Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The “Little” Engine That Can!

Fifteen months after eMergent Benefit Solutions of Camden, NJ announced the launch of eLECT - its state-of-the art Benefits Administration solution, it is already being put to the test. Not only is eMergent looking to change the way benefits administrators approach today’s market by virtually eliminating long timelines of system implementation, eLECT is also Health-Reform-ready. This fully featured system, which integrates the administration platform along with both an employee and employer web portal, is anything but little.

With planning and development behind them, software entrepreneurs Gretchen Winterbottom and Lisa M. Lange had a vision that the system should enable an administrator not hold them back as a result of expensive technology or staffing. eLECT is the first of it’s kind offered as SaaS, integrating employee communications features, web and content management all in a user-friendly, web-based solution without the need to ever involve a programmer. According to Gretchen Winterbottom, one of the firm’s founders, “eLECT was designed by benefit administrators for benefit administrators.” With an open architecture platform, menu-driven set-up and other advanced features, implementation is simple and can be accomplished in a few weeks, unlike most systems in the market, and for a fraction of the cost and overhead.

As many administrators scramble to adapt their systems for new provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (H.R. 3590), eLECT is ready. Not only is it ready, it provides:

§ New dependent age and FSA limits

§ Auto Enrollment

§ Waiting Periods

§ The CLASS benefit election

§ Present employer and Health Insurance Exchange medical options

§ Free Choice vouchers as well as other new Reform features.

Plus, eLECT can report the cost of Employer Sponsored Health Coverage for W-2s, provide plan disclosures and meet new government reporting requirements.

All in a day’s work for eMergent. This company is all about “Yes We Can” and based on my experience and knowledge of systems in the market, they sure can.

For more information regarding eLECT, see

Monday, November 23, 2009

What Makes a Good Boss…and What Doesn’t?

What Makes a Good Boss…and What Doesn’t?

I was joking with a good friend and colleague about bosses the other day and it got me to thinking, what does it take to be a good boss and then again, what doesn’t. We’ve all worked for that boss that we would follow to the ends of the earth (or hopefully have had that experience), but too many times throughout our career we will unfortunately work for that person who makes us hate to get up out of bed and go to work. So, I gave some thought about my bosses over the years and have tried to determine, what made the great ones great and the others not so great.

The Micro-Manager

When you’re right out of school, maybe there is a place for the micro-manager, but for the rest of us, it’s just down right annoying. As a manager, you have to learn to communicate what you need to your employees and give them the leeway to come up with the solution. Isn’t that what managing is all about – getting away from doing and helping others to grow and assume responsibility? If you find you are in your employees’ shorts constantly, then maybe you need to re-think whether you are really management material. Even though you are responsible for what your employees are doing, that does not translate to knowing every detail or being involved in every decision.

The Witchy Woman

Sometimes (not always), women tend to overcompensate their position of power as a manager and can make for a most unpleasant working environment. Leave the evil Witchy Woman thing to the Eagles and embrace your womanhood by showing what we do best – compassion, empathy and organization. If your employees think you are always PMSing, you will be mostly out of the loop because employees, both men and women, will just go out of their way to avoid you. If you do have a hormonal imbalance, find a good gynecologist and leave it out of the workplace!

Know Every Name, Even Those of Significant Others

A long time ago, I worked for someone who was having the entire office to his house for a celebration. Not only was it cool this person thought enough of his employees to open up his house to us, but what was really impressive was that he took the time to learn the name of every spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend or significant other of his employees so he could greet every single person by name when they came. Now, I’m not saying you have to have your employees over for dinner, but it does make employees feel special when your boss knows your name and knows something about you personally. Although some employees are private, take the time to get to know your employees on both a personal and professional level.

Laugh Often and Hard

Work is stressful enough, that good managers find a way to make a pleasant environment for their employees. Make sure your employees know it is OK to laugh and have fun and make sure you laugh right along with them (keeping it respectful of course). The best bosses I remember were those that were fun to work for, despite that I probably worked harder and more hours with less pay than under the others. A good laugh can carry employees through a lot of stressful situations. People generally spend more waking hours at work than with their families, and will work harder and do more quality work if they actually like where they work and who they work for.

