Todd Shryock

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:57

PPO panacea?

Managed care, despite taking a beating from consumer groups and government regulators, is still the primary type of insurance for most companies. Traditional indemnity insurance has all but disappeared, replaced by an alphabet soup of HMO, PPO, POS and other variants of coverage.

While HMOs are feeling the wrath of persons denied care and arguments about whether the insurance companies are making decisions based on money instead of medicine, PPOs have quietly become an attractive option both for employers and employees.

“PPO growth is continuing very strongly,” says Bradford Kirkman-Liff, a professor in the School of Health Administration and Policy at Arizona State University. “There was a time when PPOs were looking more like an HMO, but they are now offering themselves as the better access alternative. PPOs offer more choices.”

HMOs control costs by restricting choices. Patients have to go through their primary care physician to have referrals approved, and even the primary care doctor has to be chosen from a list of plan-approved doctors. Anyone going outside the HMO network typically has to pay for expenses out of their own pocket.

A PPO is similar to an HMO, but offers more choices. To receive full reimbursement, patients must use network approved doctors, facilities and procedures much as they would in an HMO, but if a patient chooses to go out of network, the insurance will pay for part of the expense. As a result, PPOs are typically more expensive — as much as 30 to 40 percent more — than HMOs.

“PPOs and other forms of health coverage which contain more choices for members are capturing more and more of the indemnity market and are attracting patients from HMOs who are willing to spend more money for more choices,” says Kirkman-Liff. “They will result in an increase in the overall cost of health care, but with higher levels of consumer satisfaction.”

With prices on the rise this year, managers have to decide whether they can offer the more expensive PPO to their employees who are demanding better care and more choices. The health care market is consolidating at a rapid pace, and as a result, there are fewer competitors keeping price pressures low.

If PPOs are unaffordable, shop for a high quality HMO. Some are now offering PPO-like benefits such as partially reimbursed payments to out-of-network physicians. Others allow you to go directly to certain specialists, as long as they are approved by the insurer. These type of choices can make the difference between a health plan that keeps employees happy and one that ceases to be perceived as a benefit at all.

At a glance

  • PPOs continue to grow in popularity.

  • They often meet the needs of employers looking for cost savings while satisfying employees’ demand for choice.

  • PPOs are more expensive than HMOs, sometimes by as much as 40 percent.
Monday, 22 July 2002 09:57

Location is everything

Any retailer knows that the more traffic a store has, the more likely the chance for a sale. Location is the key to retailing success.

Many retail operations are finding that some of the hottest locations aren’t in suburban malls or strip centers, but downtown.

Abandoned warehouses are becoming trendy apartment buildings filled with young professionals and empty nesters who have moved downtown to be close to entertainment, sports and shopping. They have money to spend and government planners and retailers are taking notice.

“You are seeing cities doing master planning that is trying to drive or create relevancy to downtown areas,” says Bill Chidley, chief creative officer at Design Forum, a Dayton, Ohio-based retail consulting company. “Retailers follow traffic, because that’s where the money is.”

But before you pack up shop and head downtown, be on the lookout for one of two keys to success:

  • Existing attractions. A high profile traffic generator, like a Nordstrom’s or other big name destination, can spur further development in an area. Their real estate and development people obviously saw potential in the area, and you can tap into that as well. Your product should be appealing to the same consumers that frequent the big name retailer, though. Trying to sell used auto parts to the Nordstrom’s customer is not a good plan.

  • Synergy retailing. This means there are many shops that are complementary to each other, such as antiques, crafts or collectibles that help generate traffic for each other. These “collectives” serve the same purpose as the big name retailer, and those selling to the same consumer will benefit most.

“For one guy to say, ‘I’m moving downtown’, would not be a good strategy,” says Chidley. “Even if there is a theater development or a restaurant community, that might not translate into retail sales.” The traffic might be there, but people going to a play may not stop to shop on their way to the show.

Being on Main Street, even if it’s Main Street suburbia, does have its advantages. Rent will tend to be less, especially if the area hasn’t completed (or started) its turnaround.

“There’s a sense of community you get at a Main Street location,” says Chidley. “You don’t get that in a regional mall. Also, in a mall, expectations are raised. If they see you next to Eddie Bauer, you have to compete with them visually and servicewise, or you run the risk of appearing ‘small time.’”

The small time look can actually be appealing at a Main Street location.

“Everything seems to be a franchise of something,” notes Chidley. “There is a lot of opportunity to develop unique stores. Malls are all full of the same things. People are hungry for unique products and services.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:57

Buying the competition

Mergers and takeovers happen every day, but don’t think because you are a small business you can’t jump into the game. Acquisition can be a good way to grow your business.

