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Wednesday, 30 October 2013 11:42

Beyond conversion

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Consider this business scenario: You’ve landed a big account for your company by converting a highly prized prospect into a valuable client. The new client has hired you to handle a specific scope of work and is counting on your team’s ability to deliver work that goes above and beyond.

While nothing is more important than delivering great customer service to satisfy the client, you may not realize that you’re probably overlooking unrealized opportunities to forge a stronger relationship with your customer.

In today’s business landscape, most large companies offer an array of products and services. More often than not, however, your clients use you for a specific service or skill set. And unfortunately, in this scenario, most companies focus solely on the task at hand — delivering what they’ve been contracted to deliver — failing to take ample time to think about the bond they’re creating with the client and what could be next.

In more simple terms, it is one thing to provide service that keeps a customer; it is another to keep that customer and expand the relationship to become a trusted partner.

Provide value in a deliberate way

The good news is that this is an easy fix. Establish a content marketing program that allows you to distribute thought leadership to your clients.

A content marketing program will help you provide value that other service providers may not, and when clients see you as an informational resource and partner, it will be easier to expand the relationship.

Take this example into consideration: You are an insurance provider and your main product is life insurance, therefore most of the communication you have with your clients surrounds that topic.

With a comprehensive content marketing program in place, however, you can educate your clients on the recent trends in the insurance industry and how that affects the individual. At the same time, you can give them an overview of your company’s wellness program and let them know that if they joined, they could reduce their monthly premiums.

As you can see, you’re not just providing your client with the original service, you’re also providing them with both your thought leadership — aka value — and additional offerings.

Personal connections payoff

Aside from providing value to the client with the content you distribute, a strong content marketing program allows you to showcase your brand’s personality. Clients will be able to connect with your brand on a more personal level.

Providing continually updated content through the right channels to the right clients enhances your day-to-day communications. Clients start seeing you as thought leaders and partners instead of just service providers.

It will help you expand relationships and, as a result, generate new business through more products and services.

Show them more than just what they see on the surface — show them how active you are in the community, or how much fun you had during a recent company outing. If may sound trivial, but your clients do similar things, and seeing you connect with the community and/or employees will help forge a more personal connection. You never know; you and your client may support the same charity, organization or team.

Open communication also will help strengthen relationships to the point where you can capture a premium price and eliminate price-jumping clients. Clients will pay more for a valuable relationship than simply look to get the lowest price elsewhere. ●

 

David Fazekas is vice president of marketing services for SBN Interactive. Reach him at dfazekas@sbninteractive.com or (440) 250-7056.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 11:37

Watch your margin

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You would think someone like Douglas Merrill would be a heavy multitasker, with multiple devices in hand, fielding several conversations — both real and virtual — simultaneously.

But you would be wrong.

Merrill, who was the CIO at Google until 2008, doesn’t like to multitask. He says that when you do it, you aren’t using your brain’s full capacity and aren’t as effective. He recommends focusing on one thing at a time.

Billionaire Mark Cuban has his own time management strategy. Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, says you should completely avoid meetings unless you are closing a deal. Otherwise, he says, they are a waste of time.

Both of these proven leaders have learned that how you manage your time is paramount to your effectiveness.

As a CEO, you are swamped every day with calls and emails from people wanting a piece of your time. Some are internal, some are charity requests, some are from friends or family members and others are from service providers.

To help wade through this sea of information, it’s important to have a system in place to help you free up time to think about your business and the things that matter most in life. These open times are what author Richard Swenson refers to as “margin.” They are the spaces between ourselves and our limits that are reserved for emergencies.

But for many business leaders, there are no spaces left.

The way out of this trap is to set clear goals and values for yourself and your organization. Once you do that, you will have a filter through which to evaluate everything. Everything will have an immediate yes or no answer, eliminating the “let me think about it” category completely.

The key is to establish what your goals are first and then prioritize what is important. With your priorities straight, you will find more time to put toward important things on your goals list, but don’t forget to leave time on your daily schedule. There is no way to foresee all emergencies, so by leaving yourself some margin, when something unexpected happens, you already have time built in to deal with it.

