Chelan David

Health care costs are increasing at an alarming pace and many businesses are struggling to maintain the level of health care benefits provided in the past.

While executives are keenly aware that comprehensive benefit programs play a significant role in attracting top-notch talent, many companies have neglected to analyze the effectiveness of their benefit strategy.

Reviewing your employee benefit program regularly offers the opportunity to revisit your carrier’s rates and ensure they are still competitive, says Steve Slaga, chief marketing officer at Total Health Care. Further, it presents an opportunity for employers to ensure their program continues to measure up against others in their industry.

“Health care benefits are important and serve as a very useful tool for employee retention and attracting new recruits,” says Slaga.

Smart Business spoke with Slaga about assessing the needs of your employees, how to determine an appropriate benefit plan and the importance of employee education.

How can a company assess the needs of its employees?

First, examine your health care plan to ensure you’re providing affordable, quality coverage with good service, flexibility and access to care. Make sure your plan isn’t prohibitively priced, so employees can afford to participate, and gauge employees’ satisfaction levels by utilizing surveys to determine which areas of the plan they consider strong and which can be improved upon. Bear in mind all employers are different and operate within circumstances unique to them, so not every health care plan fits every group.

The level of flexibility a health care plan facilitates is also an important consideration. Some plans work through Health Maintenance Organizations, which have a specific provider network, while others offer Preferred Provider Organizations or Point-of-Service plans with which employees have the option to go in or out of a predetermined physician and hospital network of preferred health care providers without fulfilling certain conditions, such as obtaining a referral. When choosing a health care plan, make sure the services fit the needs of your employees and that employees have access to a selection of physicians and specialists in their area.

How can employers determine an appropriate benefits plan for their employees?

Ask your agent or broker to do a comparative analysis among health care plans. That person will review the factors important to your employees, including pricing, access to care and type of benefits. The actual pricing is determined by the health care plan and is dependent on factors including the business, its industry and the average age of employees.

Employers at a minimum should review their benefit plans annually. By comparing your current plan to other plans, you can stay apprised of options in the marketplace, new products and how your premiums compare with other options. By reviewing plans regularly, you can assure employees you have shopped around and are providing them with the best value for their needs.

How can employers best balance the cost of the plan with employee needs?

This is a decision every employer must make on its own and it hinges on factors including the type of benefit program desired for employees and how much employees will be expected to contribute.

As the cost of providing health care coverage continues to rise, many businesses have scaled back benefits. Among those companies that continue to offer benefits, their employees are more often asked to make higher contributions to offset costs. Other companies pass along a portion of the increased costs through higher deductibles or higher co-insurance; both solutions reflect the challenge of dealing with today’s rising medical costs.

Companies are also coping with escalating health care costs by implementing wellness plans designed to encourage employees to take preventive action to improve their health. The idea is that a healthier pool of insured employees makes fewer claims.

How can employers help employees understand the features of their health care plan?

Education is key. Employees need to have a clear, concise understanding of their benefits from day one. There are numerous ways to make information available to employees, including health plan websites, interactive assessment tools, newsletters and other communications.

It is also important to provide employees with forums where they can ask questions about the plan and provide feedback. In addition, many employers are looking beyond employee communication and implementing multipronged education programs that engage employees throughout the year.

Most employees receive benefit information during open enrollment periods and that’s often the last time they examine the details of the plan. Instead, there should be ongoing education with information distributed regularly to employees so they are fully aware of what their benefits cover. This will allow your employees to utilize and access their plans efficiently and effectively.

What value should a benefit provider bring to the table?

Your benefit provider should present clear and concise information about the health care plan in a timely manner. On a group level, a provider should be able to help you with billing, invoice and claims questions. On the member level, the provider should be able to answer benefits questions. Contact your provider to see what other services are available.

Steve Slaga is chief marketing officer at Total Health Care. Reach him at (313) 871-7810 or SSlaga@thc-online.com.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Total Health Care

By implementing a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)-based call center, businesses can slash their operating costs and increase sales. VoIP allows for delivery of voice information over the Internet. Untethered from costly infrastructure investments, companies that have VoIP dial tones or hosted systems can concentrate not on managing the call center but on serving the needs of their customers.

As an added benefit, there’s no need to spend money to train IT administrators on the nuances of the system.

“The training for a VoIP system is very similar to the training you receive when you get a new traditional phone system,” says Alex Desberg. “VoIP is another tool, similar to features such call transfer or conferencing. The technology is not hard to grasp.”

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about VoIP, the benefits of call queuing and what types of businesses are likely to reap the biggest rewards.

How do VoIP call center services differ from traditional services?

A traditional call center is equipped with a large, private branch exchange (PBX) phone system designed to manage the network. This requires a hefty financial investment in the system, as well as software to manage reporting. In the hosted realm with VoIP, there is just data service. For example, if a company has 100 people, but only 20 are in the call center, services can be added for just those 20 people, which keeps the economy of scale down.

