Carolyn LaWell

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Healthy returns

You’re looking at your expenses, and that health care cost is just glaring at you. If only you could chop that number.

In fact, many employers are. The economic downturn has caused 60 percent of employers to change their health plan or strategy, according to a National Business Group on Health/Watson Wyatt Worldwide study. With the median health care cost per employee estimated to reach $7,400 this year, many employers are transferring costs to their employees.

That may be an idea of your own or a route you’ve already taken. But insurance providers and health care experts are cautioning you to think twice if you want true savings and you want to hang on to your employee base.

“I think that the best thing an employer can do to decrease their costs is to have a commitment to work with their employees so that they can change the human behavior of those employees,” says Sidney Morgan, president of Central Florida commercial operations for Humana Inc.

More than 75 percent of employers’ health care costs and productivity losses are linked to employee lifestyle choices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cutting or renegotiating your health benefits can save money. But until you understand what’s driving your costs — your employees’ bad habits — you’re not going to reach the root of the problem. The bottom line is, the more your employees use their insurance, the more you’re paying.

Understand what you’re paying for

To really control costs, you have to understand what they are.

Sit down with your broker or third-party administrator to discuss your claims. You need to understand the specifics of your population and how employees are using their insurance, meaning what services they’re seeking, what medications they’re on and perhaps discern the top illnesses they suffer from.

Larger companies dedicate time every week or once a month to go line item by line item and chart trends, but for smaller companies, it may take months to paint a clear picture. The overall goal is to carve out a specific area your employees are using a lot of and try to find a more efficient way of dealing with the health need. For example, finding out your employees use the emergency room as a physician’s office or pay three times the price of a generic drug for brand-name medication can empower you to seek cost-saving solutions for you and your employees.

“There are things you can do based on the results,” says Chris Roederer, senior vice president of human resources, Tampa General Hospital, which monitors its claims monthly. “We found that we were below the market and below our peers in the national norm with mammogram screenings for our employees, so we implemented a free mammogram screening, and as a result, we even identified an employee or two that had a problem.

“Early detection is the key, and so you’re able to save money in the long run and potentially an employee’s life by being proactive versus reactive.”

Once you have a better understanding of where you’re spending money, don’t be afraid to look to your broker or health plan provider for advice on the next step. Much of your costs can be deterred by simply educating your employees, and most health insurance providers and local hospitals offer informative tools and programs as aids.

Understand what to educate your employees on

You don’t need to know the specifics, like the annual median cost increase for health care is estimated at 7 percent for 2009, to know costs are rising. And your employees probably notice the difference in their paychecks.

There’s no better time to proposition your employees with ideas that can better their health and save them money. Plus, emphasizing healthy living can quickly boost workplace morale and productivity, which can’t hurt in these uncertain times.

“It really and truly is about informing your employees,” Morgan says. “The employees will help particularly in these times. So if you really want to impact your bottom line, tell employees what they need to do for you so that you can decrease your overall health care costs.”

In order to provide your employees with pertinent information, you have to understand what risks they face. Many employers are opting to screen their employees, hiring a local clinic or hospital to come to the office and perform body mass index tests. The anonymous results are later given to you as a snapshot of your employees’ health.

Costs for the screenings vary dramatically. But another option is having your employees fill out a health assessment, which may cost nothing and take little time. Most insurance providers offer online health assessments, which may even be an incentive connected to your health plan. If you opt for an assessment, the provider then takes the information and directly contacts your employee with wellness information and advice.

Either route you go, the group you seek out can help you devise techniques that will speak to your employees’ needs and interests.

“Many of the insurance companies will work with you,” Roederer says. “They have people that focus on wellness, that focus on disease management, that focus on pharmacy management, and they’ll work with employers on how to implement plans — even if they’re self-insured. At minimal cost, they’ll have people work with the employers on how to provide programs even if they don’t have the resources to do it themselves.”

Step into action

Now you know the services your employees are using and the health risks that force them to seek care. However, you’re pinching pennies, and investing in a full-blown wellness program to support healthy living, which is estimated at the high end to cost $400 per employee, is the furthest thing on your mind.

But some food for thought: Wellness programs tend to see a 2-to-1 or sometimes even a 3-to-1 return on investment. And results usually can start to be seen in a year.

But money isn’t necessarily needed to see results.

Employee behaviors can be directly impacted at work with no added cost by changing vending machine options, starting a walking club or banning smoking. Ask your broker or a local health association to hold monthly seminars at your office. Ask your provider what free services it offers.

To really get employees to perform, the need for incentives still holds true. Companies have seen immediate savings in paying for employees’ medication if they buy generic.

Another idea is linking an employee’s program participation to his or her health plan. If employees reach lower targets in weight and cholesterol, consider paying for their insurance. Their healthier lifestyle means less risk for chronic diseases and probably fewer medications and doctor visits.

Research will tell you there’s room for creativity. But whichever route you take, you must see it as an investment in your employees.

“Employers have got to be creative,” Morgan says. “But I think the No. 1 thing that I would love to see employers become is more clear in terms of knowing that they do actually have the ability to impact the minds of the employees that make up their population.”

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Healthy returns

You’re looking at your expenses and that health care cost is just glaring at you. If only you could chop that number.