Be Visible

Bosses who tend to hide in their office or who are never seen by employees, rarely make it to the good boss list. Some of the most successful companies have bosses who sit in a cubicle right in the middle of the office or who take the time to actually go around in a truck with the delivery person. If you’re an absentee boss, you will be out of touch and you will tend to make bad decisions because you will have no pulse as to what is really going on with your employees who are actually doing the work for you. Your employees will think you have no clue and they’ll probably be right.


Good bosses are generally good communicators - those that can deliver the bad messages just as well as goals for their department. Even if the message is really bad, like there will be no raises or bonuses, the best bosses take the time to explain why and didn’t just say “be happy you have a job”. Unfortunately, more times than not, managers don’t feel the need to communicate an explanation for their actions, which leads to distrust and disloyalty with employees.

Reward and Recognize

Employees know as a manager you have limited or no funds these days for raises, bonuses or monetary rewards, but that does not say, that employees don’t need some recognition for a job well done. The best bosses I’ve had always said thank you, if didn’t find a way to show some small token of appreciation occasionally. Getting flowers from your boss for a job well-done stands out much more than your last raise. I once had a boss who sent me a package of bacon with a personal note that said, “Thanks for bringing home the bacon”. As corny as it was, just that he went out of his way to recognize an achievement in an original manner sent a strong message and made it memorable (not to mention gave me a really good laugh).

Eliminate the Bad Seeds

Being the boss, means sometimes you need to address poor performance. If an employee is not performing, of course you need to provide guidance as to what they need to do to get their performance up to par, but in the event that things haven’t changed despite giving them a chance, the best bosses don’t drag out firing a bad seed. There is nothing worse than people watching others get away with absenteeism, poor quality, or web surfing to take a team down. When the time comes, the best bosses act professionally and with empathy, but address the situation quickly for the good of the whole.

Coach & Mentor

The best bosses I can remember treated everyone respectfully and made you feel like they cared about you. Now, I might never know if they really cared about me or not, but I at least felt like they cared about me as not only a person, but cared about my career. They did not just hand me a bunch of goals and handle my performance review (or have me handle my own), but they actually coached me in how to advance or what I needed to do to reach the next level. They also would touch base outside the formal review process to see how things were progressing or to give me that little push I needed to stay on track. Their door was always open.

Fire Creators

There are enough true emergencies that come up during work that need to be addressed, but there is nothing worse as an employee than when your boss is creating the emergency. You all know what I’m talking about when you get an email from your boss that says “I need this right away” and you see in the email stream that your boss has been sitting on it for weeks. The best bosses are respectful of people’s time and give them reasonable advanced warning of the extra assignments they need to fit into their schedules. Although people will be tolerant when these things pop up once in a while, chances are, you will not get what you want when you need it, if you make a habit of dropping too many last minute assignments on your employees.

Always Respond

If an employee asks you a question, always respond. We all have too much email traffic, but a good manager always takes the time to respond to each and every employee email, phonemail or question. Even if you don’t know the answer, either find out or direct them to the right place and give them some idea when you can get back to them. Nothing is more demotivating than feeling your boss ignores you.

Admit When You’re Wrong

You might be the boss, but that doesn’t mean you are always right. The best bosses I’ve had were willing to listen to what I had to say and were humble enough to admit when they were wrong. Or, at least took the time explain their point of view.

What’s Your Epitaph?

There have been thousands of books written on management and leadership and countless employee surveys administered. At the top of the list of why employees like their job or not, want to leave their job or not, are motivated to perform well or not, consistently centers around whether they like their boss and think they are a good manager. It has always surprised me that companies do not do more to help their managers be better managers.

One way I like to think about being a boss is what would your employees put on your epitaph when you’re gone? Will it say “Worst Boss Ever” or will it say something you actually want to be remembered as?

OK, I’ve gotten the conversation started, what else makes a good or bad boss?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Get Certified!

