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SAN FRANCISCO -- Third-party administrators all look pretty much the same at first glance.

They each offer similar services and do it using the same computer hardware and software, managed care vendors, service providers and reinsurers.

But that doesn't mean a TPA can't stand out in the crowd, says Robert J. Hergenrader, senior vp-corporate at Keenan & Associates, a Torrance, Calif.-based TPA. "It's not what you've got," he pointed out, "but what you do with it."

Mr. Hergenrader gave TPAs some advice on how to distinguish themselves in a presentation at the Self-Insurance Institute of America Inc.'s 18th annual conference in San Francisco last month. "Without differentiation," he said, "your clients will not value your services."

He made his point by showing some of the ways Keenan & Associates eliminated the herd mentality.

The TPA learned to differentiate itself from its competitors by examining every product and service to make sure it was unique, he explained.

"We took every program, every product that we have in our portfolio. . .and we broke it down," Mr. Hergenrader said, examining the features and benefits of each, detailing competing products and outlining "how we were going to deal with our competition."

Mr. Hergenrader said that if a product or service was not unique, "we set out to find out what we could do to differentiate ourself in that area. And it is a time-consuming process; it took us over a year."

The result was a three-ring binder provided to every salesperson at Kennan & Associates. Before visiting clients, salespeople can review the information on the products they intend to sell, arming themselves with information about why their products are better than those of the competition and about how those competitors tout their versions.

Mr. Hergenrader said TPAs should make sure they get out a clear message regarding their services. "Does your client know what you do? Do you have a brochure out there that says what you do? How old is it? Do you have a Web page?"

He emphasized that the administrative agreement with a client should reflect all the services the TPA can provide, not just the ones provided to that client. Rates for all services, regardless of whether they are being provided, should be shown. "It's kind of a sales tool, isn't it?" he said.

Employers should have some information about a TPA's personnel, Mr. Hergenrader noted. Their biographies should be included in proposals, and information such as professional designations and years of experience should be highlighted. If there is low employee turnover, note that, he said.

Providing reports to clients is "one area we spend a lot of time in," Mr. Hergenrader noted. "We think it's very important to our future."

Instead of printing out a stack of reports and sending it to clients, Keenan & Associates allows its clients to access reports over the Internet. A client can pick which elements it wants to see, and the system provides a report with only those elements.

In this way, standard reports become customized for the employer, Mr. Hergenrader pointed out. "That's going to be the state of the art."

He emphasized that reports have to do more than just generate information; they also have to show employers what the data means. A report should carry with it an executive summary that interprets the information in the report.

Reports should include baseline information, such as the number of claims per month, benchmark data that shows how the claims stack up against others in the same business, and information on best practices that shows what kind of claims experience the employer should strive for, Mr. Hergenrader noted.

Emphasize customer service, he told TPAs who need to distinguish themselves.

It's important to visit clients, and not just at renewal time, Mr. Hergenrader said, or they could become cozy with competitors who come calling throughout the year.

"Do you manage your client, or does your client manage you?" he asked. If the only time a client gets something it needs is when it asks for it, the TPA is not meeting its needs, he warned.

And remember, Mr. Hergenrader said, that if a client does make a request, chances are other clients need the same thing. Making the effort to meet those needs, he added, is "the key to being super-successful vs. successful."

Ron Woods, president and chief executive officer of Healthcare Solutions Group in Muskogee, Okla., moderated the session.