Avoid Excessive Over-Charges or Unethical Business Practices

Nothing is more upsetting than receiving a statement showing hidden excess billing charges or being cheated by an unscrupulous dealer. No one likes to be taken advantage of.They may be justified or unjustified surprises, some tantamount to being classified as unethical “rip-offs”. Unfortunately, some may be accidental accounting duplications; others may be embedded surcharges that you were not aware that you would be charged for like hotel usage. Others may be fraudulent or deceptive professional services.The worst types are “scams” where unscrupulous charges are created intentionally, or planted. Some of the most notorious industries that can create excess charges are: hotels, hospitals, auto repair, veterinarians, dentists, plumbers, website designers, and computer repair technicians.Initially, be aware how you present yourself, inadvertently announcing your income status. Walking in with a Gucci bag, driving a BMW, prices can escalate.Coming from a frugal, small Dutch Iowa town, we were taught monetary principles ingrained generations back. Immigrating to the United States in the 1800s, the Hollanders wore velvet breeches and conducted business with gold coins. They soon found they were cheated wherever they went, and finally, resorted to an “unassuming-frugal-chameleon survival code”.In other words, they learned not do display their affluence, or they would be charged more in business transactions. Currently, remaining unpretentious, few drive new high end cars and do not flaunt wearing expensive apparel with flashy accessories.There is something to be said for this dictum, because if you look foolhardy, or appear pretentious with careless spending habits, you become subject to excess service rates. There is bias with older people, teens, and women, who become targets.Or, if the proprietor finds that you are in an “emergency situation”, you can be targeted, and unethical business practices may come into play.Auto repair establishments, whether in a city or out “in the middle of no-where” like rural Utah, Kansas, or Montana, will double charge if they think they can “get away with it,” when you lack alternative options and need your vehicle.We recently had our automobile towed from a near city’s hospital to a local repair garage. Then, the same week, our second car had severe mechanical problems, but luckily, happening near the garage we routinely use, so we drove the car in, limping all the way. The proprietor, knowing we were in a health-state emergency situation, gave us excessive double-cost estimates to repair the two autos.Refusing to be victimized, the next day I called several other places to compare repair rates, and had both cars towed, a second time, from one garage to the next. I saved nearly one thousand dollars by being alert and on the offense.One of the most surreptitious situations is when you unwittingly trust an unethical dentist. With many small and midsize towns becoming filled with dental competition, some find unscrupulous ways to create cash flow. They know they can get away with fraudulent work, because their colleagues will not acknowledge investigative inquiries regarding their missteps to the State Dental Board.For some time, I was fortunate to have a reputable dentist, who did fine, professional work. When he retired, I went to an acquaintance who I thought was highly regarded. Then, a minor traffic accident unfortunately loosened four front teeth. Subsequently, to stabilize the fragile teeth, my new dentist inserted four posts without root-canals, which would create abscesses. Much successive dental work would be then required, perfect cash flow. Conversely, the expected consequential plan would back-fire. The damaged teeth all abscessed simultaneously, rather than piece-meal.Was this dentist merely a bad dentist performing shoddy work? At first, it was hard to determine.Local consulted specialists were obviously appalled, but had little to say. They advised that they had never seen anything like that before, as root canals for posts were basic Dental 101. I would have to go to another state to get a true evaluation for corrective surgery.I was further dismayed when I consulted a Dental School regarding the issue, and overheard students joking about how easy it was to practice unethical dentistry without fear of repercussions. And, make good money doing it.To avoid your own dental horror story, if you question any work at any point of a procedure, find a reputable dentist, or dental school, in another state for a complete evaluation. A local second-opinion dentist will not want to reveal or try to correct any faulty work. Remaining professionally bonded with their local colleagues, they will refer you back to the dentist who created the mess.The best way to avoid hidden fees and unethical business services is to:Research the person’s or the business’ background and reputation. Go online. Talk to people (not their references who may be shams) who have used their services. Inquire within other businesses, like real estate firms, if they have conducted work with them.
Be certain you are working with the authorized decision maker or owner when making a purchase or arranging for services.
Up front, obtain second, even third opinions regarding the work to be done.
Ask questions. Obtain firm, descriptive cost estimates in writing, and establish specific guidelines up front.
Be aware of your surroundings; read body language.
Do not sign any document without carefully reading the fine print.
Carefully review all billing statements and inquire if you note discrepancies

Best in Class Finance Functions For Police Forces

Background

Police funding has risen by £4.8 billion and 77 per cent (39 per cent in real terms) since 1997. However the days where forces have enjoyed such levels of funding are over.

