With the right technology, even a small business owner can begin to operate like a senior executive at a large corporation.
“Business owners don’t need more e-mail,” says Rich Cannon, industry development marketing manager for Microsoft. “What they do need is a better way to process it. The problem is, a business owner gets 200 e-mails a day, and there are three in there that will kill the business if they’re not processed. Then there are another 197 that if they get to, great, and if they don’t, it’s still OK.”
Smart Business spoke with Cannon about how the right technology can save you both time and money.
Why should a company have all of its technology streamlined?
E-mail is really the primary way that business owners deal with their customers and their vendors. And you can choose from among all kinds of free e-mail providers, but how are you going to process that e-mail?
You have all this information coming at you, but there are tools that every business can leverage to make it more productive and make its employees more productive. If someone asks you if you can do an appointment, the information is there, you have a task list that you can put it on, and all of that synchronizes with your mobile device.
Now if other people in your office are trying to book an appointment, they don’t have to call you. They can see your schedule and book a time that’s convenient for you, which reduces the number of e-mails and voice mails you’re going to get.
How can business owners get started coordinating their company’s technology?
Most businesses have e-mail of some sort, but one person may have one free service, while another has e-mail through his or her broadband server. So putting everyone on a common system is the place to start.
With the right provider, you’ll get help going through the conversion from whatever each individual was using before onto a system whereby everyone can see one another’s appointments. Once everyone is on a common system, the provider can also help you get your mobile device activated and connected into that system so that you can get everything that is on your desktop on your phone.
What are some mistakes business owners make when moving to a more centralized system?
First, they assume that not everyone in the company needs to be on it because not every job is computer-oriented. The fact is, everyone has to book appointments with someone else, and everyone has to send and receive messages. Everyone has tasks that he or she is doing, and everyone has a schedule. So the first mistake is setting it up for some employees but not for others.
The second mistake is thinking that it’s going to be a huge expense. Business owners think they’re getting a better deal by sticking with their free e-mail account, but that doesn’t offer the tools to process e-mail. Also, a lot of people buy an e-mail software program, and they pay as much for that copy as they would pay for a monthly service for a year. As a result, they don’t get the latest updates on the software, which really improve your productivity.
Finally, they continue to maintain a server in the office. With the hardware and the upgrades and the software licenses, that server is costing the average company $1,000 per year per user, versus a far lower cost for an e-mail service. If you’re using an outside service, that company is taking care of the management of the service, the backup and turning mailboxes on and off. People in your office maintain control over the system, but you don’t have the expense of owning the infrastructure. It really is a better way.
How can using a centralized service save a business owner both time and money?
There are a few examples. Imagine that someone tells you his or her phone number has changed. You put it in your cell phone, but it doesn’t sync back to your e-mail or to your way of processing e-mail. The next time you switch phones, you lose the person’s phone number.
The second timesaver is all the calls you don’t have to take or make. If your assistant needs to set an appointment for you, if all your appointments are in a book somewhere or are in your head, that person wouldn’t be able to do his or her job. With a system in place, your assistant can view your schedule, put something on it, and it shows up on your phone, complete with the attachments you might need for the meeting. As a result, it reduces the number of phone calls and helps you keep everything in sync.
There are a lot of those little things that people have to think to do if a system isn’t doing it for them. And when you take all of that into account, it saves you about 20 percent of the time that you’re in front of your computer or using your mobile device in a week. If you have desk workers at your company, that could save them a day a week.
Rich Cannon is an industry development marketing manager for Microsoft. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (770) 843-2126. For more information, visit www.business.comcast.com. Microsoft Communication Services offered by Comcast featuring Microsoft Outlook 2007.
In this day and age, employees are coming to terms with the fact that pay increases are few and far between. Still, hard work should not go unrecognized, so companies are looking for new and different ways to reward their top performers.
A good benefits package can go a long way toward keeping an employee motivated and engaged. It can also swing a prospective employee’s decision your way an edge any company could use in today’s competitive job market. And today, employees are looking for more than the traditional medical and dental benefits.
But, you can’t just offer the traditional medical and dental benefits. Employees are looking for more, so it would behoove a company to find out what their employees want and need and then give it to them.
“Offering attractive and affordable benefits in addition to traditional insurance keeps employees engaged,” says Melissa Hulsey, president and CEO of Ashton. “By creating a plan that suits your specific work environment, you end up with a happier, healthier and more productive staff.”
Smart Business spoke with Hulsey about implementing effective benefits programs.
Why are benefits so important to today’s work force?
The benefits package your company offers says a lot about the culture and personality of your business. It is important to consider three main factors when designing your plan avoiding economic hardships for employees due to illness or disability, providing employees with some form of retirement income and creating a system of leave. Good talent demands more than a paycheck and if you do not offer a competitive benefits package, your competitors will.
What benefits are most important to today’s work force?
Even with recent legislative changes, access to health care is still the No. 1 benefit for employees. Vision, dental and disability are also highly desirable. Other standard and very popular benefits include life insurance, retirement plans, flexible compensation (cafeteria plans) and employee leave. Automating the enrollment process and ease of information regarding the benefit plan is very important to employees, as well. Offering an easy-to-use, Web-based system will bring added value to an existing benefits program.
Why is rewarding employees so important?