In fact, many employers are. The economic downturn has caused 60 percent of employers to change their health plan or strategy, according to a National Business Group on Health/Watson Wyatt Worldwide study. With the median health care cost per employee estimated to reach $7,400 this year, many employers are transferring costs to their employees.

That may be an idea of your own, or a route you’ve already taken. But insurance providers and health care experts are cautioning you to think twice if you want true savings and you want to hang onto your employee base.

“Cutting health benefits does help to save money in the short term,” says Janet Moran, vice president of human resources, Lourdes Health System. “However, there is a good argument that it will repress employees’ willingness to get medical attention for themselves and their families in a timely manner. Sometimes that delay can mean worse health problems and big dollars in the long run.”

More than 75 percent of employers’ health care costs and productivity losses are linked to employee lifestyle choices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cutting or renegotiating your health benefits can save money. But until you understand what’s driving your costs — your employees’ bad habits — you’re not going to reach the root of the problem. The bottom line is, the more your employees use their insurance, the more you’re paying.

Understand what you’re paying for

To really control costs, you have to understand what they are.

Sit down with your broker or third-party administrator to discuss your claims. You need to understand the specifics of your employees and how they’re using their insurance, meaning what services they’re seeking, what medications they’re on and perhaps discern the top illnesses they suffer from.

Larger companies dedicate time every week or once a month to go line item by line item and chart trends, but for smaller companies, it may take months to paint a clear picture. The overall goal is to carve out a specific area that your employees are using a lot of and try to find a more efficient way of dealing with the health need. For example, finding out your employees use the emergency room as a physician’s office or pay three times the price of a generic drug for brand-name medication can empower you to seek cost-saving solutions for you and your employees.

Once you have a better understanding of where you’re spending money, don’t be afraid to look to your broker or health plan provider for advice on the next step. Much of your costs can be deterred by simply educating your employees, and most health insurance providers and local hospitals offer informative tools and programs as aids.

“It’s very difficult to educate on benefits,” Moran says. “A lot of folks just don’t know what they’re covered for; they don’t know how much money they’ll have to spend on it. It’s a very complicated topic, so to try to educate employees is a very difficult proposition. Sometimes it takes one-on-one education.

“Probably the most effective way people learn is by experiencing the benefits themselves, and unfortunately, that’s sometimes in a bad way.”

Understand what to educate your employees on

You don’t need to know the specifics, like the annual median cost increase for health care is estimated at 7 percent for 2009, to know costs are rising. And your employees probably notice the difference in their paychecks.

There’s no better time to proposition your employees with ideas that can better their health and save them money. Plus, emphasizing healthy living can quickly boost workplace morale and productivity, which can’t hurt in these uncertain times.

Employees will buy in to wellness plans when they see an economic benefit, says John A. George, president of InterGroup Services Corp.

In order to provide your employees with pertinent information, you have to understand what risks they face. Many employers are opting to screen their employees, hiring a local clinic or hospital to come to the office and perform body mass index tests. The anonymous results are later given to you as a snapshot of your employees’ health.

Costs for the screenings vary dramatically. But another option is having your employees fill out a health assessment, which may cost nothing and take little time. Most insurance providers offer online health assessments, which may even be an incentive connected to your health plan. If you opt for an assessment, the provider then takes the information and directly contacts your employee with wellness information and advice.

Either route you go, the group you seek out can help you devise techniques that will speak to your employees’ needs and interests.

“Really partner with them — they can really help you,” says Ninfa Saunders, chief operating officer and executive vice president for health services, Virtua Health. “For instance, AmeriHealth provides coaches for us. If you are diagnosed with a disease, say diabetes or congestive heart failure, they’re willing to provide a coach for you so you can navigate through the mirage of the system [and] understand the network of providers available to you. … That saves a lot in terms of helping the employees and their family with time and frustration.”

Step into action

Now you know the services your employees are using and the health risks that force them to seek care. However, you’re pinching pennies, and investing in a full-blown wellness program to support healthy living, which is estimated at the high end to cost $400 per employee, is the furthest thing on your mind.

But some food for thought: Wellness programs tend to see a 2-to-1 or sometimes even a 3-to-1 return on investment. And results usually can start to be seen in a year.

But money isn’t necessarily needed to see results.

Employee behavior can be directly affected at work with no added cost by changing vending machine options, starting a walking club or banning smoking. Ask your broker or a local health association to hold monthly seminars at your office. Ask your provider what free services it offers.

To really get employees to perform, the need for incentives still holds true. Companies have seen immediate savings in paying for employees’ medication if they buy generic. Another idea is linking an employee’s program participation to his or her health plan. If employees reach lower targets in weight and cholesterol, consider paying for their insurance. Their healthier lifestyle means less risk for chronic diseases and probably fewer medications and doctor visits.

“For instance, we provide generic medication for free,” Saunders says. “When we were looking at the free generic medication alone, that was able to save us about $500,000 a year in prescription drug costs.”

Research will tell you there’s room for creativity. But whichever route you take, you must see it as an investment in your employees.

“Health insurance is usually paid to get somebody well after they’ve been sick,” George says. “But we’ve done a terrible job at paying for benefits to keep people healthy.”

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Customer contact

One of the first questions Helen Vollmer asks a new client is how much time he or she has to devote to the relationship.

