December 13, 2011

From the Toledo Blade
By Tyrel Linkhorn

Medical Mutual of Ohio executives hope a new program will strengthen the company's ties to both the local economy and its customers by encouraging employees to buy from the company's clients.

The Cleveland-based health insurance provider rolled out its "Mutual Appreciation" loyalty program at the beginning of the month. The program works like this: Medical Mutual gathered a list of clients who are retailers or service providers, made it searchable by ZIP code, and posted it on the company intranet.

Employees who buy from those merchants upload their receipt information and are automatically entered into a monthly drawing for a gift card provided by the company.

Company officials say the program is off to a fast start, with about $700,000 in receipts posted since the program went live Dec. 1.

"There's no question it's a big thank you to our customers for their business," said Gary Thieman, a senior vice president with Medical Mutual who is in charge of the company's Toledo operations.

"I don't think a company would choose to buy Medical Mutual's insurance plans just because we have a customer loyalty program, but I would like to think it might be one thing somebody would consider if they were thinking about changing insurance companies."

The company has about 500 employees in Toledo and 2,600 statewide. It also has branches in Indiana, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Officials say nearly 100 Lucas County businesses are in the directory and about 200 in the Toledo area. The list ranges from big-box stores to car dealers — in fact, Medical Mutual said one of the program's first purchases posted was a car, by a Cleveland-area employee.

Mr. Thieman says he believes Mutual Appreciation is the first program of its kind that provides incentives to a company's employees for shopping with its clients. Local business followers also said the idea seemed unique, though they likened it to "buy local" campaigns and other initiatives to encourage spending within communities.

"I think those are becoming very popular right now, but how they bear out over time, it's a little too soon to tell," said Christine Bailey, of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Jennifer McNair, an account administrator with Medical Mutual, said she chose Owens Community College when looking to go back to school because of its relationship with the insurance provider, even without an incentive.

She plans to check with Medical Mutual's clients first when she starts searching for a new car within the next year.

"I want to keep the community going," Ms. McNair said. "If I'm going to buy from somebody, I might as well buy from somebody I work with on a regular basis."

Mr. Thieman said the company is considering ways to expand the incentive program to offer more rewards to more people. Medical Mutual hopes some of its clients may want to provide items to be used as incentives or offer promotions or discounts to employees.