As the employee benefits broker market continues to grow more competitive, the answer to top-of-the-line prospecting, more effective marketing and enhanced customer service lies in a technology some have tapped but few have harnessed to its full potential: client relationship management.An often used but poorly understood term, CRM is far more than a software application, and it's not what some understand to be contact management, or mere tracking of prospects and clients.

Instead, it's a robust business strategy brokers can implement to identify, manage and nurture the customer relationships they need to maintain full rosters of long-term, satisfied employer-clients.

At the core of the strategy are the end-to-end, integrated systems that support marketing and sales management, account management, workflow management, service management and reporting.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of brokers has yet to discover that the technology not only can help manage prospects and clients, it can immediately, and profoundly, raise their business trajectories.

Fixing what isn't broken

About five years ago, Benefits Technology Group (BTG), a Hopedale, Mass., technology consultancy, surveyed roughly 500 employee benefit brokers across the country and found that most lacked systems for managing their prospect and client data.

They couldn't make quick, informed decisions or personalize their client and prospect interactions. Those who did have systems-largely paper, manual ones-reported dissatisfaction with their capabilities and effectiveness.

Despite these drawbacks, many brokers today remain mired in paper processes. In a business where service truly makes the difference, why do brokers operate with less-than-optimal systems?

For many, their time-intensive and resource-laden paper processes "aren't broken," so they don't fix them.

More important, they don't fully understand the negative implications of operating this way. They don't realize that, in a paper world, leveraging data is nearly impossible and redundant effort is the norm. They don't know that manual processes work counter to the bottom line as they erode employee morale and foster frustration.

In short, many brokers haven't yet realized that the gain of CRM far outweighs the pain of current approaches.

CRM advantages

Over the past few years, BTG has helped approximately 100 brokerage firms of all sizes choose CRM systems. Of those, many, especially those in the small to mid-size market, are starting to recognize the need for, and value of, a CRM system. The right system-one tailored to your employee benefit brokerage business-delivers a profound business return: a client-centric focus that boosts the value brokers provide their clients.

Why invest in CRM?

* Centralized database. A CRM system stores all prospect and client data in a centralized database. Your employees are more efficient because they have just one point of access for all client information.

* Effective marketing. A CRM system enhances your marketing efforts. You can segment clients and prospects to personalize selling, automate marketing campaigns, route leads efficiently and manage sales pipelines effectively.

* Automated workflows. A CRM system automates and standardizes workflows, which saves you time and other resources. For example, 120 days before renewal, the right CRM system will automatically send an e-mail to all renewing accounts and then schedule all follow-up activities.

* Robust reporting. With a CRM system, your client and prospect data is instantly available. You can immediately determine what you've done for your clients over the past year, quarter or month, and even determine how much business you're likely to close next month.

* Flexibility in customization. A robust CRM system accommodates your firm's uniqueness, giving you an edge over your competition. As you add and cultivate leads, you can track data on your prospects and effectively market to them. When you sell unique services, you can store new types of data.

* Secure, controlled data access. A robust CRM system gives you confidence that your data is secure. You alone own that data, and you control who views and changes it.

Choosing the right system

Of course, recognizing the need for a CRM system is just the first step. Choosing the right system is next. When considering the market's many systems, follow the process you recommend when advising your clients about their benefits:

* Identify your critical requirements. Remember that the needs of management differ from the needs of other staff. Make sure to reflect the needs of your entire firm.

* Review current processes to identify gaps and issues. Sometimes, brainstorming alone will fail to lead to proper prioritization.

* Finalize objectives and budgets. Vendor pricing can vary considerably. If you have a limited budget, you can narrow your options quickly.

* Take a comprehensive view. Take what you've learned about your needs, and look at the total market. Then, evaluate vendors and their records based on: features, ease of implementation, ease of data migration, ease of customization, ease of use, price, total cost of ownership.

* Develop a rollout strategy. Adopt a process that makes sense for your firm's constraints and capabilities. No two brokerage firms are alike, so you'll need an approach that's unique to you.

Choose a system carefully. Many systems masquerade as CRM systems, but they actually only scratch the surface of what a full-featured CRM can do. The latter can profoundly enhance your firm. When you invest in the right CRM, you cultivate viable sales leads, personalize your prospecting efforts and deliver top-notch customer service. And that, as you know, is the broker's bottom line.

Don Rowe is senior vice president of business development and marketing for Benefits Technology Group, which provides technology solutions for brokers. A version his article originally appeared in Employee Benefit News, a SourceMedia publication.

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