“You shouldn’t go into a relationship without first realizing that it is going to take time, it is going to take commitment, and that commitment needs to be from both directions,” says Vollmer, founder and CEO of Vollmer Public Relations Inc.

To build strong customer relationships, you have to effectively communicate, she says. That means using an open and honest dialogue and encouraging your customers to be just as open with you. You must discuss tough issues with clients and develop the relationship further than work-related conversation.

Those ideas helped Vollmer grow her business to $9.8 million in revenue in 2008. Since starting the public relations firm in 1981, Vollmer has expanded the company to four offices and the client list to names like Travelocity.

Smart Business spoke with Vollmer about how to build and maintain customer relationships through communication.

Form an open dialogue upfront. First of all, you have to realize that as a counselor you are there to not just say, ‘OK, that’s what you want to do, that’s just fine.’ Really how you build relationships with them are to just have open conversations, open dialogue.

I think that’s really critical that from the get-go when you first get a client and you sit down with them and say, ‘OK, lets talk about managing expectations, lets talk about what’s realistic based on your budget, based on your services, based on our staffing, based on what we want to accomplish, and lets figure that out together.’

Bring up the hard questions when needed. Ask things that may not always be comfortable, but that push them a bit. Maybe you have recommended a certain strategy and, all of a sudden, you realize it’s not working, then you need to call them and say, ‘You know, this isn’t working; we need to do something else.’

There are times in any client relationship where it could be as simple as there is no chemistry between the person working on your account and you. Another tough issue right now is no one really knows what the economy is going to bring. Instead of just kind of hiding and sticking our head in the sand, I think we need to keep saying, ‘You know, we don’t know. We’re going to do this, and then let’s see what happens.’

And that’s just fine.

Oftentimes you have to be the one to bring things up. There are times where you go, ‘God, I just don’t want to have this conversation.’ But when you don’t have the hard conversations, those issues just get bigger and bigger until sometimes they can’t be fixed.

Call them and say, ‘Hey, we need to talk, or we haven’t heard from you in awhile, it’s pretty quiet, what’s going on.’ Or you see something that you go, ‘We need to fix something.’

I would really honestly say, don’t do that via e-mail. Those things need to be done in person or at least get started on the telephone and you can move to a face-to-face meeting.

Push your clients to communicate back. They need to be as responsive as you are. That’s one of the things you need to encourage in a client. Boy, if you get your bill and you’re not quite sure or you don’t like it, don’t let it sit on your desk for 30 to 60 days and then not call anybody and let them know. Call and say, ‘OK what’s this about,’ and have a dialogue.

It’s true in all industries. Certainly, in our industry, we work on deadlines. If we can’t get information back from them, we can’t do our job for them. Again, it needs to be a partnership.

Even in a new business phase, I would encourage people to just ask the questions: How much time do you have? When are you accessible? What is the best way for you to be reached? How do you want us to communicate with you?

Look for ways in helping them be responsive. You say, ‘Here are things we can do.’ No. 1, we can commit — and it’s different for every client — to X number of phone calls a month. Even in our contracts we write in there we want a minimum of one face-to-face meeting per month. If you need us to come to you and sit in your offices to get the information, we are happy to do that.

We always give them all of our phone numbers — home, cell, office — but we ask them to give us theirs, as well.

Remember business doesn’t always have to be business. One of the (ways) you nurture any relationship that’s professional or personal [is] you have to always keep asking, ‘OK, I know what I would like out of this relationship, but what is it that I can offer to someone else that might help them. What information do I have that will help them do a better job?’

Scanning articles and e-mailing them that may or may not have anything to do with the work you’re doing, but you (think) this person would like this information.

Again, just face-to-face casual conversations, whether it’s just, ‘Let’s go to lunch or let’s go play golf; let me take you to the opera.’ Just so that you get out of the office and realize that we’re all people.

Even if it’s business to build and nurture relationships, it’s not always about business. It goes back to the core values that you share.

How to reach: Vollmer Public Relations Inc., (713) 970-2100 or www.vollmerpr.com

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Healthy returns

You’re looking at your expenses and that health care cost is just glaring at you. If only you could chop that number.

In fact, many employers are. The economic downturn has caused 60 percent of employers to change their health plan or strategy, according to a National Business Group on Health/Watson Wyatt Worldwide study. With the median health care cost per employee estimated to reach $7,400 this year, many employers are transferring costs to their employees.

That may be an idea of your own, or a route you’ve already taken. But insurance providers and health care experts are cautioning you to think twice if you want true savings and you want to hang onto your employee base.

“If you take a short-term approach and just limit benefits, our experience, and I think the experience of most employers and health plans around the country, is that is very short-sided,” says David Strand, chief operating officer of Cleveland Clinic. “The better approach, we believe, is to focus on health improvement and focus on quality of life improvement for your employees and invest in those things that are geared toward those purposes. By doing that, you will inevitably reduce costs far more than you can simply by cutting benefits.”

More than 75 percent of employers’ health care costs and productivity losses are linked to employee lifestyle choices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cutting or renegotiating your health benefits can save money. But until you understand what’s driving your costs — your employees’ bad habits — you’re not going to reach the root of the problem. The bottom line is, the more your employees use their insurance, the more you’re paying.