Also, in the traditional telephone world, you need a phone line for each inbound call in order to stack up callers. This requires a significant volume of phone lines and is accompanied by cash outlays month in, month out, whether you use them or not.

In the VoIP world, the features aren’t line by line, they are phone by phone, so you never run out of calling lines. VoIP call center services are ideal for small to medium-sized organizations that want to provide call center-type services without making a huge investment.

How can a company benefit from call queuing?

Call queuing allows an unlimited number of callers to wait for an available customer service representative while they are on hold. The primary benefit of call queuing ties into the economy of scale aspect.

Businesses have a limited number of customer service representatives who can schedule appointments. Companies don’t want to staff 20 people to manage 20 call-ins; they want two or three customer service people taking calls in the order they were received so customers receive personal interaction and information while they are on hold. Call queuing helps minimize the number of personnel needed to service the same number of customers.

What kinds of companies can benefit from VoIP call center services?

Clients such as plumbers, electricians and glass replacement companies can benefit. They service a large area and operate out of one centralized location, and it’s important for them to have a local number in every market that they service. Businesses that utilize VoIP call center services are able to provide a local number even though the calls are handled remotely. This works particularly well with franchises that are supporting a large geographic area.

Car dealerships also benefit from VoIP call center services. Typically, they have different call volumes throughout the day. In the mornings, car dealerships receive a lot of calls into their service departments but might only have two service managers, and the influx of calls can be overwhelming.

With call queuing, the service managers can handle calls in the order they were received and customers don’t feel like they are getting the run-around or being routed to voicemail. The calls can be stacked and everyone can be tended to relatively quickly. By utilizing VoIP, dealerships don’t have to invest in a huge call center-type phone system.

Are there disadvantages to using VoIP call center services?

VoIP call center services aren’t designed for megacorporations. Companies with huge call center capacities can’t achieve all of the statistics and reporting they need. However, for small and medium-sized businesses that have never done call center services — but that would like to — VoIP is a great starting point. VoIP can make companies look bigger than they really are and can help them handle a larger customer base.

How can a call center make a smooth transition from traditional phone services to a VoIP model?

There are two ways to employ VoIP. It can be hosted, or it can provide dial tones to an existing phone system. You can take baby steps away from the traditional phone services by first transitioning to a VoIP dial tone. Then the next step would be to release yourself from your existing phone system and transition to a hosted system.

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Desberg is a 20-year veteran of launching and marketing Internet technology. Most of his technology tenure has been with regional and national providers. At Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications, Desberg has been the development spearhead of a mature VoIP product line designed for business application and brings his support and knowledge to the B2B environment.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on the basics. Technology changes on a daily basis, new competitors arise and the market is constant turmoil. It’s important, however, to slow down and take the pulse of your company. Are the fundamentals in place for a healthy balance sheet? A good place to start is making sure that you have a clear value proposition in place.

“A value proposition is a clear statement of the benefits a customer will receive from purchasing your products or services,” says Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P. “Essentially, it is your brand’s promise. A strong and differentiated value proposition can help your business capture your target market.”

Smart Business spoke with Carter about value propositions, the importance of focusing on current customers and how to keep your business in shape.

Why is it important for a company to have a value proposition?

Having a strong value proposition can sharpen your company’s focus and allow you to hone in on your greatest strengths. I call this principle ‘sticking to your knitting.’ You can’t be all things to everyone. You can be the very best at what you do, however. It’s important to know thyself. Understanding who you are allows you to refine your value proposition so you separate yourself from your competitors rather than trying to keep up with them. You will never succeed if you simply try to keep pace with your competitors. They will always stay one step ahead.

Make sure that your value proposition is concrete. If you get up every morning and try to convince yourself that you have a solid value proposition, then you probably don’t. A lot of companies make their value propositions complex. This is a big mistake. There is a misnomer that a proposition requires complexity in order for it to be valuable. The simple, easy-to-embrace proposition is much more effective. Rehearse the value proposition, understand those elements of your business, and market what you excel at. Your value proposition should serve as your anchor.

What are the benefits of focusing on current customers?

Being successful doesn’t mean going after every available customer; at some point, you won’t be able to service your clientele properly. It’s important to cherish each customer that you do have. The reputation you achieve from making your customers feel truly valued is how you grow your business.

Your current customers are your most important ones because they have laid the foundation for the success of your business. Building a reputation on the back of excellent service creates a solid platform for growth. Don’t grow your client base any further unless you are able to treat your new clients as intimately as the ones you first established.

What are the dangers of taking customers for granted?

Customers need to feel like you’re taking them to a higher level through the use of your products or services. Your job isn’t just to deliver your product and walk away; it’s about making sure that your product has value to them. Ultimately, this strengthens your relationships and allows you to grow your own business.

Customers in today’s environment are looking for leadership. They want you to maximize the benefits of your products and services into their core business. Too often, they are treated as ‘revenue inventory’ rather than ‘loyal assets.’ While it seems simple, you need to demonstrate to your customers that you are willing to fight for them, not against them. Your entire business and support model should be structured to demonstrate that you value your core customers.

