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The Enrollment Challenge

Retirement readiness decisions are a daunting task for most employees. According to a 2012 Participant Engagement Study conducted by Lincoln Financial:

  • 41 percent of employees are only somewhat engaged or fully disengaged from any retirement plan
  •  7 percent of employees only are fully engaged and interact with their retirement plan on a regular basis.

Plan communication and education can provide people with the financial knowledge needed to better understand their employee benefits and make better enrollment decisions to achieve better outcomes.

Communication Is Key

The U.S. Employee Benefits Security Administration’s ERISA Advisory Council published a key report in 2010 on how plan communication practices and design options impact participation and contribution rates. They researched strategies for tailoring communications to different subgroups of employees through direct communication, and their effectiveness in influencing participants of diverse demographic market segments, including segments categorized by income level, household status, generation, gender, and ethnicity.

The report then provided recommendations of best practices for enrollment that are statistically proven to be effective, including education to plan sponsors on specific proven techniques and communication practices. In evaluating what communication methods are most effective in encouraging participants to save for retirement, the following considerations were made:

  • Cost: an effort was made to balance the need for comprehensive plan communications against cost.
  • Delivery: A variety of methods were explored including the use of current and emerging social media.
  • Plan Design: The study reviewed how plan designs relate to increasing participant enrollment and savings. In particular, the Council studied the use of automatic features. Automatic enrollment plans automatically choose the employees’ contribution percentage and enroll the participant in an investment vehicle. This raises participation rates to close to 90 percent. However employees enrolled at low contribution rates of 3% or less tend not to deeply consider or increase their contributions.


9 Recommendations and Best Practices

The Council found that effective plan communication and education can provide people with the financial knowledge needed to understand their employee benefits, make better financial decisions, and achieve better outcomes.

Given that the most successful plan communications make use of many channels from print to external websites, online tools, social media, and creative marketing, the Council highlighted best practices that balance personalized, targeted content to help employees evaluate benefit offerings with cost efficiency. They highlighted specific techniques and communication practices that have been statistically proven to be effective in increasing the involvement of employees in saving for retirement. The following are 9 recommendations:

  1. Communications tailored to particular segments drive results
  2. One-on-one or small group meetings increase participation
  3. Immediate “on the spot” communication is most effective
  4. Short, simple and focused communication drives participant response
  5. Multiple “touches” with various creative formats increase participation
  6. Increased technology use is effective and cost efficient
  7. Behavioral economics and “social norming” can increase participant involvement and savings
  8. Incentives given by sponsors and “gamification” help trigger participant involvement
  9. Responsive marketing principles may assist plan sponsors in improving communications

Here is a brief synopsis of these 9 practical recommendations and some best practices:

1. Communications Tailored to Particular Segments 

tailored-skill-development-imageThe Council found that communications that target participants based on their interests, background, and/or economic status were more successful than the “one size fits all” approach.

Understanding the culture and background of the workforce being targeted is key. For instance, since Hispanics will soon constitute one-third of the US population, Council member Donna MacFarland of Lincoln Financial Group stated that in her experience education materials typically are translated from English to Spanish, whereas she recommended that sponsors design the material using the reverse approach, developing  materials first in Spanish to address specific cultural needs and language differences.

Human Resource professionals also have found that allowing employees to map out an action plan rooted in realistic scenarios is an extremely effective tool. Some plan sponsors have successfully used a “three-pronged” approach to reach out to their participants by combining simple income replacement projections, behavioral finance strategies and a personalized message. For example, JP Morgan developed 36 different personas based on three age groups (younger than age 30, age 30-50 and older than 50). The firm also targeted participants based upon their regional median income (e.g., Kansas’ median income is $30,000 while in New York City it is $70,000). The basis for this approach was to enable these groups to compare themselves against their peers and take the appropriate action toward saving for retirement.

By narrowly tailoring their target audience on behalf of the plan sponsors that retained them, JP Morgan subsequently monitored whether employees opened their email communications and took action toward saving for retirement. If the individual took action, that person was considered “active,” while someone who opened the email but did not take action was considered “interested.” Based upon the action taken by the individual, the participant received specifically targeted information. This technique resulted in three to four times the response rate of participants who were not targeted.

However, some witnesses advised that there is a general concern regarding the use of targeted communications because complex data collection may provide gender or ethnic identification. Thus, there is concern over whether specific segments identified based upon race or gender could raise discrimination or deferential treatment issues. The Council heard testimony from Donna MacFarland of Lincoln Financial and Thomas Ryan of Fidelity that the use of particularly sensitive demographic information causes concern among plan sponsors. There are also practical concerns about housing information technology. Nevertheless, the overwhelming opinion received during testimony was that targeted communications work.

Branding helps targeting through the use of communications that include a unique positive image that is the group can relate to.

Here are some best practices of participant-centric communication methods:

