Amy Dison

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Smarter banking

For businesses attempting to hire the best employees in the industry, employee benefit packages often play a large role. Workplace banking is a service that employers can offer employees at no cost to the business.

Workplace banking is a financial solutions benefit. This is a voluntary program that offers employees banking services with discounted rates and incentives. Products include free interest-bearing checking accounts with no monthly fees, unlimited ATM withdrawals and waived mortgage application fees. Other offers include periodic CD and rate specials, overdraft protection, and free online banking and bill pay. There are rate reductions on installment loans and no annual fees on the banks credit card, says Ronald Leslie, business banking team leader for FirstMerit Bank.

Most people run in and out of banks and do not have a relationship with their bank representatives. These programs offer employees someone to sit down with and talk to about their options and how they can increase their wealth, says Leslie.

Smart Business spoke with Leslie about workplace banking, the benefits it can provide all parties involved and what to look for in a bank.

How does such banking benefit the employee?

The program is designed for the employees. Ultimately, it saves employees time in their busy schedules. With services, such as direct deposit, the program helps employees have immediate access to paychecks and protects them against overdrafts. Some banks place a hold on a portion of the deposit. With workplace banking, an employee has immediate access to funds and can set up automatic bill pay to coincide with direct deposit.

Workplace banking offers an employee peace of mind, since this reduces the chance of fraud or lost checks. The services also prevent the employee from being tied down. Checks are deposited and bills paid the same time each month, whether the account holder is at home or on vacation. Workplace banking also saves an employee from a trip to the bank for every transaction.

Bank representatives visit companies and conduct on-site presentations to introduce the bank to their programs. This portion of the program is beneficial to all employees, even if you do not enroll in the program. Bank representatives offer educational information about products and options for individuals and answer questions for employees.

The program does not require the use of one certain branch or personal banker. Accounts are simply tagged as a workplace banking employee, and the same service and benefits are offered at each branch of that bank. Promotional materials are also sent to these employees as new products arise.

Why should companies offer workplace banking?

The cost of health care and insurance coverage is an outrageous expense for many companies. This program is a nice added-value benefit the company can offer at no expense. The program helps employees manage and increase personal wealth and helps to make the employees feel appreciated. It adds to the overall benefits package for the employees and shows that the company is concerned and wants to see its employees be successful.

Workplace banking does not invade an employees’ privacy. Though the company is offering the program, it does not have access to personal accounts or information. Once the company introduces and endorses the workplace program, the company no longer has any involvement with personal financial records.

What should business owners look for when they are selecting a bank to provide the workplace banking program to employees?

This program is intended to be an additional benefit to employees. A business owner should research potential banks where they may enter into an agreement. Often businesses bring in banks with which they already have a business relationship.

The bank should have a good reputation in the business world and in the community and should provide a sense of stability for employees. As always, you want a bank that offers excellent service and competitive rates. Trust and reliability is also a necessary factor to a successful program.

A bank should be able to offer easy access if an employee already has accounts with that bank. Employees should not have to close existing accounts. Rather they should be able to change the account status so they are provided with all the benefits of work-place banking.

RONALD LESLIE is business banking team leader for FirstMerit Bank. Reach him at Ronald.Leslie@firstmerit.com or (216) 802-6593.

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Business life cycle banking

Aprivate banker can offer an excellent partnership by designing a financial plan for a business life cycle, says Mary Ann Stropkay, senior vice president of FirstMerit Bank. Bankers provide the opportunity to depersonalize the financial aspects of your life and business. They help manage risks by offering an objective view of how to start a business and help it grow.

Personal and professional priorities and goals should be determined with a private banker, as well as a plan designed to achieve the desired result. The private banker’s expert opinion can help you determine answers to questions you may have overlooked. A good banker will revisit the plan every year. The plan will change throughout its life cycle and should be adjusted accordingly, says Stropkay.

Smart Business spoke with Stropkay about the life cycle of a business and how a banker can help design a financial plan for each stage.

How can a private banker help you plan for the stages of a business/personal life cycle?

The four stages are creation, growth and development, maturing and investing, and retirement and distribution.

During the creation state, a banker should be consulted as soon as possible to discuss lending opportunities. At this stage, a banker should offer funding suggestions and provide investment and financial plans for growth. Bankers will discuss cash planning and expenses. They will take a realistic, objective look at your new business.

Development and growth strategies need to be outlined. As a business owner, you must determine where you will get the funds to start. There are many resources for funds, such as a financial lender, family, friends or personal assets.