It’s crucial that you listen to them and value their feedback. Otherwise, they’ll take their business somewhere else.

How can a business prosper by ‘staying in shape'?

You need to make certain that the investments you plug into your business are the kind that keep you lean and strong. In order to make wise decisions, you must listen to the market as it is changing. The demographics for end users are changing, and they are much different than they were five to 10 years ago. Their requirements have changed considerably. Support is a key element in retaining and growing your business.

Creating effective intimacy programs, backed by a market-driven support model, will keep your costs lower and your customer loyalty higher. If your support model is still equipped from a legacy standpoint, it’s imperative that you update it. Today’s consumers want and expect self-servicing support strategies.

No matter how good your product is, if you have a legacy support system behind it, you’re not serving as a leader. Institute a self-support model that is easy to navigate and provides value. Once such a system is in place, you need to pay attention to the feedback left by the end user. Staying in shape is not a one-time thing. You need to be disciplined and continually improve your processes. If you have that discipline within your business, your clients will see that you are always meeting or exceeding their needs.

How should businesses balance the need for convenience versus security?

In today’s society, people generally prefer convenience over security. There’s a tradeoff, however. The most effective strategy is to use a balanced approach that guards your intellectual property while enabling users access to the information they need.

Implementing the most up-to-date technologies, such as password management protection, protects the end user. Securing your information today is no more important than it was a decade ago, but it is more difficult.

Make sure you are implementing practices and solutions to keep data and identity access secure. It cannot be overstated: Your intellectual property and your competitive advantage are perfect targets for your competitors.

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

Insights Technology is brought to you by ii2P

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) involves sending voice information in digital form rather than by using the circuit-based protocol of traditional telephone networks.

VoIP can mean different things to different people, says Alex Desberg. “We define VoIP as delivering voice services across a network. It could be Internet-based, it could be private-network based. Such services have been strategically designed to replace traditional telephone services.”

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about VoIP, the cost efficiencies such a platform provides and how it can lead to increased productivity.

What’s new with VoIP?

Ohio.net adapts VoIP to accommodate virtual businesses. People are getting rid of brick-and-mortar offices and setting up telecommuter or remote environments. In the past month we’ve had several of our VoIP customers realize that they really can have everyone work out of their homes and get rid of their offices. One company we work with has 26 employees working remotely, but all working together as if they were sitting in their office.

When you can front-end a business with what sounds and acts like a traditional phone system, but nobody is sitting in the same building anymore, it really makes sense. A VoIP system helps a company become more cost effective by eliminating the need for a facility, not to mention rent expenses, power expenses and commute costs for employees.

What are the benefits of VoIP?

One of the key benefits is the release from traditional telecom. There are inherent geography issues associated with traditional telephony. Plus, people get wedded to legacy phone systems that keep perpetuating the need to be upgraded or repaired. This becomes costly. By moving away from legacy equipment, you can take advantage of a hosted environment for your phone system. You won’t be responsible for upgrading your software anymore or making sure the rollout of a new feature is integrated into an existing system. A VoIP system is more of a service-based model: as long as you are subscribed to the service you can take advantage of all the upgrades, changes and benefits that the provider offers.

Are there any drawbacks?

VoIP is like any business technology, if we are poor managers of technology, we might be a poor manager of a phone system in a VoIP environment. You have to pay attention, just as you do with any other technology. If you use questionable or problematic Internet service, then you will have questionable or problematic phone service as well.

A lot of it depends on the provider that you choose. The VoIP environment has been a little volatile. Some entities want to become a phone company overnight without realizing the impact they can make on a customer by not providing a quality service or not understanding the market properly. It takes a history and understanding of the traditional telecom world to do well in the VoIP market.

If you’re going to choose this type of technology, you have to do the research. There are plenty of VoIP providers available online, but I’m a big believer in working with a local company that is close and can support you. You don’t want to have to buy service from a company in Denver that is down due to a power outage or snowstorm while you’re still working and trying to do business.

What advice would you give about implementing VoIP solutions?

We have three areas that we really stress to new customers. First, it’s crucial to select the right hardware. Some people believe they can go with inexpensive voice equipment. However, quality hardware on a quality network really makes a difference to the end user’s experience.

Training is also very important. We have a staff of trainers that help with the implementation of a new phone system to ensure that everyone knows how to use it when it’s launched and that they have the proper resources. Finally, there should be a go-to team available if any problems are encountered once the technology is implemented.

How can VoIP translate into increased productivity?

Let’s say you have an office in Cleveland, an office in Kansas City and an office in Florida. With VoIP we can tie these together like they are one. With traditional telephony you can’t easily do that. Also, you can work with one provider so you have one telephone company and one bill for as many locations as you have. Finally, the upgrades, additions and changes that are made for the phone system are service-driven so you don’t have to buy a phone system every 10 years, or live with outdated technology until you can afford it.

Why is investing in new technologies like VoIP so important?

