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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring & Bart Jackson was prepared for the April 21, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Making Working At Home Work
House Hunters, a popular HGTV program, follows individuals and families as they decide that their current digs no longer serve their needs, and set out to find a new home. In episode after episode, a key problem is a need for more office space. The bedroom is full of his work files, the family has to tip-toe around as she attempts to run a business from the dining room, or the pool table in the family room has been replaced by his and hers computer work stations.
What is going on here? Is everyone working from home?
Well, maybe not everyone, but a significant number of people are referring to the spare bedroom or the breakfast nook when they say they are “going to the office.”
“A growing number of people are self-employing,” is how Christopher Hansen puts it. He speaks on “Three Steps to Succeed in the New Economy” on Wednesday, April 21, at 6 p.m. at the National Association of Women Business Owners, Central Jersey Chapter, at Branches restaurant in Long Branch. Cost: $35. Call 732-263-1300.
Hansen, a native of Jersey City, worked as a lab technician for a chemical manufacturer right out of high school. But he realized that “if you don’t have a B.A., you won’t get anywhere,” at least not in the corporate world. He switched to sales, and worked for a large retailer for a number of years. He then began to see the limitations of that choice, too.
“I saw men in their 50s being canned or demoted,” he recalls. “I realized I would be 50 one day.” Not wanting his fate to be in the hands of an indifferent company, he started up an office products business. His company, Advanced Copier and Data Supplies, was housed in retail space for 24 years, but he recently sold it, and started doing business out of his home.
He implies that the rising dominance of Staples, Office Depot, and other mega-retailers were an impetus. “People with huge budgets can have retail,” he says. His business is now concentrated in the commercial niche of selling to schools and municipalities.
In any case, Hansen, who has turned much of the operation of his business to his son, is busy with the passion of his professional life, the Home Based Business Council (www.hbbc.org), a non-profit advocacy group he started in 1995. In his view, people laboring at home, a great many of them accidental entrepreneurs, need help on a number of fronts.
“Most new businesses are being started by individuals with no experience in business and no contacts in business,” says Hansen. “Joe Blow says ‘here’s two weeks severance pay. Good-bye.” The newly unemployed spend their first months on the street looking for a job. “But,” he says, “there are none.” While that may be a slight exaggeration, there is no denying that there is a reason that the current economic uptick is being called a “jobless” recovery. “In each of the last 10 years, 1 million jobs have been lost,” says Hansen, “and they’re not coming back.”
Society is in the midst of an upheaval that, in his words, “will make the Industrial Revolution look like a little blip.” We are heading to a future, he says, where only a tiny fraction of the working population will have actual jobs. Everyone else will be left to look for interim work.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, he concedes, saying that even the most unprepared downsizing victim rarely wants to return to corporate life once he has gotten a taste of working for himself.
Hansen’s beef with the emerging trend, and the focus of his advocacy efforts, is that society is putting huge road blocks in front of legions of new entrepreneurs, people who never wanted to be setting up shop on the kitchen table, but who have no other way of putting food on that table.
One such obstacle is zoning. Home offices are illegal in many parts of the country and in much of New Jersey. Hansen pushed hard to make home offices legal for many years, but he has now given up entirely. “It was the greatest exercise in futility I have ever been involved in,” he says. “It will never change. And this despite the fact that he puts the number of New Jersey home-based businesses at 750,000 and says that is a conservative estimate.
A problem that is even more of an issue for many home-based businesses is the matter of health insurance. “In a survey we did five months ago,” he says, “we found that affordable health insurance was the number one concern of home-based businesses.” The vast majority of individuals running companies from home are uninsured, he says. This problem gets bigger and bigger with every wave of downsizing.
“We’re the only developed country in the world where health insurance is linked to employment,” he says. Fewer jobs quickly translates into more people without health care coverage.
A third big issue for the home-based business is access to capital. “Most are financed with love money and credit cards,” says Hansen. He defines “love money” as funding that comes from a new entrepreneur’s savings or from his family. It shouldn’t be this way, he insists, especially as so many of the country’s biggest employers make shrinking their payrolls a top priority.
