Well, guess what, you didn't quit calling me. So, you know, we're, we were able to do something later in the year. So I think that persistency made a big impact, too. And I think the last thing that I've seen, and I kind of alluded to it earlier, is brokers who had an industry focus on those kinds of industries that were more impacted by business closings, and layoffs, you know, whether it be the small business that got shut down completely, or whether it be the service industry, where a lot of people were laid off, because people were not traveling and those types of things. Those brokers were certainly impacted more. And to me, it kind of seems like the message is, one of the things we've learned is, you know, concentrating all of your business in a particular area, or a particular size or industry is probably not the most secure thing. Maybe we all need to diversify what's going on so that we aren't hurt so bad when one particular industry gets impacted by something that happens in the world.

Jack 11:27

Yeah, that's, that's really, really good advice. Or Good point, Bonnie. There, there are brokers. We've had some brokers who, who had diversified, if you will portfolio like your financial manager always tells you diversify that, that retirement portfolio, because one sector may, may or may not perform that well. But we did have a number of brokers who even the small, small companies, a lot of those small companies still produce work. They if they were a manufacturer of certain items, they still went to work, they still operated as normal as possible. And we found that sometimes the political environment in the state or in the area, played a role in some of that. And so it was, it was all over the board as far as trying to predict the ability to write business. But you're right, the brokers that were persistent, that adapted early to, to the electronic enrollments, telephonic enrollment, different electronic capabilities, group meetings, by zoom, perhaps enrolling by zoom or telephone, those were the ones that we continue talking with and continue to show increased quotes increased, increased sales during 2020.

Matt 12:56

I think those three keys that y'all brought up your phenomenal adaptation, persistence, diversification, all very important when you're facing an event like COVID-19. But it isn't just brokers. Jack, how did our sales team adapt to this environment, reach and communicate with the field in different ways?

Jack 13:13

Yeah, our sales team joined Assurity in October, and quickly got up to speed with the sales team. The sales team we have here is extraordinary team, they one thing we have going for us is outside of one team in Arizona, most of our sales people are physically based here in Lincoln or Omaha, Nebraska. And so the advantage we had was that we were accustomed to setting appointments from afar and traveling twice to our territory. So if you're accustomed to prospecting from a single location, that that makes that adaptation just a little bit easier. So our team just really kept get rolling with what they were accustomed to doing, minus the physical visits, but since they already had those established relationships and created new relationships during COVID, it created the positive year. One of like Bonnie said one a few positive results for voluntary only carriers in the market last year. So the team the team really embraced the technology, the zoom, the team's call to have the meetings with the producers have the meetings with the enrollment entities to sometimes meet the plan administrators by zoom in and implement the products from afar. So that it was a concerted effort by our sales team, our marketing area, our technology area, our administration area to really adapt to what was going on during 2020.

Matt 14:55

And I think at the end of the day, it's those results that really measure how well carriers brokers alike rose to the challenge. Now, Bonnie, what has been the impact the results for in-force business for brokers?

Bonnie 15:09

Well, you know, that's the good news, there was a lot less negative impact of the pandemic on in-force business. And both brokers and carriers agreed on that. well over half of brokers and carriers said that, whether its account level lapses or employee level lapses, that there really was not an impact, things stayed pretty much the same that they ever had been, in fact, you know, we had somewhere in the neighborhood of between 10 and 20%, of people saying that the actual lapses decreased during the pandemic. And I think it's related to what we were talking about just a few minutes ago, employers didn't want to make changes, employees didn't necessarily want to make changes, they were kind of sitting on what they already had, I'm not going to give up, you know, if I'm an employee, unless you haven't had serious, serious financial issues, I'm not going to give up the benefits that I already have, because I now see that I really may need them. So, again, so far, there has been relatively little impact on enforce business. And most carriers are saying, and we didn't ask broker this, but most carriers are saying, they don't anticipate like that, we're gonna see a rash of lapses when you know, everything gets moving back again this year. So I think the enforce business fared pretty well, because people were seeing that, hey, these are products that make a difference. And we better hang on to what we've got, employers didn't want to make changes, but that included not canceling or removing any benefits that they already offered. wasn't just that many of them didn't want to add benefits, I didn't want to make any changes at all, let's just wait until this is over and then see what we need to do.