If your organization is going to run on antiquated equipment, then you are going to be an antiquated business in about five years because technologies change so often. What is big with VoIP today is not going to be the same thing that drives people in five years. We see the growth of mobile phones being integrated into VoIP today. Five or six years ago, we didn’t even have that on the radar. Most people thought that VoIP would just replace landlines. Now companies have field teams that are armed with smart phones but still need a VoIP system so they look like legitimate enterprises, rather than giving everyone’s cell phone number to do business.

Alex Desberg is a twenty-year veteran of launching and marketing Internet technology. Most of his technology tenure has been with regional and national providers. At Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications, Desberg has been the development spearhead of a mature VoIP product line designed for business application and brings his support and knowledge to the B2B environment.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

In the face of a stifling economy, many companies have focused on cutting costs as a means to improve profits. Such measures, however, don’t stand the test of time. Inevitably, quality goes down, as do sales over the long haul.

In the technology realm it is more important than ever for business leaders to invest in new platforms and cater to customers’ needs. According to Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P, the market has spoken and they are asking for small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) to provide self-service platforms.

“Our clients that truly have self-service platforms are seeing overwhelming results,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Carter about issues SMB leaders currently face, the importance of investing in self-service models, and the rewards that can be reaped.

What main issues do SMB leaders face as it pertains to surviving in the marketplace?

First, I want to emphasize that the issues are not limited to small and medium-sized businesses. They face many of the same challenges that larger enterprises face — they need differentiating innovation such as a self-service platform. However, SMB leaders do have more difficulties adapting to the self-service platform. If they don’t embrace this new model and are unable to remain competitive from a cost and convenience standpoint, it will affect their ability to retain their company client base. Every decision that is made within a small business environment has an immediate and dramatic effect. Whereas with a large enterprise, although the results may be the same, the consequences show up in a longer time frame — it is not so immediate.

What should SMB leaders be investing in?

It is paramount to be market driven and keep pace with where your market needs are today. Today’s market — end users, clients, etc. — have changed dramatically. The demographics of the end user today are not in line with current service models. The service models of today, for the most part, don’t embrace self-service. Yet the behavior and desire of the end user is all about self-service. If you embrace innovative solutions and are able to provide a competent gateway to self-service you will reap the benefits.

What innovative solutions do you believe SMB players should take advantage of?

Many technology developments have been tailored to larger enterprise environments. A good example is something as straightforward as password management. About 30 percent to 35 percent of all IT service-related calls, whether it is in an enterprise environment or a small to medium-sized business environment, have to deal with this matter. Password management is becoming more of an issue today because, as security needs grow, the need for well-disciplined password management solutions becomes more pressing. While password management has been geared towards larger enterprises, this is an area ripe for small and medium-sized businesses as well.

How can this be funded?

The secret sauce is creating a formal strategy and approach for bringing innovation to the SMB, not just reacting. Over the past 15 years or so a lot of businesses have been plagued with what I call “drop off the technology and run syndrome.” The technology as a standalone looks good and accomplishes what it’s supposed to do. But unfortunately, that’s where a lot of companies have left it. They’ve made the investment in capital, but haven’t been able to realize the benefits because the solution really wasn’t a business solution, it was more of a technology solution.

In order to improve the existing platform you should first look at the inefficiencies within your end-to-end platform. Examine the platform and change it to make it more efficient and more effective. I have not yet experienced an engagement where there wasn’t significant amount of monies being spent on ineffective end-to-end support solutions. In most cases, the money saved by optimizing the environment is more than enough to support the investment for self-service. There is no magic or big bucket of money sitting out there, but there is a methodology to determining how to begin investing in a self-service platform.

Where should the recovered excess money be spent?

You should invest those dollars in creating a platform that is going to be more market-driven. Then you will be able to take the return on those monies and spend them on growing your business. It is important to invest in growing your business so you can become more competitive in the marketplace.

If this strategy is applied correctly, what are the outcomes to the SMB?

In today’s existing model, business is driven by using the platform less. In other words, providers are hoping that their end users, their B2B clients, etc, are using their existing model less because every time they use it, it costs the service provider. The paradigm shift is when you develop the self-service model; the more they use it, the cheaper it is. We’re talking about a complete re-engineering that will affect not only the behavior of the end user, but the provider as well. When you adopt the model that your end users prefer, you will benefit because, the more they use it, the less it will cost you.

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

Insights Technology is brought to you by ii2P

Over the past decade or so, an increasing number of businesses have been drawn to the virtues of VoIP. Now school districts are making the switch, as well. Not only does VoIP help cut down on expenses, it also brings security, giving teachers and staff members the ability to report emergencies anywhere in the school with a VoIP solution.

When looking for a VoIP provider, it’s important to exercise due diligence, says Bret Longberry, information technology center director for the Metropolitan Educational Council.

“Do your homework,” says Longberry. “It’s important to do research. Business managers and technology people need to make sure that the provider has the capability to deliver what it promises.”

Smart Business spoke with Longberry, Robert West, account executive at Ohio.net and Bill Swartzmiller, executive director of North Central Ohio Computer Cooperative about the advantages of using VoIP in an educational setting.