  • Best Practice 1 – The Power of Example: Trustees of the Elevator Constructors 401(k) Plan used materials featuring the story of three employees who made different savings decisions during their careers. The narrative of the three employees was used throughout one-on-one sessions with printed materials to demonstrate how a 401(k) contribution would benefit participants in a variety of circumstances including temporary layoffs, hardships and early retirement. As a result, plan participation rates increased from 26.56 percent to 29.82 percent in 2011. The plan also experienced an 85 percent increase in plan activity from meeting attendees.
  • Best Practice 2 – Employer/Employee-Centric Content: M.A. Mortenson Company, an international construction firm, employed construction-related themes in its financial education to engage participants and foster pride in the company. Financial education was made mandatory and workshops were divided by career stage, age, and gender. The plan sponsor focused on participants’ preferences by surveying them after the workshop and making recommendations based on their feedback to yield desired results.
  • Best Practice 3 – Bilingual: Consolidated Citrus Limited Partners wanted to 1) increase attendance at plan educational meetings, 2) increase plan participation, 3) increase deferral rates and 4 encourage participants to maximize their match. Ninety percent of the workers spoke only Spanish, and the majority of their day was spent in the orange groves. An in-language campaign was initiated. The company’s Spanish speaking leaders met with small groups in the orange groves. Straightforward collateral in both Spanish and English Collateral were available on site, including announcement posters. By bringing the meetings to the employees, 95 percent of the targeted group attended the meetings. Plan participation increased from 40 percent to 75 percent and deferrals expanded from 4 percent to 8 percent.
  • Best Practice 4 – Branding: The Animation Guild 401(k) Plan was implemented for artists working at Southern California animation studios. The sponsors worked with the Guild’s representatives to obtain insights and develop a branded communication urging participants to remember to enroll. The response rate increased over eight percent from the previous year, with 135 new enrollees. Another employer cited in the research increased participation by 30 percent by keeping the message fun, simple and “cool” to target younger workers.
  • Best Practice 5 – Multicultural: The Four Seasons 401(k) Plan needed to convey an important plan change to an employer profit sharing employer matching contribution. The sponsor obtained feedback from bilingual meeting presenters in designing the campaign, and provided materials tailored to Hispanics and presentations also were created in Spanish designed to be culturally and linguistically accurate. As a result, the average deferral rate of the targeted group rose from 2.9 percent to 5 percent, and significantly increased beneficiary designations.

2. One-on-One or Small Group Meetings 

OneonOneAfter a study by Lincoln Financial found that 66% of participants prefer one-on-one guidance, Lincoln made it a component of its financial education model. They found that the need for individualized information is particularly acute for groups with low participation rates, including women and minorities.  Various studies have shown good enrollment and contribution results when employees request in-person group workshops facilitated by financial experts.

  • Best Practice for One-on-One Meetings:In 2012, MassMutual representatives spoke with 150,000 employees in face-to-face meetings. Forty-six percent of these individuals took action to improve their retirement readiness and, in one-on-one meetings, 75 percent of employees took action.
  • Best Practice for Small Group Meetings: Costs and timing may prevent plan sponsors from providing one-on-one meetings, but small group meetings and audience segmentation have also been successful. The FINRA funded Nurses Investor Education Project had small group meetings for well-educated nurses interested in taking action toward their retirement. They found that generally, the nurses’ lack of basic knowledge, or their perception that they did not know enough to attend these sessions, prevented them from attending their plan sponsor’s meetings. As a result of using small group meetings as a forum, the nurses perceptions changed and attendance at their employer’s retirement plan sessions improved.

3. Immediate “on the spot” Communication 

onthespotThe ability for participants to take action at the time they are thinking about retirement savings is more effective in increasing enrollment. For example, having computers in the room at the time employees are learning about the plan would allow them to sign up and take immediate action.

  • Best Practice: A US Army mandatory financial management course found that providing the enrollment forms for the Thrift Savings Plan during the financial management course resulted in a sizeable increase in participation, with soldiers signing up for the Plan before leaving the classroom.

4. Short, Simple, Focused Communication 

focusedBehavioral studies show that the most effective communications use simple, straightforward language specific to a participant’s personal situation.

  • Best Practice: Time constraints mean that any impediments to action should be identified and mitigated. For example, on a website, any extra step, such as the need to retrieve a PIN, may prevent employees from taking action. Solutions include sending the PIN directly to their email account or a mobile number, or mailing a postcard with the website’s uniform resource locator (URL).

5. Multiple Touches With Various Creative Formats 

profileConsistent, continuous and on-going meaningful communication can be achieved by repeatedly sending out simplified mailings. Social media can help alleviate the cost of additional touch points, and yet, few companies use social media channels for retirement information.

  • Best Practice: The Council’s Professor Madrian cites a company in which the third mailing of a simplified reply form requiring the checking of a box to enroll doubled enrollment from 22 percent to 45 percent of non-participating employees.

6. Cost Effective Technology 

advancement-of-technologyEvery demographic group is now using the Internet as a preferred source of information, via home computer or mobile devices. In addition, electronic media provides the ability to track responses, which is unavailable when the communication is sent through printed materials and regular mail. Another cost effective technological advance is Dynamic Page Publishing,  reviewed at the conclusion of this article.

A Deloitte study in 2012 that found:

  • 93 percent of Americans place Internet access as the most valued household subscription;
  • 54 percent of Americans own smartphones, and the rate is increasing 29 percent annually.
  • One of three Americans over age 50 has downloaded an application to a smartphone, and 28 percent access their bank accounts via smartphone.

Engaging Millennials: Electronic media is the most effective method of communication to engage younger generations in retirement planning, including Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979).  In order to combat inertia caused by competing financial priorities, such as student loan debt, it is important for this group to be engaged through “YouTube” videos, Facebook forums, Twitter, email and mobile delivery, including providing “one click” transactions and incorporating elements of “gamification.”   Millennials also demand simple, personalized, and action-oriented communications, and prefer human contact for complex tasks.

  • Best Practice – Email: Thomas Ryan of Fidelity Investments testified to the Council that Fidelity makes all channels of communication accessible, and finds that email communications have generated higher response rates than direct mail.
  • Best Practices for Engaging Millennials – Fidelity: Fidelity has studied the preferences of Generation Y, or “Millennials”  for using electronic communication, and found that this group tends to rely heavily on the Internet to interact with representatives from Fidelity, although they appear to be the least engaged when it comes to the frequency of contact. Millennials serviced by Fidelity have the lowest 401(k) participation rate, at 58 percent, compared to 67 percent for all other populations. Design changes made to simplify online interaction with Millennials resulted in a 40 percent increase in web utilization by this group.
  • Best Practices for Engaging Millennials – Putnam: Lori Lucas of Callan Associates discussed Putnam’s roll out of a plan primarily for Millennials that encouraged participants to bring their tablets to an nteractive meeting to log on to the benefits website. As a result, 40 percent of attendees increased their deferrals within 90 days after attending the meeting.
  • Best Practices for Engaging Millennials – MassMutual:: Offering enrollment and savings increases using iPod Touch devices in group meetings resulted in action rates of 85 – 90 percent among those attending. The use of targeted and tested mail and email campaigns resulted in $150 million in new deposits over three years and a 3.9 percent increase in action rates.

