The value of cyberspace during open enrollment is at least on equal footing with face time, suggest two recent unpublished surveys of employees and carriers that sell voluntary benefit plans. Neither communication method appears to be proving itself superior.

Eastbridge Consulting Group, which may release a report summarizing these findings later this year, notes that satisfaction with online benefits enrollment is as good, and in some cases better, than face-to-face meetings.

There was somewhat of a mixed scorecard. For example, plan participants who enrolled online raved about their needs being identified, an appropriate product offering and straightforward application process, while face-to-face meetings with a sales rep excelled at other measures, such as helpfulness of the presentation and providing adequate decision support.

Participation levels were all over the map, with carriers reporting a wide range of 11% to 80% after face-to-face meetings and 4% to 50% through online avenues. While face-to-face contact scored higher than the Internet with regard to this metric on a straight average basis (38% versus 21%), the participation rate was 31% and 30%, respectively, when so-called outliers (i.e., extreme data points) were removed from this equation.

"Carriers and/or brokers need to work closely with the employer and take into consideration many factors in designing the best approach for that case," explains Eastbridge VP Bonnie Brazzell, citing employee population, as well as the number and type of products offered.

She says the larger point is that the industry should no longer think there’s a single "best" method for enrollment in core and voluntary benefit programs.

The research is providing various industry observers some food for thought. Don Biron, who specializes in open enrollment communication for Towers Watson, believes that satisfaction with Web-based methods might be more "indicative of good information being presented online without the pressure of sitting face-to-face with a salesperson for these products."

As such, he advises employers and their broker partners to develop Web content or links that support employees through their decisions.

"There are many variables to each case that make face-to-face better in some situations and Internet enrollments better in others," adds Walt Podgurski, chairman and CEO of the Workplace Benefits Association in Twinsburg, Ohio.

He notes that professional benefit specialists are in a position to "recommend a solution that will provide the best outcome for the employer and employees in each specific situation."

In other Eastbridge news, the consulting firm is about to release its report titled 2020: Half Way There, which assesses a host of predictions it first made in 2003 about how the worksite market would look in the year 2020.

"Seven years later and half way to 2020, many of these predictions – especially in the area of distribution – are already coming to fruition,” according to a summary appearing in Eastbridge’s winter e-newsletter.  "The objective of the report is to encourage companies to have a vision of the future. The problem for most of us, however, is that it is hard to see trends and changes when you’re looking at things one year at a time. The trends just don’t appear as dramatic as if you look over a longer period of time."

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