Lisa Beets

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Set the tone at the top

Board effectiveness is important to public, private and nonprofit companies. To be effective, a board, its committees and senior management must understand today’s requirements and expectations for increased oversight and governance. Board members must be able to evaluate the actions of management, the organization and its advisers to meet those requirements. Monitoring should take place to ensure all required actions are performed on an ongoing basis, and board members need a high level of assurance that the information they are given to make decisions is both accurate and comprehensive. This confidence is cultivated when strong internal controls are present and company management operates with integrity, from the top down.

Smart Business asked Harry Cendrowski, CPA/ABV, CFE, CVA, CFD, CFFA, president, Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC, about the ways that boards can increase their effectiveness.

What are some of the characteristics of an effective board?

A company’s board of directors and its senior managers set the tone for a company and its behavior. A highly effective board is one where the members communicate with management, independently evaluate the actions of the organization and devote sufficient time to its duties. Studies indicate that 50 percent or more of the value of an organization comes from qualitative factors, such as leadership, the ability to execute and the company’s overall strategy. As such, qualitative factors cannot be overlooked. The board needs to understand the attitudes and personality traits of members of the senior management team and understand how they approach situations.

What should a board look for in potential directors?

Key factors for members of the audit committee are financial literacy and independence — the member must be able to recognize issues with management’s financial reports and be independent to allow them to challenge management when necessary. To ensure that members are meeting their obligations, there should be an evaluation of the directors and committees every 18 months or so. Board members should be able to work constructively with others and be willing to not only learn the industry, but the business as well. They should have strong communication skills, high ethical standards and the courage to raise issues, even if doing so might not be well-received.

To what extent should board members be trained about the company and its operations?

Members need orientation to understand the company and how it operates, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the company and senior management. This will provide them information they can use when reviewing a particular area of the company, such as operations, financial or legal. Board members today will need some degree of financial literacy to recognize financial reporting obligations and expectations. That’s not to say that board members should become involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. There is a very delicate balance between the board and management, and a board member needs to know what that fine line is.

How can board members best assess risk?

Over the last few years, there has been an increased focus on enterprise risk management (ERM), a strategy for proactively identifying obstacles and improving the quality and relevance of information presented to the board. ERM helps companies anticipate risks earlier and determine possible impacts a risk occurrence might have, both internally and externally. Companies should keep in mind, however, that to be truly successful, ERM is a process that involves all levels of the organization and that no sophisticated ERM software is a replacement for human analysis. At the end of the day, board members and senior management are still accountable.

What can a board do to improve?

Organizations can seek outside counsel to identify best practices applicable to the company’s operations and the operation of the board itself. Boards can authorize an independent party to perform an operational review, which can identify strengths and weaknesses, as well as possible areas for improvement within the organization. Some operational reviews are merely tune-ups; others involve a complete overhaul of the internal control system. Generally, it should evaluate the culture of the organization to highlight issues that are people-related rather than process-related. In addition, companies that are reliant on one strong personality need to evaluate the risks involved with that person. Board members should interact with management on a regular basis, not only to solidify relationships, but also to stay apprised of how the company is running. Perhaps most importantly, board members should maintain a sense of professional skepticism when presented with financial reports or plans. If something seems unusual, it should be pursued until it is entirely understood and evaluated.

HARRY CENDROWSKI, CPA/ABV, CFE, CVA, CFD, CFFA, is president of Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC, Bloomfield Hills. Reach him at (248) 540-5760 or cs@cendsel.com or go to the company’s Web site at www.frauddeterrence.com.

Thursday, 29 June 2006 12:10

A quality call

The only real competitive advantage over time will be the way a company treats its customers, says Chris Wagner, vice president of marketing for InfoCision Management Corp.

“Customer care will be the true differentiator,” says Wagner. “In a global world, it will be increasingly difficult to distinguish between products, so the customer’s experience will make all the difference.”

A recent study conducted by a client indicates that people who have an unresolved customer service issue have a 12 percent to 15 percent shorter customer lifecycle than those who don’t.