How does VoIP help schools?

It allows schools to take advantage of their data circuits and helps them avoid some of the recurring charges that are associated with traditional telephone systems. For most schools, VoIP can lead to tremendous cost savings over the long run.

It is an economically sound way to have telephones in the classroom. This is important for two reasons: security purposes and the ability to contact parents immediately. Oftentimes, teachers would like to contact a parent, but they have to put it off until they have access to a phone. Also, parents can reach teachers. VoIP is a very valuable tool in the classrooms for both security and student achievement.

What is the purpose of centralized call management?

Schools can be free from purchasing the servers and software required for self management of a phone system, whether it be a traditional or VOIP system. Management of a phone system is traditionally expensive and time consuming. With centralized call management, services can be provided to multiple schools, saving money. Also, by contracting with a firm with in-house expertise to maintain the phones, districts receive the necessary high-end technical support that they lack.

Centralized call management allows an organization to add versatility to individual schools. It also allows them to aggregate the SIP Trunks which can turn into a cost savings for the schools. For example, let’s say a school has four lines and a fifth call comes in. With centralized call management, the call could be aggregated across a different trunk, whereas if it didn’t have centralized call management and had the lines going directly to them, the fifth caller would receive a busy signal and wouldn’t be able to connect.

How is utilizing VoIP a good use of technical resources?

Most school districts in Ohio are struggling with how to fund everyday operations, let alone technology. As a result, they are finding it increasingly necessary to outsource technology functions. With hosted VoIP solutions, a district might not have to have a staff member onsite to take care of the voice systems.

There is very little hardware on the local level — you just need to add handsets and possibly a networking switch. The system is easy to manage, so you can free up a full-time equivalent position to retain a teacher. Schools have connectivity in their classrooms so they don’t need to install more lines. VoIP allows them to use the Internet data lines for voice.

Individual schools don’t necessarily have to have technical knowledge of how to run and operate a Cisco CallManager. An expert outside adviser that is flush with technical aptitude and knowledge can work hand-in-hand with a district and provide support.

What are some future uses of VoIP for brick-and-mortar schools or e-schools?

Many schools sill have not taken advantage of VoIP technologies. As hosted solutions become more dependable and accepted, we’ll see more schools going that direction. VoIP eliminates the need for traditional phone lines and equipment refresh so the cost savings for a district can be significant. As districts continue to tighten their belts, they will want to take a hard look at hosted VoIP solutions.

We’re one step away from having video over the phones. Eventually we will have videoconferencing services, as well as voice. The primary reason videoconferencing hasn’t gained traction in schools is because different locations have to be on the same schedule, and it’s difficult for schools to coordinate schedules. However, with E-schools, teachers often work from home. VoIP allows students to contact multiple teachers in different locations.

How can a school make a smooth transition from traditional telephone services to VoIP?

Do a complete inventory of your existing lines. Sometimes there are more phone lines than people realize, such as in an elevator or a life-saving device that requires an outside line. It’s important do an audit of your phone lines.

Schools have connectivity. They just need an outside expert to put a gateway in and buy the phones. They can be up in a week. The exact time it takes to get up and running depends on whether your advisers are porting numbers or obtaining new phone numbers. The typical timeframe to port a number is roughly 30 days and if they are getting a new phone number, it can be done in a much shorter period of time.

What advice would you give to schools about selecting a VoIP provider?

Look at the VoIP provider’s presence in the market. Take a look at their current customer list, talk to some of its current customers and find out if they’re happy with their service.

Find somebody that you are comfortable with and who you trust will be able to provide you with the services you need when you request them. Also work with someone who has experience serving educational institutions, who understand the purpose of the phones and how they will be utilized.

Robert West is an account executive at Ohio.net. Reach him at (330) 658-7581 or rwest@ohio.net.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

As health care costs continue to rise, many businesses have scaled back on the benefits that they offer.

However, there are still ways to provide excellent care for employees without breaking the bank. For example, one way that companies are coping with surging health care costs is by implementing wellness plans, designed to encourage employees to take preventive action to improve their health, says Stephen Slaga, chief marketing officer of Total Health Care.

“With the escalating costs associated with health care benefits, employers are having to look at plan design to control the costs of benefits,” says Slaga.

Smart Business spoke with Slaga about how employers can get the most out of their health plans and the elements that make benefit plans attractive to employees.

How can employers make sure their employees are using a benefit plan wisely?

One way is to communicate with your health plan provider to request information about preventive care. Seek information that will tell you if your employees are utilizing the wellness programs available to them to get tests done and discover any potential health problems early. Also, it is key to make sure that employees understand their benefits.

How can employers get more out of their health plans?

Employers need to encourage their employees to use any and all wellness programs that are available to them. The simplest types of wellness programs incorporate basic communications, such as regular newsletters distributed to employees touting the benefits of eating healthy and exercising regularly.

Along with information, a simple wellness plan may also include negotiated discounts at a health club or an annual health fair at which employees can learn about taking better care of their health and where simple screenings can be done.

