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A strategic approach to vendor selection

Sam Salbi

Selecting and/or changing employee benefit vendors is a daunting task that brings up a lot of questions, e.g. What if something goes wrong; Is a new vendor really going to be any better; How do I keep this from turning into a time-draining headache; etc.? Contributor Sam Salbi – FitLyfe

All of your concerns are valid.  But, they can’t deter you from finding a better partner to help deliver your health and wellness program.  Too often, people stay with their vendor out of fear, fear that no matter how incompatible or unsuccessful the current arrangement is that a new one could come with the same failed promises and might even deliver something worse.  In short, a lot of people don’t want to take the risk.  But truthfully, the biggest liability is keeping an ineffective vendor partnership in place, especially when you will inevitably have to answer at some future point to leadership or other stakeholders for how effective it is/has been.  At the end of the day, the vendor-partnership is about the performance of their technology solution and its ability to fully meet you and your members’ needs, not about partial compliance that is somehow masked through strong account relationships and/or brand name recognition.

With this in perspective, the success of your health and wellness/wellbeing program is fully contingent on your ability to individualize it to your employee population.  So, when seeking a vendor to execute your strategy, there has to be a succinct method for taking your goals, strategies, and tactics and comparing those against the capabilities of prospective partners because the successful vendor doesn’t just “help” execute parts of your strategy and plan design, they must be able to accommodate it 100%.  When in doubt, spreadsheet it out!  The following simple method is highly effective in selecting the correct fit for your needs.

Take an Excel spreadsheet, record all elements related to your overarching program strategy in the first column.  In the second column, detail the features and functionalities that are supporting subsets of your strategic goals.  And, finally, in the ensuing adjacent columns, list each vendor’s name and proceed to place checks in the features/functionalities spaces where the vendor is 100% able to meet those needs.  If the vendor isn’t able to guarantee their ability to fully comply with your needs in a given category, you should mark that as a deficiency.  Further, you should avoid confusing a vendor’s ability to accommodate your needs in a way that flexes to their system (partial compliance).  The evaluation process should be addressed in a cut-and-dry way that lifts you out of any potential confusion of accommodating shortcomings that may later lead to program inefficiencies and failures.

Being able to fully address your corporate DNA, culture, and employee-specific needs through adaptive and supportive health and wellness technology is potentially the most important item on a list of best practices in delivering a successful health and wellness program.  Among several characteristics, this capabilities positioning has to include the ability to direct and target communications by a variety of population segment characteristics in order to effectively initiate and sustain member engagement.  Many marquee-branded health and wellness vendors provide technology solutions that are based on a shared-core of plan design elements.  Also, everyone knows that price is a consideration in the vetting process; but, don’t let it be the major factor.  The lowest price vendor may have hidden fees and low ability to fully support your program, which will increase your administrative operating costs.  Conversely, the higher priced option may have better compliance and administrative functionality, which will reduce administrative operating costs.

What can be very confusing during any vetting process is the appearance of marginal elements that are customizable, e.g. communication pieces and individualized deployment dates of wellness challenges.  This peripheral level of flexibility really doesn’t address the needs of plan sponsors to port their own best-in-class vendors to the technology solution, nor does it provide the ability to augment and deliver the specifics of offering wellness programs that fall into three categories:  1) “Feel Good” that are used more for best-employer-lists; 2) Traditional that provides voluntary participation normally linked with some form of prizes or monetary incentives; or 3)  Results-driven that focus on health metrics and year-over-year performance improvements to measure the true impact of your program on its participating members.

The best way to approach vendor selection, considering all the aforementioned factors, is with healthy skepticism.  Assume that there will always be some level of “fluff” in any marketing and sales process.  By staying focused on the exact specifications of your plan design and what you need, you won’t be distracted by the shiny-object-phenomenon that is often present during the selection process.  Keep careful notes and ask questions on anything that you don’t understand.  And, if the picture you’re being presented is too perfect, be sure to ask for a true demonstration of how your needs will be met within the platform via a live demo.  Make them show you the flexibility you’re seeking is actually present and works to your satisfaction.  With this being one of the peak times of the year for vendor renewals and selections, you cannot be too prudent when making your partnership choices.