Once you have margin built into your life, you have to have the discipline to stick to it. There will always be the temptation to take every meeting or answer every email. But if you use your goals and priorities as a filter, those requests are easily either accepted or declined based on where they fall on your priority list.

If you want a life where you can experience more peace and joy and less anxiety, start looking at your priorities and establish some margin in your daily schedule. ●

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 07:31

What to do if you’re under a public, verbal attack

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Deny, deny, deny; fall, tuck and roll; or put your head in the sand?

The quick answer to this headline is none of the above. A leader, by definition, must do exactly that — lead, which means being in front of a variety of audiences, including employees, investors and customers. Not everyone is going to be a gung-ho supporter. Sooner or later you’ll encounter a naysayer who either has a point to prove or is on a mission to make you and your company look bad.

Many of these verbal confrontations come out of nowhere and when least expected. As the representative of your organization, it is your responsibility to manage these situations and recognize that sometimes a “win” can simply minimize the damage.

When under siege, it’s human instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Typically these behavioral responses aren’t particularly productive in a war of words. Engaging in verbal fisticuffs could simply escalate the encounter, giving more credence to the matter than deserved.

If you flee by ignoring the negative assertions, you’ll immediately be presumed guilty as charged. It’s hard to make your side of the story known if you put your head in the sand.

By freezing, you’ll appear intellectually impotent. Worse yet, pooh-poohing a question will only fuel the aggressor’s determination to disrupt the proceedings. You could use a SWAT-type police and military technique to elude a confronter by falling, tucking and rolling to safety, but that usually only works on the silver screen.

Perhaps the best method to manage unwelcome adversaries is to be prepared prior to taking center stage. This applies to live audiences or a virtual gathering when you’re speaking to multiple participants, which is common practice for public company CEOs during quarterly analyst conference calls.

Most gatherings of this nature include a Q&A segment where the tables are turned on the speaker who must be prepared to respond to inquiries both positive and negative.

Before any such meeting, it is critical to contemplate and rehearse how you would respond to thorny or adverse statements or questions.

A good practice is to put the possible questions in writing and then craft your responses, hoping, of course, that they won’t be needed. This is no different from what the President of the United States or the head of any city council does prior to a press conference or presentation. The advantage of this exercise is that it tends to sharpen your thinking and causes you to explore issues from the other perspective.

In some cases you’ll find yourself in an awkward or difficult situation where there is no suitable yes or no answer, or when the subject of the interrogatory is so specific it is applicable to only a very few.

The one-off question is easiest to handle by stating that you or your representative will answer the question following the session rather than squander the remaining time on something that does not interest or affect the majority.

The more difficult question is one that will take further investigation and deliberation, in which case the best course of action is to say exactly that. Answer by asserting that rather than giving a less-than-thoughtful response to a question that deserves more research, you or your vicar will get back with the appropriate response in short order. This helps to protect you from shooting from the hip only to later regret something that can come back to haunt you.

Effective speakers and leaders have learned that the best way to counter antagonism is through diplomacy. It’s much more difficult for the antagonist to continue to fight with a polite, unwilling opponent.

Finally, when being challenged, never personalize your response against your questioner; always control your temper; and don’t linger on a negative. Keep the proceedings moving forward and at the conclusion keep your promise to follow up with an answer. This will build your credibility and allow you to do what you do best, lead. ●

 

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013 11:26

Is your next big thing built to last?

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My 7-year-old son Cole recently gave me a Rainbow Loom bracelet, which is made of linked rubber bands. It is today’s school-age children’s craze, and Novi, Michigan-based Choon’s Design LLC is churning out the kits at a record pace.

With more than 1 million units sold in the last 24 months, Rainbow Loom is the brainchild of Choon Ng, a former Nissan crash safety engineer who invented it while working on a craft project for his daughters.

And Rainbow Loom, it turns out, isn’t its original name. When it was created, it was called Twistz Bandz.

Timing is everything, and Twistz Bandz may have sounded a bit too much like Silly Bandz — the last “wrist” craze that swept the nation. Between November 2008 and early 2011, every school-age child in sight was wearing layer upon layer of Silly Bandz on their wrists. It was as hot a product as anything since Beanie Babies.