7. Behavioral Economics and “Social Norming” 

choiceThe way certain information is presented can have a resounding impact, including the way choices are presented to the participant, a method referred to as “anchoring”

Presenting options in a different order or with a higher default percentage has increased deferral rates. While communications traditionally list contribution percentages in ascending order from one to five percent, studies have shown that reversing this order so that the first option shown is five percent markedly increases enrollment in the five percent option. This method is referred to as “placement.”

 “Social Norming” reflects the fact that people tend to benchmark themselves against their peers. Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that participants tacitly compete against peers in similar socioeconomic conditions.

8. Incentives and “Gamification” 

carrotThe use of games (gamification) is an effective tool in reaching  individuals who may not be easily engaged in retirement decisions (“non-savers”). Gamification can be used to reward people if they engage in the correct behaviors. Plan sponsors may also use incentives to provide rewards to participants with who exceed a certain benchmark contribution amount. Other techniques include raffles.

  • Best Practice 1: The NFL’s “Play 60” campaign  incorporates the use of the NFL brand to incentivize children to play a game for at least 60 minutes a day.
  • Best Practice 2: A rug manufacturer in northern Georgia had a series of meetings for people working multiple shifts, giving away lottery tickets to encourage attendance, and experienced standing room only for the meetings.

9. Six Marketing Principles Improve Communications

Communications that are uninspiring and difficult to undmarketing-300x200erstand leave employees confused, bored and unmotivated. The communicator’s “curse of knowledge” is a bias in which the communicator’s knowledgeability makes it difficult to demonstrate it from the perspective of lesser-informed people. The Council highlighted six principles of communication that plan sponsors should consider when drafting documents or presenting to their participants that will inspire action:

1. Show Empathy

empathyTo  determine the relevance of a message to an audience, it is necessary to engage them and ask questions that the content of the presentation or the communication should then be tailored to answer. For example, an energy company developed a program to help consumers understand and lower their energy bills, using this computerized question:

Can I help you with your bill?

  1. Yes, help me understand my bill.
  2. Help me save money.
  3. Both of the Above.
  4. I’m Here for Something Else.

By showing empathy to what the consumer cared about and giving information and tips to help them feel more in control, these questions presented helped raise consumer satisfaction.

2. Use Metaphors and Analogies

analogCommunications also reference a metaphor or visual picture to help the recipient relate to the message. For example, when Ridley Scott presented the screenplay for Alien to his producers he used the popular movie Jaws as a reference, and the metaphor “it’s like Jaws in space,” to frame a concept that the producers easily understood

3. Use Storytelling

icon-storytellingPeople tend to forget facts that are presented but usually remember a story. Stories are easy to absorb when people are overwhelmed with information. They also eliminate extraneous facts to capture the recipient’s interest and relate to him on an emotional level.

4. Use a Conversational Voice

conversationalUsing overly technical information, compliance or legal jargon can loose an audience. For example, it is difficult to convey the benefit of voluntary life insurance individual and spouse buy-up options in which election of coverage for a spouse can equal up to half an individual’s buy-up,  depending on the desired level of coverage. An effective way of communicating this is as follows:

“The company is going to buy life insurance for you. If you want, you can buy extra life insurance. Whatever extra life insurance you buy for yourself, you can also buy up to half that amount for your spouse. Now, depending on how much additional insurance you’d like, one or both of you may need to answer some questions about your health to see if you qualify for it.”

5. Surprise the Recipient

boxing-glove-surpriseUnexpected methods of engaging the recipient get the individual’s attention when a subject is ordinarily challenging and abstract. The use of humor, as shown below, can be considered an example.

6. Use Humor

humorUsing a little humor in the message will keep the audience engaged and make the message easier for audiences to relate to.


Plan Design Considerationsicon-design

Automatic Enrollment

A study by Brigitte Madrian and Dennis Shea shows that automatic enrollment increases average participation rates from 65 percent to 85 percent. It is particularly helpful for low-income workers with annual wages under $20,000, where participation increased from 27 percent to 82 percent. Average participation for employees under age 30 doubled from 41 percent to 82 percent, and the best improvements have been among the segments that had the lowest participation rates.  This was corroborated in as presented in the testimony of Lori Lucas.

Mandatory Contributions and Automatic Escalation

Defaults that are too low can  impact workers who would otherwise have contributed more. Since studies have shown higher default contribution rates have not increased opt-out rates, employers should consider recommending higher default contribution rates.

One solution is a stretch match (increasing the maximum amount of pay that can be matched and decreasing the percent matched, to keep the employer’s costs flat.

Another way to increase savings is automatic escalation in which sponsors automatically increase a worker’s contribution rate by one to two percent  of salary at each pay anniversary until a cap, such as 12 percent of pay.

Best Practice – TIAA-CREF: David Richardson of TIAA-CREF found that 403(b) plans typically have much higher contribution rates, ranging from 10 percent to 15 percent of pay compared to 5 percent to 7percent for all 401(k) plans, due to mandatory contributions from both employers and employees as a requirement of employment.  The 403(b) plans TIAA-CREF administers experience much higher annuitization rates — 40 percent compared to 4 percent for all 401(k) plans.

 Conclusions and Implications

red pencilThe Council found that continuous, simplified, personalized communication using multiple channels, connected with humor and empathy, are effective ways to communicate with plan participants to encourage participant engagement.

