Lily Sarafan got some angry phone calls at first. People wondered what her motivations were and what a home care company was thinking advertising its services with Google Adwords.

But for Sarafan and the owners of Home Care Assistance, the decision wasn’t about making waves. It was about making change.

“It’s funny when I think of it now, because almost every business known to man does some form of pay-per-click or online advertising,” says Sarafan, president and CEO of Home Care Assistance. “But at the time it was like, ‘This is a high-touch business. This is about people. How can you advertise online?’”

Being the first home care agency to utilize online search, even in 2005, is an early example of the unique approach Home Care takes to the in-home care industry — an industry that’s hardly painted as “innovative.”

The company has published a number of books about its care philosophies, which include offering classes such as senior yoga for clients and gourmet cooking lessons for caregivers. It also provides many of its caregivers with tablet computers so that they can log photos, videos and updates from a client’s home.

In the future, Sarafan hopes to have tablets in every client home, providing what amounts to a Facebook newsfeed for family members and friends.

As the only senior care franchisor headquartered in Silicon Valley, Home Care Assistance also strongly aligns itself with businesses that value innovation and entrepreneurialism.

“Being based here means that we’re not comparing ourselves so much to a Home Instead or a Comfort Keepers or typical home care agencies based in the Midwest as much as we’re comparing ourselves to Google and Facebook and all of these other amazing initial start-ups that were founded a couple of miles from where we are,” Sarafan says.

“We’ve used technology not just as a cool factor but to really push our business forward.”

But perhaps the biggest differentiator of all is the company’s growth model, which has allowed it to expand from its San Francisco Bay pilot office that opened in 2003 to 60 locations across 27 states, as well as four Canadian provinces and Puerto Rico — all the while preserving the quality experience its clients have come to expect.

So how do you replicate one wildly successful office across two locations or 10 or 20? Once you have the right growth model — Home Care Assistance uses an owner-franchisor model, where it franchises some stores while building company-owned locations — the first step is to carve out your road map.

Create a success blueprint

In 2005, the company aggressively launched its efforts to pursue the franchise avenue, selling territories to prospective owners while simultaneously opening its own locations nationwide. But after adding new locations in a number of territories, Home Care got a reality check from its new owners as they began implementing the company’s operational systems and processes.

“Everything seemed to be gung-ho,” Sarafan says. “We rolled it out across the network, and all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Wait a second. In Texas, we need to append care manager signatures. The system doesn’t allow for that. In Virginia, care notes need to be documented on a daily basis. You didn’t account for that.’ So it was a nightmare rolling out these systems and being all excited only to have everyone completely angry because they thought the system was inadequate.”

As successful as your business model is, you can’t duplicate that success if you don’t give others a format that they can copy. Because the company’s operational systems were developed and tested systems at its corporate site early on, they didn’t account for the diversity in it new locations. So they failed on a national scope.

“There are certainly a lot of business models out there that are successful, but when they try to replicate and open in other areas, they realize, ‘Oh wait, it’s different in different geographies,’” Sarafan says. “‘Or, ‘We didn’t actually codify this process correctly. Oh, wait, it only applies to this very first location that we opened.’

“The biggest part of the process of expanding our operations was coming up with tools and guides and operating manuals that reflect all of the practices that we think make this business successful anywhere.”

Some of it is basics — for example, updating your operations manual to include all of the best practices that have made your company successful so far. Information on areas, such as the company’s “balanced care method,” needed to be comprehensive and clear enough that anyone could pick it up and know how to handle a client issue step by step, Sarafan says.

When expanding quickly, businesses should also look at the way people access systems and processes.

“We realized that as great as all of these owners are, they were all very busy in their respective locations,” Sarafan says. “We can’t trust that the content that’s being delivered to their staff members or their caregivers is going to be uniformly excellent.”

After the experience of launching in disparate sites, Home Care Assistance made a number of investments in its site operations in the way of training and development. In 2006, the company launched a corporate intranet, giving employees and owners 24-hour access to corporate announcements, upgrades, tools, news and updates.

It also launched the first proprietary online university in the industry to train staff members and caregivers on how to execute the company’s model at any location.

Finally, Home Care Assistance has changed the way it rolls out new processes and systems. To make sure that operational systems work for everyone, the company uses a franchise “think tank” to help vet and test them before they are rolled out to the rest of the network. The owners represent a variety of geographies, tenures and operating models. Pooling feedback from the think tank has helped the organization launch new systems, such as its online university, almost seamlessly.

“People knew that we already had the buy-in, creditability and support of key owners within our network,” Sarafan says. “So we didn’t have that typical reaction, ‘What is corporate trying to do to us now?’ They knew that the leaders within the system already approved the system.”

Be selective

Another benefit of the company’s growth model is that it focuses on growth through territories instead of franchises — the standard franchising model. This allows Home Care Assistance's owners to be extremely selective about new locations but also about the franchise owners it brings on to grow the business.

“We don’t have brokers out there who have a quota for a certain territory,” Sarafan says. “So if we don’t find an amazing, entrepreneurial, ethical, savvy, compassionate owner to develop a territory, we’ll just do it ourselves.”

The importance of carefully screening potential owners was a lesson the company’s leadership learned the hard way. With all of the initial excitement around expansion, Sarafan admits the company probably was a little too quick to bring on franchisees when starting out.

“At first, you’re just very excited and you think everyone can do this and everyone is as compassionate and committed as you are,” Sarafan says. “So one of the early mistakes is jumping the gun and bringing in your initial owners, not really testing for that organization or cultural fit. That can cause some discontent along the way.”

It’s hard to say no when people want to invest in your company. But you’re setting yourself up for failure if you don’t make sure that you’re growing with the right people.

