“Save your breath.”

My mother used to say this to me when I was desperately trying to explain my way out of a situation. In her view, the more I tried to explain, the more worked up I got, the less she was interested in my argument because she knew it was flimsy.

I believe the same philosophy holds true in business — and in relationships too, for that matter.

Maurice Saatchi, cofounder of the famed New York ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi used to say, “If you can’t reduce your argument to a few crisp words and phrases, there’s something wrong with your argument.”

My mother would have agreed with him.

Save time by honing your thoughts and streamlining your written words in all situations. Not only is this a worthy trait — but you will be heard. You’ll save time too. 

The power of “no”

Should you learn to say “No?”

“No” is so very easy to say. With that simple syllable, you can safely obstruct change, thwart action, seize power, and slow things down.

No isn’t rebellion. It’s a status quo power grab, and it comes from fear.

“Yes” is the real rebellion. It’s harder to say because it involves innovation, responsibility, creativity, achievement and thought. Yes is ingenuous, strident, candid, open.

Say yes as much as you can.

But the word “why” is always valid.

Asking why is always appropriate. And it isn’t asked enough.

Why gets to the heart of any decision you or your organization makes. It’s too easy to assume the answer. And too simple to believe that “because we’ve always done it that way” is the right reason this time around. It isn’t, because the game changes every day.

Ask why this is the way we operate. Ask why we need to meet. Why did you decide no? Why is this our goal, our forecast, our policy, our plan?

Always ask why and wait for the real, not the flip or the most convenient answer. Do it because the real answer matters.

Have the goal of fewer meetings

That means dealing with the fact that the modern office is an interruption factory.

In the age of centralized files and costly office equipment, it made sense for people to work and collaborate in centralized workplaces. Today, that logic no longer applies. We actually need fewer meetings and interruptions to get more work done. That means, more work done remotely.

According to The New York Times, for example, an average office demands 5.6 hours per week in meetings — of which 71 percent of us report as being unproductive. Why do this to ourselves?

The truth is, the most fundamental reason we have not shifted away from the office is because we are stuck on the appearance of an office culture.

Who do you spend your time with? Take a closer look at those who surround you, personally and professionally. Choose your peers, mentors, friends, and advocates carefully — especially in the workplace.

It really is all about your energy. Once energy is added to any situation, it has to continue. You learned this natural law in high school physics class. But this law is just as true in our dealings with others.

When you get cut off in traffic and get angry, negative energy increases. When you provide encouraging words to someone, positive energy expands.

Communicate negative energy and very likely, you will receive even more negativity back. Only rarely will negative energy be calmly acknowledged and the situation neutralized. (When this happens, aren’t you impressed — and feel calmer yourself?)

Being aware of the energy you express. Add to the positive. Work to diffuse the negative without escalating.

Your energy can dramatically shift the outcome of your communications. 

David Harding is president and CEO of HardingPoorman Group, a locally owned and operated graphic communications firm in Indianapolis consisting of several integrated companies all under one roof. The company has been voted as one of the “Best Places to Work” in Indiana by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Harding can be reached at dharding@hardingpoorman.com. For more information, go to www.hardingpoorman.com

Published in Columnist

The economy is heating up across many sectors. While economic improvement provides many opportunities, companies are facing the increasing challenge of hiring and retaining employees.

“People are the driving force behind the success of every business,” says Scott Anderson, a senior audit manager at Sensiba San Filippo, LLP. “Business owners who understand the immense value of their people and take action to protect and motivate their employees can see tremendous effects on their bottom line.”

Smart Business spoke with Anderson about the difficulties employers face motivating their work force and how to gain a competitive edge in retaining the best employees.

Why is employee retention important to leading businesses?

People are the foundation of successful businesses, and most business owners, especially those who have lost top talent, would agree. While it may be difficult to put a price tag on the value of each employee, every employee’s impact shows up — for better or for worse — in the bottom line. Economists have estimated the cost of replacing an employee at $17,000 to $31,000. For employees making more than $60,000, the cost is $38,000 or more.

The effects of employee retention and loss will only become clearer as we move out of the recession. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more employees are quitting jobs to take new positions. People generally hunkered down during the recession and put career goals on hold, but now some industries are showing significant movement already.