Benefit Program Marketers seeking to increase employee plan participation need to be more flexible, customizable and responsive than ever to introduce, present, promote and clarify the particular offerings and choices the employer has agreed to sponsor. Dynamic Publishing platforms are becoming a key tool in executing this strategy DPP is a way of designing publications in which layout templates are created which can contain different content in different publications. In cases where the same content is being used in multiple layouts, the same layout is being used for several different sets of content, or both, dynamic page publishing can offer significant advantages of efficiency over a traditional system of page-by-page design. Future articles will explore Dynamic Publishing in greater depth.

Related Blog Article:

By guest blogger, Mark Weishaar
Today’s smart, marketing-focused organizations realize the value of communicating with their customers using the channel of their customers’ preference. More and more, that preference is mobile.

It’s commonly reported that over 87% of Americans (90% of Canadians) own a cell phone, and most of them won’t leave home without it. For many, checking their mobile device is the last thing they do at night and the first thing they do in the morning. Almost 80% of smartphone owners use their device more frequently today for mobile email and texting than to actually make phone calls. Mobile marketing is dominating the media landscape, and mobile users are lapping it up.

  • 82% agree it’s a good way to learn about new products and brands;
  • 80% believe it can influence them to investigate a product or service;
  • 71% accept that it can change the way they think about a product or service; and
  • 65% report that it has the power to influence them to BUY a product or service.

Given this proliferation and mainstream acceptance of technology solutions, one would think that insurance companies and financial services organizations would be among the first to provide their customers and prospects with cutting-edge, lightning-fast applications. But one would be quite wrong. The fact is, only about one-third of marketers report having a defined strategy for mobile marketing! And the insurance industry, in particular, is lagging at the back of the pack when it comes to offering engaging mobile experiences. This sector must explore mobile websites, mobile applications and SMS text messaging campaigns to effectively respond to emerging consumer behavior.

Maximize the efficiency of your Customer Service efforts

One of the easiest and highest-ROI considerations should be your company’s website. Google reports that a good 50% of mobile users become frustrated when they encounter a site that is not mobile-friendly. It seems unnecessary to say that annoying your clients, especially those who may be experiencing an emergency, is not very smart. A mobile application is essentially a tool to make it easy for your customers to connect with you. It can be fun and useful, informative and interactive; it can be a short-cut to service. A Customer Service-specific mobile app might feature

  • Talking to a live agent
  • Dealing with an accident on the spot
  • Requesting a live call-back
  • Filing and managing a claim

Implementing these mobile options can help reduce support costs and call center overhead, reduce customer churn and even increase customer lifetime value. An app can enhance brand advocacy and promote upsells and cross-sells. What’s best, all of these benefits are entirely measurable in terms of ROI.

Building a Useful Database

The success of a mobile marketing strategy is going to depend on the power of your database. No program is complete without an Acquisition Model to cost-effectively harvest and manipulate prospect information. An advertising plan combining online, SMS and traditional channels is vital to drive traffic and promote downloads of a mobile app, with a clearly defined conversion funnel from prospect to customer.

Growing Pains specific to Mobile Payments for Insurance and Banking

Although Juniper Research reports that mobile payments are expected to reach $630 BILLION by 2014, remittances such as insurance premiums are not included. The issue does not lie with the technology of the Mobile Application, but rather with the capabilities and guidelines of mobile carriers, such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, among others.

Bill-to-Carrier US Obstacles

  1. Each carrier must approve each program based on their own guidelines. They demand a 2-3 week beta test, during which they review an online-hosted version of each app for flow, usability, bugs, and terms of use acceptance.Your customers choose from among many Carriers, so you need to be compliant with all of them. The degree of speed, complexity and cooperation varies from one Operator to the next; they are however consistent in requiring 20-30% of each purchase amount.
  2. Operators are strict and favor big brands; legitimacy is important given the number of bill-to-carrier scams. As a alternative, they look for a guaranteed minimum of $50,000 in monthly bill-to-carrier revenue, proof that is often first generated in Canada or Europe.
  3. US Carriers prefer micropayments to the tune of $2. They are reluctant to approve monthly fees of $15 or $20 due to the higher risk of complaints or accidental enrollment by children.

Their preference for lower price points, non-recurring fees and virtual goods over outside services can all be hurdles for monthly insurance premium billing.

In addition to carrier complexities, success can depend on the various device operating systems. Currently, only Android supports bill-to-carrier within a native application. iOS will only use its IAP API (In-app purchase) using iTunes to make a purchase.

Retention and Loyalty – in a Mobile Environment

It is possible to truly integrate mobile into your existing strategy and better measure increased retention and loyalty from your customers. It’s all about convenience and real-time communication. Give them instant fingertip access to source and share critical data:

  • Review the latest product and service offerings
  • Manage personal “MyAccount” files on the go
  • Provide 24/7 emergency access to processes and forms on a handheld device
  • Enable immediate accident claims reporting and supporting photo uploads

These are just a few of the exciting, dynamic Mobile solutions that will propel your further differentiation from the competition – with measurable results.

Yet there are many complexities surrounding the development of mobile apps and mobile websites for insurance premium payment processing and lead generation. Any such strategy requires an in-depth understanding of the various Carriers, government regulations, operating systems, user demographics and data availability. This calls for the experienced insights of seasoned experts.

Today’s technology does not allow “catch-up” time. But it’s never too late to adjust your marketing focus onto those channels that are proven to build connections with your customers. They will reward you with interest, participation and brand loyalty.

Mark Weishaar is VP, Business Development with Direct Access Marketing, based in Burlington, Ontario, Canada and Philadelphia, PA.