Twistz Bandz’s arrival, it seems, happened just as Silly Bandz ran into what every hot new product eventually faces: competition. Look-a-likes with similar-sounding names began flooding the market. They were cheaper, and you could buy them more readily at more retail locations. The core brand quickly diluted. So Ng did what any smart businessperson would: He changed the dynamics of the situation.

Thus, Rainbow Loom was born.

Enter social media

Within a few months, the product — which allows its young owners to custom-create bracelets — was gaining attention. Much of this was due to a full-tilt social media blitz, including videos on YouTube and an engaging Facebook page, where users could share their designs.

More recently, Ng has become vigilant in protecting his patent and U.S. trademark — battling all wannabe competitors from launching similar-sounding products and flooding the market to dilute his own brand.

His success — or failure — is yet-to-be determined. But his efforts will prove fruitless if he’s not already looking ahead to the next product. This is the dirty little secret to any hot toy craze and the core dilemma every business leaders faces: How do you remain relevant as consumers’ wants, needs and desires ebb and flow — sometimes as swiftly as the wind changes direction. 

Get beyond being a fad

Success in business relies upon building a sustainable operation that will outlast any cyclical “must have” product explosion.

There needs to be the creation of an idea continuum — an innovation factory, if you will. Innovative leaders must review, measure and adapt a company’s products, services and solutions to the changing whims of the marketplace. You need to talk to customers, vendors and prospects. And you need to regularly take the pulse of the market.

If you haven’t taken at least some of the gains from today’s success and invested it into research and development for tomorrow, you’re already losing ground. Today is today, and just like the disclaimers for financial investing warn — past performance does not indicate future results.

In the end, the only thing that matters is this: Is your next big thing built to last? Or, like every other craze that’s every hit the market, will your opportunities to remain relevant long into the future fade away after the competition creeps in and dilutes your market? ●

 

Dustin S. Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business. Reach him at dsklein@sbnonline.com or (440) 250-7026.

When all the dollars and cents were added up for 2012, cleverbridge’s revenue topped $363.5 million — and co-founder Craig Vodnik realized the company had come a long way from when he answered phone calls in his Chicago basement.

“I was also out prospecting for new leads and new business, so I would do that when I wasn’t answering the phone,” Vodnik says. “We didn’t have venture capital or angel investors, so we bootstrapped it ourselves.”

Cleverbridge is a full-service e-commerce provider for companies that sell software and software as a service.

“Cleverbridge was launched because my partners and I were working in this industry at a previous company in Cologne, Germany,” says Vodnik, who also serves as vice president of operations. “That company was acquired by the market leader. When that happened, we all looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t what we want to do. We want to control our destiny, and we’d rather go start our own company.’”

The challenge for Vodnik in those early days was bigger than just having to work out of his own basement. It was the fact that he was the company’s only employee in the United States. The other co-founders, Christian Blume, Martin Trzaskalik and Peter Blunck, were all in Germany.

“As the volume, the number of things to do, the strategy discussions and features we wanted and the market all started picking up, my time was filling up fast,” Vodnik says. “I said, ‘I need some help to come in and answer the phones and take some of the randomness out of my day and make it more structured so those calls could be answered by someone else.’ I just couldn’t be interrupted all the time.”

What followed was a series of valuable lessons in team-building that enabled Vodnik to get the help he needed to grow the company to where it could sell its services to at least one person in every nation around the world, including Antarctica. Here’s a look at how he did it.

 

Focus on the opportunity

Vodnik needed to focus on strategic direction and growth issues and what actions he and his co-founders needed to take to build cleverbridge into the company they wanted it to be.

“I went to some of the universities around here and I started posting advertisements for part-time help for customer service because that was something I knew I could train somebody to do,” Vodnik says. “I knew I could push it off and theoretically, students would be interested in finding part-time work for $10 to $12 an hour.”

Vodnik sweetened the deal by focusing on the company’s international presence and the need for people with foreign language skills or technological expertise. This was a growing company and they would get a chance to apply their skills toward helping it expand in tangible ways.