I have enjoyed great success throughout the years by working hard and working smart. I always ignored my own personal development by staying focused to the task at hand, helping my clients, pulling late nights and weekends and trying to make everyone happy. I climbed the corporate ladder by hard work and commitment, building strong client partnerships, and making lots of money for the companies I have enjoyed employment and believed that it was enough to succeed. Although I have always worked for firms that offered tuition reimbursement, I didn’t see the value in earning an MBA or certification, as it wouldn’t change my pay or my position within the firm.

And, for many years that worked. But the landscape has changed dramatically, unemployment is at 10%, companies are downsizing in great numbers and job stability, well it’s just unstable. I have been faced with unemployment, something I never thought would happen to me. As I spend hours in search of my next job opportunity, I continuously look for ways to set myself apart from the countless numbers of other resumes my next employer will be comparing me to. And, although I display a stellar career, in all honesty, I lack many of the credentials I should display at this point, at my level. Although I am probably an expert in several areas, employers want proof of your expertise and in the 10-20 seconds they will spend scanning your resume, certifications and higher education will help you stand out. And, it may mean the difference between you and a colleague who gets to keep their job.

I recently went on an interview and almost all of the leaders of that company had training from the Kellogg School of Management (Northwestern University) listed on their profiles. For me, it was that “aha” moment when I realized I’d missed the boat and should have focused even a little more on myself over the years. Looking back, it is one of the only regrets I have that I did not take advantage of those tuition reimbursement plans. And why not? I love to read and I love to learn new things and despite working too much, I am sure I could have found the time had I made it a priority or one of my personal goals.

So if you follow any advice I can give you, GET CERTIFIED! Look for ways to enhance your credibility. Take an online course in leadership and/or management from an accredited college program. The University of Notre Dame offers a fairly comprehensive course on-line for under $5,000 through the University Alliance. Wharton and Villanova offer classes as well, although their tuition is higher and you will need to take these classes on-site. I am sure there is a host of other programs available to you; look into different colleges or on-line resources or seminars and find out what interests you. Give some thought if you can put it on your resume and how it will enhance your value.

If you are in HR, get PHR or SPHR certified, or get your CEBS (International Foundation) or REBC (American College) or other benefits certifications. Professional Training Services (PTS) in Mount Laurel, NJ offers multiple classes to help you get a producers license in multiple lines of insurance and property/casualty or offers other programs for FINRA series licensing. If you are a project manager, get your PMP Certification or start earning your Six Sigma Green or Black Belt. If you have the time, go back and get your MBA.

You do not want to wait until you are doing a job search to start thinking about your credentials. Although you will have the time, there is a good chance you will not have the money to pay for it. Although Unemployment has some assistance available, they do not pay for on-line courses and if you already have a degree, you are limited to what they will actually pay for. Take advantage of tuition reimbursement programs your employer offers.

Stop making excuses that you don’t have the time or it doesn’t really matter. It does matter and will only give you more credibility. Do some research on-line for various programs/certifications that will enhance your value for your line of work. Even if you are still working, look at some job boards and see what credentials are listed for jobs you might be interested. Crack open those books and don’t wait like me until you are looking for your next employment opportunity to figure out that what’s missing from your resume is better proof of your expertise!

Feel free to comment and let me know if you you’ve enrolled in a class!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Tips For Managing Your P&L

I am probably in the minority, but one of the things I have always liked best about my job is managing a P&L. I have always been comfortable with math and maybe it’s just the sheer analytics of pulling a P&L together. It’s like being on CSI, at the scene, gathering the facts, doing all the analysis and then solving how the crime was committed and who did it. Now, I can’t tell you anything that will change whether or not you like managing your P&L, but hopefully I can give you some tips that will help you in your thought process and that will make the process better for you.

Years ago, it was good enough to come up with what you thought was your budget for the fiscal year and if there were variations along the way, no one was too upset if you made your numbers by the end of the year. In fact, if you beat your numbers by the end of the year, everyone cheered and maybe bonuses were bigger for you and your department or team. You may not have had a clear line of sight how you were making your revenue or how your expenses were going to change, but maybe you just crossed your fingers and hoped for the best. If you were “close enough”, maybe the consequences were not too bad as long as the rest of your division came through and overall things were better than the prior year. The economy was good, unemployment low, e-businesses and pharmaceuticals were flourishing and companies were spending more money on technology solutions, growing, changing and as a result, more opportunities for special work were not only probable, but likely.

