After starting off by honing her people skills as a cold caller, Katie Soehngen works with her team to craft proposals, respond to industry RFPs, and present to clients and broker partners. She’s excited about her company’s new launch of a mobile app, and she’s also looking forward to steering next year’s digital strategy. For the future, she predicts employers are going to do a complete reevaluation of their benefits offerings, with an emphasis on telehealth and mental health options.
Carla: Hello, I'm Carla Wardin and I'm the host of the "ConnectYourCare Podcast Exclamation of Benefits." Today, I'm talking with Katie Soehngen, employer solution support manager from Winston Benefits. Hi, Katie.
Katie: Hi, Carla. Thank you so much for having me today.
Carla: Thank you for being on here. Can you tell me about Winston Benefits and what you do there?
Katie: Yeah, absolutely. So Winston Benefits is a privately owned benefits administration enrollment and communications firm. So we do have our own proprietary technology, which is a little bit unique in this market. And what I currently do and I'm excited to talk about my new role in 2021 once we get a little bit further into the podcast, but currently I respond to industry RFPs for benefits administration technology, enrollment RFPs, I craft all of our proposals and then also help our remote sales people present to potential clients, and also our broker partners in the industry.
Carla: Oh, so you're doing a lot of things, it sounds like, in the presenting part. Has that changed now because of the limitations on seeing people?
Katie: Yes. It definitely has. So typically, I was actually supposed to go to Hawaii for a conference two weeks ago.
Carla: So sorry.
Katie: Yes. So typically, we are, you know, in front of brokers and potential clients in our category of partners all of the time. So that was definitely a change for, especially our remote sales folks, because they are pounding the pavement, they're traveling within their territories all of the time. So it went 100% virtual. You know, as things opened up, people were a little bit more open to, say, an outdoor lunch meeting, but it's almost 95% virtual this year. So we definitely had to pivot for that.
Carla: Pivot. The word of 2020. And maybe 2021. Obviously, you had to make some changes in that area. Did you have other changes that you needed to make in your industry and your job this year, maybe not because of COVID but because of other things that are going on?
Katie: So I think that a lot of the changes we made were because of COVID, but they were already on our technology roadmap, right? So we honestly had some time freed up because a lot of our clients were dealing with other HR crises and things like that, so they weren't as concerned with changes in their benefits plans or cosmetic changes on their benefits administration platform. So that actually freed up a lot of development and programming time for our IT team to work on our local app, which is really exciting. So again, that was on our roadmap already, but it gave us some extra time to work on that this year. So we launched that this open enrollment for full enrollment mobiley and access to all of their benefits information.
Carla: Oh, that is exciting, especially when you have a project like that that you know you wanna happen, and then something kicks you really hard and you have to make it happen immediately.
Katie: Exactly, and we knew it needed to get done, especially with everything going on this year. So we were happy we could make that happen.
Carla: You mentioned a new role too. What are you planning on doing or what are you doing now?
Katie: Yes. So I've been in this role, which has evolved over, I think almost six years. I can't believe it, I've been in this current role working with the sales team. But it naturally evolved, and especially this year, so next year in 2021, I'll actually be the head of digital strategy. So working with you on this podcast is exciting because I think this is what I'll be doing more so at that time, and like I was on the ConnectYourCare webinar. And this year, I think we really need to lean into digital strategy because we won't be in front of people or we don't know when we'll be in front of people for those conferences and those in-person meetings. So I'm excited to get creative with that next year.
Carla: That is exciting and yes, you were on the webinar for ConnectYourCare. How have you worked with ConnectYourCare in the past, how did this come to be, how did you become the person that we turn to when we wanna talk to someone?