Understand what you’re paying for

To really control costs, you have to understand what they are.

Sit down with your broker or third-party administrator to discuss your claims. You need to understand the specifics of your employees and how they’re using their insurance, meaning what services they’re seeking, what medications they’re on and perhaps discern the top illnesses they suffer from.

Larger companies dedicate time every week or once a month to go line item by line item and chart trends, but for smaller companies, it may take months to paint a clear picture. The overall goal is to carve out a specific area that your employees are using a lot of and try to find a more efficient way of dealing with the health need. For example, finding out your employees use the emergency room as a physician’s office or pay three times the price of a generic drug for brand-name medication can empower you to seek cost-saving solutions for you and your employees.

Once you have a better understanding of where you’re spending money, don’t be afraid to look to your broker or health plan provider for advice on the next step. Much of your costs can be deterred by simply educating your employees, and most health insurance providers and local hospitals offer informative tools and programs as aids.

“Education is the key,” says Frank Bloomquist, northeast regional vice president, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Ohio. “That is what historically hasn’t happened.”

Understand what to educate your employees on

You don’t need to know the specifics, like the annual median cost increase for health care is estimated at 7 percent for 2009, to know costs are rising. And your employees probably notice the difference in their paychecks.

There’s no better time to proposition your employees with ideas that can better their health and save them money. Plus, emphasizing healthy living can quickly boost workplace morale and productivity, which can’t hurt in these uncertain times.

“I think it’s really a question of how you go at it,” Strand says about getting employee buy-in. “If you truly are coming from this at a standpoint of we’re doing this to really improve your quality of life, I think employees tend to come through pretty naturally.”

In order to provide your employees with pertinent information, you have to understand what risks they face. Many employers are opting to screen their employees, hiring a local clinic or hospital to come to the office and perform body mass index tests. The anonymous results are later given to you as a snapshot of your employees’ health.

Costs for the screenings vary dramatically. But another option is having your employees fill out a health assessment, which may cost nothing and take little time. Most insurance providers offer online health assessments, which may even be an incentive connected to your health plan. If you opt for an assessment, the provider then takes the information and directly contacts your employee with wellness information and advice.

Either route you go, the group you seek out can help you devise techniques that will speak to your employees’ needs and interests.

“The whole initiative right now that has gained momentum in the last 24 months is wellness,” Bloomquist says. “It’s always been out there, but I think employers are finally realizing they have to attack the wellness piece and help their employees become healthier to truly impact health care costs.”

Step into action

Now you know the services your employees are using and the health risks that force them to seek care. However, you’re pinching pennies, and investing in a full-blown wellness program, which is estimated at the high end to cost $400 per employee, to support healthy living is the furthest thing on your mind.

But some food for thought: “Many studies indicate that for every dollar you spend you may save $2 or $3 in reduced health benefit costs,” says George Stadtlander, chief underwriter and vice president of individual small group market, Medical Mutual of Ohio. “You may be saving $10 in improved employee productivity.”

But spending money is not needed to see results.

“Generally, four or five behaviors impact the majority of health care costs: That’s exercising more, eating a better diet, stopping smoking, reducing drinking,” Bloomquist says. “Those are all behaviors that people choose to do or not to do, and ultimately, that will impact in the long run health care costs.”

Those behaviors can be directly affected at work with no added cost by changing vending machine options, starting a walking club or banning smoking. Ask your broker or a local health association to hold monthly seminars at your office. Ask your provider what free services it offers.

To really get employees to perform, the need for incentives still holds true. Companies have seen immediate savings in paying for employees’ medication if they buy generic. Another idea is linking an employee’s health status to his or her health plan. If employees reach lower targets in weight and cholesterol, consider paying for their insurance. Their healthier lifestyle means less risk for chronic diseases and probably fewer medications and doctor visits.

Research will tell you there’s room for creativity. But whichever route you take, you must see it as an investment in your employees.

“Develop a consciousness around health and wellness and it will pay many dividends beyond the health benefits,” Stadtlander says. “That has to come from the top. That would be a message to CEOs. You’ve got to get involved. You’ve got to get your employees involved.”

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Sending a clear message

Sending e-mails or writing your vision on paper and handing it to your employees to absorb doesn’t work, says Prashanth Rajendran.

The chief operating officer and co-founder of Pilgrim Software Inc. says that you can’t underestimate the importance of outlining a clear vision for employees because it’s linked to the overall health of the company.

“You have to be able to get a critical mass within your company to be aligned with you if you want to scale,” he says. “The way you’re going to scale is by having significantly more people within your company participate in whatever activities you think are critical to your company’s growth.”

Rajendran uses face-to-face communication to get the company’s vision across to his 100 employees at Pilgrim Software, a software solutions company that posted 2008 revenue of $20 million.

Smart Business spoke with Rajendran about how to communicate your vision to your employees and make sure they understand it.

Maintain an open dialogue with employees. One of the things that we have seen really work is the fact that you try to maintain relatively an open dialogue with the various levels of the company.

You need to have not only a clear message about where are you trying to go, [but] you want to be able to convey that message periodically so that the message does not get forgotten. Also to be able to show that the successes that we are having actually go down that message and also sometimes the relevant failures so you can learn from what didn’t work so that your path toward that message is continued to be fine-tuned.

