Chelan David

U.S. employers are continuing to struggle with rising health care costs, and in an effort to limit spending, many are shifting more costs to employees. Others are emphasizing wellness initiatives or controlling costs through health savings accounts and reimbursement arrangements.

How can your company approach implementing an optimal health care plan for its employees? Start by asking your carrier or consultant what options are available.  This will help guide you through the process so you aren’t blindsided by unpredictable costs in the future, says Randy Narowitz, CEO of Total Health Care.

“The biggest area of concern we are hearing from the employers today is they can’t manage or predict the cost of the health care benefits,” says Narowitz. “Having predictable, manageable cost increases is a real value to employers.”

Smart Business spoke with Narowitz about the kind of questions employers should ask when choosing a plan, what type of relationship you should expect with your carrier and how to realize cost savings.

What factors should companies consider when analyzing their employee benefits?

Employers are evaluating their health care plans annually. Typically, you start with the plan design that you offer today. Then the decision-maker for the employer decides if the company can maintain, improve or cut back on the benefits.

It’s important to evaluate alternatives in terms of cost and the product offerings. There are a variety of ways to differentiate carriers: size and strength of the provider network, plan design flexibility and premiums.

What questions should an employer ask a carrier when choosing a plan?

If you are using the benefits as a tool to attract or retain employees, then you want to evaluate the quality of the benefits and compare them to what else is out there in the marketplace. Features such as co-pays and deductibles are factors in the decision-making process and can be tweaked to be competitive. Also, access to care  and a strong provider network are important components to consider.

If you are cost sensitive, then you want to ask about how to optimize the benefits at the lowest possible premiums. You want to analyze the tradeoff between the premium costs and the benefits.

What can a company expect from its relationship with its carrier?

The carrier must be well versed on all of the alternatives available, understand your needs and find the best match for you.

Most employers use the services of a consultant or broker to assist them in the decision-making process. A consultant’s role can vary significantly.

At one extreme, the consultant is your exclusive liaison to the carrier. The consultant represents several health care plan options, helping the employer work its way through differentiating which products are best for its business. The consultants may also take the lead on administrative tasks including open enrollment, employee education, compliance and communications with the carrier,

At the other extreme, a consultant’s role is limited to the selection process.You can expect your representative to be able to differentiate the plans and the products depending on how you prioritize your decision-making criteria.

As an employer, you should expect your representative to be able to navigate through the decision-making process on your behalf.

Also, health care reform is upon us and is impacting employers significantly. With recent health care initiatives, it’s very important for the employer to be updated. Your plan representative, carrier and consultant need to be able to educate you about the latest changes associated with health care reform.

How can companies save money when they are looking for a carrier?

The primary decision about cost involves how much of the financial burden you want to shift to the employees. Shifting the financial burden to employees by raising co-pays and deductibles, and having them pay a portion of the premium are ways to reduce and control your health care costs.

Savings associated with prescription drug costs can be achieved by raising co-pays or by restricting access to branded drugs when generics are available. Employees are very sensitive about changing medications, but there is a real opportunity to save money when you make these adjustments. Contracting with a restricted network, such an HMO, and introducing  wellness initiatives can also reduce costs.

What information should employers provide to employees?

If you change a plan design in any way, it is important that the changes be communicated clearly. If the product has complexity in terms of network participation, this needs to be simplified and communicated clearly, as well.

Employees are very resistant to a change in their health care benefits. If you are planning to reduce benefits or shift costs to the employees make a significant commitment up front to educate your employees.

Simplify the message and commit the time and resources to help them understand the changes before the new contract year begins.

Randy Narowitz is Chief Executive Officer of Total Health Care USA, a leading Michigan managed care provider. Narowitz is an influential figure in the health care industry. He has worked  to bring the issues of health care quality and delivery to the forefront of both the local and national health care agendas. Total Health Care USA is NCQA Accredited and serves members in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Genesee counties.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Total Health Care

Cash-strapped California schools are facing a perfect storm. The student population is soaring, there is a demand for improved student performance and thousands of school buildings are in need of repair.

In order to right the ship, school districts will be investing heavily in upcoming years to build or renovate existing schools to enhance learning environments. How schools are designed will not only affect the overall quality of the buildings and operational expenses but also the health and productivity of future generations of students and teachers.

And school districts that incorporate the best in today’s design strategies can provide improved learning environments for students while also paring down electrical costs.

“Today’s educational facilities are providing better built environments for students, teachers and communities by using strategies for design of buildings that meet the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria,” says Reza Zare, a partner with Alfa Tech.

Smart Business spoke with Zare about educational facilities and how they can be enhanced to facilitate learning while being more efficient from an operations perspective.

What is required for a building to meet CHPS or LEED criteria?

CHPS is a self-certified benchmarking system that defines the attributes of a high-performance school. Among other things, the criteria consist of site and materials selection, energy and water efficiency, and indoor environmental quality. CHPS is used by districts to provide high-performance strategies in the design of new buildings, campuses and major modernizations.

LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that a building was designed and built using strategies designed to achieve high performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, sustainable site development, water savings and materials selection. Certification occurs through the U.S. Green Building Council.

LEED points are awarded on a point scale and credits are weighted to reflect their potential environmental impacts. The point list is as indicated by the U.S. Green Building Council.

What types of financial benefits can be realized from meeting such standards?

The two biggest uses of energy in any building are lighting and HVAC. If you can reduce the lighting, you save a lot of energy. If you can use the natural ventilation system and use free cooling rather than mechanical cooling, you save a lot of energy.

Another financial benefit is standardization of items. Let’s take filtration. Perhaps there are 20 schools in a district and they have an average of 30-40 units per school. If you can standardize filters for all of these schools, you don’t need seven to 10 different types of filters; you can use just one to three types. The same is true with lighting, carpet and others.

What can be done to improve indoor air quality in schools?

It is important to have a good ventilation and filtration system, monitoring devices to monitor air quality and an economizer on the HVAC unit, which can save energy in buildings by using cool outside air as a means of cooling the indoor space. An economizer is particularly well suited for California schools because of the climate. With economizers, it is possible to flush the building, which means you can put the unit 100 percent on outside air and get rid of stagnant air, which can be odorous and contain harmful bacteria. This is typically done overnight, once a month or so, when temperatures are cooler.

Why is daylighting important?

Education case studies have shown that introducing daylighting into a classroom environment can increase a student’s ability to learn and retain new materials.  Students perform better with the introduction of natural light into a space, since they feel as if they are outside, and are more relaxed and focused on the materials being taught.

Daylighting supplements the artificial lighting in the space providing a reduction in the amount of energy required to light the space.  With the use of daylighting controls, consistent lighting levels can be achieved across a classroom or space by dimming lighting fixtures that are closer to the windows and increasing the lighting levels at points further from the windows.

Why are mechanical, electrical and plumbing commissioning important for school construction?

In California, a completed project is checked and approved by the Division of the State Architect (DSA). However, the DSA doesn’t check the operation of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems as a whole to make sure the systems are installed correctly, according to approved documents, controls are correctly programmed, and balancing has been verified, etc.

A third party, or commissioning agent, will verify what the contractors have installed and the overall performance of the systems. We have noticed that contractors have a different approach when a commissioning agent is involved. They know that the third party will monitor and enforce plans and specifications, and verify contractor adherence to design and specifications. I’ve seen projects that were not commissioned, and a year later the HVAC systems aren’t working correctly because no one checked the operation and performance of the system.

Another benefit to having a commissioning agent is that they will review the testing and balancing report, as-built/record drawings, and operations and maintenance manual, including training of the school facility’s personnel. If the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems are commissioned, the District will see a benefit in saving operational and maintenance costs.

Reza Zare is a partner with Alfa Tech. Reach him at Reza.Zare@atce.com or (408) 487-1221.

Insights Technology & Engineering is brought to you by Alfa Tech

Sustainability programs and energy conservation are rapidly gaining popularity in the corporate world. Economic advantages include reduced operating costs and savings on utilities, maintenance and capital expenditures. Environmental benefits include the use of recycled building materials and improved air and water quality.

According to Robert Jones, Ph.D., Vice President of Advanced and Emerging Technologies for Corporate College, a sustainable plan should begin with a complete assessment of current conditions.

Smart Business spoke with Jones about sustainability programs, what types of alternative energy options are available and how he sees the marketplace evolving in the future.

Why should more companies embrace sustainability programs?

It saves money and helps the environment. Many programs can be initiated at little or no cost. Beginning a recycling program, for example, may take as little as an investment in some recycling bins and employee training.

At Tri-C, one of our programs focuses on turning off computer equipment at the end of a workday. The only cost is training our employees, but the payoff can be substantial. Tri-C has a lighting program that uses LED lighting in all of the on-campus vending machines. Most offices have motion sensors that automatically turn off lights after a certain time if no motion is detected.

Tri-C has made the commitment for new construction projects to be LEED certified. The Advanced Technology Center currently under construction is designed to be at least LEED silver. We take sustainability programs very seriously. It’s a good way to do business.

What types of alternative energy options are available?

Most large-scale projects focus on wind or solar. Wind farms take up a lot of space and must be located where wind speed is sufficient and constant enough to create electricity, and often that is not where transmission lines are available. This increases the cost of the project because the supporting infrastructure must be built. Large projects need to be coupled with smart grid initiatives so the power grid can compensate for the loss of power when the wind dies down. Power cannot be stored on the grid, so power lost from the wind farm must be immediately replaced through increased generation from other power plants.

Large solar projects need to be built in locations to maximize sunlight and infrastructure could be an issue. However, small solar projects can be built in multiple locations. Tri-C has solar installations at some of our campus locations, including the downtown Metro campus and at the Advanced Automotive Technology Center on our Western campus.

What kinds of subsidies are available for businesses that use alternative energy?

