How Caryn Siebert took the helm of Carl Warren & Company and set it on course

Caryn Siebert, president and CEO, Carl Warren & Company

Caryn Siebert, president and CEO, Carl Warren & Company

Business Services

FINALIST

When she took the helm of Carl Warren & Company nine years ago, Caryn Siebert was facing the challenges of a company suffering substantial losses and outdated infrastructure. She went to her first board meeting and honestly and directly told the board members that under her turnaround plan, it would be three years before the company would break even.

Siebert, leveraging her knowledge of Six Sigma and prior experience as a CEO, was successful, and she took the employee-owned third party claims and litigation management company back into black ink.

Before Siebert came to Carl Warren & Company, the organizational structure consisted of branches that acted as separate profit centers. She recognized that this configuration was damaging to the business — the branches continued to compete against each other for clients and profits.

To eliminate this situation without significant staff layoffs, Siebert decided to restructure the company by forming business lines focusing on specific services like public and insurance claims. That way, offices are working together to best allocate resources and assist clients across geographic areas.

Carl Warren & Company realized significant growth, and in 2009, was named one of the “Best Companies to Work For” in OC Metro magazine. However, as the economic recession took hold, clients wanted cheaper rates and expenses continued to increase.

Siebert knew she could not cut employees or high-level services. Instead, she decided to expand the company into a new market segment, bringing workers’ compensation in its product mix. Revenues increased to $30 million that year.

Siebert’s aptitude for instilling loyalty — there is an almost 100 percent employee retention rate — extends even further in terms of her client relationships. With customized programs, certificates of guarantee and years of experience, the company has a strong client base that only continues to grow.

How to reach: Carl Warren & Company, www.carlwarren.com

Customer service is the lifeblood of any business

Susan Krantz, partner, Zinner & Co. LLP

Susan Krantz, partner, Zinner & Co. LLP

A good salesperson can sell anything to anyone once, but when mutually beneficial relationships are formed and nurtured, a client or customer will walk away happy and keep coming back. So what are some essential steps you can take in your business to ensure customer satisfaction?

Consistently Provide Exceptional Quality and Timely Services

The relationship you cultivate with your customers should not subscribe to the slogan, “You get what you pay for.” Instead, you should always strive to provide clients with a far more valuable experience than the price that they pay. When we enter into any client relationship at our firm, we do so with a commitment to meet the needs of that client’s engagement, regardless of size and the potential fees generated. We become proactively involved in an advisory capacity with our client relationships by meeting more frequently with their team of professionals or connecting them with additional service professionals.   As a business leader you should actively work with your clients to provide only the services that they truly need and do not over-sell in order to build confidence and a trusting relationship.

Also, even though technology has given businesses helpful innovations that are used on an everyday basis, do not underestimate the power that human interaction still holds. When a client calls your office, they want to speak directly with a real person, not navigate through a hopelessly complex voicemail system.

Attract, Hire and Retain Employees with the Necessary Customer Service DNA

Even a highly qualified individual with years of experience may not have the right tools to maintain your company’s customer service brand. A thorough process of interviewing, reference checking, and introductions to members of your company’s team can help your staff develop a consensus of whether an individual is truly the right fit for your clients and business.

Internships and internal training programs are integral components in helping employees build meaningful, long-term careers with your company. Since an effective learning experience is both formal and informal, have new employees shadow more experienced staff members to learn the “soft skills” necessary to effectively communicate with and service clients in order to meet their needs in a professional manner.

Create a Culture Where Customer Service Flourishes

Unsatisfied employees can do much more damage to your company’s brand than one unsatisfied customer.  A staff that consistently receives support and education will be significantly less stressed, allowing them to maintain superior levels of customer service even during the busiest workdays. For example, we implemented a Wellness Program for our staff to focus on physical and mental well-being during the hectic months of tax season. Encourage your staff members to get involved in organizations that are important to them, so they can fine-tune leadership and networking skills while serving the community.

Susan D. Krantz, CPA, is a partner at Zinner & Co. LLP. Reach her at (216) 831-0733 or [email protected]

Protecting your intellectual property takes conscious effort

The term “intellectual property” applies to more than just a copyright. Here are some questions for companies to consider about their IP when security is a concern.

Q. What is considered intellectual property but is often overlooked when deciding what to protect?

A. When people think of intellectual property, they most often think ’patent’ or ‘copyright.’ There are other forms. One that’s often overlooked is trade secrets.

As noted in an influential restatement of the law, a ‘trade secret is any information that can be used in the operation of a business … that is sufficiently valuable and secret to afford an actual or potential economic advantage over others.’ They take a wide variety of forms, including product formulas, data compilations, customer lists, manufacturing techniques and other types of business know-how.

Q. How might a company’s trade secrets be vulnerable?

A. A business has to identify its trade secrets before it can protect them. Common sense goes a long way here. Business owners should start by asking, ‘What does my business do better than the competition, which the competition doesn’t know about?’ The answer might qualify as a trade secret.

Q. What policies or procedures should a company put in place to protect its trade secrets?

A. There are no hard and fast rules, but a business must take ‘reasonable steps’ to protect its secrets. This could include password-protecting computers, limiting access on a need-to-know basis, keeping documents under lock and key, and/or requiring employees to maintain secrecy during and after employment.

Q. How has social media affected a company’s ability to protect its trade secrets?

A. It has made it more difficult for businesses to argue that it has trade secrets — a point underscored in Sasqua Group Inc. v. Courtney, No. 10-528, 2010 WL 3613855 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 2, 2010), where the court held that compiled customer data was not a trade secret because the information was also available on the Internet and social media sites.

There are no easy answers, but one thing seems clear: Businesses must take care when posting to social media sites and educate employees about using social media sites.

P. Andrew Fleming is a partner with Novack and Macey LLP. He represents individuals and small, midsize and large companies in complex commercial litigation.