Today, the company is much more judicious in selecting new franchise owners. While it still looks at whether or not someone has the working capital and desire to lead a franchise location, it also considers his or her personality and values. Potential owners go through a rigorous screening process, which includes meeting with various members of the executive team as well as at least five different franchise owners. Finally, they’re invited to visit several company sites to learn about daily operations, job responsibilities and culture.

The more detailed franchisee screening process ensures that people don’t enter into the business without having a good idea about what the business is, what’s expected of them and what the company’s culture is like, Sarafan says.

“When someone’s on the phone and says, ‘I’m looking for a part-time gig. I kind of want to be an absentee owner,’ and they have five people on the phone saying, ‘In your first year, there is a huge time commitment and you really need to be involved on a hands-on basis,’ that self-filtering happens,” she says.

Who you have running your business isn’t the only thing you want to be choosy about as you add new locations. If you can, you’ll also want to take fewer clients — at least, at first.

Before you gasp in horror — why in the world would you want to turn away business? — think of it this way: You want to grow to reach more customers. To reach more customers, you need to build your reputation in new markets. And to build your reputation, you need to maintain high customer satisfaction for the customers you have.

Currently, Home Care Assistance has the best ratio of client to care manager of almost all of its markets. With a smaller case load of clients to manage, the company’s 4,000 caregivers can visit clients more often, have better status reporting with family members and be more responsive. On the customer side, the result is better client feedback on surveys, more client referrals and high client retention. On, the business side, the company’s average weekly invoice is three times the national average for its industry.

“So the fact that we’re very selective with caregivers, we have smaller case loads of clients and we’re focusing on a fairly niche client … all of that makes it so that our customers receive the gold standard of care,” Sarafan says. “Almost every single one ends up being a VIP client because we don’t need 500 clients to turn a profit.”

Keep an eye out

Home Care Assistance's growing client base points to the fact that the company is well on its way. By 2014, Sarafan hopes to have 120 to 150 territories across the country and perhaps even overseas. But this future growth is dependent upon the ability of today’s franchises to execute to the company’s high care standards, she says.

A responsive field operations team is one way the company keeps franchise owners accountable to these standards. In addition to assisting owners with everything from emergencies in the field to new office openings and compliance, field representatives serve as strategic advisers, helping people evaluate opportunities and stay innovative.

For example, every owner enters activity at his or her location into a companywide CRM system, accessible through the cloud.

“We can log in in real time and see what’s happening,” Sarafan says. “And then we might say, ‘Did you know you had this great partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association, and they sent you leads? You’ve actually been able to help their clients through our in-home memory care program, but it seems as if you haven’t been in touch in 90 days. It seems like this is great partnership that you shouldn’t let go of.’ So we’ll be able to send those recommendations remotely.”

Being able to offer these kinds of suggestions keeps the company culture entrepreneurial because it gets the company’s employees and owners constantly thinking about partnerships or growth opportunities, many that they may not have considered. These are simple things that people coming from the outside can explore to take the company to the next level, Sarafan says.

“We’re really there to help them optimize and maximize the experience in their communities,” Sarafan says. “We’re going to go there to give them some of the out-of-the-box thinking that’s not as apparent when you’re involved in the day-to-day.”

As the company focuses on the next goal — expanding its global footprint — it will mean a lot of new development and innovation. But by taking the same balanced approach to growth as it takes with its client care, it’s literally putting its money where its mouth is as it aims to break the perception that it’s just another home care company.

“The challenge is that physicians sort of come up to you and say, ‘Home Care? Oh yeah, I know Home Care,’ because there are a lot of companies that exist within this space, and health care professionals — they think they know,” Sarafan says.

“But almost everything we do is something that’s never been done before. So it’s not just saying we’re going to have caregivers in the home, but we’re going to have the best givers. It’s going way beyond that. It’s about creating that possible service, and every day, we’re striving for that new category of services that maybe didn’t exist before.”

How to reach: Home Care Assistance, (866) 454-8346 or www.homecareassistance.com

Takeaways

  • Codify your systems and processes.
  • Be selective about who you work with.
  • Put in systems to hold locations accountable.

 

The Sarafan File

Lily Sarafan

President and COO

Home Care Assistance

Born: Tehran, Iran

Education: B.S. in science technology and society and M.S. in management science and Engineering, Stanford University

What would you do if you weren’t doing your current job?

Nothing, really. Anything else beyond my world at HCA that I enjoy or feel inspired to do, I already manage to do alongside my responsibilities here.

What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?

Keeping a running list of all my ideas regardless of practicality or timing.

What do you do for fun?

All things culinary. I have a passion for gourmet experiences and enjoy food preparation and presentation much like an art or architecture lover studies objects or design.

Where would you like to go that you’ve never been?

Outer space. The perspective would be intensely humbling.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m personally very interested in transformation. … I think if you’re always pushing the envelope in a strategic way then not only are you going to have a lot of job satisfaction as a leader, but you’re probably going to see that your innovations are going to make a real impact, that will hopefully positively influence people’s lives.

Published in Northern California
Thursday, 31 May 2012 20:10

Steve Klingel: Webinar master

Every customer is different.

As a service provider to the insurance industry, NCCI has learned from extensive experience that we need to be able to move as quickly as our most nimble customers while still accommodating customers who tend to move more slowly.

It can be a tough balancing act, but it’s one that has caused us to examine all of our systems and electronic communication efforts so that we can adopt techniques that leverage technology to improve services and education.

We have not found, for example, that the best way for us to communicate with our customers is through social media programs like Facebook or Twitter. And while we use videoconferencing and instant messaging for internal communications, we do not employ it for external communications. Instead, we continue to lean toward using e-mail, the phone, and yes, personal visits for most of our customer interactions. Those revelations will surely leave some shaking their heads at our archaic communications practices.

To which we say “not so fast.”

We use the above techniques for direct customer interactions and to answer inquiries. But we are also fully engaged in a broader electronic communications effort that we think others can learn from when it comes to offering customers valuable information in a form that is most useful to them.