“So I was hoping by finding people who were internationally focused or savvy, they would build more of a rapport with cleverbridge and possibly stay on down the road after they graduated,” Vodnik says. “That model really resonated with people.”

The lesson learned was that whether you’re a business on the ground floor like cleverbridge or an established multimillion dollar organization, you can gain a lot by engaging the people you hire in your efforts to grow the business. This is especially true of younger people who are just getting started in their careers.

“It’s about helping them understand where this can lead them and making it a mutually beneficial situation so that they realize there is something in it for them as well,” Vodnik says. “I can go across the board at cleverbridge and show you all these different people where we went in and said, ‘Let’s hire this young person and give them a chance. Let’s invest in them upfront, give them knowledge and spend time with them.’

“The benefit we’ve attained from a profitability perspective has probably been two or three times what we would have received from an equivalent person we got off the street who had five years of experience working someplace else.”

You get people who are willing to work for a smaller salary to gain valuable experience in the real world of business. At some point, if they really have the skills and help your business grow, you owe it to them to compensate them more appropriately or risk losing them to a competitor.

But you’ll earn a whole lot of valuable loyalty during those more difficult times.

“When the going gets rough, these people, if you’ve invested in them and treated them the right way, will give you the benefit of the doubt and choose to stay rather than go at the first sign of a storm,” Vodnik says. “You also get people that you can train the way you want them and that has a huge payoff in terms of efficiency. You’re not trying to break someone’s bad habits that may have formed somewhere else.”

 

Don’t wait to train

Flash forward a few years and cleverbridge was no longer a bootstrap operation working out of Vodnik’s basement. The company was now doubling its office space every two years and broadening its reach to additional clients. Vodnik recognized the need to become even more proactive about preparing employees for a steep growth curve.

“We created a structured training program within the organization so that anybody in the company — and this applies from customer service up to any senior manager — has the ability to take these classes,” Vodnik says.

“It’s a great way to develop internal talent so that we don’t have to compete with the market. We get to know the person before we actually put them in the position to make a value judgment about whether they will be the right fit for the team or not. It’s identifying skilled talent and training those people before we need to fill those positions.”

Vodnik began talking about the training opportunity a few months before the classes actually began. It was done in a repetitive fashion and the goal was to find the people who were really interested in learning and weed out the ones who didn’t have their hearts in it.

“We’ve sold it to people as something that is really going to benefit you,” Vodnik says. “This is something you would have to pay for if you went outside the company, and we’re offering it to you during the day while you’re already here.”

The people you choose to do the training will also go a long way toward determining its effectiveness.

“You want somebody who has some patience and can clearly explain things and do a lot of the pre-work of organizing materials in a very clear manner,” Vodnik says.

“What we see as a problem with a lot of training is people try to dive way too deep into something. If the person doing your training is a very verbose person, that generally isn’t going to be a good trainer. They’re going to be standing up there talking and not reading the audience to know if they are hitting the mark.”

 

Sharing the spotlight

The plan to focus on younger talent and groom future leaders in the company through in-house training has paid off in big ways for cleverbridge. The company has been profitable since 2007 and now has more than 220 employees.

One of the keys to its success is the continued engagement between leaders and employees.

“It’s very important for the leaders of the company to be up in front on a frequent basis,” Vodnik says. “Talk to the people. Talk about what’s important and talk about what’s going on, but don’t hog the spotlight. Make sure you’re allowing other people to share. Delegate that responsibility. Give other people who are the next line of management in the company the opportunity to talk so that they feel they are contributing and are seen the right way in the organization.”

If you have people who have something to say or contribute, but aren’t as comfortable being up in front of people, go up there with them.

“Some people aren’t as comfortable getting up in front of a whole group of people, especially on their own,” Vodnik says. “There are ways to work around that.”

The lesson is that successful companies keep their peoples’ best interests in mind and do what they can to help them grow along with the business.

“You treat them right and invest in them, and you’re going to see a much bigger payoff down the road,” Vodnik says. “You can’t do this model across the board with every single position. But if you’re growing for the long term, it’s a great way to go.”