Rewarding and recognizing employees leads to retention. We all feel the need to be appreciated. Recognition of a job well done communicates that our work is valued and respected. This sends an important message to the recipient and other team members about job performance and a company’s ability and willingness to just say ‘thank you.’ A successful reward/recognition plan includes the ability to identify good performance by communicating expectations, immediately recognizing the performance and then giving meaningful rewards.
Rewards can be as simple as posting top performers in company newsletters or on bulletin boards. Hosting ice cream socials or having the boss serve lunch are other fun ways to reward employees. Reward wheels are also very popular. Items like a free day off, leaving early on Friday, free lunch, gift cards and free car washes are posted on a wheel that employees take turns spinning. Be creative with rewards cash is always nice but sometimes simply appreciating the talent you have goes a long way in building employee loyalty.
What if an employer cannot afford to fully fund benefits?
Most benefits plans offered by small or midsize businesses are not fully funded by the employer. When deciding what benefits to fund or partially fund, a good benchmarking of your largest competitors’ benefits may help decide where your money is best spent. In today’s economy every little bit helps, so do not underestimate the importance of contributing even a small amount to the benefits that are important to your population.
What are some examples of nontraditional benefits?
Nontraditional benefits are as varied and unique as the companies that offer them. Unconventional examples include bringing your dog to work, a handyman on staff to assist with home repair while employees are busy at work, weekly in-office massage therapy, a full-time concierge and dry cleaning services. Some of the more popular options include offering paternity leave for new fathers. Allowing men to be at home with a new baby and take a more active ‘daddy’ role is a big deal to families. While this is becoming standard with large corporations it can set a small to mid-size business apart from others. Paid or non-paid this can put a feather in any company’s benefit hat.
On-site child care, child care discounts or a child care allowances are all great ways to assist parents with young children. Offering unpaid leave is a no-cost way to add a benefit. Studies have shown that employees will take six to nine unpaid days per year if available to them. Telecommuting and flextime also top the list of widely used nontraditional benefits. Another trend is moving to a completely performance-based model. In this situation there are no set hours, just very defined job expectations and goals. As long as these standards are being met employees can set their own hours and enjoy the ultimate in job flexibility.
How can employers help employees with work-life balance?
The first thing employers can do is survey their work force. Design a plan that is important to you and be willing to listen and make changes when necessary to keep it current. Secondly, be creative and have an open mind to new ideas. Companies can always pick a ‘beta’ group before rolling out a new benefit to the entire company. Work-life balance is more important now than 10 years ago, and the trend will only grow as the next generation enters the work force.
Melissa Hulsey is president and CEO of Ashton. Reach her at (770) 419-1776 or email@example.com.
Rick O’Dell wants quality at Saia Inc.
It’s not a revolutionary desire as president and CEO of the trucking company [Nasdaq: SAIA], and it’s probably not something that would get his shareholders overly excited in that simplest of phrasing. But, when you define quality as meeting customers’ needs and working to solve their problems, then it becomes far more important in anyone’s mind.
“Some people would tell you that quality costs more, and to some extent, that’s right, but sometimes you can be more efficient when you can do it right the first time,” O’Dell says.
A lot goes into a freight shipment, and one small mistake along the line can cost you money. If freight is damaged, it could require a reship. If it’s late, that may result in a fine from the shipper. A mistake in the warehouse might result in a missed shipment or one that’s not as streamlined as it could be.
It’s all part of the reality in running a $849 million trucking company.
“To the extent that you can take those defects out, not only can you make the customer happy but you’re also more efficient,” he says. “When our on-time service is at high levels and the phone doesn’t ring in customer service and I don’t have to spend time explaining why their freight is not already delivered — there’s a price for having quality, and there’s a price for poor quality too — it’s called rework.”
To be as efficient as possible to maximize revenue, O’Dell focuses on knowing what customers think, adapting his business to meet their needs and working to resolve their problems when they come up.
Know what customers think
The only way you’re going to be able to meet customers’ expectations is to know what’s going on inside their head. O’Dell uses both customer satisfaction surveys, where he gauges his own customers, and competitive surveys, where he gauges how Saia ranks compared to the competition in the eyes of both his customers and potential customers.
“One benefit you have from survey data is not only have we used the surveys to figure out how to improve our own performance, but sometimes, through a survey, you may find out that there is a competitor that has a perceived weakness amongst their customer base, so sometimes we use that for tactical selling against the competitor,” he says. “You do the research to figure out your benchmarking, where you stand, what you need to do, but sometimes you find opportunities to utilize it for different purposes.”
For example, if you do a competitive survey and find out that XYZ Co. has a problem with cargo claims, you can then ask a potential customer who identifies its carrier as XYZ Co. if it has problems with this area. You can segue into how you can address that issue better.
When forming a survey, be strategic.
“You have to make sure you’re getting the critical information but the survey can’t be too burdensome,” O’Dell says. “You have to really look through and say what are you trying to get to and how quickly can you make the survey.”
Don’t slant the participant toward the answer you want. For example, if O’Dell is doing a competitive survey, he may not mention his company as the one conducting it or even ask about Saia specifically.
“Like in this area, who’s the best carrier; you leave it open-ended and see how many times your carrier and the competitors show up,” he says.