As might be expected, our main avenue for electronic communications is our website, ncci.com. The site serves a dual function: We have a public side to our website and a subscriber/member side. The member side is for customers who subscribe to NCCI services. It is open only to our data partners and provides them with a menu of support services and tools. But our members —and the press and public — are also very engaged in our public site. That is why we integrate our public and private services on our site.

As a promulgator of some of the most important rules and procedures for the workers compensation system, we are constantly trying to find the best methods for educating our customers in a manner that is understandable, accessible and available to them on their schedule.

How do we do that? Webinars.

In the past three years, NCCI has produced more than 100 informational webinars, which are available at no charge on NCCI’s public website. Designed to be viewed in 30 minutes or less and categorized by interest for ease of use, these webinars can be accessed conveniently over the Internet. Whether you're an underwriter, actuary, data reporter, product or claims manager, agent/broker, or just interested in workers compensation, you can benefit from an extensive library of online educational modules.

Webinars give viewers something very close to a live presentation, but make it available on demand. This saves on travel time and expenses as well as other training costs.

The customer response to our webinars has also been very positive. In fact, many of our customers have already incorporated NCCI educational modules into their own training programs.

It’s a program that works for us — and more importantly, works for our customers.

Every employee knows that at the end of the day we are only as good as our last customer interaction. So NCCI’s continuing challenge is to leverage the latest technologies to increase our communications abilities, while being mindful that some of our customers tend to move more slowly when it comes to adopting the latest electronic tools. Our task is to find the best and most workable tools to make each and every such interaction a success — whatever the form it takes.

Stephen J. Klingel has served as president and CEO of NCCI Holdings Inc. since 2002. Before joining NCCI, Klingel was a leader with the St. Paul Cos. for more than 25 years. You can reach him at Steve_Klingel@ncci.com .

Published in Florida

David Epstein understands that his passion for customer service can become irritating.

“It drives my wife crazy,” says Epstein, the co-founder, chairman and co-CEO of C3/CustomerContactChannels. “If I walk into a store with her and I see something wrong, I’m immediately re-engineering the entire process of the store.”

For Epstein, customer service isn’t just a job; it’s a way to make a difference in people’s lives and help them solve their problems. As a well-known venture capitalist, one of the founding members of the American Marketing Association and the head of numerous successful business enterprises in his career, he knows that this mentality is even more powerful when it’s a group one.

“There isn’t a person that works at C3 who doesn’t understand the impact that they can make every day, not only on C3, but on our clients and our client’s customers,” Epstein says.

By filling C3 with employees who see their jobs as an opportunity to make a difference, and then giving them a culture and leadership that supports them, Epstein has helped grow the business process outsourcing (BPO) company from 15 to 7,200 employees in just two years.

Raise the bar minimum

To provide its BPO services for clients and customers, it’s been necessary for C3 to hire thousands of people in a rather short period of time. But as it’s filled its contact centers across 16 worldwide locations, the company has been careful not to take hiring lightly.

While the BPO industry is known for its triple-digit turnover and employees who look at the positions as “phone jobs,” Epstein says that the root problem, as in many industries, isn’t the job. It’s that companies aren’t being discriminating enough in the hiring process to weed out candidates who they know probably won’t be successful.

“Typically, for every 10 people that are interviewed, this industry has a reputation for saying that eight of them are qualified or they are offered a job,” he says. “There’s not been a steeped process for selecting the right kind of people.”

Just because someone can do a job, doesn’t mean that care about doing it well. When you hire employees who don’t care, that translates into the customer and client experience.

That’s why C3 has a talent acquisition team that is extremely judicious in selecting people who are the right ones to grow the business.

“We go through a whole different kind of profiling to understand if somebody is really going to have the propensity to be successful in this job,” Epstein says. “It starts with their communication skills but it really ends with, ‘Will they have that passion? Will they feel that energy and share the values and be here day in and day out in this job to do a great job for our clients?’”

For every 10 people that are interviewed, the company typically narrows the pool down to three or four that it thinks demonstrate the right skills and attitudes.

“We feel like making a difference is an important element to what we do every day,” Epstein says. “So our people who are out in the field select the right kind of people that want to come to work not just because they need a paycheck, but because they want to make a difference for themselves, for their company, their clients and the people on the other end of the phone.”

When you start with the right employees, you can feel comfortable tapping those people for referrals who they know share the same values.

“It’s the friend-get-a-friend concept, but it continues to grow,” Epstein says.

Since 2010, he says that the company has seen turnover 70 percent lower than the industry standard — only two or three percent of call center employees each month.

“Because we’re selective on the way in, it reduces our turnover down to a very, very manageable number,” Epstein says.

“We believe that we’ve really put together the dream team of the BPO space.”

Help people, not clients

There’s a true story Epstein frequently tells when he’s out in the field or speaking to training classes. It was several years ago when one of the company’s health care clients was walking through a contact center and came across a C3 customer service professional who was crying. After the agent regained her composure and finished the call, the client went back to her and asked about what had happened. She replied that she was assisting an elderly man with his prescriptions and he had been extremely appreciative, saying that he didn’t have any family around to help him. Noticing that his birthday was the following day, she’d also wished him a happy birthday.

“He began to cry because it was the first time in three years that he had heard those words,” Epstein says. “We tell that story and we say, do you think she made a difference for that gentleman that day? She made a difference in his life.”

Before you can make a difference with customers, Epstein says you need your people to care about customer service on a deeper level than a job or a business transaction. That involves creating a culture that engages people on a personal level.

“It is a paramount objective for us to make a difference for our clients,” Epstein says. “But first you need to make a difference for yourself. Then you’ve got a chance to make a difference for the company you work for.”