The federal and state governments generally have programs for purchase and installation of alternative energy systems, either through grants or tax breaks. The availability of these programs changes frequently, so it is best to visit the Department of Energy website to find the latest programs.

How should a business go about formulating a plan to take advantage of alternative energy?

Alternative energy should be included as part of a complete sustainability plan, which starts with a complete assessment of current conditions. At Tri-C, we analyzed energy usage, climate, transportation, buildings, grounds, procurement, recycling, waste reduction and training. Based on where we were, we set specific goals and timelines. Input was solicited from all levels, including students, because for sustainability programs to be successful, everyone needs to do their part.

Some programs were inexpensive, such as creating a recycling program across all campuses or offering discounted RTA passes so students could take mass transit instead of driving to campus. Other programs were more extensive, such as retrofits to update lighting, boilers and AC systems. Tri-C made a commitment for all new buildings to be constructed to LEED standards. Campus green spaces were redesigned to decrease the amount of storm water runoff.

These are just some of the projects that Tri-C has implemented to increase efficiency, lower the carbon footprint and ultimately decrease operating costs. Not all of the programs that Tri-C is implementing will work in every business, but the process that Tri-C used should be widely applicable. The main steps are to analyze current conditions, set goals, develop a workable plan and gain employee acceptance.

How do you see the marketplace for alternative energy evolving

The Department of Energy believes that utilities will shift to more distributed generation in the next 10 to 15 years instead of large power plants providing all of the power generation. This is going to include wind and solar but may also include small biomass facilities and plug-in electric or electric hybrid vehicles.

However, renewable energy sources, at least today, are not completely reliable; the wind can stop blowing, or the solar panels can be obscured by clouds. To manage changing conditions in the power generation, utilities will need many of the features provided by the smart grid. These technologies allow utilities to monitor power conditions throughout the grid, bring online additional generation as needed, or to control load to compensate for lost generation. Deployment of smart grid technologies varies from state to state, and Ohio is far behind states such as Texas, Florida and California.

But even with smart grid technologies, renewable energy will account for only a small percentage of generation until the problem of storage is solved. Currently, all power must be consumed as it is created. Renewable energy would be more reliable if it could be stored when generated and supplied to the grid when needed.

Robert Jones, Ph.D. is Vice President of Advanced and Emerging Technologies for Corporate College. Reach him at (216) 987-3038 or Robert.Jones@tri-c.edu.

Insights Executive Education is brought to you by Corporate College.

Sunday, 01 April 2012 00:20

How VoIP can reduce infrastructure costs

Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is becoming increasingly popular with businesses in today’s economic climate. Significant cost savings can be realized by using a VoIP platform to connect employees virtually, freeing up costly office space in the process.

“VoIP is the utilization of Internet connectivity to make phone calls. It can transform the way you do business,” says Michael Gray, a senior sales executive with Ohio.net.

Smart Business spoke with Gray and his client Ken Fanger, president of Solar Systems Networking, about VoIP, the advantages such a platform provides, and what advances are envisioned in the future.

How does VoIP translate to tangible benefits for an organization?

Gray: It depends on what a client’s needs are. Typically, however, businesses see benefits ranging from being able to connect multiple people back to the core office to being able to build customized call routing protocols to eliminate any geographic restrictions they may face. For example, remote salespeople who telecommute are provided with the ability to connect to their home office, which saves in commuting costs for the employee and overhead costs for the employer. VoIP can benefit a business in many ways.

Fanger: The biggest advantage for us is we are able to use the VoIP solution combined with forwarding to our cell phones so we don’t have to have our people tied to a phone system. We are a consulting technology firm so we aren’t usually sitting in the office. VoIP has helped us take advantage of having people connected and working while presenting one type of sales face to the world. It makes it much easier for us to manage all of the virtual clientele that we work with without having to have a physical location.

What advantages does VoIP provide in terms of releasing businesses from office space?

Gray: VoIP frees business from having to be tethered to a physical location. For example, our organization has salespeople who telecommute and can work from anywhere. When they receive a phone call it appears as though they are in the office although they might be a million miles away. I have a client who was able to realize savings of $250,000 per year on office space and associated overhead costs because they made the switch to a VoIP platform.

Fanger: VoIP provides a virtual platform so you can have employees and phone numbers anywhere in the United States. We have an employee who works in Texas and has a local Texas number, but it still connects to our VoIP solution. So when customers call in they have a local contact, but access to our company. It provides us a great opportunity to reach out to new markets that we couldn’t have reached any other way. We are a six-person company so being able use a cost-effective VoIP platform is vital to our ability to grow.

How can a brick-and-mortar feel still be replicated?

Gray: Customers can still receive the live contact they crave. With VoIP, you have the ability to transfer phones so people can get a live answer. The environment feels the same, but is conducted through a virtual atmosphere.

Fanger: When a person calls in they can’t tell the difference between the virtual environment and a brick-and-mortar structure. It’s nice because we don’t have infrastructure costs, but when people are calling our company we have a full-functioning phone system that allows us to do business in a manner advantageous to us.

