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The Right Kind of Work

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Productivity is pretty important, but it had better apply to the right sort of work.

Even if your employees are incredibly efficient at whatever they do, if their work no longer brings substantial value to the table, your business could evaporate.

The failure to automate the work that can and should be automated will eventually push your costs out of line with the competition. If some of the work you do now could be automated without losing quality, you have to take an honest look at it.

Remember…If you don’t address this issue, the marketplace will do it for you.

If you’ve ever had to lay someone off, you know it isn’t fun. When they walk out for the last time, they have to go home and tell their family and they have to figure out what’s next. It won’t feel any better that it happened because you weren’t paying attention – and it certainly won’t help you to be understaffed.

In order to avoid this, you have to look for places to become more efficient. It has to be done without losing quality, distinction or value. It’s possible that your choice becomes your new edge and that the staffer who was doing the low value work ends up managing the process that replaced their labor.

Are you still doing the right things?

Sometimes, automation isn’t enough. You realize (or the market tells you) that you’re doing the wrong work.

Every month, you have to ask yourself about your business and about your people, “Am I doing the right sort of work? If not, am I ready to? If not, what do I have to do to get there?”

If your work can be outsourced easily, you’re living on borrowed time.

If you’re a middleman adding zero value, you’re living on borrowed time.

You already know this if you’re paying attention and being honest with yourself. Even so, it’s nothing to be ashamed of unless you ignore it. Everyone faces market challenges but we don’t have to seek them out and invite them in for dinner.

There’s nothing that says you have to do what you do now, that your people can’t learn a new skill that someone places a high value these days or that your business can’t start making something that people will line up to buy.

The kind of work you should be seeking is the kind of work that produces real value and/or requires taking real responsibility for what you deliver.

Think about the vendors who serve your business. How many of them take real responsibility for the products and services they provide? Now consider the vendor you’d NEVER fire. You know why. They care as much as you do.

What if you don’t want to change?

“Boy, the way Glenn Miller played”…

Edith and Archie sang that song in the 70s about music from decades earlier, looking back upon what they saw as their golden years.

No matter how wonderful those golden years were, no matter what decade they were in, now isn’t then. Even in 1939, the handwriting was on the wall for Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.

If you warmly recall that time two, three or even four decades ago when your area had low unemployment, the best jobs, more work than you could do and close to the highest per capita wages in the country.

Those decades are long gone. So are many of the high-paying jobs that were valued back then. Just like that steam shovel.

Everyone deals with it.

Many “middle class” jobs of a century ago (like coal and ice delivery) were steady jobs. They’re gone. It’s not much different with many of the jobs from 20-30-40 years ago.

If this describes your business, understand that I’m not trying to make light of that. I was trained as a programmer. 20 years later, tens of millions of people in India, the Ukraine, China and elsewhere can do what most “first world” programmers do for $10-20 an hour. I understand the competitive pressures.

If your work can be outsourced at $10-20 an hour, you have to ask yourself…”How much value do I really deliver?”

Take charge. Do the right work.



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Not a nerd? Not a problem.

Creative Commons License photo credit: f_mafra

If you’ve been reading what’s going on in the economy, it seems like a fair percentage of the new jobs that are still out there are going to technical people.

Even today in Silicon Valley, the number of applicants in the job pool for a specific skill are roughly equal to the number of open jobs in that niche.

Meanwhile, local employers here in Montana are telling me they get 100-300 resumes/applications for every open job they post – which isn’t too many right now.

Every day, more and more jobs involve technical knowledge. Even tattoos are technical these days, as evidenced by the ink on this girl’s neck.

It’s html, the language used to create web pages.

Technical people

When I say “technical people”, I mean programmers, engineers and similar folks.

While some of the work these folks do can be outsourced, the work that isn’t tends to require local cultural context that isn’t often available to the technical person in another country.

Cultural context means a knowledge of the culture of the target market for the product you’re designing. Some products require it, some do not.

