Suggestions for Best Plan Participant Service

Experts say direct, personalized education is key for engaging and helping participants.

These days, the ability for retirement plan advisers to offer direct and personalized education for participants is the key to providing best-in-class service, according to experts at the PLANADVISER National Conference.

Advisers are being asked to consult for clients on more than just the retirement plan, so offering financial education and engagement to participants—even if it is via a colleague or partner—is key to competing, advisers told an audience last week in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Scott Ciullo, director of retirement plans from KerberRose Wealth Management, suggested holding on-site enrollment with face-to-face engagement. He discussed a successful attempt at servicing a participant group of 192 people through in-person meetings.

“We started out with group meetings,” he said. “Immediately following the group meetings, I would give people a pen with our number on it, and a little half sheet so they could get their username and password. Then we had three laptops in three separate rooms where they would sit down. They’d bring their smartphone in, and my folks would put the app on their phone.”

Participants entered the information for their beneficiaries and talked about their contribution amount, Ciullo said. Then his team would “hit em’ hard on never going less than the match [to] get the free money.” During the meeting, his team also went over topics like Roth versus traditional 401(k) deferrals, portfolio asset allocation, taxes and other financial planning concerns.

“Your section about the 401(k) enrollment is so cool with that laptop idea,” responded Kelli Send, senior vice president of financial wellness services at Francis LLC. “But we would like to see that same kind of effort during open enrollment times.”

Send, who works directly with participants, has seen a massive difference in engagement when using contests and incentives during the open enrollment period. “People want to gamify; they want to have those incentives when you offer these same financial wellness programs,” she said.

“[Another option] is to go directly to the source,” said Send. “It’s gathering that information as best as you can and then communicating directly to [participants].”

Send said her team gets email addresses directly from participants. For those employees who do not have email addresses, her team uses phone numbers.

Jessica Ballin, a principal in and investment adviser representative at 401(k) Plan Professionals, said her firm is always seeking ways to deepen its connection with plan sponsors and participants to prompt engagement. “What we say is that we want to be your first point of contact,” she said. “We love the participant calls. We’ll call in to the providers with them, help them answer questions, log in with them so all our clients know we want to take work off your plate.”

Phil Sherman, a senior retirement plan consultant at Deschutes Investment Consulting, said it is also important to think about behavioral finance and speak in terms anyone can understand.

“We’re right up there with medical and legal professions with the amount of jargon we have in our industry,” said Sherman. “It’s important to maybe take a step back and ask, ‘Am I subconsciously falling into these traps as well?’ ‘Is this skewing my own education presentation?’  Obviously, you can try to simplify the language that you use.

Another important aspect is to be mindful of generational preferences and stereotypes, said Sherman. “We’re all individuals,” he said. “We all have our own unique perspectives on things, and I don’t think anybody likes to be put into a box, so be mindful when you talk to individuals to not fall into that trap as well.”