Chelan David

Friday, 30 November 2012 21:09

How VoIP has progressed since its infancy

In today’s business climate, people want the convenience of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), in which employees use their personal mobile devices to access company resources such as email, file servers and databases. VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, is also a part of the BYOD movement.

“People want their voice to follow their devices,” says Alex Desberg, sales and marketing director at Ohio.net. “To meet this demand, VoIP providers are looking at assimilating voice and video, integrating tablets with phone systems and running different types of voice applications.”

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about how technology has improved VoIP capabilities, how it can help keep a business up and running in the event of a disaster, and the cost savings associated with this phone service.

How has VoIP availability expanded in recent years?

In the early days of VoIP, providers installed their own networks and used their own facilities to port numbers and bring services to new areas. In essence, providers shouldered the responsibility for creating an infrastructure.

As the product has matured and more services have become available, carriers and other telephone companies now port numbers for providers into remote service areas. It has become far easier for providers to deploy services in places where, previously, there was no availability.

How has technology improved VoIP capabilities?

VoIP came on to the scene about seven years ago. As it has become more accepted and heavily used, the software programming has become much more refined. The code has been tightened, which allows for better networking and compatibility with different devices. As with any technology, the more it is used and the more it becomes accepted, the less expensive it becomes to maintain and operate, and the easier it is to deploy.

Why is VoIP ideal for disaster recovery?

With Hurricane Sandy dominating the news, disaster recovery is a hot topic. Businesses are making sure that they back up their data and have alternative points of access so they can keep their companies up and running if there is a catastrophe. Unfortunately, many businesses fail to include a plan for their phone system when preparing for a disaster.

A common misconception is that an organization can simply rely on cell phones if its phone system is down. In reality, a business cannot operate at full strength when its communications system is down for an extended period of time.

With VoIP, businesses can be prepared for a disaster by having their provider host their phone system. This enables organizations to run seamlessly in the event of a calamity and carry on business as normal.

Customers and suppliers won’t even realize that your business model has changed and that you have switched to disaster recovery mode.

How can telecom costs be contained with VoIP?

Usually, as new technologies emerge, a service becomes cheaper and easier to deploy. However, when it comes to traditional telephone services, this has not been the case. People have requested new features for their phones and those have been accompanied by exponential increases in cost. The biggest costs associated with traditional phone systems are adding new features and the monthly service fees that accompany those.

VoIP has taken a different approach. Providers have simplified the process of delivering a dial tone to phone systems and driven down the cost of monthly service. Also, VoIP serves as a fixed-cost model, and additions and changes are usually included as part of the package. You are not making another investment every time you need an upgrade to meet the demands of your business.

Finally, VoIP is a nonregulated product, so tariffs are not set by the FCC. This enables providers to be able to offer new services at whatever rate they choose.

How does VoIP compare to traditional phone service in terms of ease of management?

Oftentimes, management of a phone system falls to IT personnel. In other cases, there is a dedicated telecom professional whose sole responsibility is the upkeep of the phone system.

VoIP providers offer two options. First, they can take all of the management responsibilities away from an organization by adding a hosted provider and serving as a service provider, which includes adding and changing features, troubleshooting and training.

Second, they can change the level of management to provide a single point of contact. A business can take as much or as little responsibility for managing its phone system as it would like.

In what ways has the track record of VoIP improved over the years?

Customers have demanded improvement. If VoIP providers are going to offer cloud-based phone services, the quality has to be as good, if not better, than that of traditional phone companies. Good means dependable and reliable. Better means that VoIP providers need to offer features and services well beyond those of any regulated telephone company, and they must be ahead of the curve in terms of developing and deploying new offerings.

Alex Desberg is a 20-year veteran of launching and marketing Internet technology. Most of his technology tenure has been with regional and national providers. At Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications, Desberg has been the development spearhead of a mature VoIP product line designed for business application and brings his support and knowledge to the B2B environment.

Health care costs are increasing at an alarming pace and many businesses are struggling to maintain the level of health care benefits provided in the past.

While executives are keenly aware that comprehensive benefit programs play a significant role in attracting top-notch talent, many companies have neglected to analyze the effectiveness of their benefit strategy.

Reviewing your employee benefit program regularly offers the opportunity to revisit your carrier’s rates and ensure they are still competitive, says Steve Slaga, chief marketing officer at Total Health Care. Further, it presents an opportunity for employers to ensure their program continues to measure up against others in their industry.

“Health care benefits are important and serve as a very useful tool for employee retention and attracting new recruits,” Slaga says.

Smart Business spoke with Slaga about assessing the needs of your employees, how to determine an appropriate benefit plan and the importance of employee education.

How can a company assess the needs of its employees?

First, examine your health care plan to ensure you’re providing affordable, quality coverage with good service, flexibility and access to care. Make sure your plan isn’t prohibitively priced, so employees can afford to participate, and gauge employees’ satisfaction levels by utilizing surveys to determine which areas of the plan they consider strong and which can be improved upon. Bear in mind all employers are different and operate within circumstances unique to them, so not every health care plan fits every group.