Minor abortion and parental involvement abortion laws in the United States

Pink:   No parental notification or consent laws.
Purple: One parent must be informed beforehand.
Light Blue:  Both parents must be informed beforehand.
Medium Blue:  One parent must consent beforehand.
Dark Blue: Both parents must consent beforehand.
Light Gray: Parental notification law currently enjoined.
Dark Gray: Parental consent law currently enjoined.

“You’re Entitled To Your Own Opinion, But Not Your Own Facts”

Stats can be technically correct and yet misleading when appropriated out of context by some partisan hack to convey an impression that is actually contrary to fact. Sadly, this has become the norm. The following argument is illustrative. Disreagarding the political or ideological issues, let’s narrowly focus on the dynamics of the communication:

If you have to get your parents’ permission to go on a field trip or take an aspirin in school, but not to get an abortion — you might live in a nation founded by geniuses but run by idiots. Common sense has been thrown out the window.  Only 5 states require notification and consent: Oklahoma, Texas, Utah,Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. All other states allow consent or notification only usually by one give parent only (some both).  PLUS, there is a judicial bypass in ALL states.  In other words, the government claims jurisdiction over our children. That’s the liberal agenda.

The above statement gives the impression that parental involvement is the exception rather than the rule. Now let’s reframe it with a response representing a differing viewpoint:

Just 7 states don’t have consent/notification laws: Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, California, Vermont, Washington – plus Washington, D.C. Most states require one of two types of parental involvement– consent or notification, or both. 22 states require one or both parents to consent to the procedure, 11 require one or both parents be notified and 2 require both consent and notification before an elective abortion. Representing this as some governmental claim of jurisdiction doesn’t make sense because, to the contrary, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the right of state legislatures to require parental involvement.

What Just Happened?

According to the writer of the first statement, the source was the Guttmacher Institute, which was named in memory of Dr. Alan Guttmacher, past president of Planned Parenthood. The slight of hand here is an interesting variant of the appeal to authority – citing a source generally regarded as liberal to make a purportedly conservative argument.

However, reading the report, it becomes clear that the source was obviously appropriated out of context by some partisan writer to convey the impression that parental involvement is the exception rather than the rule. Partisan ideological sources misinform. The actual report starts out as follows:

 A majority of states require parental involvement in a minor’s decision to have an abortion. Most of these states require the consent or notification of only one parent, usually 24 or 48 hours before the procedure, but a handful of states require the involvement of both parents… HIGHLIGHTS:

  • 38 states require parental involvement in a minor’s decision to have an abortion. 
  • 21 states require parental consent only, 3 of which require both parents to consent. 
  • 12 states require parental notification only, 1 of which requires that both parents be notified. 
  • 5 states require both parental consent and notification. 
  • 8 states require the parental consent documentation to be notarized.

News Vs. Slant

Given that a free society needs to accommodate a broad spectrum of differing opinions and beliefs on any number of subjects, one has to learn to both expect and allow for differing viewpoints. The 4th estate was therefore considered to be an integral part of the democratic process. Yet, today it has been corrupted to the point that instead of facts, people are fed manipulative propaganda and infotainment that dumbs down public awareness.

Beyond Partisan Frameworks

Regarding slant, the liberal/conservative framework doesn’t mean much to me; I am particuarly suspicious of partisan talking points of any kind, as they tend to hinge on circular logic, and become inconsistent and self-contradictory. For instance, the conservative/libertarian talking point that government shouldn’t be too intrusive doesn’t square with cries like the above  for more restrictive abortion laws. Ideological rigidity is just too complicated for me. Life is complicated enough without having to buy into predefined political memes and feel angry and upset all the time just because somebody out there happens to disagree with me. 

So given that people are going to disagree, we ought to all be provided accurate rather than distorted data to enable them to make informed judgments and engage in constructive, rather than divisive dialogue.  Sadly, this is not the case.


Please Hold For Prompt Service…

 shared this on Time Business & Money.

A new poll commissioned by text-message service TalkTo shows that 53% of American consumers say that they spend 10 to 20 minutes on hold each and every week. How much does that add up to each year?

“This adds up to…13 hours annually spent waiting for a company that swears via automated message “we care about your business” to answer the darn phone.

Other findings of the survey:

  • 86% of consumers report being put on hold every time they call a business.
  • 48% believe the customer service representatives who answer phone calls are not helpful.

Lessons Learned? None

The data corroborates and amplifies the findings of previous polls cited by Tuttle. For  instance:

So, you’d think American customer service would work to clean up it’s act, and call for improved customer help lines, shortening wait times and providing more meaningful assistance, right?

Well, you’d be wrong.

The survey indicates instead that the solutions companies are considering are even worse than the original problem. Instead of listening to what customers really want, many companies are just buying into the more convenient notion that texting makes more sense than communicating with a real human being.  Stuart Levinson, CEO of TalkTo, an app for service request texting, is a case in point. He writes:

“This research shows how poorly the phone performs as a customer-service channel. Everyone’s calling less and texting more. It’s time for businesses to catch up with how customers want to interact with them.”

Really?  Tuttle cites data that demonstrates just the opposite:

Amazing. So customer service is not about the customer at all; it’s about lowering their expectations and insulating yourself from the voice of the customer.  As long as we all collude in lowering the bar for customer service, we can all cost cut our way to prosperity – on the backs of the customer.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I’d say this provides a tremendous opportunity for a real thought leader to differentiate itself in the market.

Style Or Substance?

Pundits lauded Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance on October 3, 2012, focusing on his preparedness and aggressive challenge of President Obama’s policies and performance. But while the media analysis centered on the performance aspect, ie. form, what about the actual substance of the arguments?

As time passes, and the surprise over Romney’s aggressive performance fades, the content of his arguments may begin to come under the microscope. The question is: if Romney accomplished the goal of appearing to win the debate by repeatedly misleading viewers, did he actually “win” on the arguments? Igor Volsky of Think Progress, thinks not. His article: At Last Night’s Debate: Romney Told 27 Myths In 38 Minutes is a good read.