“I’ve seen companies with revenues as small as $5 to $6 million acquire other companies,” says Lloyd Bell, director of the corporate finance group for the Cleveland office of Meaden & Moore. “It can be done, and smaller companies often have untapped borrowing capacity. Because of the smaller dollar transactions involved, they may be able to squeeze funds out of their existing assets and those of the acquired company.”

  • Determine if buying the other company actually makes sense. “Oftentimes you can accomplish the same thing by investing in equipment and boosting your sales force,” says Bell. “When buying a company, you are usually buying capacity.” You may be able to ramp up your own capacity instead of going through a long financial transaction.

  • A company is more than machines. Remember that you will have more than just new machines to deal with. While the previous owner is probably out of the picture after the deal is complete, what about the rest of the management staff? The machine operators? Accounting? Think through what will be done with existing and additional staff. Also, don’t overlook details such as the location of the target business. Is it locked into an unfavorable lease or other contracts that could hamper your combined operations? If you’re not moving into one building, how will the staffs communicate with each other? Are the salary levels between the staffs comparable, or will adjustments need to be made? Is there a key person that might walk out the door and take their important knowledge about the business with them, reducing the value of the company?

  • Look for capacity, not complimentary products, in most cases. “As a small business, it’s better to buy a competitor with the same type of capacity than make a more vertical acquisition where you’re getting into something completely new,” notes Bell. “You have the core competency to manage a similar business. Once your base is a little larger, then you’ll be in a better position to look for something outside of that area.” If you run a service business, it’s usually better to look for new services to help diversify your offerings rather than increase the capacities of your core.

  • Be prepared for lengthy negotiations. “These things can drag on for quite some time,” says Bell. “The longest I’ve seen is two years of on-again, off-again negotiations.” Can you and your key staff members afford a commitment to meetings with attorneys, accountants and other advisers?

“If there’s a moral to the story, it’s be prepared to spend a lot of time and money,” says Bell. “But it is still a very viable way to achieve growth, as long as it is controlled.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:56

Marketing Y2K

While the world frets over the possible consequences of the Y2K computer problem, Marlene Rosati is using it as a marketing advantage.

Rosati, marketing communications manager at CenterForce Technologies, has created a marketing campaign touting the company’s Y2K compliant software.

“We are marketing a ‘Y2K OK’ logo to promote our Y2K compliance,” says Rosati, who finalized the logo design in late January. “We have it on our Web site, and clicking on it leads to our compliance statement.”

The logo is also displayed at the company’s trade show booth.

“We get a lot of impressions from that, and it also serves as a reminder to the sales folks to talk about our Y2K compliance,” says Rosati. “One of the first questions we’re always asked is whether the software is Y2K compliant. Our potential customers couldn’t even consider a product that wasn’t compliant.”

Rosati is also planning on expanding the information on the company’s Web site. Instead of the Y2K OK logo simply linking to the company’s compliance statement, it would lead to useable content.

“What I envision is information showing businesses what to look for, things to look for in a vendor, and a list of issue that could come up if they put their tech purchases on hold,” says Rosati. “By doing that, it gives people something to take away from the Web site. The other thing it does is establish our firm as an expert in what we do. It gives us credibility as a technology company and a provider of software, and helps with our overall corporate image.”

CenterForce Technologies is a small software company that makes applications for call centers. Competing against much larger companies means CenterForce has to use every advantage.

“I don’t think bigger companies have to be as scrappy,” says Rosati, noting that the bigger firms haven’t been as aggressive marketing compliance. “The beauty of a Y2K compliance marketing campaign is it has a shelf life. We’ll use it as a short-term marketing campaign that fits in with our corporate brand building. It will max out at the end of the year, and we’ll say goodbye and move on.”

For more information, go to www.cforcetech.com.

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.


Y2K pregame?

While some people may be stocking up on food in preparation for a possible Y2K computer meltdown at the end of this year, a new report says glitches associated with the date change will occur before then.

GartnerGroup, a technology research firm, is predicting about 25 percent of all glitches related to Y2K will show up this year, particularly in the second half of the year. Companies starting fiscal years in July or October, and those that forecast one or two quarters ahead, are the leading candidates to see the glitches first. Only 8 to 10 percent of all Y2K glitches are expected to occur during the first two weeks of 2000.