E-mail is good to be able to provide more of a snapshot of what has been achieved. But when you want to communicate a vision and you want to communicate a larger message, you really want to do that face to face, so that if questions come up, you’re able to answer them. Sometimes I may not have a question, but let’s say in this case, Sandy, who is my peer here, may have a question. Through that question, I can learn something through that message that I didn’t quite think about it that way.

We have found that any time it is a strategic topic and it is a strategic communication, we are better off communicating that face to face. The downside is trying to get everybody into the same room at the same time. So you end up getting maybe about 85, 90 percent of the people in one shot.

Then you figure out who didn’t get to listen and how do you go about communicating to those people.

Communicate the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’ The most significant message that we are talking about is the relevancy of what we do in the marketplace that we cater to and why that is important.

Convey the message that there are several categories of solutions in the marketplace, all the way from nice-to-have to the must-have. Where do we fit into it? How do we have to look at it? How do we put ourselves in our customers’ shoes so that we can empathize with the things that they have to go through so that we’re able to make our solutions significantly (friendlier), easier, more useful [and] improve the productivity?

It is important for us to be able to explain and continue to teach the customer opinion and customer feedback on what we provide and what we provide helps their life. We also convey why are we in the market that we are in.

What happens is when you don’t quite understand that people within the company could think, ‘Well, that market seems hot, this market seems hot, there is money in this market, why are we not going here, why are we not going there?’

It becomes a distraction, and you want to be able to curtail that. You want to be able to specify that, ‘Look, here are all the things we looked at. Here is what we looked at and why we looked at [it]. Here’s what we have chosen to pursue and why this makes sense, why this will not make sense and what will make sense for us to look at in the future.’

You want to crystallize that as much as you can so that everybody marches to the same goal. It is so important to be able to clearly articulate what that goal is. Only then you will be able to make sure everybody goes there.

Monitor whether your communication worked. No matter what you think, you always hear through the rumor mill who has bought in to it and who has not. What you really should be concerned about more than anything else is, has the critical mass of your company’s employees bought in to it?

You can tell by the way they work, by the way they are committed to what they say they’re going to do and if they’ve delivered on it. Those people that have not bought in to it, their refusal to buy in to it bubbles up and eventually it weeds itself out, meaning that either they leave the job or they are asked to leave the job because it reflects in the way they perform.

We focus very hard on trying to make sure that there’s personnel alignment. That goes back to that face-to-face dialogue that needs to be had to be able to understand.

How to reach: Pilgrim Software Inc., (813) 915-1663 or www.pilgrimsoftware.com

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Taking time

Being the best and earning a reputation for being so sounds simple, says David Schramm.

In his business — developing and manufacturing energy storage and power delivery solutions — it’s a matter of having the best technology. But understanding how to get to that point is a little more involved.

“The very first thing you have to do is you have to listen,” says Schramm, president and CEO of Maxwell Technologies Inc., which has 350 employees worldwide and posted revenue of $82.2 million, up from $57 million in 2007. “You listen to the customers first. What are they telling you? You then take a look at that market data and you extrapolate out what are the real trends there.”

Listening means having face-to-face contact with your customers and understanding who they are and what they need. Then you must communicate that information to your employees.

Smart Business spoke with Schramm about how to maintain strong customer contact to help both your clients and your company.

Have face-to-face contact with customers. It’s a contact sport. For instance, I’m catching a plane Sunday and I’m going to be talking to six of our major customers in Europe.

E-mails and newsletters are nice; I go talk to them face to face.

It is very important that the CEO meets no less than twice per year with the CEO of the major customers to determine what is really important to them. The resulting benefit of doing this is that the relationship can be leveraged to learn more about future programs, as well as to have direct access to the customer’s CEO.

It is much easier to call someone that you have met in person to discuss sensitive issues than reading a formal letter detailing the same. An added benefit is that the customer CEO becomes a part of your network, and this can be further leveraged with future customers who may already have a relationship with the customer CEO.

I always have these meetings start with my customer manager arranging a session with his peers at the customer and with me and the customer CEO. This reinforces to my customer manager, as well as to the customer’s managers, that the CEOs have a relationship.

If possible, I will arrange a private dinner to help grow the relationship with my customer CEO.

Listen to your customers’ needs. You get to know them a little bit. I’ll listen and see what I can pick up from them. What is their culture? What is important to them? What are they looking for? Where are they trying to grow? What is the biggest problem they have that I think I can solve?

If I can be a solving agent for them, then we have a relationship.

They will tell you what they’re looking for. They always want something that is smaller, faster and costs less. It’s just a question of how small and how fast do they really have to have it, and are they asking for something that violates laws of physics and laws of chemistry. If they are, then you have to help reshape what they’re asking for.

You’ve got to manage expectations. You have to talk to them and listen to what they’re trying to get accomplished because sometimes what they’re telling you they want and what it is that’s driving them could be two different things.

Maybe we can approach getting them where they really want to get to a different way.

Study customer responses. We try to look for the trends. You try to gather as much as you can about what people are saying about it. What are the, ‘Yeah, buts,’ if you will. ‘Yeah, I like their technology, but … ’ — pick that up, and then how do you address that? Maybe there’s something we’ve got to work on with technology to take care of that.