Matt 17:12

Now, in both of your positions, you're in contact with a lot of brokers, and you hear a lot about what they're talking about. So what are the top concerns that they've shared with you about the impact COVID-19 has had or will have on the voluntary business,

Bonnie 17:26

We actually asked top concerns, and some of the broker surveys that we did last year. And it was kind of interesting, because the one thing that stayed the same throughout the year was a concern about, you know, reduced enrollment activity to enrollment volume, that we're not going to be able to do our normal amount of enrollment. The concern actually was still the number one concern regardless of when we ask the question, but the numbers did actually go down a little bit. The first time we asked the question, it was about 75% of the brokers said that was one of their biggest concerns, their top concern, whereas, you know, the numbers started inching down a little bit to maybe 60%, a broker saying that that was their biggest concerns, still the top rated item, but it was and it did continue. Early in year two, they felt like that maybe there would be lower interest in voluntary by most employers and employees. And again, as the year continued, and people saw the impact of what happens when you're faced with a situation like this, that concern decreased. And in fact, a lot of people think that it actually sounds shined a spotlight on how valuable voluntary benefits are. One of the early concerns to, that people had brokers had was, they were saying that, hey, it is taking me so much time to answer questions from my employer clients that I don't have much chance to do anything else. This was real early in the pandemic and that kind of disappeared as a as a concern as employees as brokers went through it because everybody kind of adjusted and there was not this huge drain. Early on to brokers might have been concerned about this whole idea of employers dropping benefits of layoffs or employees dropping coverage because of financial pressures. But again, as we just talked about would be enforced business. Those did not turn out to be concerns either. So right now it looks like brokers are just looking to see kind of, you know, can we get back to normal and we came to see whether or not what really does happen are employees going to want to buy they think they are they think that you know this has been a positive kind of a thing in the aspect of spotlight on the role that voluntary benefits play.

Jack 19:59

Yeah. Bonnie, I concur those four or so points, there was a concern for the producers and brokers, I've talked with that there'll be lower interest, particularly in voluntary because of, you know, when things get really stressful, you kind of close up the ranks in, in shrinking into what's truly, truly important. And what became obvious to us this year is that voluntary is truly important. The positioning of the voluntary the unique solutions that voluntary offers to some, some healthcare gap issues. And we found that positioning those, those solutions that the voluntary offers was, was the best way to get the attention to have that conversation with the producers so that they can offer something of value that is truly useful this year right now, to those to those employees and their benefits needs.

Matt 21:00

It's especially interesting, how you've mentioned those concerns changing and shifting throughout the year as the COVID 19 pandemic progressed. However, it's a great sign, Bonnie, that you've mentioned the optimism in the field. Do we expect to see a stronger than typical enrollment season this year,

Bonnie 21:19

I think the jury is still out as to whether or not we will actually have a stronger than typical enrollment season. But there's no doubt in my mind that we will have a good enrollment season and that the sales and enrollment during 2021 will definitely be better than in 2020. Brokers it's like almost 80% of our 70% of brokers think that their sales in 2021 will be higher than what it was. And in fact, you know, over almost a third think that they're going to be much, much higher than what they were in 2021. And our excuse me in 2020. And carriers tend to agree, you know, with the dip that we had in sales in 2010, we had an almost instant recovery, because in 2011, sales jumped up above where they were in the year before we had the decrease, I'm not sure that we're going to have an instant recovery like that, where we go above where we were in 2019. Because of course, this was a much larger depth than what we saw in 2010, but I think it we will definitely come back strong. It's just a matter of how strong is it going to be? I think a lot will depend on where we are in going into the fourth quarter. Because as everybody knows, the fourth quarter is make or break for this industry, because we have so many of our enrollments that take place in the fourth quarter, if things have kind of gone back to a fairly normal situation, regardless of whether people are still working from home or not. You know, I think we have the opportunity to have a really good fourth quarter enrollment in 2021. But still a little bit early to predict just how strong that will be in my opinion.