During the growth/development stage, you begin to acquire wealth. A private banker will help design a plan for profit. A tough question for many business owners is, ‘Should I reinvest profit into my business or should I start saving for my personal needs?’ Each situation is different, but a private banker can help you find the correct answer.

Bankers also can help you locate outside investors who may be interested in your new business. ‘Angel’ investors often look for small businesses in which to invest money, enabling the company to grow. These investors often use banks and bankers as a contact for new ideas. Private bankers can point them in your direction.

At the maturing/investing stage, a banker should help diversify your risks. Your No. 1 asset besides your home will be your business. You have to plan for failure. In the event something happens to the business, what would you do? A private banker should supply different options and levels of risk and security. You should review these options with the banker regularly to make sure they still fit your needs.

At the retirement/distribution stage, business succession planning is necessary. A banker can help you look objectively at the future of the business to determine the best course of action. A banker will ask tough questions that must be answered, like ‘Will the business go to the family or to a business partner?’ It often is beneficial to consult a specialist for an evaluation about the future of the business.

This stage is emotional, so an adviser is necessary to offer an objective view. Estate planning is crucial, and your family must be aware of the plan.

What should a business owner look for in a banker?

You want to work with a seasoned lender. The person should be an expert but doesn’t have to possess all the answers. A banker should be comfortable bringing in experts to provide the service you require.

The bank is just as important as the banker. You need to look for a team that will serve your business and personal needs, even though team members may change as you evolve in the life cycle.

The more informed your advisory team is, the better. The team should have key partners, such as an attorney, a CPA and a banker. Preferably, team members should know each other and have regular conversations about the business and the plan.

The banker should understand the family and the emotional makeup. You want someone to guide you down the path to your dreams.

What are the common mistakes made when developing a plan for your business and personal future?

Most people do not plan far enough in advance. The problem is business owners believe they cannot fail. They would not have taken on the risk unless they were self-confident enough to believe they were going to be successful. Everyone must have an exit plan in case a business does not succeed.

The biggest risk is they are not seeing their businesses as separate from their lives. At the beginning stages of a business, you may not have a choice. But the two plans should become separate as soon as there is enough profit.

You will not have enough for retirement if you keep reinvesting in the business. You must be realistic. Let a banker review the plan and your goals and help you determine where new profit should be invested.

MARY ANN STROPKAY is senior vice president of FirstMerit Bank. Reach her at (330) 384-7877.

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

On the home front

When was the last time you reviewed your homeowner’s insurance policy with your agent? How do you know that you are adequately covered by your current policy?

Most homeowners are underinsured, says Tamara Norton, personal lines broker at Westland Insurance Brokers Inc. Why? Because in Orange County, property values have increased dramatically over the past few years, so most homes may not really be covered for their full market value. Not only have homes increased in value but the price of building materials and labor is up as well. As the monetary value of your home and material goods increase, so should your insurance.

“It is of the utmost importance to review you homeowner’s policy each year with a professional insurance broker,” says Norton. “A complete risk analysis should be conducted to make sure you are properly protected.”

Smart Business spoke to Norton about common mistakes that occur with insurance coverage and how you can properly protect your home and assets in your home.

What are common homeowner’s insurance problems?

Homeowners are often lulled into complacency because they have ‘guaranteed replacement’ or ‘extended replacement cost’ policies. These policies sound as if they provide an owner with full coverage for rebuilding a home regardless of the cost. Unfortunately, true guaranteed replacement policies are rare. Most insurance companies cap payouts at 100 percent to 150 percent.

For extended replacement to be effective, a home must be insured 100 percent to value. If reconstruction costs then run over, you have an additional 25 percent to 50 percent payout to rebuild your home. If your home is not insured to value, you may have coverage gaps that leave you underinsured without the money necessary to rebuild your home.

Homeowners also rely on the personal property limit on their policies to fully replace all belongings. But there are specific policy limits on specialty items like jewelry, fine arts, furs, guns, coin collections and antiques. These items need to be scheduled on your policy to properly protect them.

What steps should homeowners take to ensure they have adequate coverage?

You should contact a broker to talk about the types of coverage necessary. A broker will then conduct a complete property evaluation, including detailed information on the home’s construction, square footage, number of rooms and inside features. For higher-valued homes, the insurance company usually will send out a professional appraiser without charging an extra fee. Then, based on all that information, a replacement cost estimate will determine the cost to rebuild your home should a total loss occur.