You can’t get yourself to where you think, ‘I know I’ve got a good product, if only they would listen to me and if only they would buy it’ because you’re not doing something right if you’re doing that.

Give employees feedback on customer meetings. I have an ‘all-hands’ meeting once per month with all employees to communicate where I have been and what I heard from customers that is important. This gives all employees a sense of what is important to specific customers as well as allowing me to reinforce again and again that quality and delivery and cost are the basics of any business.

I use the specific business relationship to reiterate how the customer sees our performance and what challenges we need to accept to keep the customer believing that we are the best.

This also works to let employees know when the customer thinks they are the best and motivates them to achieve even higher results. Everyone likes to be associated with a winning team.

Encourage employees to build solid relationships with their customers. You’ve got to do it throughout the whole organization. Our culture is you’ve got to know your customer, because most of what we have is a relatively new technology. Having them read about it on a Web site or in a magazine is not going to cut it.

You have to go talk to them and you have to show them all the different things the technology is capable of. Then you see if they have that glimmer in their eye that, ‘I can use that.’

Marketing is a science of creating the need for the sale. People don’t know they need to buy something until they get told what it is and they get shown how to use it.

How to reach: Maxwell Technologies Inc., (858) 503-3300 or www.maxwell.com

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Employee engagement

John M. Davis thinks of himself as a people leader, which translates into being in front of his employees as often as possible.

But being that kind of leader has become more difficult since Davis accepted the role of president and chief operating officer at National Investment Managers Inc. in 2007. The investment management and pension administration company — which posted 2008 revenue of $42 million — has 24 offices in 15 states, but only nine of its 450 employees work with Davis in the corporate headquarters.

For Davis, that means communication has taken on new forms, such as phone conferences and webinars. But the importance of staying connected to employees hasn’t changed.

“Constant communication with employees is vital,” Davis says. “They have to hear from you. They have to know that you listened to what they said.”

Staying connected means listening, asking questions and involving employees in decisions. The end result is a staff that feels appreciated and gives you a pulse for the company.

Smart Business spoke with Davis about how to engage your employees.

Stay connected to your employees. You have to stay grounded with your staff. Frankly, I think a lot of business leaders forget that. They forget where they came from, they forget that they were on the front line at one point, at least many of them were, and I know I was.

You have to remember where you come from, what’s important to those people, and continue to reinforce the behavior and let them know that you appreciate what they do because they are the most important asset that we have.

You have to get out and talk with people. You have to walk the floor. I would set aside time every week to do nothing but walk the floor maybe for a couple of hours, stop in cubicles, talk to people.

You would be amazed what people will tell you. Then, tell them what you think. People will ask you what you think, and you tell them. You don’t try to pretend that this is too important to discuss with employees.

You have to do that. If you’re not out there, you’re missing it.

Ask and listen. The one thing that I do that people appreciate is — and this sounds simple but — listen. Ask. I’ll do breakfast meetings, I’ll do dinner meetings, lunches.

I ask people what’s on their mind. ‘How is it I can help? What are you concerned about?’ When you start to hear common themes you have to act upon it, so you can go back to those employees and say, ‘I heard what you said, and this is what we’re doing.’

You would be surprised, even if in the course of a month (if you) took a couple of ideas and made even a subtle change. The employees in the organization talk. When they can spread the word that, ‘Oh yeah, I talked to John, he invited me to a breakfast. This is what I said, and this is what he did.’ I’m telling you they will listen to you. There’s not this ivory tower management team here that doesn’t listen to the employees. And, oh by the way, when they listen, they take action.

You’re not going to take action on every item because you do get some people that just want to complain and moan about they didn’t get a big enough raise or whatever it is. But there is a lot of value in listening to people because they will get to the bottom or the heart of the matter of a lot of things. There’s a lot of ‘oh wow’ moments that I’m able to act upon.

I’ll go out and build a task force and say, ‘This is what I’m hearing; let’s research it a little bit more. Bring me some facts and then let’s make a decision about what we want to do.’ People respond to that.

Promote teamwork. I can’t be everywhere, and because I don’t have a corporate staff that can run every project that I need to run, I have created numerous teams, committees, task forces — teams of people in the field ranging from three or four people to 10 people to solve various matters.

I ask for volunteers. I generally pick a leader. I pick someone that I think has expressed interest to me. I typically ask them for volunteers and build the team and empower them to solve the problem.

The team might stay together for a month or three weeks or whatever it takes to bring a recommendation to me, and we evaluate it and make the best decision on what to do.

I can’t be everywhere, and my staff can’t be everywhere, but I have a team of people that will lead the initiative. I have to rely on that.

When people get to participate as part of a team, they see the value that they are bringing to the organization because when I go out and announce to 450 people that this team that might be five people was successful in negotiating this arrangement or was successful in solving this problem, everybody knows it, and their names are out there and they get full credit in what they’ve done.

That’s how you engage people — you let them solve problems. They’re not just there to answer the phone and go through the motions during the day, but there are other things that I assign them. They really feel valued.

How to reach: National Investment Managers Inc., (614) 923-8822 or www.nivm.com

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Finding a match

When Charles Gehring was named president and CEO of LifeCare Alliance, the nonprofit was spending $100,000 a year to advertise for open positions. Now instead of searching for employees, candidates are seeking out the organization, which offers senior home care services.