He also uses focus groups to find out what customers think. Sometimes he invites customers in based on feedback from sales reps, but he also does blind focus groups.
“We don’t even tell them who the company is, and a lot of times, we’ll pay a small fee to get them to come, and sometimes you get a third-party to facilitate the focus meeting, and you either tape it or sit behind the glass wall,” he says.
Having participants not know who’s sponsoring the group helps achieve honest feedback.
For example, when Saia expanded into the Northwest a few years ago, there were smaller competitors that he discounted as true competition.
“Even some of the salespeople had told us before, ‘We have to consider those people competitors,’ and we would just kind of say, ‘No, that’s not the case,’” O’Dell says. “We were looking more at FedEx and Con-way and some of the largest people out there are our competitors, and [customers] said, ‘No, you have to consider these other people, too.’ The customers set us straight.”
After he’s done initial surveys and focus groups, he can use that data to drill deeper in other surveys.
“You try to focus your questions around those items they’ve already told you are most important,” O’Dell says.
The more you do these surveys, the more you’ll learn about your reputation in the market.
“You can see if your brand is strengthening, and you can see, too, if a competitor’s brand is strengthening,” he says. “Why might that be happening? Your research drives if you need to do some additional work or not. If it’s trending pretty well, maybe you don’t need to make a lot of changes. But if you see something that looks out of order or unusual, you need to figure out why that is and what you might need to do differently.”
Adjust to meet customer needs
Once he knows what customers are really looking for and thinking, then O’Dell makes changes to better meet their needs and expectations.
For example, in the situation of Saia’s Northwest expansion, the feedback caused him to re-evaluate his coverage area because, for some customers, it was important for him to go into the remote areas and not give that freight away to another company.
“Sometimes you have to accept that they’re a specialist and maybe they want to be the one that goes up the mountain and delivers that freight. There are certain markets that there are only a handful of smaller players that go up there, but you also have to look at it and say, ‘Well, they go there, does Con-way go there direct? Does FedEx go there direct?’
“You have to look at the marketplace itself and see if you’re putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage by not providing that particular service.”
But you also have to be careful in listening to clients.
“Sometimes the handful of customers may lead you in the wrong direction, too,” he says. “You have to go through a validation.”
For example, sometimes customers may tell him that they don’t care if it’s not Saia going up the mountain to make that tough delivery, and everything is rosy until something goes wrong.
“It all sounds good that it doesn’t really matter, but part of your product offering and your service is really exception management and problem resolution, and when there’s a handoff, you don’t really control it anymore,” O’Dell says. “You don’t have the access to the same type of information to handle a customer’s inquiry or question. When people tell you something, you have to validate it through your experience or some other method.”
That’s where the surveys and focus groups can come into play again. Typically, once a year, O&#
x2019;Dell polls salespeople to see what they can do better and get that kind of feedback.
“Sometimes when you look at rolling out a new product or pricing offering, we’ll pull a group of people together from operations and sales that have different experiences and backgrounds or things from different companies and run it by that group to see what kind of feedback they have or if they have experience from a different company to say what they think the customers will feel about it,” he says.
Sometimes you have to change regardless of whether you want to or not, but O’Dell says to look at it as an opportunity.
For example, one of his major customers, Wal-Mart, instituted a new policy: Before, Saia was able to deliver things early and Wal-Mart would store it, but now, everyone gets a window — if it arrives early or late, then the carrier would get fined. He now has to hold those shipments for longer periods of time.
“Sometimes you get an event that will impact a large portion of your customers and can enhance your product offering, and then you can take that and go offer it to others,” he says. “When you see things like that, it’s how you adapt to that. We may not necessarily get paid more for doing that, but we can get more business and, over time, you may get paid more. … Things like that, if you’re monitoring what’s going on in the marketplace and how you need to adapt to that, can provide some opportunities.”
Know how to solve problems
Despite his best service attempts, O’Dell knows that sometimes his team will mess up. He starts with establishing a defect management system — metrics that will help determine when this happens — but he breaks it down to small details.
For example, instead of simply looking at whether a shipment was on time or not, he breaks it down further, such as, was it not loaded, was it loaded but not moved on time, did it arrive on time but not moved across the dock, etc.
“You really have to look at your customers and say, ‘What are they looking for?’ and then make sure you build the metrics in there and take your defect management system down to as little details as possible so you have accountability and can improve those key drivers,” he says. “Periodically, that has to be re-evaluated to see if there are ways to improve it or if there are better processes or if our priorities change. You have to be adaptable to that.”
With metrics in place, it’s easier to communicate with both customers and employees about the problems that come up.
So if O’Dell looks at his defect management report and sees four shipments that failed on someone’s shift, he can address that with the employee to help him or her improve.
“You deal with that, and you tell them why, and you review it with them and what other tools they could have used to make a better decision,” he says. “That’s ongoing.”
But he also has to address the problem with the customer.
“First of all, obviously, you have to be open and honest with them and acknowledge what the issue is,” he says.
Then he has a team create a corrective action plan that outlines what the company will do in the future to eliminate more problems.
One of the keys to resolving customer problems is to know what they are and how to handle them. At one company, the person making the shipping decisions may be the vice president, while at another, it could be a warehouse worker. Know who you’re dealing with and what perspective that person is coming from. You also have to handle the situation how you would handle it — not how someone else would.