InfoCision, recently recognized by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce as one of the top 10 employers in the state, has a great deal of experience in ensuring quality service for the customers who dial in to its call centers.

Smart Business recently spoke with Wagner about how to find the right people, develop their talent and keep them on staff.

Describe a ‘quality’ customer service experience.
You have to define your audience. What are their needs? And what is your competition doing? Do you want to meet or exceed the service they are providing?

How can a company gauge whether its customers are satisfied with their call-in experience?
There are three main ways to do this: (1) randomly select callers and ask them to stay on the line to complete a brief survey after the call is finished; (2) send them a direct mail questionnaire; and (3) survey via e-mail.

The first method is the most cost-effective way to survey customers and probably gives you the best information. The key word here is brief. Limit the survey to about five or six questions.

Typically, the most important thing a customer cares about is whether his or her issue was resolved.

Where does a quality experience begin?
You have to select the right people, motivate them with performance-based incentives, train them, give them the proper tools to do their jobs effectively and, finally, retain them.

Before we hire new people, we develop a ‘profile test’ and develop a template of the ideal candidate. Customers want to talk to someone who is mentally alert and who can move through a call knowledgeably. We look for people with a good vocabulary, an understanding of current events and a can-do attitude.

How can a company ensure it is hiring the right people?
First, conduct a phone interview with interviewees before you even meet them in person. How do they act and sound on the phone? Can you ‘hear them smile?’ Next, have them meet with your HR professional. Finally, ask them to spend half a day at your organization, listening to the types of calls they’ll be taking, meeting the management team, and learning how you measure performance. This will give you a good idea of whether they will be fully engaged.

Keep in mind that in order to be this selective, you have to have a quality, local labor pool from which to attract talent.

How can management measure performance and keep employees motivated?
Set up key performance indicators (KPIs) so each employee knows what he or she will be measured against. These might be different for each program the employee works on.

Too often, budget-minded companies use the ‘average length of call’ to measure performance. This, however, can cause the employee to move through calls too quickly, thus leaving customers frustrated.

An alternative to this approach is ‘call control,’ where the employee is trained to keep the call moving quickly, in a specific direction.

Other KPIs might include attendance, error rate, upsell ability, call resolution percent, customer satisfaction percentages, abandon rates and ready/log in time.

Other ways to keep employees motivated include written quality assessment reviews, meeting with them to critique digital audio recordings of their calls, and holding structured meetings with both teams and individuals.

What about ongoing training and retention?
Once employees understand the basics of phone service, you can move them through advanced, customized training modules, such as call control and upselling.

Supervisors and managers should also receive ongoing training and be measured by their own set of KPIs. You can’t just train and leave it at that. You need to measure effectiveness, and one way to do that is to evaluate the trainers.

As for retention, there are going to be some people you just shouldn’t keep. Specific performance indicators can be set up to help you determine when it’s time to let someone go.

To retain your star performers, provide them with a professional environment and a clearly defined career path. Help them set their goals, and celebrate with them when they achieve those goals. A call center should be an enjoyable place to work, where employees are recognized and rewarded for their achievements.

CHRIS WAGNER is the vice president of marketing for InfoCision Management Corp. Reach him at (330) 670-5132 or chris.wagner@infocision.com.

Monday, 22 May 2006 20:00

The personal touch

Are you considering whether to use an outside call center vendor? If you currently have one, are you satisfied with the relationship?

“Companies considering outsourcing should have a specific direction in mind for where they want to take their business,” says Carl Albright, president and CEO of InfoCision Management Corp., the world’s third-largest privately held telemarketing company, serving nonprofits and Fortune 100 companies. “What type of business do they want to attract? Do they need to increase sales? Enhance customer service? The first step is to establish a direction. That involves bringing together all your top managers to discuss the goals and objectives.”

Albright recommends that companies that already use an outside call center keep focused on their return on investment. One of the most important keys to a good ROI will be the quality of the call center’s staff.

Smart Business asked Albright how a personal touch can be fostered among a call center’s employees, so that they sound and feel as if they work directly for the client.