Despite predictions of mass power outages and mayhem, the GartnerGroup reports the power industry, pharmaceutical firms and food processing companies have come a long way in recent months toward addressing the Y2K problem.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:56

Driving factors

There has been a growing concern regarding the use of wireless phones by drivers. Insurance companies and safety officials have done studies looking at how much, if any, wireless phones contribute to accident rates. Brooklyn, Ohio, has even enacted legislation making it illegal to talk on a wireless phone while driving.

With that in mind, AirTouch Cellular offers the following safety tips to keep you both safe and in touch:

  • Drivers should focus their vision on the road, not the phone. By becoming familiar with your cellular phone before using it in the car, and using programmable features such as speed dialing, drivers can use the phone without taking their eyes off of traffic.

  • Drivers should plan ahead for calls that need complex dialing sequences. By pulling over to make such calls, drivers give themselves a break while maintaining their schedule safely.

  • Don’t try to take notes while driving and using a cellular phone. If a piece of information is vital, ask your caller to dial back to your voice mail and leave a message. Or call your pre-programmed number and leave a voice mail for yourself before the information is forgotten.

  • Let voice mail pick up incoming calls if you’re in a tough driving situation, such as very poor weather or congested traffic.

  • Use your cellular phone to enhance other drivers’ safety. You can be a “good Samaritan” by reporting the location of a breakdown to authorities, or by phoning traffic conditions to published call-in numbers.

  • When traveling with another driver, let the other person drive while you make needed calls. You can return the favor.

  • To avoid accidental injury, don’t hold your telephone between your body and an airbag location such as a steering wheel center or the passenger side dashboard.


Dialing numbers

The Cellular Telephone Industry Association recently did a survey examining various aspects of wireless phone use. Consider:

  • In December 1987, the average local monthly bill was $96.83, but by December 1998, with the average local call length virtually unchanged, the average bill had fallen to $39.43

  • In 1985, there were 340,213 cellular subscribers. By 1998, that number had soared to 69,209,321.

  • In 1986, there were 1,531 cell sites in commercial use. In 1998, there were 65,887.

  • In 1986, there were 4,334 people directly employed by wireless service providers. Today, that number is more than 134,753. The wireless industry now accounts for 1.3 million jobs in the U.S. economy.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:56

Banner bust

Most Web sites rely on the revenues generated from advertising sponsors to survive, but click-through rates have been on a downward trend, raising questions as to whether online ads are effective.

147;If you are looking at just the pure number of impressions, as a mass market medium, the banner ads are not delivering,” says Michele Slack, an analyst with Jupiter Communications, a technology research firm. “The most value — and what advertisers are waking up to — is the need for more targeted advertising. There are different types of content and channels for different users.”

Advertisers are realizing that many of the same rules that apply in the offline world apply to the Internet as well. Different Web sites have different demographics, resulting in different responses for specific ads.

147;The site user base needs to be qualified, and the same demographic information that exists in the offline world needs to be provided,” says Slack.

Sites targeted at a specific, qualified demographic group will charge higher rates, but your ad is being put in front of people more likely to respond to it. Sites that have little information about their users will likely see a drop-off in ad dollars.

  • Choose your target. “If you are looking to advertise to a targeted audience, the Web can deliver,” says Slack. “Content targeting is relatively cheap. Offline media, such as the local newspaper or radio, can be very expensive.”

    Advertising with one of the major portals, such as Yahoo, probably isn’t a good idea because of its mass-market appeal. Advertising can usually be tied into keyword searches, so when a certain combination of words is searched for, your ad appears. The portals offer a lot of exposure, but can also be very expensive.

  • Smaller can be better. Using a banner exchange, such as LinkExchange (www.linkexchange.com), can be a very effective way to reach your market. Exchanges usually require you to show two of their members’ ads in exchange for your ad being shown once. This is as simple as putting the proper coding on your Web site — the exchange handles the choosing of ads. If you don’t have your own site, or want a more targeted audience, premium services are available for as little as $10 to $15 a month, which will often get you thousands of impressions.

  • It’s still advertising. “You don’t want any one of your banners to be appearing in front of a single user more than three times,” says Slack. Set up a rotation of several banners for each campaign you create, if possible. People become oblivious if the same image if presented to them more than three times. The longer your campaign, the more banners you have to create.

147;Just remember, the same rules apply to Internet advertising as traditional forms,” notes Slack. “Make sure you know your audience base, the audience base of the medium you are considering, and do your best not to waste any ad dollars.”

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:55

Sick building

Employees are constantly complaining of headaches, sinus problems, congestion, dizziness, fatigue and myriad other symptoms. You’re losing productivity because of poor health, and absenteeism is high. Is there some strain of flu going around? A severe cold?

