Curt Harler

Tuesday, 25 September 2007 20:00

Strength in numbers

There is no need to panic when the word comes down that your bank has merged with another financial institution or was acquired by another bank. But do try to stay in touch with your account officer and sort things out together.

“Every organization has a unique culture,” says Sue Zazon, president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank’s Columbus region.

“If I were a business owner, I’d give myself a chance to see if the new bank is a fit or not. You won’t know right away, unless you had previous experience with that particular bank.”

Smart Business asked Zazon for guidelines on dealing with the sometimes-daunting experience of seeing your favorite financial institution involved in a merger or acquisition.

Are bank mergers/acquisitions different than corporate mergers in other industries?

The motivation for the corporate take-overs you read about in the newspaper is probably the same as the takeover for a bank: increasing market share, lowering expenses, earnings-per-share growth, acquiring specific products or geography. I don’t think the banking industry and other industries are much different from each other in this regard because they all address the same constituents — that is, their shareholders.

If I am a commercial customer and I hear or read that my bank is involved in a merger, should I be concerned?

Near and dear to most companies’ hearts — especially middle-market companies in an area like Columbus — is what’s going to happen to their credit relationships. For small- to mid-sized companies, the bank can be their sole source of financing. Don’t overreact. Most people tend to think the worst: ‘I’m going to lose my line of credit,’ or ‘I’m going to lose my loans.’

Make sure you talk to your relationship manager and his or her boss. You want to know information about the other bank and its reputation. Sure, there are going to be a lot of ‘I don’t know’ answers because they really don’t know.

It takes time for the bank that is being integrated to iron out all the issues. Banks in general need more customers to grow their business. They don’t merge or acquire another bank to kick customers out. That would be counterproductive. You may, however, be in an industry or business — like a parts supplier to the auto industry — that’s a higher risk in the current economic environment.

So you may need to know how the new bank views your business. It helps if you know multiple people in multiple positions at the bank. Knowing both your relationship manager and the credit person will position you well. Advocacy from both is important especially during changing and difficult economic times.

How important is the relationship between the bank and the customer?

Bank/customer relationships are the most important thing. Merger or no merger, you need to have a relationship with the bank. If you know your relationship manager well and you know the team leader or regional manager, you’ll be as informed as you can be.

Are there advantages to banking with an institution that has gone through a recent merger?

One advantage may be new product and service offerings that the combined bank may have. For instance, if your company needs to do a lot of international business, it’s a benefit to you if your regional bank is acquired by one with international services and foreign offices.

On the other hand, banking with a bigger bank has the potential to be more expensive on some fronts, while product offerings may be more standardized and less customized.

Another concern I often hear is that people feel like a number at a big bank. I think that feeling at any bank comes down to the service you receive from your branch and relationship manager. Even at a big bank, you can feel important. However, it is true that you become a ‘smaller fish in the sea’ as banks increase in size.

Are post-merger changes more likely to be of a systemic or personal nature?

I would ask my account officer how he or she envisions the merger impacting my relationship with the bank. Is your relationship in jeopardy? Will it cost you more? Are the same products and services going to be available?

Chances are you’ll have the same account officer because the new bank needs someone to service your account. Most personnel savings from a merger are in the back office. What may change is the credit approval process and senior managers. Also, there will probably be a different product offering. You may fit well into a product that your new bank has, so you might be able to save money. Or the new bank may have a higher fee schedule.

SUE ZAZON is president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank in Columbus. Reach her at sue.zazon@firstmerit.com or (614) 545-2791.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007 20:00

Reviewing your approach to staffing

Any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Nowhere is that more true than in an organization’s staffing. It has begun to dawn on many managers that employees in key positions like information technology (IT) need to be more than simple workers. As the job market for excellent candidates gets slimmer, many enterprises are turning to specialty firms to help them fill IT hiring needs.

Smart Business spoke with Nicki Liesch, managing director of staffing services with Pomeroy IT Solutions, Inc., about how a company should approach its IT staffing. She says a staffing provider needs to be a full partner and needs to know what its client company requires when it comes to IT staffing. It’s important that both partners are on the same page.

How does staffing impact organizations and their IT talent strategy?

The market is evolving. The concept of a staffing provider being a ‘replacement’ or ‘just in time’ fill is no longer what the market needs. Companies are looking for staffing providers to be strategic partners in the acquisition of strategic and technical talent. Companies are working with the providers to locate the hard-to-find or high-demand talent that’s needed to complete projects, or to gain permanent staff that they themselves are unable to locate.

