by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

We make our living selling wellness campaigns. And lots of our referrals come through wellness consultants/vendors. So it’s not without reservation that we advise our customers and prospects to do their own homework. What if another vendor has a newer, shinier whatchamacallit that we don’t? What if they do choose another service provider? What if they love that provider and never come back?

If you’re a vendor and such questions keep you up at night, you’ve bigger problems than these. If you’re a buyer, relying solely on what your current vendor partners and consultants are saying, you may get lucky. But there’s a good chance you’re missing out on significant opportunity; here’s why:

  • Consultants aren’t objective. It’s not a character flaw, it’s called being human. And while they can go to great attempts with ratings and rankings and complex surveys, in the end who you like is who you like — which can be good for the client... or not. Here’s a red flag: If the consultant is proclaiming completely unbiased analysis and recommendations, you’re likely getting the least objective information.
  • Vendors are automatically biased. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be any good. We have to believe what we do is best for you and your organization and be prepared to lay out the reasons. But if a vendor is bashing a competitor (even in a subtle way), it often means they’re hiding something about their own services. Vendors need to prove their worth when they have the chance, deliver on their promises, and not give the customer a need to go shopping.
What You Need To Do

If your main purpose for hiring a consultant is so you can abdicate responsibility for the choices you make, there’s no need to read on. But if your goal really is to serve your organization with the best wellness program model and services, here’s what you can gain by doing some of the heavy lifting:

  • Review vendor websites and marketing materials. If they’re loaded with corporate jargon, industry buzzwords, and references to the latest academic theories in health behavior change, proceed with caution. Overreliance on trendiness could be a sign of a service without depth. Or it could simply mean the marketers don’t have a good handle on what may be a worthwhile service so they fall back on fluff.
  • Talk to references — lots of them. Don’t skip this step. And if you do, just remember we told you so. It’s time-consuming for sure, but until the words you hear align with the pitch you’ve received — consistently across multiple current and former clients — you can’t make the best decision.
  • Visit the vendor. Seeing the operation with your own eyes and having it explained to you by the folks who will work for you (not the sales team) in real time can be enormously instructive. If you don’t have a travel budget, set up a webex and ask them to walk you through the operation showing tools, systems, and processes that will be used to support your organization.

This is a lot of work. But do you want to do it over again in a year, or even 3 years? Total vetting and thorough due diligence up front mean you’re far less likely to have to start over when the current contract runs out. Even more important, it means you’ve hired the best partner for you and your employees to achieve your well-being goals.

by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

This personalized email will raise signups in the first quarter — get it out to all of this year’s participants in early January:

Dear (name),

Just a quick note of appreciation for participating in XYZ wellness program last year. I hope you’re continuing to achieve your well-being goals.

As we begin the new year, I’d like to invite you to help us do a better job of meeting your needs. If you have suggestions for improving our programs/services or anything we can do to support your healthy lifestyle, please call me.

by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

A small minority of political pollsters and pundits predicted Donald Trump would win the presidential election. Even some right-leaning commentators suggested a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. And then, the election happened…

I’ve been studying, writing about, and creating products for workplace wellness since 1992. And if the 2016 election taught me nothing else, it showed me I don’t know anything about anything. So I’m doing some serious reflection on positions I’ve held firmly for the last quarter century.

What I thought I knew about wellness programming…

  • Financial incentives make health behavior change harder and threaten the viability of workplace well-being programs
  • Risk-centered wellness is a waste of time and money that results in a series of “should” and “don’t” programs that most of a population ignores
  • Best-practice approaches to wellness programming produce a check-the-box mentality that stifles innovation
  • Everything-but-the-kitchen sink (more is better) wellness programs result in a mishmash of stuff that can be successful only through luck.

What I thought I knew about us…

  • We work to pay the bills but thrive there when our needs for autonomy, competence, and connectedness are met, thereby offering the most value to the organization
  • When we feel good about our jobs and the organization (thriving at work) we’re much more receptive to workplace wellness and personal health behavior change
  • Introducing money to entice us to participate in wellness programs becomes a do-this/get-that transaction and robs us of the desire to act in our own best interest.

