Hoping to boost benefits engagement, employers turn to new ally: AI

When BMW was overhauling its benefits plan last year–introducing three new medical plans, two new dental plans, two new vision plans and a slew of voluntary options–Taranda Frost, benefits planner at BMW Manufacturing, knew she was going to need some help.

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“There were a lot of changes, so we rethought some things,” she explains. “There’s so much information out there, and you don’t expect the employees to understand everything about benefits. You know they’re not going to read everything, either.”

So BMW enlisted a new teammate to help educate employees, while easing some of HR’s burdens: Sofia, an AI-enabled personalized benefits assistant that can respond to workers’ benefits questions through chat and voice.

Sofia–the brainchild of benefits-administration company Businessolver–is available immediately, so employees don’t have to wait for an email to be returned or someone to be in the office to get their question answered. Available via desktop and app, it can help with everything from dependent verification to explaining to employees what a copay is or how a health-savings account works.

“We look at Sofia as an extension of our team,” Frost says. “She’s the first line of defense for phone calls and online as a chat. It’s worked out really, really well for us. I feel like I have another teammate.”

BMW is among a growing number of employers turning to artificial intelligence–including enrollment chatbots and improved decision support–to help human resource professionals ease administrative burdens and spread the word about employee benefits. In the process, companies deliver more personalized information to employees while better engaging them. It’s a logical step, insiders contend, as technology dominates personal and professional lives. The same way people look to Amazon’s Alexa to answer questions about the weather or rely on personalized recommendations from Netflix, technology has the potential to make employee benefits more digestible, easier to navigate and more tailored to the individual user, experts say.

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“AI has the ability to deliver a more engaging, personalized and educational experience, giving [employees] the confidence to make the best choices,” says Steven Malme, senior vice president of platform strategy at Benefitfocus, which launched its AI-powered platform BenefitSAIGE last year. BenefitSAIGE–now used by employers including American Eagle, AmeriGas, Jim Beam and AutoZone–is designed to assist employees and employers with benefits enrollment and administration. The platform includes a 24-hour chatbot that can answer employees’ questions and tech that identifies relevant moments in each employee’s life and offers the right product or suggests the use of existing benefits at each milestone. It also aims to help employers engage with employees through data insights.

Related: 5 reasons to attend HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference

Though use of AI tools is especially vital during open enrollment, when they can help employees sort through benefit options and pick the best options, experts say the tech is making a difference year-round by educating and assisting workers. And, in the process, it’s easing the workload of human resource departments.

“As an HR professional, it’s extremely difficult to be everywhere at once,” says Sony Sung-Chu, Businessolver’s vice president of data science and innovation and a former HR analyst.

“People can get information at any point in time. If you have a small team of HR, how do you scale that to help so many professionals–thousands or even millions–you’re supporting? There’s so much data out there, and it’s hard to synthesize it all in one place. AI can help support. It should free up a lot of time.”

Frost knows that firsthand.

“Most companies who are under budget restraints look for ways to operate faster, cheaper and smarter, so, without a doubt–as a part of the benefits process–AI accomplishes that. It can help tackle the complexities with benefits, but it also helps with some of the day-to-day traditional tasks that have to be performed by people.”

Making It a Success

BMW rolled out Businessolver’s Sofia in August, in advance of its October open-enrollment period that included all new plans. It gave the company a chance not only to introduce the tool to its roughly 9,000 employees and get them comfortable with it, but also to learn what worked and what didn’t.

BMW held onsite meetings with the Businessolver team and walked employees through registration for the tool and how to use the chat feature.

“It was part of our strategy to start early,” Frost says. “We surprisingly didn’t get pushback, and we had great attendance at the meetings.”

The company also created focus groups of employees to test Sofia, which offered “very, very good feedback,” she explains. To make sure different voices were included, BMW involved members of all five generations that are among the company’s workforce to gauge how different age groups felt about the technology and use of the tool. The older workers had the most hesitation in using Sofia, Frost says.

But the company learned that those older employees–often not the savviest computer users–valued Sofia’s voice functions so they could speak directly to her.

Meet Sofia, Businessolver’s benefits enrollment AI assistant.

When it was time for enrollment, BMW made sure Sofia understood the aspects of each of its benefits plans so it could answer questions that would help employees decide which plan was best for them and their families. It also provided employees with statements on their benefits for the past two years so they understood their previous plans and costs, and let Sofia do a lot of the heavy lifting. In the first few months of using the tech, Frost says, Sofia logged 4,030 chats and 3,924 calls and reviewed 1,130 cases.