For example, an electrical engineer in almost any country or region of the world can design a cell phone component because “everyone” knows what a cell phone is and how it’s used.

The same isn’t always true when the design target is something in the cultural context of a particular area.

If you are in the U.S. or Canada, would you know the important aspects of designing a motorized trike designed for the streets of Delhi or Shanghai? Probably not, unless you have traveled extensively and spent time in those places.

That doesn’t mean you can’t learn those critical design points or someone from that region can’t learn those specific to work in the U.S. and Canada, but there is a learning curve.

Not all jobs require that context. Quite often, when you look at the jobs that have been outsourced, you’ll find that those jobs were lost because those jobs *can* be outsourced.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t technical. It simply means that they are technical but anyone with the skills can perform them – no matter what culture they grew up in.

Lots of people get really angry about that, just like they got angry at steam engines, the cotton gin and other advances that changed how our economy works. Meanwhile, that outsourced job went to some guy in somewhere who’s trying to feed his kids like everyone else. He might be making $1.10 a day doing that work, but it could be twice his previous pay.

Regardless of what the pay is, that’s a job that COULD be outsourced. Technical or not, it’s too general.

I received this (redacted) email from a friend today who has forgotten more enterprise network stuff than I’ll ever know.

So now I have another big contract.

These guys build big infrastructure for municipalities and large facilities. Perfect shovel ready stuff for millions of dollars and several years putting America back to work.

My job …. getting a working solution that allows them to move the technical work to a big city outside the US. Seems those folk need the work a LOT more than their counterparts who happen to be in, of all places, a city here in the US).

This is not the first time I have had a project where the purpose was to move American jobs overseas but it sucks more and more each time.

Add the that the fact that the Sr. Management team for this company is amazingly draconian with amazing bad morale and it proves that some people truly have just about sold out to the highest bidder.

The technical work being outsourced here is highly technical, but it is also generalized. It has no local context that matters, has nothing substantial to differentiate it, nothing to keep the work from being done elsewhere, whether elsewhere is Kansas or Kazakhstan.

Not a nerd

What if you aren’t “technical” in the context I’ve described here? Let’s say you’re a cabinet maker (which to me seems very technical).

Have you made the effort to determine what needs these specialized businesses have? Their success and their specialized needs might fuel yours.

Just an example, but worth some thought and perhaps, some effort.

Not being outsourced is as much your responsibility as anyone’s. Make the effort.

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The Freedom To Hire

O OUTRO LADO DO MEDO Ã? A LIBERDADE (The Other Side of the Fear is the Freedom)
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I‘ve been listening carefully over the last month as a number of people offered their analysis of the jobs problem in today’s economy.

One thread of discussion from a sizable number of folks really stuck out.

“It’s health care reform. No one is going to hire anyone until that’s resolved.”

Generally speaking, I understand the fear, but I think it’s uncalled for in the U.S.

Over There

In some countries, you can be stuck with a new hire “for life”.

Such policies were designed to grow employment and increase consumer spending, but like many things viewed from only one angle – they’ve also had (and continue to have) a slight to significant dampening effect on hiring.

Think about it – if you knew that the next employee you hired was yours “for life” (or say, 10-20 years), you might choose to either contract out that work – or just avoid the work altogether if you can.

Avoiding profit-generating work doesn’t exactly sound like a way to grow your business.

Not in the U.S.

That isn’t what we’re facing here in the U.S.

While you could argue about the pluses and minuses of the Affordable Care Act (ACA / HCR ) forever, what I’m hearing is a genuine HCR-driven fear of hiring.

The primary reasons stated revolve around employers concerned with ever-increasing health care benefit costs. Thing is, these costs have been rising at about 10% per year since at least 2004 in both good and bad economies without ACA / HCR.

Or they hear about the penalties for not having health insurance, which are $2000 per full-time employee per year. While that is LESS than the annual cost of providing a qualifying health insurance plan for employees, even that is misleading because the penalty doesn’t apply to everyone. Back to that in a minute.