Then came the Enrons, the WorldComs, Arthur Anderson and SOXA and the process has become so much more scrutinized and the P&L that you are providing that is rolled up into your company’s numbers is really, really important. Not only is it important over the course of the year, it is just as important quarterly and looked at in great detail monthly. It now really matters if that project finishes on time and that you can bill for it when you expected, for the amount you expected and that you get paid timely by your client. It’s even problematic at times if you billed for a project early as it causes a shift between your budget and actuals. And, god forbid, if you bill for a project in a different quarter than you expected! The rules have changed and you need to avoid surprises, not only the bad, but even the good as no good deed will go unpunished. And those of us with P&L responsibility have a great portion of our goals connected to this, so we need to give this aspect of our jobs the attention it deserves and be good at it or our livelihoods will certainly suffer the consequences.

Become Best Friends with Your Finance Person

I am not an accountant and I certainly can’t tell you all the things your finance representative can about how your company does their accounting. The rules are complex, and the best advice I can give you is to meet with your finance person as much as you need to so they can guide you. They will help by asking relevant questions or pointing out variances and can be instrumental in making sure you didn’t forget to consider a key piece of data in your analysis.

Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute

Do your homework all year. You don’t have to wait for the e-mail from Finance to start the process. It seems like every year, I have less and less time to pull together my budget. Maybe you will have two weeks, maybe a month, but do the things all year that will keep you from scrambling to pull all the information together you need for your budget at the last minute. Maintain project logs and include well thought out start and end dates, the project budget, whether or not it has been approved (signed) by the client and when you expect to bill for the project. If the project log is in an excel spreadsheet, consider adding a tab that keeps a monthly tally of what you are expecting to bill each month. Be careful you do not add up everything in the log and you are pretty sure which projects are likely to be completed and billable. I would strongly recommend sharing the project log with your client, as it can serve two purposes – first, it will serve as a communication tool to use with your client so you are both on the same page as far as priorities, likelihood projects will be approved and you agree on the price, and second, your client is likely in the same position you are and you will be saving him or her from having to pull together a similar document on their own of your expected charges that need to be part of their departmental budget.

Hopefully you have developed a business plan and have talked to your clients about new services you would recommend and are working on commitments to implement those services in the up-coming year. If not, there is no time like the present to start building your business plan, both short and longer term. You need an arsenal of ideas to pull from. Strategically planning where you and your client are heading will help you add value and not just sell products or services for the sake of selling. Your clients will appreciate having a roadmap too.

Keep a summarized document of your contractual provisions that impact your revenue or that change. For example, if your contract includes a CPI increase, any pricing increases or decreases, performance incentives or penalties, summarize them in a separate document so you have a handy tool to jog your memory when you are budgeting or explaining variances month to month. It will also help you when you are issuing your client’s invoices. I even like to keep such a document posted in my office as I refer to it often.

Get a good handle on your expenses and how they might change. Work with Finance to give you salary and benefit data and summaries of your expenses month by month if it’s not readily available to you. Factor in any changes you are expecting in staffing, leaves, severance payments, one-time expenses, capital expenditures (for things like new computer equipment) or licensing fees, legal expenses or travel. Depending on how your employees are paid, make sure you factor in which months may have additional pay and benefit expenses if paid weekly or bi-weekly. Look at what your vendors are charging you and rebid contracts or try to negotiate lower rates if their fees appear high. Talk with other departments and make sure you understand any anticipated changes in expenses that may be allocated to you. If you can, budget something for team recognition or celebrations. Understand seasonal expenses, such as special events like annual enrollment where printing, postage, staffing and other expenses may be higher than other times of the year and when you are typically billed for those expenses. Use the data available to formulate plans on driving your expenses down so your cost continues to improve year over year. Maybe a one-time expense to automate a process may lead to longer-term savings. Consider how you can utilize offshoring if that is available to you.