“Part of it is you have to be yourself,” O’Dell says. “People see through that if you’re not being sincere. You have to get to know the person and figure out how to read them. You have to know yourself, too, and what your strengths are. If you’re like me, you’re a finance person and you’re not the best jokester probably and you have to be a straight man and know that other people may have a way to make fun of the situation and come out of it that way. But you have to figure out what your set of weapons are.”
And while you want to listen and work to resolve their issue, sometimes you also have to point out the facts — if he handles 1,400 shipments a year for them and only three are wrong, that’s a good track record.
“It doesn’t help that one person that one day, but just because you made a mistake on one shipment or had a breakdown or whatever the case may be, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad service provider,” he says. “Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself and show people the data that reminds people of that because they get caught up on the problem they have with one shipment. So while you want to be sympathetic and understanding, sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, as well.”
Knowing when to do this, though, comes back to knowing your customers and their needs.
“Part of it, too, you have to know that some customers will take that, and other customers are going to be offended,” O’Dell says. “Some people probably just want you to be quiet and listen to them, and come back the next day. That’s one thing about salespeople and customer service people: You have to be a bit of a chameleon and figure out what’s the way to handle this situation for this person or customer.”
HOW TO REACH: Saia Inc., (800) 765-7242 or www.saia.com
Some employees at your company may be hiding a big secret from you: They’re legally not allowed to work for you or even in this country. Over the past several years, there has been an increase in people using sophisticated fraudulent information to secure employment, whether through false documents, false benefit applications or even identity theft.
“Unfortunately, that sophistication has made it next to impossible for employers to be sure they’re not employing illegal aliens,” says Jessica Ford, director of sales and operations at Ashton Staffing. “Even companies with the best of intentions often find themselves open to fines and civil penalties if they’re audited.”
Smart Business spoke with Ford about how employers can use the E-Verify and IMAGE certification programs and what to do if you find a problem with a new hire.
What is E-Verify?
E-Verify is an online system operated jointly between the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. Participating employers can check the work status of their new hires by comparing information from an employee’s I-9 form against what the SSA and DHS have on their databases. E-Verify is free, and currently, in Georgia, it’s voluntary unless you are a state agency or provide services to a state agency.
After registering, companies sign documents stating that they will post written notice in their hiring facilities; this allows applicants to know you’re currently enrolled in E-Verify. E-Verify can only be used on new hires. If a company wants to verify its current employees, it must electronically submit its payroll to the SSA via the Social Security Number Verification Service.
What is IMAGE certification?
IMAGE is short for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Mutual Agreement between Government Employers. It is a joint initiative between the government and businesses to strengthen hiring practices in the private industry by reducing the size of the illegal work force. IMAGE certification is a free service.
How can companies implement these programs into their business practices?
Companies who are interested in E-Verify can log on to DHS’s Web site (www.dhs.gov/index.shtm) and register, print off a few forms and mail them in. After you’ve registered, DHS will contact you and provide online training. Once you’ve completed the training, your employees must pass an exam before utilizing the Web site.
Enrolling in IMAGE is a bit more extensive. Companies must currently use E-Verify and agree to an audit of their I-9s by ICE. Companies also must agree to submit their current payroll to the SSA and implement a few ICE-suggested programs. Interested companies may log on to ICE’s Web site (www.ice.gov) and register for information. You may then request an in-person meeting with an IMAGE coordinator.
What should an employer do if it finds an employee mismatch?
The beauty of E-Verify is that it not only alerts you to a nonconfirmation of eligibility but it also guides you through the process. If a nonconfirmation comes back, you print a letter to the employee that lets him or her know that there has been a mismatch. The employee either chooses not to contest the results and self-terminates or goes to the local Social Security office and speaks with someone there. If the employee chooses to contest, he or she has eight days to return with proper paperwork. During the eight days, you must continue to employ that person. If he or she does not return, you may terminate the individual.
What makes a fraudulent document stand out?
Check Social Security cards carefully. Many times fraudulent documents have misspelled words, the font is different or is an irregular color. If the back of the card is blank, it is fraudulent.
What are the benefits of using E-Verify and IMAGE certification?
E-Verify almost completely eliminated our Social Security mismatch letters. It has also improved the accuracy of wage and tax reporting and ensures companies are maintaining a legal work force. E-Verify has recently implemented a photoscreening tool, so when you are verifying your employee’s right to work in the U.S., it has a photo of what the person should look like, which eliminates identity fraud, as well.
With IMAGE certification, there are several benefits, one of which is free training to your staff. You also receive a two-year respite from any I-9 audits after you enroll. If for any reason your company faces civil penalties for employing illegal workers, the good faith participation in IMAGE is considered when fines are assessed.
Jessica Ford is the director of sales and operations at Ashton Staffing. Reach her at (770) 419-1776 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Born: New York City
Mets or Yankees?
This is a good story. I was a Mets fan, and my dad actually got transferred down to Atlanta in 1969 so I started school in Atlanta as a Mets fan when the Mets were playing the Atlanta Braves for the National League Championship. I was very unpopular because I was the only kid in school rooting for the Mets. I quickly became a Braves fan. For any readers in New York that are fans of the Yankees, I will say I admire their success.