While it’s easy to write something on paper and make it a corporate goal, it becomes a personal goal when you actually live it. This is one of the reasons the company encourages employees to extend the culture of “making a difference” to its communities.

“When things become deeply personal they become deep corporate commitments,” Epstein says.

In recent years, the company’s centers have donated more than $1 million to various causes. But aside from the money, employees know that making a difference is also about community involvement. The organization’s 900 employees in Salt Lake City, Utah have been so involved with community activities and fundraising that they now have a reporter for the local paper assigned to follow their efforts. Another example is C3’s employees in Twin Falls, Idaho, which knit more than 1,000 beanies for the premature infants ward at a local hospital.

“They were sitting there at home or on break with knitting needles, learning how to knit to make these things,” Epstein says. “You won’t find that at most places, but that was a reflection of the culture we’ve tried to create and we have created.”

Around the organization, Epstein says that you’ll find employees using the expression “I’m MAD for C3,” which stands for I Make A Difference for C3. This personal commitment to helping others translates into people’s attitudes toward customer service. When employees are on the phone, they connect to the person on the other end of the line instead of only thinking of doing a good job for the client.

“When people talk about a brand online, it’s usually because they’re frustrated with the service of the brand,” Epstein says. “In the hotel and hospitality industry it’s something like 35 or 40 percent of Facebook messages and blogging is usually about the service. You have a chance to make a difference by helping somebody get through something that they are seeking help on and they are frustrated.

“That is why I think people want to stay part of C3. They aren’t looking for ‘Let me just get that paycheck’ and that’s it.”

Don’t “make it work”

Creating a culture that supports employees and helps them succeed translates into better customer service, which translates into more success for your business.

“When you have a passion in your culture for taking care of your clients and your customers, that will help manage a lot of the velocity of growing so quickly,” Epstein says.

But once you have the right people and the right culture, your company’s leadership needs to make the right decisions for employees to succeed long-term.

Being entrepreneurs, a constant test for Epstein and his partners is being able to say no to certain opportunities. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, there’s a natural inclination to want to seize on it even if it might not be good for your people or your business.

“It could be prospective client that doesn’t fit right with us today, and so it’s hard to say no because you really want to build and grow,” Epstein says. “It could be an acquisition that presents itself where as you peel it back more and more, you find out culturally it will never really work. There’s a tendency for entrepreneurs to say, ‘Well, I can make it work because I’ve been learning to do that my whole career.’”

Epstein’s advice? Know when to say no. When he became one of the owners of the NHL Florida Panthers hockey team 11 years ago, Epstein says he learned this lesson the hard way.

“I thought without a doubt I could change how the business model works for a hockey team and a sports franchise,” he says. “My general feeling was that they weren’t run well and that if me and my partners who were smart business guys and had built big businesses, we could get in there, then we’d be smarter than these other guys and we could change it. Guess what? No.”

If you want your employees to stay focused on customer service excellence, as a leader, you can’t afford to be lured into opportunities that will negatively impact your business. Being a good steward for them requires managers to be good listeners, listening to their people as well as to the market.

“When you stop worrying about how much talking you’re doing and you start to listen, you can hear themes that go on that tell you, ‘OK, maybe things are going a little too quickly over here and I need to pull the reins in a little or I need to add some more resources to that,” Epstein says.

If you see an increasing demand in a certain business line, as was the case for C3’s performance optimization business, don’t hesitate to add resources accordingly — more employees, better technology — to make sure you’re not outgrowing your infrastructure. While looking at metrics is important, Epstein says that being a good listener really helps you develop a gut feel about your business that will more often than not alert you to the right path.

“The biggest thing is not to fool yourself into thinking something can be something, even though deep inside you can hear that little voice — the one you try to ignore — that’s telling you that this is really not the right fit,” Epstein says.

The same goes for people, he says. Many companies hang onto people too long before eventually admitting the fit isn’t right and that they aren’t supporting the goals or the culture you want for the organization.

“It goes on for far too long and everybody would be better off if that person was doing something different,” Epstein says.

“If you’re building an organization and you have people who don’t belong, do yourself a favor and do them a favor and get them to move on quickly.”

As in any business, it’s hard to keep a perfect track record. Still, you can do your best to listen to understand the marketplace as well as your own instincts, which typically can guide you to the best decisions.

“Undoubtedly, we will make a mistake somewhere along the line and something won’t fit in the way we thought,” Epstein says. “That’s going to happen. It’s how you minimize that that makes the difference.”

In the last couple of years, the velocity of C3’s growth has been extraordinary, which Epstein says speaks strongly to the quality of people that work for the company and their drive to make a difference. The organization’s success in this mission also explains why 90 percent of promotions at the company have been internal.

“People look at that and they say, ‘This more than just a phone job,’” Epstein says. “This is a career path and this is a company that cares about its employees, cares about its customers, cares about the people calling and cares about its community. All of those things tied into what we do and culturally who they are have given us an edge and helped us continue to be successful.”

How to reach: C3/CustomerContactChannels, (954) 849-0622 or www.c3connect.com

Takeaways

1. Be selective about hiring.

2. Make your mission more than just a job.

3. Follow your instincts to lead people in the right direction.

The Epstein File

David Epstein

Co-founder, chairman and co-CEO

C3/CustomerContactChannels

Born: New Rochelle, New York

Education: Florida International University

What goal would you still like to achieve in business?

To continue to spawn the next generation of entrepreneurs, whether it’s people that are entrepreneurial at C3 that are coming up with great ideas to build the company or it’s people who have all of this entrepreneurial energy and it doesn’t fit for C3 — helping them do it on their own or somewhere else. I think that spawning more entrepreneurism and doing that is a more personal goal. Also, it’s the idea that we continue to put people back to work.