More aggressive wellness plans mandate participation and follow-up as a condition of participation in the health plan. Such programs identify employees with elevated risk and require that they take certain actions, such as having a comprehensive physical with a physician.

Health risk assessments, which are detailed questionnaires designed to establish a baseline risk level for each employee, are typically available through all plans. By having employees fill out questionnaires, the provider can better understand health histories and serve its clientele more effectively. Questions cover such areas as height, weight, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, alcohol consumption and smoking habits.

The results garnered from health risk assessments are used to target specific education and coaching for employees with elevated risk. When the provider is able to better serve your employees, the result is healthier employees who are present at work and fully productive.

What are some elements that constitute a good benefit plan?

The employer and employees measure this a little bit differently. Employers want predictable, manageable costs and benefits that are attractive to employees so that they can attract and retain top-quality employees. Employees want the best possible benefit for the least possible out-of-pocket cost.

There are a multitude of plan design alternatives to achieve both of these goals, from co-pays to premium contributions. Such alternatives affect employees differently depending upon their own particular circumstances. Healthy employees typically will favor a higher co-pay in return for lower premiums. Those with chronic conditions opt for the opposite because they are accessing health care more frequently and the costs associated with each visit are burdensome.

How has the attitude toward employee health plans evolved?

The traditional attitude has been to use benefits to attract and retain employees. Until the last five or 10 years, there hasn’t been as much cost sensitivity as there is today. People are learning that when the benefit is paid for entirely by the employer, the cost is more difficult to control. As a result, there has clearly been a trend in recent years to shift costs to the employees to the point where they give some consideration to a cost-value proposition. We are now seeing employees who understand and consider the costs of the benefits they are receiving on an individual transaction basis.

How can a company measure whether its benefits program meets the needs of its employees?

Employers should seek input from their employees whenever they can to better understand the experiences that the staff is having with regard to benefits. There is some sensitivity to the issue because people want privacy with respect to their health care. You have to respect those privacy issues, but if you can encourage communication, you will improve employee satisfaction.

How does having a strong benefits package help employers attract and retain key employees?

It can have a very significant impact. Typically, the decision varies by employer, depending upon how aggressively it needs to compete for employees in the marketplace.

Employers should be cautious when shifting costs and responsibility onto their employees. There is a delicate balance between making employees accountable and responsible for the decision making about their health care and shifting so much burden onto them that they become disgruntled with how they are being treated and leave for other employment.

Stephen Slaga is chief marketing officer of Total Health Care.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Total Health Care

As technology continues to move forward exponentially, end users are flocking to the latest versions of notebooks, tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices.

Against this backdrop, remote data security (RDS) is becoming increasingly important for businesses. Having an appropriate data protection strategy across the board in any organization can help ensure that the company protects its end users, shields its intellectual property and protects its rights.

However, many businesses fail to do so, as convenience tends to trump security, says Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P.

“We try to make small and medium-sized businesses aware that it’s a mistake to only focus on convenience,” he says. “Security should never be a subordinate element when transitioning toward remote data platforms.”

Smart Business spoke with Carter about what businesses need to know about RDS to keep their data safe.

What are the challenges associated with RDS?

First, it’s important to understand how the concern of RDS came to be: We, the users, created it. The introduction and proliferation of mobile computing devices put business-centric technology in the hands of an increasingly mobile work force.

In recent years, laptops, notebooks, tablet PCs, iPads, smartphones and other devices have become instruments of the business enterprise. In other words, they became information interchange enablers.

One thing that has remained constant is that data is still the end user’s primary concern. As such, access to and exchange of corporate data — now through remote devices — has surfaced as one of the most pressing needs of businesses.

Safeguarding the transfer of corporate data across remote devices requires controls. However, to an end user, controls mean inconvenience. And inconvenience often translates to, ‘I won’t take the necessary precautions to protecting my data.’ As a result, data is now being transmitted across more open or mobile platforms by users who are sidestepping security in favor of convenience.

Hasn’t technology adapted to address the needs of exchanging corporate data?

Absolutely. In fact, every generation of new mobile technology devices is amazingly more capable of delivering and exchanging data remotely. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that the ability to exchange information is much more effective than our ability to control data security remotely.

Having data secured in a mobile environment is the essential ingredient. It’s not enough just to have it delivered. We are all in support of making data convenient, but it has to be secure, as well. There has to be a balanced strategy.

What is the weakest link with RDS?

In some regards, this is a real paradox.  Remote data access was designed for the end user, but the end user is, without a doubt, the weakest link. Something as simple as password management provides a great example of how end users tend to overlook security measures. Users will write down their passwords, tape them underneath the keyboard, use the same one for everything, or store them in the cloud.

The increase in the loss of information, malware intrusion and identity theft is due to the nature of the end user who is unaware of the importance of secure protection in their environment, and has difficulty seeing the value when technology serves as an inhibitor of their convenience. The bottom line is that end users will always default to convenience over security. It will take a behavior change at the end user level to correct this.