The level of flexibility a health care plan facilitates is also an important consideration. Some plans work through Health Maintenance Organizations, which have a specific provider network, while others offer Preferred Provider Organizations or Point-of-Service plans with which employees have the option to go in or out of a predetermined physician and hospital network of preferred health care providers without fulfilling certain conditions, such as obtaining a referral. When choosing a health care plan, make sure the services fit the needs of your employees and that employees have access to a selection of physicians and specialists in their area.

How can employers determine an appropriate benefits plan for their employees?

Ask your agent or broker to do a comparative analysis among health care plans. That person will review the factors important to your employees, including pricing, access to care and type of benefits. The actual pricing is determined by the health care plan and is dependent on factors including the business, its industry and the average age of employees.

Employers at a minimum should review their benefit plans annually. By comparing your current plan to other plans, you can stay apprised of options in the marketplace, new products and how your premiums compare with other options. By reviewing plans regularly, you can assure employees you have shopped around and are providing them with the best value for their needs.

How can employers best balance the cost of the plan with employee needs?

This is a decision every employer must make on its own, and it hinges on factors including the type of benefit program desired for employees and how much employees will be expected to contribute.

As the cost of providing health care coverage continues to rise, many businesses have scaled back benefits. Among those companies that continue to offer benefits, their employees are more often asked to make higher contributions to offset costs. Other companies pass along a portion of the increased costs through higher deductibles or higher co-insurance; both solutions reflect the challenge of dealing with today’s rising medical costs.

Companies are also coping with escalating health care costs by implementing wellness plans designed to encourage employees to take preventive action to improve their health. The idea is that a healthier pool of insured employees makes fewer claims.

How can employers help employees understand the features of their health care plan?

Education is key. Employees need to have a clear, concise understanding of their benefits from day one. There are numerous ways to make information available to employees, including health plan websites, interactive assessment tools, newsletters and other communications.

It is also important to provide employees with forums where they can ask questions about the plan and provide feedback. In addition, many employers are looking beyond employee communication and implementing multipronged education programs that engage employees throughout the year.

Most employees receive benefit information during open enrollment periods and that’s often the last time they examine the details of the plan. Instead, there should be ongoing education with information distributed regularly to employees so they are fully aware of what their benefits cover. This will allow your employees to utilize and access their plans efficiently and effectively.

What value should a benefit provider bring to the table?

Your benefit provider should present clear and concise information about the health care plan in a timely manner. On a group level, a provider should be able to help you with billing, invoice and claims questions. On the member level, the provider should be able to answer benefits questions. Contact your provider to see what other services are available.

Steve Slaga is chief marketing officer at Total Health Care. Reach him at (313) 871-7810 or SSlaga@thc-online.com.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Total Health Care

As technology continues to move forward exponentially, end users are flocking to the latest versions of notebooks, tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices.

Against this backdrop, remote data security (RDS) is becoming increasingly important for businesses. Having an appropriate data protection strategy across the board in any organization can help ensure that the company protects its end users, shields its intellectual property and protects its rights.

However, many businesses fail to do so, as convenience tends to trump security, says Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P.

“We try to make small and medium-sized businesses aware that it’s a mistake to only focus on convenience,” he says. “Security should never be a subordinate element when transitioning toward remote data platforms.”

Smart Business spoke with Carter about what businesses need to know about RDS to keep their data safe.

What are the challenges associated with RDS?

First, it’s important to understand how the concern of RDS came to be: We, the users, created it. The introduction and proliferation of mobile computing devices put business-centric technology in the hands of an increasingly mobile work force.

In recent years, laptops, notebooks, tablet PCs, iPads, smartphones and other devices have become instruments of the business enterprise. In other words, they became information interchange enablers.

One thing that has remained constant is that data is still the end user’s primary concern. As such, access to and exchange of corporate data — now through remote devices — has surfaced as one of the most pressing needs of businesses.

Safeguarding the transfer of corporate data across remote devices requires controls. However, to an end user, controls mean inconvenience. And inconvenience often translates to, ‘I won’t take the necessary precautions to protecting my data.’

As a result, data is now being transmitted across more open or mobile platforms by users who are sidestepping security in favor of convenience.

Hasn’t technology adapted to address the needs of exchanging corporate data?

Absolutely. In fact, every generation of new mobile technology devices is amazingly more capable of delivering and exchanging data remotely. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that the ability to exchange information is much more effective than our ability to control data security remotely.

Having data secured in a mobile environment is the essential ingredient. It’s not enough just to have it delivered. We are all in support of making data convenient, but it has to be secure, as well. There has to be a balanced strategy.

What is the weakest link with RDS?

In some regards, this is a real paradox.  Remote data access was designed for the end user, but the end user is, without a doubt, the weakest link. Something as simple as password management provides a great example of how end users tend to overlook security measures. Users will write down their passwords, tape them underneath the keyboard, use the same one for everything, or store them in the cloud.

