If you’re like many employers today, your employee benefits and rewards package is a vendorpalooza. You have one vendor for heart health, another for behavioral health, another for retirement, a resource for financial planning and on and on. Not to mention your payroll vendor and HRIS (human resources information system). These vendors have been carefully chosen because they excel in their area. They deliver value to your organization and support your employees.

With a multivendor offering comes communication challenges

Each vendor has its own products, benefits and way of working. When engaging with benefits, you’re faced with a maze of distinct platforms, systems, apps and jargon. As a communicator, it’s your job to unravel the maze and create a clear path for users. By delivering cohesive, consistent communication, you’ll enable employees to understand, value and appreciate their benefits.

Your vendors can help, but you need a targeted approach

It can feel like a dream come true when a vendor presents a fully developed communication strategy and plan with all the pieces written, designed and ready to go. They might even have a great communication tool you can use. It’s tempting to take vendor communication, check the box and be done. But to create the best employee experience, it’s critical to step back and be strategic.

A one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t work for most. Effective communication relies on knowing what communication channels and styles work best for your company and employees. Expectations are high — employees are accustomed to personalized and targeted communication in the consumer space — and want the same from their employer. How do you figure out what’s best for your organization? Follow the steps described in our detailed presentation from February 2023.

Strategic vendor collaboration is the key

When faced with creating an internal communication approach and plan, your vendors’ communication support is a significant consideration. They all have something to offer — and engagement goals to reach. Each vendor will want to reach out to your employees to advertise their programs — often more than you’d like them to.

Effectively managing vendors and their communication is crucial to reducing costs and increasing employee engagement. But it can get complicated, and if it’s not done in a thoughtful, coordinated manner, your employees will struggle. So how do you maximize your vendors’ value? How can they help you meet your goals? What’s the best way to collaborate?

Read on for proven strategies:

1. Meet with your vendor for a communication audit annually, quarterly, even monthly.

Often, the marketing and communication teams function like an internal communication agency. These functions and the people operating them may not communicate regularly with the account managers. You and your account manager may not have a line of sight to prescheduled email or mail campaigns, which may go out without your awareness. Setting up a regular cadence of meetings to share goals, needs and options will go a long way to making you and your vendor successful. When you meet, be sure to:

  • Be firm with the vendor about whether they can send information to your employees, and if so, how often. Request to review and approve of all communication going to your employees before it’s released.
  • Share your strategy, your goals and what you have planned for your employees. Ask to see their library of print and digital employee communication. They may have something that meets your needs or could complement your approach.
  • Insist that you see and approve of everything they want to send to your employees prior to the communication going out.
  • Understand and agree to timing. If there is a new benefit being launched, be sure they are not sending out information before you have announced it to your employees.

2. Make sure each vendor’s communication targets your audience — and the benefit you offer.

These vendors invest heavily in their sales departments and have materials to market their services to employers. But they don't always make the same commitment to creating employee-facing materials. And when they do, the materials may not reflect the services you’ve contracted to offer or be relevant to your employees.

For example, a telehealth provider may have an off-the-shelf brochure that says that they provide behavioral health support. But maybe you’ve contracted with the vendor for primary care and dermatology — not telehealth — so the brochure is inaccurate and misleading. That will confuse and frustrate employees and negate the benefit you’re offering.

Generic language is another thing to watch out for.

  • Vendor materials may direct employees to “Contact your employee benefits department” or “Call your HR representative,” without a phone number provided. While this catch-all phrase may be general enough to work for many employers, it may not be helpful to your employees, especially if your internal service model doesn’t include an employee benefits department or HR representative.
  • Here’s another example. A 401(k) vendor’s materials may refer to “your employer matching contribution” instead of including your actual amount to make things easier to decipher. If they have existing examples, ask them to use examples that reflect your average salary, so they are more relatable. 

Off-the-shelf pieces can give you a great start but pushing them to the next level is where you’ll really get the value.

3. Ask your vendor to reflect your brand and style.

The materials you get from your vendors tend to carry their brand. Unless you apply your own brand to them, they won’t align with your total rewards messaging. And your employees may not even recognize them. With so much direct mail, spam and all-around marketing noise out there, employees may brush off or ignore communications that don’t look like sponsored by or provided by their employer. When that happens, you’ve lost the opportunity for value and engagement — and the return on your investment in the program or offering.

If you generally think a vendor’s piece works and it makes sense with your internal communication strategy, there may be minor changes that can signal to employees that it’s a benefit you provide. Don’t be afraid to ask for changes! Your vendor wants to engage your employees and keep you as a client.

Share your brand guidelines as context and ask for changes like these:

  • Match the colors and photo or illustration style to align with your branding.
  • Update the name of your call center or refer to your specific phone number or URL.
  • Match your editorial style. For example, if you hyphenate well-being in all of your benefits communication but the vendor flyer mentions “wellness,” ask them to make the simple change.
  • Alter the access instructions so employees are clear about how they can get to their account or the vendor site. If you have an SSO link to the vendor site from your intranet, ask them to change the instructions to go from the intranet, which will make it much easier for employees. Remind the vendor that a better employee experience translates to more engagement with their product(s).
  • Change the return address to something employees will recognize, such as your company’s name or a familiar term such as Employee Answer Center.
  • Add in a message from your CEO or link to a recorded testimonial from one of your employees.

There are many ways to make an off-the-shelf piece your own — so start the conversation with your vendor.

4. Take advantage of your vendor’s learnings — and their content!

You communicate about all the benefits available to employees, but each of your vendors focuses on their program day in and day out. Their teams have likely tried communicating from many angles and have data that shows what works best. They can anticipate common questions. Use what they’ve learned to make your internal communication more effective:

  • They may have done A/B testing with headlines or subject lines and know which gets the best response.
  • They know the best day and time to send emails or the ideal number of emails to send.
  • They may have best practices for certain demographics.

If you don’t want to use a vendor’s entire flyer, brochure or other piece — you can pull from it to enrich your own communications and make your job easier.

You may want to create communication that pulls together information about various programs, such as a guide to well-being support. Instead of starting from scratch, pull in copy from your well-being vendors’ websites or sample materials. Or give your vendor the details of what you need, such as formatting, word count and style and ask them to draft the content.

5. Negotiate! Ask your vendor to provide support for design and distribution.

When starting a contract with a vendor, get a seat at the table or ask for communication support to be part of the agreement. Often, there is a line item in the budget for communication. This very often covers the basic, off-the-shelf communication tools for companies (which don’t always work, as we’ve covered above).

Instead of contracting for generic support, ask for something that will push their communications to the next level — such as a set amount of design hours or an agreement to pay for a home mailing twice each year. Consider your internal resources, employee feedback and company culture to negotiate what you and your team need. An extra investment from your vendor can be just what you need to make your communication strategy work.

Ask for an annual renegotiation of communication support, so you can continue to get what best fits your needs as your strategy, goals and workforce evolves.

Using vendor communication is a great way to make your communication plan more robust. You just have to ask your vendors for what you want, make your guidelines clear and keep in touch with them as your goals and strategy evolve.