Chief Constables and senior management recognize that the annual cycle of looking for efficiencies year-on-year is not sustainable, and will not address the cash shortfall in years to come.
Facing slower funding growth and real cash deficits in their budgets, the Police Service must adopt innovative strategies which generate the productivity and efficiency gains needed to deliver high quality policing to the public.

The step-change in performance required to meet this challenge will only be achieved if the police service fully embraces effective resource management and makes efficient and productive use of its technology, partnerships and people.

The finance function has an essential role to play in addressing these challenges and supporting Forces’ objectives economically and efficiently.

Challenge

Police Forces tend to nurture a divisional and departmental culture rather than a corporate one, with individual procurement activities that do not exploit economies of scale. This is in part the result of over a decade of devolving functions from the center to the.divisions.

In order to reduce costs, improve efficiency and mitigate against the threat of “top down” mandatory, centrally-driven initiatives, Police Forces need to set up a corporate back office and induce behavioral change. This change must involve compliance with a corporate culture rather than a series of silos running through the organization.

Developing a Best in Class Finance Function

Traditionally finance functions within Police Forces have focused on transactional processing with only limited support for management information and business decision support. With a renewed focus on efficiencies, there is now a pressing need for finance departments to transform in order to add greater value to the force but with minimal costs.

1) Aligning to Force Strategy

As Police Forces need finance to function, it is imperative that finance and operations are closely aligned. This collaboration can be very powerful and help deliver significant improvements to a Force, but in order to achieve this model, there are many barriers to overcome. Finance Directors must look at whether their Force is ready for this collaboration, but more importantly, they must consider whether the Force itself can survive without it.

Finance requires a clear vision that centers around its role as a balanced business partner. However to achieve this vision a huge effort is required from the bottom up to understand the significant complexity in underlying systems and processes and to devise a way forward that can work for that particular organization.

The success of any change management program is dependent on its execution. Change is difficult and costly to execute correctly, and often, Police Forces lack the relevant experience to achieve such change. Although finance directors are required to hold appropriate professional qualifications (as opposed to being former police officers as was the case a few years ago) many have progressed within the Public Sector with limited opportunities for learning from and interaction with best in class methodologies. In addition cultural issues around self-preservation can present barriers to change.

Whilst it is relatively easy to get the message of finance transformation across, securing commitment to embark on bold change can be tough. Business cases often lack the quality required to drive through change and even where they are of exceptional quality senior police officers often lack the commercial awareness to trust them.

2) Supporting Force Decisions

Many Finance Directors are keen to develop their finance functions. The challenge they face is convincing the rest of the Force that the finance function can add value – by devoting more time and effort to financial analysis and providing senior management with the tools to understand the financial implications of major strategic decisions.

Maintaining Financial Controls and Managing Risk

Sarbanes Oxley, International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), Basel II and Individual Capital Assessments (ICA) have all put financial controls and reporting under the spotlight in the private sector. This in turn is increasing the spotlight on financial controls in the public sector.

A ‘Best in Class’ Police Force finance function will not just have the minimum controls to meet the regulatory requirements but will evaluate how the legislation and regulations that the finance function are required to comply with, can be leveraged to provide value to the organization. Providing strategic information that will enable the force to meet its objectives is a key task for a leading finance function.