The increase in the loss of information, malware intrusion and identity theft is due to the nature of the end user who is unaware of the importance of secure protection in their environment, and has difficulty seeing the value when technology serves as an inhibitor of their convenience. The bottom line is that end users will always default to convenience over security. It will take a behavior change at the end user level to correct this.

Bring your own device, or BYOD, is becoming more commonplace at businesses. How will this affect RDS?

It’s important to keep a close eye on this development. The market initially said, ‘Mobile devices are opening up the dynamics of enabling global business. There is no need to stay confined in the office any longer. This is more convenient for the user.’

Next, the market said, ‘It’s more effective and efficient to allow end users to pick their own technology platform. So let them bring their own device to work. Just make sure they can access their data. This is more convenient for the user.’ Then the market said, ‘Store your data in the cloud, where it’s easier and faster to access and stockpile. This is more convenient for the user.’

Put this all together and there is an accelerating adoption of every mobile computing technology — each calling for faster remote access to business-critical corporate data — residing in virtual data repositories. And if you ask end users which is more important to them, convenience or security, the answer you’re most likely to receive is convenience.

How should small to medium-sized businesses approach the RDS challenge?

The market is calling for a robust solution that secures the end user from a variety of different functionality levels, from remote identity and access management to a secure, portable computing environment on managed and unmanaged workstations or devices. However, because convenience is trumping security at the end user level, businesses should investigate those products that make it easy for the end user to embrace RDS.

Steve Carter is president and CEO of ii2P. Reach him at (817) 442-9292 or scarter@ii2p.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by ii2P

Thursday, 01 November 2012 11:42

How VoIP can help you operate more efficiently

As Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has entered the mainstream, most businesses are aware of its primary benefits: cost savings, ease of use and flexibility. There are also many customizable features that can pay dividends quickly.

When looking for a VoIP provider, it’s important to ask how they’ve upgraded their services over the past year or so. You want to work with a provider that is adapting to the current business landscape and can tailor services to meet your needs.

“If they are selling a standard, proprietary system that hasn’t improved, they are using off-the-shelf technology and you won’t be able to receive tweaks or necessary upgrades when you need them,” says Alex Desberg, sales and marketing director at Ohio.net.

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about using VoIP for integrated marketing efforts, the importance of portability and the move toward virtualization.

What are some of the things that make VoIP an attractive option?

When we demonstrate what our services can do during the demo stage, clients often have an ‘aha’ moment when they see a characteristic that enables them to do their job better. One of the major attributes is timely reporting of how their phone systems are being used. Businesses can take a look at an entire day’s worth of calling and examine how their employees are using the phone system as well as how customers are using the system.

Retail customers can incorporate this knowledge to integrate marketing into their phone service. For example, car dealerships want to know where their customers heard about them, what they’re inquiring about and when activity is the highest. Traditionally, the dealership would have to wait until the end of the month to get a full, detailed report of the calling patterns.

Many car dealerships use custom phone numbers based on the marketing outlet — a newspaper ad is assigned one phone number and a radio ad is assigned another. With VoIP they can see who called what phone number and what time they called almost instantaneously. Let’s say the dealership ran a morning drive commercial on radio and they received calls from 9 a.m. to noon on Monday. This is a pretty strong indicator that people are responding to the radio ad rather than the print ad, which doesn’t appear until Wednesday. The business is able to see a payoff in their advertising, which makes for good marketing decisions.

What are some of the overlooked capabilities that VoIP has to offer?

One of the most overlooked aspects is having the freedom of not being tied to a specific geographic location. Sometimes we forget that VoIP-hosted phones can be unplugged and transported to any area with power and Internet access.

Recently, we worked with a customer who wanted to reduce overhead costs by moving into a smaller office space. They were concerned because they had a number of employees who performed vital functions, but couldn’t be accommodated with the new layout. We helped them realize that their customer service people could work from home as flexible telecommuters because they didn’t need the traditional office infrastructure to do their job. The client was able to reduce their office size, which reduced their overhead. Their employees love the freedom to work out of their home offices and they still do their jobs well.

How can standard VoIP services be tweaked to meet the needs of an individual business?

We are in the ‘what if’ business. If a customer comes to us with a request, we can accommodate it 99.9 percent of the time based on the huge amount of capabilities of our system.

For example, the ability to change the system based on what time of day it is can be very beneficial to certain types of businesses. Insurance companies have set business hours, but their clients may call them after hours with insurance questions or claims. In the past, insurance companies would have to leave a message that instructed callers to hang up and dial a 1-800 number. Our VoIP services allow the insurance providers to transport or forward numbers as wished depending on the time of day. We work with a number of insurance companies and this is typically one of the top features they request.

What impact have customer requests had on the services you offer?

Our goal is to serve the current needs of our customers. We are continually being asked about smartphone integration. Recently, we implemented a new service that allows a cellphone and a desk phone to work together as a single extension for a user. In the past, users of our VoIP services have had the ability to have calls directed to their desk phones forwarded to their cellphones. Now, we have incorporated a third-party application that allows customers to receive calls simultaneously on their desk phones and cellphones.

