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Technically Speaking

Author: Ray Holley
June, 2010 Issue

NorthBay biz talks to five organizations that are mixing technology and service, with results that will lower costs and improve the overall customer experience.

The smart use of technology can save time and money, but the companies doing it well are combining it with old-fashioned customer service. They take a “high-tech plus high-touch” approach to serving customers, offering sophisticated technological tools, backed up by real people who can help you when you need it. NorthBay biz spoke to five organizations that are mixing technology and service, with results that will lower costs and improve the overall customer experience.
Wine Industry Network
(707) 433-2557

When New Jersey native George Christie came to California in 1991, he got into the wine industry right away. He spent the next 15 years wearing a lot of hats, from national marketing to general winery operations. He also honed his technological skills and, in 2006, launched a wine marketing consulting firm that offered video marketing and production. With his help, wineries and suppliers started posting informational videos on their websites.

Christie also noticed an unfilled niche in the industry. “When I started consulting full-time, I realized how difficult it is to get good, accurate information” about products and services, he says.

Christie wasn’t alone in his assessment. During a conversation with Elizabeth Slater of InShort Direct Marketing, a longtime wine industry marketer, they shared with each other that they were regularly contacted by clients asking for referrals to suppliers. Their conversations led to the launch of Wine Industry Network (WIN), a comprehensive online marketplace and referral source for wine industry buyers.

With an initial investment of $150,000, WIN is growing monthly. Christie and Slater are focused on providing information and connecting suppliers to clients. “One of our main objectives was to make sure that, from a purchasing perspective, we had a platform that would provide as much information as possible so the suppliers we represented could really show off what they had to offer,” Christie says. “No one else was even thinking about helping suppliers that way, but we knew we had to do it because it was good for the industry.”

To launch the site, WIN aggregated information on almost 1,000 of the best wine industry suppliers, about 200 of which have already become paying members of the network in just six months. Membership dues range from $35 a month for small wine regions to $90 a month for companies that cover all of North America.

Membership benefits include a robust profile on the website that can be accessed and easily updated by the member, and what Christie calls “integrated marketing,” a combination of email marketing campaigns, videos, pictures, social media and more. “We want suppliers to think of us as a direct marketing agency—an online extension of their current marketing efforts. We bolt onto whatever marketing they’re already doing.”

Christie envisions a robust, business-to-business marketplace. “We knew that just building the site wouldn’t be enough. We need to be facilitating the exchange of information between suppliers and prospective customers.” Emails are sent out weekly to a WIN database of 15,000 industry contacts. Recipients can choose which categories of information they want to receive. “We’re offering an ability to participate in cooperative marketing campaigns.”

WIN members can also track the effectiveness of their investment in real time. “Members can log in and see the back-end data: how many visitors clicked on their website, what pages they read in the listing, and so forth. It’s about complete transparency. That’s the way the world is moving.”

The WIN model depends on affordable membership fees (so any-sized supplier can participate) coupled with a rapid return on investment. “This is an ‘all ships rise with the tide’ opportunity,” Christie says. “If you have a tradeshow and you only have one bottle guy, only one cork guy…no one would come. This is a case where exclusivity isn’t good; the more companies we have, the better it is for everyone. We’re marketing experts and we’ll help you differentiate yourselves, but let’s all get here first.”

WIN staff spends a lot of time with members and is committed to augmenting the technology focus with personal contact. “There are a lot of good suppliers out there who don’t have big budgets,” says Christie. “Our pricing strategy is that they’re just one deal away from converting a WIN membership from an expense to an investment. Our premise is how to over-deliver on our marketing services so this is one of the easiest buying decisions they’ll make.”

Christie says he and Slater are experienced marketers, but adds that they want to “make sure we stay authentic. We’re not advertising people, we’re winery people, and we know other winery people are out there trying to make good decisions. They just need access to better information…and that’s what WIN is all about.”

Vantreo Insurance Brokerage
(707) 546-2300

The Vantreo Insurance Brokerage has offices in Santa Rosa, San Francisco and Eureka, but its outreach is as big as the Internet. Many insurance brokers use technology to gather information about rates and policies, but Vantreo and other firms are pushing upstream, even into how its clients conduct business.

Lynne Wallace, president/CEO of Vantreo, likes to use the expression, “Full service, clearly defined,” when discussing her company. This expression describes the fact that Vantreo may not be the solution for everyone, but for the people it serves, it goes deep in providing coverage and solutions that meet clients’ specific needs.

Vantreo got involved with 101MFG, a North Bay manufacturers group, when 101MFG sought proposals for a firm that would offer services to the association. “Members of 101MFG have access to an exclusive program for property, casualty, liability, workers’ comp and group employee benefits,” says Wallace.