Communication is necessary. Any time work is done to the home, you should contact your broker. If you’re about to remodel a kitchen or change floor tile to hard-wood or marble, you need to contact your agent before work even starts.

Always work with an A-rated carrier. For company ratings, you can visit the Web site A.M.Best.com. You also want a carrier that can provide you with the type of coverage that meets your individual needs. These needs should be determined from the risk analysis.

Do consumers have any other coverage options that offer more protection?

In today’s world, everyone should have an umbrella policy, which protects your liability over and above your current liability limits on automobile and homeowner’s policies. It provides protection when seemingly minor accidents turn into major legal liabilities. These policies are very inexpensive.

What are some effective ways to reduce policy premiums?

The best way is to use the same provider for all policies. Consolidation provides multiple discounts on all policies. Purchasing your homeowner’s, automobile and umbrella policy with the same carrier makes sense and saves time and money.

Another way to reduce premiums is by increasing your policy deductible. Most homeowners today are increasing deductibles to $1,000, $2,500 and more. You would be surprised how much lower your premium will be by simply increasing your deductible.

How can homeowners protect against natural disasters such as earthquakes?

The truth is, not many homeowners carry earthquake insurance. Now, with property values higher than ever, it is crucial to be protected. We do not know when an earthquake will occur, but we know it will happen. These policies are a necessary investment when you consider the alternative. Without this protection in an area such as California, a 15-second natural disaster could wipe away all the assets and memories for which you have worked your entire life. This type of protection is worth the peace of mind it offers.

TAMARA NORTON is a personal lines broker at Westland Insurance Brokers Inc. Reach her at TNorton@westlandib.com or (949) 553-9700.

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Internetworking technology

Companies today transfer large amounts of data to and from business partners and customers. With identity theft and security breaches so prevalent, these companies use the same technologies to protect data as they do to transfer the information.

“All successful companies use some type of Internetworking,” says Todd Hash, national practice director of Internetworking and IT services of Pomeroy IT Solutions. Internetworking is the combination of many advanced technologies such as unified communication, voice-over technologies and wireless security devices. Two major technology companies are Cisco and Nortel networks.

Smart Business spoke with Hash about Internetworking and the assessments used to design a system to fit a company’s needs.

What is Internetworking?

Internetworking covers various types of technology. Companies rely on this technology to perform numerous daily tasks and advanced services. These services vary in each industry but include such systems as security in bank transactions and secured patient information in hospitals. Internetworking can be used to collect data and transfer information, but security is always a factor. In order for a company to be successful, it must protect the information of the business and its customers.

Business-to-business transactions often take place that require high levels of security as information is passed from each entity. Programs can be designed and put in place on an individual basis to ensure the protection of a company’s largest asset: data.

How can Internetworking be used to improve a company?

Such technology is necessary for a company to stay competitive in its market because it allows them to operate efficiently by improving its communication both internally and externally, which directly impacts employee efficiency, company processes and customer satisfaction.

Internetworking technologies designed by certified IT companies are also compliant with the requirements of the industry in which they are placed. Network infrastructure assessments are used to determine what programs a company needs and if the programs in place are compliant with industry standards. These assessments provide a complete blueprint of the network. They show what is in place, what operations carry out what procedures and identify any gaps in the network. A professional IT company should run the analysis and then sit down with business owners and review the assessment. At this point, an IT staff can point out any gaps and predict where any outages may occur, as well as point out if a company’s system is noncompliant.

Why are assessments of Internetworking important?

It enables a company to streamline processes and create a secure network. These assessments help make sure the systems are compliant. They help reduce costs because they highlight redundancies in a network and point out if programs are completing the same tasks. This can help cut programs and increase networking thereby increasing productivity for a company.

Business owners may be shocked to find these assessments show that they are using legacy equipment and there is new equipment on the market that will do more work for a reduced price. With the help of IT professionals and assessments, outages and security breaches can be protected. Assessments help companies align their networks with their business plans.

What do they need to consider or evaluate before implementing such systems?

The assessment is critical because it is the blueprint of the network. This blueprint will show if the programs meet the company needs. Companies should use IT professionals to run the assessments, design adequate programs and implement the programs into a company’s network.

To use the best company possible one should find an IT group with a wide variety of trained engineers. With engineers experienced in every industry, a company is sure to find the programs and services needed to be successful in their industry.