How important is the ‘personal touch,’ and how is it best fostered?
Any company that uses an outside call center to handle its telemarketing programs and answer its incoming calls wants the call center’s employees to act as professionally as their own employees would. These people should be helpful, informed, friendly and skilled communicators.

People who choose to become professional communicators for a living want to work for a quality company. They want their boss to know who they are, and also to respect and care about them. They want to be employed by a company that trains them properly and recognizes them for their achievements.

Giving customers the personal touch means that a professional communicator is trained on, knows and understands the programs and services of the company it is representing. Furthermore, they understand the company’s goals and long-term objectives — what they are trying to achieve and why.

To what degree should a corporation be involved with training employees who work on their program in a new call center?
During the initial phases of working with a call center partner, it’s always a good idea to send out your own corporate trainers to meet with the call center’s trainers as well as the staff of communicators. Spending some time up front will help tremendously as the vendor puts together the complete training guidelines for your program, especially if it’s a complex program where communicators will be answering calls regarding products, billing and other similar areas. Additionally, meeting with the call center’s staff is good for their morale. Feeling as if they are part of your team will go a long way as they learn about your products, services, and long-term goals.

In addition to the quality of the staff, what other factors should a company consider before awarding its business to an outside call center?
The ability of your call center partner to be flexible and adapt to your company’s needs. Depending on the project, certain clients may want older, more mature people on the phones. Some programs may require more technical people on the phones. The call center vendor should have a variety of different talents to choose from, and should be able to adapt to changing needs very quickly.

Additionally, a company should consider its ROI. What is it going to get back for every dollar it spends — $1.50 or $2? How will it be measured? How accurate will the reporting be?

Next, there is the quality of the data that the vendor collects. What is the vendor learning about the wants, needs and spending habits of the client’s customers?

Another consideration is response time. How long does a person have to wait on hold — 20 to 30 seconds or less? How long is the time on hold? Are calls being abandoned? What are the customer service satisfaction rates and how are they measured?

Finally, for companies that want to shift their call center costs from fixed to variable, outside call centers provide a valuable solution, since you only pay for the time you use.

How has the national Do Not Call Registry changed the telemarketing landscape?
It has prompted many corporations to outsource their call center operations. The costs would be phenomenal for most corporations to purchase the necessary hardware, software and human resources to comply with all the regulations. And heavy fines have been levied against companies that do not comply properly. The new regulations have made it difficult for some call center vendors to survive. However, those that continue to thrive have most likely made the necessary investments to comply with regulations, thereby eliminating the costs for doing so for their clients.

CARL ALBRIGHT is president and CEO of InfoCision Management Corp. Reach him at (330) 668-1400 or CarlA@infocision.com.

Tuesday, 28 February 2006 11:59

Managing identities

Reducing long-term costs, increasing security and efficiency, maintaining privacy and gaining a competitive advantage are key goals for most corporations. By using a properly designed identity management system, a company is on its way to reaching these goals.

What is identity management? According to Chris Zeis, vice president and CTO of Perpetual Technologies Inc., identity management is the ability to securely authenticate a user or group to a system or systems, using credentials based on a single sign-in procedure, using a user name and password or a common access card. This authentication allows a person secure access to multiple applications or systems to view and update information.

Zeis notes that government and business sectors have different sets of requirements for identity management. Smart Business spoke to Zeis about the challenges as well as the overall benefits of identity management in today's Web-based technological environments.

Why is identity management important for a business?
Once in place, a single sign-in system will reduce the costs of maintaining separate authentication methods. For example, your people may manage and control 10 different systems, all requiring different user names and passwords. With today's Web-based integration technologies, you can streamline the amount of time required to manage this process via identity management, thus enhancing efficiency throughout the organization.

At the same time, this single sign-in system enhances security and protects a company against fraud.

How does identity management benefit organizations?
The single sign-on capability of an identity management system provides security, privacy, efficiency and cost savings. Users who are able to log in on one splash page (portal) are able to do everything they need for the day without having to repeatedly log back into the system or other systems. Additionally, a connection or login session can be set to automatically expire if a person hasn't done any work in a given period of time.