Don’t Look To Me For A Judgement

Don’t look to this blog for the answers. For one thing, I’m a political independent. I voted for Perot, remember him? Maybe not, but you probably remember NAFTA. And certainly don’t look to the pundits who can’t seem to see the economic policy questions for the greatest political show on earth.  Sadly, it took the perspective of someone as far outside the mainstream as you can get, socialist Marc Luzietti to call this out:

‎”Tonight a pair of actors will recite rehearsed talking points to prearranged questions. They will be judged on the quality of their ability to remember scripted answers and act appropriately.

Sadly, some people think this is important.”

Thinking Outside the Box

It’s a common exhortation to “think outside the box.” But, in practice, most people let the pundits get away with trivializing complex issues by turning them into simplistic win/lose horse races.

I take the stance that an educated, non partisan, independent thinking and analytical public is a public that acts in its best interests.  My principle is that, to make an informed decision, you must put aside your initial impressions, preconceived opinions and just dig into the facts.

So when some of the pundits pronounced that this was “the most substantive Presidential debate ever” I had to laugh.  What I saw was memorized talking points, rhetoric substituting for facts, a moderator too passive to call it out. And, despite the provocative title of this piece questioning  who really lost the debate, the pundits and the public were the clear losers in being so quick to turn the serious matters of governance and the economy into a child’s game with a winner and a loser.

I’m about economics, not partisan polemics, and this is about as political as I get. Political opinions are a dime a dozen. But to get to objective analysis, one has to look beyond the petty politics of the win and dig tenaciously into the real economic policy questions, which is what I do in this blog. Because the answers to the economic questions of our times lie beyond partisanship, they can’t be found in polemics.


Related Article:

Presidential Debate Fact-Check and Updates New York Times

Why A Poor Customer Experience Is Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

Lora Kolodny  highlights on TechCrunch a new report from RightNow and Harris Interactive showing how much brands stand to lose from poor customer service, and how much they stand to make if they can deliver a superior experience. The study, titled The Customer Experience Impact 2010 report tells an interesting story about how important a value proposition customer service is to consumers, and just out of touch U.S. brands can be:

  • 82% of US consumers said they’ve stopped doing business with a company due to a poor customer service experience.
  • 73% cited rude staff as the primary reason,
  • 55% cited failure to resolve their problems in a timely manner.
  • 95%, said after a bad customer experience they would “take action.”
  • 79% said they complained about their negative customer experiences in public and amongst friends.
  • 58% who publicly aired a complaint on social media sites expected a response from the company.
  • 42% of them expected a response from a company within a day.
  • ]Yet only 22% said they’d actually gotten a response as a result of griping there.

Consumers Increasingly Demand A Personal Response

Survey data from 2007 vs. today show changing dissatisfied customer’ expectations.  When trying to resolve a problem, here are their contact preferences:

In 2007:

  • 60% of U.S. consumers said when they had a negative customer experience, they wanted to speak to a live agent about it.
  • 26% preferred email
  • 5% prefered chat (although Facebook and Twitter weren’t used by corporations to handle complaints and resolve problems.)

In 2012:

  • 83% of U.S. consumers said they wanted to speak to a live agent.
  • 66% prefer email
  • 12% prefer chat.
  • 7% choose social networking sites.

The more digital communication options that consumers have, apparently, the more they crave human interaction in real time, apparently.

What Can You Do About a Noisy Complaint?

My recent post on Progressive Insurance shows that customer dissent online is difficult to quell. Kolodny highlights some other notable cases:

Do Brands Have Customer Service Backwards?

Considering all the effort to generate positive associations through advertising, it’s more than a little ironic that one account of bad customer experience has the potential to offset all that investment. Companies facing a bad customer service  comment should work to improve the customer experience they provide, internally and develop a systematic way of focusing on customer responsiveness, while continuing to generate positive word of mouth, positive reviews and online feedback. Friends’ and colleagues’ endorsements, discussed in real life or through Twitter and Facebook updates, are more likely to drive sales than even a positive online user review.

In an era when customer service is largely viewed as a cost center, RightNow’s study strongly suggests companies now invest more time and money in customer service as a leading revenue generator, and not just an operational function. The study highlights why customer service is a bottom line revenue generator:

  • 85% of U.S. consumers say they would pay 5% to 25% more to ensure a superior customer experience.

Snap! principle of Customer Service Marketing:

Customer Service is no longer an operational necessity: it’s your biggest market differentiator.

The Myth of Socialism vs. Capitalism

The notion of  “Socialism” vs. “Capitalism” is a manufactured polemical dichotomy. Framing economic issues in terms of false dichotomous categories effectively conceals the actual dynamics of the economy. The purpose of this article is to examine how to step outside the predefined conceptual box and think an issue through critically and independently. Herein I will:

  • Show how to think past conventional pieties, by exposing the notion of “capitalism” to critical thinking skills.
  • Show how to develop critical thinking skills in any area.
  • Show the applicability to Marketing and Customer Service.

Exposing the Myth of Capitalism vs. Socialism

Capitalist Defined: First, let’s define “capitalist.”  A capitalist, strictly speaking. is one who invests in the financial instruments that support a business entity. Realistically speaking, in today’s America, the capitalists are overwhelmingly wealthy interests that hold majority stakes in the large corporations that dominate the economic – and political landscape.

Labor Defined: While the capitalists in our society may hold positions and titles, and some may even dirty their hands in the actual work of a business, they don’t actually need to because they rely primarily on interest and equity instruments for their income.

Why We Identify Ourselves as a “Capitalist” When We Really Aren’t: If you are a small investor or a small business owner, you are not actually a capitalist; you are labor because you don’t just invest for a living, but you actually still need to work for a living. Notwithstanding, you have been taught to think of yourself as a capitalist and to worship the notion of capitalism.