Social media: A window to your intellectual property

Social media tools provide an accessible and inexpensive way for businesses to expand their market footprint. But failure to protect and enforce intellectual property rights may quickly turn a great resource into a major headache, whether or not social media is part of a corporate marketing program, says Alexis Dillett Isztwan of Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia LLC.

Together, social media and intellectual property pose internal and external issues. Internally, a business must monitor and control employee use of intellectual property. Given social media’s accessibility, problems can arise and grow rapidly. Imagine an employee prematurely tweeting about a new product launch or information never intended for the public. To reduce risk, businesses should establish a written social media policy that:

■  Sets clear guidelines for appropriate topics to be posted on any media, including company and employee personal accounts.

■  Identifies personnel permitted to post and the posting approval process.

■  Addresses use of third-party trademarks or copyrights or names of individuals or competitors.

■  Is clearly and regularly communicated and taught through annual training.

Externally, businesses should police unauthorized use of their intellectual property on social media sites. Defamatory comments can take on a life of their own. Businesses must also contend with trademark misuse or infringement, from someone using your trademark as its domain name to assuming your brand identity online, an aggressive practice called “brand-jacking.” To combat these challenges, businesses should:

■  Monitor social media for use of company trademarks.

■  Obtain formal protection for intellectual property, e.g., trademark registrations.

■  Avoid overreaction; weigh impact of potential negative backlash online against severity of misuse.

■  Consider availing itself of the social media site’s enforcement policies.

Alexis Dillett Isztwan, a member at Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia LLC, concentrates on intellectual property and technology law.

Keeping your company’s secret information secret is a matter of increased focus on protecting company intellectual property

In the last three decades, international trade has increased by a factor of seven — but unfortunately, this advance has also ratcheted up the rate of trade secret theft, an impediment that costs corporations hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

That rate of growth has catapulted multinational commerce to such prominence that it now accounts for a third of all economic activity worldwide.

principal, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing

principal, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing

“The world is getting to be a smaller place at a remarkably fast pace,” says Joseph Ahmad, a principal in the Houston law firm Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing. “When we were kids, there might have been a handful of companies that did a particular thing and probably most or all of those companies were in America.

“Nowadays, we’re seeing competition come from everywhere,” says Ahmad, who primarily represents business executives in trade secret cases and employment-related litigation. “The barriers to entry are rapidly declining, so now a lot of companies are facing competition from all over the world.”

Other factors driving the increased incidence of trade secret theft include large pockets of economic stagnation around the globe and the widespread conversion of analog business information to digital formats, which lends itself more readily to leaks and cyber attacks.

Pamela Passman, president and CEO, Center for Responsible Enterprise & Trade

Pamela Passman, president and CEO, Center for Responsible Enterprise & Trade

“In the last few years, there are a couple of key reasons why trade secret theft has grown,” says Pamela Passman, president and CEO of the Center for Responsible Enterprise & Trade, a nonprofit group whose mission is helping companies reduce counterfeiting, piracy and trade secret theft.

“One reason is the economic times we’re going through. People feel constrained, and they’re working under great financial pressure, so many people are cutting corners. Also, a great deal of companies’ information is becoming digitized and, therefore, more easily transferable.

“So instead of walking out of a place with stacks and stacks of papers, a person can walk out with a USB drive that has a huge amount of information on it.”

Increased cyber leaks and cyber attacks are also contributing to the problem, Passman says.

“There are some fairly aggressive third parties that have stepped up their activity in that area,” she says.

Ahmad agrees but points out that the lion’s share of trade secret misappropriation he encounters is a consequence of actions taken by a company’s employees or ex-employees.

“Of course, we do hear from time to time about individuals or organizations — especially overseas — who hack in to companies’ systems,” Ahmad says. “But, in my experience, that’s not a common occurrence. Most of the trade secret theft I see occurs via a current or former employee.”

That is why, Passman says, it’s essential to be straightforward with employees about your company’s policies regarding confidentiality, particularly as it pertains to trade secrets and other types of intellectual property.

“You have to be very clear with your own employees about your policies and about how serious you are about protecting your intellectual property,” Passman says. “Because that’s definitely where your greatest risk lies. And this is a critical issue both while those employees are at the company and after they leave the company.”

The labor market factor

Unemployment and sluggish job markets are also key factors contributing to the increased risk surrounding trade secret theft.

“Unfortunately, in this type of market, job seekers sometimes resort to extreme measures to gain the kind of edge they feel they need to get a job,” Ahmad says. “I’ve seen many new hires — whether consciously or subconsciously — come into a job with the belief that their value is increased if they can, as some of them would put it, ‘hit the ground running’ when they get on the job.

“In other words, they feel that with the help of their previous employer’s trade secret information, they can do a better job for their new employer. Sometimes this happens with the complicity of the new employer, but sometimes employees do it on their own, because they feel it makes them more marketable.”

What, then, are some practical strategies CEOs and their teams can employ to insulate their companies against the risk of having their trade secrets stolen? One of the important early steps executives can take is to enlist the help of a broad cross section of people in their organization to tackle the issue.

“First off, what I suggest is establishing a cross-group team of people to focus on protecting the company’s intellectual property,” Passman says. “This team should include somebody senior in the legal department, somebody senior in R&D, somebody from business development, somebody on the operations side, for example if they have a manufacturing division, and somebody responsible for procurement and the supply chain. It’s important to bring all these disciplines together and instruct them to establish some policies in this area, including trade secret policy.”

Another step that should be taken by companies that have significant intellectual property to protect is requiring employees to read and sign confidentiality agreements.

“The confidentiality agreement is first and foremost,” Ahmad says. “You have to make sure that every employee understands the significance of holding your company’s information confidential. All employees must be required to agree in writing they will do so.”