One should also think about the investment. The costs of these assessments are very minimal and can help companies increase productivity and save money in the long run.

How does properly designed Internetworking protect a company?

There are always minimal risks with technology but in today’s world there is no other option than Internetworking. Companies have to rely on networks to monitor potential breaches and protect their information. With the proper assessment, gap analysis is provided and an IT company can provide specialized software packages that offer protection based on the needs of your company.

A company with a great engineering base will provide the best protection. A business owner should look for an IT provider who works on a national basis.

TODD HASH is the national practice director of Internetworking and IT services of Pomeroy IT Solutions. Reach him at (800) 846-8727.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

Controlling litigation costs

Business leaders often rely on agreements with other companies to advance in the business world. While

such relationships may help their companies grow, the detail and precision with which these agreements are structured may define true success. If these relationships sour, litigation may result.

Litigation often arises over contracts, partnerships or joint ventures entered into by company leaders, says Tony Paganelli, shareholder and director with Sommer Barnard PC.

Smart Business spoke with Paganelli on how companies can prevent litigation and reduce litigation costs once an issue arises.

What steps can company leaders take to prevent litigation?

Conflicting contract interpretations often cause parties to seek out litigation to resolve their disputes. One way leaders can prevent litigation is to make contracts specific and detailed.

In an attempt to save money on legal costs, some business leaders — especially in small businesses — take it upon themselves to draft contracts and business agreements. Business owners see this as a way to save money because they do not have to consult a lawyer for advice. The irony of this decision is that it often costs more to litigate than to hire a legal professional to help draft a business agreement and avoid ambiguity.

Employers should also hire a strong and competent human resources director who can implement and manage a set of employee policies that ensure all laws and regulations within the industry are followed. An HR director should communicate any company changes to employees and ensure all employees understand the changes.

Why is investing in preventive measures beneficial for a company?

When it comes to litigation, the old adage is true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Companies are naturally hesitant to invest money upfront when there is no crisis. They only hurt themselves in the long run, because hiring a lawyer after a crisis occurs is much more costly and requires more time for the lawyer to conduct research and develop a case.

Having good policies and contracts in place can help prevent frivolous lawsuits by defining the responsibilities of all parties involved. Well-communicated policies are necessary to help prevent — but not eliminate — litigation. The stronger your documents and contracts are, the stronger are your chances of winning.

How can a lawyer and client work together to meet the needs of the company?

When a lawsuit begins, it is necessary for the client and lawyer to sit down together and decide the outcome they would like to achieve and the resources they plan to use.

A client should ask the lawyer working on the case: What are the anticipated fees and costs? What is the process, and how and when will certain events take place? How long will the litigation last? Some of these things are uncertain, but experienced lawyers should be able to give the client a rough budget and timeline early.

A client and a lawyer should agree on the overall goal of the litigation. The key is communication and goal-setting. Meetings should take place often as the litigation process evolves.

What should be outlined prior to starting the litigation process to be successful?

A client needs to be completely open and forthcoming with information and documentation. It is costly when a lawyer has to go back to the client repeatedly and retrieve further information. If a client finds new relevant information long after the litigation process begins, it may cause the lawyer to change the direction and strategy of the case — which also can be very costly.

To be successful, a client should gather documents, information and witnesses as soon as the case arises. New electronic discovery rules also require lawyers and clients in federal cases to pay particular attention to the preservation and disclosure of computer files and other electronically stored information. With the appropriate information, the legal adviser can make a recommendation of how the case should be handled.

What options do companies have — outside litigation — that can help cut costs?

Two options are mediation and arbitration. Mediation is a settlement conference where a mediator works with two groups to come to a resolution. The mediator has no authority to make the parties settle, but many disputes that go to mediation settle there and save companies both time and money. Mediation usually takes place while the lawsuit is pending or on appeal and is meant to expedite the entire process.

The second option is arbitration. This process requires parties to hire private arbitrators to act as judges to come to a decision. The advantage to this process is it is usually much faster and can be cheaper. The downside to arbitration is that a bad arbitration ruling is hard to appeal, making the process more ideal for small disputes than for very large ones.

TONY PAGANELLI is a shareholder and director with Sommer Barnard PC. Reach him at tpaganelli@sommerbarnard.com or (317) 713-3573.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

Room for improvement

A recent survey conducted by Robert Half International polled employees’ opinions of their managers and company leaders. Many were satisfied with their managers’ performance but were less satisfied with company leaders.

