We think they can, and we’d like to show you how.

Why should we be looking at the world of e-commerce for inspiration?

It’s a costs and savings game, for everyone. Retailers, whether on or offline, strive to create efficiencies to reduce the cost of production, promote innovation to maintain their market edge, and sell more or higher priced products so they can watch their profits soar.

For the vast majority of us, our HR objectives can be translated to the same key outcomes:

Make efficiencies – by reducing recruitment costs and retaining the best in the business.

Stay innovative – by wooing key talent and aligning employees with your business and its objectives.

Make money – by using the advantages of salary sacrifice.

Yet, we rarely see the investment in our reward schemes that the likes of Amazon enjoy in their service design departments. We’re expected to achieve the same outcomes on low or no budgets, often forced into making decisions that are more about keeping scheme maintenance to a minimum than creating a loyal and engaged community of the best and brightest.

All is not lost and the answer is both simple and brave. We need to leverage the learnings out there, in the big wide world of the web, to improve the way we service our employees. Our customers.

What are the challenges?

You do your research on your employees, you find out about who they are, how you need to support them. You talk to them, you run focus groups and send out surveys, and you painstakingly put together a reward package that goes to the heart of what your people are all about. You offer bulk-buy discounts, tax and National Insurance efficiencies wherever possible, the golden opportunity to purchase over 12 months, the convenience of payments dealt with by the payroll department. No direct debit fuss around here! Occasionally, you even bypass the rocky road of credit checks and scores for your employees.

And then they say “I could get that cheaper on Amazon.”

In the middle of an ever-expanding online marketplace, where aggregator giants like Money Supermarket jostle for your employees’ attention with tempting deals, discounts and value-add offers, is it even possible to compete anymore? Well, yes.

Once you start considering your employees as online customers, consumer psychology provides the perfect pitch on which to set your stall. Let’s look at one example.

Conspicuous consumption

Let’s face it, buying a new iPad, booking a luxury holiday, or choosing which shiny new car lease option to go for is only part of the thrill. The real goosebumps happen when you get to share that boast with your Facebook friends or casually slip it into conversation with a colleague in the queue for your morning coffee.

Amazon appreciate and wholeheartedly endorse a consumer need to share status buys, and within the reward and benefits industry we have something so powerful it could turn Jeff Bezos the same colour as the jumping man in the Benefex logo. We have the power to enable our employees to ‘humble brag’ not only to a faceless group of anonymous strangers, but to the people they share a lunch table with 5 days a week, perhaps 47 weeks a year. We can hand them the tools they need to strut their status, to show they’re part of a community, to say that they belong.

A whole world of research about online buying behaviours and best practice guidance is available to improve what and how we offer employee benefits, once we accept that cost can be less significant than factors such as social status. Once we accept the way of the web, at work.

As powerful as ‘free’ can be, often the opposite is true. Sometimes a big price tag acts as a cognitive shortcut for us, it gives us a quick implied signal that a product or service’s high cost will demonstrate to our community that we are the type of person who can afford to fork out for something like this. It provides a non-aggressive way of conspicuously consuming, which props up our social status within a community, like the people that we work with.

Even Amazon haven’t completely solved this one – after all, how do I display my carefully constructed choice of reading material to my social groups if I have it stored on a Kindle, with its lack of cover and prominent title? These displays are how we construct our identity and perception of self, even internally. It’s how we establish connections and form groups and community. And community is crucial to engagement.

We’re not just programmed to display our economic status either. This also works for benefits such as Give As You Earn or language courses, because we are biologically wired to self-promote enviable traits such as kindness, creativity and intelligence.

There’s a certain nervousness to the introduction of persuasive design elements when the communication is between employer and employee, and with good reason. Neither employer or provider should stray into the territory of regulated financial advice, or be seen to actively promote take-up of specific benefits. It’s about creating as much value as possible for the choices our customers make.

How have we begun to step up to those challenges at Benefex?

We started with looking at how our online benefits interface treats employees as consumers, and redesigned our Flexible Benefits platform to create an experience that matches the needs and expectations of paying customers.

As well as redesigning critical e-commerce aspects, such as rethinking the submission process as an online checkout, we began to introduce education and persuasion techniques by enabling employees to ‘try before they buy’ with an in-page modelling widget, and viewing benefits that have proved popular with other employees.

Lengthy discussions were had about how employees access their online benefits, and considering employees as customers and consumers first and foremost drove us to a commitment to achieving a fully responsive user interface, which increases flexibility by making it easy to access the system from any device, whether PC, mobile or tablet. After all, customers don’t expect to be constrained to making purchases in the workplace and neither should employees.

Our most recent step has been to work with benefits providers to structure products that can be selected any time, inside or outside of a pre-defined annual enrolment window. When was the last time you saw Amazon shut up shop for the night?

The transition to a customer-focused business, in an industry tied to the rules and regulations of multiple authorities is not going to be quick, and at times it won’t be easy. But we’re drawing a line in the sand here at Benefex it’s time to start looking at employee benefits and the people they’re provided for in a new light.

Because employee engagement isn’t just a destination, it’s a journey.