Bring your own device, or BYOD, is becoming more commonplace at businesses. How will this affect RDS?

It’s important to keep a close eye on this development. The market initially said, ‘Mobile devices are opening up the dynamics of enabling global business. There is no need to stay confined in the office any longer. This is more convenient for the user.’

Next, the market said, ‘It’s more effective and efficient to allow end users to pick their own technology platform. So let them bring their own device to work. Just make sure they can access their data. This is more convenient for the user.’ Then the market said, ‘Store your data in the cloud, where it’s easier and faster to access and stockpile. This is more convenient for the user.’

Put this all together and there is an accelerating adoption of every mobile computing technology — each calling for faster remote access to business-critical corporate data — residing in virtual data repositories. And if you ask end users which is more important to them, convenience or security, the answer you’re most likely to receive is convenience.

How should small to medium-sized businesses approach the RDS challenge?

The market is calling for a robust solution that secures the end user from a variety of different functionality levels, from remote identity and access management to a secure, portable computing environment on managed and unmanaged workstations or devices. However, because convenience is trumping security at the end user level, businesses should investigate those products that make it easy for the end user to embrace RDS.

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

Insights Technology is brought to you by ii2P

Saturday, 30 June 2012 21:01

How to prepare for a deposition

Although depositions may seem like they are less formal than a trial, they are a critical part of a lawsuit. The answers given at a deposition are legal testimony and, in essence, it is no different from testifying in court.

“A lawyer is entitled to depose an opposing party and all witnesses with knowledge relevant to the lawsuit,” says Andrew Fleming, a partner at Novack and Macey LLP. “Typically, depositions are conducted at the office of the attorney taking the deposition, and the witness is placed under oath to answer questions.”

Smart Business spoke with Fleming about how to properly prepare for a deposition for the best possible outcome.

What is the purpose of a deposition?

Depositions have two primary purposes. First, the examining lawyer often will use the deposition to learn the facts relevant to the case. For example, in a typical breach-of-contract case, the plaintiff’s lawyer asks a series of questions designed to determine if, in fact, the contract was breached. In that regard, the examining lawyer will depose the parties and other witnesses involved in the transaction to discover what each person involved in performing the contract did or did not do. The process provides a very important and useful procedure for obtaining evidence.

Second, a deposition gives the examining lawyer an opportunity to obtain admissions that support his or her case. To obtain this information, examining lawyers frequently use cross-examination techniques when questioning a witness.  In many instances, cases can be won or lost at the deposition stage, and as a result, thorough preparation is key.

How can a witness prepare for a deposition?

One of the most important things that a witness must do is to understand the deposition process and make sure that he or she is comfortable with testifying. A witness must first become familiar with the pertinent facts of the case.  Oftentimes, this requires a review of the documents relevant to the dispute, such as emails, correspondence, contracts and the like.

Next, the witness needs to review with his or her attorney the ground rules for the deposition — rules that are very important no matter what the case involves. Often, it helps to go through a mock deposition with the attorney to not only become more comfortable with the deposition process but also to give the witness and the attorney a chance to identify and correct bad habits before the deposition takes place.

What are some key deposition ground rules?

The first rule to make sure the witness understands that every question must be answered truthfully. If it is not, the witness may be subject to sanctions and criminal penalties. The witness must also listen carefully to the question and answer only the question that is being asked. Also, as a general rule, witnesses should not guess at an answer.

While these may sound like straightforward rules, they are easier said than done. It takes tremendous concentration and focus to sit for hours and answer only the questions that are being asked. And while it is natural during a normal day-to-day conversation for people to assume that certain events have occurred and to speak about them as if they have, in the deposition setting, it is important that a witness focus only on what he or she actually knows has occurred.

What are some common mistakes made during depositions and how can they be avoided?

In addition to losing concentration and guessing, mistakes frequently occur when a witness is shown a document and asked questions about it. All too often, witnesses will not read the document at the deposition even though they are asked to do so by the examining lawyer. Instead, they will skim through the document thinking they know what it says.

But, often in this situation, a witness will give inaccurate testimony when questioned about the meaning of a particular document. And worse, the examining attorney might exploit this mistake by getting the witness to agree to a particular spin that he or she places on the meaning of the document — a spin that is always in favor of the examining lawyer’s client.

It is easy to avoid this mistake. When asked to read a document at a deposition, a witness should slow down and do just that: Read the document.

In addition, a witness should never let the examining lawyer put words in his mouth. Be especially alert when asked typical cross-examination questions because those are invariably designed to get the witness to agree with the examining lawyer’s view of the case. These questions are not hard to spot, as they usually begin with phrases such as, ‘Isn’t it fair to say?’ Or, ‘Wouldn’t you agree that?’ When you hear such questions, think long and hard before answering, and resist the urge to casually agree with the examining lawyer.

What other traps should a witness look out for?

An examining lawyer will be so cordial that the witness may think the deposition is just a friendly conversation. This is not so. Even though such depositions are more pleasant, a witness must still not let his or her guard down and must always follow the rules discussed.