Education: MBA from Harvard Business School and a bachelor of business administration degree in accounting from the University of Georgia
What was your first job?
My first job ever was I was 13 years old, and I was a busboy at a delicatessen. It wasn’t very glamorous. I was always taught the importance of working from a very young age and a hard work ethic and whatever you’re going to do, even if you don’t like, do it well. It’s hard to like being a busboy.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I think I’d have to say the best advice I’ve ever received is come to work every single day wanting to earn your job. Especially as the CEO of the company, where, for many people that may be their career ambition and they’ve made it to the top, but I feel a pretty deep obligation every single morning to earn my job. I think, whether it’s writing an article or bussing tables or being the CEO, whatever work we’re doing in our daily lives, it’s not a privilege and it’s not something that because you’ve reached a certain point in your career that you have the right to anything so I think that was it. Come to work every day prepared to earn your job.
What’s your favorite board game and why?
Scrabble. It’s fun. It’s creative. I enjoy writing, and I probably don’t love board games where you roll dice or spin wheels, and you’ve got letters and you have to use some creativity and there’s some thinking ahead. It’s a game I grew up playing with my mom when I was little, so I’ve just always enjoyed playing Scrabble.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a professional baseball player, but I knew that wasn’t practical. Then I wanted to be a coach, and I realized that wasn’t practical either. I think my first real practical professional goal was to actually become an attorney. I was at a student awards banquet at my undergrad, and I received the student of the year award, and they announced I was going to go to law school, and one of my friends’ fathers saw me and said, ‘You’re not going to law school you’ll hate being an attorney. You’re going to come work for me for a couple of years, and if you want to go back to law school, then do it.’ I went to work for him in the accounting and consulting field and got exposed to businesses and realized that’s where my heart laid in building businesses. If my friend’s father hadn’t been there that day at that awards banquet, I probably would have been a lawyer.
Albert Ertel is chief operating officer of Alliant Health Plans. The company is a licensed provider-sponsored health care corporation and a not-for-profit company whose aim is to improve health care for its policyholders.
Q. How can an insurance company help a business develop a wellness program?
Is the insurance company part of the solution? Is it a program that they’re including in their core benefit? Or is it an add-on that the company will need to pay for and do some things to set up? Because when you start talking about wellness, there are three components to wellness or a change in lifestyle: Stop, shut up and get moving. What I mean by that is stop smoking, shut up and stop eating the poor nutritional value foods, and get moving with regular exercise.
Q. Has that approach been successful in reaching businesses and employees?
Those are the same things your physician is going to tell you. There are so many people who are still looking for that magic pill. What’s going to be the wake-up call going for an individual? If somebody is trying to get health or life insurance they haven’t had in 10 years, the first thing you look for is what was the event in that person’s life that got them to make that call? They probably had a friend or a family member who just had a heart attack or a wake-up call, and it affected them deeply.
Q. How much money, time and effort should a business invest in a wellness program?
The initial rollout needs to have a splash, so you have ownership at all levels of the company. As far as the dollar amount, we looked at probably two dozen wellness vendors, and there were six- and eight-week programs that cost $100 per person, but after six or eight weeks, you didn’t see any results. So it needs to be a long-term and ongoing program. Should it cost a lot of money? No. The price point could be anywhere from $3 per member per month, up to $10. It’s going to be a function of what they want to do.
It’s no secret that health care is a hot topic. But putting aside the politics of the issue, there are two things that can’t be argued: health care costs are constantly on the rise and people’s health is constantly on the decline.
An unhealthy work force is an unproductive work force. If your people aren’t as healthy as they can or should be, you’ll face absenteeism, decreased job performance and lower morale, just to name a few.
Luckily, there are ways to both lower health care costs and improve the health of your people: successful wellness programs.
“Companies have a great opportunity to impact their employees’ lives and really make a difference,” says Cecelia Wagoner, the executive director of Corporate & Community Health for WellStar Health System. “People spend a large amount of their time at work. A good wellness program can improve the quality of life for your employees and their families.”
Smart Business spoke with Wagoner about wellness programs, how to implement them and how to drive employee engagement.
What should an employer expect when starting a wellness program?
Expect a lot of hard work. Implementing a wellness program takes a lot of time, effort and commitment. Develop a solid plan so you’re ready every step of the way. Know exactly what you’re taking on, be prepared and have the right mindset. Wellness programs are more than just nice ways to help your employees; they are true business strategies, so adopt them as part of your culture.
Also, don’t expect an immediate return on investment. Improved morale and engagement could happen right away, but it will take time to see true results in terms of reduced absenteeism and health care costs. But stick with it the ROI will come.
How do you develop a successful program?
First, make sure you have complete buy-in from all levels of senior management. You’ve got to walk the talk throughout the organization. Show your employees that the company cares about them and wants to help better their lives.
Once management is on board, identify a wellness coordinator or advocate who will own the program. Or, if your company is large enough, you can have a wellness team that will promote healthy living. Either way, you need a clear and consistent message.
Next, solicit employee feedback. Find out what is important to employees. What health risks are they worried about? What types of programs would interest them? Involve all employees, deal with all major health risks and offer choices.