Based on the survey prepared by RHI, a good boss is a person who has developed good relationships with his or her employees. Leaders should communicate with their employees so they can develop trust, familiarity and a connection that will help employees improve, says Marilyn Bird, regional vice president of RHI.

One reason that employees were less satisfied with company leaders is that it’s harder for leaders to develop the communication and face-to-face time required to create the relationships employees desire, says Bird.

Smart Business spoke with Bird about how people at any level of management can improve their relationships with employees, what qualities employees look for in leaders and the importance of being a good boss.

Do you feel employees look for the same qualities in company managers as they do in company presidents?

When it comes to leadership, it appears that employees are looking for similar qualities at all levels and hold leaders and presidents to equal standards. According to the survey, employees do not feel they have as good a relationship with company executives as they do with their direct managers. This response may reflect the emphasis being placed on face-to-face interaction and communication time shared with leaders. Employees have more of this personal time with their direct managers and therefore may simply feel closer to the managers they communicate with daily. Respondents voiced concerns that company leaders do not communicate enough and are not as visible.

How can managers improve their relationships with employees?

Frequent communication between managers and employees is critical. Employers should know their employees well enough to be a support system during a challenging time and help provide direction. Here are some tips.

Establish open lines of communication. Schedule one-on-one and team meetings regularly so that staff can contribute to business decisions. Employees want their questions, concerns and ideas to be heard, so when someone on your staff has a good suggestion, act on it.

Empower employees. Show trust in your team by giving staff the authority to make decisions. Be available when needed, but allow your staff flexibility in how they accomplish business objectives.

Stand up for employees. Support your staff when they encounter roadblocks. If someone on your team makes a mistake, avoid rushing to judgment. Instead, help the person learn from the situation and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Recognize achievements. Praise employees for their accomplishments and reinforce the behaviors you would like others to emulate. Low-cost rewards such as an occasional free lunch or movie passes can be highly motivational.

Provide advancement opportunities.

In addition to competitive compensation and benefits, invest in training and development programs to help employees build new skills. If budgets are tight, look for other ways to promote career development, such as a mentoring program.

How does employees’ perception of management affect the success of a business?

There is a theory that people don’t leave companies — they leave people. This means employees’ perceptions are crucial to the success of the business. People are connected to their relationships at a company and are less likely to leave if those relationships are good. A good perception of management is necessary to retain current employees and attract new candidates.

Employees should feel that management is working to develop them professionally to increase their individual success, along with the company’s success. People who receive encouragement continue to improve and accomplish tasks. Without encouragement, an employee may not feel as loyal to a company.

The entire core of the business is about the relationships within the company. Performances reflect how employees feel about their jobs and the tasks presented to them on a daily basis. Keeping employees motivated and comfortable in their relationships continues the growth of both the employees and company.

What should an employee do if he or she has a bad boss?

First, take the initiative of asking for feedback. Make sure to have a clear understanding of your basic responsibilities and what your boss expects of you. Maintain regular communication with your manager and take steps to adapt to his or her work style. Continue to ask for feedback on your work, and if you need additional resources to complete a project, let your boss know.

MARILYN BIRD is vice president of the North Chicago Region of Robert Half International ( www.rhi.com), a leading staffing service specializing in accounting, finance and information technology. Reach Bird at (414) 271-4253.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 19:00

Survival tips

Business owners and executives have all heard or experienced horror stories of IT projects over-budget and behind schedule.

There is an old adage: A poorly-planned project takes three times as long to complete as planned, but a well-planned project only takes twice as long. While this is in jest, it illustrates the challenges of successfully leading a business project, says Kevin Christ, a principal with Avvantica Consulting LLC.

There are bountiful sources of advice written for project managers, but little for sponsors who are ultimately accountable for results, says Christ. Smart Business spoke with him about how sponsors can lead their projects effectively.

What is an IT-enabled initiative?

The real objectives for an IT project are to provide tangible business benefits via new business processes, roles and responsibilities. Technology is only an enabler. These initiatives utilize call center applications, Web-enabled self-service, data warehouses and other technologies. Typical goals are increasing efficiency, boosting sales, eliminating costs and opening new channels — not simply implementing software.

To guide such projects effectively, a businessperson, not a technologist, should lead. Executives ultimately responsible for such projects are known as sponsors. These people often are new to large, long-term IT-enabled projects and must overcome many hurdles.

What challenges do sponsors face?

