Not only is self-service technology helping employer-clients control benefit administration costs, it might also be insurance carriers' missing link to employee consumers once they leave the workplace.This potential is not lost on MetLife, a large New York-based provider of non-medical group benefits with accounts at more than 3,500 organizations. To better service the needs of close to 17 million employees working at its client companies, MetLife embarked on an effort five years ago to build an online employee benefits portal called MyBenefits.

By all measures, the online self-service portal has been a hit. Recently, MetLife announced that the one-millionth employee had registered to access accounts online through MyBenefits.

The portal enables employees to log in-either from work or from home-and get answers to frequently asked questions, learn about plans and coverage specifics, obtain price quotes for certain products, and enroll in dental benefits, critical illness insurance, long-term care, life insurance, auto and home insurance, disability insurance, and banking services.

Users can also check their claim status for certain products, locate a dentist who participates in a MetLife preferred dentist program, or learn about retirement savings options. A popular feature is service e-mail, such as e-alerts that notify employees of claim updates.

The first iteration of the MyBenefits portal was launched in June of 2000, according to Sachin Shah, vice president of MetLife Workplace Solutions. MetLife has upgraded the portal several times since that initial launch, with the most recent upgrade taking place in 2003. Shah estimates the site is being accessed an average 800,000 to a million times a month, and transaction activity has been almost doubling each year.

There were three primary considerations in launching the portal, says Shah. First, customer companies were anxious to reduce processing burdens incurred by benefits administration.

"Our employer customers-plan sponsors, or HR offices-needed to promote more self service, and reduce the related costs of the administrivia with benefit programs," he says.

The ability to lower administration costs has been a key selling point to employers, he adds. "In our business, things that we can do to provide employees a better way to manage their benefits, without having to call the HR office, are real winners. It takes work from employers, who would otherwise be getting phone calls and inquiries."

Second, organizations are gradually reducing their financial stake in benefits plans. "Employers are beginning to cost-shift to employees, and that cost shifting continues to grow, certainly on a dollar basis, because costs in aggregate for medical programs in particular have gone up," he explains.

"That cost shifting has required us to work with employers to begin to provide much more information to employees, and get them to become more aware of, and educated in, benefits offerings."

Third, Shah says, there's a strategic shift occurring in the benefits administration marketplace. "Employers are getting out of the benefits administration business," he notes.

"Strategically, the marketplace is moving toward a world in which we have two customers - the employer, and more importantly, the employee. Making a sale to the employer is no longer a guarantee of revenue, as it was in the past. It's just a point of entry. Ultimately, making the sale to the employee, and keeping the employee as a customer, has become our driver of revenues and earnings."

Strategic relationship

Additional advantages are emerging as the program develops and grows. "We're able to deliver strategic intelligence to employers," Shah says.

"We can now share with them who's coming online for what. We can tell them where their people are going, and what kinds of things they're looking for. We can help employers not only promote more online utilization, but also begin to think about things they could do within their benefits programs that get at the kinds of things that employees are looking for. It's transitioned our relationship from one that's administratively-oriented, to one that's less administrative and more strategic, with the employer."

Employees and employers also get a better picture of the total suite of offerings that are available from MetLife.

"All of our products and services are available online for the employees," Shah says. Employees can access their MyBenefits account on a 24x7 basis, and Shah reports that MetLife's own internal customer satisfaction surveys show that employee satisfaction with MyBenefits exceeds 91%.

Shah says the site was originally designed with the dial-up Internet user, using a 28.8 or 56.6 mbps modem.

"Our response time standard was 5 seconds," he says. The portal runs on a Unix-based Web server that communicates to back-end mainframe systems via Web services standardized messaging. To ensure high availability, the company supports multiple data centers as hot back-up sites.

Access to the site is provided to any customer company that has two or more employees, Shah says. An employee with a small firm has the same types of services as a Fortune 100 employee. No matter what the size of company, "it's the same Website; there's nothing different about it," Shah notes. "We don't offer customized Web sites to each employer. That's been a huge advantage to us, because we've been able to scale very quickly."

Push-oriented model

E-mail has become an important communication channel for MetLife, and has changed the way the carrier interacts with subscribers' employees. The carrier currently sends about 800,000 e-mails each quarter to a registered subscriber list, alerting enrollees about new benefits, or claims processed within their accounts.

"It's changing the whole relationship model and service model," Shah explains.

"Service in the benefits and insurance industry is typically a model in which the carrier has to wait for the phone call from the customer. Now we're creating a push-oriented model. We push out information to customers, and create a proactive experience, versus a reactive experience. Employees participating in our benefits programs don't need to inquire as to what's going on, because we keep them informed."

MetLife eventually seeks to develop more of a long-term relationship with employees-even after they leave a subscribing employer.

However, at this point, it's too impractical to keep in touch with individuals once they've left a subscribing organization, says Shah.

Still, MetLife keeps looking for ways to maintain its electronic relationships. "Today, we can do very little with employees who leave employment," he says.

"We're thinking through ways to continue a relationship with a former employee, either on an individual or consumer basis, or with their next employer. We haven't yet cracked that model, but it's a big opportunity for us. We now have a foundation in which we can begin to think about a business model that would support a relationship with that employee or consumer."

First, however, MetLife will continue to tackle building relationships with current employees, as well as continue to reach out to them after they retire, Shah says.

"The retiree market is a great example of where we're focused. There are great opportunities for us to help employees in their retirement needs, whether it is securing income, guaranteeing income in retirement, long-term care, or estate planning. We're developing a whole retirement strategy, and we're using the online channel. We have the critical mass now with MyBenefits to accomplish that."

Joe McKendrick is a business writer based in Doylestown, Pa.

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