“You have to take who you want and not accept who comes in the door,” Gehring says.

The first step to hiring the right employees is to keep a list of people in the community you would like to work with. Second is careful interviewing, says Gehring, whose organization posted 2008 revenue of $19 million.

Smart Business spoke with Gehring about how to identify the right employees to create a stronger organization.

Q. How do you attract the right people to interview for open positions?

If you create a company that people know in the community, is respected in the community, then people are attracted to you, and the better candidates talk to you even when they’re still employees elsewhere.

Oftentimes, if you’re just accepting who comes in the door off of an ad or a sign you might have outside, then that’s all you’re going to get.

Instead, look for people. I ask my directors and my vice presidents here to know enough about the community that if somebody left them at a management level, they would be able to instantly come up with two or three names of people that work at other organizations who they feel would be great at our organization.

A lot of people use the reactive approach. Human resources departments use the reactive approach where it’s, ‘OK, we’ll put the ad in the paper or post it on a Web site or put a sign up, and those that come in we’ll interview.’

Sometimes the best candidates are not going to do that, especially at the management level. They have a current position they like, and they’re not actively seeking employment.

You (won’t ever) insult anybody by calling them up and saying, ‘Hey, we would like to talk to you about a job we have open.’

Q. What are the keys to interviewing the people you have identified as potential employees?

Many people don’t ask enough questions. You have to ask some innovative questions. I know over the years, I’ve come out of interviews with potential employees with a lot more answers to things than some of my directors have.

You really have to scour the resume for items. I look to ask about the activities they have on their resume, like hobbies. If they’ve got any groups or organizations they’re in, I think that shows me what they’re willing to do above and beyond their job.

I ask about where you worked last and what you did. I like to ask things about what projects you’ve been involved in. For example, in their resume they might say, ‘Hey, I was project manager for 20 projects, saving the company $5 million.’ I might ask them, ‘Tell me about one of those projects, why it was important to you and what it maybe changed in your self-esteem.’

Those answers really provide insight into the person’s being. They’re probably going to be in an interview the most positive you’re going to see them. If you can drill down a little bit and get into more of their psyche as to how they approach their work and how they approach their life — to me, attitude, enthusiasm and passion for life is everything — then you can pick the person that has the best match of those areas.

When you interview for a job, probably all of the candidates you have are qualified for the job. But the difference is going to be how they approach the job with their attitude and their passion. Think passion for life in general, which translates to passion to their work.

Q. How do you determine during the interview that the candidate possesses the qualities you’re seeking?

Let’s say you’re interviewing four people for a job. You can usually rank order them pretty easily in those areas. They come across that way or in the answers to some of those questions.

Tell me about a project that specifically you worked on that meant a lot to you. I use terms like that, something that was important to you in a past position. Their answers, I think, just clearly reflect where they’re coming from and their enthusiasm and their passion for their work.

I don’t need them to be fun-loving in the interview. They’re going to be professional at the interview. I’ve had people sit there and they say, ‘I really can’t think of one.’ Apparently there wasn’t anything that meant enough to them that they could recall.

The better candidates will tell you things like, ‘You know, I really felt it gave me a knowledge level I didn’t have before. I got to meet different people in the organization that will help me advance my career.’

There’s a standard set of questions, and it’s nice when somebody comes thinking about what those questions would be. I often pair it back to words on their resume. I don’t invent stuff.

How to reach: LifeCare Alliance, (614) 278-3130 or www.lifecarealliance.org

Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Common language

James T. “Jim” Harris III works hard to make sure his vision is clear to everyone in his organization.

The president of Widener University says that doing so is critical to keeping the focus on accomplishing objectives and keeping with the school’s strategic plan.

For Harris, that means getting 1,500 employees — 950 of which are full-time — and more than 6,000 students on the same page. To do that, you have to repeat the vision often through words and actions and by making sure that everyone understands how he or she fits in to the mix, Harris says.

“Repeat it again and again in a variety of different ways,” he says. “Every time you put out a brochure or a publication or I speak in public or when other members of the senior leadership team talk about where the university is going … people talk about what our ultimate vision is.”

Smart Business spoke with Harris about how to convey to your employees how they fit in to and embody your vision.

Get employee buy-in. You get people to buy in by rewarding them for the behavior that supports the mission. For example, we’re now retooling our performance management system so that every employee will eventually be evaluated based on their work and role in enhancing the university’s mission.

You have to help employees understand how to set goals that are mission-driven and help us accomplish our ultimate goal.

The other way to do it is to provide feedback, help them see that their own goals can be accomplished by helping the university accomplish its goals. They have their own goals both in their office and they might have their own personal objectives that they’d like to accomplish with their career, and if you can help them find that — and there are ways that they can do both — I think that you can be more successful.

Offer rewards. You reward people by providing them with opportunities for growth.

So you promote from within when appropriate, and reward those people who have done a good job.

You also reward people by providing them with opportunities to grow through professional development. We’ve identified people every year that go through certain seminars or workshops during the summer to renew themselves and to understand better how they can contribute to the future direction of the institution and to our mission.

You reward them both in material ways, that their salary increases are associated with their merit and accomplishing goals that are tied with our mission. You reward them by recognizing behaviors that are aligned with the mission.