Cost-wise, an identity management system saves money in the long run. Web-based systems allow for much easier integration of new programs into the system than could be achieved with client-server applications of the past.

What are the pros and cons for the business sector?
It takes money, time and effort to incorporate an identity management system. The initial cost is high, but once in place, the system provides conformity as well as security. The system can help shield against fraud by giving authorized users the credentials they need to access systems quickly, while simultaneously keeping unauthorized users out.

Another benefit is competitive advantage. For instance, a bigger company running a portal service might have connections to other systems that already have single sign-on features. These systems are more user-friendly and promote faster transactions over the Internet. Because new programs can be more easily integrated into the system, a company can adapt more quickly when moving forward.

What steps should a company take to implement a single sign-on identity management system?

  • Identify and analyze the software options available. During the initial phases, the CTO or CIO has to analyze the pros and cons of each available software option, determining if each option supports the current environment and the organization's future vision.

  • Identify the architectural requirements necessary to support the system's users. Questions to ask during this phase include: What does our current network support? What size architecture is needed? Will we have to purchase multiple systems for different locations? How many users will there be? Firewall and encryption concerns must also be addressed.

  • Design and test the environment. This involves creating interfaces with the system, depending on the number of systems and the number of users.

  • Release the system for production. To know how long it will take to release the system, you should first determine how may access points you need from system to system. In general, it takes about two to eight months after all the research is done to properly implement an identity management system in a small to large company. The key word here is properly. Trying to expedite the process could result in a substandard job.

Chris Zeis is the vice president and CTO of Perpetual Technologies Inc. Reach him at (317) 824-0393 or chris.zeis@perptech.com.

Saturday, 26 July 2008 20:00

Set the tone at the top

Board effectiveness is important to public, private and nonprofit companies. To be effective, a board, its committees and senior management must understand today’s requirements and expectations for increased oversight and governance. Board members must be able to evaluate the actions of management, the organization and its advisers to meet those requirements. Monitoring should take place to ensure all required actions are performed on an ongoing basis, and board members need a high level of assurance that the information they are given to make decisions is both accurate and comprehensive. This confidence is cultivated when strong internal controls are present and company management operates with integrity, from the top down.

Smart Business asked Harry Cendrowski, CPA/ABV, CFE, CVA, CFD, CFFA, managing member, Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC, about the ways that boards can increase their effectiveness.

What are some of the characteristics of an effective board?

A company’s board of directors and its senior managers set the tone for a company and its behavior. A highly effective board is one where the members communicate with management, independently evaluate the actions of the organization and devote sufficient time to its duties. Studies indicate that 50 percent or more of the value of an organization comes from qualitative factors, such as leadership, the ability to execute and the company’s overall strategy. As such, qualitative factors cannot be overlooked. The board needs to understand the attitudes and personality traits of members of the senior management team and understand how they approach situations.

What should a board look for in potential directors?

Key factors for members of the audit committee are financial literacy and independence — the member must be able to recognize issues with management’s financial reports and be independent to allow them to challenge management when necessary.

To ensure that members are meeting their obligations, there should be an evaluation of the directors and committees every 18 months or so. Board members should be able to work constructively with others and be willing to not only learn the industry, but the business as well. They should have strong communication skills, high ethical standards and the courage to raise issues, even if doing so might not be well-received.

To what extent should board members be trained about the company and its operations?

Members need orientation to understand the company and how it operates, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the company and senior management. This will provide them information they can use when reviewing a particular area of the company, such as operations, financial or legal. Board members today will need some degree of financial literacy to recognize financial reporting obligations and expectations. That’s not to say that board members should become involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. There is a very delicate balance between the board and management, and a board member needs to know what that fine line is.

How can board members best assess risk?

Over the last few years, there has been an increased focus on enterprise risk management (ERM), a strategy for proactively identifying obstacles and improving the quality and relevance of information presented to the board. ERM helps companies anticipate risks earlier and determine possible impacts a risk occurrence might have, both internally and externally. Companies should keep in mind, however, that to be truly successful, ERM is a process that involves all levels of the organization and that no sophisticated ERM software is a replacement for human analysis. At the end of the day, board members and senior management are still accountable.