Surprisingly, these symptoms may be caused by poor air quality in your building. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30 percent of office buildings worldwide may have significant problems, with 10 to 30 percent of the occupants experiencing health problems. In the United States, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently had 3,000 phone calls relating to poor indoor air quality.

According to the American Industrial Hygiene Association, contaminates may originate from a variety of sources inside or outside of a building. Airborne chemicals, bacteria, fungi, pollen and dust may all contribute to the problem, as can non-air quality factors such as temperature, humidity, lighting, noise, personal and work-related stress and pre-existing health conditions.

Sources of contaminates inside the building include tobacco smoke, dust, poor maintenance of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, furnishings and even cosmetics. Virtually all are present to some degree in every building; they cause serious problems when concentrations become excessive.

Poor air quality results when ventilation is inadequate for keeping contaminant concentrations at levels that do not produce health problems. The HVAC system must not only control contaminants, it must provide a comfortable environment. The perception of stale air, odor, draftiness or uncomfortable temperature and humidity levels can lead to discomfort, and discomfort is the beginning of air quality complaints. The source of most air quality complaints originates with the HVAC system failing to meet employee needs. More than half of all air quality investigations performed by NIOSH were attributed to inadequate ventilation.

If you are receiving air quality complaints, the AIHA recommends gathering data on the following:

  • What are the specific complaints?

  • Where in the building are similar concerns about IAQ occurring?

  • When does the problem occur?

  • When and where did it first occur?

  • Who is affected?

  • What health effects are occupants experiencing?

  • Do the health effects cease soon after leaving the building?

  • Have those affected seen a physician, and if so, what were the diagnoses?

  • Is there any environmental condition (weather) or activity (remodeling, use of photocopier, spraying of pesticides) inside or outside the building associated with occurrence of the problem?

  • Has the building engineer or HVAC contractor evaluated the areas?

Second, evaluate the information. Determine if there is a time or space pattern to the complaints. Also, consider whether the problem may be linked with an activity or condition inside or outside the building, or a malfunctioning HVAC system.


When to get outside help

The American Industrial Hygiene Association recommends considering calling a professional indoor air quality consultant if any of the following are true:

  • In-house efforts have not solved the problem. If occupant reports of building-related symptoms or discomfort continue, the problem has not been resolved.

  • The problem is too serious to delay response. If there is suspected Legionnaires disease or known contamination with PCBs, asbestos or lead, you need outside resources. In addition, if workplace health complaints are widespread and persistent, the situation must be resolved in a rapid and professional manner.

  • There is mistrust between occupants and the employer or building management. Indoor air quality concerns can escalate to the point where independent investigation is needed to develop a credible indoor air diagnosis and recommendations.

  • Litigation or workers’ compensation claims are likely. When problems are not addressed and resolved early, minor occupant discomfort may become more serious. Increasing numbers of occupants are willing to file workers’ compensation claims or initiate other legal actions if air quality problems persist.

  • There is a need for specialized equipment or expertise. One example is if the initial investigation produced a hypothesis that the cause of discomfort was a potentially harmful chemical agent.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:52

Where in the world is ...

One of the most difficult aspects of running a small business is handling the myriad duties that befall the person in charge. This often means a lot of time spent on the road visiting clients, prospecting for business or taking care of other duties that keep you out of the office.

But you need to be in touch at all times, afraid to miss the call from the big customer that could really boost profits, so you resort to becoming a walking small appliance warehouse stocked with cell phones, pagers and PDAs. As a result, your business card looks like a miniature version of the phone book, listing numbers for each of the devices, along with your office numbers at home and at work.

Customers want service, and they want it now. They don’t want to try your office, then your cell phone, then your pager. It’s just too much work, and it might be easier for them to simply do business elsewhere.

That’s why you might want to consider a toll-free call forwarding service, such as the Personal Assistant service offered by Business N@tion (www.businessnation.com). With the Live Call-Connect feature, clients call one toll-free number and reach you wherever you are. Instead of sending them to voice mail, you can leave up to three phone numbers where the system can reach you. You still get the call you need, and your clients are offered a simple means of reaching you.

The services are typically bundled with other useful communications tools, and usually only require a touch-tone phone. Here are some examples:

  • Speed dialing. Program 20 or more numbers to save time and increase productivity.

  • Voice messaging. Callers have the option of sending urgent and confidential messages. The system will immediately page you to let you know you have a message.