You’ll also want to conduct health screenings and surveys as well as testing for things such as blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose and body weight. A Health Risk Appraisal (HRA), an assessment tool that looks at an individual’s family history, health status and lifestyle, should also be used. An HRA can identify the precursors associated with serious illness and quantify the probable impact for each individual. It also will tell you about the fitness levels of your employees.
If you want to get people to change, you must educate, motivate and give them the tools to meet their goals. Educating employees on the health risks they face and showing them how they can prevent those risks is a great beginning step.
What are the key components of a successful wellness program?
Again, you have to be consistent. You can’t encourage healthy eating and then have unhealthy food in the vending machine or at the cafeteria. Also, if you encourage exercise, but don’t show employees proper ways to do it or give them the time and flexibility to do it, they probably won’t. You have to commit to and support the programs you implement.
How do you drive employee engagement?
This should come from your wellness advocate or team. Employees need to feel a connection from their peers; they don’t want to feel like management is forcing them to eat differently or exercise more. Having an excited and engaged wellness champion will make it easier and more likely that people will get involved.
Also, you can offer incentives and rewards such as cash, time off, health-related cookbooks or exercise equipment, or even just acknowledgement in the company newsletter or lunch with the boss. You could even offer a health care premium incentive lower your cholesterol or stop smoking and pay less for health care. Whatever you do, make sure the incentives are meaningful and valued by your employees.
How do you handle opposition?
Employees may be leery about sharing their health data or taking part in fitness activities. But if you have good wellness champions and show proof of the programs working, you can alleviate those fears. Employees will embrace a wellness program that challenges them both physically and mentally. Again, increased participation can be expected if you offer incentives. If that’s not enough, make sure the program is well organized and promoted so the employees are constantly aware of the wellness opportunities available to them. Focus on increasing awareness, supporting health management or personal change, and promoting healthy work climates.
How does developing such a program benefit a company?
It depends on your goals, but wellness programs have the potential to decrease absenteeism, reduce medical claims and improve employee productivity, recruitment and retention. All of those things are great and very important, but, bottom line, a wellness program is the right thing to do. Take care of your most valuable asset your people.
Cecelia Wagoner is the executive director of Corporate & Community Health for WellStar Health System. Reach her at (770) 793-7181 or email@example.com.
Despite repeated warnings, many small businesses continue to bet the farm on IT backup systems that don’t work. Their tape backups often fail due to malfunctioning drive systems, software issues, or human error. Their disaster recovery plans that rely on these backups are rarely tested if they exist at all. The problems are usually discovered when an actual disaster leads to loss of critical data and work products.
Smart Business spoke to Steven Vicinanza, CEO of BlueWave Computing LLC, about the new, highly cost-effective technologies that are easy to put in place to solve these problems once and for all.
What are the risks to companies’ data?
When people think of disaster planning they typically envision a fire or flood and perceive the risk as minimal. However, there are other risks that are much more common. No. 1 is equipment failure. Many believe that using mirrored or redundant drives (called RAID) eliminates the worry of a server failure. They rely on the fact that multiple drives must fail in order to lose data. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, a very common failure point is a faulty server cooling fan, which will quickly cause overheating. Excess heat destroys disk drives resulting in catastrophic and total data loss.
Another all too common occurrence is equipment theft. With an active black market for personal identity information (which can be worth as much as $10 per person), many thieves are actually more interested in the data on the server than the hardware itself. Businesses like medical practices are especially attractive due to the large amount of social security and credit card information stored there. Obviously, if a server is stolen, the firm will find itself 100 percent reliant on the backup system to recover.
What’s wrong with current backup systems?
Most backups rely on removable media, such as tape, disk, or optical. Backup software running on the server copies its data files to the backup media. The media must be rotated daily and physically removed from the office to ensure recoverability in the event of theft or a facility disaster like a fire. This requires the constant diligence of office staffers, who must be trained in the backup procedures and troubleshooting.
In addition, the most economical and common media, magnetic tape, quickly wears out over time and is prone to failure. The result is that even if all procedures are correctly followed, there is no guarantee that the tape will function properly when called on. In addition, there is a huge security risk in having all the company’s data on a small, easy-to-remove tape backup.
The bottom line is that removable media backups are labor intensive, insecure and prone to human and mechanical failures.
What about disaster recovery and testing?
Current backup systems also lack an easy way to verify that the disaster plan works. To fully test a server backup one must either restore over the current server (which is usually not an option), or purchase a second, identical server to use as a backup test platform. As many organizations have multiple servers, this can become expensive in terms of both time and equipment costs. Needless to say, few companies go through the trouble to ever actually test a backup plan. Yet, without testing, one can never be sure that the plan actually works.
How can new backup technology help?
A new breed of backup technology has recently emerged. Made possible by the recent intersection of high-speed Internet service, server virtualization technology, advanced data encryption and specialized delta-based backup software, this new high-tech backup solution resolves the problems we’ve outlined here. It is completely hands-free, automated, secure, redundant, verifiable and, best yet, highly affordable.
How does it work?
Using special backup software, an initial snapshot is taken of the file system on the server. Then, each hour, any disk changes are snapped. These changes or ‘deltas’ are saved along with the master image on a local backup appliance. Because only changes are saved, the amount of the data stored each hour is relatively small and manageable.