Still, this reluctant entrepreneur can succeed — and indeed can thrive. Here is Hansen’s advice for making the difficult transition:
Identify key skills. Hansen is down on the country’s mainstream educational system. Its emphasis on conformity, in his opinion, in no way prepares students for the free-form economy that is starting to materialize. Graduates are wonderfully prepared for a lock-step, 40-year career with a corporate giant, but are lost when they have to create their own work.
A first step for graduates of this system — and that would be nearly everyone — is to sit quietly, think deeply, and come up with a list of key skills.
“Stop looking at what opportunities are out there and trying to mold yourself to fit them,” he urges. “Ask yourself ‘what are my skills and talents? What can I do without even thinking about it?’” Most people don’t even know, he says. They have never given the matter a moment’s thought.
Find markets for these skills. After skills are identified, they need to be matched to existing needs — whether or not anyone has identified these needs. “Look to the marketplace through the filter of strengths,” says Hansen. “Ask ‘who needs me?’” Look for the kinds of people, places, and things that are opportunity rich.
Get help. A big mistake many new entrepreneurs make, says Hansen, is spending too much time on the business of running a business and not enough time on working in the areas where their skills lie. “If you spend 51 percent of your time doing those things in which you have talent, you will not feel depleted,” he promises. “You will not be asking ‘is it worth it?’”
The key to this arrangement is outsourcing business tasks. An inspirational speaker probably should turn his accounting over to a bookkeeper, and an accountant should probably turn her PR campaign over to a marketing pro.
Hansen created his own business niche, and is thoroughly enjoying his work. He knows that most people — a good 95 percent by his reckoning — really want a job, benefits, and office mates. For many, that future is no longer a possibility. But the kind of self-designed work life he that has carved out for himself is well within everyone’s reach.
Go about it in the right way, and you may be surprised to find that a pink slip was the best piece of corporate correspondence you ever received. After all, none of the scores of home based business people profiled on House Hunters ever talk about scrapping their home offices. They just want bigger and better home offices — preferably with lots of light, and adjoining bathroom, and a view of the garden.
The Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association provides advice to mid-level and senior women on rising to the top of their profession during its upcoming seminar. “Surviving and Thriving in the Executive Suite” takes place on Thursday, April 22, at 5:30 p.m. at Schering Plough in Kenilworth. Cost: $55. Call 215-625-0111.
Julie Kampf, principal in Englewood-based executive search firm JBK Associates, moderates a panel discussion with Carol Ammon, CEO of Endo Pharmaceuticals; Sharon D’Agostino, president of the Aveeno and Clean and Clear divisions of Johnson & Johnson; and Lelia O’Connor, founder of Ngil So Consulting.
During the discussion, panelists will share advice on seven topics, including “strategizing, systemizing, and even exercising” their way to the top. Kampf says the leaders will then talk about the tools they use to hang on to their positions. Break-out sessions, with time for questions, follow. There will also be advice from career consultants.
Women in healthcare have the same concerns as men, and some different concerns as well. Work/life balance is a big topic at the group’s meetings, but so is career advancement. In an interview just hours before the final episode of the Apprentice is to air, Kampf says that it is important for women to network to boost one another up the healthcare career ladder. Interesting, there has been widespread criticism of the behavior of the women who competed on television for an executive position with the Trump organization. They were accused of exerting far too much energy in undermining one another.
Perhaps they will be free of their television obligations by the 22nd and will be available to listen in on the mutually-helpful career advancement advice being dispensed at the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association event.
We love anger. It is arguably America’s favorite negotiating tool. “You bonehead, I’ve gone through three know-nothings who couldn’t fix your lousy, overpriced software and they finally pushed me off on you,” shouts the customer. How do you respond? Do you give it right back to this abusive stranger? Or do you try to pour a little oil on the troubled waters? Whatever the strategy, the next words out of your mouth are most critical.