A component of the program’s success is Vantreo’s risk audit, which identifies where a company is vulnerable to insurance claims and where there’s savings and cost reduction potential. “We put them through a process that shows them where they can access savings,” says Wallace. “Businesses are looking for anywhere in their operation they can be more efficient and save money.”

According to Wallace, a key strategy is that her firm decided to think differently. “We took what we know as insurance brokers and tried to think like the CEOs of these companies. Our approach is ongoing. We work with companies to achieve their goals every year.”

And what are those goals? “Risk management,” answers Wallace. “The whole concept of people working together to achieve goals is important.”

Vantreo’s service goes well beyond price shopping and advice about reducing claims. Vantreo will help a company take active steps to minimize risk. “We also provide a lot of training, on everything from sexual harassment to safety. We ask about what we call ‘WIN’—‘What Is Normal’—and seek to understand whether a company’s WIN is because that’s the way the owners want it to be or because that’s the way it’s always been. We can then help shift the culture to one that’s more productive and produces fewer and less severe injuries.”

Wallace sees the training and collaborative aspects of her firm’s services expanding. “When you start teaching people about leadership, you end up with a happier, healthier workforce.”

And lower insurance premiums.

Top Speed Data Communications
(707) 283-2710

Alarmed by your phone bill? Add in charges for company wireless accounts, high-speed Internet access and systems that connect your branches together, and your communications costs can get pretty spendy. Top Speed Data Communications acts as a broker for telecommunications firms, reviewing a company’s telecom needs and recommending a package that maximizes savings and service.

Often, according to Glenn Illian, vice president of technology, a company can save money just by going over its invoices. “A lot of people don’t look at the telecom bills, they just send it over to finance and pay it. If you haven’t looked at a telecom bill in the last 18 to 36 months, you’re probably paying at least 15 to 20 percent too much.”

Illian attributes this to the rapidly changing pace of technology and the trend for the cost of new services to go down over time. “Any service you bought three years ago on a three-year contract could be from 25 to 40 percent less today.”

He cites an example of a customer that was paying $1,800 a month for a single, crucial data transmission service. By combining that service with unused capacity in another service, the company eliminated that $1,800 monthly charge.

“One of our many clients, Redwood Credit Union, has 18 sites throughout the region. It needed a data network and telephone service connected back to its corporate offices. We helped it evaluate carriers for price and technology and found a product that fit its needs.”

Illian is targeting companies that are multi-location and spend at least $1,500 to $2,500 a month for telecommunications—“The middle-sized companies like banks, credit unions and wineries that don’t have dedicated IT [information technology] staff are a good fit.” His firm continuously monitors technology, price packages and regulations. “We know and understand what all the carriers’ products and services offer, and we stay abreast with changes.”

The firm’s website lists many of its staff members, and many have been recruited from larger firms. “When [Top Speed president] Anthy O’Brien and I started this company, we were small, and we hired top performers we’d worked with and respected at Pacific Bell and elsewhere.”

Top Speed Data Communications currently has 13 full-time employees, five contract salespeople and 23 referral agents, including smaller firms that sell phone systems, network routers and the like. As part of its service, the company offers a free audit of a company’s telecom billing and networks. “We look not only at cost savings, but also at technology and how to streamline operations. Our goal is to identify a company’s technological needs today, and make optimal choices in the future based on those particular needs. We help our clients be smart in how they use technology.”

There’s no cost to the customer to work with Top Speed Data Communications. Its fees are paid by the companies whose products and services it represents. Does this present a conflict of interest? Not at all, says Illian. “I want you as a long-term customer. I want you to be happy and be as loyal to me as I am to you. If I wasn’t doing the right thing for my customers, they wouldn’t keep coming back year after year.”

Illian adds that paying attention to telecommunications can have an impact throughout the company. “We want to help make employees more productive and make their customers happier.”

Golden Pacific Systems
(707) 586-9122

Golden Pacific Systems started out life in 1977 as a print management firm. Founder Kevin Austin’s slogan was “Give us challenges and we will provide solutions.” Golden Pacific doesn’t own any manufacturing or printing presses, preferring to match printing plants with customers in an effort to provide value to both.

According to the company’s website, Golden Pacific embraced technology as “a strategic business opportunity.”

As the company entered the Internet era, the founders assembled a team of technology experts and launched a new initiative to provide customized online purchasing systems for chain and franchise customers. The strategy is working. “It’s been the key to our success in defying this economy,” says Jon Sooy, vice president of sales and marketing. “We’ve tripled our sales.”