How does employee retention relate to risk?

Costs associated with hiring and training are just one impact of employee loss. An employee may have had access to how much customers were paying for services, or insight into trade secrets or key intellectual property. That information loss could cause significant damage if it goes to a competitor regardless of whether patents or nondisclosure agreements are in place. There is also reputational risk, as departed employees won’t censor themselves. Negative comments can spread fast regardless of whether they are true or not.

What are successful companies doing to motivate and retain employees?

Companies are finding new ways to keep top talent. Successful companies find a ‘recipe’ of benefits that makes employees feel the company can help them achieve their personal goals. For some, traditional motivators such as time off, health care benefits and flexibility of scheduling aren’t enough.

Small investments can have disproportionate effects on employees. Don’t underestimate the value of recognition. Creating a leadership  award and nominating employees for outside business achievement awards improve morale. Wellness programs and community involvement opportunities also differentiate a work environment and build camaraderie.

For others, motivating factors include taking on new work or having increased responsibility. Presenting opportunities for professional advancement and intellectual expansion are overlooked factors to employee retention. An employee should have little difficulty understanding his or her career achievement path. Beyond just talking about it, the path should be written down and communicated. If employees can see how their career will proceed in the next 10 years, their vision for the future will involve a long-term relationship.

Mentoring programs can also improve career development opportunities. Allow employees to select their own mentors who are not far above the employee’s current level. Having a mentor the employee connects with, who is two to three years further in their career track, makes it more likely that candid, meaningful conversations will take place.

How can a business cultivate a culture that leads to happy, motivated employees?

One of the most important factors in forging loyalty is eliminating uncertainty, as it is a driving force that makes people look elsewhere. Unable to visualize a long-term relationship with the company, employees grow insecure.

Communication is also critical. Business owners and company leaders can dispel fears with proactive communication about the company and employees’ roles. Many successful businesses share successes of the organization, emphasizing the connection between employee success and the company’s success.

For smaller businesses, simple face-to-face interaction goes a long way toward showing employees their effort is valued.

Are employees still motivated by performance-based compensation incentives?

Yes. However, there are some common pitfalls that can derail a well-intentioned incentive program. One of the common misperceptions is that an innovative plan is a complex plan. It is actually quite the opposite. The simpler the compensation plan the more likely that it will be effective. The rule of thumb is it takes a beer to discuss the plan and the details can be written down on a bar napkin.

The value of a performance-based compensation plan is directly related to its success. At least 20 percent of the compensation plan should be incentive based and should fit into a picture of the overall health of the business that the employee clearly understands. The progress toward receiving compensation must be communicated frequently. It should be automated, predictable and not dependent on complex spreadsheet calculations.

How can businesses evaluate their employee retention efforts?

Business owners should research how their compensation and other benefits stack up to the competition. If they are lacking, find a good partner who knows the ins and outs of employee motivation, incentives and retention. On the other hand, if business owners find that their plan is superior to the competition, don’t hesitate to tell employees about the benefits of working for your company. Show your employees that you’ve done your homework and highlight the opportunities and benefits provided by your organization.

Scott Anderson is a senior audit manager at Sensiba San Filippo, LLP. Reach him at (408) 286-7780 or sanderson@ssfllp.com.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Sensiba San Filippo

Published in Northern California

When Rob Hillman speaks about the needle, the president and general manager of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana isn’t talking about a shot in the arm.

Rather, it’s about efforts to move the needle on key company performance metrics that measure how well employees are building relationships with customers and how well customers are relating to Anthem.

“When we are talking about a high-ticket item like health care and how personal it is, relationships are very important,” Hillman says. “Things work so much better when you focus on the value of the relationships and not the value of the transactions.”

While companies are putting more emphasis on communicating with customers and employees through ever-developing means, it still boils down to the best ways to develop personal interaction.

“Maybe I'm old school, and there are a lot of this social media out there today, but relationships are very important,” he says. “We spend a lot of time with our associates, talking about the value of our relationships and how important an asset our relationships are with the broker community, with our customers, with our medical providers in the community.”

The results? Anthem is growing its footprint in the marketplace in terms of customers served, and the percentage of customers sticking with Anthem year after year is above the industry average ? typically in the high 80s to low 90s as a percent range.