What’s next with VoIP?

So many customers are going virtual with their phone and computer systems. With virtualization, no one will have a static desk anymore. Everything will be traveling with you, whether it’s an iPad and a cellphone or hoteling, where you sit down at anybody’s desk, log in as yourself and all of your services come to that desk. This releases you from a single piece of equipment and enables you to access what you need from wherever you are.

Alex Desberg is a 20-year veteran of launching and marketing Internet technology. Most of his technology tenure has been with regional and national providers. At Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications, Desberg has been the development spearhead of a mature VoIP product line designed for business application and brings his support and knowledge to the B2B environment.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

In the face of a stifling economy, many companies have focused on cutting costs as a means to improve profits. Such measures, however, don’t stand the test of time. Inevitably, quality goes down, as do sales over the long haul.

In the technology realm, it is more important than ever for business leaders to invest in new platforms and cater to customers’ needs. According to Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P, the market has spoken and they are asking for small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) to provide self-service platforms.

“Our clients that truly have self-service platforms are seeing overwhelming results,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Carter about issues SMB leaders currently face, the importance of investing in self-service models and the rewards that can be reaped.

What main issues do SMB leaders face as it pertains to surviving in the marketplace?

First, I want to emphasize that the issues are not limited to small and medium-sized businesses. They face many of the same challenges that larger enterprises face — they need differentiating innovation such as a self-service platform. However, SMB leaders do have more difficulties adapting to the self-service platform. If they don’t embrace this new model and are unable to remain competitive from a cost and convenience standpoint, it will affect their ability to retain their company client base. Every decision that is made within a small business environment has an immediate and dramatic effect. Whereas with a large enterprise, although the results may be the same, the consequences show up in a longer time frame — it is not so immediate.

What should SMB leaders be investing in?

It is paramount to be market driven and keep pace with where your market needs are today. Today’s market — end users, clients, etc. — have changed dramatically. The demographics of the end user today are not in line with current service models. The service models of today, for the most part, don’t embrace self-service. Yet the behavior and desire of the end user is all about self-service. If you embrace innovative solutions and are able to provide a competent gateway to self-service you will reap the benefits.

What innovative solutions do you believe SMB players should take advantage of?

Many technology developments have been tailored to larger enterprise environments. A good example is something as straightforward as password management. About 30 percent to 35 percent of all IT service-related calls, whether it is in an enterprise environment or a small to medium-sized business environment, have to deal with this matter. Password management is becoming more of an issue today because, as security needs grow, the need for well-disciplined password management solutions becomes more pressing. While password management has been geared toward larger enterprises, this is an area ripe for small and medium-sized businesses as well.

How can this be funded?

The secret sauce is creating a formal strategy and approach for bringing innovation to the SMB, not just reacting. Over the past 15 years or so, a lot of businesses have been plagued with what I call ‘drop off the technology and run syndrome.’ The technology as a standalone looks good and accomplishes what it’s supposed to do. But unfortunately, that’s where a lot of companies have left it. They’ve made the investment in capital, but haven’t been able to realize the benefits because the solution really wasn’t a business solution, it was more of a technology solution.

In order to improve the existing platform, you should first look at the inefficiencies within your end-to-end platform. Examine the platform and change it to make it more efficient and more effective. I have not yet experienced an engagement where there wasn’t significant amount of monies being spent on ineffective end-to-end support solutions. In most cases, the money saved by optimizing the environment is more than enough to support the investment for self-service. There is no magic or big bucket of money sitting out there, but there is a methodology to determining how to begin investing in a self-service platform.

Where should the recovered excess money be spent?

You should invest those dollars in creating a platform that is going to be more market-driven. Then, you will be able to take the return on those monies and spend them on growing your business. It is important to invest in growing your business so you can become more competitive in the marketplace.

If this strategy is applied correctly, what are the outcomes to the SMB?

In today’s existing model, business is driven by using the platform less. In other words, providers are hoping that their end users, their B2B clients, etc, are using their existing model less because every time they use it, it costs the service provider. The paradigm shift is when you develop the self-service model; the more they use it, the cheaper it is. We’re talking about a complete re-engineering that will affect not only the behavior of the end user, but the provider as well. When you adopt the model that your end users prefer, you will benefit because the more they use it, the less it will cost you.

Steve Carter is president and CEO of ii2P. Reach him at (817) 442-9292 or scarter@ii2p.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by ii2P

Disasters can strike at any time, at any place, and a business that is unprepared can face devastating consequences. One area that can cripple a business in a disaster is the loss of its phone system.

However, with proper planning and preparation, a business can ensure that its ability to communicate will not be disrupted by a fire, flood, or other disaster.

“Planning is very important with disaster recovery,” says Alex Desberg, sales and marketing director at Ohio.net. “Just because a VoIP system has disaster recovery capabilities doesn’t mean that things will run smoothly in the event of a major outage. When you’re working with a VoIP company, make sure you know what steps you need to take in order to initiate your disaster recovery plan.”