Keep a running tally of your budget to your actuals and understand any differences and shifts in revenue and expenses. Hopefully you have tools available that will do this for you, but if not, build something yourself or work with Finance. You should be tracking this data every month so you can adjust your plans accordingly. It is not a one-time process and thus you need to be continually adapting to change and updating your plans. The more clients you manage, the easier it may be to compensate for fluctuations (or not), but you need to come up with a process that works for you.

Talk and Confer With your Client

You must talk with your client prior to submitting your budget and make sure you plan for changes in their organization. Although your client may not be aware of all changes or may not be able to share all of the changes, they certainly will be able to tell you how their company is doing in a broad sense, such as if they are growing, if they are in an acquisition or divestiture mode, or if they are planning an early retirement window or other downsizing event. The more you are aware of your client’s challenges, the better you will be able to plan. Certainly if you are billing your client by the head, you better be planning for any anticipated changes in your revenue stream based on their corporate initiatives or trends.

I will be so bold as to suggest sharing your budget (at least revenue expectations) with your client, how you came up with your estimates and when you are planning to bill for various projects. Your client will appreciate your transparency and you will be collaborating on your assumptions. Your client is probably best equipped to comment on your budget, but you need to give sufficient time for the discussion and not spring it on them 2 hours before your budget submission is due. Plan ahead.

Involve Your Team

Some of the best ideas I have seen for revenue growth opportunities or expense reduction have come from my teams. They are dealing with inefficiencies and hearing about our clients’ pain points every day. Have some brainstorming sessions with them as you build your business plan and don’t forget to involve them in the budget process. If they understand how the budget was developed and feel they had a voice in developing it, they will be much more receptive when you hold them accountable for keeping projects on time and help keep you from having variances between your actual and budgeted numbers.

A Word About Revenue Targets

In a perfect world, you will come up your revenue target based or your base fees and anticipated project-based work (based on your thorough analysis), what additional services you have sold your client and you may have even built in a cushion with your client for “unanticipated projects” so if something comes up there is still room in their budget to get additional work done without sacrificing other project work. In a perfect world, you will submit your budget, your revenue will be the right percentage higher than the prior year because you have done your homework on a reasonable growth rate for your industry and your expenses will be projected to be less than last year and your manager will be singing your praises in the halls about the profit you will be contributing to the bottom line. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that the first pass of your budget added up with those of your colleagues and other departments will show a short-fall between what was submitted and what was dictated by management as what was needed. So then the real fun begins.

Now management may come back and dictate your revenue target, calling the additional amount you need to contribute your “stretch” goals. Now you have a few options:

§ You can sit around and whine about it to your boss or peers, but generally this isn’t going to change anything, so probably not your best strategy.

§ You can pull out your business plan and see if there is anything on your list you could present to your client and reasonably accelerate. You talk with your peers and manager for additional ideas that you may have overlooked that make sense for your client. Hopefully your client hasn’t finalized his or her budget yet and you might be able to close another piece of business and feel confident you can make your stretch goals.

§ Maybe your analysis was so thorough that you know there is no way you are going to make your stretch numbers. So you pull together a presentation and schedule a meeting with Finance, your manager and possibly your group leader. You refine your numbers as best you can, and you negotiate the stretch revenue target as best you can. And the difference will need to become a plan to further reduce your expenses.

In the end, it helps no one to have an unrealistic target you can’t meet, but it equally helps no one if you are not proactive.

Learn From Your Mistakes

Try to document where your variances occur month to month and year over year. It can only help you get better. Have a plan. If things change during the year – a client cancels or adds a project or a project timeline changes, understand the impact it will have, and don’t forget to communicate with Finance. They will ultimately need to explain any variances.

Planning will be key in how successful you are in managing your P&L. Whether or not you enjoy this aspect of your job, learn to make your P&L one of your priorities and manage it, not let it manage you. Good luck, and I wish you much prosperity!