There are a number of items and types of information that companies can put into their employee confidentiality agreements to help protect their intellectual property.

One approach is to list or enumerate the company trade secrets and other types of information that are required to be held confidential. Another tactic is to include language stipulating that inventions and similar types of newly created information automatically become the confidential property of the employer.

“This helps the company in several ways,” Ahmad says. “First, you get to define what your trade secrets are and what information is expected to be held confidential and you get to formally notify the employee about it. This also enables you to make sure that whatever new intellectual property your employees develop will be the property of the company, and they will agree to hold that information confidential.”

Vetting third parties

Another area where companies seeking to protect their intellectual property need to be vigilant is conducting due diligence on third parties, such as suppliers and customers, as well as companies they may be seeking to acquire or merge with.

“For any key third parties that you’re going to be sharing your intellectual property with, it’s essential to conduct due diligence on them,” Passman says.

Due diligence encompasses activities such as research, interviews and online searches. A key part of the process is being alert to “red flags” — potential problem areas signaling that the third party may not be effective at helping co-protect the company’s sensitive information.

“Basically, you want to see if [the third party] has any red flags you need to be aware of,” Passman says. “For example, if they’ve been involved in different kinds of litigation, especially litigation involving intellectual property or trade secrets. And you’d want to explore and make sure you understand how they go about managing and protecting the intellectual property of the third parties that they in turn do business with as well.”

Regarding the employee confidentiality agreement, Ahmad says it’s unwise and potentially dangerous for a company to regard this process as a one-and-done deal. In other words, it’s insufficient to simply have employees read and sign the agreement and then file it away. Companies need to remind employees periodically about their confidentiality agreements and about the importance of keeping the company’s sensitive information private.

“Companies sometimes leave themselves vulnerable to trade secret theft loss if they approach these confidentiality agreements like a checklist,” Ahmad says. “By that I mean they can’t just have the employee read and sign the agreement, and then they knock it off their checklist and forget about it. The problem with doing this is you can be sure the employee will forget about it too.

“Many times, an employee will enter into a confidentiality agreement, and then they’ll work for the company for 10 or 20 years, and they’ll forget they even have the agreement. As a result, they don’t really respect the company’s trade secrets the way they should.”

Thus, it’s important to periodically remind employees about their confidentiality agreement — and even more important to underline that agreement’s significance when the person’s employment with the company ends.

“That’s probably the most critical aspect — how the matter is handled at the end of the employment relationship,” Ahmad says. “I’m often shocked at how many employees I see who have signed confidentiality agreements, and at the end of their employment, whether they resign or are terminated, they’re not even reminded that they have these agreements. Many of them don’t even know they have them.”

Business executives would be wise to take advantage of the employee exit interview because it represents their company’s last chance to underscore the imperative of keeping its trade secrets just that: secret.

“At the exit interview, employees must be required to sign and confirm that they understand their responsibilities in regard to keeping the company’s information confidential,” Ahmad says. “By doing that, you’re drilling in to the employee as they’re leaving the company — and presumably going to work for someone else, who just may be one of your competitors — that, ‘Hey, listen, this is serious. We take this matter very seriously.’”

How to reach: Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing, www.azalaw.com; The Center for Responsible Enterprise & Trade, www.create.org

Tom Froehle identified the best firm to combine talents with to create Faegre Baker Daniels

Tom Froehle, chief operating partner, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP

Tom Froehle, chief operating partner, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP

In executive roles at Baker & Daniels LLP over the past 10 years, Tom Froehle had weighed in on some 20 inquiries from other law firms about possible mergers with Baker & Daniels.

However, none of those led to serious discussions until the economy began its downward spiral.

“What we saw during this downturn was that clients wanted to look much harder at value,” says Froehle, who was, at the time, chief executive partner at Baker & Daniels. “Law firms were consolidating, and quite frankly, clients were consolidating in terms of using fewer law firms and looking for firms that had more extensive depth and breadth. We told ourselves that rather than be reactive, we have to try to be proactive.”

That meant going on the offense to find the right partner to create a successful merger. So the Baker & Daniels team started sorting through offers to narrow down the prospective suitors. While doing so, they came upon a firm called Faegre & Benson, located Minneapolis. Froehle said Baker spent a great deal of time trying to identify a partner that it thought would be a good fit, although the leaders could only do so much in terms of looking at websites and seeking out information. They also turned to anecdotal information that they heard from people familiar with the firm. Then they spent a lot of time evaluating and talking with the Faegre & Benson leadership team about the firm’s culture and strategic vision to ensure, before they made a move, that there would be alignment.

Here’s how Froehle, now chief operating partner, and his team scored a win at the newly merged Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, in operation one year now.

Finding a fit

When the topic of a merger comes up, the process can often seem overwhelming, especially when companies of considerable size and expertise are involved. To make the task less intimidating, start by looking at companies in complementary markets to yours, those that occupy the same market position and that serve at the top of their market.

Comparing those statistics gives you a better chance of finding the right fit, and every place in which similarities are identified increases the odds of success. After determining which factors would make or break the deal for your company, it’s time to go through the list to match potential suitors with your company.

“We looked at firms that appeared to have a similar qualitative excellence,” Froehle says. “There is some pretty good data in terms of rankings in those things that can help you identify companies from a qualitative standpoint.”

Then it’s time to look at culture to determine whether there is a good fit.

“On the cultural front, some things will stand out,” Froehle says. “Baker & Daniels was founded in 1863 and Faegre & Benson in 1886. So you had two very long-standing firms. Both firms had histories of civic involvement, with people committed to the community; they did pro bono and were diverse, and we saw really similar cultural values there.”

The next step can command the most time of anything else in the process. It’s time to get beyond the facts and figures and meet with the players face to face.

