In a world of brokers, agents, advisors and consultants, it’s important to stay focused on who’s really working for you

A consumer show on Canadian television a few weeks ago really surprised a lot of us when they blew the whistle on the difference between a “financial adviser,” with an “e” and a “financial advisor,” with an “o.” The “financial adviser” is a certified professional with a fiduciary duty to serve the client’s best interests; the “financial advisor” can be just anyone, with or without certification, and with no particular duty to the client at all – he or she is likely a salesperson working for a financial institution to sell investment products.

Both are entirely legitimate and have their roles to play. The only problem arises when consumers assume that they are working with an “adviser” with their best interests at heart, when they are in fact dealing with an “advisor” who earns commission selling them whatever product is being offered at the time.

That got me thinking about our line of work. In the employee benefits business, the terms “broker”, “agent”, “advisor” and “consultant” get kicked around quite a bit, and it’s often not clear who’s what, what the differences are, and why you should care.

But the bottom line is that, whoever or whatever you’re dealing with, you want to make sure that the only “skin in the game” he, she or they have is getting you the right package of price and service from insurance providers.

You don’t really want just a “middleman” standing between you and the insurance providers, choosing ones that work for them, and charging a fee to you. You want a consultant who works for you, who finds you the service, quality and sustainable price you can rely on, and who will be there when you need them. Are you getting the value that you’re paying for?

Here are some of the questions you want to make sure are answered when you’re looking at potential benefits specialists.

Rates: Yes, the overall rates you pay are very important, but are you truly getting the value that you’re paying for? And are the rates you’re looking at going to be sustainable beyond that first year, or will they go up once you’re committed?

Liability: Does your benefits specialist work with you and your benefits administrators to identify the potential pitfalls that could lead to unexpected liability issues? Do they have the experience to have “seen it all before” and give you the heads up on what to look out for and what to guard against?

Education: Does your benefits specialist provide education, information and updates to you and your employees?

Tech: Does your benefits specialist have access to the technology and training you and your employees are coming to expect, such as online resources and tools, apps that run on mobile devices – even tools to track attendance, billing and so on?

Buying power: Does your benefits specialist have the buying power and clout in the market to get not only the right price, but also the prompt attention and service you expect?

Benchmarking: Can your benefits specialist provide reliable benchmarking to let you compare – in detail – your proposed plan with the plans of other, similar groups in your industry?

Commitment: Is your benefits specialist willing to take the time and make the commitment to understand the challenges of your industry as well as your particular needs, goals and priorities?

Track record: Does your benefits specialist have an established track record of providing service – of being there when they’re needed? Do they go above and beyond when called upon? Can they give you examples? Do they have long-term clients who are happy with them?

Specialist: Is your benefits specialist truly a specialist? Are they knowledgeable, experienced, up to date on developments in employee benefits, and deeply live-it-and-breathe-it-every-day familiar with all aspects the business? Are they truly masters of this trade, or do you get the feeling they are jacks of all trades, offering you every kind of coverage from commercial to home to auto?

From where I’m sitting, all of those points really add up to defining the relationship. Can you call your benefits specialist any time you need something and not have to spell your name twice on the phone? Are they out in front of changes and developments, and will they make the call to keep you up to date? Will they go the extra mile when you need them? Do they work to maintain that two-way relationship with you, the client, so that they’re always current on your changing needs? And, just as important, do they maintain that same kind of relationship with insurers in order to have that instant access on your behalf?

Of course, like so many things in life, I guess it all boils down to a couple of the oldest clichés in the book – “Buyer beware,” and “You get what you pay for.” I’d say that a good starting point is to make sure that your consultant – or agent or broker or whatever – is actually working with you and for you.

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