Please feel free to comment and let me know if I have helped you in anyway!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bad News Doesn't Get Better With Age!

A wise friend and colleague (let's call him Dave A.) provided me good and sound advice when he would tell me, "Bad news doesn't get better with age." We are all guilty of procrastinating when we need to deliver bad news whether it is to a client, a boss or even friends or family. Probably some of the worst conversations I have had with clients are when they have been caught off guard by a problem or issue, especially when it was their boss or one of their executives who alerted them.

It is human nature to want to delay picking up the phone to tell someone about a problem. It’s really an issue of conflict avoidance. Maybe you think your client will be angry or yell at you or think poorly of you or your team. I know I have been guilty of saying to a client, “Well, I was waiting to get all the facts before I called you.” Think about how that comes across to your client:

§ Trust is diminished in your partnership as you are basically telling him or her that you do not trust their reaction to an “early warning”.

§ Your client will think you are not looking out for them by leaving them in the dark when you are aware of an issue and they are exposed if their manager becomes aware of it before they do.

§ You are basically undermining their value by not allowing them to collaborate with you on the cause, depth or even resolution of the issue and how it should be communicated within their organization.

As difficult as it may be for you to make that call (and yes, it needs to be a call and not an e-mail), get over yourself and just do it and do it as quickly as you can! Although I do not recommend delegating who makes the call to the client, have a process in place that if you are not available, there is someone who will take responsibility for the alert. It’s been my experience that clients appreciate the heads-up and their reaction has never been as bad as I expected it to be. In almost all situations, my clients have ended the call by thanking me for letting them know. It also buys you more time to gather all the facts and come up with a plan to redefine a service improvement so that same issue does not happen again. Most importantly, I have found by having even that basic knowledge of an issue, it gives your contact a defense mechanism to support you. It enables them to say, “Yes, I am aware there is an issue, my contact is working on it and will give me more information.” This demonstrates that you and your contact are connected, partners and collaborating. What great messages that sends!

On a related note, make sure your entire team practices the “Bad news doesn’t get better with age!” concept. Some of the other most difficult conversations I have with clients have been when they have called me about an issue and I was out of the loop. Thus, it is critical that there is a process in place where you are notified almost immediately about “bad news”. When a client calls, they want to know you are in charge, you are helping to craft the resolution and that you will be following up with more specifics about the scope of the issue. They will also want to know what you will be implementing to avoid making the same mistake again. So make sure you are not demonstrating actions to your team that will make them slow to let you know. Don’t shoot the messenger or make them uncomfortable coming to you. As a senior team member, try to ask probing questions that will help facilitate getting to the heart of the issue sooner or offer reasonable resolutions that will be acceptable to the client. Show your appreciation for them getting you involved and help them craft the appropriate tone of the messages and the details. Be a positive not negative force in the process.

Last but not least, make sure that it’s not the only time you talk to your client is when you are delivering information about problems. So if one of the reasons you are reluctant to pick up the phone is that the last 5 times you talked to your contact it was about an issue, then you are not talking enough. Make sure you are bringing new ideas, trends and improvements to your clients too. Try to involve them in team celebrations, team recognitions and agree that at least quarterly you can summarize and discuss all that you and your team have accomplished. It will help balance the good with the bad and strengthen your overall relationship. And client recognition means as much if not more to your team than anything you can do.

In summary:

  1. Notify early about an issue or problem.
  2. Gather the facts as quickly as possible, including the cause, defining the scope of the issue and how you will improve your process to avoid making the same mistake again.
  3. Feed information along the way to your client (if necessary) that demonstrates you are taking the lead and are committed to keeping them informed.
  4. Make sure you follow-up and provide your client a full summary of the details and resolution as soon as you can.
  5. Make sure every individual on your team understands the escalation process so you are notified of any and all issues as quickly as possible.
  6. Be proactive and supportive in the resolution.
  7. Talk to your clients about the good and not just the bad and talk often.
I hope you can benefit from Dave A.’s advice, “Bad news doesn’t get better with age!” as much as I have and please feel free to give me your comments!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Benefits Outsourcing - A Perspective

I took my last job with the understanding that I was taking on a situation where my key account was losing millions, the service my team was providing this client was in bad shape, my team was turning over left and right and my client was really unhappy to the point of having regular calls with the firm's senior leadership. Unfortunately, in an industry where much of new business sales have come from underbidding, this is too often the case. The good news is that all of these issues are resolvable.