From the appliance, it takes literally minutes go back to any point in the past and recover files that might have been accidentally deleted or changed. Should the server crash, the appliance can run the image it has stored and actually become a replacement server. For the first time, the organization has a testable and complete disaster recovery plan in a single box.
What if the office is robbed or burns to the ground?
If the server and the appliance are both lost and all the data is gone with it, this is where the Internet comes to the rescue. Every night, the appliance combines all the changes it has backed up over the day and compresses, encrypts and sends them over the Internet to a secure data center. When a disaster occurs, a disk is restored at the data center and delivered to load on a new server. Until a new server is obtained, the data center can load the image on its appliance and have the business up and running in hours instead of the days that might typically be required to procure a new server and recover a tape backup.
What will this cost?
An office with a single server can usually be protected for as little as a few hundred dollars per month. This would include the appliance and sufficient storage to keep a year of changes online. So now there’s no excuse not to have a bullet-proof backup and disaster recovery plan. And remember, failing to plan is planning to fail!
Steven Vicinanza is the CEO of BlueWave Computing LLC. For more information, visit BlueWave-Computing.com.
Stop for a minute or two and think back to what you learned about the banking industry during your childhood. Your parents probably introduced you to the concepts of deposits and checks and balances. You learned how to make the numbers work. Now think about what you learned about the industry during your years on campus and in the classroom. Some professor probably lectured to you about loans and liens and interest. You learned enough to earn a good grade and get out in the business world. And what did you learn about the industry after you established yourself in that world? You probably learned that a relationship with your banker is important, that surprises are bad and that communication is the key to just about everything.
Well, good. Keep all of that information in mind because so much of it remains relevant and important today. But so much more of the information that you learned during your childhood and your education and your years in business is now better left in the past, thanks to the lingering memories and results of the financial fiasco that rocked the economy for the better part of two years.
As we climb out of the fiscal wreckage of 2008 and 2009, the banking industry is in the middle of a new landscape. After what seemed like one bank sale, merger or closure after another, there are now fewer banks across the nation. And after thousands and thousands of businesses defaulted on their loans, banks of all sizes became more prudent in their lending practices.
The financial future continues to improve, but the present might be difficult for some business owners.
“In the last six months, banks were spending a lot of time reacting to the problems businesses were having as well as some of the problems in their own shops and in the financial markets,” says Kevin Hipskind, senior vice president, commercial lending, Fifth Third Bank. “So banks just didn’t have as much time to be out there working proactively with their clients on a lot of things. That left a lot of companies underserved.”Ask the right questions
Communication with your bank and your banker is as important today as it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago and, of course, with smart phones and the ability to talk almost immediately with just about anyone anywhere in the world at any time, communication has never been easier, either. But sitting down with your banker in person rather than over the phone remains the best and most effective means of communication, even if it might feel like some sort of lost art. That goes both ways, too; you should want to meet with your banker in person, but he or she should also want to meet with you.
“The first thing that companies can do is sit down with their relationship manager and discuss all the products and services that are currently being provided to them,” Hipskind says. “We try to do that every year because products and services tend to change as far as their relevance and their cost-benefit.
“The companies that have weathered the storm have significant upside opportunities, and the banks are having discussions on how to leverage this. Are there acquisitions that need to happen? Are there clients you can take on from your competitor who went out of business? What kind of working capital do you need to do that?”
It’s important for you to ask the right questions, too, especially if your bank merged with another bank during the recession or if it closed its doors and left you looking for a new bank.
For example, what will the bank offer you in terms of its resources? Will you work with one banker or with a team? As your business grows and changes, will the bank be able to help you meet your evolving needs? And how will the bank support you during your growth or expansion? Will the bank and your banker be proactive and visit your offices or locations in order to learn more about your company and provide trusted advice? Or will the bank offer nothing more than answers to your banking needs?
Think of that first conversation like a first date, of sorts. You want to learn as much as possible so you can determine whether to go out on a second date. If all goes well, maybe those dates will turn into a long-term relationship.
“We look for companies that recognize we’re in a difficult time and are looking for ways to cut costs, and we’re looking for ways to help them cut costs,” Hipskind says. “Those that have maintained really strong balance sheets and have cut costs to address some of the economic issues are seeing a lot of opportunities, and we’re looking for ways to help them grow. There are a lot of opportunities out there for growth. It really is a fun time to be out there talking to businesses. As much as there are challenges, there are great opportunities, too.”Prepare for economic change
On the surface, at least, the economy has started to turn. You need to look no further than the Bureau of Labor Statistics for proof of that. The unemployment rate either held or dropped each month from October 2009 through February, down to 9.7 percent from 10.1 percent. But talk with enough bankers and the picture comes into clearer focus.
Banks are still lending money. Banks want and need to lend money. It is, after all, one of their major sources of revenue. But according to a panel of experts, the number of loans and the amount of money requested during the last 12 months dropped significantly, and among the businesses that continued to request loans, more defaulted than normal. That led to banks examining financial statements and trends more closely. It also led to the perception that banks were holding onto their money.