Capitalism as State Religion

A measure of the effectiveness of our inculcation into the worship capitalism is illustrated by the fact that ieven President Barach Obama, a mainstream political instrument of capitalist Wall Street, can be labeled a socialist, and a good percentage of the population will actually believe it.

What is actually happening here? We are continually being socialized into the cult of capitalism. Recall that the function of a cult is to generate a sense of group identity. The cult of capitalism has its roots in Social Identity theory.

Social Identity Theory

According to the social identity theory developed by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner, one’s self image is defined in part by the social group or groups one considers oneself part of. Tajfel’s experiments found that placing people into one or another group by such meaningless criteria as a coin toss was enough to make group members increasingly loyal to their own group and cause them to discriminate against the members of the other group.

The Social Myth of Ideological Alternatives

This is used in political economic sphere to get people to vote against their own interests even though elections are essentially a ratification of plutocrat-selected representatives to begin with. In politics, this is known as “Identity Politics,” and it hinges on the strategy of creating two ideological groups who can be distracted from any substantive economic issues by feelings personal enmity toward a perceived enemy. Two ideological alternatives are presented, while the two parties purporting to represent these views actually represent the same underlying interests.

The Social Myth of Upward Mobility

Statistics clearly show that you are much more statistically likely to become poor than wealthy, or even to remain comfortably “middle class.” However, by stoking the myth of upward mobility – holding out the carrot of rags to riches – you can be made to support the interests of the top 1% instead of your own interests as a member of the labor class.

The Political Myth of Populism

The political phenomenon of Sarah Palin is an interesting study in political populism. She may act like trailer trash, but make no mistake about it: she is a plutocrat. Somehow, she lucked into wealth and has parlayed her fame into a platform for amassing more wealth and adoration. She used her public profile to launch a book Going Rogue that sold more than two million copies, provide political commentary for the abymally yellow journalistic Fox News, and hosted a television show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska for TLC whose first episode lured in a record five million viewers.

She was chosen because she is seen as a voice for the the most naive, gullible and least educated Americans who comprise the tea party. Because she feels like one of us, she can get us to vote against our own interests for the plutocratic class to which she is actually beholden.

Americans would rather vote for a plutocratic tool of limited intelligence like George W. Bush than an intelligent wonk like Al Gore because “he seems like somebody I could have a beer with.”  The price of beer: the greatest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, soaring deficits, continued loss of employment, increased economic disparity, burgeoning poverty, and diminishing economic prospects of the middle class.

The Ideological Myth of “Government Overreach”

It has increasingly become clear that the issue of government overreach is nothing more than a Republican Party ploy to portray the economic overlords as saviors, and override any attempts to hold them to a sense of social responsibly. They can point to the fact that, while the Democrats advocate regulation to prevent economic exploitation, those regulations are themselves problematic.  This is because the political process is itself corrupted. Jack Abramhoff pointed out that well-intentioned regulations purporting to curtail lobbyists from bribing politicians are so riddled with holes that they make little to no difference.

The fact is that corporate, not government, overreach is the real economic reality. While corruption pervades all three branches of government, as well as the Fourth Estate, bear in mind who/what the corrupting influence in fact is. I wrote here about the agenda of corporate/judicial activism at every jurisdiction that has led to today’s economic debacle.

How A Judicial Activist Agenda Created the Myth of Government Overreach

Although both 1972 Nixon-appointed Supreme Court justices Powell and William Rehnquist were conservatives, the principled Rehnquist resisted Powell’s radical corporatist views. From Alter Net a brief background of the under-the-radar agenda that got us where we are today:

Despite the Rehnquist dissents, Powell’s vision of an unregulated corporate political “marketplace,” where corporations are freed by activist courts from the policy judgment of the majority of people, won out. Powell, of course, could not have…moved a majority of the Court to create corporate rights if no one had listened to his advice to organize corporate political power to demand corporate rights. Listen they did — with the help of just the sort of massive corporate funding that Powell proposed.

Corporations and corporate executives funded a wave of new “legal foundations” in the 1970s. These legal foundations were intended to drive into every court and public body in the land the same radical message, repeated over and over again, until the bizarre began to sound normal: corporations are persons with constitutional rights against which the laws of the people must fall.

Huge corporations, including Powell’s Philip Morris, invested millions of dollars in the Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center and other legal foundations to bring litigation demanding new corporate rights. In rapid succession, corporations and supporters funded the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Mid-Atlantic Legal Foundation, the Mid-America Legal Foundation, the Great Plains Legal Foundation (Landmark Legal Foundation), the Washington Legal Foundation, the Northeastern Legal Foundation, the New England Legal Foundation, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, the Capital Legal Center, the National Legal Center for the Public Interest, and many others.

These foundations began filing brief after brief challenging state and federal laws across the country, pounding away at the themes of corporations as “persons,” “speakers” and holders of constitutional rights. Reading their briefs, one might think that the most powerful, richest corporations in the history of the world were some beleaguered minority fighting to overcome oppression. The foundations and the corporate lawyers argued that “corporations are persons” with the “liberty secured to all persons.” They used new phrases like “corporate speech,” the “rights of corporate speakers,” and “the corporate character of the speaker.” They demanded, as if to end an unjust silence, “the right of corporations to be heard” and “the rights of corporations to speak out.”

How Can We See Past Conceptual Frameworks?

The answer lies in where our education system has failed us – critical thinking skills.

Politically speaking, as someone who has made a disciplined habit of being non partisan and seeing beyond the dichotomous conceptual frameworks of left/right, capitalist/socialist, etc. I understand that elections remain a matter of voting for the lesser of two evils with no realistic expectation that the our political mascots represent us.  Republicans represent the fast track to the plutocratic power grab, while Democrats can’t be trusted to stand up to these same lobbying interests either.