If this situation sounds all too familiar, read on.

Fixing the Service

In delving into my particular situation, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the actual service my team was providing was better than expected. In fact, we were even meeting all of our contractual performance targets. My team was hand-picked to resolve "the problem" and I couldn't have asked for a better team of hard-working, intelligent and qualified individuals. So why was my client so unhappy and why did they think our service was so poor? There were a few contributing factors here:

(1) Although larger projects were being well managed and deliverables were met timely, "simple" client requests were not logged or were handled through multiple channels, thus team members were promising reports or data without properly scaling the time involved with their other commitments. Thus, the client was not getting these smaller items when promised and there were no follow-up calls acknowledging the delay and demonstrating from the client's perspective a lack of commitment and also a lack of management.
(2) In trying to make the client happy from earlier service shortfalls, no one had truly defined what good service would look like and how anyone would know when it was achieved and how we could demonstrate that the service was sustained. Early attempts to make any sense of this resulted in setting very high and unrealistic expectations with the client that could not be achieved for the price that had been agreed in the service contract.
(3) In talking at length with the client and putting myself in their shoes, the most visible factor in defining poor service was the number of people who complained to their CEO or VPs which created days of work for them as well as us. Although out of thousands of cases we handled only about a dozen or so cases escalated, that meant someone on their team and mine was spending at least half of their time on situations that should have been resolved well before someone felt they needed to contact their CEO.

The first two issues are solved pretty obviously and quickly. We worked with the client and the team to funnel requests through particular resources, logged all requests in a central, easily accessible project log and made the managers accountable for delivering on-time with our commitments. If there was an issue or something was taking longer than originally expected, the client needed be told immediately about the delay and the reason. Open communication was key. In order for the client to see the great service they were getting, we created a color-coded report of the non-tangible performance that meant far more to them than the standard contractual performance that had been agreed to. We then reported those metrics weekly and focused our energies collectively on the areas that were below their expectations. Once we started reporting our progress and improvement and sustainability, the client started to understand the service they were getting as well as our commitment to them.

The third issue required a little more understanding as to what was being escalated to their management and needed a more involved resolution. First, our customer service reps needed more training, our administrative staff needed more commitment to resolving issues quickly and we needed to implement a different service model for our retirement and survivor counseling to provide a "white-glove approach" for those types of cases. Once we implemented our new service model and measured customer satisfaction, not only did the escalations almost cease, but it was a turning point in the entire client relationship.

Fixing the Team Turnover

As I indicated previously, I was blessed to have an awesome team in place for my client, they were not easily replaceable and they were key to setting plans in motion for building a strong client relationship as well as critical for continued service improvements. In a complex and technical service environment, high team turnover will certainly create performance gaps. So why was my team running out the door? The main reason was lack of appreciation. The year before I started my job, bonuses were not paid, future bonuses were uncertain and people were obviously not happy in general. In addition, the client was directing their frustration and hostility toward the people who were working hard to improve their service. Again, easily fixable problems.

The first thing I did was reach out to my client and ask for their help. In pointing out their part in my turnover issue, they immediately relaxed their approach with my team and my managers and agreed to more face-to-face time as well as subtle team building functions like coming in a little early for a meeting so we could have dinner and get to know each other on a different level. I was actually surprised when I learned that many of my managers had not ever met their counterparts face-to-face and that all their interactions had been by phone. It is amazing what face time will do to strengthen a client relationship on multiple levels. I was also extremely fortunate to have a client who understood the value and importance of building a great relationship and who so willingly agreed to make that investment in my team.