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about creating a disaster recovery plan for phone systems, how often the plan should be reviewed and the importance of asking VoIP providers what type of services they offer.

How should a business begin creating a disaster recovery plan for its phone systems?

The telecommunications aspect of disaster recovery plans is often overlooked. If a business loses power or the connection to its phone system, it must have a well-thought-out plan in place. Prepare for the worst-case scenario: What happens if your phone system is wiped out due to weather or a fire? How will your customers communicate with you?

There are significant differences with hosted versus premise-based systems. If a phone system is physically located with the customer and its facility is wiped out, the equipment, as well as the programming associated with the phones, will most likely be lost. In the world of VoIP, or a hosted realm, the recovery process is much quicker. With a hosted realm, the phone systems are not housed in the customer’s facility — they are virtually hosted. Even if the facility that a customer works or lives in is out of service, the phone system will still work, as it is remotely hosted and designed for backup and sustainability.

What are the potential consequences facomg a business that doesn’t have a plan for its phone systems in the event of a disaster?

If you don’t have phone service up and running, it looks like you’ve gone out of business. Often, when phone systems go down — even though the phone lines are still working — the person calling will receive a message that the number is no longer in service. Not only does it look like you’ve gone out of business, but employees revert to their cell phones and it looks like you are not prepared. This could translate to a loss of revenue and a lack of confidence by your customers in your business.

What steps can a business owner take to prepare for a disaster?

First, make sure that you have good connectivity — Internet redundancy is very important. It’s also important to have a planning session with your provider so you know what steps to take in the event of an outage or other problem. Sometimes, just knowing the right person to call can save minutes or hours in the recovery of your phone services.

In the hosted world, business owners can talk to their provider in advance and request that, in the event of an outage, their employees’ phones be automatically forwarded to their cell phones. Or they can have the calls forwarded to a remote office or another branch. This can be preprogrammed so that it is an automatic switchover.

How often should a company review its disaster recovery plan in terms of phone services?

This should be an annual event. Most large organizations have a disaster recovery exercise that they do, and phone systems should be included.

Consider what would happen if someone walked into your office and unplugged your phone system. It would have major implications for both your employees and your customers. Reviewing your disaster recovery plan on an annual basis is critical.

How have new technologies changed the way that businesses utilize phone systems?

As phone systems move away from the customers’ facilities and are hosted elsewhere, automatic redundancy and sustainability play a much larger role. Companies realize that they aren’t necessarily tied to a physical facility. They can lease less office space and integrate more telecommuters.

By diversifying its workplace and pushing people away from the corporate center and into a virtual environment, a company can build sustainability, which pays huge dividends in the event of a disaster. If you experience a major outage and employees are already operating remotely, not only will they be able to continue business as usual, they can also be part of the disaster recovery plan.

What advice would you give about hiring a VoIP provider?

Make sure the provider has a disaster recovery plan of its own. Ask what happens if it loses lines or need to redirect calls. Does it have someone who understands data recovery?

Also, ask what type of services it is capable of providing. Often when a provider says it sells VoIP, it is actually a specific vendor of one type of service and is not really the dial-tone provider. Look for a company that is both the telephone company and the service provider, so it has multiple options on the ways it can deliver service.

Not only should a provider be able offer disaster recovery through hosted VoIP, but it should also be a trunking provider. That means that if a facility loses power in its Columbus office, calls can automatically be rerouted to its Cleveland office, and callers wouldn’t even realize a change in the dialing pattern.

 

Alex Desberg is a 20-year veteran of launching and marketing internet technology. Most of his technology tenure has been with regional and national providers. At Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications, Desberg has been the development spearhead of a mature VOIP product line designed for business application and brings his support and knowledge to the B2B environment.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

To attract and retain top talent, it is critical for a company to have a strong benefits plan in place. In today’s uncertain environment, employee benefits represent a significant portion of the financial security employees are seeking, and they are demanding jobs in which those benefits meet their needs.

To ensure that employees are satisfied with your company’s current health care plan, it is important to solicit their feedback. Then, based on your findings, it may be time to consider searching for a plan that is a better fit for your employees.

“Companies should look at a number of benefit plans to determine if the designs and structures could better meet the needs of their work force,” says Stephen Slaga, chief marketing officer of Total Health Care.

Smart Business spoke with Slaga about how to identify the right provider for a business’s employee population and how to ensure a smooth transition when changing plans.

How can employers assess whether changing providers would benefit their company?

Typically, employers look at overall satisfaction with their current provider to determine if a change is needed. Cost, quality of coverage, accessibility, flexibility and the impact a change may bring both to the employer and the employees are some of the components that are measured to make this determination.

Seeking employee input is also important. For many employers, the No. 1 objective in offering benefits is to retain employees. However, those benefits must not only meet the needs of employees, they must also meet the monetary constraints of the employer.