“I believe many clients would say that credit underwriting is certainly more conservative. In reality, that has been the case for much longer than nine months,” says Gary Dowell, regional vice president, commercial markets, RBC Bank. “I hope that our clients would say we are willing to listen and help them through down cycles. Many banks, weakened by the economy, are simply unable to assist their clients with certain credit requests or other bank services. That has forced clients to look beyond their primary bank for financial assistance and banking services.
“The banker can help educate the client on specific credit criteria used by the bank. Those facts will help the client understand the reasons behind a particular credit decision.”
Now, with fewer banks in the marketplace, some banks can be more selective. But most are actually more open now to lending and are more forgiving. Ask around and you might find that many are breaking down the last year of financial statements for businesses seeking a loan, examining each month in search of positive trends, rather than just glazing over negative numbers from the last two or three years. Other banks are adding business bankers. Still more have recently committed billions to small and medium businesses.
The time is right to work with your bank. Just ask.
Wellness programs continue to receive the spotlight as a way to counteract the rising costs of health insurance. But do they? Many experts see wellness programs not as a cure-all but an integral part of a new beginning.
“Promoting healthy lifestyles and positive behavior choices is always a good thing,” says Mark Mixer, vice president for Alliant Health Plans. “It is difficult for employers to realistically gauge the impact it will have on health insurance premiums. The smaller the employer, the more difficult it becomes.”
Smart Business spoke with Mixer about how to tell if a ‘feel-good’ solution makes fiscal sense for your company.
Why are wellness programs becoming prevalent?
The unceasing trend of double-digit increases has employers frustrated, and solutions are elusive at best. Professional insurance advisers are compelled to provide solutions, and many have become advocates of wellness programs. Even the new government mandated benefits will require a wellness component. Employers logically want ROI calculations that show substantially lower costs.
Unfortunately, the excitement is short-lived once employers are told these programs come at an additional cost, above the insurance premium already being paid. Unless the end result of a wellness program will put an immediate and substantial dent in costs, it may be put off. The downside is unrealistic expectations on what wellness programs can truly provide and how they can benefit or enhance an employer’s benefit program.
Do wellness programs benefit employers?
To answer that question, we have to understand the core precept of insurance, which is ‘risk.’ Virtually all midsized to small employers are ‘fully insured,’ which means the premium payment they make effectively ‘transfers’ the risk of health care claims to the insurance company. Larger companies are typically ‘self-funded,’ with the employer paying the claims and assuming the risk (even though the employer may have an insurance company handling the transactions or taking the risk for the catastrophic claims on its behalf).
So here is the critical question: If a wellness program is beneficial, who benefits? In respect to premium costs the answer is the entity taking the risk. Why would an employer (fully insured) add additional costs of a wellness program when the risk — and thus the upside or benefit — is gained by the insurance company? Shouldn’t the company holding the risk pay for such programs, since they will reap much of the upside? Only the insurance company, or a large employer, has enough people to positively bend the cost-curve by employing wellness programs. It is virtually impossible to calculate the savings in a fully insured group (small to midsized company) with any accuracy.
Employers want the best for their employees, and for them to exercise, stop smoking and eat right. But there is a catch. Unless the insurance company is also invested in the results and can measure them, a realistic ROI is impossible to determine. If the carrier is not paying for these results, ask why. This is the logic we used to become the first health insurance company in Georgia to offer an incentive-based wellness program that is paid entirely by us — the insurance carrier — yet all parties have an opportunity to benefit.
What major mistakes do employers make when developing a benefits strategy?
Employers spend their time operating a business and minimal time on benefit planning. Not having a long-term, well-structured benefit strategy is the most common mistake. Another common mistake is not working with an experienced benefit adviser.
Failing to ask employees what they really want is a very common oversight. There is little to no collaboration with the very people employers are trying to retain. Unfortunately, this can’t be done one meeting 30 or even 60 days before the benefit plan’s renewal. For many employees, and employers for that matter, health insurance is perceived as a hassle. Oftentimes this is a result of not providing adequate choices based on employee needs and budgets. For instance, employers might be surprised to find that employees would be happier if they had a less rich, and less costly, medical plan if they gained access to a vision or a long-term disability benefit.
What can employers do to combat rising costs?
Gone forever are the quick fixes that instantly generate substantial savings. The fixes available today are incremental and must be thoughtfully combined. A professional agent or adviser can provide insight on various plan and contribution strategies that you may not have considered. These strategies can help to properly align your benefit goals.
There is much more to employee benefits than health insurance — and unless the company is promoting a wellness ‘culture,’ wellness programs probably won’t have much impact. Yes, we should all promote healthy behavior, but gaining measurable savings on health insurance premium costs needs to be more than negligible.
Our innovative wellness program is entirely incentive-based. This allows us to laser in on behaviors that drive costs down for our whole population and provide our employer clients with positive and rewarding messages for their employees. These incentives act as a motivational tool that keeps employees engaged, and it doesn’t add to costs.
Employee benefit programs are supposed to help employers recruit and retain quality employees. Every decision surrounding benefit planning should accomplish one or both of those objectives. For most employers, health insurance is one of their largest expenses, after payroll. If it doesn’t help you recruit or retain employees, then why spend the time and money? Think of health insurance as the final piece of a larger puzzle and wellness programs as the thread that weaves its way through all the pieces.
Mark Mixer is a vice president for Alliant Health Plans. Reach him at (800) 664-8480 x271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.