3) Value to the Force

The drive for development over the last decade or so, has moved decision making to the Divisions and has led to an increase in costs in the finance function. Through utilizing a number of initiatives in a program of transformation, a Force can leverage up to 40% of savings on the cost of finance together with improving the responsiveness of finance teams and the quality of financial information. These initiatives include:

Centralization

By centralizing the finance function, a Police Force can create centers of excellence where industry best practice can be developed and shared. This will not only re-empower the department, creating greater independence and objectivity in assessing projects and performance, but also lead to more consistent management information and a higher degree of control. A Police Force can also develop a business partner group to act as strategic liaisons to departments and divisions. The business partners would, for example, advise on how the departmental and divisional commanders can meet the budget in future months instead of merely advising that the budget has been missed for the previous month.

With the mundane number crunching being performed in a shared service center, finance professionals will find they now have time to act as business partners to divisions and departments and focus on the strategic issues.

The cultural impact on the departments and divisional commanders should not be underestimated. Commanders will be concerned that:

o Their budgets will be centralized
o Workloads would increase
o There will be limited access to finance individuals
o There will not be on site support

However, if the centralized shared service center is designed appropriately none of the above should apply. In fact from centralization under a best practice model, leaders should accrue the following benefits:

o Strategic advice provided by business partners
o Increased flexibility
o Improved management information
o Faster transactions
o Reduced number of unresolved queries
o Greater clarity on service and cost of provision
o Forum for finance to be strategically aligned to the needs of the Force

A Force that moves from a de-centralized to a centralized system should try and ensure that the finance function does not lose touch with the Chief Constable and Divisional Commanders. Forces need to have a robust business case for finance transformation combined with a governance structure that spans operational, tactical and strategic requirements. There is a risk that potential benefits of implementing such a change may not be realized if the program is not carefully managed. Investment is needed to create a successful centralized finance function. Typically the future potential benefits of greater visibility and control, consistent processes, standardized management information, economies of scale, long-term cost savings and an empowered group of proud finance professionals, should outweigh those initial costs.

To reduce the commercial, operational and capability risks, the finance functions can be completely outsourced or partially outsourced to third parties. This will provide guaranteed cost benefits and may provide the opportunity to leverage relationships with vendors that provide best practice processes.

Process Efficiencies

Typically for Police Forces the focus on development has developed a silo based culture with disparate processes. As a result significant opportunities exist for standardization and simplification of processes which provide scalability, reduce manual effort and deliver business benefit. From simply rationalizing processes, a force can typically accrue a 40% reduction in the number of processes. An example of this is the use of electronic bank statements instead of using the manual bank statement for bank reconciliation and accounts receivable processes. This would save considerable effort that is involved in analyzing the data, moving the data onto different spreadsheet and inputting the data into the financial systems.

Organizations that possess a silo operating model tend to have significant inefficiencies and duplication in their processes, for example in HR and Payroll. This is largely due to the teams involved meeting their own goals but not aligning to the corporate objectives of an organization. Police Forces have a number of independent teams that are reliant on one another for data with finance in departments, divisions and headquarters sending and receiving information from each other as well as from the rest of the Force. The silo model leads to ineffective data being received by the teams that then have to carry out additional work to obtain the information required.

Whilst the argument for development has been well made in the context of moving decision making closer to operational service delivery, the added cost in terms of resources, duplication and misaligned processes has rarely featured in the debate. In the current financial climate these costs need to be recognized.

Culture

Within transactional processes, a leading finance function will set up targets for staff members on a daily basis. This target setting is an element of the metric based culture that leading finance functions develop. If the appropriate metrics of productivity and quality are applied and when these targets are challenging but not impossible, this is proven to result in improvements to productivity and quality.

A ‘Best in Class’ finance function in Police Forces will have a service focused culture, with the primary objectives of providing a high level of satisfaction for its customers (departments, divisions, employees & suppliers). A ‘Best in Class’ finance function will measure customer satisfaction on a timely basis through a metric based approach. This will be combined with a team wide focus on process improvement, with process owners, that will not necessarily be the team leads, owning force-wide improvement to each of the finance processes.

Organizational Improvements

Organizational structures within Police Forces are typically made up of supervisors leading teams of one to four team members. Through centralizing and consolidating the finance function, an opportunity exists to increase the span of control to best practice levels of 6 to 8 team members to one team lead / supervisor. By adjusting the organizational structure and increasing the span of control, Police Forces can accrue significant cashable benefit from a reduction in the number of team leads and team leads can accrue better management experience from managing larger teams.