On the flip side, providers are being met with more competition. Therefore, more staffing providers are competing for the same market share with the same resource talent pool. The staffing providers that will lead in these markets are those who are able to gain advantages through their abilities to provide the talent and match customer needs in a timely manner.

What key positions are currently used for staff augmentation?

Identification, acquisition, retention and management of technical resources are used to deliver the following IT services: hardware procurement, integration and distribution; professional consulting services and application development; life cycle technology services; and help desk. There is a solid demand for people in all of those categories.

What is the best way to find people?

The old-fashioned way is still the best — via word-of-mouth or referrals. Networking through your contacts and other qualified resources is critical to success. As part of this process, many providers still continue to turn to the familiar sources of talents through the use of Internet job boards. Meanwhile, offshore channels are declining. The need for the personal touch and customer-first, high-touch profile is important, both to the candidate as well as the customer.

How can one evaluate staffing providers in the marketplace? How do companies determine the provider to staff their IT functions?

Organizations want to know their provider’s people can do the job and have proven experience in their positions. These are critical resources, and businesses are entrusting this talent channel to an alternative-sourcing provider. It is important that the staffing providers be able to provide success stories and opportunities to review their previous work and referrals from prior and/or current customers.

Candidates and existing sourcing resources are a second way to increase provider credibility. Considering economic and security concerns in our environments, the candidates we provide are pre-screened through federal, state and local background checks, immunization requirements and validated work history. Providers must exhibit their value proposition to candidates as well as the customer.

Why do we see a growth in the use of staff-augmented resources?

Companies are motivated to use temporary or contingent workers as a way to gain access to skills that are difficult to find. Once the hard-to-find resources are located, companies will keep them for long periods of time or often request a right-to-hire. The ability for providers to be flexible in this right-to-hire model places them as a strategic partner in their talent acquisition process. The right-to-hire model allows companies to fill talent gaps on projects while evaluating skill and company culture compatibility without the risk of making bad hiring decisions.

What makes an effective sourcing strategy?

A company can measure things like number of interviews to hire, equal employment opportunity consideration to hire and, of course, speed to fill.

Do environmental and economic changes factor into the shift to staff-augmented resources?

Companies continue to struggle in their search for qualified and certified IT talent. As the largest pool of IT resources — the ‘baby boomers’ — continues to exit the market, the talent pool is constricting. As this shortage impacts more of any company’s IT function, it’s likely to turn to alternative sourcing. At that point, choice of staffing providers becomes a key strategic decision.

NICKI LIESCH is the managing director of staffing services with Pomeroy IT Solutions, Inc. Reach her at nliesch@pomeroy.com or (859) 586-0600.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007 20:00

Preventive measures

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. But, with proper care and early testing, it is quite preventable, says Connie Bollin, director, Akron General McDowell Cancer Center. Bollin emphasizes that business executives can help both themselves and their employees with testing programs and similar programs that offer early detection.

“Any insurance plan you provide workers should include colorectal cancer screening test benefits,” she says.

Smart Business asked Bollin about the causes and prevention of this disease.

Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer. It does not discriminate between men and women, executive or employee, although 90 percent of all cases occur after the age of 50. A key to knowing if you are at risk for the disease is knowing your family medical history and sharing that information with your health care professional. Together, you can determine if testing should be performed at an earlier age and which tests are most appropriate for you.

Is this a sex-related or race-related cancer?

Experts suggest that African-Americans begin their screenings at age 45 because research findings have shown that population diagnosed at a younger age. Some indications that you are at high risk for the disease and may need to be tested earlier include:

  • Being over the age of 50

  • African-American

  • A personal or family history of colorectal cancer

  • A personal or family history of benign colorectal polyps

  • A personal or family history of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or inflammatory bowel disease

  • Endometrial/ovarian cancer before the age of 60

  • People who use tobacco, excessive alcohol consumption, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity

Is colorectal cancer preventable?

Definitely. This disease can be prevented by early identification and removal of pre-cancerous polyps. These can only be detected through colorectal screenings. The Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation states, ‘30,000 to 44,000 lives a year could be saved if everyone over 50 got screened for colorectal cancer.’ That means that 50 to 80 percent of people who are expected to die of colorectal cancer in 2007 — 52,180 lives — could have been saved if they would have gotten tested.

What are the early symptoms?

Colorectal cancer, many times, develops without any symptoms. That is why getting screened is so important. Talk to your health care professional about colorectal screenings and, based on your family history, when and how often you should be screened. Once you have the disease, some symptoms may develop, such as rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits, weight loss for no apparent reason, vomiting, tiredness and fatigue, or frequent gas pains.