Three things that business leaders need to know:

  • Your business: “It’s important to be clear on who you are and what you are as an organization, not try to be something that you’re not.”
  • Your go-forward strategy: “It’s like a tennis player. If you’re playing the game of tennis you either play the net or you play the baseline. You don’t play in the middle. When you play in the middle you’re dead. You have to pick your path and your strategy.”
  • Your fears: “Don’t let fear be your driver. It’s important to recognize that while some fears are clearly legitimate — you should be afraid of certain things and you shouldn’t ignore the consequences that come along with it — you can’t let it rule the day. You have to put fear in its right place, and frankly the key is to master wanting that fear.”

Published in Florida

You may not want to think about it, but it’s bound to happen sooner or later: turnover in your IT department.

“Not a day goes by where we don’t receive an emergency phone call from a frantic executive with a story that we hear time and time again, ‘My IT guy has just quit, and he has all of our passwords, and we can’t do anything without him,’” says Zack Schuler, founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group.

Many companies don’t plan for this sort of exit, though this type of exit will be inevitable for every company at some point or another. It is safe to say that no one stays with a company forever, and when IT people leave, it can be especially painful.

Smart Business spoke to Schuler about how to put the proper backups and protocol in place to keep operations running smoothly even after the departure of trusted IT personnel.

What protective measures can businesses take to be ready for the departure of a key IT person?

1) Insist that your IT folks provide you with administrator and all passwords that they are in possession of. There is nothing worse than an IT person leaving, and not being forthcoming with password information. If you make this a requirement early, and ask for any changes often, you shouldn’t have an issue getting the information that you need. There are pieces of software that you can buy to securely store your passwords that you can give two or more people access to. The key here is making sure that there isn’t one person who has the ‘keys to the kingdom.’

2) Your IT team should provide you with complete and comprehensive network and systems documentation. I could fill up this article with the list of everything that should be documented, but let’s leave it simple and say that everything related to IT that has a power cord should be documented. Also, it is not good enough to document it once and then walk away, but a routine and methodical process of having it updated, at least quarterly, is a critical step. IT changes quickly, so you always want to have up-to-date documentation.

For some companies, this will be hard to get. For many companies, they’ve asked this of their IT folks, and it hasn’t been produced. Why? Most of the time, the pushback from IT is, ‘I have other, more pressing issues that get brought to my attention every day, and documentation always gets put on the back burner.’ One tip we’ve used here is to ask the IT folks to come in on the weekend (and offer to pay them if they are hourly, which they likely are, or at least should be), in order to get documentation done, uninterrupted. It doesn’t take that long once they get into the groove. If IT still pushes back, hire a company to come in and do the documentation for you. You’ll get it done, and have the benefit of an audit of your IT person’s work.

Once this is done, and done well, if the IT person leaves, it is a lot easier to have someone jump into their shoes and take over quickly.

3) Do your best to ensure that your IT people are cross-trained to the fullest extent possible. If you put a serious cross-training program in place, it may save you in the long run. It also gives you the opportunity to feel like you are not tied to a ball and chain with any one IT person, and it makes them replaceable, if the need be.

4) Develop a ‘lock out’ procedure. In the event that an IT person leaves, or is asked to leave, it is important to have a lock out procedure documented, and a plan in place to execute it. As soon as or just before the person is out the door, you should disable their user account and wipe their cell phone, if it is company property. Also, many times it is wise to have the user community reset their passwords, as, in some organizations, the IT guy had access to those as well. An exit agreement drafted by your attorney that lets them know that they are to give back any confidential information is advisable as well.

5) Hire an outside firm to be your backup. One of the duties that we fill for many of our clients is the role of backup IT provider. Most of our clients have an in-house IT staff, and we work with their staff on issues that they don’t have the skill sets to tackle themselves, or in areas where there is simply more demand than supply. Many of our clients hire us to help out, with the secondary benefit of being able to rely on us should an IT person quit or be let go. We are able to fill in for that person with minimal interruption because we’ve become familiar with the environment. Sometimes the company realizes that just part-time consulting work is all that they need, and other times we continue to work full time until they’ve backfilled us with a new resource, who we then train. Having a backup IT provider can be a very smart move.

It’s not always well received when the backup IT provider is brought to the table, as internal IT usually feels threatened. That being said, in almost every case, we work alongside that person well, and they get to understand our value. In many cases, we become the reason that the IT person is able to go on vacation, as we become his or her trusted resource. We want to become the IT person’s trusted resource, as well as the executives’ trusted resource, should the employment relationship go awry.

In short, protecting your IT environment means making sure that you have control over it. Nobody ever got fired for being prepared.

Zack Schuler is the founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. Reach him at ZSchuler@CalNetTech.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by Cal Net Technology Group

Published in Los Angeles

Executives are jumping on the outsourcing bandwagon as cloud service providers promise unlimited scalability, reduced expenditures for hardware and IT staff, and the ability to offload software and routine maintenance at a moment’s notice.

In fact, Gartner analysts predict that 35 percent of enterprise IT expenditures will be managed outside the IT department’s budget by 2015.

But overzealous executives eager to jump to the cloud may encounter security issues down the road, as the security practices of the cloud service provider are often unclear — up to and including where the data is stored. A survey by Symantec shows that only 27 percent of companies have set procedures to approve cloud applications that use sensitive or confidential information.

“It’s easy to deploy data and applications to the cloud, but most executives don’t have a handle on the true risks associated with those decisions. So they fail to build the proper assurances into the procurement process,” says Brian Thomas, IT advisory services partner for Weaver.

Smart Business spoke with Thomas about the risks of outsourced computing services and why companies should seek an auditor’s assurance during the procurement process.

What are the specific risks associated with the cloud and outsourced computing?

Possible issues include data integrity, confidentiality, privacy and security, system availability and reliability, and data retention and ownership. But the threat level and mitigation strategies vary depending upon the importance and sensitivity of the data being processed by the cloud service provider.