“A lot of it is just spending time with people; certainly both leadership teams should spend a lot of time together,” Froehle says. “We had what turned into an opportunity when we started discussions in 2010, but there was a client conflict situation that we just couldn’t resolve. That client conflict went away in early 2011, and we recommenced discussions. I think the fact that we had a pretty extended amount of time to spend with each other and to get other partners involved in those discussions helped us figure out whether we thought there was going to be a compatible culture.”

Froehle says it is valuable to flush out concerns early, rather than to wait until after the merger vote occurs. The goal was to combine the firms and the way they did things, so a lot of time was spent early in the process talking about how to develop the best governance structure for a new firm. But instead of taking one thing intact from one firm and another thing from the second firm, they instead approached it to determine what made the most sense so that they could tell the partners what the new firm would look like.

In effect, they built a model of the new company.

“By having that in place, and then being able to share with partners at both firms, ‘OK, here is what this new firm looks like,’ was really helpful in terms of allowing people to deal with the hard part about change, the uncertainty. Although we still have plenty of uncertainty, we tried to provide a real framework of what this is going to look like.”

Working it out

The last task is to determine the mix. This may be the most important task as you discuss common goals to reach a consensus.

“There were those who wanted to do something to not just get bigger but to actually help us serve clients better, and we saw some real synergies and opportunities to combine strong practices that would make even stronger practices,” Froehle says.

“Look for opportunities to complement and supplement strengths in each firm. We had no geographic overlap. Sometimes when you have offices in the same geography, it causes real friction in terms of how you deal with that. We didn’t have any of that, and so we had a lot of additive benefits. I think when people saw that and saw the opportunities to work together, they found that they like each other.”

Froehle says one of the fundamental underpinnings of the merger was the ability it created to serve clients better by providing broader and deeper expertise across a wider range of services. Helping employees understand that and the positive opportunities created has been an important piece of helping them get comfortable with the new organization and create a culture of excitement about being able to better serve clients. Even before the combination was complete, Froehle and his team set in writing what the expectations were of the partners.

“It has been a way for people to buy in to, ‘Here’s what we all expect of each other,’ and that’s been very useful,” he says. “This year, we are in the process of doing a similar thing for our associate lawyers in terms of trying to be much more definitive about what those expectations are, and that is going to be something that was necessarily different from what we had in either of the legacy firms.”

The other issue to address is the clients, as they need to be reassured that their relationships with the firm will not be changing for the worse.

“We went to our top 100 clients over the course of a year to talk about the combination,” he says. “It was interesting to share feedback with other folks in the firm about what we were hearing. Many clients were excited to hear about the new capabilities that were part of the combination. That has been really positive.”

Spread the good news

After the dust has settled and a single company is arising, the task turns to communication and feedback. Sharing positive news goes a long way toward reinforcing the common culture that is being developed.

“We try to open every meeting we have of any kind of group with a sharing of good news,” Froehle says. “These are things that are happening across the firm and with a real focus, at least this first year, on things that involve collaboration of people from the two different legacy firms.

“Those examples have been really helpful to others, who may say, ‘Wow! Somebody I know down the hall has been working with somebody I don’t know and that’s been a really positive thing that will help me be more inclined to step out of my comfort zone.’”

Froehle says that the effort to share good news about effective client collaborations, an additional focus on travel to allow people at the different locations to meet one another and other communication about what was happening across the firm were geared to help people recognize that there was a developing sense of a singular, combined culture. The feedback from those who have had those interactions and the opportunities to connect with each other have all been very positive and have helped to reinforce the internal message.

While recognizing that it would have been easier in some ways to maintain the status quo, Froehle says the long-term benefits of this approach are going to be very positive for the 1,600 employees.

“Obviously, it required the people and the leadership teams from both firms to have that mindset going in, but once they got that mindset, it became really exciting to think about creating something new.”

How to reach: Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, (317) 237-0300 or www.faegrebd.com

The Froehle File

Tom Froehle
Chief operating partner
Faegre Baker Daniels LLP

Born: Grand Forks, N.D., but I really only lived there for a couple of years. I grew up in and had all my schooling in Bloomington, Ind.

Education: Undergraduate degree at Indiana University in Bloomington and my JD from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

 What was your very first job?

My dad operated a small store that sold hockey equipment, so from the time I was about 12 I worked there. My dad ran the business and I sort of helped. I really just learned a lot about customer service, how important each individual customer was and how you could really make an impact on each individual customer’s experience by how you responded. The individual experience of working with customers was really valuable.

Whom do you admire in business?

I really admire John Lechleiter, Ph.D., who is the CEO of Eli Lilly and Co. I admire his vision and his ability to help people in the company to understand what an important role they can play in the world in terms of a pharmaceutical company. I often think people are not all that excited about that but he really has talked about innovation and how they are helping change lives. I think he has done just a really marvelous job of doing that.

 What has been the best business advice you ever received?

Two things. One, communication is important. Somebody once told me that no matter what you think, it probably takes you 10 times to say something before people really hear it, listen to it and understand it. The second is to remember that everything you do sends a message to those people around you. That is something I think we often forget.

What is your definition of business success?

Because it is a little bit different, the organizational hierarchy, I think a big part of my view of success is when my partners feel like they have succeeded or at least when they feel like they’ve been a material part in achieving that success.

How Peter Kellett took a comprehensive approach to client service at Dykema Gossett

Peter Kellett

Peter Kellett, chairman and CEO, Dykema Gossett PLLC

Peter Kellett is an attorney. He’s also the chairman and CEO of his firm, Dykema Gossett PLLC. But Kellett will be the first to tell you that he is more than just an attorney leading attorneys.

Behind Dykema’s approximately 400 lawyers in 11 nationwide offices is a support staff that interacts with the firm’s clients on a daily basis, handling administrative tasks, billing and accounting, and other tasks essential to prompt and comprehensive client service.

If those employees aren’t engaged in providing an excellent client experience, it can damage the relationship before an attorney has a chance to sit down with a client.