Jack 23:17

Yeah, we're seeing Matt, to concur with Bonnie Is that the question was, is it going to be stronger than typical enrollment season we're, we're seeing increased interest this year as compared to last year, especially when you when you kind of take a slice of it in in you start in April, really the second quarter, the April and May proposal numbers, those quote, quote request, those type numbers are a lot stronger and really start surpassing April and May of 2020. And so, you know, looking at that if if it if it continues to have a steady increase, which I'm assuming other carriers have are similar to what we're experiencing. It's building up to a strong fourth quarter. And as Bonnie mentioned, the fourth quarter is very important for every carrier in this industry.

Matt 24:17

As you both hinted at a stronger interest and awareness of the importance of voluntary benefits as a result of COVID-19. Do you think that employers and employees will be more open to voluntary benefits in the future, because of this?

Bonnie 24:32

We do at Eastbridge. We think that there are a lot more likely to pay attention to voluntary offerings today, because of what they seen happen within 2020 with the COVID-19. brokers seem to think so too. We ask a question of brokers at least once a year and that is whether or not they think employee enthusiam will be stronger than the 12 months about the same or less then it what it had been. And then we also asked the same thing about what do you think employers are going to think about voluntary benefits. And the numbers were really the strongest I've seen in a long time. When we did this back in January of this year, 79% of brokers said that they expect employee enthusiasm for voluntary to be more to be stronger than it had been in the past. And 76% said employers, they expected them to be more enthusiastic. So and also nobody said they expected employees or employers to be less enthusiastic about voluntary. That question even though it's not really a sales question, it's just an enthusiasm type of question has over the years, as we've been asking, this has been very well correlated with what happens in the industry. So you know, when we see that brokers are feeling very optimistic, or think that employers and employees are feeling very optimistic, we've had good sales years in those years. Again, bets are kind of off because this is an unusual circumstance coming back from 2020. But I do think that there is a lot more optimism and as Jack mentioned, you know, we've got people out there really understanding in some cases, maybe for the first time, how important it is to position these benefits in a manner that people really identify with. And if there's any silver lining, I think that's really happened through what we had to deal with in 2020.

Jack 26:38

Right, thank you, Bonnie, just anecdotally, I don't have hard numbers, like Bonnie but there is stronger interest, it feels there is stronger interest this year in in voluntary and worksite products, simply because what you may have witnessed last year, you may have witnessed the loved one or relative or family member who had to go into the hospital, or someone who did have an accident of some sort, um, last year in in the benefits paid off for them so it does feel that there's a much stronger interest to protect those, those employees, for the employers to help protect the employees and the employees to look for something just a little bit extra something to help close that, that deductible space for them to help them really, really take their paycheck further.

Bonnie 27:39

Yeah, you know, jack, that was something we've always said for years within the industry, you know, that's what we are fit to do. But there's nothing like having experienced it firsthand, to really make that pay off. And this year, so many are last year, so many more people experienced it firsthand, if not themselves, like you say a family member or a friend or somebody, I mean, that exposure to what can happen to you. I mean, it's slapped you in the face every day when you looked at the news. So I think that it's brought it home, what people have been saying for years about how it does take care of deductibles and co pays and out of pocket expenses. But now people have really experienced it. It's not just an intellectual thing, it's now an emotional thing. And we all know that a lot of people bought from emotions.

Jack 28:34

Right? There was a lot of abstract conversations before 2020. But 2020 may that may the reality in you know, the thing that mentioned about accident is what happened in 2020 is a lot of people a lot more people started going outside and you couldn't find a new bicycle in the second half of 2020. So that's a good thing that people are on bicycles, but people on bicycles also fall off of those bicycles. So you know, we're there were we certainly you know, did see a little more outside activity, a few more sprained ankles from trail run in a few more accidents from those new hobbies that they were taken up in sometimes solo hobbies so that that exposure just helps everyone understand the importance of the of the worksite products.