How has VoIP changed over the past several years?

Gray: VoIP has become more dynamic in supporting other applications such as smartphones and tablets. It gives companies the ability to essentially hand off a smartphone to an employee which equates to an extension within their world. The need for an actual desk phone is going away. We are moving away from a phone-line environment to a cloud-based, virtual phone model.

Fanger: We’ve been using VoIP for six years. The feature sets have been growing and there is more functionality, which allows us to stay in touch within our organization. Also, it now works really well for adding to smart devices units.

How do you envision it evolving in the future?

Gray: I see VoIP becoming more of a cloud-based application, which would lead to it being able to work better with devices such as smartphones and iPads. It will be more software based in the sense that traditional handsets will no longer be applicable in our world. VoIP will be much more dynamic and will continue to provide businesses with a brick-and-mortar feel, but without the physical brick-and-mortar overhead.

Fanger: VoIP will definitely move toward combining phones with different types of applications, such as customer relationship management. As people embrace devices such as the iPhone and iPad, there will be greater integration between work applications.

Michael Gray is a senior sales executive with Ohio.net. Reach him at mgray@ohio.net or (330) 658-1777.

Ken Fanger is president of Solar Systems Networking. Reach him at kfanger@solsysnetwork.com or (440) 243-3207.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

Saturday, 31 March 2012 21:01

How Lean Six Sigma can help trim waste

If you’ve tuned into a news program or read a newspaper recently you’ve undoubtedly noticed that health care providers are struggling with increased cost, increased workload and funding cuts.

While looking for ways to deal with these problems, some health care institutions have found a possible solution in a very interesting place. Taking a page from the manufacturing industry, health care institutions are incorporating the Lean Six Sigma methodology. “Health care providers have started to understand they need to look from a process-based approach to gain efficiencies,” says Ed Siurek, Director of Quality at Corporate College. “Because of the increased scrutiny on costs, they have to find ways to keep patient care at a high level while minimizing as much process waste as possible.”

Smart Business spoke with Siurek about using Lean Six Sigma within health care institutions and its impact.

What does health care see in Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma is a process-based set of tools. It can be applied to anything that follows or should follow a standard process. While the practice of medicine doesn’t really fall into this category, most things within a health care facility do. Think for a moment about all the administrative processes involved in running a hospital. Optimizing these not only increases efficiency, but the ancillary benefits to the staff, doctors and patients can be significant.

What’s driving this approach?

Quite simply, these organizations understand they must become more efficient in order to maintain their current business. Patient populations are continuing to grow, procedures are becoming more expensive and liabilities are a real part of everyday life. There is also the push from the ‘payers.’ Insurance companies and the federal government continue to push the industry to reduce costs.

In addition, there is the availability of information to the consumer. Consumers (or patients) have increased capabilities to understand their choices. While some individuals might not have the luxury to evaluate which facility they will use, many outpatient or elective procedure patients do. They shop for the best services available and hospital patient satisfaction results play a big role in some of these decisions. Creating the best possible patient experience means eliminating waiting times, paperwork and any other problems.

Is there a difference in the approach taken by health care versus manufacturing?

Essentially, there is no difference. Because Lean Six Sigma is a process-based tool, it can apply to any individual process. However, many health care facilities choose to use their own terminology to ease the process. Because Lean and Six Sigma are often associated with a manufacturing environment, the difference in terms and even modification of the key practices allows a smoother transition into the ultimate goal of continuous improvement.

Are there any pitfalls or obstacles to implementing this type of program in a hospital?

Many Lean Six Sigma practitioners have seen some level of resistance. Although this isn’t unusual, it is a bit different in clinical settings. Lean Six Sigma is not something to be applied to the practice of medicine, but rather to the processes within the institution. It has been applied to the transport of patients, medical billing, and redesign of work cells to optimize the flow of information and to reduce the amount of waiting by doctors, nurses and patients. If this point is carefully defined in the early stages and there is diligence in keeping a processed-based approach, individuals can see the benefits and ultimately adopt the program. Unfortunately, there have been examples where the lines between process improvement and patient care have become blurred and the program most likely fails to achieve any positive impact.

What are the benefits to using Lean Six Sigma in health care?

Lean Six Sigma is merely a tool used in the continuous improvement process of an organization. With the external regulatory and financial pressures placed on health care today and the increased demand from patients for the best possible experience, these organizations need to have a way to continuously monitor and improve all of their processes.  In the end, the benefits are seen not only by the institution, but much further into the community. Better processes make employees feel better about what they are doing. Customers (or patients) have a better experience and the institution is able to eliminate wasteful processes that can directly impact their bottom line.

In addition to improving the patient experience, health care institutions can and have seen significant impact within the administrative portion of their business. As it does in any office setting, Lean Six Sigma can help to reduce variation and waste. Determining root causes and then streamlining processes saves time, effort and headaches for everyone involved. Consider the number of transactions conducted in one day at a typical hospital that do not directly involve the treatment of a patient. If you are able to cut even 5 to 10 percent, you can achieve significant cost savings.