Since becoming CEO a year ago, Kellett has made it a point to recognize the important role each person plays in the client experience, and he has focused his efforts, along with the efforts of his leadership team, on uniting every person, in every position in the firm, around a common goal: serving clients with the highest possible standards.

“It is a work in progress, but I am deeply committed to improving all of our levels of client service,” Kellett says. “That is not to suggest that they have been deficient, but in this environment today, it is really important to distinguish any service — whether it be a legal service or any other type of service — in how you deliver service to your clients and customers.”

Driving that level of customer service throughout Dykema — which generated $174 million in revenue during 2011 — has required Kellett and his team to remain vigilant in listening to customers and maintaining a dialogue with employees, as he continually gauges the needs of clients and works with his staff to figure out the best way to meet those needs.

Look outside

To start promoting a comprehensive client service philosophy, Kellett had to broaden the firm’s concept of what it means to serve clients.

“I believe, and our management team believes, that the notion that the only service a law firm provides to clients comes from the lawyers is mistaken,” Kellett says. “Survey data would show you the average client has more interpersonal contact collectively with the nonlawyer staff than with the actual lawyer who might be representing them in a given matter. There is so much support that goes into the client relationship. It could be making sure an invoice for services is properly formatted or making sure a communication is properly delivered. If a client wants to see something by email, we have to make sure it’s delivered by email and not snail mail.”

They are matters that might not be directly related to the actual legal work done for a client, but if the firm fails to handle the support tasks in an efficient and effective manner, it will eventually have a negative impact on business.

“The services delivered by people who aren’t lawyers comprise much of what the client sees, and quite frankly, you can fall down in that regard if you aren’t careful,” Kellett says. “It’s so important to the client’s overall feeling regarding how they’re being served by the firm.”

With that in mind, Kellett went directly to Dykema’s clients, soliciting feedback on the service experience that the firm was delivering. Representatives from Dykema interviewed many different clients, asking questions related to a number of different client service areas. The firm representatives brought the feedback gleaned from the interviews back to the leadership team, which then used the feedback as a component of a firmwide client-service training initiative.

“We report the information back to the membership of the firm in a way that is understandable and teaches different lessons about what we do really well, as well as the areas in which we can look to improve,” Kellett says.

“We have also brought in specialists to do client service training workshops — in fact, we recently had an officewide session for all our nonattorney staff, which was moderated by an expert in client service delivery. The goal of the session was to try to raise consciousness on everything related to client service.”

The feedback and the client service training workshops produced a set of client service standards that all staff members at Dykema are expected to know and promote. Kellett and his team fashioned the standards into a set of basic statements that clearly outline, in a straightforward fashion, what the firm will deliver to clients.

“It’s nothing that is high-level, but it is straightforward and understandable, and it transcends different practices and offices,” he says.

Kellett’s initial information-gathering process finished with a follow-up component. Late in 2011, firm representatives conducted a series of follow-up interviews designed to gauge the process that the firm had made in improving its approach to client service.

“We went back to the first group of clients we interviewed and talked to them again,” he says. “We asked them to honestly grade us. How did we do in responding to some of the things you wanted to see us implement on your behalf?

“Then we go back to the office and hold people accountable to that feedback. If someone here at the office is in charge of managing a client relationship, you are expecting them to lead on this issue of improving, responding to and being attentive to the things your client wants to see you deliver.”

Motivate your employees

Providing excellent client and customer service is important not only to the people you serve outside the organization but also to the people you employ internally.

A focused company is a healthy company with employees centered on a set of common goals. That, as much as improving the client service culture, was a motivating factor for Kellett.

“I would tell anyone in leadership that it is important to develop a comprehensive customer service plan, not just for the value proposition but also for the health of the organization,” Kellett says. “You’re trying to do more than just motivate. You’re trying to excite.

“If you are in a service business, you want to get your people excited and feeling very positively that they know what is expected of them. Because if folks in a service organization don’t know what is expected of them, they won’t always do what is optimal for service delivery.”

By training your people to deliver the best possible customer service experience, you’re investing in them. The end goal is to please your customers, but the entire process of customer service training is focused on allowing your employees to perform their jobs at a higher level.

“It is important that you are sending a loud message to your entire organization that you see value in your people,” Kellett says. “You are investing in them for a reason, and that is a powerful message to send. I found our staff has been very receptive and appreciative of the fact that management thinks they are important enough for management to invest time and resources in them.”

It’s especially important if you run an organization in which one group of employees often basks in the spotlight, while others toil in obscurity. With that type of setup, it can become extremely easy for resentment to build if those behind the scenes feel underappreciated.

Kellett prevented that at Dykema by ensuring that he crafted communication specifically aimed at the nonlawyer staff in the firm.

“When I’m communicating with the nonlawyer staff, it is certainly tailored more toward the likely activities they will be engaged in and the community they’re likely to be serving,” he says. “In fact, some of our internal staff’s client base is composed of their own co-workers.

“When it comes to our IT staff at the firm, a big part of who they serve is made up of users within the firm. That’s a really big part of the message, telling them that no matter what they do, they’re involved in client relations.

“If your service is internally focused, you’re still helping those who are externally focused to provide excellent service to your external clients. You are as important as anyone in that broad chain of client service delivery.”

Ultimately, the behavior you exhibit toward your employees is the behavior they will exhibit when dealing with clients and customers. If you communicate frequently and thoroughly with your people, they will do the same with your customers. And that leads to a stronger, more positive relationship between your company and the people who purchase your products and services.

“You can’t communicate enough with your people, and they can’t communicate enough with your clients,” Kellett says. “They want to be kept updated more often, rather than less often. You can never assume that they know what is going on just because they’re sophisticated or have been through the process before.