Matt 29:31

Well, it's interesting. I remember talking last year, Bonnie about the possible silver lining of people realizing the importance of voluntary benefits, and it looks like that's really come to fruition over the course of this this past year. I want to pivot a little bit though and talk about the ways that brokers and carriers have changed to address this new environment. Have you seen the brokers are planning changes to their voluntary plans or voluntary offerings as a result of COVID-19?

Bonnie 29:57

You know, we asked brokers about Back in our January broker survey 75% of brokers said, Yeah, they were expecting to make some changes to their offering as a result of having gone through COVID. It was interesting, because it was very well, it was very much split evenly about 25% say, hey, I am really now a believer in the supplemental health products, you know, the accident and critical illness, hospital indemnity products. And I'm going to be offering those a lot more often than I have in the past, we had another 20% that said, you know, hey, it also put a focus on disability, protecting your income and protecting your life. And I'm going to push those a little more than I've done in the past. And then we had another 25% or so who said, I'm going to start adding more nontraditional products, the one that was named most frequently was, you know, things like ID theft and financial wellness and legal plans. So, yeah, I think brokers are kind of rethinking what their portfolio might need to look like. And some of the brokers that were maybe only dabbling in voluntary. And I don't mean that in a negative sense, but didn't sell the full range of voluntary products. We're only selling an occasional voluntary product, I think they are seeing the, again, like everybody else, that this these benefits serve a very, very important need in people's financial security. And so they're looking at what kind of changes they want to make in their portfolio. They also wanted carriers to make some changes to their voluntary plans, they wanted more coverage for things like COVID-related issues. And, you know, one of the things we saw was they wanted, you know, more products to cover COVID-related diseases. And one of the things that they asked about was, you know, we ought to cover COVID under hospital indemnity. Well, you know, if you're hospitalized, regardless of the reason you're going to be covered under your hospital indemnity plan. So that pointed out to me, and I've told a lot of people, you know, we really need to make sure our brokers and our enrollers understand what's covered and what's not covered under our policies. Because there was such a large percentage of brokers said they wanted carriers to change their hospital indemnity plan so that covered COVID. And every carrier I know that offers the hospital indemnity plan would cover COVID under that hospital indemnity plans. Again, just kind of a little side note there. Related to that.

Jack 31:02

Yes. You know we did see what seems to be a maybe this was a trend happening just a little bit before COVID came, but for the what we call the midsize sophisticate, or even the larger, truly brokerage houses as we've seen just a few more voluntary specialists on staff. And I don't know if that's consistent with what you've seen, Bonnie, but it just seems that that's something that that's coming into a little more focus with true health brokers that that they are starting to understand the importance of, of that part of the benefit options for employees to really round out the package and to help the employer and the employee feel more secure. So maybe that's just an observation, just a casual observation on my part, but I have seen the brokers understand the need for voluntary benefits a little bit more over the past, really two years or so.

Bonnie 33:45

Yeah, I mean, I think you're right, I think more and more of the large brokers are developing, you know, specialty units within the large brokerage to help educate the other members of the agency about voluntary and worksite benefits and what they can do. So yeah, I agree with you, 100% Jack.

Matt 34:03

So you mentioned that there's a desire for carriers to change their offerings amongst brokers, have carriers made any changes to their plans as a result of COVID?

Bonnie 34:14

Yeah, one is educating what they already covered, because a lot of them already covered things. So they put some more attention there. But you know, one of the things that a lot of companies have done is, you know, added to the health screening benefit, or made it more explicit that if you were having to have some sort of screening related to COVID that it would be covered under the screening benefit. Critical Illness plans, just in general did not cover COVID. Now, I say that knowing that there are some there were some critical illness plans already on the marketplace that had a rider that covered COVID was One of the things that was covered under sort of an infectious diseases type of rider, but we saw that was really where the big tick up was with carriers is developing either built in coverage to cover COVID and other infectious diseases under critical illness or developing optional riders to cover that. So yeah, I think carriers were making some changes to their benefits to really both explicitly and just from an educational standpoint, let people understand when something like this does happen. We do have options out there.

