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  • July 2013
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Around the World: Canadian Apps

In Brief

In Canada, modern technology has helped pioneer a novel employee benefits approach to bridge pensions inertia.

Online environments for employee benefit enrollment have been available for some time. Recent years have seen the launch of several companies that use an integrated HR portal that incorporates basic benefit enrollment, which has meant that employees can elect, enroll and manage their health coverage and life insurance benefits online at their desks. Such companies include Unum, ING and Aetna.

However, like most life companies offering group employee benefits, Sun Life was aware that even if client education seminars on pensions benefits and investment options were well attended by interested, enthusiastic employees, once they left the seminars, with enrollment forms (or instructions for using the online system) in hand, enrollment frequently did not happen.

The company determined that despite the paper and online solutions it offered, only about 10% of employees who attended its pension enrollment seminars filled out the forms and signed up for the benefits.

This particular inertia gap was one Sun Life, one of the largest players in Canada’s group pension market, was eager to close.

Applying an App

Both Research In Motion Ltd (RIM), the company that developed the BlackBerry smartphone, and Sun Life have their headquarters in Waterloo, a small town in the Canadian province of Ontario.

Sun Life already used the BlackBerry enterprise server, so it naturally turned to RIM (which changed its name to BlackBerry in January) to brainstorm a possible technology-based solution.

The result was a customised app for BlackBerry PlayBook tablet computer. The app, called GRS Wireless Enrolment, was created by Sun Life inhouse, and was among the first business apps ever created for PlayBook.

The app was designed to provide a way for employees attending benefit enrolment seminars to complete their group retirement plan enrolment forms before they left the seminars. Using the app, the enrolment process could be completed, without compromising client or customer confidentiality.

Sun Life then reportedly bought 1,000 PlayBooks equipped with this app for benefits trainers to take with them to the information sessions for employees of their corporate clients. Each attendee is provided with an app-equipped PlayBook. The app contains all the forms needed to sign up for the pension benefits. 

With this app, the overall enrolment process is simplified. At the end of each session, the trainer walks participants through the process of filling out the applications. The app also enables trainers to monitor each attendee’s progress, letting them spot those who need assistance in making their selections.

Once the employee hits the ‘submit’ button, the data is transmitted wirelessly and securely to Sun Life’s systems for processing. With the application process enabled at the seminar, it is far more likely that the employees attending would sign up for the benefits.

Based on industry experience, Sun Life projected that group retirement enrolment would jump from 10% to 75%. According to Sun Life, it could ensure that more employees took advantage of key benefits such as employer-matching contributions, low investment management fees and easy payroll contributions.

Sun Life recently launched a pilot program to take the concept further, using the iPad tablet to enable Canadian and US client employees to enrol in voluntary benefits. According to an earnings call transcript, the pilot showed ‘significant increases’ in voluntary enrolment volumes.

While Sun Life is to be admired for this innovation, it is worth considering whether insurers could take the idea further.

Perhaps an agent or bancassurer could use a secure tablet and an app to complete a point-of-sale transaction for a simplified-issue product. The app could contain the underwriting questions and interface with underwriting software for a decision.

Or, perhaps policyholders could download a company-sponsored app that could enable election or beneficiary changes, coverage increases, claim filing, or any other administrative need related to their insurance coverage.

A Google search produced several brands of tablet computer that can be bought for just over £100, which is significant but nevertheless small, compared with commissions and other marketing costs. Perhaps insurers could enhance their brand by offering free tablet computers with purchases?

Many customers (especially the young) use electronic gadgets, and they want simplicity and convenience for their financial and insurance needs. If this app can increase take-up rates, it could be a winner all around.

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