What do you see as the end result of these programs?

Continuous improvement is a critical component to any business. In the field of health care, it can result in organizations increasing their internal efficiencies, patient satisfaction, employee involvement and overall strength of the business.

For medical staff, optimization can lead to the elimination or reduction in wasted time and effort, allowing more time with patients. Health care professionals always say they became involved in the field to help people. Elimination of wasted activities gives them that opportunity.

Lean Six Sigma is a preventive medicine that can be used on processes to avoid problems in the future. Many institutions have become more involved in using these techniques and the success stories become more significant every day.

Ed Siurek is Director of Quality at Corporate College.  Reach him at (216) 987-2838 or edward.siurek@tri-c.edu.

Insights Executive Education is brought to you by Corporate College

Last month’s ii2P Insights article described the initial steps that small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) should take, considering that implementing a self-service platform is both strategic to improving customer intimacy as well as reducing overall costs.

This month, Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P, describes one of the easier elements companies can implement to transition to a self-service model — automated self-service password reset solutions.

“If you peel back the covers and examine the monthly call volume coming into IT support help desks across all business environments, easily 25-40 percent of the reason employees call is because they’ve forgotten a password or locked themselves out of something,” Carter says.

Smart Business spoke with Carter about why self-service password management is something SMBs should take a hard look at.

Why is password management so important to SMBs?

Intellectual property theft is significant — it compromises an SMB’s oftentimes thin competitive edge. SMBs should be proactive when it comes to password management. After all, the cost to implement a secure solution is a fraction of what could be lost in intellectual capital.

Many SMBs look to cloud-based IT solutions to run their businesses and lower their costs. However, this sets them up for the greatest opportunity for IP theft. While some cloud companies do provide stringent security controls, it can be a bit alarming to have all your company IP centralized into the cloud.

Cloud based solutions offer convenience, but this is not the top priority for an SMB — security is. The SMB needs to understand that both convenience and security can be obtained. If you have spent money on a tool and are still calling a service desk for help, you are spending too much. It’s important to build a solution that is convenient for your end users and is also secure.

How big a problem is ineffective password management?

I’ve been in the IT industry for 30 years and password management consistently accounts for 25-40 percent of all calls that come into a help desk. This is a huge number. The loss of productivity for an end user is significant. It’s not just the office user, but also remote travelers who have to call the help desk to get their passwords so they can do their presentations. Every year, millions of dollars are spent answering customer reset problems.

If you bring the right solution to the table, you can reduce overall IT costs significantly. If end users adopt your solution, you are going to increase your security, decrease your costs and protect your intellectual capital. It’s important to begin the process by automating the password reset in a manner in which the end user will actually use.

By implementing the right technology security solution you can remove the exposure of the end user, who is the weakest link in the chain, and enhance your security by gradually making it more complex.

What are some of the available solutions and which ones are best for the SMB?

There are a lot of cloud-based solutions that cater to one key element: convenience. SMBs who utilize cloud-based solutions are susceptible to security breaches. My recommendation is to tailor a token-based solution. Countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia  are already accepting the smartchip, token-type approach. This solution is not as prevalent in North America yet, but will become more and more common.

There are smartchip, token solutions out there now that have been engineered from the end user’s perspective. This ensures that the change in the business application of password management does not reside at the help desk, but with the end user. Also, when you use this approach you are able to build a solution that is tailored to your specific environment and is able to expand as your business grows.

How can SMBs benefit from self-service password management?

Password management is an ongoing and growing concern. The ability to secure passwords should be a priority for every business, whether it is small, medium or large. You should focus on the end user, making sure that they embrace the solution you provide, rather than ignoring it. If you choose the right solution — which in my opinion is a chip-based, token solution — you are going to realize four key benefits:

1) Increased security

2) Increased end user compliance

3) Increased end user productivity

4) Reduced cost for support

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

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 19:01

What’s new with Voice over Internet Protocol

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) involves sending voice information in digital form rather than by using the circuit-based protocol of traditional telephone networks.

VoIP can mean different things to different people, says Alex Desberg. “We define VoIP as delivering voice services across a network. It could be Internet-based, it could be private-network based. Such services have been strategically designed to replace traditional telephone services.”

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about VoIP, the cost efficiencies such a platform provides and how it can lead to increased productivity.

What’s new with VoIP?

Ohio.net adapts VoIP to accommodate virtual businesses. People are getting rid of brick-and-mortar offices and setting up telecommuter or remote environments. In the past month we’ve had several of our VoIP customers realize that they really can have everyone work out of their homes and get rid of their offices. One company we work with has 26 employees working remotely, but all working together as if they were sitting in their office.

When you can front-end a business with what sounds and acts like a traditional phone system, but nobody is sitting in the same building anymore, it really makes sense. A VoIP system helps a company become more cost effective by eliminating the need for a facility, not to mention rent expenses, power expenses and commute costs for employees.