Sponsors are often frustrated by steep learning curves, often beyond their area of expertise. Sponsors must rely on the expertise of others to be successful; it is not possible for anyone to master all of the essential disciplines. Sponsors can find it difficult to determine when to immerse themselves and when to rely on others.

Important competing priorities challenge sponsors. While having overall accountability for the project, they continue in their real jobs — running the business. They manage and lead operations, sales, accounting, human resources or other functions.

Sponsors must guard against upward filters on project information. In many companies, sponsors are protected from issues and concerns that could derail the effort, rendering them unable to intervene. Too often, they are only told what the team believes the executives want to hear.

How can a sponsor overcome such challenges?

The project sponsor is most able to keep the business objectives in the fore-front. A sponsor must ensure that a ‘business change initiative’ doesn’t become ‘just an IT project.’ Be sure the effort remains focused. Eliminate the noise of creeping scope.

Do not compromise on the right project manager and resources for the job. Assign your best people. Ensure the project manager has a long history of success on projects of similar size and complexity.

Talk to peers both inside and outside the company. Learn from sponsors who have been successful and those who have not.

Reward the team. They are enlisted for high-stress roles and tight deadlines. Make projects desirable for your best people.

Risk requires safety nets. Quality assurance reviews and peer reviews should be used throughout projects to mitigate risk.

Hold IT leads accountable for process and costs. Hold functional business leaders accountable for delivering benefits. In the end, business management restructures the workflow and organization around new systems.

Over-communicate. No matter how much you try, there will be people who do not accept or understand the coming changes. You must be clear, unwavering, and painfully redundant in delivering key messages.

When planning, most people are optimists. Ensure that you have set aside contingency dollars and hours and for surprises that were not known up-front.

Be practical. Staff members cannot be 100 percent on a project that requires 50 hours per week and continue to do their existing job. They must be freed from current workloads, or plan a part-time commitment to the project.

If you are in unfamiliar territory, retain an adviser or confidante that can assist you in understanding the disciplines and process that you are leading.

How does a sponsor’s role benefit a business?

Projects without active business leadership are often doomed to failure. Without an effective sponsor, the team will be slowed by scope creep, unmade decisions and various inevitable roadblocks. Sponsors can keep key staff from being diverted to other priorities that inevitably arise. While the IT staff is trained to do things right, only the sponsor can ensure that they are doing the right things, thus keeping the project true to the vision.

KEVIN CHRIST is a principal with Avvantica Consulting LLC. Reach him at kchrist@avvanticaconsulting.com.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 19:00

Psst...buzz, buzz, buzz

In every industry, there are words used that only members of that industry truly understand. This is the everyday lingo exchanged between employees to describe ideas, products or procedures. These words are often referred to as “buzzwords.” While some of these words are industry-specific, others are used across all types of businesses.

A survey conducted by The Creative Group identified that one of the most frequently-used buzzwords (or, in this case, buzzphrase) is “outside the box.” “The big idea” and “synergy” were other terms found on the overused buzzword list, says Kimberly Walker, Chicago division director of The Creative Group, a specialized staffing service providing marketing, advertising, creative and Web professionals on a project basis.

It is important for professionals to be cognizant of their use of buzzwords. If used in moderation, buzzwords can be an effective way to send a meaningful message to co-workers, colleagues or those in the same industry, says Walker.

Smart Business spoke with Walker about the effects of overusing buzzwords and how to deliver your message effectively.

What are some risks of using buzzwords?

Buzzwords and industry jargon are a form of shorthand used by people within a particular company or profession. While they can make communication more efficient, they also can be confusing, annoying or seem exclusionary to individuals outside that organization or field.

Buzzwords are called buzzwords because they are so prevalent. But when words become overused, they lose their impact and meaning. People may often try to display their industry expertise by using buzzwords. When done incorrectly or at an inappropriate time, people can react negatively to buzzwords, especially if they’re used haphazardly or appear to lack substance.

What are the potential consequences of overusing buzzwords?

They can be ambiguous, and as a result, the recipients of the message may lose interest. It is important to take stock of your audience before using buzzwords or industry jargon. Even though the terms may be clear to you, other people must understand them if you hope to communicate your point effectively.

Regardless of industry, communication is extremely important in the workplace. Speaking clearly and using concrete terms may be more effective in helping you persuade and motivate colleagues or clients. This ensures that your audience comprehends the message as it was intended.

How can people communicate more effectively?