Some of these symptoms we all may experience at some times, but if you have any of them for more than two weeks, see your health care professional.

What kinds of screening tests are available?

The screening test used depends upon your medical history. You and your health care professional should discuss which screening is right for you, as well as how often it’s performed. The basic guidelines to follow for men and women beginning at age 50 — or 45 if you are African-American:

  • A fecal occult blood test annually

  • A sigmoidoscopy every five years, or a colonoscopy or double contrast barium enema every five to 10 years

  • A digital rectal exam every five to 10 years at the time of your screening sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy or barium enema

Does insurance pay for screenings?

Because it is one of the most preventable cancers, you would think all insurance companies would not only pay and promote screening, but that businesses and employers would offer incentives to their employees to comply and get screened. Medicare does pay for screening and some states mandate that insurance companies do, as well. Unfortunately, Ohio is not one of them. So now and during the month of March — which has been designated National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month — contact your state legislators and encourage them to pass legislation to improve insurance coverage for screening.

How do I reduce my risk?

The most effective way is to undergo routine colorectal screening tests. Other suggestions I’d offer would be to eat a diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, take a multivitamin and calcium, limit your alcohol intake, exercise and do not use tobacco.

CONNIE T. BOLLIN is a registered nurse with a B.S. degree in health and physical education, and a health care executive MBA. She has been the director of the Akron General McDowell Cancer Center since 2003 and is a board of trustees member of the Association of Community Cancer Centers, a member of the Association of Cancer Executives and a member of the Summit County Colorectal Cancer Taskforce. Reach her at (330) 344-5847 or cbollin@agmc.org.

Connie T. Bollin, R.N.
Director
Akron General McDowell Cancer Center
Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Improved tracking with technology

With virtual teams cutting across department lines and even across state and national boundaries, software that allows smooth tracking of work-flow and easy collaboration on projects is becoming a key part of many firms’ information technology repertoire.

Smart Business asked Chris Scragg, an expert with Pomeroy IT Solutions, Inc. for some advice to those firms that do not yet use workflow and collaboration software. Today, workflow and collaboration has become a nebulous grouping of software-based tools, meaning different things to different people and organizations. For the magazine publisher, these tools can refer to the management of content, color and image quality. However, the prevailing view of collaboration tools revolves around communication, management and confer-encing tools.

What kinds of tools are typically used?

Communication tools are probably the most common form of collaboration applications on the market. These tools focus on sending files, data and documents to recipients. Such applications are recognized as e-mail, instant messaging, faxing and voice mail. In today’s economy, all of the applications are available in a single bundled, unified platform. Imagine all of the ways that people correspond with you: Blackberry, MS Exchange, voice mail, etc. You can now have all of these messages routed to a single application or even have them follow you around on your Blackberry.

Conferencing tools are focused on the transmission of information but in an intently interactive way. You’ll recognize these applications as Web forums, video confer-encing, application sharing, as well as online chat (chat rooms, IRC, etc). WebEx and GoToMeeting have made this form of collaboration a household name and recognized means to give presentations, demonstrations and the like, remotely.

In IT, this method of presentation isn’t the way you always want to communicate with your customers; however, it is completely acceptable to do so where appropriate.

One of the more promising forms of collaboration is the grouping of collaborative management tools, including applications like Web Content Management, SharePoint, MS Office System, Exchange, intranets and Project Management suites. Chances are you’ve heard of or are even considering an investment in one or more collaboration suites.

How does workflow and collaboration software pay off?

Collaborative systems involve a cultural change in your organization more than just adding yet another system to use. In fact, the real payoff from the use of these tools is achieved only through widespread adoption and use in your organization.

For example, Siebel will do nothing for your sales team if only 15 percent of the team uses it. You’d be better off making an investment in a boxful of lottery tickets. The real magic comes not just from the sales organization’s use of it but the senior and executive management’s use of it, as well. Well-disciplined organizations on this platform have seen dramatic efficiencies, increased revenues, realization of goals, etc.

The hallmark of a collaborative system is providing your organization with increased levels of operational efficiency, which optimize and leverage investments made in your IT infrastructure.

Can you share a success story where this has paid off?

Pomeroy recently did a project for a regional medical center to improve their current Internet site. The former site was rich with information, but it was poorly organized, difficult to maintain, quickly became stale and generally did not keep pace with the marketing efforts made to communicate the proper image of the organization to the general public.