Here’s the prescription Hillman uses to build relationships to help push the needle upward for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana.

Diagnose the situation

To understand the role of relationships, the first steps are to study your core values and look for common threads among them. Draw conclusions as you examine them. It often means taking a look at the basics and factoring in what will make the relationship thrive.

In terms of core values, companies can’t go far off track if they set customer service and integrity at the top.

“What we sell every day are sheets of paper that have promises written on them,” Hillman says. “When all you do is sell promises, customer-first and integrity are No. 1 and No. 2.”

But tangible and intangible products both share a promise ? a manufacturer or organization will stand by what they deliver. The recipe is the same for both types of companies.

“The customer is first, and if you meet or exceed their expectations, you have delivered on your promise,” Hillman says. “Any company that does this consistently, no matter what it is they sell, builds brand loyalty, repeat business and referrals. They are well-positioned for success.”

Do some thinking about your promises. Stick by the ones that you will deliver, whether they are merchandise or services listed on a sheet of paper.

“If it is adhering to the language of a contract, the performance of a product or delivering on your commitments, they all have the same effect ? you build credibility, trust and confidence in your company,” Hillman says.

The benefits you sell to your customers are the same benefits you provide to your associates. This indicates that you believe in your product.

“If you don’t believe in it for your own employees, then don’t try to sell it to your customers,” he says.

“You have to make sure that the way that your contracts are written and the benefits that you have sold are the promises that you can deliver,” Hillman says. “If you can't deliver, if there has been a miscue, and if you have a promise that you sold to someone that seemingly you can't deliver on, you have to make sure that you make it right.”

Remember in your analysis that there is only one occasion to make an initial impression, and doing that correctly will go the distance in establishing a relationship.

“Try to do it right the first time,” Hillman says. “If you mess it up, make sure the second time you do it right.

“Everything has to be tied together in terms of your systems, your people, their focus, to make sure that they know what to note in those promises that you sold and that you are delivering on the promises.”

Examine as well the localness of your product or service.

“Make sure that you are providing the type of value that the local market wants and needs,” Hillman says.

Evaluate the role of the customer. He or she is more than just that. You want to create loyalty, that the person will be a return customer and that the interactions the customer will have with the company will leave him highly satisfied.

If you have been mindful and put the customer first, operate with integrity, and hold employees personally accountable for excellence in everything that you do, those are the common threads that over a period of time will allow you to retain the local touch.

“Customers are folks that you define as more than just people you send a bill to and they send a check every month,” Hillman says. “By virtue of that fact, they are customers. But the thing that can be attributed to success is how you define customers based on the relationships that you have with them personally.”

When it comes to considering how to build successful relationships across the widest possible segments, expand your definition of customer. Anyone who expects you to deliver at some level qualifies as a customer, ranging from the traditional definition to the level of subcontractor to consultant.

“When there is that expectation that you’re going to deliver, however that’s defined by any one of those constituencies, regard them as customers,” Hillman says. “So the key is, it may be a cliché, but you need to deliver what you promise. If you do that basic blocking and tackling, you’re going to build relationships over the years.”

Examine how it is beneficial to keep your focus on your pledge over the long term. Concentrating on short-term gains disregards the consequences that may happen and can give a distorted picture.

“Customers may leave, but they will always come back if you’ve dealt with them with integrity and delivered on your promise,” Hillman says. “And if you don’t, some customers are very difficult to get back.

“If you bat with a good average of delivering on your promises and value those relationships that build because of that, whether it’s internally or externally ? brokers, customers or the folks you work with every day at the company ? that’s a pretty good recipe for success over a long period of time.”

Learn the value of metrics

If you are going to focus on evaluating relationships, performance metrics can help a company compare its operation against customer requirements and the value created. In short, metrics can help keep the company on track and ensure consistency.

In an organization the size of Anthem with 5,000 employees, metrics are part of the core value of continuous improvement. In order to maintain a competitive position, a company has to strive to better itself.

“There are all kinds of activities that end up impacting either your service level, your ability to grow your business and ultimately whether or not you are able to produce a successful bottom line,” Hillman says. “Every input or activity that can impact any of those three, measure it. If it moves, measure it.”