What can a board do to improve?

Organizations can seek outside counsel to identify best practices applicable to the company’s operations and the operation of the board itself. Boards can authorize an independent party to perform an operational review, which can identify strengths and weaknesses, as well as possible areas for improvement within the organization. Some operational reviews are merely tune-ups; others involve a complete overhaul of the internal control system. Generally, it should evaluate the culture of the organization to highlight issues that are people-related rather than process-related. In addition, companies that are reliant on one strong personality need to evaluate the risks involved with that person. Board members should interact with management on a regular basis, not only to solidify relationships, but also to stay apprised of how the company is running.

Perhaps most importantly, board members should maintain a sense of professional skepticism when presented with financial reports or plans. If something seems unusual, it should be pursued until it is entirely understood and evaluated.

HARRY CENDROWSKI, CPA/ABV, CFE, CVA, CFD, CFFA, is managing member of Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC. Reach him at (866) 717-1607 or cs@cendsel.com or go to the company’s Web site at www.frauddeterrence.com.

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Business networking

Business leaders are always looking for tools to give them a competitive edge. If you haven’t thought about the value of networking lately, perhaps it’s time to revisit the subject.

Claudette Jasper, vice president/business development officer for Wells Fargo Bank in Houston, is one business pro who has used networking to her company’s tremendous advantage. “When I got into the business side of banking, I realized very quickly how valuable networking was,” Jasper says.

Networking has enabled her to grow her client list impressively over the years and make more business contacts than would have been otherwise possible. Jasper says that networking is all about marketing — and referrals. “Networking enables you to contact potential customers and disseminate information about your products and services,” she says.

Smart Business asked Jasper how businesspeople can take full advantage of the opportunities available.

Why should businesspeople network?

Networking allows you to meet people who can give you a warm handoff to other business prospects. When you say, ‘John Doe suggested I give you a call,’ it gives you a better introduction than a cold call.

When you network, your business development efforts are multiplied. For instance, there are 20 people in my Business Resource Group, and 15 people in my 15Networkers.com group. In essence, they’re all out there helping me make new contacts.

What types of networking opportunities are available?

There are many. Some examples include:

Networking groups and chambers of commerce – Sometimes you will be the only representative for your specific industry. So when someone is looking for a referral, who are they going to think of? You!

Economic development groups – These provide good opportunities to learn about new businesses coming into your area.

CPAs and corporate/real estate attorneys – They can advise you when new business ventures are forming and introduce you to the key players.

Existing customers – A terrific and easy source of referrals.

What should someone look for in a networking group?

Scrutinize the group first. Make sure it screens new members carefully. Does it conduct one-on-one interviews with potential members? Does it require them to submit a rsum and show a certain number of years in their business and/or field? You want to make sure that any groups you join are conscientious because when you refer someone, you put your reputation on the line. You need to feel comfortable with the person you refer and confident that they will do their very best.

Why should top level management encourage employees to network?

All companies want to bring in new business and increase sales with existing customers. Networking increases an organization’s visibility, multiplies its business development efforts, resulting in increased product sales. Importantly, it fosters credibility and trust. Salespeople are not just sales officers; they are marketing officers. Top-level management should have as many people out there marketing the company as possible, using all the tools available to increase the company’s visibility and augment its other marketing efforts.

How can someone make the most out of their networking efforts?

Realize that successful networking requires a time commitment and be prepared to meet it. Many groups meet once a week, bimonthly and monthly for at least two hours. My business resource group also holds quarterly luncheons where a guest speaker presents topics for prospects and customers, providing them an opportunity to learn and network with their peers. Find out how often the groups you’re considering meet. Serving on a subcommittee also takes time, as most of these meet at least once a month as well.

Besides the time you actually spend at meetings and functions, you can enhance your networking efforts by staying in touch with other members throughout the month, often through e-mail. The idea is to keep in touch with one another and to offer useful information to your contacts. Adding a note such as, ‘I thought you might be interested in this’ can go a long way in developing a relationship.