Until you know the details, it’s EASY to see how it might make someone think twice about hiring an $8-12 an hour part-time clerical employee. Adding that $2000 cost to their $8 an hour salary effectively adds another $38 a week to their full-time pay, moving them to about $8.97 an hour.

Normally, I’d suggest that you shouldn’t have an employee who isn’t generating at least three times their wages in revenue, but in lean times, I suspect most employers have figured that out.

Still, that $2000 still sticks out.

Did I mention that many of you won’t have to pay it?

The Smallest

In addition to being exempt from penalties, the smallest businesses (with less than 30 full-time workers) get a tax credit for the coverage they provide.

According to IRS form 8941, the Small Business Health Care Tax Credit for Small Employers:

“an employer or tax-exempt organization must have fewer than 25 full-time equivalent employees (“FTEs”) for the tax year, and pay less than $50,000 in average annual wages per FTE. As explained in an IRS press release, the maximum credit available under this program for tax years 2010 to 2013 is 35 percent of premiums paid by eligible small business employers and 25 percent of premiums paid by eligible employers that are tax-exempt organizations. The maximum tax credit will increase starting in 2014 to 50 percent of premiums paid by eligible small business employers and 35 percent of premiums paid by eligible, tax-exempt organizations for two years.”

Escaped Goats

Larger employers worry about the penalties for not providing a plan – but those don’t apply until you have at least 50 full-time employees (or the equivalent) excluding seasonal workers who work fewer than 120 days. For some employers, it will be cheaper to cancel your business insurance and pay the penalty than to offer an employee health insurance plan. Go figure.

Will this change? Like everything in business, probably.

While you take the wait and see approach, your competition is strategically growing their business.

Be Unpredictable

I’ll make it easy for you.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you don’t believe a word of this and that you think the ACA / HCR bill is going to get a lot tougher for employers.

Still, you’ve got that pesky mortgage.

Sell the work. Contract out what you have to. Bullish? Go crazy and hire someone whose work might transform your business.

The political stuff will be unpredictable no matter what you do. May as well go kick some butt.

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Romeo Oscar Kilo Uniform Hotel Echo Lima Papa

Overweb :: Midori cluster
Creative Commons License photo credit: br1dotcom

That’s military phonetics for “Roku Help”.

Last month, I bought a Roku XD-S so we could watch Netflix on our TV rather than on a laptop.

It’s a fine unit for streaming Netflix and (probably) Amazon Video-on-Demand, Major League Baseball on demand and so on.

The interface was a little disappointing because I hoped to be able to queue Netflix DVDs from it, but the primary function was streaming and at that it performs quite well.

Trouble is, the Wii that we never use (it was a gift) now plays Netflix as well, so we no longer need the Roku. The last thing we need is another box and more wires under the TV.

Beam me up

So I use the Roku support form on their website to ask for a RMA. I would have called them, but nowhere on their site does it say “DO THIS TO RETURN YOUR UNIT”, despite the lovely graphics saying “30 day unconditional return policy”.

The next day, I get an email saying “We don’t do RMAs by email, please call 888-600-7658.”

That’s fine, so I call.

I get transferred overseas, judging from the accent of the very nice man who answers the phone.

While his command of English is an order of magnitude (or several) better than my command of his native tongue, we have accents to deal with. Both of us.

We end up using military phonetics for TWENTY-THREE minutes because we can’t communicate very well, primarily due to our accents.

Throw in 5s, 9s, Cs, Ss and Fs and we had a jolly time.

Focus: Customer Experience

Shipping your tech support overseas doesn’t bother me, as long as the internal feedback chain remains in place and the customers are served well.

Putting people on the phone who require Hotel Echo Lima Papa (“H E L P”) to be understood (and to understand the caller) does your company a disservice and alienates customers – regardless of what their native tongue might be.

The guy did an admirable job and given our communication issues, showed great patience. Neither of us got angry. I got what I needed.