It may not matter if you can’t access your sales prospects for a few hours if your hosted CRM application goes down, but business would come to a halt if your hosted e-mail or e-commerce system crashes. Therefore, the provider’s server redundancy and service-level contract guarantees may be the most critical risks to address, where in other cases, the primary concerns may be security and privacy issues. Certainly, regulated companies need to pay particular attention to how the cloud service provider addresses their regulatory risks.

How can executives identify outsourcing risks?

When considering cloud computing project ideas, executives should ask a lot of questions. First, they must understand the nature of the cloud services being procured and the sensitive aspects of the systems being hosted or managed by the provider. After getting an understanding of the types of data and systems that will be exposed to the cloud, executives should ask ‘what if’ questions of their project teams. Such questions should be focused on general risk areas including data integrity, confidentiality, privacy and security, and system availability and reliability.

Executives should also get an understanding of their company’s exposure to risks related to data ownership and retention. Examples of questions to ask include, ‘What will happen if we lose connectivity to our cloud service provider for an extended period of time?’ And,  ‘What happens if our cloud service provider is acquired by another company?’

How can executives use an outside audit to ensure the performance of service providers?

A third-party assessment by a qualified professional is the only way to know whether a cloud service provider has designed and implemented effective measures to identify and mitigate relevant risks, as self reporting is inadequate and providers may simply tell you what you want to hear.

You can save money by having your auditor review a cloud service provider’s service organization controls (SOC) report. There are three reports available under the AICPA’s standards for service providers. SOC 1 is based on the Statement on Standards for Attestation Engagements No. 16 (SSAE 16) and is best suited for companies that previously used SAS 70 for Sarbanes-Oxley or financial audit compliance. SOC 2 addresses the design and operating effectiveness of a service organization’s controls over the security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality and privacy of a system. This may be more valuable for executives evaluating the controls a cloud service provider has in place to address risks beyond those relating to financial reporting.

SOC 3 involves the same scope as SOC 2; however, the report contains less detail and is intended for broader (marketing) audiences.

When are SOC 2 and SOC 3 appropriate?

Executives should request that their cloud service providers submit a SOC 2 report where applicable. The scope is generally best suited to address the concerns of users of cloud services. SOC 2 reports provide details of the procedures executed by the auditor to test the controls in place at the cloud service provider, and the results of those procedures.

If a cloud service provider only has a SOC 3 report available, that may be sufficient for getting comfortable while evaluating the service provider during the procurement process. However, executives responsible for the cloud services should request that the service provider submit a SOC 2 going forward to ensure that they can monitor the provider’s efforts to address any failed control activities.

Are there other certifications that can help mitigate risk when transitioning to the cloud?

If the provider cannot provide a SOC 2 report, see if they are certified as ISO 27001 compliant or if they have obtained assurance reports from a security firm addressing the ISO 27001 standard. If the provider processes, stores or transmits credit card information, it is required to meet the Payment Card Industry’s Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). Be careful when using these other forms of assurance. Their scope is generally narrower than SOC reports and may follow less rigorous quality assurance standards. However, in the proper context, they can be useful for executives attempting to get information about the activities performed at the cloud service provider.

Brian Thomas is an IT advisory services partner at Weaver. Reach him at (713) 850-8787 or bjthomas@weaverllp.com.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Weaver

Published in Dallas

Before you read this today, you read your e-mail. You’re always reading your e-mail. E-mail is Facebook for grownups: America’s current favorite distraction from work — corporate America’s No. 1 de-focuser.

I have teenagers. If you have teenagers, then you too have heard someone explain why it is important to have a Facebook page open while doing homework. The rationale is that some of the other kids have the same class and they are talking about the assignment.  But we all know that even if the chemistry homework got mentioned, the kid isn’t using Facebook as some sort of electronically enabled chemistry symposium. Facebook is distracting more kids from doing their homework than it is facilitating it.

The same thing is true about your e-mail and your work. E-mail can facilitate the exchange of information and documents — no doubt about it. But it isn’t without its costs when you continually check and re-check it. E-mail has become our informational slot machine. Each time you pull the lever — that is each time you check the inbox — you might find something rewarding there. But nine times of out 10 it’s just junk or very low priority information, for example, the date next month that they're testing your building’s fire alarm system. Yet even with the rewards to checking e-mail so terribly low, we continue to distract ourselves with it.

The key to success in baseball is to avoid outs. As long as your team makes less than three outs, you remain at bat and in the position to scores runs. If you make no outs forever, you can score runs forever. That would make for a very long game, but still one that you would certainly win.

The key to success in good thinking is to avoid changing subjects. In other words, if you can stay focused on one idea or problem until it is fully developed or solved, you’ll find many more insights and produce much higher quality work than if you switch your attention to and from the main idea or problem. How many times have you found yourself, in mid-conversation, asking aloud, “What was it I was saying?” or confessing, “I just lost my train of thought.” Keeping our minds focused on a single point is so precarious we can lose the point even while we are talking about it.

No meaningful accomplishment I know of was completed in the first pass. Great writing always involves many rewrites. Great marketing ideas evolve through iterations. Important laws are drafted and re-drafted countless times before achieving a final form.  All thinking activities require that someone hold a problem or idea in mind and work with it for an extended time.

Scientists are acknowledged to be some of our best thinkers. The world is full of interesting scientific problems and curiosities, however, most scientists cannot think in a serious way about more than one or two areas at a time. That is why a scientist will sometimes shoo away a colleague that proposes an interesting new problem.

Again, the idea is that you cannot allow yourself to divide your attention among multiple areas if you hope to make a meaningful contribution in any one of them. Our minds don’t perform any differently when working on business or organizational issues. With work, family, and personal issues clamoring for our attention, the odds of focusing are already stacked against us. We are awash in the noise of all the people and projects that want our attention. Into that mix come the enticements of advertisers and other pitches designed to catch our attention. Then comes e-mail and its constant promise to relieve us from the hard and productive work of focused thinking.