Other possibilities may include hosting a meeting at your place of business, offering to speak or provide a speaker for a luncheon, or helping to plan a special event or cocktail party.

CLAUDETTE JASPER is vice president/business development officer for Wells Fargo Bank, Houston. Reach her at (281) 315-8990 or Claudette.D.Jasper@wellsfargo.com.

Tuesday, 25 April 2006 20:00

Outsourcing considerations

Even if you have a well-oiled, in-house call center, there are many benefits of outsourcing certain aspects of it, if not the entire operation. When was the last time you re-examined exactly what this department does?

“Often times, there are real cost savings and improved, measurable results for large corporate partners,” says Ken Dawson, senior vice president of marketing for InfoCision.

Dawson notes that many companies view their call operations as cost centers, when they could be turned into profit centers.

“Many call centers fulfill their basic needs well — for example, taking Level 1 help desk calls. But very few look at call efficiency, time to resolution, or what can be done during downtime to really get the most bang for the buck.”

Smart Business spoke with Dawson about the benefits of outsourcing call center operations, and how to go about doing so.

How can a company determine if it would be more cost-effective to outsource its call center or to keep it in-house?
There is a common misconception that it is more cost-effective to keep a call center in-house. However, in almost every case, once a company looks beyond the obvious costs of labor and supervision and analyzes the fully loaded costs, it will save money by outsourcing.

These additional costs include those for real estate, utilities, equipment, training, benefits, and so on. Many companies find it nearly impossible to fully utilize their in-house staff to achieve a profit. When a company outsources, it only pays for the time the outsource partner spends making or taking calls.

How can a company ensure that the employees of an outsourced firm will represent them in a professional manner?
In-house employees are generally perceived to be more knowledgeable and dedicated than employees who work for an outsource partner. However, when you select an outsource partner that has professional communicators on staff, you will find these communicators often receive higher overall quality scores. It’s all about the quality system the firm has in place — does it monitor, provide feedback, rate communicators and offer the proper training?

What are some additional key benefits of using an outside firm?
An outsource partner offers scalability, flexibility and creativity. Say a company is gearing-up for a big promotion or marketing campaign and a large influx of calls is expected. Rather than having to add temporary staff, the company can simply call its outsource partner, which will reassign more people to the project. One day, there might be 10 people on the project, the next day there might be 100 or more.

Outsource partners can also add value by managing outbound calling programs. Most inhouse call centers focus mainly on inbound calls. An outsource partner can design a powerful telemarketing campaign for a company, ensuring that all the legal guidelines are met.

Telemarketing is the purest form of marketing. Companies that don’t use telemarketing, for whatever reasons, are missing out on valuable feedback. The phone gives you one-on-one, direct contact with customers and prospects. You get instant input regarding promotions, pricing, new products. You learn what people really think — things you couldn’t possibly learn from other forms of advertising such as print media.

How is a program designed?
All programs should be customized. You should not settle for boiler-plate solutions. Many companies decide to only outsource certain aspects of their call center. For example, let’s look at a cable company. Say their own people are great at answering billing questions, but when it comes to preventing customers from canceling, they are only able to save 20 percent of customers. Outsourcing this function to a professional call center, where the communicators are highly experienced in saving customers, could allow them to prevent three times that amount (60 percent) of customers from canceling.

Another way an outsource partner can help is in the area of benchmarking. Even if a company is extremely satisfied with its inhouse call center, an outside firm can provide a valuable service by professionally measuring and validating the team’s results.

When looking for an outsource partner, what key factors should be considered?
Look for a high-quality partner, a company with similar values. Its people should sound and feel like — and be as professional as — your own inhouse staff.

Don’t shop on price alone; like most other things, you get what you pay for. Do they guarantee your return on investment?

Look at the quality of their benchmarking program. Do they invest in the right tools to meet legal requirements? What is the profile on their staff communicators? Is there a lot of turnover? Do they invest in training?

The bottom line always comes down to two things: quality and return on investment. When both are of high quality, you’ve probably found a good partner.