“Tell them more, when in doubt. Or you can always ask them to tell you when to stop talking and start listening. That is something we have learned collectively as a firm: Your people want to be kept apprised of what’s going on, as do your clients. And they want to know sooner rather than later.” ●

How to reach: Dykema Gossett PLLC,
(313) 568-6800 or www.dykema.com

 

The Kellett file

Born: Detroit

Education: B.A. in history, University of Michigan; Juris Doctor, Wayne State University Law School

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I’ll give you two: One is to not try to do everything, or you’ll risk getting nothing done. You have to try to set priorities and not try to do everything at once. The other is something that I was once told: It’s amazing how much an organization can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit. We’re trying to build teams that are focused on client service, with a shared-credit approach to that, and it has been really beneficial for us. Credit will fall where credit is due, but let’s not worry about that. If you have that type of environment, you won’t have people insecure or worried about getting their due.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

First and foremost, it’s honesty. You also need to be a good listener. That doesn’t mean you have to listen to everyone ad nauseum, but you do have to be a good and fair listener. And ultimately, you have to be decisive. Admit your mistakes, learn from them and move on. If you can package all of that, you’re well on your way to being successful.

What is your definition of success?

Achieving a reasonable performance from a financial and business-goals standpoint, which preserves the culture and integrity of the organization. It requires a balancing act. Businesses are in business to do well right now, but you need to preserve the long-term integrity as well. If you’re chasing the top dollar, it can’t come at the expense of the culture.

Bob Weltman has given Weltman, Weinberg & Reis 50 years of success

Bob Weltman, senior partner, Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co.

As a 26-year-old with long hair and sideburns that merged into a mustache, Bob Weltman asked his father if he could be put in charge of the collection department of his law firm. His father trusted his son’s work ethic and belief that he could run the department much better than it had been, so he said, “Yes.”

From that day on, Weltman has been leading people by example at Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co., a law firm with more than 1,200 employees and annual revenue of more than $100 million. He has always prided himself on working harder and longer than anyone else to stay on top.

“My leadership style is one by example,” Weltman says. “I never ask my employees to do anything that I could not do. I always got to work before my employees. I always worked as hard as my employees and I always worked longer than my employees. I was totally dedicated to my job.”

Ever since Weltman held a job bagging groceries as a youngster, he has maintained his work-hard-to-be-successful attitude throughout college and into his professional career.

“My background in working hard was something that I adopted a long time ago,” Weltman says. “If you’re going to accept the responsibility, do it with all your energy and give it all the time that’s necessary to succeed.”

Today, Weltman has lost the long hair and his sideburns, but the mustache and work ethic remain strong. Here is what Weltman has learned in his 50 years of business.

What have been some of your biggest challenges over your career?

The challenge of running a business — profitability. That is always a challenge. Even though we’re in the service business and we’re lawyers, making a profit at the end of the day is a challenge. When you attend any meeting in this law firm and you didn’t know what we were, you would think we manufactured widgets. The meetings we have are all business-driven with business ideas.

I don’t know how you can exist in today’s world in business without taking business courses. If you’re thinking of being a doctor or a lawyer, a businessman, an accountant or anything in the business world, you’ve got to take business classes.

No. 2 is the management of people. Everybody who works here has their own set of problems. You’re trying to merge together a whole bunch of different people with a whole bunch of different problems into one and to motivate them to give their job the best.

If you get too involved in an employee’s personal problems, it can drag you down and distract from what your primary focus is. So being able to merge together people from all different types of backgrounds into one is very, very important.

You have to try to create a team effort. A team is only as good as the weakest link. You’ve got to set the bar high. Saying it can’t be done is not acceptable. I’d rather you try something and fail than say it can’t be done. Don’t be afraid to fail. When you decide to make a decision, measure the chance of success versus the chance of failure.

Don’t do something that can be fatal to the organization. If there is a higher degree of success than there is failure, measure what happens if there is failure because if the failure is detrimental to the organization, then you don’t want to make the decision. You have to learn from those failures.

You take the failures that you have had and try to build them into something that is positive. You want to teach your employees to also take some degree of risk to what they’re doing.

Throughout 50 years, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in business?

I was a very, very rough employer. I demanded perfection. Even though I knew perfection could not be obtained, I demanded it. I was very rough on the people who worked with me. Some stuck around, and others went other ways.

I remember that I ran into a friend of mine who worked for me at one time and had left. We were reminiscing about the old days, and he told me a story about something I did to him that interfered with his personal life. I knew he was going out one night, and I gave him a stack of files to work and have ready to review the next day.

I don’t remember if I did it intentionally, but he said he had to skip his social event to work on them. I went back to the office and told my son the story. My son said, ‘You know what I would have done? I would have quit.’

There has been a shift from the job meaning everything to you to balance in life. We went from people who worked because they had to work to put food on the table to a period of time where people started making more money and a balance of life became almost as important to being dedicated to the job.

Another change in the industry has been what the clients focus on. Originally, clients came to you because you could give them the best results. Giving good service to the client along with good results used to be the motivating factor.

After 9/11, the client’s focus became security. Now we have security badges, security entrances. In some of our offices, we have security cameras. The clients became very security conscious.

More recently, since the 2008 recession, compliance is bigger. Now they want to know the procedures you’re following to keep us out of trouble. Now the focus isn’t so much on performance; it is how well you’re treating the customer. The emphasis has gone from performance to security to compliance, and those organizations that will be in compliance will get a higher rating than those organizations that have better performance quantitatively.

How important has relationship building been to you?

I feel that when a client comes to me with a problem, they’re coming to me for help. I feel honored to represent a client and help them, and I want to give them something back in return.

I treat clients like friends. I try to establish a personal relationship with them and make a connection with them and a bond so that they can come to me for help, and I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to help them. Once they come to me for help, I want to work my hardest to make sure I achieve a result.