First, do your homework and make sure you understand the topic you are discussing. The more informed you are, the easier it will be to convey confidence and credibility. You’ll also be in a stronger position to defend your ideas should questions arise.

Second, take some time to organize your thoughts. Tailor your message to the knowledge level of the audience. Use straightforward terms, and avoid buzzwords or acronyms unless they’re understood by everyone.

Lastly, get to the point. The goal is to capture your audience’s attention immediately so they will continue listening to your message.

Keep in mind that good communicators are passionate about what they’re saying. Test your communication ability by listening to questions and feedback after delivering the message. You should be able to tell if the message was understood.

How can buzzwords help enhance a message or be used effectively?

Buzzwords create emphasis by appealing to a group of people who are familiar with the word’s meaning. They can provide a sense of community and help co-workers or members of a specific industry feel like they are part of a select group.

Buzzwords may also mystify those who don’t know their meaning, which can create a sense of intrigue. However, this can easily backfire into frustration if the word is used too frequently or never fully explained in context.

If delivered in the right context, buzzwords may help showcase a person’s industry expertise. But it’s better to use industry jargon for this purpose rather than a trendy buzzword.

How do you introduce new employees to the buzzwords used in the office?

Buzzwords and industry jargon can actually help new employees become more acclimated to their new company. Once they feel comfortable enough to start using them, buzzwords can help new employees feel like part of the group and more in the know.

Most new employees will pick up on buzzwords just by listening to them. Some companies may have company jargon and acronyms listed on their company intranet or in a handbook. Usually, however, buzzwords change too frequently to be listed.

KIMBERLY WALKER is the division director of The Creative Group in Chicago. A division of Robert Half International, The Creative Group has offices in major markets throughout the U.S. and Canada, and offers online job search services at www.creativegroup.com. Reach Walker at (312) 616-8200 or kimberly.walker@creativegroup.com.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Investing wisely

In today’s investment market, some people enjoy being aggressive with their personal assets and the risks they take.

For some, these risks turn into excellent investment returns, but for others they become a lesson in managing money safely. Some of these same people are business owners responsible for their employees’ investments, whether in pension or profit-sharing plans and, to a certain extent, 401(k) plans. Therefore, it is important for people to remember that investment objectives for personal and business investments are simply not the same, says Dan Crawford, senior vice president and managing director of NexTier Wealth Management.

“If you are a business owner developing a retirement plan for your employees, you should not take major risks with employees’ money,” says Crawford. Retirement plans are often less aggressive than personal investments because others have a stake in the outcome of the investment returns. It is also important to seek help from a professional provider when dealing with investments that affect employees, the future of your business and your personal future.

Smart Business spoke with Crawford about selecting a wealth management provider and the benefit of investing in a team of professionals.

Where can business owners find qualified providers, and what information must owners have prepared?

To find qualified providers, it is important to ask friends and other successful business owners for referrals. Ask around, find out what is working for them, and why.

The company’s accounting firm should be able to educate the business owner about the advantages and disadvantages of numerous retirement plans available, the right time to start investing, how much money the company can afford to invest, and tax implications. Before meeting with a provider, a business owner should understand the types of benefit plans and the purpose of their retirement plan.

Owners realize that the success of their business is because of their employees, so they may choose retirement plans that give back to their employees.

How can using an investment provider benefit the future of a company?

Once a company decides to offer an employee benefit plan, a wealth management provider should design the best plan. Providers should give clients unbiased investment advice and offer an open architecture investment platform and best-of-breed investment approach. It is important for a provider to search the entire realm of investment opportunities to find investments that will best serve the needs of both the business and its employees.

The level of professional experience is important to evaluate. One should ensure that a provider’s book of business contains benefit plans similar to yours. Providers should be experienced in working with like-size businesses, since retirement plans have specific compliance and regulatory issues. A provider should be familiar with the regulations with which your company must abide.

Also important are a firm’s investment philosophy, its process, and how it delivers its services. It is also important to review the performance track record of the products in which your company will be investing.

Finally, price should be fully disclosed. It is recommended to find a provider who charges an asset-under-management fee. This fee arrangement aligns the provider’s interest with the business owner and eliminates a potential conflict of interest with the provider.

What are important characteristics to look for in a wealth adviser?

Business owners need someone they can trust who will look out for their best interest. There should be a sense of personal integrity from the provider, who must work for the business owner, not the provider’s firm. There should be active listening in order to design a retirement plan to help businesses reach their goals.