Golden Pacific Systems’ client list includes a combo platter of household names in the restaurant business, from P.F. Chang’s to Baskin-Robbins, from Togo’s to Black Bear Diner. Managers at these restaurants, whether chain (company-owned) or franchise (individually owned) have access to all sorts of printed and non-printed items, anything that’s been approved and developed by the parent company.

A manager at P.F. Chang’s can log onto a secure website and order imprinted pens, hats, refrigerator magnets, menus, window signs and more. Certain products can be customized for that individual business, with store hours, locations and so forth. “We make it extremely easy and affordable for our customers to get everything they need to run their business,” says Sooy.

Golden Pacific has a unique approach to getting things done. Sooy and his fellow innovators recognized early on that a centralized ordering approach would save money on the front end—he says it’s not unusual for a new customer to save $50,000 or more in the first year through efficiencies and bulk pricing deals. But, the Golden Pacific team also sought to decentralize anytime it made sense.

“There’s no printing company that has every possible piece of equipment for every possible order. We send the right print job to the appropriate printing plant and, whenever possible, we find a plant near the customer to reduce shipping costs.”

The flexible approach applies to the product line as well. A Togo’s franchise owner can log on and order 100 new menus with regional pricing and local information such as address and store hours; or a regional manager at P.F. Chang’s can log on, place an order for holiday promotion signage and have it drop-shipped to every store simultaneously.

A reliance on technology for efficiency is balanced at Golden Pacific by a heavy dose of the human touch. “We try to get customers to use our integrated online contact form, because it gets routed to eight different people and we can handle their issue quickly. But we have an old-fashioned customer service mentality. People still fax and call us. We answer our phones, too. You rarely get a machine when you call. That’s a credit to the founders of our company.”

Alliance Medical Center
(707) 433-5494

In an industry that’s famous for hands-on customer contact, technology is making inroads. Community health centers like Alliance Medical Center, with offices in Healdsburg and Windsor, rely heavily on technology for “back-office” systems. Most staff members use email, the telephone systems tend to be sophisticated, electronic health records are growing in use, and it’s not uncommon for an Alliance staff member to spend hours online filing reports with the state or federal government.

Yet, the systems that other industries use commonly are slow to take hold in the health care field. You can deposit a check in a San Rafael branch of your bank and go shopping in Calistoga knowing the funds are “in the system,” but it often doesn’t work that way with health records.

Every health center has its own record system, and specialized software that “translates” accurately between the systems is pricey and typically written for one system at a time. In addition, strict laws protecting privacy make it difficult to create a “health information Internet” that would function across state boundaries. Last but not least, the accuracy of the information must be rock solid. A minor error in a test result or medication dosage could be catastrophic.

Yet, a small breakthrough occurred in February at Alliance Medical Center. In a demonstration, confidential medical information was successfully and accurately transferred from a Nebraska health center to Alliance.

In late January, a Nebraska resident visited her doctor at Thayer County Health Services. Her medications and a lab test result were entered into Thayer’s electronic health records system. When she visited the Wine Country in early February, she made an appointment at Alliance.

Alliance’s technology partner, Redwood MedNet, used the recently released Mirth MUx (Meaningful Use Exchange) software system to facilitate a safe and secure transfer of the patient’s recent medical history from Nebraska. After downloading the information, an Alliance physician determined that additional lab work and an x-ray was needed. The patient walked next door to Healdsburg District Hospital to get her lab work done, and to Santa Rosa Imaging for her x-ray.

Less than 45 minutes after the lab test was performed, the results of the test were available in the Redwood MedNet Health Information Exchange (HIE) and simultaneously made available to the patient’s primary care provider in Nebraska. The results from the x-ray soon followed, flowing directly into the HIE.

“The sensitivity of medical information makes the HIE process challenging, but the rewards are very high,” says Jack Neureuter, CEO of Alliance. “Some day, we’ll all be able to access medical information online, just like we do now with banking and online commerce. The benefits to medical consumers are tremendous. No matter where you are or who you see, all your medical providers will have access to the same information. Doctors and nurses will benefit as well, knowing they have this useful technological tool.”

Mark Street, chief technology and information officer at Alliance, has worked on this project for more than three years—and he’s proud of the result. “The health Internet is almost here, and this demonstration proves it.”

A winning combination

All five of these organizations benefit from their deployment of technology, and all are planning to invest in more. Alliance Medical Center expects to spend more than $1 million in funds and staff time in a new electronic health records and HIE system in the next two years, while announcements of technology upgrades are a monthly, if not daily, occurrence at Top Speed Data Communications.

Yet, none of these organizations would be successful without a considerable—perhaps obsessive—reliance on human contact, customer service and personal attention. For these successful organizations, the future combines high-tech with high-touch.



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