We utilized an open-source framework for Web content management. The new site was skinned and designed to be easily updated and to be consistent with other printed marketing materials. The content management aspect of the site now allows for authors to publish content directly to the site via portal where the editor can approve and release to production the new content. Modules were developed to provide a physician database and referral point of interest. As well, now human resources can publish job opportunities with ease, and potential candidates can apply for employment directly online. For the first time, the medical center can receive donations online, which will produce a newly realized form of funding.

The interesting thing about this project was that the investment made by the medical center was actually less than the original site they created three years ago. Now, they have a site that is scalable that they can easily maintain and expand for years to come without the need of increasing their IT staff to support it.

CHRIS SCRAGG is the practice director for application development within Pomeroy IT Solutions, Inc. Chris has been delivering application-based solutions in the industry for 11 years. Reach him at cscragg@pomeroy.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

The latest

In today’s world, there is a lot more to inbound or outbound marketing than simply handling phone calls. In fact, a proactive partner with a good view of information technology can add a whole new dimension to a company’s call center efforts.

Michael Van Scyoc is responsible for all IT client services at InfoCision. He plays a pivotal role in deploying new technology to meet internal and client needs.

Smart Business asked him to share some innovative IT ideas.

What is hot today in IT for your clients?

One of the hottest topics has become business intelligence. Retail and financial industries have led the way with great success. Supporting the call center with business intelligence will provide improvements in both productivity and performance. By analyzing past patterns, you can better predict the future.

We are experiencing productivity improvements from our best-time-to-call business intelligence. Past outbound call results indicate when to call a certain individual in order to increase the likelihood of successfully connecting with the right party decision-maker.

We also see performance improvements with increased response rates by advanced data augmentation and more precise segmentation and data modeling. Advanced data modeling on a prospecting list works in two ways: First, you are able to identify and focus on leads that statistically have a higher propensity to respond to a given appeal, and second, you can remove with a higher degree of precision those leads that aren’t cost effective to pursue. Both have a very positive affect on the overall response rate while retaining the maximum number of leads in your list.

Can IT really make a difference in a world that revolves around plain old telephone service (POTS)?

Absolutely. Plain old telephone service is merely one form of the media used in a marketing or customer service program. Business intelligence and sophisticated customer database management systems can add great value without being hindered by POTS. Also, just because you are limited by POTS to your end customers, doesn’t mean that you cannot implement creative telephony strategies in conjunction with the carrier networks or the latest premise-based telephony systems.

What are some of the new things in IT software for call center clients?

It’s not really new, but I’m surprised by how many call centers haven’t implemented a fully automated inbound/outbound blending solution. Many call centers running both inbound and outbound operations utilize disparate call center systems for each operation. You can gain greater staff utilization and productivity if call center staff transitioned automatically and seamlessly from inbound to outbound, and vice versa, as the changing needs dictate. If you are doing this manually, you experience downtime during manual transitions as well as lower customer service levels.

Are there hardware innovations, too?

Perhaps the most exciting thing happening with hardware is virtualization. We are able to reduce the overall number of servers needed to support a business or call center process because of operating system advancements that enable us to have multiple virtual servers on a single physical server. Server processing power and capacity continues to grow, and we are able to take advantage of that with virtualization, which leads to long-term lower cost of ownership.

Can you share a success story or two where a new use of IT paid off?

Several come to mind. For one of our fundraising clients, we applied a demographic data overlay to its lapsed donor file. Sometimes we look at things like age, length of residence, race, religion, etc. In this case, we used business intelligence that places individuals into one of 24 different consumer groups, which we used to segment the file. Again, we were able to focus on the best prospects and increase the dollars raised per completed call.

We can also perform more intelligent routing of inbound calls by recognizing a customer before he or she is connected with someone in the call center. For one client, we compare the ANI [the phone number the caller is calling from] to a current customer database. Current customers are routed to our client’s call center, while we handle new prospects.

Do you come to clients with ideas, or should they approach you?

We are always open to our clients’ ideas, but typically we present new ideas to our clients. Many ideas can be implemented in a few weeks or even days. We start out with relatively simple ideas that can be implemented quickly. As we continue to raise the bar, things get more and more complex, which takes more time.

MICHAEL VAN SCYOC is senior vice president of IT client services. Reach him at mikev@infocision.com or (330) 668-1400. In business for 25 years, InfoCision Management Corporation is the second largest privately held teleservices company and a leading provider of customer care services, commercial sales and marketing for a variety of Fortune 500 companies and smaller businesses. InfoCision is also a leader of inbound and outbound marketing for nonprofit, religious and political organizations. InfoCision operates 28 call centers at 12 locations throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. For more information, visit www.infocision.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Stress management

Stress is a fact of the modern work-place. In some cases, employees may require some form of behavioral health treatment, since a healthy work-force includes good behavioral health.