What are the benefits of VoIP?

One of the key benefits is the release from traditional telecom. There are inherent geography issues associated with traditional telephony. Plus, people get wedded to legacy phone systems that keep perpetuating the need to be upgraded or repaired. This becomes costly. By moving away from legacy equipment, you can take advantage of a hosted environment for your phone system. You won’t be responsible for upgrading your software anymore or making sure the rollout of a new feature is integrated into an existing system. A VoIP system is more of a service-based model: as long as you are subscribed to the service you can take advantage of all the upgrades, changes and benefits that the provider offers.

Are there any drawbacks?

VoIP is like any business technology, if we are poor managers of technology, we might be a poor manager of a phone system in a VoIP environment. You have to pay attention, just as you do with any other technology. If you use questionable or problematic Internet service, then you will have questionable or problematic phone service as well.

A lot of it depends on the provider that you choose. The VoIP environment has been a little volatile. Some entities want to become a phone company overnight without realizing the impact they can make on a customer by not providing a quality service or not understanding the market properly. It takes a history and understanding of the traditional telecom world to do well in the VoIP market.

If you’re going to choose this type of technology, you have to do the research. There are plenty of VoIP providers available online, but I’m a big believer in working with a local company that is close and can support you. You don’t want to have to buy service from a company in Denver that is down due to a power outage or snowstorm while you’re still working and trying to do business.

What advice would you give about implementing VoIP solutions?

We have three areas that we really stress to new customers. First, it’s crucial to select the right hardware. Some people believe they can go with inexpensive voice equipment. However, quality hardware on a quality network really makes a difference to the end user’s experience.

Training is also very important. We have a staff of trainers that help with the implementation of a new phone system to ensure that everyone knows how to use it when it’s launched and that they have the proper resources. Finally, there should be a go-to team available if any problems are encountered once the technology is implemented.

How can VoIP translate into increased productivity?

Let’s say you have an office in Cleveland, an office in Kansas City and an office in Florida. With VoIP we can tie these together like they are one. With traditional telephony you can’t easily do that. Also, you can work with one provider so you have one telephone company and one bill for as many locations as you have. Finally, the upgrades, additions and changes that are made for the phone system are service-driven so you don’t have to buy a phone system every 10 years, or live with outdated technology until you can afford it.

Why is investing in new technologies like VoIP so important?

If your organization is going to run on antiquated equipment, then you are going to be an antiquated business in about five years because technologies change so often. What is big with VoIP today is not going to be the same thing that drives people in five years. We see the growth of mobile phones being integrated into VoIP today. Five or six years ago, we didn’t even have that on the radar. Most people thought that VoIP would just replace landlines. Now companies have field teams that are armed with smart phones but still need a VoIP system so they look like legitimate enterprises, rather than giving everyone’s cell phone number to do business.

Alex Desberg is a twenty-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.

On April 24-26, Corporate College will bring the nation’s best legal and technology experts to Northern Ohio. There will be multiple continuing legal education (CLE) sessions offered each day, so attendees can earn all of their annually required CLE credits at one time, in one place. Plus, the latest in legal and technology-related products and services will be presented at the accompanying trade show.

Julie Savarino, managing director of Business Development Inc., will be presenting two nationally acclaimed sessions: “Mastering the ‘Sales’ Process for Lawyers,” and “Secrets of Success from Leading Women Lawyers.”

“Law is a practice, you have to practice constantly. If you want to maximize your strengths and further your career, these are great programs to attend,” says Savarino.

Savarino is an attorney and a nationally renowned expert in client and business development for lawyers and law firms. Throughout her 25 years of practice, she has helped thousands of lawyers and firms generate millions of dollars in new business through her nationally renowned training, coaching and consulting services.

Smart Business spoke with Savarino about the Continuing Legal Education Summit, who should consider attending the event and what types of sessions are available.

What is the purpose of the Continuing Legal Education Summit?

The purpose is to pull together an exciting roster of CLE programs. Some of the best CLE sessions in the country will be offered at one time, under one roof.

In addition to the programs, I’m also very excited about the location. Corporate College is an undiscovered jewel. It is a great venue, with beautiful property and excellent meeting facilities.

Who should consider attending the event?

Professionals who should consider attending include attorneys, legal marketers, legal administrators and IT directors from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia. The summit also will be beneficial for court reporters and paralegals because they need CLE as well.

What will the ‘Mastering the “Sales” Process for Lawyers’ workshop consist of?

‘Mastering the “Sales” Process for Lawyers’ is a workshop designed to help lawyers become the best rainmakers they can be. It is a full day and an exciting day. In the morning we cover the six key steps in the sales process for lawyers, which is very different than the sales process for typical business entities because of the ethical rules attorneys must abide by and the relationship foundation of the legal business.