You have to make the connection and gain the confidence of that person. You’ve got to get the client or the person to believe that what you’re doing is in their best interest. You’ve got to put their welfare ahead of any other selfish or personal motivation that you may have. You have to give the client the impression that you’re working for them to achieve the best result and that making money is secondary.

I’ve said many times to a client when they come to me with a challenging collection problem and they say, ‘How much are you going to charge me?’ I say to them, ‘I don’t want what I’m going to charge you to stand in the way of me getting you the best result. Pay me what you think I’m worth when it’s done.’

You have to let them know that money and the profit motive is not the main motivation of why you’re doing it.

When clients come and present me with their problem, I tell them, ‘You’ve now given me this problem. You have to walk out of this room and dismiss it from your mind, because if two of us worry about the problem, there’s too much energy being wasted at solving the problem. Once you come to me with a problem, I want you to divorce yourself from that problem and allow me to handle it and try to get you a solution.’

Where did your hard work ethic come from?

There was a book called ‘Bounce,’ and it was the question as to whether greatness is genetic or something you have to work hard to achieve. The theme of that book was that hard work is what makes you good at what you do. I worked very, very hard at what I do, and I still work very hard.

My day starts at night when I take home boxes of files, which I work on until 10 at night. I get to work at 6:30 in the morning, so my day is 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. In order to be good at what you do, you have to put a lot of hours in. It’s not something that just comes your way. It’s something that you got to devote a lot of hard work and a lot of time to.

With all your great athletes, people say they were born with greatness, but from LeBron James to Jimmy Brown, they worked very hard at what they did. Mark Spitz didn’t just jump in a pool and win gold medals. He worked endless hours to achieve greatness. You have to stay focused.

I’m always focused on the job. I have blinders as to anything else that’s going on around me. It’s like a sporting event — when you’re on the basketball court, you have to be able to separate yourself from the rest of the world. Or it’s like a relief pitcher in baseball — when you give up a hit or give up a home run, you’ve got to go out on the mound and separate yourself from what happened in the past because you can’t let it be the driver for what happens in the future.

What have you done to keep up with the industry as it has grown? 

Reading, listening and attending lectures is very important. When I attend seminars, I don’t necessarily go there to learn what the message of the seminar is; I go there to learn what the problems are in the industry. I try to figure out solutions for those problems. As a result, that created different departments in our firm and different ways of handling things.

If you don’t do these things, you’re missing out. When I read a newspaper, I look at what’s in that article that can help further the organization. Is that a marketing opportunity? Is that an opportunity for business? I try to always transfer what I see and hear and read into how I can incorporate that at our firm to make the firm a better organization.

I’m big on sports, so I’ll look to sports to see how management decisions are made. I look at how players are treated and the education of players and how they learn what the game is all about. It’s all about the ‘Bounce’ theory — are you given the job at the time that’s necessary to be the best at what you can do?

What have been some keys to keeping the firm a leader in its industry?

I’ve been a visionary in running the firm. We were one of the first law firms in our field to have more than one office. We were the first law firm to have a probate collection department.

I like to be the first at what we’re doing, and the reason why is if you’re the first, there is no measure of competition. If everybody is talking about it, then it’s too late. That’s why, when you go to conferences, you listen to what the underlying message is and not what is being said.

I’m also the kind of person that when I come up with an idea, I want to implement it immediately and get started on it. All of us are very busy and none of us are sitting here waiting for the client to call us or walk in the door, but when you’re presented with something new, you have to be able to start working on that problem immediately without losing any concentration on what your daily task is. A lot of people are very slow at appropriating something new. When you think of something to do, you have to start it.

How to reach: Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co. LPA, (216) 685-1000 or www.weltman.com

Takeaways

– Give 100 percent to your current job.

– Build relationships with your clients.

– Be a leader and focus on solving problems.

The Weltman File

Bob Weltman

Senior partner

Weltman, Weinberg and Reis Co. LPA

Born: Cleveland, Ohio

Education: Received a BBA and a master’s in finance from the The Ohio State University and a JD from the Case Western Reserve University School of Law

What was your very first job and what did you take away from that experience?

I got a job working in a grocery store. I used to bag groceries and take them to people’s cars and then run back to beat the others in line. The average tip was a quarter. That was one of the first experiences where I realized how easy it was to be successful; you just had to work hard.

Who is someone you look up to?

My favorite baseball player is Lou Gehrig. He never missed a day of work.

What are a few of your favorite sports memories?

I went to Cal Ripken night when he set the record for most consecutive games. I was there for the Indians game when Kenny Lofton scored from second base on a passed ball. I attended the Ohio State championship game against Miami where it went into overtime at the Fiesta Bowl. I attended the World Series in 1995 and 1997 for the Indians.

What has been one of your proudest moments over your 50-year career?

It was going to my father and asking him if I could run the collection department and him having enough confidence in me to do it.

If you could invite three people to dinner, who would invite?

George Steinbrenner, Bill Gates and Thomas Edison. Innovative, creative people.

What to look for in an advisor

Joseph R. Ramey, CPA, Senior Manager of Accounting Tax Services, Zinner & Co. LLP

When becoming a business owner, trustee or beneficiary of a trust, or executor of an estate, there comes a time when seeking out a professional advisor is necessary. But where do you even begin to find that right advisor with all the necessary attributes?

In most situations, for example becoming a trustee, executor or business owner, an advisory team is needed because the specialties of each advisor are unique. There are several common qualities to look for in any advisor that will be the perfect fit for your team.

Smart Business spoke with Joseph R. Ramey, CPA, a Senior Manager of Accounting Tax Services at Zinner & Co. LLP, about the qualities you should look for.