Katie: Yeah. So Winston Benefits does not provide things like Cobra Administration, flexible spending account administration, health spending account administration, and then some of the other value add services that ConnectYourCare provides. We weren't in a place where we wanted to take that in-house and I think, you know, ConnectYourCare has the expertise and a similar implementation process, where it just naturally fit in with us. So Kyle Sheraton, who is over close to our home offices, approached us and said, "Hey, you know, it might make sense to talk about a partnership where we can just integrate the implementation process. We would be your preferred Cobra FSA, HSA, HRA vendor and we would lean on you for that service." So we started coming to ConnectYourCare for those proposals, including you [00:05:50] RFP responses, and it's been a really strong partnership ever since. So we thought, hey, maybe we wanna start formalizing our partnership a little bit and, you know, doing things like webinars together or blog posts together and getting each other some exposure from each of our markets. So that's worked really nicely.
And I think from a technology standpoint as well, that's where ConnectYourCare stands out because we're in lock step on that. You guys are always innovating. We're always innovating. We're also working on an API with ConnectYourCare so that hey, if you enroll in your FSA on Winston's platform, you can see what your FSA balance is in from the ConnectYourCare platform. So working on some unique things like that that other vendors might not be as apt to or have the time to do.
Carla: Now in talking about the different technology and the app that you're doing and just the development of them all, when you are working with brokers or in sales or on proposals, what are people asking you for, or what do people need? What are the things that people want today?
Katie: So I think, you know, and I'll be honest, a lot of our competitors, their platforms look great. But I think at the end of the day, what we're really being asked for is to be a partner, from our broker partners, from our clients, from other vendors, they need a partner. It's great if your platform looks beautiful, it has all the bells and whistles, but they really need that white glove service and someone to walk them through the process, someone to own the implementation process and not to say, "Hey, here's your login. Run with it." And work out that process on your own. So I think that's really what we offer to our clients and all of our partners, whether it's a broker or a carrier or another, you know, [inaudible 00:07:42] spender. We really own that process from start to finish, you know, throughout the life of the relationship, not just implementation. So I think that's where we differentiate ourselves, but that's also what we've seen from potential clients and brokers at the end of the day, they want to know that their partner is going to be there.
Carla: You're right. People hate being told, "Log in and go with it." They need some guidance. They need some help along the way and I'm speaking from every internet platform that I've ever worked on in the past.
Katie: It's funny. Right now, we really do need to lean on technology, but we still need that people aspect of it, right?
Carla: Yes. The people aspect of it. And you said you've had six years here and you've seen obviously the people aspect develop. Were you always working in this industry or did you develop your people skills elsewhere?
Katie: So I think my background is a little bit unique in that I think I've learned some of my soft, you know, customer service skills from cold calling, funny enough.
Katie: So I came from the financial services industry. I was a finance major in college. I thought it was a natural next step to go into financial advising, so I thought I was gonna be, you know, crafting these complex financial models. And you know, when you're first out of college when you get dumped into the industry, they're like, "No, you're just going to be calling prospects all day for quite awhile." So I leaned into that a little bit and I said, "You know, I don't wanna run for it. This is going to help me in whatever industry that I'm in." So I think talking to people, whether it was hanging up the phone or you have, you know, some of these great conversations with total strangers from cold calls. So I think that talking to people and leaning in first to, you know, working with a financial advisor, it does help talk to people in any industry. So then, when I moved to Winston, [inaudible 00:09:53] attracted me to their business model was, you know, we wanna help employees with their benefits through their employer, help educate them and things like that. And I figured, we're gonna help any employer or any employee that we come in contact with, so that culture of helping and educating among their benefits was what really got me here.
Carla: In talking to people, we were chatting a little bit before we started our podcast, and you mentioned that you listen to other podcasts. Do you have other favorites from this industry or are they entertainment or what do you like to listen to?