Ideologically speaking, it is important to become aware of the effects of ideological conditioning and overcome it to develop a truly independent analysis.

Practically speaking, it is important to become a critical thinker to become a more proficient analyst and decision maker. Let’s discuss how to cultivate critical thinking skills.

How to Become a Critical Thinker

The conceptual rigidity of the popular culture means that most opinions revolve around confirmation bias, and will only change to the extent that they fit that bias.   I believe that the ability to change one’s opinion depends on the individual’s conceptual rigidity. Most opinions seem to revolve around confirmation bias, and will only change to the extent the new viewpoint fits the existing bias. In future articles, I will examine some of the studies and research literature on critical thinking. Herein, I would like to speak from personal experience. Becoming a critical thinker, rather than a merely coopted polemicist means that you should aim not for fixed positions, but dynamic judgements.

I use a 3-pronged approach to arrive at dynamic judgements rather than fixed positions:

1- Research:

First, research a topic in depth, familiarizing yourself with the facts and the circumstances around them, as well as the analyses of people with differing perspectives. Get your nose out of dumbed-down, dishonest, tainted partisan sources like Fox News, since research that has been duplicated over several studies shows that Fox News viewers are the least informed of all news viewers.

2- See past the dichotomy and agendas:

Debates are typically frameworks that frame the issue narrowly in terms of a pro/con black and white bifurcated structure. I look past the framework to the underlying facts, to better understand the spin on both sides, as well as the real grays of the issues. I often find that the issue is framed in a certain way to serve particular interests and agendas. Furthermore, I find that it is not necessary to frame the issue in this way, and that a more meaningful understanding is found in “thinking outside the box.”

3- Fluidity:

To remain open to new information, when formulating my own analysis, I remain cognizant of the temptation to hold to a strict pro/con stance, and make a point of leaving an opening on all sides of the issue. Even if you disapprove of a certain perspective, you still need to do the legwork to at least understand it on its own terms.

For instance, in determining that Medicare Part D is a special-interest driven agenda that increases the costs of prescription drugs, I can still acknowledge that it does provide some basic coverage and is in that sense better than nothing. In this way, the possibility of improving the current structure remains open.

Likewise, if I conclude that a program is mostly positive (such as I judge the ACA to be) I nonetheless remain clear of its shortcomings and improvement opportunities. Either way, if a better solution comes to light, I am prepared and equipped to analyze it on its merits rather than adhere to a fixed position.

During the process of this dynamic analytic approach, if you don’t form a preconceived position in advance, your analysis can accommodate contradictory information. The “judgement” isn’t a destination or final product, but a journey of discovery. The result is more serviceable as it provides opportunities for learning, logic and perspectives that can point to new and possibly original possibilities, solutions and approaches.

How To Become A Critical Customer-Centric Brand Advocates

As Marketers and customer-facing brand ambassadors, we need to remain open to all perspectives on issues. When we “drink the kool aide” of our own product and rhetoric, we often neglect to understand that, as gung ho as we may be about our product or service, what really counts is the consumer’s needs, values and perceptions. This doesn’t mean that we should become shifty and try to be all things to all people. Effective marketing targets the most likely users of our products, the ones whose needs we can best be in a position to address. The problem is, we don’t always engage enough in the ethnographic research to understand and empathize with our consumer segments. The case study below sheds some light on this.

Customer Service Case Study: Cigna Stonewalls My Wife’s Chemo Treatment

Recently, I ran into a brick wall in dealing with Cigna Insurance when the claims representatives stonewalled my wife’s chemo prescription.

The Situation:

Since the last treatment stopped working and there was progression, a new chemo treatment was prescribed. Cigna kicked it to a medical reviewer without allowing either the oncologist or me to speak with even the representative’s manager.

The Response:

With a sense of urgency, given the time element in the progression of the disease, I spoke with 2 representatives who both became argumentative and arrogant. Young, male Customer Rep “TJ” complained to me during my call that the oncologist didn’t provide him the information he requested and had hung up on him in frustration. He also said that the call had “become adversarial, much as this one has.” I immediately corrected him – “No, I am not being adversarial. I am advocating for ny wife and asking for your help.” One wonders what arrogance on his part caused our oncologist such frustration that he hung up on him.

Adding insult to injury, the Rep stated that “if the doctor hadn’t been adversarial, we’d probably already have already approved the treatment” – which was a misrepresentation that was in direct contradiction to his earlier statement that he was not authorized to make a decision and that it had been mandatory for him to refer it to a medical director.

The Result:

I was informed that there would be a 24 hour turnaround time and our only option would be to wait. The doctor’s office was subsequently informed that it was a 72 hour turnaround. A week later, there was still no response. Eventually, the oncologist caved, prescribing an alternate treatment. This is the second time Cigna has done this to us, and we never did get any response the last time this happened. As a consequence, when the opportunity presents itself for me to switch carriers, I will do so, depriving Cigna of a customer. Furthermore, consistent with research showing that dissatisfied clients spread the news widely on social media, bad publicity could exact and even greater toll on their business, as it did with Progressive.

What could Cigna have done better?

They could have a better understanding that all customer-facing and even non customer-facing employees are brand ambassadors. The brand promise must be delivered at every touch point. To do so, they need to develop a process to be:

  • Responsive,
  • Transparent,
  • Consistent, and
  • Responsible.

The customer service representatives could have done a better job by:

  • Responsive: Listening carefully with empathy to understand the circumstances presented to them for consideration
  • Transparent: Honestly advising that the drug prescribed, while effective, is not yet FDA approved for this type of cancer
  • Consistent: Providing a consistent consumer experience
  • Responsible: Taking the initiative to follow up when 24-hour, 72-hour and subsequent promised deadlines expired.

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