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What a difference a month makes. In February 2020, Fidelity Investments conducted its annual survey of retirement plan sponsors. As in previous years, the sponsors’ top concern was employees’ financial preparation for retirement. No surprise there.

But when the investment giant surveyed 1,000 of its own recordkeeping clients in late March, it found the sponsors’ focus had shifted. Amid the pandemic’s market volatility, sponsors’ number-one concern was now employees’ overall financial well-being.

That broadening of sponsors’ perspective — and the speed with which it occurred — is emblematic of the operational shifts underway in the heavily regulated retirement services industry, where the push to expand into financial wellness often runs headlong into industry traditions that complicate recordkeepers’ efforts to adapt.

When a careful balance shifts

Recordkeepers have traditionally struck a careful balance in retirement services. They juggle a thicket of strict compliance regulations as they earn profitable fees for administering employer-sponsored and individual retirement accounts, all while embracing the dual-customer model of servicing both the companies that contract for their services and the employees who use them.

But the internet has a way of eliminating the middle man. Today’s consumers are accustomed to using technology to take charge of decisions regarding all aspects of their lives, personal finance included. Relying on robo-advisors and mobile apps to manage financial wellness — everything from retirement and student loans to health savings accounts — feels more comfortable than ever. But for recordkeepers, the apps’ low-fee/no-fee service models put the squeeze on administration fees. The upshot? Just as plan sponsors and participants clamor for more services, recordkeepers are bracing for a decline in fees.

Debunking myths that hold the industry back

Smarter, automated services provide a path forward. By deploying analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation throughout their operations, recordkeepers can redesign call-center and back-office processes to focus on financial wellness and offer a modern customer experience that embraces tap-and-swipe convenience and costs less to deliver.

But first they have to step away from a few myths.

1    Myth #1: Plan sponsors and participants don’t want self-service.

Record keepers walk a fine line: While they appreciate consumers’ embrace of digital self-services, they view customers in their own industry as not yet ready for it. Many fear that the move to self-service risks alienating clients, driving down customer satisfaction and, perhaps most worrisome, creating an opportunity for competitors to move in.

Debunking the myth: Perhaps the greatest blow to this myth comes from the pandemic, which has fostered a new comfort level among consumers with all things digital. In the U.S., 70% of consumers surveyed intend to stick with the new online shopping behaviors that they adopted during the pandemic. Forty-five percent said they would prefer to have their inquiries handled by AI if it would be faster.

It’s important to point out that older consumers are a key part of the advance. The stereotype of senior citizens as technically deficient is outdated: Smartphone adoption is 81% among consumers aged 60 to 69, and adults aged 50-plus are snapping up wearables, home assistants and smart home technology at nearly the same rate as young consumers.

Like everyone else, sponsors and participants are digital consumers who order from Amazon and do their banking on mobile apps. A digital retirement services program that offers the same instant gratification feels intuitive and natural. For example, our team partnered with a large healthcare client to improve member experience across enrollment and onboarding through the use of automated, interactive voice coupled with digital assistant solutions. The faster, sleeker experience enabled the client to service 20% more participants. By similarly enabling self-service, recordkeepers can move beyond data entry and reposition themselves as advisory services and problem solvers.

2    Myth #2: Customer satisfaction is based on speed.

Customer satisfaction is no longer about speed but about the quality of the interaction and the customer experience (CX). One consequence of customers’ self-service for easy transactional inquiries is that their calls to the contact center will be for more nuanced, complex questions. As a result, the benchmarks that measure satisfaction will naturally change also. For example, instead of determining success for calls on whether they were completed within a specified time, the new metric evaluates whether the customer was empowered with the right information.

Debunking the myth: In a conservative industry like insurance, players don’t necessarily believe in the first-mover advantage. It’s hard to part with traditional ways of doing business. Worse, there’s little stickiness among sponsors, and they often change vendors in exchange for better servicing and lower fees. Speed feels like a safe metric to promote, as does accuracy. Yet the reality is that both metrics are a given when it comes to customer satisfaction in today’s marketplace. Customers are able — and expecting — to do tasks quickly on their own.

3    Myth #3: The sponsor is your customer.

Recordkeepers typically design their retirement services’ business processes around sponsors’ paperwork and systems. The results meet regulatory requirements and are legally compliant — but leave out the participants’ experience. They overlook the participant life value. By building processes around the participant, recordkeepers can create an experience that keeps participants — and sponsors — coming back in a highly competitive marketplace.

Debunking the myth: For retirement services, the true value starts with keeping the focus on participants, thereby improving and increasing the participant life value. Why is the individual there? What is their interaction with the system, process by process? Knowing the answers is important for several reasons, including an improved CX. For example, we reimagined patient processes for a large medical equipment provider, implementing human-centric design and digital customer-care solutions that enabled 30% of transactions to be touchless.

In addition, participants have different needs, and greater insight into them can be a competitive differentiator. A 35-year-old employee who’s terminating participation and transferring money to a new employer is fundamentally different from a retiree making a withdrawal. Most systems, however, take a one-size-fits-all approach and treat both customers the same. The key for a modern retirement experience is a frictionless, customer-centric process that reflects the needs of the end user and takes into account participant lifetime value.

For recordkeepers, COVID-19 is a digital accelerant, motivating the rollout of consistent retirement-planning experiences and full digital access to services. Applying advanced automation, AI and analytics will not only reduce operating costs but also provide greater competitive differentiation against diversified financial services firms and fintechs.

Embracing this approach will help plan participants and sponsors though prolonged tough times and illuminate a way forward once COVID-19 has lifted. More important, it positions recordkeepers to attract and retain Gen X and Gen Y customers, providing greater wherewithal to expand their portfolio and withstand the retirement industry’s tightening vice.

For more, visit our Retirement Insurance Operations website.

This piece was authored by Anshu Biswas, Head - Worksite BPO, Cognizant Digital Business Operations.