The fine art of “Defusing Difficult Customer Situations,” as deconstructed by communications trainer Phil Bruschi is just one of a series of seminars taking place at the 16th annual conference honoring administrative professionals at the Mercer County Community Conference Center on Friday, April 23, at 9 a.m. Other workshops at the day-long event: “Crime Prevention and Self Defense” by Mercer County Sheriff Kevin Larkin; “Power Tools for Women” by author Joni Daniels; and “Business Protocol” by consultant Georgia Donovan. Cost: $129. Visit www.mccc.edu/cc or call 609-890-9624.
The initial burden of defusing enraged customers falls directly on employers. Every job applicant makes a point of telling potential employers that he is “a people person.” Truth is, not everyone has the personality or skills. “Business owners must select those few individuals who can continuously deal with the public in a calm, dispassionate manner,” says Bruschi.
Discovering exactly what does calm upset customers, and teaching these methods, has been a major, but by no means the only, thrust of Bruschi’s varied career. After growing up in Hamilton Township, Bruschi headed south to Kentucky’s Murray State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree with a double major in theater arts and speech arts, followed by a master’s degree in personal communications.
Returning to New Jersey, Bruschi became human resource director for corporations and government agencies. He kept a hand in the academic world, teaching speech communications at three New Jersey colleges. Then recently, Bruschi attacked the national epidemic of failing memories by founding Mind Aerobics, a Yardley-based consulting company (www.mindaerobics.biz). His memory retention methods are explained in his books “Mind Aerobics” and “Memory Fitness in Later Years.”
Bruschi notes that a main cause of workplace anger is that more and more business is conducted impersonally, via telephone, E-mail, and Instant Messages. With no trend toward more intimate business relationships on the radar, he warns businesses to expect more upset customers. To counter them, Bruschi sets forth his customer-soothing plan with the simple acronym of DEFUSE.
Don’t take criticism personally. Typically, the customer is complaining about his broken or delayed goods, the incredible inconvenience in getting through to you, and the perhaps the sub-par help given him in the past. Even if he is truly upset with you personally, odds are entering into a screaming match with him will win you neither a solution nor a repeat customer. (You are in business to make money through customers, remember?)
“While you are not this individual’s enemy,” insists Bruschi, “you, personally, are the representative of your company from the moment you meet him.” The customer himself already assumes this. In the opening scenario, note how the irate caller refers to it as “your lousy, overpriced software.” In his mind, you created it, sold it, took home all the profit, and should be the person to fix it.”
This view of you as the embodiment of the whole firm affords you a great chance to show off your business. Every effort you make to solve his problem, save his time, and get him back on track will be seen (and touted) as the typical policy of your firm.
Exercise your best listening ability. “Don’t just listen to the words,” says Bruschi. “Feel his annoyance and give a little empathy.” Your job is not to figure out how you can dodge this complainer’s bullet, but rather to figure out how to have him walk away from your shop feeling well served. Everybody wants to be heard and heard thoroughly. Even if you have a magic solution, don’t cut the customer off in mid-sentence and ram your quick fix down his throat.
Figure out what’s wrong. It is seldom easy, but it is vital to sift through the emotion and get down to the real problem. One calming trick to set customers on the fact tract is to begin taking notes while they are screaming at you. If you are within sight, let him see you writing. If you are speaking on the phone, let him hear you typing. Instantly, he gets the idea that you are trying to work out a solution. At the very least, this generally makes him slow down and become more coherent.
Sometimes, the complainant just wants to be heard. Sometimes he may actually want vengeance, and will ask to see an employee reprimanded or even dismissed. Or maybe he just desperately wants the goods delivered today. If he sees you taking him seriously, perhaps by making a flurry of calls yourself instead of referring him to another department, he will generally be grateful, and will calm down.