 

Takeaways

  • Respect the energy of youth.
  • Help your people develop.
  • Find people who can listen. 

 

The Vodnik File

Name: Craig Vodnik
Title: Co-founder and vice president of operations
Company: cleverbridge

Born: Chicago

Education: Bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, University of Illinois, Champaign.

How did you get into nuclear engineering? I was going after aerospace engineering. Because of the timing when I was going to school — the Cold War was ending — they were cutting the number of aerospace engineers they accepted into college. The cool part about nuclear was it was an advanced topic, but the class sizes were very small. It was like being at a small university, but with the benefits of a much larger university.

Who has had the biggest influence on you? My mom. I’m a lot like her. She started her own business and did what she had to do to get things done and make ends meet. She was a single mother of two boys. She worked very hard and didn’t let a lot of things bother her. A lot of that came through in me. 

If you could speak with anyone from the past or present, with whom would you want to speak with? President Abraham Lincoln. I’ve always been very interested in history and in Lincoln. How did he get to the point where he said, ‘I’m ready to take the U.S. to war with itself in order to save the country.’ I just think that whole process of getting to that point had to be a gut-wrenching decision.

 

How to reach: cleverbridge, (312) 922-8693 or www.cleverbridge.com

On Mondays, many high school, college and professional football teams get together in a dark room and do the same thing: they break down the game film. It’s often not a pleasant session after a team has lost. Their performance is under a microscope. Many plays are paused, replayed again and again in slow motion. Actions are scrutinized at a hyper-level.

Because comments like, “I dropped that pass coach, but I want you to know my intention was to catch the ball” or “I did miss three easy tackles, but my plan was to not miss any” would not be met kindly, they’re seldom heard. Why? It’s what you do that counts most.

People do not judge you by what you think or feel, only by what you say or do. While your intentions may be in earnest, it’s your impact that is evaluated most. Impact comes through action, action through behavior.

The following are four leadership qualities that require specific action for higher effectiveness:

 The Teaching & Mentoring Leader

  • Behaviors
    • Determine motivations of top talent by asking them about their passions and professional goals and follow up to stay aligned.
    • Take time to teach, explain and confirm that understanding has occurred.
    • Make certain that grooming future leaders is a non-negotiable calendar commitment.

 The Responsive & Reliable Leader

  • Behaviors
    • Live your word: Do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it, without excuses.
    • Cultivate trust via prompt responsiveness and respect others through acknowledgement of their inquiries.
    • Follow up with staff and colleagues to ensure alignment and healthy communication is a front-burning priority.

 The Service-Focused Leader

  • Behaviors
    • Make individual meetings a standard to customize your connections and build trust.
    • Even in stress or work mode, demonstrate courteous actions to team members.
    • Designate “what service will each of us focus on most?” in weekly meetings and get 30-second comments from each attendee.

 The Recognizing & Rewarding Leader

  • Behaviors
    • Evaluate effectiveness not just by numbers or business output, but by the impact of how team members connect with colleagues and clients.
    • Determine what recognition looks like from person to person by asking what incentives motivate him or her.
    • Don’t just think about the positive qualities of others. Take time to express specific appreciation to staff and clients.

 If you are currently in a leadership position with people under you, how would your direct reports and team members say you measure up to these? How well does your boss demonstrate these with you?

The “thought-leader” becomes a better performer and contributor to organizational success, ultimately through proof of observable behaviors. That’s what success boils down to in anything we do, but it begins with giving yourself an honest assessment. Perhaps the late author and business management guru Peter Drucker said it best:

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”

Joe Takash is the president of Victory Consulting, a Chicago-based sales and leadership development firm and a keynote speaker for executive retreats, sales conferences and management meetings. For more information, visit www.victoryconsulting.com.

In ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court also created challenges for HR personnel in managing benefits related to employees in same-sex marriages.

“It’s great that the decision ensures equality and there will no longer be a disparate impact on employees’ spouses,” says Stephanie Martinez, PHR, Director of HR Services at Benefitdecisions, Inc. “But it does present additional challenges for HR.”

Smart Business spoke with Martinez about the ruling and its implications in administering employee benefits.

