Portal combat

Off the shelf employee benefit portals allow corporate intermediaries to compete with slick tech players says Ian McKenna, director of the Financial Technology Research Centre

The depth of these valuable services for both employers and members make such e-commerce-based solutions a compelling but low cost way of achieving greater efficiency and communicating more effectively the full value of benefits spending.

Even if you have the several million pounds necessary to build your own employee benefits portal, it would take a couple of years to develop, so there is a real need for ‘off the shelf’ solutions to help employee benefits consultants and IFAs alike. In reality there are very few options around to help firms meet these needs. I looked at Aegon Employee Benefits offering in this column in January last year. The other main option comes from Staffcare, the business founded by Phil Hollingdale, a man with a history of building technology solutions for advisers.

The service is in essence a benefits portal for reward communications, which can be customised and branded to reflect both employer and adviser. In addition, the service can include benefits administration, benefits and HR self-service for members and a worksite community. The proposition can be used for both fixed and flexible benefits and provides total reward statements, content management tools, desktop alerts, workflow management, streamlined joining as well as bulk data processing on demand.

The HR functions can be used to publish payslips, although it does not process payroll, manage holiday requests and entitlement. It can also be used to maintain training and personal development records as well as promoting links to voluntary benefits and third party suppliers. Flex scheme rules and benefits can be tailored for each company and choices can vary for each department or individuals. The system will highlight any changes to take home pay as a result of adjustment to benefits.

From an administrative perspective, multiple access rights can allow different types of users, including both HR personnel and the adviser firm, to manage employee data, benefits data and content as well as generating reports and schedules. The Staffcare system can actually be used as a company intranet for publishing company news and data and the content management system makes it easy to publish scheme handbooks, forms and general HR news, although it does not provide the HR which Staffcare believe their adviser and EBC partners may see as part of their proposition. Simple wizards enable the upload of bulk data using CSV files and an administrator dashboard can be customised to produce regular reports with a single click using Word Excel or PDF.

Using solutions of this type enables advisers to offer a far wider range of employee benefits to companies, including areas where traditional advisers may not have had the experience or the contacts in the past, such as bike to work, childcare vouchers, special mobile phone deals and other shopping discounts. Different levels of offering are available depending on the size of the employer with 50 employees as a typical entry level. Charges involve an initial set up fee starting from around £2,500 and an ongoing charge, typically £2 per employee per month. Organisations using the system can choose to increase their own income by recharging the service at a higher monthly charge per user.

With both cost and development time making it impractical for adviser firms to bring their own such portals to market in advance of Personal Accounts, Staffcare would appear to offer an opportunity for advisers to compete with the new breed of electronic group benefits advisers without incurring anything like the entry cost.

Whilst talking to Phil Hollingdale recently, he mentioned that “the first contact we have with many advisers is when they have just lost their largest client to someone like Thomsons” .

To me that sounds like a classic case of closing the stable door once the horse has bolted. Advisers wanting to proactively defend their existing relationships will probably find time spent exploring this system a valuable investment.