Use non-threatening words. Bruschi advises anyone dealing with the public to develop a stock of effective words and phrases that carry concern, but not blame. Telling a customer, “you didn’t do this right” is less likely to put out a fire than “maybe we can try to tweak it this way to get it repaired.” Fix the problem, not the blame. “Starting your sentences with “I” rather than “You” shows the customer that you personally are taking the responsibility,” says Bruschi.
Don’t give orders to an already seething client. Offer suggestions instead. Whatever words you choose, make sure that “it is our policy” are not among them. That may be the most off-putting phrase in the entire business vocabulary.
Finally, insists Bruschi, don’t say it if you don’t mean it. Our stores are filled with part-time workers who have been trained to dutifully chant to each customer, “have a nice day.” The transparent insincerity is rarely appreciated by any customer, and can send an irate one off the deep end.
Stay focused on the problem. Concentrating on the problem, rather than on the customer, is not only a more efficient use of your time, but of your customer’s time as well. Ask enough questions, and keep them open ended, allowing for a full response. But once you’ve gotten all the notes, don’t keep on grilling the miserable customer. Get your information thoroughly and quickly.
End with action. “So what happens now?” is the question every customer, angry or not, wants answered. After you’ve heard the complaint, gotten all the facts, and contacted all the necessary parties while he watches or listens in, your best moves are to immediately summarize, apologize, and thank the customer. Give him a specific summary and schedule of the further remedies that will be taken to fix his problem — and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Apologize for his inconvenience with a little empathy. “Boy, it sounds like you have been having a gosh awful day,” are nice words to add. Finally, thank him for bringing this problem to your attention. You can not improve if you do not know what is wrong.
Conflict is inherent in the workplace. All of us race around, trying to push our personal projects along and quite naturally, things sometimes go wrong. When the table is turned, and you are the irate customer, it might not hurt for to review the D.E.F.U.S.E. strategy.
Perhaps the next time you are really off on a full rant, instead of addressing the customer service rep as “stupid bonehead,” you might get his name, find what he does in the firm, and then say “Robert, I am sincerely hoping that you can help me not to get real mad at you.” He will probably be glad to help .
— Bart Jackson
Everyone feels the effects of the rapid development of communications technology. We marvel that our cell phones can take and send photos with ease, play MP3 files of Beatles songs, and remind us of our Aunt Tilly’s birthday. We chew our pencils through in frustration as directory assistance automatons make monkeys of us, forcing us through hoops before stating that the business for which we seek a phone number does not exist (when we know that it does).
Communications technology is changing our world so quickly that we don’t even think about it as we teleconference around the world, buy satellite radio systems for our cars, pause live television programs, and have a technician working 10 states away unlock our cars when we leave the keys in the ignition. But while most of us take the communications revolution for granted, hundreds of engineers living in our communities spend their days thinking about how to effect even more change.
On Monday, April 26, at 9 a.m., at the Nassau Inn, the 2004 IEEE Sarnoff Symposium on Advances in Wired and Wireless Communications explores the latest thinking on ultra-wideband systems, network security and cryptography, signal processing, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), mobile 3G+ systems, software radio, microwave devices and photonics, multimedia systems and networking, satellite communications, and more. The seminar extends through Tuesday, April 27. The cost for both days is $290.
Gerhard Franz, who is organizing the symposium, says that the technical program features 36 papers in six sessions, while two poster sessions include over 20 posters presenting emerging topics. There is also an exhibition, where manufacturers of components, technologies, and systems, as well as telecom service providers, show their latest products and technologies.
One of the exceptions to the pure-tech tone comes in the keynote address. Given by Eric Shepcaro, vice president for application networking at AT&T, its title is “The Future of the Telecom Industry: Business and Market Trends.” It takes place on Tuesday, April 27, at 8 a.m. The telecom industry overall, and especially in New Jersey, has been hard hit by lay-offs during the past few years, says Franz, who has seen fellow IEEE committee members lose their jobs. The keynote is expected to take a reading on the economic climate of the industry.
The event, expected to draw some 200 attendees, is being organized, says Franz, “to allow people on the local level to get the benefit of a global perspective.”