What was the Supreme Court ruling?

It struck down the DOMA definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Couples in same-sex marriages now have equal protection under federal law. The case also dealt with estate taxes.

Which states recognize same-sex marriages, and does the ruling affect other states?

Same-sex marriages are recognized in 13 states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

While the ruling has little direct impact in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages, it does affect federal taxes, regardless of residence. The Treasury Department and IRS issued guidance that a ‘state of celebration’ approach will be used regarding treatment of same-sex couples for federal tax purposes, meaning the marriage will have federal tax recognition regardless of where a couple resides.

How are benefit plans changing?

The ruling is impacting benefits that are extended to spouses, ensuring same-sex couples are treated equally as compared to opposite-sex couples. If you don’t offer spousal benefits, there’s no requirement to do so as a result of the ruling.

You also don’t need to extend benefits to same-sex spouses if you have a self-insured wellness plan or are in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages. However, if you’re not extending that benefit to same-sex couples you could face legal challenges because it could be viewed as discriminatory.

If you offer a qualified retirement plan, it must treat the same-sex spouse as a spouse for purposes of satisfying federal tax laws. The plan must recognize valid same-sex marriages, even if the state they live in doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

Another change is that employees’ health plan contributions for same-sex spouses and children can now be done on a pre-tax basis. Also, they are eligible for COBRA continuation coverage.

In states that recognize same-sex marriage, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) extends to same-sex couples, giving them the right to take leave to care for their spouse.

Some questions that remain unanswered for HR representatives include whether same-sex spouses will be able to claim their benefits retroactively to the ruling’s effective date. There’s also a question as to whether past federal tax returns can be amended to claim refunds, and if same-sex couples will get their FICA taxes refunded.

What should employers be doing now in response to the DOMA ruling?

Private sector organizations in those 13 specific states should look at how benefit plans are communicated to employees. Make sure payroll taxes are handled correctly, that you’re collaborating with your health care insurance provider regarding COBRA coverage and that communications are modified to reflect necessary changes.

Pertinent policies for things like FMLA and COBRA will need to be updated in your employee handbook.

As an HR representative, it can be difficult from a legal standpoint to stay on top of all of the changes, and how those changes may impact your organization. One complication is that state definitions of terms like domestic partnerships are not clearly defined across the board. Civil unions and domestic partnerships are not normally affected by the DOMA ruling, but California law expanded the scope of domestic partnerships to include all the rights and responsibilities of a legal marriage.

Any effort to move forward with providing equal opportunity for all individuals is a step in the right direction. However, there are many things you need to pay attention to in order ensure everything is done lawfully.

Stephanie Martinez, PHR, is Director of HR Services at Benefitdecisions, Inc. Reach her at (312) 376-0465 or smartinez@benefitdecisions.com.

Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by Benefitdecisions, Inc.

The bulk of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2014. Even though large employers don’t necessarily need to go through the chess game of whether or not to offer insurance — pay or play — a number of new initiatives still come online.

The community rating rules, which limit how insurance carriers can classify small employer groups, the individual mandate and $8 billion insurer tax all will shape health care and premiums in the coming year.

“You’ve got to keep your eyes open, and continue to see what’s going on,” says Mark Haegele, director of sales and account management at HealthLink.

Smart Business spoke with Haegele about how to develop a year-end checklist of responsibilities related to health care reform.

What is the first thing an employer must do?

The ACA is not going away, so you must determine how the law applies to your business.

Let’s say you are contemplating offering in 2015 minimum essential coverage plans, ‘skinny plans,’ that just cover preventive care. Employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees may want to consider making this move in 2014, even though the employer-shared responsibility provision, or employer mandate, isn’t in effect. This prevents employees from getting subsidies and going through the new health care exchanges, or marketplaces, and then losing these funds in 2015 when you move over to a lower-level plan.

Consider any future health care changes, and how they will impact your employees for the next couple of years. You don’t want to aggravate staff and cause retention problems.

What’s important to know about your insurance?