Christopher McGowan, director of Psychiatric Services and of the Partial Hospitalization Program at Akron General Medical Center, says that what’s important is knowing how stress affects you and then relieving it. “Going to the gym, taking a walk or enrolling in an art class is certainly better for you than going to the bar,” he says. “Drinking alcohol does nothing more than zap your mind and body of energy causing you to fatigue and then feel stressed.” He encourages people to look at each situation separately and ask themselves how much mental energy they want to give to a situation.

Smart Business spoke to McGowan about keeping stress from becoming a problem.

What is stress, in layman’s terms?

Stress is apparent when you are ‘not yourself.’ You’re forgetful, moody, or argumentative. You can’t sleep or you want to sleep all the time and you feel you never have enough time. I call stress the seed of depression, because, left to continue without relief, it can grow into depression.

Webster says it best: ‘Stress: a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.’

What causes stress?

Stress occurs when we feel we have no control, or we feel out of control. Stress can occur as a result of good events as well as bad. A marriage, a birth, a promotion — all can cause stress, just as we would expect when we experience a death of a loved one, being laid-off from work, or experiencing a divorce. It’s when we can’t or don’t limit our exposure to stress that stress can lead to a serious anxiety disorder or depression.

How do stress-related behavioral health concerns affect business?

According to a July 2005 white paper from the Ohio Department of Mental Health, over the next 10 to 20 years, depression is projected to become the leading source of workdays lost through disability.

The report sites other disorders, including anxiety, which cost the U.S. about $42 billion a year in 1990, with $23 billion of that being spent on non-psychiatric medical treatment. Patients are many times admitted for medical ailments, which are directly related to psychological issues. For example, patients can be admitted for heart attack symptoms, which are later diagnosed as anxiety attack symptoms.

The report says that untreated depression, stress or anxiety makes about two hours out of each workday unproductive. A recent study showed a 6.2 percent increase in productivity and 22.8 percent fewer absences over two years for depressed individuals who received regular phone calls to encourage them to continue with treatment and medication. Employers saved $2,600 annually for each employee.

What should employers look for to recognize a stressed worker?

Look for a worker whose behavior has changed to become more irritable or withdrawn. They may become more compulsive about eating, smoking, drinking, or spending money. Look for psychological signs, such as employees who become defensive, disorganized, depressed or have difficulty making decisions.

Some of your best employees are ticking time bombs for stress. They’re the folks who never say no to a project, or are frequently covering for others. Left to go on, stress creeps up on them. These folks need your help to practice setting limits. They will need encouragement to ask for help on a project or to say no to a request. These are the great workers that suddenly go on medical leave because they’ve ‘had it’ mentally or medically.

What options do employers have to improve their employees' behavioral health?

It’s important to listen to your employees so you know how they are feeling. Try to have fun at work. During the summer, throw a barbeque at lunch; call off work early to play volleyball. Don’t let morale deteriorate in the first place. Take steps to assure your employees are rested and feel valued by encouraging balance between work and play. You’ll get more out of employees if they believe you care for their well-being both physically and mentally.

Lastly, if you’re stressed, chances are your employees will be also, so take care of yourself. Remember our jobs are important, but they are not our lives. It’s the stuff we do afterwards that we need to be attentive to: our friends, our family and ourselves.

Is a stress-free life a reasonable and achievable goal?

I believe having no stress is unrealistic and, quite frankly, boring. One needs some level of stress to achieve even the simplest task of getting up in the morning. Not all stress is bad. Stress can motivate us to accomplish great things. For example, have you ever heard of an athlete who is stress free? Good athletes will admit it’s very stressful to be a winner. However, great athletes will tell you that balance between workouts and relaxation is critical for stationed performance.

CHRISTOPHER MCGOWAN is director of Psychiatric Services and the Partial Hospitalization Program at Akron General Medical Center. He can be reached at cmcgowan@agmc.org.

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Integrated programs

When it comes to developing and maintaining reliable and healthy employees, some companies have become accustomed to focusing on treating diseases rather than rewarding health.

Absenteeism is not uncommon in today’s work force. Worse, some employees bring their health and personal problems to the work place, which may impair the quality of their work and reduce their productivity. If the problems started at work, it can be even worse. All it takes to damage a company’s image is one disgruntled employee, points out Moshe Torem, M.D., from the Akron General Health and Wellness Center.

Torem says one way to overcome the problem is with an integrative medicine program — one that stresses wellness instead of being limited to the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

Smart Business asked Torem what can be done in a workplace to move employees in a new direction.