Determining which carrier can provide the best care at the most efficient price and matching coverage options to what employees are looking for is critical. When possible, use benchmarking data to compare the offerings of different providers. Employers should also review coverage options and contribution strategies that their direct competitors are deploying.

Because the cost of benefits can have a large impact on employees’ paychecks, strong health care coverage and benefits are an important piece of the overall job package. In many cases, a small percentage difference in salary is secondary to the type of health care coverage available to employees.

What questions should an employer ask when seeking potential providers?

It is important to be thorough and to ask the right questions when searching for a potential provider. How many years has the provider been operating? Is it financially stable? What kind of reputation does it have? Inquire about the provider’s different types of benefit plan offerings and the service area. Also investigate historical rate trends in order to gain a better understanding of what to expect in terms of future premium increases.

Finally, be cognizant of customer service criteria. It could be worth the extra premium for the business owner to have the peace of mind of knowing that he or she is dealing with a reputable company that is looking out for the employees.

What common mistakes do employers make when changing providers?

Employers don’t always ask the right questions and, as a result, they may not fully understand the product they are purchasing. In the rush to implement a change in providers, employers sometimes do things that could result in the disruption of services to their employees.

Another common mistake is that employers assume that lower rates will equal a lower cost, which may not necessarily be true when they factor in the possibility of higher deductibles and coinsurance being passed on to their employees.

 

What steps can employers take to help ensure a smooth transition?

Make sure that adequate time is given to implement all changes when moving to a new provider. Communicate the changes to all employees and allow enough time so that any questions or concerns they have may be addressed. Conduct employee meetings to explain the changes and how they may impact employees. Also explain the overall value that employees are receiving by creating total benefit statements, which includes salary, benefits, workers’ compensation costs, vacation time, etc.

How can a benefits provider assist with the transition?

Transitioning to a new benefit provider requires significant planning. Employees should be told as early as possible about the changes and be provided with written benefit information explaining those changes. The benefits provider should conduct open enrollment meetings to answer any questions that employees may have. Benefit material should also be made available so that employees can review it on their own time.

How should the change be communicated to employees?

Communicating changes to employees requires adequate time and planning. The most common form of communication is done during the open enrollment season. Often, open enrollments are conducted and led by an agent or broker hired by employers to assist in administrating their employee health care benefits.

Benefit meetings should be scheduled around work so that employees are able to attend to ask questions about the new plan. Providing this education to employees is critical, and there are a number of ways to make information available, including health care plan websites, newsletters and direct mail pieces. Through the use of multipronged education programs, employees will have a better understanding of the changes, which results in better customer satisfaction.

Stephen Slaga is chief marketing officer of Total Health Care. Reach him at (313) 871-7810 or SSlaga@thc-online.com.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Total Health Care

Earlier this year, Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P, challenged small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) to take a look at investment decisions around their current support models. This month, he stresses the importance of adopting a strong sense of urgency to avoid upcoming challenges.

“SMBs worldwide are projected to spend $1 trillion on IT by 2014. But unless something drastically changes, that spending could be like a heavy weight on a vessel headed into a perfect storm,” says Carter. “We want to stop, take a pause and not repeat history by spending money on technologies without really looking for a composite solution.”

Smart Business spoke with Carter about the challenges SMBs face, how to avoid common traps and the importance of managing cost pressure while strengthening customer intimacy.

Why do you feel there needs to be a heightened sense of urgency around creating change right now?

There are two fundamental problems facing the SMB market space: 1) cost pressures to stay competitive; 2) customer intimacy is in jeopardy. All companies with products and services wrestle with relieving cost pressures to maintain competitiveness. However, the most significant challenge I see is declining customer intimacy. This is an aspect that has been ignored. In order to sustain and grow market share, maintaining customer intimacy is paramount. Overall, a quality customer experience is missing, which shows up in lost market share.

What factors do you feel are causing these challenges?

A perfect storm is described as having multiple conditions that are colliding at the same time. There is a perfect storm in the SMB market today. First, all too often, we see both cost and customer intimacy elements are chained to an archaic standard support model. Such a model is actually designed to cost more to interact with the customer.

Historically, this has been why companies scrambled to find ways to cut back on support costs. This standard model is also designed to drive customer interactions out because it costs so much and reflects pure overhead. What this does is create an environment for the SMB that says, ‘Use it less, find a way to reduce calls for support.’ Sounds like a good thing, but it is deceiving. It’s a death trap for the SMB.

At the same time, the demographics of the end user have changed considerably and it is imperative that you respond to their wishes. Our clients have grown up in the technology world and favor what I call the ‘preferred end user support model’ — they prefer to satisfy the needs themselves rather than call a support center for help.

Lastly, by not considering and committing to a holistic approach when installing new technologies into your business, you are actually burdening your organization with incomplete and ineffective solutions.

How can the SMB know if it is facing the perfect storm?

There are some clear, obvious indicators that every SMB should use as beacons.