Many people expect to see sharp spikes in health insurances costs and premiums after Jan. 1, 2014, which could be unsustainable. The $8 billion insurer tax, which likely will be passed onto employers in the form of premiums, is being calculated as a 4 to 6 percent increase. The community rating rules could drive premiums up by more than 60 percent if your insurance group is a young, healthy population. Out-of-pocket maximums have been limited to no higher than $6,350 for self-coverage and $12,700 for family coverage for most insurance.

The upcoming January 2014 health insurance renewals are the last to come into compliance before many large employers face fines. Consider where you are, and the steps it will take to come into compliance before your 2015 renewal.

Business executives need to analyze the costs and benefits of remaining with their current insurance plan or moving to self-funding, which has more freedom from regulations. Take the time to examine this regularly. No one is sure how the insurance market will react to ACA measures.

Beyond strategic decisions, what concrete actions need to be completed?

You need to make sure you sent out the notice to your employees about the new health care marketplaces, or exchanges, required as of Oct. 1, 2013. It’s a good idea to include this with your orientation materials to ensure all new employees are notified.

In addition, a Summary of Benefits and Coverage, an easy-to-understand summary of health care benefits, must be given to eligible participants at least 30 days before your plan year begins. Your insurer, health reimbursement arrangement provider or third-party administrator usually provides this.

Verify your employee-waiting period meets new requirements. A group health plan cannot make new employees wait more than 90 days for health insurance coverage as of Jan. 1, 2014.

Even though the employer mandate was delayed, large, fully insured employers should use 2014 as a trial year. Set up your tracking procedures for employee hours, especially those who work part time, so you can spot any problems. Because of the delay, the government will likely be less tolerant of any mistakes in 2015.

Health care compliance will continue to be a major concern for businesses. You need to make time to understand how the ACA will impact your company, even if it takes outside expertise to manage all your obligations.

Mark Haegele is director of sales and account management at HealthLink. Reach him at (314) 753-2100 or mark.haegele@healthlink.com.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by HealthLink

The greatest impediment to the successful resolution of a commercial dispute is the failure of both clients and attorneys to understand and think adequately about the extent, nature and amount of damages at issue in the dispute, says Eric N. Macey, partner at Novack and Macey LLP.

“While clients will invest huge amounts of time and money to focus on the merits of a case to prove they are ‘right,’ they either ignore or fail to give the same consideration to damages issues,” he says.

Yet, in order to resolve the dispute, management needs to properly evaluate damages so they can engage in meaningful settlement discussions or understand what they can expect to get or lose if the case goes to trial.

“Simply put, commercial disputes are about risk, and you need to monetize that risk early in the case to intelligently develop a strategy for the suit,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Macey about understanding and evaluating damages.

What are the steps in evaluating damages?

Begin your damages analysis very early in the case. Talk to counsel about the various theories of damages available to you or your adversary. Are lost profits an issue? Do you want damages for monies that you gave to your counterparty that you now want back, or do you want damages for the costs you incurred by reason of your opponent’s conduct?

Identify various methodologies to calculate damages. For example, if you or your opponent assert damages in the form of lost profits, you need to identify with great specificity how that figure will be calculated. As part of that analysis, you will need to decide if an expert is necessary and also understand the physical evidence you will need to support your arguments.

Read contracts or purchase orders front to back, including all the fine print. Contracts often contain provisions that limit damages.

You need to identify whether there is any statute that impacts your damages analysis. There are many statutes that limit or expand damages. For example, if you manufacture and/or market consumer goods, you may be subject to claims under consumer fraud statutes like the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. That statute expands damages because it provides that a successful plaintiff can recover both punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. Similarly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 limits certain remedies. If your business is sued for employment discrimination under Title VII, that statute imposes limits on the amount of compensatory or punitive damages that a person can recover, which varies based on the size of the employer. Consequently, you need to include any statutory expansion or limitation on damages in your risk analysis when you try to monetize your exposure from such a claim.

What other factors could affect a case?

Be sure to think through mitigation of damages. If you or your counterparty brings suit to recover damages for breach of contract, the party asserting the claim has a duty to mitigate damages. This is called the doctrine of avoidable consequences and simply means that the party asserting a claim must take all reasonable steps to keep its damages from getting larger and larger.