Increased focus leads to better work productivity and in the longer run, to better career opportunities and better jobs. Focus begins with and depends upon the elimination of distraction.

If you want a raise, turn off your e-mail.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Published in Northern California

Our workplaces are managed behind the scenes by ERPs, CRMs and advanced accounting systems. To manage our personal work schedules, we use smart phones, tablets and laptops to access our calendars, e-mails, corporate documents and even Twitter accounts. But there is a third type of corporate technology that can be used to sell, display, and communicate information — audio/video. Audio/video systems are widely defined as technological tools that either project or display images and sound and can be found in most successful organizations.

At the forefront of advanced workplace audio/video solutions are conferencing systems. Video conferencing solutions provide near-in-person communication while eliminating travel expenses. Systems are typically used for customer, vendor and employee meetings where a standard conference call is not sufficient or it’s too expensive to meet in person. Additionally, videoconference calls are used when last-minute meets are scheduled or logistically it’s impossible to organize a face-to-face meeting. Though it is difficult to replicate an in-person meeting, video conferencing allows all users to see the body language of the meeting attendees and better communicate information — often with the use of video images. Conferencing systems were initially used to reduce long-distance travel costs, though companies today understand that video conferencing systems are effective even on a local level. Whether used for local or internal purposes, video conferencing eliminates travel and, thus, productivity improves.

While construction paper poster and information boards were once used to display important information in work settings, today digital signage is used. Ranging from touch-screen kiosks displaying hospital floor information to flat-screen panels showing restaurant menus to displaying real-time manufacturing statistics, digital signage is everywhere. The users of digital signage are typically organizations that recognize that as the scale of their organization grows, so does the need to amplify communication. This can be efficiently done by displaying digital signage in hallways, entryways, cafeterias and conference rooms.

Electronically presenting information through digital signage provides eye-catching and instantaneous communication and advertisement. By allowing for numerous messages to be displayed on multiple, fixed points, digital signage can be customized to allow for organization or location information. Further, in the event of an emergency, many organizations choose to use digital signage as an emergency communication system. While technical in nature, controlling digital signage is typically very easy, and a single user can instantaneously control messages across the world. This real time customization can allow for different images to be presented based on the time of day, location, event, or almost any other condition — allowing for the right message to be put in front of the right audience.

Conducting meetings by displaying information on projection screens or large flat panels is another way to provide impressionable and clear information. Typically meeting settings use these technologies to allow participants to review the same information, at the same time, with the meeting facilitator providing a controlled presentation. With many of these video products allowing for connectivity to the Internet or an internal shared network, almost all information can be displayed. For larger conference rooms, it is typical to have audio/video systems that allow for the use of multiple presenters or interactive presentations.

Control systems for audio and video products make an entire room automated from one location. The single point might be a wall touch panel or a portable unit like an iPad. Control systems make using intricate A/V systems user friendly and enhance presentation by dimming lights, closing shades, turning on a projector, or dropping a screen. All of this can be done by touching a single icon. Switching between laptop computers, playing a DVD, or starting a video conference are now tasks that anyone can perform. Most successful salespeople have found that by creating an impressive audio/video presentation, their likelihood of a sale significantly increases.

Audio and video systems are used by organizations to improve communication with customers, vendors and employees. Used correctly, conferencing systems, digital signage applications, and imaging displays (flat screen panels and projector screens) can increase sales and communication for companies. Many companies focus on improving ERP, CRM and smart phones, though audio /video products are additional tools organization can use to differentiate.

Tim Czyzak is president of Industrial Video, a leading audio, video, conference and broadcast solutions company founded in 1968. Industrial Video is one of the largest Midwestern companies within its industry and has provided solutions for thousands of customers. Reach him at tczyzak@ivideo.com.

Published in Cleveland

The “gap” between facilities and IT organizations has become an industry standard term over the years. While some companies are making strides to overcome this challenge, most struggle with this issue. So, what is the gap? Simply stated, it is when two departments don’t see eye to eye, and in many cases don’t work well together.

Over the past few years there has been a surge in the need for high-capacity and high-density data center facilities to meet the growing demands to store and manage information. This is being driven in large part by social networking, social media and cloud computing services growing at unprecedented rates. Data centers, unlike any other portion of a company’s real estate portfolio, requires input and support from both facilities and IT management and staff.

“IT is in the business of managing information — how it flows at the application layer, how it is transported, processed and stored at the hardware layer, and how it is protected,” says Rich Garrison, senior principal of Alfa Tech. “That is done through a combination of server, storage and network infrastructure designed to deliver and manage information, which in today’s information age is the greatest asset of most companies. Facilities are all about managing the real estate portfolio, space, power and supporting infrastructure.”

Smart Business spoke with Garrison about how to create a more productive work environment in which these two departments can work more effectively together.

Why is there often a gap between facilities and IT?

The gap occurs because of several factors, most originating from the human element. First, IT and facilities speak different languages and often simply don’t understand each other’s needs and priorities. Another major contributor to the gap is that in most companies IT and facilities are two separate organizations with separate budgets, schedules and agendas with competing priorities.

Some companies have rolled up the two groups into one organization to help align the two groups. The fundamental problem is getting those groups on the same page — or even to speak to each another in some cases. This leads to the more subtle interpersonal issues, like pride and ego, that often get in the way. It’s common for power struggles to occur over who is controlling what, allowing both sides to lose focus on what is really in the company’s best interest.

What are some consequences of the gap?