Providers should not make promises on which they cannot. They should engage additional experts when they are not familiar with a specific application or product in which you are interested.

There is a risk in choosing a sole provider. A team of providers can help a company with individual levels of expertise and knowledge to help the overall plan. A team also helps prevent disruption if there is turnover with your provider, since each member is familiar with the relationship.

A larger organization provides the client with a higher level of stability and comfort. If the sole provider with whom you are working commits fraud, it may be difficult to recoup your losses. Conversely, the larger organization is there to protect and represent you should illegal activities and losses occur.

DAN CRAWFORD is senior vice president and managing director of NexTier Wealth Management. Reach him at dcrawford@nextierwealth.com.

Sunday, 29 October 2006 13:12

Employee wellness programs

Because health care can be their largest expense, companies often search for ways to reduce such costs.

“As the cost of health care increases, worksite health promotion programs with evidence-based designs and thorough evaluation techniques help companies and employees to reduce their cost while having more productive employees, says Dr. Rose Gantner, senior director of health promotions for UPMC.

Typically, traditional programs focus on care or disease management of people considered high risk for chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Preventive wellness programs focus more on lifestyle behavior changes and encourage employees to take more responsibility for their health by focusing on weight management/nutrition, smoking cessation and stress management.

Smart Business spoke with Gantner about using small obtainable steps to have sustainable long-term behavioral gains with the help of worksite programs that would be beneficial and effect positive changes in habits and attitudes.

How can employers develop an effective worksite program?
Employees’ health is a key to business success. This means employers have to align their programs with their business priorities. Such programs are designed to improve health conditions and reduce employees’ risks, increase productivity, increase creativity, decrease absenteeism, and help increase morale and retention of staff.

For a program to be truly effective, employers must realize no two people will need exactly the same plan. The key is developing smart goals for employees. These should be specific, measurable, attainable, timely and realistic. Also, some people will prefer online activities, on-site groups, telephonic health coaching or print materials.

What are the key components of a work-site program?
Developing a program requires the assessment of the work site, such as the culture, the environment and the facility. Other assessments, such as a health risk assessment and biometric screenings are also recommended. These assessments can provide an employer with general information about health status such as how many employees are smokers, are overweight, or have chronic conditions as well as predict future risks.

Focusing on the design for incentive reward systems is necessary and involves communicating a tailored and targeted action plan for each employee. An intervention phase helps employees understand their health status and learn improved skills and knowledge on how to help employees change habits while making good daily decisions to improve their health. Finally, results need to be monitored and changes tracked over time.

How do employers initiate a work-site program and get employees involved?
The hardest part for most employers is engaging employee participation. Senior management needs to support such efforts. Incentive plans often are used to engage employees and monitor participation. Incentives should be used pro-actively. Employees should be rewarded for taking steps to prevent health risks such as getting tested for cancer annually after the age of 40, or for diabetes if they are overweight. Employees can also be rewarded for annual checkups, using medical online tools, engaging and enrolling in lifestyle behavior change programs, and using community resources.

How can employers create a plan for their employees’ needs?
Collaboration is necessary to improve employee heath and reduce health care costs. A wellness committee should be created within the company made up of representatives from various departments. The committee can determine a plan of action, such as having a health fair, exhibits, assessments, team competition for walking, etc. Other issues for consideration may include food selection the cafeteria sells, the air quality in the building, and the company’s smoking policy. Smaller companies may not need a committee, but they can encourage employees to use Internet tools that help them manage their activities.

Employers can work through their health care company to provide employees with pharmacology such as nicotine patches, gum for smokers, and employer tool kits that include pedometers, nutrition book and stretch bands for people who are overweight.

How does developing such a program benefit a company?
If wellness programs are properly implemented, they can reduce up to 60 percent of health risks as well as major reductions in the cost of chronic care for employees. There is a direct correlation between decreased absenteeism and increased productivity. The aim is to improve employees’ knowledge, attitudes, and understanding of their behavior and choices as well as to reduce risks and health costs.

Cost/benefit analysis and cost-effective analysis can be used to measure the money saved vs. the cost of the program and the nonfinancial benefits of wellness programs. Nonfinancial benefits can be seen, for example, in the smoking cessation rates, reduction in overall weight and increased physical movement, changes in health status and changes in cholesterol levels.

ROSE GANTNER, M.D., is senior director of health promotions at UPMC. Reach her at (412) 454-7781.