A key feature of the afternoon portion of the workshop is the two in-house counsel who serve as instructors. During the afternoon, participants prepare for and have the opportunity to ‘pitch’ the two in-house counsel while gaining their direct, candid and invaluable feedback. This doesn’t happen in real life. In real life when you pitch them, you leave the room and they talk about you behind your back. The workshop provides the opportunity to gain feedback about your approach, your skill set, and where you might want to enhance your techniques. It is somewhat comparable to lawyers actually listening in on jury deliberations at trial — which of course is not allowed.

This program has been delivered hundreds of times around the country and achieved excellent results for law firms and lawyers.

How can participants benefit from the sales workshop?

Lawyers don’t learn the steps of the sales process in law school. We have a prohibition against solicitation. There’s a phrase called ‘ambulance chasing’ which we can’t do. We can advertise to some degree, but you can’t call someone and ask for their business — solicitation is prohibited in all 50 states. This is one-stop shopping for learning how to ethically and appropriately sell.

How would you describe the ‘Secrets of Success from Leading Women Lawyers’ program?

‘Secrets of Success from Leading Women Lawyers’ will feature a panel of successful women lawyers employed in various capacities. This will be an outstanding program because the panel of women lawyers comes from various sectors. Not all practice at law firms; some practice in the public sector, some in education. The fact is that women lawyers — just like women businesspeople across the country — are still not equally paid or equally rewarded for their work. The women on the panel are going to share some of the secrets to their success.

Why should women consider attending this session?

Parity is still a struggle for most women lawyers no matter where they work and this panel is designed to share tips and techniques on how to fuel their career. For example, one panelist is a lawyer who works as in-house counsel at American Greetings and another is an up-and-coming young woman lawyer from a large law firm.

It’s very hard to be a successful woman lawyer. It’s a very demanding profession and law is a jealous mistress. To have children, a family, a life and be a successful lawyer is challenging and difficult. This program is going to showcase that there are a lot of alternative career paths, not simply working at a law firm and billing 2,000 hours a year.

Julie Savarino is managing director of Business Development Inc. Reach her at (734) 668-7008 or Julie@BusDevInc.com. To register for the CLE Summitt, visit www.corporatecollege.com/cle or call (866) 933-5167.

Last month’s ii2P Insights article described how small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) are facing a “perfect storm” in terms of balancing costs and customer intimacy. This month, according to Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P, SMBs that have decided to take action should follow some tried-and-true guidelines.

“By clearly understanding the objectives for your enterprise, you can make certain that your implementation of an end user or customer self-service platform actually becomes the end users’ preferred method of receiving support,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Carter about implementing a self-service platform and the benefits of providing value to end users.

What should be the first step in implementing an effective self-service platform?

If there is a single step that misleads a company worse than any other, it is not getting the setup right at the start. Most of the time, executives deliver the mandate for someone to implement a self-service solution, thinking that they understand the issues. Nothing could be more detrimental than starting out with the wrong calibration.

Companies need to understand the real objectives of self-service. It is not just about trimming costs. It is about creating a true change in human behavior that drives and motivates more intimate end user experience between the customer and the company.

The objective should be to attract and retain solid, powerful end user participation with the value that you are trying to extend. The objective should be about developing a lasting platform for customer intimacy.

What would be the next step?

Once the fundamental objective is established for implementing an effective self-service platform, then it’s time to determine the true opportunity for your customers to help themselves. Another frequent error is thinking that self-service is limited to helping users ‘fix’ their own problems, such as ‘how to’ questions, or ‘fill in something.’ While these are certainly common and often easy to incorporate, that’s not the limit of effective self-service.

Quantifying the true level zero (self-service) opportunity is going to be more expansive than you typically first believe. Credit your smarter customer for that.

What do business owners need to include in their self-service platform?

Customers, especially in this day and time, are looking for self-service interactions that yield more value and independence. It’s becoming more of an environment of, ‘I want to track this,’ or ‘I want to compare these two products,’ or ‘I want to manage the entire buying or fulfillment process on my own.’

Along with the fixes and the finds, it makes great sense to consolidate many of the functional interfaces that your users are using today. A great example is expanding the IT self-service site to also serve as the gateway to other business functions, such as human resources, or information review (relevant news feeds).

Tying your customer-facing self-service site to your fulfillment tracking (such as Fedex or UPS shipping), albeit seemingly insignificant, is huge when it comes to adding value to the self-shopper.

Finally, it’s important to find a way to collect measurements of customer experience with your self-service site transactions. This correlation is going to be the most valuable information you can harvest. It will help drive ongoing improvement to the site.

What are some of the best-suited and easy-to-implement aspects of end user self-service solutions?

Avoid making the site too cluttered, but at the same time, there are some relatively common-sense elements to include. Certainly, have a strong search engine tied into a well-maintained knowledge base of solutions specifically created for self-service. One horrific mistake many companies make is placing a massive technical knowledge base in front of general purpose users and telling them, ‘Have at it!’ I call that, ‘where angels fear to trod,’ and nothing disenchants a user more than that. It is intimidating, and many times users won’t return once they experience that.

Bring any enabling technology to the site, such as self-service password reset technologies, or the ability to create a service ticket, or check the status of an existing one. Users don’t want to have to call someone to do those simple things. Make that available.