But 23 minutes to get a RMA because names, email addresses, street addresses and so on have to be communicated in military phonetic alphabet creates a horrid customer experience.

As a small business owner, you probably aren’t even considering moving your customer support overseas. But are you doing something else that creates a customer experience that is this slow and unproductive?

As I said last Friday, “follow the paper”.

PS: Shortly after the call, I received an email with the details of the RMA, shipment and packing info, etc. We got it right, but the email was a ton faster and crystal clear. The SAME rep could have serviced that request perfectly via email in 2 minutes, rather than spending 23 minutes on the phone.

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Adobe misses the outsourcing boat

2 of 3 Coast Guard 47' Motor Lifeboat performs storm exercises in wild surf at Morro Bay
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Would you find it odd if McDonald’s outsourced their burger cooking to Joe’s Diner or Burger King? What about Global Burger Associates?

If they did so, would they know if the quality of their food dropped?

What’s my point? My point is that you don’t farm out core competencies.

While I hadn’t noticed it because I haven’t asked them for customer service help in years, Adobe recently posted an open letter to their customers about the quality of their customer service in recent times.

The letter discusses the fact that they have a new global services vendor and how they are quickly working to get this vendor up to speed.

Sad, really.

Not that outsourcing thing, though that is unfortunate – regardless of who is doing the work.

What’s sad is that this work isn’t viewed as important enough to handle it themselves, ie: with Adobe employees.

I’ve heard all the arguments. IMO, they’re all wrong.

As wrong as liver-flavored ice cream

Farming out your customer service and support to some other company is just plain stupid. Not only that, it ignores the asset that customer service and support are.

You just don’t farm out an asset like customer service to another company.

What data are they missing by outsourcing support/service duties to another company?

It’s possible that they have access to the database, but is it integrated with their own customer/order database?

Can their developers access this remote system when they need to find out what is causing their customers’ pain?

Can their developers meet face to face with the support staff when dealing with an issue of substantial magnitude?

I don’t know. Maybe. My guess is “sorta” rather than “No”.

But those answers would be “Yes” if they felt it was important enough to do it themselves.

Assets, not liabilities

If you have 5,000 customer service employees who can provide great care for your customers and your competition has 5,000 outsourced customer service contractors who can provide great care for their customers – who has the assets?

Who can leverage the skills they have in-house? Who is building a base of employees with in-depth product and customer knowledge? Aren’t those the people you want to promote in order to strengthen your company?

Not the outsourced one.

Customer service and support are not an expense to be outsourced to the low bidder, nor to that “premium global services” vendor down the street or across the globe.

They’re an asset to care for, leverage and tend to with the utmost respect, just like your customers.

No, it isn’t easy. If it was easy…anyone could do it.

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Think you’re too busy? Here’s how to get 6 extra WEEKS this year

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If I only had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “I wish I could clone myself” (or every time they wrote it).

Maybe even a dime:)

It’s a pretty common thing for people to say. There are over 2200 google hits on that exact quote (ie: search google with ” on each end of the sentence).

Everyone is busy, but are they getting anything done? Probably lots of stuff. Stuff that lands in front of them like a TV commercial. “Oh, I’ll just deal with this because it’s in front of me”.

That sort of thing.

But what exactly are they getting done?

Maybe a more accurate question is “Are they getting anything done that actually moves them toward the goals of the business?”

“Anything” is probably a bad choice of words. How about “lots of things” or “as much as you expected”?

We could talk about distractions all day – but wouldn’t that be a distraction? 🙂

The point about today is cloning.

What work are you doing?

Think about what you did today or yesterday, or some randomly selected “average day”.

How much of that pushed you and made you think?

How much of it was something you considered real work, ie: stuff that required to you focus and that was something hard?

How much of it require your strongest capabilities as a business person – those things that you wouldn’t DARE let anyone else do?

Was that half of your day? One third of your day? Or maybe 20 minutes of your day?

I’ll cut you some slack and assume it was half of your day. I think the number is far smaller, but we can argue about that later.