Employees become frustrated. They get tired of beating their head against a wall, make poor decisions and often are forced to settle for solutions that really don’t meet the business’s needs with respect to capacity, reliability and scalability. IT has a history of asking for ‘more than they need’ when it comes to space, power and other facilities resources. This is often due to the fact that long–term requirements are unknown, yet IT must be able to support whatever comes along. Some of these unknown factors may include changes in technology, mergers and acquisitions, changes in the companies’ products or services to name a few. Facilities on the other hand are pressured to ensure that real estate assets are cost effective and operationally efficient. Therein lies the gap, a gap in priorities, business requirements, budgets and management support or direction.

At the end of the day, the company ends up suffering because it doesn’t get the right solution or it spends too much money getting a solution that meets the business’s needs. We have seen IT groups choose colocation simply so they can maintain control of the data center, not because it was the most cost-effective way to meet the company’s data center demands.

Today’s server, storage and network hardware platforms are forcing IT to understand more about power and cooling due to the significant increase in density in recent years. However, having IT staff responsible for planning or managing space, power and cooling is not always the best solution. They usually end up getting it wrong, which can result in unnecessary risks or even catastrophic failures of the data center facility itself by not understanding the underlying facilities infrastructure.

How can companies bridge the gap between facilities and IT?

In almost every instance where this gap is an issue, the companies lack a strategic plan for IT, facilities or both. When companies get serious about developing a formal data center strategy they get much closer to bridging this gap. One particular tool I’ve developed to help bridge the gap is the OPR (Owner Program Requirements) document. The purpose behind this document is to facilitate a process to get facilities and IT to stop thinking about technical solutions, take a step back and start thinking about the business requirements, corporate goals and objectives. It then looks at the functional requirements of both organizations necessary to meet these corporate objectives. Next is to define in their own language the supporting technical and operational needs of both organizations necessary to be successful. This collaborative approach to developing a strategy and plan has proven to be a successful method to begin to bridge this gap.

Getting the two organizations to collaborate and talk in their own languages while finding that common ground is the point of the OPR. It demystifies technology by defining the requirements in terms both IT and facilities groups can understand. For a new data center project, this can be expanded to include a set of design considerations and criteria, written in more technical language that designers and engineers need to understand.

When we see IT staff taking an active interest in understanding facility operations and facilities staff take an active interest in understanding IT requirements, the results have been positive and bring about successful projects that deliver cost-effective solutions for the companies they work for.

Rich Garrison is a senior principal with Alfa Tech. Reach him at (408) 487-1209 or rich.garrison@atce.com.

Published in Northern California

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

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

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

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

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

What factors do you feel are causing these challenges?

A perfect storm is described as having multiple conditions that are colliding at the same time. There is a perfect storm in the SMB market today. First, all too often we see both cost and customer intimacy elements are chained to an archaic standard support model. Such a model is actually designed to cost more to interact with the customer. Historically, this has been why companies scrambled to find ways to cut back on support costs. This standard model is also designed to drive customer interactions out because it costs so much and reflects pure overhead. What this does is create an environment for the SMB that says, ‘Use it less, find a way to reduce calls for support.’ Sounds like a good thing, but it is deceiving. It’s a death trap for the SMB.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve all made the mistake thinking that just purchasing technology is the answer. Take a new holistic approach that will bring technology, process and management disciplines as a complete and total solution. Examine the investment in current IT expenditures and make the hard assessment: ‘Am I getting real return on investment?’ If not, make a change. Finally, establish committed continuous improvement processes that focus on balancing the customer intimacy mandate with prudent cost management. With these approaches in place, clearing the perfect storm is simply a matter of having your clients use your new model more.

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

Published in Dallas

Business executives searching for a corporate home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area should take a close look at Frisco, especially if they do business in one of the sectors that Frisco’s economic development team deems a good fit: technology, finance, energy or recreation.

“We’ve developed seven industry targets,” said Jim Gandy, president of the Frisco Economic Development Corp. “These include companies that are in computers and electronics, medical devices, telecommunications, software and media, financial services, entertainment and recreation, and renewable energy. Those are the types of companies we’re most interested in attracting to Frisco.”

Gandy said his group has comprehensively analyzed Frisco’s economy and demographics, and those seven sectors make the most sense in regard to the types of companies to attract to the city.

“Over the years, we’ve done numerous studies, sort of an internal audit of Frisco’s strengths and opportunities,” he said. “And when you look at all the things Frisco has to offer, from location to low cost of doing business to the availability of a knowledgeable, skilled work force, these types of companies match up really well.”

Gandy emphasized Frisco’s demographics as the key asset it provides companies doing business in the North Dallas suburb.

“Our average age is 34, and over 50 percent of our population over the age of 25 has at least a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “So our citenzry is very young and very well-educated. It’s a readily available, skilled work force.”

And that pool of workers is growing quickly: The U.S. Census Bureau ranked Frisco as the fastest-growing city in the United States for the period 2000-2009. And on top of that, Frisco has abundant undeveloped land for companies looking to build new headquarters.

“In the 2010 census, our population was about 117,000,” he said. “In 2000, it was 33,714. So from 2000 to 2010, we grew by 247 percent. And we have 72 square miles of land, of which 54 percent is still raw land, so there’s a lot of development that will occur in Frisco over the next 20 years.”

Finally, Gandy says location is always a key factor in deciding where to base a business, and Frisco offers advantages there, as well.

“It always floats to the top that we’re talking about our location,” he said. “Our ease of proximity to or from anywhere in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and our proximity to DFW Airport. Also, being located in the Central Time Zone gives you a lot of conveniences for traveling to the East Coast or West Coast, which in most cases can be a day trip — out for a meeting and back in one day.”

How to reach: Frisco Economic Development Corp., (972) 292-5000 or www.friscoedc.com

QUICK INFO

Counties: Collin and Denton

Incorporated: 1908

Population: 116,989 (2010 Census)

Land area: 72 square miles

Government system: Council-Manager

Mayor: Maher Maso

City Manager: George Purefoy

Web: www.ci.frisco.tx.us

Published in Dallas