As a long-time manager, I never feel I do enough to recognize achievements, but in this case, I really did try to make it one of my priorities if not one of my actual goals. Although the bonus situation was not within my direct control, I took advantage of any way I could to recognize the team. My company had a gift card program were I could hand out gift cards to team members for little awards. I made up certificates to hand out for recognition that the team could post in their cubicles or offices so others would see that they had been recognized for a service improvement or a new idea. I purchased some novelty gifts to hand out and bought some gifts through the company store to distribute. As the service improved and we could streamline and cut some expenses, I was able to turn some of the savings into team bonuses and awarded as many people on the team as I could for their part in making us better. I even updated some of our old PCs and laptops to reduce the frustration of not being able to work efficiently. I looked at each and every team member and made sure they were aligned in the correct job titles which allowed me to increase salaries of my key performers. I threw in a few team pizza parties and a bowling celebration and helped the managers communicate our goals so everyone understood their part in the plan to make us a world-class operation. Although we lost a few team members along the way, overall, our turnover became a non-issue with some much needed attention to team recognition and open communication. And, I did all this while staying within my expense budget.

Fixing the Finances

Over the years I have learned I can not solve all issues on my own. Just like when my clients have a problem, I want them to pick up the phone and ask for my help, if I have a problem that impacts them, I will be open with them. So, when I inherited a financial situation that was losing millions of dollars, I did not feel that I could solve this issue on my own without involving my client in the decisions I needed to make. First, I needed to "prove" to my client that we were losing the kind of money that we were talking about - at a level of detail most of us would normally not feel comfortable discussing with a client. Next we needed to agree that I would aggressively reduce all the expenses that I could through process and technology improvements while not lowering their service. And then, we needed to get realistic about what the spirit of their contract agreed to and what performance was important to them that was well beyond what was contractual. We needed to get pretty creative in how I could increase my revenue by achieving high performance or how I would pay penalties for missing performance. There had to be enough skin in the game that the incentives or penalties actually mattered. Did I mention that my client turned out to be awesome? Well, they are a world-class company and they realized that although we had a contract, they also realized that we couldn't continue to lose millions each year without making decisions that would give them less than world-class service. My service ultimately being a reflection on them, we needed to solve my financial issue jointly. Now I'm not saying that this was an easy discussion or something that happened overnight. But I am saying that if you are losing money on an account, you need to involve your client in shaping the decisions you are going to make as partners. My client was an equal partner in coming to the table with solutions. And sometimes you need to be creative and non-traditional in re-negotiating certain contractual terms so both of you feel good about the outcome. And of course, you need to have a strong relationship and have gained credibility by addressing the other issues I talked about.

Lessons Learned

The lessons here are pretty obvious, but let me summarize:

(1) Communicate, communicate and then communicate some more. Be open with your team and be open with your clients.
(2) Involve your team and your clients in your decisions. No man is an island and certainly more heads are better than one!
(3) With the right team, you can achieve great things. I am still in awe of the things my team accomplished. They made me look good as well as my company. Show you appreciate them any way you can.
(4) Listen. I have found most of my clients are much smarter than me and they are pretty open with what they want and most of the time will tell you how to do it. They are also usually more creative than me and not bogged down by thoughts of industry standards. Don't be afraid to branch out and add performance standards into your contracts that really matter to your clients and better demonstrate how good your service really is, but make sure you can measure them. And certainly give some thought to the amount of your performance incentives or penalties. I have seen numerous contracts over the years that it would cost me more to achieve a performance bonus that I would make in revenue, so then where is the incentive?
(5) Face time with your clients is invaluable. Need I say more?
(6) Clients want a trusted partner, but trust goes both ways. Learn to trust your clients the way you want them to trust you. Always be honest and certainly be open. And, as a good friend of mine always says, bad news doesn't get better with age, so pick up the phone and they will appreciate you more.
(7) Last but not least, have a plan and execute the plan. Come back to it often and make sure you are on track. And it really is great when a plan comes together.

Today, all of the issues I started with are resolved and the client renewed their contract because the relationship is strong and the service they get is world-class. Clients are not easily replaced, so treat them well.

I hope some of the ideas here will help you with your own situation, but please feel free to comment or tell me how you approached a situation differently.