Looking to 2017 and Beyond

As the new year gets underway, I’m not going to simply change my thinking about what I thought I knew (unlike politicians who bash opponents relentlessly for over a year then change their stance overnight). But I am going to keep searching for what motivates participants and try to find:

  • A financial incentive model that works — reducing risk or cost over the long term. If you have one or know one, please contact me so we can share it with those continuing to struggle.
  • A risk-based wellness program that results in voluntary participation. This seems like it should be possible — after all, we all want to reduce our risk for illness and premature death. So again, please share.
  • A best-practice (pick your favorite list) programming approach that has produced better results than a streamlined, tightly focused model with limited elements but exceptional execution.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to advocate for workplace well-being that focuses on aligning organization goals and values with individual needs and wants. I’ll write about creating programs and services that strive to support autonomy, competence, and connection. And I’ll continue to lead Health Enhancement Systems in creating and delivering services that people want to be a part of because they’re challenging, fun, social, and contribute to health and quality of life.

What will you do?

by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Those words sting just a little bit. But the wellness director for a 5000-employee company — participating on a recent panel discussion in Washington DC — meant it. Sitting in the back of the conference hall, my mood alternated between anger at shady colleagues and frustration with wellness service consultants and buyers.

Vendors Need to Clean Up Their Act

Just as with presidential politics, some characters spin data, misrepresent facts, take situations out of context, and lie outright if they think the truthful alternative is less favorable to them in the moment. While not stated, some hide behind the excuse that everyone is doing it, so we have to make unsubstantiated claims or we’ll be left behind.

Other vendors operate under the premise that you can fool some of the people all of the time — “As long as I can hit this year’s sales numbers, that’s good enough for me” — unfulfilled promises notwithstanding. That attitude almost always catches up to you and the result is a landscape littered with companies that failed or were bought on the cheap by larger vendors.

The unfortunate result: Those vendors trying to do and say the right (accurate) thing are tainted by their less forthright brethren and end up paying for their sins. On several occasions we’ve had to clean up after the last vendor’s mess, in terms of both execution and expectations.

For their own longevity and the health of the industry, vendors need to stop spinning, misrepresenting, embellishing, or obfuscating just to get a sale. It may mean less business in the short term, but developing a reputation for making realistic projections and delivering on them means you’ll be around long after the next shiny thing comes and goes.

Consultants Need to Do Meaningful Homework

If you’re going to print “consultant” on your business card, do some actual consulting homework, NOT:

  • Put together labyrinthine surveys that obscure rather than clarify what’s important to your client
  • Send those surveys to every wellness vendor that hangs out a shingle
  • Have first-year associates go through vendor proposals to rank answers when they can’t possibly have enough experience or context to make a reasonable judgment
  • Invite a parade of vendors in for a beauty contest to see who has the best graphic arts department.


  • Clarify exactly what is important to your client in no more than 3 pages; if it takes more than that, you’re just padding your hours.
  • Invite only vendors with specific expertise in your client’s needs to submit a proposal.
  • Request proposals that speak directly to your client’s needs, not a panoply of services outside the scope of what they’re trying to accomplish.
  • Talk to a dozen or more references — current, former, and soon-to-launch customers. Keep digging until you begin to hear recurring themes. If you don’t, and the feedback is all over the board, that’s a red flag. Astonishingly, this is the step skipped most often. If you’re not doing this, you’re just pretending to be a consultant and clearly have put your interests ahead of your client’s.
  • Visit vendors you’re recommending as well as a vendor’s clients if possible. This may not always be in the cards, but seeing the actual operation and having the ability to interact with people providing and supporting the service, not just the sales team, can be very eye-opening.

Buyers Have to Stop Being Lazy

We know, you’re busy. And you don’t have time to become expert at all the services you need. But even so, if you don’t do some of the heavy lifting yourself, you deserve what you get.

  • Ask for proof. If a vendor makes claims about participation, engagement, outcomes, savings, etc., and any of those things are vital to you/your management, ask them to show you real data of real clients. Then ask to speak to those clients. If they can’t/won’t produce it, you should probably ignore their claims.
  • Talk to references. Even if your consultant has done this, do it yourself, then compare notes. That doesn’t mean you’re wasting money or time; it simply means you’ve taken the most important tool you have and confirmed what you think you know.
  • Read the fine print. Nothing says I care less than not reading and fully understanding your RFPs, the responses you get back, and the contracts you enter. Your attorneys and/or purchasing departments will do this as well (hopefully), but it’s too important for you not to be 100% clear on what you want, what’s being proposed, and ultimately, what you and your new partner agree.
  • Cut your losses if needed. In some organizations, pushing through a new service agreement with a new vendor feels like building the space shuttle. You really don’t want to do it again at the end of the first year. But your contract has an out clause for a reason. If the vendor hasn’t delivered what they promised (through no fault of yours), blow it up and start over.

Vendors, consultants, and buyers should all want the same thing: the best services at a fair price for the client. If all do their job to the best of their ability, buyers will be more likely to say “I believe everything my wellness vendor tells me”… and mean it.