That starts with their own differences. McNeil, a principal at Arrow Benefits Group, first met Avila when she joined the firm in 2016 as a consultant. On paper, they don’t have much in common, but the duo hit it off and formed a close working relationship that, six years later, has led to the creation of BenefitsTV (a Youtube and social media channel for bite-size benefits content) as well as Alianza, the company’s Spanish-language division.
Arrow Benefits is located within the Bay Area, serving a variety of employer organizations across the tech, manufacturing and wine industries. And for many Spanish-speaking employees within those organizations, benefits communications were often lost in translation.
Since McNeil and Avila pooled their talents to launch Alianza in 2017, the team has grown to a party of five and delivers tailored communications to clients’ employees, focusing on improving benefits utilization and providing expanded access to adviser expertise.
“We both look at employee groups differently, and really try to understand what happens at the employee level — what works, what doesn’t,” Avila says. “We don’t just focus on benefits — we focus on communication. What’s going to grab employees’ attention?”
McNeil and Avila spoke with EBN about the success they’ve found by looking at benefits through a personal lens and why it’s important to remember that in a relationship-based business, relationship-building takes time.
You two bring very different perspectives to your work. How has that impacted your relationship?
McNeil: We’re two completely different people: male, female, different generations, different races or ethnic backgrounds. By taking those two perspectives and bringing one solution to the client, it’s helped us strategize.
Avila: I’m a single mom, I’ve got older kids, and Andrew’s got young kids — he’s just starting on that journey with his family. All those differences have helped us. We considered every employee, their ages, what would grab their attention.
Which is what led you to launch Alianza in service of your clients’ Spanish-speaking employees. What are some of the challenges you’re working to solve?
McNeil: If we’re serving one of our manufacturing clients, as an example, time is money, so we’ll normally get a short amount of time to present and talk about benefits. You can do an English-speaking meeting in 10 minutes. But for Alianza meetings, it can take up to an hour because there are so many questions. It floored me the first time I saw it — I really don’t think anybody had effectively spoken to those employees about benefits before.
Avila: We’d see employees with coverage from Kaiser not understand the deductible or out-of-pocket maximum, or not understand that their employer was funding an HRA plan. So they’d get a big bill just for seeing a doctor, not understand how their benefits may cover or reimburse it, and they’d never go to the doctor again. Instead, they’d choose to go to the nearest Spanish-speaking clinic and pay $20 out of pocket.
That’s where we were able to come in, explain how to get reimbursed, explain that the money does not come out of their pocket, but their employer’s — and it was a game changer. The more we’ve built trust with employers and their teams, we get increasingly specific questions because they’re utilizing care more.
McNeil: Alianza also has a separate phone number that only rings at the Alianza member phones, so everything is answered in Spanish directly — not a “call and press one for Spanish” situation. We’ve also extended our hours: Arrow is normally open 9-to-5 but Alianza operates from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. Even though we’re in the Bay Area, there are plenty of pockets in which you don’t have cell service, if you’re working in a vineyard or something like that. So letting people call us later allows us to give much better service, when our customers need it.
As you look back on 2022, what’s been your biggest win?
McNeil: Since COVID hit, it’s felt like one really long year. As we all got comfortable on Zoom and with visual meetings, we realized that we could really meet with individual employees and offer that as a service, so we’ve built this piece of our business that allows us to meet with an employee anytime, any place. It’s about communication, understanding and accessibility, and the accessibility piece had been missing for so long.
Avila: We’ve also received so much recognition, and people really understand what we’ve been doing under the Alianza name. Having clients and employees recognize the value we’re delivering, that’s our biggest win.
What’s the biggest challenge waiting for you in 2023?
McNeil: I don’t want to sound crass, but the challenge is breaking relationships that prospects have with other brokers, and trying to keep getting our story out there and getting people to see the value in it. I can’t count how many times we’ve met with a prospective client and they love everything we’re doing, but they’re friends with their broker, or they’ve been with their broker for 25 years.
Avila: It’s also time — we know what we can bring to the table, but sometimes it’s just the time it takes for an employer to see that they need more than they’re currently getting. We’re constantly evolving.
You both have very people-focused jobs with a lot of responsibility. When you need to feel refreshed, what do you do to find a clear headspace or inspiration?
Avila: Honestly my friendship with Andrew, that helps me de-stress. if I’m feeling stuck. I can vent, I can let him know, and he comes in not trying to fix it or save it, but just let me vent it out. Those conversations are so genuine. And of course we do share the podcasts or books we’re reading, and we share the latest memes. But we really just inspire each other through our work and problem-solving.
Do you ever disagree on the best path forward?
McNeil: The short answer is yes, and it hurts my feelings every time! But generally, if I go to Rosario and she puts her hand up and goes, “Nope.” I tend to just wait to hear her perspective, and once she throws it out, I’m like, “Oh, that’s 100% the right answer.”
Avila: We’re open to hearing the other side of the coin, and then we’re able to step back and find the best solution. And we do go Andrew’s way sometimes!
McNeil: Sometimes, not always.