Technical Strengths and Credentials

These qualities are fairly straightforward, and typically an advisor will display their credentials and area(s) of specialty on their website. When evaluating their technical expertise, look at their speaking engagements and for articles written in the specialty areas that are important to your situation and background. For example, if you just became an executor of an estate, you want to find an attorney that not only focuses on estate and probate, but also speaks on the topic and has authored articles in that area. Lastly, it is also important to note any professional groups or boards in which they participate; this will help in understanding how current they are in what is going on in their specialty.

Referrals

The best way to start looking for an advisor is by talking with your family and friends who may know or currently have trusted advisors. If your close circles of acquaintances are able to refer someone they work with, then you will have more comfort in knowing how that advisor will work with you as well. Another good referral source is your own current advisors from other professions. For example, if you are in need of an investment advisor, contact your accountant or attorney and see if they have a recommendation for you.

Personality

Sometimes the most important quality to evaluate and assess in an advisor is their personality. The most technically sound professional may not be the right fit because of differences in personalities. Always meet face-to-face with a potential advisor and evaluate how they speak with you and how you feel when you talk with them. If you walk away scratching your head trying to figure out what they were talking about, they may not be the right advisor for you.

At Zinner & Co., we maintain a vast network of professionals in various fields and are always able to recommend an advisor that will work best with you. Our Exclusive Service Provider Program (ESP) is a group of the “best of the best” advisors in their respected fields, which allows us to deliver a pre-screened list of quality referrals to our clients based on their specific needs.

Joseph R. Ramey, CPA, is a Senior Manager of Accounting Tax Services at Zinner & Co. LLP. Reach him at (216) 831-0733 or [email protected]

Common misconceptions about patents

Roland Tong, Senior Patent Attorney, Brooks Kushman, PC

Patent law is one of the most complicated areas of law. Not only does a patent combine both law and technology, patent laws are also developed from many sources, such as the US Patent and Trademark Office and the federal courts from all over the US. It is only natural that many inventors and entrepreneurs are confused with its nuances and complexities.

Below are some of the common misconceptions about patents:

1. If I obtain a patent, I have a right to use and sell the invention.

A patent provides the right to exclude others from making, using or selling the patented invention. Many companies find this very valuable, as they can expand or preserve their market shares, demand licenses or royalties, and prevent competition. A patent does not provide a license to use, make or sell a product. Having a patent does not guarantee that you will not be exposed to any liability for infringing other peoples’ patents. You do not need a patent to manufacture or sell a product. However, you will not have any exclusivity, and any company can compete with you. Many investors do not like to invest in non-patented ideas or businesses of start ups, as they are afraid that bigger and well established companies can freely compete against them.

2. I must have a prototype before I can apply for a patent.

If you can describe your invention such that a person skilled in the art listening or reading your description can make and use your invention without much experimentation, then you are ready to apply for a patent. Obtaining a prototype may be good in terms of refining the manufacturing process or ironing out any flaws of the concept, but it can be very expensive and can take some time. Many companies that file patent applications do not have working prototypes.

3. I can stop an infringer with a “patent pending.”

A patent pending merely means you have a pending patent application that still needs to be examined by a patent examiner. Since your invention has not been proven to be novel and to meet the other requirements to obtain a patent, you really have not perfected or cemented your exclusive rights. Your  patent pending may, however, allow you to seek for retroactive damages if you obtain a judgment for patent infringement against infringers, for instance, all the way back to the time your application was first published.

4. I must have a patent search done prior to filing my patent application.

A patent search is not mandatory. However, it is worthwhile to do, as it may save you time, resources, and money. The patenting process can be expensive and can take over three years. You should try to determine your chances of obtaining a patent. After all, you do not want to spend the time, resources, and money only to find out that your idea has been practiced before.

5. All patents are the same.

Whether you are trying to protect your invention or you are trying to make sure you do not infringe on another’s patent, you need to know what each type of patent means. Design and utility patents protect different aspects of an invention, and they provide different scopes of protection. Design patents only protect the way articles look, their shapes, configurations, or their ornamentations. Utility patents, on the other hand, protect the way articles are used and the way they work. From the standpoint of protecting your invention, design patents may be very easy to be avoided and thus offer very limited protection. From the standpoint of making sure you do not infringe on another’s patent, utility patents may require that you consider various types of infringement. They may require that you review their file histories and consider their related counterparts, such as continuation and divisional applications.

6. If I modify a patented product by 10, 20, or 30 percent, I will be free from patent infringement liability.

There are various ways a patent can be infringed — literally, by equivalents, or by contributory infringement. Literal infringement means the claim language of the patent directly corresponds to the infringing product. Thus, if you do not review the claims of a patent, you may never know whether you infringe it regardless of how much you have modified your product. Even if you have reviewed the claims and believe that there are differences between the claims and your modified product, you may still infringe by the doctrine of equivalents. Under the doctrine of equivalents, if your modified product contains elements identical or equivalent to each claimed element of the patented invention, your product still infringes the patent.

7. As an owner of the company or as a research supervisor, I should always be listed as an inventor to my employees’ inventions.

It is crucial to name the right inventors on a patent application. A patent can later be invalidated if it did not include the right inventors. An inventor in the patent sense must have contributed to the conception of the invention. Patent owners and inventors should not be confused. If the idea was conceived by an employee, you should have the employee assign his rights to the company. This is the proper way of making sure that the company will own the rights to the invention, and not by adding yourself as an inventor simply because you own the company. If the idea was conceived by a lower ranking employee, it does not mean that you have to list the employee’s supervisor as the inventor. The key is to determine who contributed to the conception of the invention that is claimed in the patent application.

Because there are many misconceptions about patents, it is important to seek the advice and guidance from a registered patent attorney.

Roland Tong is a Senior Patent Attorney at Brooks Kushman, PC and can be reached by phone at (213) 622-3096 or by email at [email protected] Brooks Kushman, PC (www.brookskushman.com) is a full service intellectual property law firm in Detroit and in Los Angeles with attorneys having advanced degrees in various technical fields.