Employees do miss work because they are sick, right?

Yes, but some of the major causes of workplace difficulties are nondisease-related issues, such as smoking, excessive drinking, lack of sleep, stress from home or the workplace, unhealthy eating habits, and the lack of an effective social support system. Plus, there are illnesses caused by stress, chronic sleep deprivation and unhealthy eating.

Any business wants a healthy and reliable group of employees that can be counted on to do their jobs. It is well known that stress impairs the immune system. If the immune system of an individual is suppressed, they will be more susceptible to infections. An employee who does not have a good relationship with a spouse, one who feels exploited or misunderstood at work, or one who feels bossed around unfairly, may develop resentment and react against the workplace in a passive way. Even if such employees show up to work, the quality and productivity of their work will suffer. They also may call in sick more frequently.

How is an integrative medicine program different from the usual doctor visit?

Integrative medicine combines self-education and awareness, promotion of self-healing and the maintenance of one’s health. It asks managers to encourage and promote an atmosphere that is conducive to a loyal, productive work force. It teaches managers communications skills, such as effective listening and making employees feel they are valuable and appreciated members of a team.

What would be the cost of such a program?

The upfront cost must be considered in reference to the potential savings in the overall spending on health care. The payoff to the company is tremendous: People will show up for work more regularly, do a better job, and will be more loyal. The bottom line for the company may see an overall savings in the total sum of the benefit/cost ratio. Health insurance claims should drop.

You have to start with a work environment that shows the employees that the company cares about them. Many first-line employees feel they know better than anyone else how to make their jobs more productive. Effectively listening to their ideas will improve employee satisfaction and increase productivity. An angry, resentful employee may cause a lot of damage.

How realistic is this to implement?

Years ago, it was common for businesses to give employees a ‘smoke break.’ Many took 15 to 20 minutes a couple of times a day to smoke a cigarette. The new no-smoking laws today are great. However, employees still need to take a break to improve productivity. Companies can give their employees 20-minute ‘health breaks’ to take a walk, exercise, meditate, or do yoga or guided imagery.

Let the employees recharge their batteries and come back to work re-energized and refocused.

What else can a company do?

Business leaders need to make a paradigm shift, realizing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We all know alcohol and drugs are a common workplace problem. Another huge problem is chronically overweight workers. Obesity may result in lower productivity and higher absenteeism as employees contract diabetes and high blood pressure, and become more vulnerable to developing heart disease and strokes.

Companies can set up programs to encourage employees to maintain healthy weight. For example, when employees drop weight to a healthy range and maintain it, they will be rewarded.

I’d recommend engaging all workers in a health promotion and maintenance program. A point system can be established for achieving individual goals, whether for body weight, healthy habits, smoking cessation, avoiding abuse of alcohol and drugs, or for regular exercise and practicing stress management. When employees earned enough points, they would be rewarded. Today’s system pays employees when they are sick, but should reward them for maintaining good health.

MOSHE TOREM, M.D., is a physician, board-certified in psychiatry. He is medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Akron General's Health and Wellness Center in Montrose. Dr. Torem received his M.D. from the Hebrew University School of Medicine. He is a professor of psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. Dr. Torem was recently appointed as chief of the integrative medicine service at Akron General Medical Center. For more information, visit www.agmc.org.

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

The personal touch

Whatever the industry, people love the personal touch. In marketing, a business always treads the razor’s edge between efficiency and personal service. But the two do not have to be at odds.

Smart Business spoke to Carl Albright, president and CEO of InfoCision, about keeping high-tech and high-touch balanced.

How is the personal touch built into a tele-marketing program?

The most important thing is to get buy-in from agents. They have to be attuned to the client’s objectives. Agents need to feel like they are part of a team effort. They need to know that management respects, likes and appreciates the job they are doing. They need to understand the client’s goals.

Communicators are the most important people in the company. If they are happy, the personal touch will come through. We believe that if agents feel good about what they are doing they will do a good job. A happier worker is a better worker — better on the phone and at representing the client.

Can you teach the personal touch without seeming phony?

You can. But like anything else, you want people who are genuine. You want people who understand the product or service they are representing and feel good about what they are doing.

You can teach sales skills. You can teach technical skills. But you need real empathy with the customers or donors to have the personal touch. The best choice for the job is someone who is naturally people-oriented.

Can you have both high-tech and high-touch?

Definitely. We have some very high-tech programs. Some of our programs have a lot of data and numerous screens to navigate. Often the communicator has to be able to handle problems or make the right offer to overcome a customer’s objections. It requires a good technical background to serve the account and navigate the technology. But we also need agents to be able to do the job with great personal touch. Many good ones can do both.