Katie: So I like to listen to a plethora of podcasts. I have a well-rounded library. I'll have to remember or I could tell you offline. I know there is another industry podcast, funny enough, for one of our broker partners, The Lockton Office up in Boston. I'll have to get you the name of that one. That's the only other industry podcast which, you know, I'm interested to see if next year we see other podcasts from the benefits industry popping up. And I'm sure we will. But funny enough from a lot of the technology vendors, as the head of digital strategy next year I was actually thinking, you know, maybe we'll start either reaching out to our broker partners and going on theirs, which was why I was excited that you reached out, or even eventually start our own. So there really aren't that many within our industry that I've seen, but otherwise, I mean, I really enjoy listening to just current events just so I can keep up with everything that's going on, whether it's the vaccine development, or you know, any of the therapies that are being produced, especially being in the benefits industry, because my mind is going to, "Oh, is it going to be covered by insurance?" What are we saying to our clients, from that effect because sometimes they're asking us that. I do enjoy the True Crime podcast.
Carla: Who doesn't, right?
Katie: Yeah. I mean, those are always interesting, even from an escape perspective, getting our minds off of everything that's going on. I do enjoy some sports podcasts. I do play in two fantasy football leagues.
Carla: All right. Way to go.
Katie: So I try to keep up on that and I am unfortunately a New York Jets fan, so they're not doing so great. So I like to listen to some of the jokes on us, keeps me humble. I definitely have a well-rounded podcast library. But always open to suggestions, so if our audience has any, please feel free to reach out to Carla and comment and interact with us.
Carla: I have two things to say about that. Number one, I'm a Detroit Lions fan, so I join you in your losing streak. And I can't wait to hear the new podcast from Winston Benefits with the digital strategy.
Katie: Good. I think that definitely is on the horizon for us. We're always innovating and I think maybe if we're the first benefits administration technology vendor out there, maybe we'll be another trendsetter in the podcast realm.
Carla: I ask all my guests this and it is about the future. I am curious what you think you see as trends in our industry for the coming year or years?
Katie: So I think at least for 2021, I think that employers next year, so I think this year was a little bit of a standstill for people, like we were talking about with a lot of our clients, they actually freed up time for us because they were focusing on, you know, COVID crisis things and worrying about their employees' well-being. I think a lot of our clients are really gonna reevaluate totally their benefits offering. So if they weren't offering telehealth options or mental health options, I think next year is gonna be the year to do it. Or at least start that evaluation with their broker partners, their health and welfare broker. And I think a lot of that is going to unfortunately be around COVID, but I think it's going to accelerate any benefit changes that they were thinking about in the past. And even increase their spend on that just because like we were saying, you know, some employers are gonna be selling off office space, so they might have the budget to do that. So I think we're going to see a big overhaul in benefit programs and more robust programs from maybe industries that previously didn't offer a lot of voluntary benefits or fringe benefits, like we were saying, with mental health. That's what I see.
And then, other the next couple years, just further digitizing things like employee communications, you know, more virtual work that we were talking about, prior to hopping on the podcast. So I think it's just really gonna accelerate over the next couple years, so not necessarily new trends but the acceleration of what we've been seeing.
Carla: So interesting in things like that. They are all things that we meant to do or that were in development and then the changing of the world really is accelerating all of these things. And as part of the whole digital strategy thing, obviously you're going to be right on the forefront of that in these next years.
Katie: Yeah, and I'm excited for the research ahead. I am definitely a lifelong learner, so I'm excited to add some books to my stack. I do have my library card, I've been doing curbside pickup for that. I'm definitely gonna be getting some digital strategy books and you know, some trend books. So we'll see where we land next year and I'd love to come on the podcast again, maybe in, you know, six months from now and we can reevaluate where we stand.
Carla: Well, consider it an invitation. Six months from now, we'll see where the world is and how your predictions have turned out.
Katie: Perfect. Looking forward to it, Carla. Thanks again for having me on.
Carla: Thank you so much, Katie. Again, I'm Carla Wardin. I'm the host of the ConnectYourCare Podcast, Exclamation of Benefits.
Carla Wardin is the host of the ConnectYourCare podcast, Exclamation of Benefits. Carla brings her broadcasting and technology experience to talk to experts about the latest innovations in the benefits industry. Carla is an author, speaker, and marketing communicator from Michigan, where she and her husband are raising three boys on a dairy farm.