Jack 35:42

Well, we focused on kind of the education portion of that we do have coverages like you mentioned before, Bonnie, the hospital indemnity will cover you when you're putting the hospital and in so we did kind of focus on what are those specific benefits that could help you if you did contract COVID in in, or similar illness. And so highlighting the sickness portion of the hospital indemnity was a was a big push that that we did highlighting the disability product, if you're out of work was certainly a big push. So we kind of went more in the way of educating the employers and the and the brokers about what they could cover that's already available that would that would help them with COVID.

Bonnie 36:34

Yeah, that's great. Yeah, we need more of that.

Jack 36:38

Yeah.

Matt 36:41

Now, product offerings aren't the only things that changed over the last year, enrollment methods have as well, especially in the case of face-to- face enrollment, which was impossible for the majority of the last year. So how have you seen the enrollment methods change over this past 2020, and is that having an impact on the participation rates we're seeing?

Bonnie 37:03

Definitely, enrollment methods changed, as you said, we had very few in-person, face-to-face enrollments in 2020. Apparently, there were a couple. Very, very few, the most common enrollment methodologies used during the year were online self service and call center enrollments, when you look at, you know, broker enrollment methods, those were the most common ones. But we also had those virtual meetings that we talked about whether they were group meetings, or whether they were one-on-one meetings through, you know, I talked to one broker who said, you know, I've been doing zoom meetings, I've been doing one-on-one meetings, but I've been doing them over zoom, and it's really working good. And I can get just as many people to sign up with that as I can, when I'm sitting down with them literally face to face person in person. So we did see a lot of those enrollment methods change and people you know, I said earlier that volunteer brokers that has historically done voluntary and only done it through face-to-face were probably impacted most strongly by this because they had to learn those virtual enrollment methodologies. And they had to, you know, embrace the online, you know, we've been doing online self-service type of enrollments for years. As an industry that number, the percentage using that has inched up for quite a few years now. But, you know, some brokers had, because that's not the way they had always done business. They had not always embraced it. They were still using their other methodologies. And there's nothing wrong with face-to-face, I mean, face-to-face, is great opportunity when you can get it but not every opportunity, or every case gives you that opportunity. So really embracing that online self-service. There were more people that embraced that this year. As far as the impact. Most brokers say that, yes, they do think it had an impact on participation. But interestingly, even though the highest percentage said that fewer people enrolled, and they thought it was because of the change in enrollment methodology, we actually had about a quarter of brokers say that they change their method of enrollment, and they thought more people enrolled. So you know, again, it was kind of a mixed bag, more likely just related to how comfortable the broker or enroller was with embracing some of these different technologies and what they did beyond just the actual physical enrollment process itself, but so we'll have to see, you know, kind of what happens going forward but it does appear to have had somewhat of an impact.

Jack 39:54

Yes, I agree. Bonnie, it did have a, what I would consider an accelerating impact on the embrace, how brokers and producers embrace the technology for the ones that were in the shallow end of technology, I think it really pushed them to, to embrace it totally. In in, in 2020, as a carrier, we got the direct links for Selerix, we have the ability to build Selerix cases, we also enjoy links with Employee Navigator and Ease and so we were actually promoting those platforms to add solutions to your enrollment woes during COVID in 2020. And I think that may have helped some producers or segment of producers who, who were just a little bit shy about using that technology to jump in there and use it to reach those clients who may or may not have been assessable by one on one paper app or a in person visit so it was certainly I think it did accelerate the use of technology, certainly for Assurity and Assurity's clients, but also the industry as a whole, I think make it push forward the technology by few years.

Matt 41:24

I think that's a very important point to bring up, Jack, that it's not just Assurity, but the industry as a whole has really made a lot of investments into the infrastructure for virtual enrollments over this last year. As we look forward, do the two of you think that virtual enrollments are here to stay? Or do we see the industry switching back largely to in-person?