For instance, WellPoint’s member health index measures more than 40 areas of the quality of care an individual has received, some of which were developed using national standards and others which were developed by WellPoint’s clinical experts.

There’s a unique connection that Anthem uses, as do the other divisions of parent organization WellPoint Inc. They directly link improving the health of members to the compensation of every associate in the company. Improvements in members’ health index are used to help calculate employees’ annual bonuses.

“These could be things like were we able to move the needle along the percentage of women who had mammograms,” Hillman says. “Were we able to move the needle on individuals who have reached a certain age needing other types of preventive measures and scans?”

Another indication of how well a company is doing in terms of growth is an analysis of its market share.

“When you couple market share with the fact that you’re growing at the same time that you’re losing some percentage of your business (in part due to the economy), that means that your value proposition for those folks already on board is resonating with those who are just deciding to do business with you,” Hillman says.

Metrics are not only important in helping gauge a company’s performance with its customers, but for its employee-management relations, as well.

Conduct an annual employee survey to measure strengths and weaknesses between both parties. The goal is to nurture continuous improvement.

“Tie every manager's performance review to some degree to associate survey results,” Hillman says. “It is something to take very seriously. Benchmark yourselves not only within the industry but outside the industry to what's considered best in class as well as to what is the average across the entire organization.”

If you are clear about the mission of the company, what the core values are and the level of seriousness that is given to employee engagement, you will obtain positive results.

Watch for threats

Relationships that stand the test of time are those that have received consistent care and feeding ? and that have survived challenges. A company that continually monitors them is in a position to prevent derailments.

Complacency ranks as one of the top concerns that can sink a relationship. It can prevent a company from seeing it needs to change and grow.

“Don’t take any success that you're having for granted,” Hillman says. “Take your eye off the ball, the train leaves the tracks, and it's a bumpy road to get back on. When that happens, you lose customers.

“You lose credibility. You jeopardize relationships.”

Promises made but not kept are often at the root of failed relationships. Going hand-in-hand with keeping promises is the proper attitude toward standardization.

“A second threat is not maintaining discipline in your decision-making ? deviating from the kinds of types of decisions that have helped you become a success and just becoming less disciplined,” Hillman says

While inconsistent discipline is equally a threat as complacency, its effects are different. Sticking to the standards that are ethical and morally right is a desirable quality. Human nature sometimes lets discipline slide just at the moment it may be needed the most.

“Being less disciplined is sort of moving the edges of what are acceptable decisions and non-acceptable decisions out a little bit,” Hillman says.

A third major threat is losing touch with your customers. It’s often said that the longer a company is around, the greater the danger it has of losing customers. Maintaining a personal connection comes down to building relationships, building trust, keeping promises and delivering.

While maintaining a connection can be a time-consuming process, it is necessary part of a disciplined approach to your business.

“You have to stay connected with your customers,” he says. “You have to understand what issues they’re dealing with. You can’t allow a competitor to come in and drive a wedge between you and your customer.”

How to reach: Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana, (317) 488-6000 or www.anthem.com

Takeaways:

Customer service and integrity should be top priorities

Measuring performance ensures consistency

Complacency is a top threat

The Hillman File

Born: I was born in Shelbyville, Ind., and I grew up in a small town called Fairland, now the exit off I-74 for Indiana Live Casino, which growing up in a rural farming community, I thought would never happen.

Education: Purdue University, with a bachelor of science degree in management

What is your definition of success?

Delivering on my promises, the ability to deliver on our promises, to our customers, to our sales associates, to our shareholders, staying true to the company’s mission and our core values.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

You can only lead from the front. There are many people who think they can lead from the back of the pack. To lead from the front, you must lead by example in all that you do. That’s a full-time effort. It’s not a part-time thing because your customers, your fellow associates or whomever you do business with will see through that in a second.

The second advice is you can’t fall off the floor, which has always been to me courage and conviction in your decision-making. If you’re confronted with a challenge, you have to make a tough decision and have the courage and conviction to make that decision, particularly if you are the leader of the organization because that is your job.

What was your first job?

It made me not want to be a farmer ? it was baling hay and detasseling corn. I was probably 10 years old, and it’s hard to detassel corn when you are only 10. [I wasn’t] tall enough. It was $1.55 an hour. I would have rather been paid by the tassel.

Published in Indianapolis