On the flip side, examining lawyers take a more aggressive approach at depositions, to the point of making the deposition an unpleasant experience. It is important in these situations that the witness maintain a calm demeanor. Becoming upset or even angry at an examining lawyer because of the manner in which he or she is asking questions can never benefit the witness. In fact, if you allow yourself to get upset, you often can lose your concentration and break some of the rules discussed. That is why it is always important that the witness maintain a calm and professional demeanor at the deposition, no matter how the examining lawyer behaves.

Andrew Fleming is a partner at Novack and Macey LLP. Reach him at (312) 419-6900 or andrewf@novackmacey.com.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Novack and Macey LLP

Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, involves delivering voice telecommunication services across a network. Companies that utilize VoIP can realize significant telecom savings. Let’s say your business has offices in multiple geographic locations. With VoIP, you don’t need to duplicate efforts by having different carriers that charge different rates.

“VoIP is a great leveler because it’s geographically independent — the price doesn’t change based on where you’re employing it,” says Alex Desberg, sales and marketing director for Ohio.net.

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about the cost savings that can be realized by utilizing VoIP, how to make a seamless transition, and what to look for in a provider.

How can you stretch your telecom dollars by utilizing VoIP?

Normally, when you have a traditional phone system, there is a maintenance agreement. Every time you need to do an add/move/change with the system, you are paying someone to do it, or someone on your staff is investing their time. In the world of VoIP, because it is a service model, adds/moves/changes are usually included as part of the package. With VoIP, maintenance of the system is removed from the equation, which can lead to significant cost and time savings.

Often, when people are looking to change their technology from traditional to VoIP, it’s because the nature of their business has changed and they need to get a new phone system that isn’t antiquated. With VoIP, there is far less equipment needed than there would be in replacing a traditional phone system. In the past, if you needed to replace or upgrade a phone system, you were looking at software, someone to come out and do the installation, and possible hardware to update the system. With VoIP, all you’re buying is a VoIP phone so the costs are much less.

Also, VoIP services can be cyclical: there are plenty of businesses that have busy and slow seasons. For example, we work with car dealerships who sell more cars during spring, summer and fall than they do in the middle of winter. Car dealerships call us on a regular basis during the winter months and say, ‘Go ahead and scale back our services — we don’t need as many phones or as many lines.’ As a result, they’ll save money over the winter period when they know they won’t be nearly as busy.

This is very hard to do in the traditional telecom world because a contract will hold you to a certain dollar amount per month regardless of usage.

How can VoIP be used to service multi-location companies?

VoIP is geographically leveling the playing field. If I’m going to deploy 100 phones in the VoIP world, I don’t care if there are 100 phones all together in the same physical building or if they are being used by 100 different people in the company spread out across the country at multiple locations. The phone system itself is going to work the same in both cases because it’s essentially a virtualized phone system.

Also, VoIP offers local dialing between all the phones. For example, if I’m in New York and someone in my VoIP partition is in California, I can still do a four-digit dial.

How can a business make a seamless transition from traditional telephony to VoIP?

Training is essential; it is the difference between a clean start with VoIP and a bumpy one. Any time you implement a new phone system, people are going to be uncomfortable with the change. You have to get all of the individuals trained and get them comfortable with the phone before the system goes live.

With VoIP, the transition is seamless because we can have the new system running parallel to a traditional phone system. Once the users become comfortable we do a changeover where their old numbers become live on the new phone system.

After the transition happens, it’s important to have support available. Customer service is an important part of our model. One of the biggest complaints we hear about traditional telecom is that their support is terrible.

What advice would you give about selecting a VoIP provider?

Because it’s technology-related, a lot of young companies think they can enter into the VoIP business and be accepted. In truth, however, they need a stable backing in order to understand the technology they are deploying. In addition, they need to have a support system that can serve their clients. There are fly-by-night VoIP service companies that swoop in and make promises, but then quickly realize that they can’t support their customer base.

Look for a VoIP provider that has experience in your industry. If it hasn’t done what you need it to do before, I would be wary. Also, it should have a good future plan. A big part of our business is understanding what’s next and how to integrate that into a seamless service for our customers.

How are VoIP technologies being integrated into smartphones?

We are integrating to any phone out there, whether it is a smartphone, regular cell phone or landline. We can deploy services that allow calls to be routed to cell networks or home networks. For example, we work with a small government agency that has case workers who work from home. We just did our first installation for a remote case worker who is never going to step into the home office, but needed office connectivity.

It doesn’t matter what phone is on the other end. Let’s say you have an iPhone, one of your coworkers has a BlackBerry and another has a landline — you still want to be integrated. In order to allow integration, we built the service into the VoIP system rather than trying to build an app that changes every time someone gets a new type of phone or operating system.

Alex Desberg is Sales and Marketing Director for Ohio.net, a wholly owned subsidiary of Doylestown Communications. Reach him at (330) 658-1888 or adesberg@ohio.net.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net