Let’s say you are in the business of selling a certain type of customized computer hardware, and through your efforts, your business enters into a $2 million contract with a manufacturer that needs your technology. You deliver some of the hardware and get paid $1 million on the contract amount, but for some reason the manufacturer tells you it will not honor the balance of the deal. So now you’re stuck with the equipment and out $1 million. You sue for the $1 million. However, you still have a duty to mitigate your damages, which means that you must use reasonable efforts to sell the equipment to another manufacturer. If you do nothing in this regard, the court or jury can take this into account and reduce your damages even if you win the case.

In sum, do not blindly pursue or defend claims solely on the merits without evaluating what you may recover in damages or risk paying. Remember, commercial litigation is just resolution of a business dispute in another, albeit unique, forum with special rules. This does not mean that you forego monetizing your risk. It is imperative to do so to manage your case successfully.

Eric N. Macey is a partner at Novack and Macey LLP. Reach him at (312) 419-6900 or emacey@novackmacey.com.

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Challenging times present opportunities for organizations to perform detailed assessments of their operations. Performing operational assessments can help organizations identify, mitigate and take advantage of the risks that they face. These assessments focus on process design and execution risks.

“When properly performed, operational assessments identify areas where process design and execution risks are not aligned with an organization’s risk tolerance,” says James P. Martin, a managing director at Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC.

Smart Business spoke with Martin to learn more about operational assessments.

How can operational assessments help?

Organizations must achieve a diverse set of strategic objectives. This is accomplished by translating strategic objectives into what are often interdependent yet, disparate operational objectives.

Operational objectives include revenue growth, operational efficiency, compliance with laws and regulations, public perception, corporate responsibility and market leadership, as well as customer and employee satisfaction. Attainment of each requires the assumption of inherent risks.

Operational assessments focus on mitigating inherent process design and execution risks through the use of controls. Controls are employed to reduce an organization’s residual risk, or risk after control implementation, to a tolerable level.

What’s included in operational assessments?

Operational assessments examine whether an organization’s processes enable the achievement of strategic objectives. The first step is breaking down process design and execution elements into tasks performed by employees. This is often accomplished through employee interviews, as well as through observation in the workplace.

Once tasks have been identified, risks associated with the accomplishment of tasks are enumerated, as well as controls centered on mitigating risks. Risks are quantified by likelihood and impact. High-likelihood and/or high-impact risks are prioritized for mitigation in operational assessments, as they pose the greatest threat.

How can organizations decrease high-likelihood and/or high-impact risks?

High-likelihood risks can be decreased through preventive controls, while high-impact risks can be decreased by detective controls. For example, organizational training regarding fire hazards decreases the likelihood that a fire will occur. This is a form of preventative control. Proper placement of fire detectors throughout an organization’s premises decreases the potential impact should a fire occur. This is a form of detective control.

For risks that remain at a level too high for the organization to tolerate, new controls must be developed to bring residual risks in line with the organization’s risk tolerance. Otherwise, the organization should consider outsourcing the risk — for example, utilizing hedging strategies and insurance contracts that transfer risk to a third party.

What can be missed when performing operational assessments?

A key element that is sometimes missed by those performing operational assessments is the assignment of clear roles and responsibilities to team members who will oversee the creation and redesign of process controls. Without accountability, proper incentives are not present, and the operational assessment may struggle to achieve its intended results.

How do these assessments differ?

Risk assessments primarily assist organizations in preserving shareholder value, while operational assessments also help organizations grow shareholder value. More specifically, a risk assessment is really a deep dive into one component of an operational assessment. It involves the identification and analysis of potential risks that may impede an organization from achieving its strategic objectives.

By performing risk assessments across the organization, organizational managers can develop plans to mitigate the risks an organization may face, helping preserve its objective from potential threats and, hence, its shareholder value.

Actively identifying internal risks also can help organizational managers remove the opportunity for fraudulent activity.

James P. Martin, CMA, CIA, CFE, is a managing director at Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC. Reach him at (866) 717-1607 or jpm@cendsel.com.

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