Voluntary Benefits supplement 2004: Online – Have online perks clicked?

Voluntary benefits are often touted as a cheap and effective way to retain and motivate staff, but the schemes have one major weakness – IT.

Have a look at the positives first. Technology has transformed the voluntary benefits business. Until a few years ago, the industry relied on old media; paper brochures and notes unsystematically pinned around the workplace.

Now benefits can be refreshed quickly and cheaply, and providers can advertise last minute deals and limited period offers. Other advantages to running a scheme online include easier benefits communication to employees, cutting costs and freeing up time for HR staff to focus on more strategic issues.

Carol Moloney, compensation and benefits manager at pub chain JD Wetherspoon, has been impressed by the speed at which providers’ online offerings have progressed. “Things have moved on quite a lot, even in a year,” she says. “When I was first looking for a provider, they weren’t so up with the technology. But they’ve moved on quickly because they have access to so many employees this way and if they hadn’t got it they would have been left behind.” Some providers, especially those with an internet shopping bent, are embracing the electronic revolution. Martyn Phillips, chairman of industry body the Benefits Alliance, says: “One of the big advantages of voluntary benefits is its use of the web and that’s why a lot of the shopping channels have popped up. You can get a selection of voluntary benefits through one portal. A lot of the deals they have are available through the web rather than just a phone number or making contact with the person.”

Indeed, some employers are satisfied with their platforms. Alison Rowlands, rewards and benefits adviser at Hammonds Solicitors, is happy with her site and gets no complaints from staff.

That said, total interactivity is a long way off. Standards vary between providers, but many online offerings still only provide a front-end service.

Rather than fulfiling a transaction entirely online, employees have to download a form, send off an email, or call a helpline.

Take this example. You log onto a site looking for travel insurance, but instead of being able to see rates and order online, you have to either call the company direct or fill out a form and wait for someone to call you. It’s enough to make anyone hit the escape key.

One such person is Sally Ward, reward manager at high street retailer Dixons.

“It is annoying,” she says. “If you want to get a ticket to Legoland, you have to access the information by ringing up a number because it’s not quite joined up. Some employees have mentioned it.”

She says providers have got it right in some instances and others should work from these examples. “I prefer it when I can do things all in one go. For instance we have a site which sells flowers online. You just drop in your address and credit card details and off you go.”

Currently in a halfway house between tradition and technology, Brinc is fairly typical of voluntary benefits providers. Rob Sanders, managing director, says:

“We have got about 100 suppliers, of which 70% will [orders] online. The remainder will take enquiries online and fulfi via the telephone. Are there plans to get that figure up to 100%? “It’s an e-commerce model. There have been requests from more hi-tech public sector organisations and companies in the private sector that have high internet connectivity among staff. We are looking to get 100% e-commerce fulfilment but we accept that not everybody uses the internet and therefore we have to facilitate those non-web users who want the discount via a booklet.”

Karen Edwards, a director at benefits firm Personal Group, says things are looking up. “It’s definitely improved year-on-year and certainly this Christmas verses last Christmas, verses the Christmas before – online purchases are a lot higher.”

She points out that the problem is not unique to the voluntary benefits industry – the financial services sector as a whole is lagging behind. “Retailing services are far more advanced in terms of the fact that you can actually buy online. There are still constraints with a lot of the financial services products. There have been huge developments but a lot of it is relying on the mass market requirements around financial services getting their online processes more effective.”

And here lies one of the biggest barriers to getting everything joined up. Deals are not closed on the web. It is simply not in providers’, especially those backed by banks and insurance companies, interests to sell online when face-to- face marketing is more effective.

David Reynolds, UK general manager, AIG Employee Benefits, says: “We go to where staff are and arrange benefits, because we find that take-up online is about 1%, but it’s 50% to 60% face-to-face. I just don’t want to waste my company’s time and money setting it up online because I know the response will be virtually zero. People don’t wake up in the morning and say I want to buy a protection policy online.” Another of the main reasons for this technological stalemate is that access to IT is limited in certain sectors. For instance, internet penetration in the retail sector is only 54%, according to a survey carried out in October this year by market analysts Datamonitor.

Wendy Fleet, head of marketing at provider Youatwork, says: “[Online benefits] are great if you’ve got someone with a screen that is working with a PC, however, there’s a large proportion of our customers – it might be manufacturing, it might be transport – who haven’t got access. So you’re always going to delete a certain audience.

“Some employers say ‘we’ll set up a PC point for staff’, it might be for 100 or 200 people to have access to in their break,” but that may still not cater to their needs.

Most experts are reluctant to put a date on it, but they agree that the future could be rosy for voluntary benefits technology, provided financial services firms deem it is in their interests. The Benefits Alliance’s Phillips says: “Not everyone is web enabled, but it’s going that way. One of the plans for the future is that people can access sites purely through the internet, without the need for human interaction.”

JD Wetherspoon’s
voluntary benefits website includes some benefits which can be bought online and others which are arranged via a helpline or by filling out a form.

Carol Moloney, compensation and benefits manager at the pub chain, says she is happy with the set-up from provider Combined Insurance. “You can do things on the website that two or three years ago you would not have been able to do.

“To order vouchers on the site you have to fill out [an electronic] form, but [it’s quite easy]. No staff have complained.”

The company has 18,000 staff, the majority of whom work in pubs. “We had to try and cover all areas because not all employees have access to PCs. There is a paper booklet, a membership website and we visit employees on a one-to-one basis,” she says.

With a high proportion of shop-based staff with no web access, Dixons has to make sure that all staff can access its voluntary scheme. Sally Ward, reward manager, says: “We have to have a paper supplement because of a diversity of employees. We have some staff in stores, some engineers based at home and some staff with a PC on their desks.”

Communication is tailored to address this problem. While benefits are communicated via the intranet, the firm’s 30,000 employees are also made aware of promotions through the company magazine.

The group runs a home computing initiative to try and get more employees online at home. Ward adds it would make her life easier if all staff were connected up.

“We do promote that staff use a PC at home. That would be ideal but we have to be realistic,” she says.

On the firm’s voluntary benefits website, provided by Youatwork, some transactions can be completed entirely online, but others require employees to send off their details or use the phone. While Ward admits that this can be irritating she adds that “these things are in development”.