Given the choice, which is more important to cultivate?

I’d pick the personal touch every time. Someone with a great customer-service attitude is a real value to the team. Besides, it is easier to teach technical skills than personal skills.

A good personality is so important. It is easier to take a genuine person and teach him or her the technical end. A better attitude shows through and feels better to the person on the other end of the phone call.

Does high-touch cost more?

It does cost more, but there is a reason. Typically, people who add the high-touch aspect are older, more mature workers. They may be the main breadwinners in their families and are career-oriented. They want to be successful. They want their clients to be successful. You’ll pay less money for a person who simply goes through rote repetition of what is on the screen. But you will absolutely get a greater return on investment from a person who communicates well. High-touch is worth the cost.

Does high-touch infringe on call time efficiency?

You want to avoid idle chit-chat. So we worry about this to a light degree. But our main objective is to have a customer who is happy. Customers are more likely to buy or accept another call if they feel good about the person calling. That’s just good business.

Are some agents better at this than others?

Like business or sports, some people are just naturally good at it. Others are better at the technology, some at the fundamentals. A select group of people is good at high-touch. The person who brings all of these skills to the table is going to be one of your top agents.

Sometimes, it is necessary to escalate a call to someone with better people skills. This is uncommon, and it takes special training. If a situation requires high-touch, the people on the program should be high-touch people. They should have the proper training and outlook and the right level of skills before they start to work. With good people, the need to escalate calls is rare.

How does a business build a program around the personal touch?

It’s done by design, but it is different for each client. Some firms just want high sales volume and communicators to take orders. Others require more skill or technical ability. A good call center can modify its program to meet the needs of the client. It depends on the product or offer and what the customer needs.

CARL ALBRIGHT is president and CEO of InfoCision Management Corporation. In business for 25 years, InfoCision Management Corporation is the second largest privately held teleservices company and a leading provider of customer care services, commercial sales and marketing for a variety of Fortune 500 companies and smaller businesses. InfoCision is also a leader of inbound and outbound marketing for nonprofit, religious and political organizations. InfoCision operates 28 call centers at 12 locations throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. For more information, visit www.infocision.com.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

Empowering the buyer

The hot buzz in the health care industry these days is the consumer-directed health plan.

“Consumer-driven health plans focus on turning health care users into educated, empowered, accountable health care consumers,” says Sally Stephens, founder, owner and president of Spectrum Health Systems. “Defined narrowly, consumer-driven health care (CDHC) refers to health plans where employees have a personal health account, such as a Health Savings Account (HSA) or a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA).”

Smart Business asked Stephens about the benefits and drawbacks of these programs.

In a consumer-driven health plan, who pays?

The type of plan determines if the employer, employee or both can make contributions to the plan. The CDHP phrase is often used loosely to refer to defined contribution health plans under which employees receive a fixed dollar contribution from an employer and choose among various plans. Richer plans generally require larger employee contributions in addition to those made by the employer.

In contrast to traditional managed-care plans, CDHC allows employees to customize their health benefits, such as trade lower premiums for higher out-of-pocket maximums. CDHC charges employees the actual cost of insurance and lets providers, instead of insurers, set prices for their services and reap the benefits of innovation while offering employees competitive quality and cost information about both insurers and health care providers.

CDHPs involve either an HSA or an HRA. Employees, employers or both can make contributions to an HSA while employers only fund the HRA. Deposits and withdrawals of an HSA are tax-free.

What is involved?

Generally, CDHPs involve a three-tier structure of payment for health care: a tax-exempt health account that an individual uses to pay for health expenses up to a certain amount, a high-deductible health insurance policy that pays for expenses over the deductible and a gap between those two in which the individual pays any health care expenses out of their own pocket.

Also, individuals have the opportunity to save money that they do not spend in a given year for health care expenses in future years (or, in some plans, for withdrawal during retirement). There are support systems (usually on the Internet) to help individuals select good providers, get reasonable prices, track their health care expenses and improve their health.

What groups are more likely to benefit from CDHP?

While the majority of consumer-driven health plans are generally designed for larger self-insured employers, there are providers that focus on the small- to mid-sized market (two to 500 lives).

Can a business save money by having a CDHP for its workers?

According to the Hewitt Associates 2005 Study, ‘companies with significant enrollment in consumer-directed health plans, such as account-based plans and customized build-your-own that allows employees to tailor a plan based on their individual health and financial needs, are experiencing rate increases well below the national trend or, in some cases, even decreased costs.’