  • Check your specific market growth. Has your business grown at a healthy rate? If you are not growing at a healthy rate, the storm will ultimately catch you.

  • Check your client retention. This one is big. You can’t glaze over client loss as being a result of some external factor. Truth is, if you are losing clients, your model is working against you. The two key components are your cost competitiveness and your ability to be intimate with your end users.

  • Check your profitability. This one should be obvious but can be deceiving. If your margins are falling, for example, don’t automatically blame costs of raw materials. The cost of your support model is a more obvious culprit.

What options does an SMB have if it determines it is facing a perfect storm?

There are three options that always apply, and the first two are the most common traps that sink businesses. The first option is to do nothing. Keep steaming straight ahead, believing the situation will improve. The second option is planning to do something in the future. While this one doesn’t sound quite as bad as doing nothing, it has the same result: the longer you wait, the more you lose ground.

There is a third option: Do something new. Now is the time to face the perfect storm.

How should an SMB go about implementing a new approach in order to avoid the perfect storm?

The thing to remember is that surviving the storm requires a balance between the two elements I spoke of earlier: managing cost pressure while strengthening customer intimacy. The first step to bailing water out of your boat is to analyze and optimize your current support model. Then establish a clear strategy and create self-improving client intimacy through customer-facing self-service.

We’ve all made the mistake thinking that just purchasing technology is the answer. Take a new holistic approach that will bring technology, process and management disciplines as a complete and total solution. Examine the investment in current IT expenditures and make the hard assessment: ‘Am I getting real return on investment?’ If not, make a change.

Finally, establish committed continuous improvement processes that focus on balancing the customer intimacy mandate with prudent cost management. With these approaches in place, clearing the perfect storm is simply a matter of having your clients use your new model more.

Steve Carter is president and CEO of ii2P. Reach him at (817) 442-9292 or scarter@ii2p.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by ii2P

Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, involves delivering voice telecommunication services across a network. Companies that utilize VoIP can realize significant telecom savings. Let’s say your business has offices in multiple geographic locations. With VoIP, you don’t need to duplicate efforts by having different carriers that charge different rates.

“VoIP is a great leveler because it’s geographically independent — the price doesn’t change based on where you’re employing it,” says Alex Desberg, sales and marketing director for Ohio.net.

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about the cost savings that can be realized by utilizing VoIP, how to make a seamless transition, and what to look for in a provider.

How can you stretch your telecom dollars by utilizing VoIP?

Normally, when you have a traditional phone system, there is a maintenance agreement. Every time you need to do an add/move/change with the system, you are paying someone to do it, or someone on your staff is investing their time. In the world of VoIP, because it is a service model, adds/moves/changes are usually included as part of the package. With VoIP, maintenance of the system is removed from the equation, which can lead to significant cost and time savings.

Often, when people are looking to change their technology from traditional to VoIP, it’s because the nature of their business has changed and they need to get a new phone system that isn’t antiquated. With VoIP, there is far less equipment needed than there would be in replacing a traditional phone system. In the past, if you needed to replace or upgrade a phone system, you were looking at software, someone to come out and do the installation, and possible hardware to update the system. With VoIP, all you’re buying is a VoIP phone so the costs are much less.

Also, VoIP services can be cyclical: there are plenty of businesses that have busy and slow seasons. For example, we work with car dealerships who sell more cars during spring, summer and fall than they do in the middle of winter. Car dealerships call us on a regular basis during the winter months and say, ‘Go ahead and scale back our services — we don’t need as many phones or as many lines.’ As a result, they’ll save money over the winter period when they know they won’t be nearly as busy.

This is very hard to do in the traditional telecom world because a contract will hold you to a certain dollar amount per month regardless of usage.

How can VoIP be used to service multi-location companies?

VoIP is geographically leveling the playing field. If I’m going to deploy 100 phones in the VoIP world, I don’t care if there are 100 phones all together in the same physical building or if they are being used by 100 different people in the company spread out across the country at multiple locations. The phone system itself is going to work the same in both cases because it’s essentially a virtualized phone system.

Also, VoIP offers local dialing between all the phones. For example, if I’m in New York and someone in my VoIP partition is in California, I can still do a four-digit dial.

How can a business make a seamless transition from traditional telephony to VoIP?

Training is essential; it is the difference between a clean start with VoIP and a bumpy one. Any time you implement a new phone system, people are going to be uncomfortable with the change. You have to get all of the individuals trained and get them comfortable with the phone before the system goes live.

With VoIP, the transition is seamless because we can have the new system running parallel to a traditional phone system. Once the users become comfortable we do a changeover where their old numbers become live on the new phone system.

After the transition happens, it’s important to have support available. Customer service is an important part of our model. One of the biggest complaints we hear about traditional telecom is that their support is terrible.

What advice would you give about selecting a VoIP provider?

Because it’s technology-related, a lot of young companies think they can enter into the VoIP business and be accepted. In truth, however, they need a stable backing in order to understand the technology they are deploying. In addition, they need to have a support system that can serve their clients. There are fly-by-night VoIP service companies that swoop in and make promises, but then quickly realize that they can’t support their customer base.