Jack 41:44

I'll jump in on this one. I'm sorry to step on you, Bonnie. I think it is because once you get a taste of something more efficient, something a little bit smoother, something that that helps the process become better, is it's hard to go backwards. You know, once you get a car that has electric windows, it's hard to roll those windows up every time. I'm just showing my age, by the way, but yeah, yeah, it's I think it's really a progressive step. Unfortunately, it had to be done by a pandemic, but it was a progressive step. In a lot of ways for technology and a lot of parts of our even day-to-day lives. We changed the way we do a lot of things now because of because of what happened in 2020.

Bonnie 42:39

Yeah, I agree. I feel very strongly that online and virtual type of enrollments are here to stay. Like I said before, online was already trending pretty strongly before the pandemic and that just as Jack said, accelerated the people's push to other types of digital type of virtual enrollments. We asked brokers in that January survey what they thought about returning to face-to-face, and most brokers felt like that would still be a place occasionally for face-to-face type of enrollments. But so they didn't think it was going to completely disappear. But they were all in agreement that it was going to be used much less often than it had been used prior to 2020. And carriers also, we asked some executives in insurance companies across the industry back a couple of months ago and they also agree that Yeah, face-to-face will probably come back to some degree, but not like it used to. The other thing I think that will you know is the in-person group meetings will probably come back and be used maybe more frequently than face-to-face one on one type of enrollments because the face-to-face group meetings, give them an opportunity to address these needs. And then somebody can go and use a virtual or an online type of enrollment to physically make their selections. So I think that's probably going to happen.

Jack 44:15

Yeah, I agree in just a case in point is if my parents are now having doctor's appointments through zoom and they're 80, then we know where we're kind of really moving forward on the on the technology spectrum in almost an a Jetson-ish type world.

Bonnie 44:35

Yeah, I went up Jack, my 92 year-old mother can do a FaceTime call

Jack 44:44

And camera's on her face is not pointing to the ground? Wow.

Bonnie 44:49

Yeah, we are we are definitely just as a country, I mean, I think, you know, we're definitely moving forward, technology has benefited from this pandemic and those of us in the voluntary industry can, can take advantage of it by, you know, one of the things that Jack said a minute ago was much more efficient enrollment processes through the virtual and online. And that is, that's true for everyone. That's true for the broker for the enroller. And even for the carrier, I mean, the difference between having a virtual or online enrollment application versus a paper application enrollment, not that there were tremendous amount of paper going on before, but there was still, you know, it was persistently out there in the industry, as some, you know, 20-25% of all the applications that we got in the industry, were still on paper. And from an efficiency standpoint, that is not an efficient process for anybody. It's certainly not for the carrier, but it's not for the broker enroller either, because, you know, things get left off, and then they have to go back and they have to collect it. So I think that comment you made Jack about the efficiency. This helped us respond to an inability to do other things, but it also pushed us ahead on the efficiency route.

Jack 46:07

Right? Yeah, good point.

Matt 46:10

Well, it's great to see and just another one of those surprise silver linings that this whole ordeal is brought to us. This is gonna bring us now to our final question for this interview. And I'd like to thank you both for taking the time to be with us. And this question is definitely the one to pay attention to if you're a broker listening to this podcast. So in your opinions, how will brokers need to think differently about voluntary enrollment benefits, education and product offerings to best meet the increased employer and employee appetite for voluntary benefits and be successful this upcoming enrollment season? Big question, but definitely an important one to answer.

Bonnie 46:50

Well, I'll take a comment here. And I'm sure, Jack's got a lot of other thoughts too. But to me, the thing that I keep thinking about and I may have even said this when I was with you guys last June, is we have got to think about enrollment from a holistic standpoint, enrollment is not signing the application or filling out the form online for that enrollment is a holistic type of situation where we have to do more than just complete the application form the most successful brokers, before the pandemic and after the pandemic are going to be those that realize this, and really work to have a robust communications and education campaign that surrounds the event of actually selecting your benefits. And I think the other thing that we have to recognize is we've got to meet people where they are. Not everybody wants to do things the same way. Even though my 92-year-old mother is now doing FaceTime calls, she would prefer not to do things that way. And as we move forward with enrollment, we need to have a lot of different options. Somebody might prefer to pick up the phone and talk to someone in a call center, somebody else might be perfectly comfortable just reading the stuff online and going through the educational material online. And then another person, you know, might prefer to have a zoom meeting with an enroller. And so I think it's important for us to think about this holistic enrollment campaign and offer options so that we can meet employees where they are not try to force them to do things the way we would like them to do it, but to be able to make options available to it so they can be more comfortable with the process.