  • Fax service. Send and receive faxes while on the road without using a fax machine or modem. Save 50 or more documents in your fax center and fax them instantly from any phone or retrieve them from any fax machine.

  • Call conferencing. Conference with six or more people from any phone in North America. Conference with inbound callers. Exit, speak privately to a party in the conference and re-enter the conference.

  • Call screening.

  • Spoken caller ID
.

Costs typically run about $10 per month, depending on plan package, with per minute charges of about 12 cents. Independent dealers, as well as the major carriers, offer these services.

Todd Shryock(tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s> special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:52

Software spotlight

Adobe Acrobat 4.0

Pros: A great way to share documents without losing formatting.

Cons: Instructions need work.

Adobe Acrobat is a program that can help your company move one step closer to becoming a paperless office. This document management program creates a standard format for files from a variety of other applications that allows the original document to be viewed in its original format by everyone.

A brochure created in one program might look different when opened by another program at your client’s office. With Acrobat, there are more than 30 million downloads of the reader program out there, so odds are, no matter who you send the document to, they will probably be able to open it and see it without losing the original document’s look and feel.

Acrobat boasts extensive document editing tools, allowing different people to strike text or stamp something as confidential or draft. These comments are on a different layer, so going back to the original is easy. Passwords can be assigned to documents, limiting who can view them. Many types of graphics and text files can be translated to the standard Acrobat format without having to rekey the information. Text can be fully indexed for easy retrieval.

One of the most intriguing functions is the ability to capture Web pages with little or no distortion. With a few clicks of the mouse, you could have a full archive of what all your competitors’ Web sites look like, then send them to your staff for comments. Files and graphics can be imported from scanners and digital cameras.

Overall, Acrobat 4.0 is an impressive program and would be useful for those managing complex documents between multiple companies or departments.

Smart Contact Manager 2.0

Pros: Customization options, good value.

Cons: Icons look dated.

Surado Solutions Inc. has produced a solid contact manager that is cheaper than many of its competitors.

Smart Contact Manager has all the features you would expect, from letter management and reports to work group features and scheduling. The program can be used alone, or additional licenses can be purchased to tie in the entire sales staff. A manager can monitor the progress for anyone tied into the system.

Additional features include telemarketing scripting, personal expense report creator, computerized in/out board and a Web site tracker.

The interface is fairly straightforward and easy to use. The icons look a bit dated compared to other software, but do not detract from the performance of the product. There are a lot of features to master, but the software should provide any business with the tools it needs to manage its contact database.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:52

Office connections

Technology is great in that it allows for more productive employees and an easy way to share information. Technology is bad in that it sometimes takes a bus full of MIT grads to figure out why the computer won’t print out your memo warning employees not to leave coffee grounds in the sink.

It’s this frustration factor that many technology manufacturers are attempting to address. While the concept of “plug-and-play” has been around for some time, it usually ends up being mostly a marketing moniker rather than an actual description of how a product performs. A complex problem that shouldn’t be complex is hooking up multiple employees to the Internet using one ISP account. But before you dial the computer consultant, consider options you may be able to install yourself.

There are several solutions in the form of an Internet router. In the simplest terms, these are boxes that manage the traffic from multiple computers through a single connection to the Internet. This allows for Web surfing, e-mail and file transfers from each desktop connected, while paying for only one dial-up account.

These do-it-all boxes offer security protection to keep out most intruders, but if you plan on remotely accessing sensitive files, talk to a security expert first. Besides connecting multiple users to the Internet, these systems can also be used to connect a remote office with the corporate network.

Some product examples:

  • WebRamp 200i from Ramp Networks. WebRamp says its product is so easy to install, that if you can’t complete the installation and get on the Internet in 15 minutes, it will refund your money. It has a 56K modem and four-port Ethernet hub that allows everyone to share the modem at the same time. If your company grows, you can add more hubs by plugging it into the original one, and there is a place to add a second modem to speed connections. Users can be limited to using just e-mail if desired. For more information, visit www.rampnet.com.

  • UGate-II from UMax. UGate-II is an integrated Internet gateway and firewall with a four-port Ethernet hub for users to immediately network and access the Internet. There is no software or driver to be installed. Configuration is done through the Web browser. Designed for work groups of up to 253 users, the UGate-II can be configured to use either one or two serial ports, modems or ISDN TAs connected in tandem to provide double the bandwidth for Internet use. It supports PC, Mac and other platforms with TCP/IP protocol. For mobile access, the device supports a dial-in feature that allows users to dial into the office. For more information, visit www.umax.com.