KEN DAWSON is senior vice president of marketing, InfoCision. Reach him at (330) 670-5125 or ken.dawson@infocision.com.

Tuesday, 28 March 2006 19:00

Evolving labor unions

This past summer marked one of the most important events in the history of organized labor. Seven major unions — dissatisfied with what they perceived as a continued decline in the union movement — left the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win Federation (CTW).

“In 1955, unions represented approximately 35 percent of the workforce in the U.S. In 2005, slightly under 8 percent of the private sector workforce was unionized,” says Michael J. Stief III, a partner in the Pittsburgh office of Jackson Lewis.

“The CTW is seeking to reverse that trend. At its first convention, held in September 2005, the CTW articulated aggressive goals, including its plans to spend $750 million annually in an attempt to organize new members. The AFL-CIO, spurred on by these aggressive actions, will spend millions on organizing and training organizers as well.”

Smart Business spoke with Stief regarding the effects that changing labor unions will have on management.

What are the ramifications of the split in organized labor?

There will be an increase in organizing efforts by both the AFL-CIO and the CTW. No longer are manufacturing settings the prime targets. When asked what the targets are for the CTW, Jimmy Hoffa Jr. of the International Brothers of Teamsters mentioned any jobs that cannot be shipped overseas. This clearly includes industries such as retail, health care, hospitality, distribution centers, customer-service centers, linen service, building maintenance, casinos, et cetera.

What new union organizing techniques will we see?

Non-union employers will see both the AFL-CIO and CTW using non-traditional approaches to organize employees, including card-checks and neutrality agreements.

Traditionally, employees voted in government-controlled secret ballot elections to decide if they were going to unionize. Last year, unions won about 60 percent of the elections they conducted. Even with that encouraging percentage, unions view the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election process as slanted in favor of the employer. Today, unions want employers to agree to card-check recognition, which does not seek an NLRB election. With card-checks, the employer voluntarily views signed unionization cards, and if the majority of employees have signed the cards, the union is then recognized.

Neutrality agreements require the employer to remain neutral during a union organizing drive. The employer gives up its free speech rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to communicate its views, opinions, and facts about unionization to employees.

Employers that are already unionized may be targets of corporate campaigns during times of contract negotiation. There will be an effort to coordinate the expiration of collective bargaining agreements within industries and regions. The unions are looking to achieve common expiration dates in order to obtain more power at the bargaining table.

Why would an employer agree to the card-check process or a neutrality agreement?

There could be a great deal of pressure on the employer, especially if it is the target of a corporate campaign — a multifaceted attack on a company during a union-organizing drive. We are seeing more and more corporate campaign tactics. The union organizers may be appealing to the public on social awareness issues regarding the employer. There may be message campaigns directed at clients, vendors, shareholders, banks, company officers and outside directors. There may be political and religious pressure. Internal dissent may take place in the form of sick days, work slowdowns and confrontations. The employer gets to the point where it decides it’s had enough, so it agrees to the card-check recognition process and the neutrality agreement.

What newer approaches are organizers using to reach employees?

The Internet has had a tremendous effect. Every major international union has a Web site, as do many local unions. Many Web sites and Web logs are dedicated to a particular organizing drive. Organizers are increasingly going directly to employees’ homes, and sending employees custom videos in the mail. There is a common theme, and that is to take organizing out of the workplace. Organizers want things to be more clandestine, rather than having efforts take place at the worksite where management can get informed and react quicker.

What actions should employers take in the current environment?

In a unionized environment, employers should speak to other companies in their geographic area represented by that same union to get a good idea of the union’s priorities and objectives at the bargaining table.

Union-free companies should conduct a vulnerability assessment. Take a look at the company from the employee-relations point-of-view to get a pulse on employee morale. Analyze the wages and benefits, safety issues, the quality of your communications program. Do you have a dispute resolution procedure in place? Do employees feel they can get their issues with you resolved? Are your supervisors well-trained in issues regarding unionization?

MICHAEL J. STIEF III is a partner in the Pittsburgh office of Jackson Lewis. Reach him at (412) 232-0138 or stiefm@jacksonlewis.com.

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