Jack 48:45

Those are very good points. Bonnie, the enrollment is holistic is a is a super point to keep building on and meeting people where they are. I really think considering a majority of Americans can get on the computer and order a pair of tennis shoes or a book or whatever you want to order you can order anything on Amazon, people are comfortable with serving themselves and making those selections themselves. What I think is very, very important is that benefits education that that benefits booklet that group meeting the education of the future policyholders about how do these benefits tie together? Where does voluntary and worksite products where do they fit in the importance of your benefits selection. And speaking of buying shoes, there's a statistic out there that we spend much more time on shoe selection than we do our benefit selection each year. And you know, maybe one day we can we can change that around but this is an educational opportunity in and I think some of the brokers and some of The producers are, are certainly leading the way in in the importance of the education so that when they do log on to that system, or sit down for that one on ones that they have a very good knowledge of what's out there and what's available for them to select them why they should, should make those selections?

Matt 50:20

Well, I think that's great advice from both of you. And that, along with the insights and statistics that you've presented in the show, will go a long way to preparing our broker audience to have a successful year as we all go into 2021. I want to thank both of you, Jack and Bonnie for being here on the show on our second annual State of the industry podcast. I think that it was a lot of great insight that you brought to the table and it'll be really helpful for the field to listen to. So thank you both.

Jack 50:48

Thank you, Matt. Thank you, Bonnie. The next time I come home to Columbia, I will certainly meet at the at the Blue Marlin again for lunch.

Bonnie 50:56

Sounds good, man. Thanks for having me on again.

Matt 50:59

Of course, and to our listeners. Thanks for tuning in to a surety is focused on voluntary benefits. If you'd like to learn more about a surety and our voluntary products, you can visit assurity.com and you can also email us at podcast@assurity.com and we'll be happy to connect you with the sales team in your region. And if you'd like to learn more about Eastbridge Consulting in their research, you can visit them at Eastbridge.com Thanks for listening

A year after her first appearance on Focus on Voluntary Benefits, Bonnie Brazzell, Senior Vice President of Eastbridge Consulting Group, joins Assurity Vice President of Worksite Sales Jack Douglas to discuss the pandemic’s lasting effects on the marketplace. They also delve into what brokers should expect when preparing for enrollment season.

Want to learn more? Listen to the full episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

What have recent Eastbridge surveys told us about the impact the pandemic had on the voluntary market?

Bonnie: Sales, quote activity, enrollments – pretty much everything was impacted by the pandemic. But this is a pretty resilient industry. As 2020 went on, some of the things people thought were going to be big deals turned out not to be.

But the biggest impact, I think, beyond the obvious – people not being at the worksite – I’d call it “paralysis.” Everybody was afraid to make changes. A lot of what happened in the industry was the result of people not knowing what the future would hold.

How did the survey results align with what Assurity experienced last year?

Jack: As a company, we increased about 5.5 percent, which was amazing in 2020. Our team sought all sorts of ways to keep enrollments alive – everything was on the table.

The data suggests that some brokers experienced an increase in quote activity and sales while others experienced sharp decreases. What do you think caused this? Could it be innovative approaches like Jack has mentioned?

Bonnie: Brokers who reacted quickly and tried to make the best of the situation by using virtual tools were certainly more successful. But those who waited to see what would happen or thought they wouldn’t have to adapt – they had a harder time catching up. Face-to-face enrollments pretty much disappeared during the course of the year.

Do you think virtual enrollments are here to stay? Or do you see the industry switching back largely to in-person enrollments?

Jack: Once you get a taste of something more efficient – something a little bit smoother – it’s hard to go backward. Unfortunately, it had to come from a pandemic, but it was a progressive step in a lot of ways for technology and other parts in our day-to-day lives. We changed the way we do things because of what happened in 2020.

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