United Benefit Advisors’ 2006 Health Plan Survey shows that consumer-driven health plans had the lowest premium increases, averaging 5.7 percent compared to an average 8.6 percent increase for the traditional health plans.

Do insurance companies go along with CDHP plans?

Many insurers, economists and actuaries believe that consumer-driven health plans can significantly lower medical trend rates for the next several years. Generally, they predict that CDHP premiums will grow at roughly half the rate of traditional managed care plans. Insurers believe in the shared responsibility strategy that promotes healthy lifestyles, quality care and efficient purchasing of medical care. It is merely the financial lever that ideally propels behavior change.

What is your experience with the success of CDHP?

In most cases, this new approach supports a shift in how employees think about the employer’s role in providing medical benefits. The focus is on improving health and maximizing the value one receives from medical care. The employer’s role shifts from being a parent to a partner with employees.

Employers who consider CDHP must understand that, regardless of income level, a thoughtfully designed plan typically lowers total cost-share for healthy employees and does not significantly alter costs for the chronically or critically ill. It is the moderate users of health care services who stand to gain or lose and these are the ones most able to control their spending through behavior change.

SALLY STEPHENS is the founder, owner and president of Spectrum Health Systems. Reach her at (317) 573-7600 or sally.stephens@spectrumhs.com.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 19:00

Managing cash flow

Fraud is one of those loss areas that threaten all businesses. Check fraud is the number one vulnerability, but businesses need to be aware that there are other kinds of fraud, too.

Smart Business spoke with Lori Wood, treasury management banker with 20 years experience at FirstMerit Bank, Columbus, about how treasury management works, how businesses can recognize areas where fraud can occur and how to avoid fraud.

First, what is treasury management?

Treasury management involves managing the cash flows of business accounts. Banks provide cash management solutions to businesses that are designed to help speed collection, control payments and manage funds more efficiently while minimizing risk.

Banks differ in the number of services they provide and the clientele they serve. Commercial banks offer a full range of treasury management services to their customers.

Can you describe some common fraud vulnerabilities?

Check fraud is one of the largest challenges facing businesses and financial institutions today. The fraud starts with someone stealing a blank check from an office, home, unlocked or burglarized vehicle; by searching for cancelled or old checks in the garbage; or by removing a check you may have mailed to pay a bill from the mailbox. Businesses are prime targets of check fraud. Payroll checks appear to be a favorite as far as counterfeiting and alterations.

Positive pay and direct deposit are a couple ways for business owners to protect themselves from this type of fraud. To eliminate cancelled checks being stored, a company may choose check imaging. Paper documents are replaced with a digitized replica (on CD-ROM). A special customer identification number provides an extra level of security.

How about electronic fraud?

Electronic fraud, also known as ACH fraud, becomes more likely for business owners who do not implement dual control of their financial accounting for internal and external purposes. Companies need to monitor account activity on a daily basis in order to return any fraudulent items.

There is also great vulnerability when sharing account numbers and routing numbers over the phone or online for purchases or bill payments. A person should never release account information over the phone unless they originated the call. Even then, I recommend using a credit card instead of a debit card.

Don’t audits help prevent fraud?

Every business should conduct frequent audits. Treasury management online banking allows authorized business personnel to monitor user activity along with controlling the dollar amounts of internal transfers, electronic transfers and wire transfers.

I also recommend that business owners divide and switch duties periodically. Companies should consider assigning a different employee to manage each function, such as check writing or reconciling accounts. Upper management approval should be required on manual checks and/or certain dollar amounts. Check stock should be locked at all times and audited on a regular basis.

What can a bank do to help a business minimize fraud?

There are several ways. Positive pay is designed for companies of all sizes. The client sends the bank, via electronic transmission, an issue file (including voids) whenever checks are written. The bank cross-references items being presented for payment. Any mismatches in the serial number, account number and dollar amount are sent to the customer. The customer simply responds with a ‘pay’ or ‘no-pay’ decision by phone or fax.

This process can also be reversed with reverse positive pay. The bank prepares a file listing the check number and dollar amount of items being presented for payment and sends it to the company early in the morning. The company compares the clearing items from the banks check file to their records and instructs the bank to return items that do not match.

Companies may also choose to block all incoming ACH debit or credit transactions, or both. When a block is placed on an account, the company should be very careful not to give out that particular account information to avoid a legitimate item being returned as an unauthorized corporate debit. There are also ACH filters that allow the company to block all ACH items except those specifically defined.

LORI WOOD is treasury management and public funds banker for FirstMerit Bank in the Columbus Region. Reach her at laureen.wood@firstmerit.com.