“It’s pretty impressive, as far as we’re concerned, for the last five months,” she says.

It’s been especially helpful, as many of BMW’s employees don’t typically work 9 to 5. As the company has different shifts–many in the evenings–technology that’s available 24/7 is especially important.

“People can get information at any point in time,” Sung-Chu says. “It’s as simple as [asking], ‘Are my dependents verified?’ Instead of having to call into a call center and going through and authenticating, you just go to your mobile device, go to the Sofia app and ask about your dependents. It’s a lot easier than having to go out and find the information.”

The Power of Potential

While digital transformation has made a difference in employee benefits–think benefits apps and online enrollment–artificial intelligence is somewhat new to the field. It’s been a bigger component of other areas of HR in the way of reviewing resumes and helping with onboarding, among other tasks, but as it slowly makes its way into the benefits arena, proponents are excited about its potential.

“It’s just getting started,” Sung-Chu says. “We’re just at the brink of something big. We are nowhere near the true potential of AI.”

One lofty goal: helping make the process of choosing benefits less daunting.

Open enrollment often conjures up dread for employees. Workers say they hate selecting benefits as much as they hate asking for a raise, almost as much as renewing their driver’s license or passport, and even more than talking about their weight, according to recent MetLife research.

“Employees rarely engage with their benefits outside of the two-week open-enrollment period,” Malme says. “With so many options to choose from–including healthcare, financial [options] and numerous other insurance products, even lifestyle benefits–employees are overwhelmed by the options and confused about what benefits are best for them.”

See also: Here’s how much employees hate making benefits decisions

One in five workers spends only a few minutes reviewing benefits offered by their employer before making a decision, MetLife reports, and the majority would rather do more undesirable tasks than study their benefits choices.

Other research has found similar results. For example, Businessolver found that 30% of employees admit they are confused by their benefits. Meanwhile, just 9% of employees understand the terms “health-plan premium,” “health-plan deductible,” “out-of-pocket maximum” and “coinsurance,” according to UnitedHealthcare.

Technology that puts some of that information at employees’ fingertips–and gives them recommendations in the process–could have the potential to change those dire statistics.

“Integrating AI into the process helps take the buyer’s remorse, fear and confusion out of the equation by offering suggestions based on years of historical and predictive data,” Malme says. BenefitSAIGE, he says, does this by allowing employees to review unbiased suggestions and see the data–”or the why,” he says–behind the options before they select their benefits.

“AI is transforming benefits from a passive, once-a-year, confusing event to a continuous, year-round experience,” Malme says. “With resources like an always-on chatbot and mobile application to assist in the decision process, consumers can rest assured that they will receive timely, personal smart insights required to support their benefits decisions.”

Importantly, it also offers data to employers about their employees’ healthcare and benefits decisions–which can save them money in the long run.

For instance, Malme says, one unnamed employer with a significant population of diabetic employees used the BenefitSAIGE system to analyze their data, identify the cohort of employees that were not compliant with best-practice diabetic care and engage those employees to drive a 24% improvement in diabetic compliance within one year. “That kind of transformation drives significant financial benefit for the employer while simultaneously improving the quality of life for many of the employees,” he says.

Avoiding Pitfalls

There are some pitfalls with the technology, to be sure. Getting employees to buy into it, for one thing, isn’t a given. It can take a great deal of effort from HR professionals to temper potential concerns over possible frustration, lack of human interaction and privacy issues.

To combat those concerns, HR professionals must be communicative about the change, teach workers how to use the tools and be open about why they added the technology, experts say.

Also important is constantly monitoring the technology, making sure it’s working successfully and being open to making changes as workers give feedback or as technology develops.

“It’s something you constantly need to monitor,” Sung-Chu says.

Perhaps the most important thing for employers to do is make sure the technology is not a replacement for human interaction. With any tool, there should “always be an avenue to get to a human,” Sung-Chu says.

“Making sure there is human interaction is 100% a requirement,” he says. “You can think of AI as another employee on your team.”

BMW’s Frost agrees, saying that her department still holds seminars, fields questions and, overall, works to engage with employees.

“I think you have to have that part in there because you don’t want to make everything seem so robotic that there’s no face-to-face interaction,” she says. “Our company is big on that. You still have to make the time to meet with associates.”

Hot benefit trends, including technology mentioned here, will be discussed during the upcoming Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, which will be held April 15-17 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Learn more here.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.