Look for a VoIP provider that has experience in your industry. If it hasn’t done what you need it to do before, I would be wary. Also, it should have a good future plan. A big part of our business is understanding what’s next and how to integrate that into a seamless service for our customers.

How are VoIP technologies being integrated into smartphones?

We are integrating to any phone out there, whether it is a smartphone, regular cell phone or landline. We can deploy services that allow calls to be routed to cell networks or home networks. For example, we work with a small government agency that has case workers who work from home. We just did our first installation for a remote case worker who is never going to step into the home office, but needed office connectivity.

It doesn’t matter what phone is on the other end. Let’s say you have an iPhone, one of your coworkers has a BlackBerry and another has a landline — you still want to be integrated. In order to allow integration, we built the service into the VoIP system rather than trying to build an app that changes every time someone gets a new type of phone or operating system.

Alex Desberg is Sales and Marketing Director for Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications. Reach him at (330) 658-1888 or adesberg@ohio.net.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

Friday, 31 August 2012 20:01

How to balance convenience and compliance

In the past, a company’s employees were generally employees for life; there was little danger of them leaving, and if they did, the technology didn’t exist for them to take information with them.

Today, however, the average employee will hold eight to 10 jobs over his or her professional career, and if you don’t take the proper precautions, employees could take your data with them when they leave.

“Today’s ‘migrant worker’ is smarter and comes with strong skills sets, which necessitate more sophisticated data requirements regarding employee identity security,” says Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P.

Smart Business spoke with Carter about the importance of employee identity security and how to balance convenience and compliance.

Why should employers be concerned about employee identity security?

Businesses have three types of security needs: physical, data and employee identity. Physical security involves a company’s structure and its hard goods, data security relates to proprietary business or financial information and employee identity includes access to e-mails and network drives, and authorization to post information on the Internet. Employee identity security is just one leg of a three-legged stool that makes up corporate security.

Employee identity security is critical in today’s economy because of the changing face of the work force. This is the age of the ‘migrant worker.’ The employees who are working for you today will most likely be leaving your employment at some point for another opportunity. As a result, managing employee identity while those workers are with you is a fundamental protection that every company must have in place to reduce corporate vulnerability. Equally important is taking precautions to freeze employee identity when someone leaves your company so that he or she doesn’t take that to another job.

What specific challenges do small and medium-sized businesses face regarding employee identity security?

There is a fundamental balance to consider in terms of employee identity security relating to convenience versus compliance — convenience for the user versus compliance for the organization. Larger organizations are very good at forcing employees to comply with strict IT policies regarding identity security. However, this approach can backfire as users try to circumvent policies because adhering to them is inconvenient.

Conversely, with smaller to mid-sized organizations, there may be no one who is creating and monitoring policies. Without controls around necessary security policies in place, identity protection is left in the hands of individual employees, which can cause a litany of problems. Without protections in place, employees may decide that convenience is more important to them than compliance, resulting in the use of the same password for a company’s restricted database that contains sensitive financial information as for their individual social media accounts.

To deal with these concerns, small and medium-sized organizations often shift the responsibility of identity security to an outsourced IT vendor. In theory, this is a practical plan, as it puts someone in charge of security. However, this may not always turn out as planned. For example, if employees are working on a project after hours and are locked out of some critical system, they need their password reset quickly. And if the outsourced security provider is unavailable, employees may revert to using their personal passwords, putting weaker identity security back in the hands of the employees.

What is the cost for a small or medium-sized organization to invest in solid employee identity security?

Because of differences in size, complexity and requirements, there is no one right answer. Research has shown that enterprise investment in employee security costs the average company between $500 to $600 per user per year.

Many small or medium-sized organizations can’t afford this cost and, as a result, make no investment and expect employees to keep their own identity secure. However, this is a dangerous practice and is not a recommended approach, as it leaves companies vulnerable to security breaches.

What can small and medium-sized companies do to provide better employee identity security?

Start by standardizing security policies across the business infrastructure. Don’t have 10 different password management systems and 10 different login systems. This may sound like common sense, but it is a step that is often lacking in organizations.

The second step is to enable employees to manage their identities on their own but within the constraints of the standardized policies of the company. If employee identity is a rail system, then standardized policies represent the rails. Employees are allowed to throttle how fast they want to go and they can paint their train blue or red or green, but they must stay between the rails while maintaining their own identity. This provides employees with convenience but also ensures that they adhere to the company’s security policies.

How should employee identity security align with data security?

There is going to be turnover in your organization, so it is crucial to make certain that proper user authentication is aligned tightly with employee identity. Simply put, this means that while employees have the ability manage their personal identity, they only have access to pertinent information that is relevant to their job.

When an employee leaves, that person’s identity needs to be frozen and any access he or she had to corporate data must be shut off.

Steve Carter is president and CEO of ii2P. Reach him at (817) 442-9292 or scarter@ii2p.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by ii2P