Working at final details in the days before the symposium, Franz takes a few minutes to talk about some of the hot topics currently engaging the communications community. He is principal in Plainsboro-based AG Franz Associates (www.agfranz.com), a two-year old consulting company that offers a whole range of marketing services to American communications companies seeking to build markets in Europe and to European communications companies seeking to build or expand a beachhead on this side of the Atlantic.
Franz’ background has prepared him to help companies on both continents bridge business and cultural differences. “I grew up in Europe, but have been here for 20 years,” he says. He holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Technical University in Vienna and an executive MBA from Rutgers. His background includes 20 years of global experience in telecommunications, aerospace, and electronics, including a stint at Lockheed Martin.
Franz says that, despite common perceptions to the contrary, communications technology in the United States does not lag behind that in Europe. Yes, wireless got off to a fast start in Europe, but he says that is, at least in part, a function of the compact size of the continent. It’s fairly easy to provide un-wired coverage in densely populated countries, but, he points out, “here you drive a short way into Pennsylvania, and you are in the middle of nowhere.” The vast spaces make it difficult to provide reliable coverage throughout the country.
In other ways, though, the United States is ahead of the game — at least in terms of usage. Traditionally lower pricing on this side of the ocean has translated into more time on the phone. “Overall, we’re used to using the phone more,” says Franz, “and also, we use the Internet more.”
Wireless is more prevalent in Europe, while the United States is catching up, and is ahead in terms of hours spent talking on wired phones and Instant Messaging on wired computers. Wireless is the sexy segment of the communications industry, promising to let people connect while lounging on the beach or tooling around in the country. So, when will we all cut all of our wires forever?
“Never,” is Franz’s swift reply. “Being totally wireless will never be achieved.” The reason is that wired communications are based upon “a highly reliable infrastructure.” Internet telephony is showing promise, and most certainly grow in the coming years. But, says Franz, “if Comcast has an outage, you have no phone service.”
With basic phone service going for $15 or $16 a month, he observes, most people will hang on to the reliable land-bound communications system. Building a comparably reliable wireless infrastructure would be wildly expensive, he says. It is possible from a technical standpoint, but unlikely from an economic standpoint.
While it is not expected to bump off wired communication, wireless will be a big topic at the symposium. The major issue, says Franz, is “how can we put more information into limited bandwidth.” The need is growing by leaps and bounds. “Most people don’t think about it,” says Franz, “but airwaves are a limited resource.” Looking at the best way to get data through those airwaves, the symposium is devoting a whole section to multimedia and networking.
The ideas being debated at the symposium, whether for improved security for military E-mail, compression of enormous corporate files, or convergence of the family communications/entertainment set-up, are likely to translate into a new generation of toys and productivity tools for every sector of the population.
Now, if only it could come up with a way to smarten up those time wasting, nervous-breakdown-inducing 411 cyborgs.
The Princeton Media Communications Association invites fans of football — and of cutting-edge production techniques — to come along on a field trip to the south Jersey home of NFL Films.
The event takes place on Tuesday, April 27, at 6 p.m. Cost: $15, including “delicious submarine sandwiches.” RSVPs required for this meeting; call 609-818-0025 for more information. For driving directions to NFL Films click on www.nflfilms.com/studios.
After a tour of this “palatial, largely HDTV” facility, telecine manager Bob Johanson and colorist Chris Pepperman talk about some of the ingredients that go into bringing NFL games into living rooms and sports bars across the land.
In the high-end world of television commercials and feature films the colorist plays a critical role. From bringing out the true colors of the film, to completely changing them, to creating special color effects, directors depend on the colorist to get the look they want.
Johanson has 30 yeas experience as a colorist at top film-to-tape transfer facilities, and a client roster that includes Ford, Coca-Cola, Citibank, Visa, and Burger King. Pepperman has worked at NFL Films since 1993 on projects such as “Survivor: Africa” for CBS, “Blood from a Stone” and “My Father’s Gun” for the History Channel, and “Faces of Evil” for TNT
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