Allow  users to submit requests for common services, or even new information. One caution here — someone needs to monitor and respond to those requests. If users ever sense that no one is minding the store, they will quickly lose confidence in the site, and revert back to labor-intensive methods. It’s hard to regain their confidence at this point.

What is the most important thing about implementing self-service?

This is big: Don’t succumb to building a ‘portal to nowhere ’. Standing up the self-service site that is an afterthought or an also-thought will fail. There is a proverbial bone-yard of customer self-service sites that have ended up there.

If you are not going to implement these three elements of a successful self-service platform — effective technology, solid business practices and committed managerial disciplines — save yourself the time and money and wait until you can.

Self-service is an investment to growing customer intimacy and loyalty. Done properly, it will change human behavior and deliver lasting benefits.

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

Many companies are expanding their marketing presence in social media outlets. However, not all companies are taking appropriate steps to ensure that they “own” their social media accounts when the employees who create them leave, says Richard Douglass, a partner with Novack and Macey LLP.

“It is important for companies that use Twitter or other social media as part of their marketing campaign to clearly define what rights, if any, the employees who tweet on their behalf have to the social media accounts and content,” says Douglass.

Smart Business spoke with Douglass about who owns a social media account and how to protect your business when social media employees depart.

What ownership rights are there in a social media account?

A social media account has two parts. First is the account itself. This includes login information and the people who have signed up to receive messages posted to the account. It is this aspect of an account that typically provides most of the value to the owner. For example, a Twitter account with 10,000 followers should be worth more than an account with 1,000 followers because 10 times as many people are reading the messages.

Second is content, messages posted to the account by an employee to share with the public. Rights to the content are generally governed by the same copyright principles that govern other written material produced by an employee. A question surfacing now regarding corporate Twitter accounts is not who owns the content but who has the right to control the account.

Have the courts decided who owns that right?

Not yet. The issue of who controls user rights to a Twitter account has not been widely litigated, but two decisions rendered last fall provide guidance.

A U.S. District Court in New York issued a preliminary injunction requiring a former employee to turn over to her employer all passwords and other login information for the company’s social media accounts that she used during her employment. The court relied on a fairly generic copyright work product agreement to support its decision. And, probably because of the agreement, the employee did not dispute that the employer owned the accounts.

Because ownership was not disputed, the court did not have to engage in an in-depth analysis of whether the user rights to the accounts and the subscribers were covered by the work product agreement. This decision signaled that courts will likely be willing to enforce agreements requiring former employees to turn over the keys to social media accounts when they leave.

On the other hand, a U.S. District Court in California was faced with a dispute over the ownership of a Twitter account, but it appears the employer and employee did not have any agreements concerning ownership of the account or the content. As such, the employer was forced to rely on other legal theories to assert control rights.

While employed by the plaintiff, the employee used the account to promote the plaintiff’s website to increase traffic and increase advertising revenue. When he left, the Twitter account was alleged to have 17,000 followers. The employer claims it asked the employee to turn over the account after he left, but he refused. Instead, he changed the name on the account to remove reference to his former employer and now uses the account to post messages on behalf of his new employer. As of February, the account had more than 24,000 followers.

Without a written agreement as to ownership and control over the account, the employer is asserting claims based on other legal theories. First, it claims the list of account followers is a trade secret. This argument seems doomed to fail given that follower lists are available on Twitter’s website. The employer also claims the account password is a trade secret. That, too, seems to be misguided, as the employer does not gain value from the password itself and it could be changed at any time by the ex-employee.

Second, the employer claims the ex-employee is interfering with its business relationships by not turning over the account. This claim, however, does not seem to answer the relevant question — who owns the user rights to post messages on the account. These claims start from the assumption that user rights belong to the employer and assert that the ex-employee wrongfully refused to turn them over. Yet, if the ex-employee owns those rights, then he did nothing wrong. The employer’s claims have survived motions to dismiss, but the litigation is likely far from over.

How can companies protect their rights to social media accounts after an employee leaves?

Express agreements defining who owns company social media accounts. The New York case shows that courts likely will enforce agreements over the rights to access, just as they enforce agreements governing ownership of the intellectual property rights to the content.

In essence, the collection of people subscribed to the account is a direct byproduct of the content, so one could argue that an agreement regarding content also covers the account. Nevertheless, the account itself is a sufficiently unique asset that it should be separately addressed.

The easiest solution is to require employees using social media on behalf of their employer to sign an agreement granting all user rights to the accounts to the employer, specifying that it will retain such rights after the employee leaves. The agreement should identify the accounts for which the employee is responsible and state that, when employees leave, they will turn over account passwords and relinquish all rights to access subscribers.

Taking this precaution at the start of an employment relationship should avoid disputes later. And, if disputes do arise, they put the employer in a strong position in any litigation.

Richard Douglass is a partner with Novack and Macey LLP. Reach him at (312) 419-6900 or rdouglass@novackmacey.com.