One of the things that we started doing a couple of years ago was something called Faces of Widener. Every week, we put out a new face of an employee who is doing something to advance the university, and we highlight them on our Web site. I think that helps people feel good about the university and where we’re heading.

Create uniform ways to tap in to employee goals. One thing that we’ve done, for example, is that we have started using common language and common experiences for the administration, staff and the faculty. Through the president, through the dean, through the administrative staff and now also through the support staff and others on campus … we all have a common language.

We’re having people develop their own personal mission statements. We have the same language, such as people understand when I say, ‘A win-win situation,’ what that means.

By using common language and then looking for opportunities to demonstrate that, because I use that language, it helps people to believe where we’re going and buy in to the kinds of things that we’re doing.

Preach and embody your vision. Part of it is through a constant communication of all sorts.

So we use the Web site. That comes out in something called What’s up @ Widener. I have town-hall meetings about every six weeks, every two months, where faculty and staff are invited to come in, and we present on issues the university is facing.

And then we also do it through letters, through our magazine, the traditional ways. You need to keep communicating in all the various ways that are possible and available.

It seems to me that there needs to be a balance. I don’t think there’s any one way.

It goes back to the way that people learn. Some people learn better by reading, some people learn better by hearing. And I think, as a leader, we need to recognize that people will absorb information better or differently, so we need to find different ways to get that information out.

The key is if you want the institution to move in a particular direction, the leader needs to become the living embodiment of that change.

For example, we’ve talked about civic engagement and how we prepare students to be involved in our democracy. So I think it’s important as the leader that I demonstrate that by doing things such as being involved in community activities.

It’s being the living embodiment of the mission of the institution and that people see that by what I’m doing they can do similar things.

How to reach: Widener University, (888) 943-3637 or www.widener.edu

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Lending a hand

To Gary R. Gerson, the work that his employees do in the community is as important as the work they do in the office.

As founding senior partner of Gerson, Preston, Robinson & Co. PA, Gerson says that the key to running a successful business is not only catering to your clientele but also creating a public image based on phil-anthropic work.

“The consumer will always take that in mind and will like to work with someone that measures up in the community that way,” says the leader of the $20 million accounting firm.

Smart Business spoke with Gerson about how to incorporate philanthropy into your workplace.

Q. What are the keys to creating a successful business?

The key for a successful business or profession is obtaining the very best perception of that business or profession in the community or in the marketplace if it extends outside of the community.

If you give that consumer or buyer of your product or your client good conscientious service on a regular basis, you will then develop a reputation of excelling in your field and will obtain from that customer client loyalty, referrals and the where-withal to make you successful.

In addition, it’s not only important to obtain the good will, loyalty and business from your existing customers, but it’s necessary also to expand the client, customer base in the community or wherever else you are rendering or selling goods or services.

That is by taking an active part in that area in philanthropy, through the charities, by service to those philanthropic institutions in that area, so that you are known by others that are also serving those charitable institutions and by the public.

Q. How do you convey a philanthropic message to employees?

For professionals, this attitude is conveyed from the top down by having staffs see that you are committed to giving the very best service and having staffs see by example that you do good work, you do good service.

Then, through meetings and working with staff and through all of your top level, to convey that message to staff will then spread through the staff, and they will pick up all of those good habits and goals to help embellish the name of the professional organization.

For the manufacturer or retail, the same message goes — that the senior people in the organization must first show by example and must also reflect to their workers to be conscientious, hardworking, and it can’t be done unless it comes from the top.

As they say in economics, not only dollars must trickle down from the top, but the reputation, the efforts of good work, honesty, enthusiasm, good products and good services must also be pervasive through example and through learning throughout the entire organization.

Q. How do you balance running a business and working in the community?

Of course, your efforts in the office and your operation must be primary — that effort to make your enterprise as fine as or better than your competitors.

It’s all a question of prioritizing your time and being organized with your time.

That is essential because at the same time, you want to have a very successful business. At the same time, you’re creating an image in your community and among your business associates and among your customers and clients.

The only way you can go at that pace and do and be successful in everything you do and still maintain the balance is to prioritize your work and your social and your philanthropic commitments and, at the same time, keep a good, strong, healthy environment.

Q. What are the benefits from a client standpoint in doing philanthropic work?

By building that good will, people, if they have their choices, will support you rather than your competitor because that’s an extra service that you’re doing besides giving a client a product or service. Besides giving a conscientious effort, you’re doing something extra by helping the community.

The benefits are, one, you’re going to meet a lot of people that are also conscientious, also philanthropic, generally the type of clientele that you’re going to be able to get business from and the type of clientele you want to do business with.

Besides meeting these people, you will gain respect from them. You will pick up clients from that. Then the word gets around that you’re working for these organizations, and the accountants say, ‘Gee, maybe we should do business with them.’

The better the business you’re doing, the more clients you have, the more work for your employee base.

I don’t see how you can offend a customer by any philanthropic work. They may be working for a different church, they may be working for a different hospital, but they will certainly respect what you do for the institutions and the organizations you’re working for.

HOW TO REACH: Gerson, Preston, Robinson & Co. PA. (305) 868-3600 or www.gprco-cpa.com