If you worked for 8 hours on this so-called average day, then you spent 4 hours of that day doing stuff that presumably could be done by an administrative assistant, a freelance local web person, the local print shop, or an independent accountant.

Paying the bill

Yes, these outside vendors cost money. So let’s find a way to pay for it.

If you could increase (say by 50%) the amount of the work that you get done, would you make any more money? In the case of your average day, I’m talking about 2 hours.

Specifically, if you could get 50% more of that “real work, requires absolute focus, needs your strongest capabilities, really makes you think” kind of work, wouldn’t your business be doing a LOT better?

We’ll assume you get 50% more because nothing is perfect and even 50% is such a big number that you might even do better once you get a taste of it:)

Doing the math to find money

Using your average day, you just got an extra 2 hours of serious work per day.

Multiply that times 3 days a week. I picked 3 days because I’m assuming you’ll get this right perhaps 60% of the time.

Now multiple that times 40 weeks per year. I picked 40 weeks, figuring that you’ll not do this for 12 weeks per year given travel, vacations, sick time, conventions, chamber of commerce events, trade shows and other distractions that you’ll manage to come up with.

So, how much time did you just find?

Two times 3 times forty is 240. Two hundred and forty hours. 6 work weeks. A month and a half. 30 full days of work.

How much is that worth to your bottom line?

If you have employees, many of them fall into the same trap. What’s that worth?

Yes, it’ll cost something to outsource that other work or hire someone as an employee to do it – but look at the cost of NOT doing so.

Don’t assume that I’m suggesting that you outsource this work to someone in East Bananastan and pay them $0.12 an hour. This will pay off in spades even if you pay a local $50-75 an hour to get the right work done.

Will it make you more competitive? Will it improve the quality of the really important work your business does?

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Keeping your focus

One of the things essential to getting your business systemized and streamlined is farming out the stuff that you really don’t have any business doing. The key to systemizing work to external vendors is choosing the right vendor for the right job. IE: qualified, technically able to produce the work, has the right equipment, etc.

For me, printing is an easy one to farm out. But I didn’t always do that.

It’s a little like a 12 step program for me, as I’ve got several printers here, yet my printing still gets done all over the place:)

I have a duplexing B&W laser that I use for every day stuff, but I still don’t print the newsletters for my newsletter service using that printer. Tried that once (for mine, not for a client’s), let’s just say that was a bad idea:)

I have a fancy color laser. That sucker will eat up $500 in no time flat. 4 toner cartridges at $80+ each and a drum at $200+. Expensive to use, but it produces nice output in low volumes. But, it doesn’t print full bleed – ie: ink out to the edge – that’s something I go to a local print shop or online service for.

Local print shops work fine for simple jobs that don’t require complex data merges (IE: having “Dear Mark” printed on 1 postcard and “Dear Mary” printed on the next one). There are some other more sophisticated things that I avoid with them, but they do work well for my newsletters because those pieces are 1 color, use standard folds and don’t use elaborate papers, perforations or other services.

More often than not, when the job is outside the ability of those 3 resources, I’ll end up going with an online service for complicated printing jobs. One thing where this crops up repeatedly is large format printing. I found a nifty service that office supply stores started offering not long ago. They print pretty good sized stuff, though they are limited in size. Some of them even have nice online interfaces so you don’t even have to leave home.

When I’m involved in event marketing, I usually need the services of a sophisticated print service. Usually events involve poster printing, complex folding, special papers, tickets and/or seals, which are not the kinds of things that most local print shops are up to. Because I’m in a rural area, I go online to make the fancy stuff happen.

As you can see, there isn’t a one size fits all solution for me, at least for this type of work. I suspect you’ll find the same thing.

But – it isn’t just about printing. You’ll often find businesses outsourcing graphic design, web site work, and any number of other technical and artistic tasks.

What can you farm out that you just don’t need to be doing? Could be any number of things, just make sure it isn’t your core business.

That’s why you’re farming stuff out, remember…so you can focus on the core of your business.