Technology Enabled Improvements

There are a significant number of technology improvements that a Police Force could implement to help develop a ‘Best in Class’ finance function.

These include:

A) Scanning and workflow

Through adopting a scanning and workflow solution to replace manual processes, improved visibility, transparency and efficiencies can be reaped.

B) Call logging, tracking and workflow tool

Police Forces generally have a number of individuals responding to internal and supplier queries. These queries are neither logged nor tracked. The consequence of this is dual:

o Queries consume considerable effort within a particular finance team. There is a high risk of duplicated effort from the lack of logging of queries. For example, a query could be responded to for 30 minutes by person A in the finance team. Due to this query not being logged, if the individual that raised the query called up again and spoke to a different person then just for one additional question, this could take up to 20 minutes to ensure that the background was appropriately explained.

o Queries can have numerous interfaces with the business. An unresolved query can be responded against by up to four separate teams with considerable delay in providing a clear answer for the supplier.

The implementation of a call logging, tracking and workflow tool to document, measure and close internal and supplier queries combined with the set up of a central queries team, would significantly reduce the effort involved in responding to queries within the finance departments and divisions, as well as within the actual divisions and departments, and procurement.

C) Database solution

Throughout finance departments there are a significant number of spreadsheets utilized prior to input into the financial system. There is a tendency to transfer information manually from one spreadsheet to another to meet the needs of different teams.

Replacing the spreadsheets with a database solution would rationalize the number of inputs and lead to effort savings for the front line Police Officers as well as Police Staff.

D) Customize reports

In obtaining management information from the financial systems, police staff run a series of reports, import these into excel, use lookups to match the data and implement pivots to illustrate the data as required. There is significant manual effort that is involved in carrying out this work. Through customizing reports the outputs from the financial system can be set up to provide the data in the formats required through the click of a button. This would have the benefit of reduced effort and improved motivation for team members that previously carried out these mundane tasks.

In designing, procuring and implementing new technology enabling tools, a Police Force will face a number of challenges including investment approval; IT capacity; capability; and procurement.

These challenges can be mitigated through partnering with a third party service company with whom the investment can be shared, the skills can be provided and the procurement cycle can be minimized.

Conclusion

It is clear that cultural, process and technology change is required if police forces are to deliver both sustainable efficiencies and high quality services. In an environment where for the first time forces face real cash deficits and face having to reduce police officer and support staff numbers whilst maintaining current performance levels the current finance delivery models requires new thinking.

While there a number of barriers to be overcome in achieving a best in class finance function, it won’t be long before such a decision becomes mandatory. Those who are ahead of the curve will inevitably find themselves in a stronger position.

Ecommerce Evolution

The highly competitive ecommerce arena has begun to see an evolution in the paradigm of packages prices and shopping cart platforms. Many ecommerce management software providers are successfully bundling their ecommerce software with storefront templates, shopping carts, and complete marketing services making it easy for the inspired entrepreneur to start an online retail business.While the internet itself always provided a revitalized, virtually unlimited opportunity for making money, there still existed – as with most pursuits – numerous challenges and a somewhat slippery learning curve. Foremost among the obstacles for excited proprietors and transitioning companies, was adapting an existing local retail business to the web: stores without stores, displays without bulky shelving comprised solely of pixels, customers service departments replaced by phone agents, and the unending yearning to create significant brand awareness in a market that had no regional boundaries.However, the advantage of the internet was the profusion of readily available information, and the game began to change slowly, and then rapidly, in a historically unrivaled communication of knowledge in the form of everything internet, from html tutorials to shopping cart solutions, all for the taking for those willing to eager to learn – and to pay. And, so the future and ecommerce were born, fast and unrelenting. The merchants of small town life often seen sweeping the steps of their shops each morning, tidying their stores for the days traffic, spent more time in front of their computers, changing the graphic on their banner ads, as the first, obvious element of online business was recognized. Though online retailers would still require consistently reputable customer service departments and quality products to sustain repeat buying and avoid dangerous complaints from newly sprung online review sites, proprietors foremost need was for a presentable online location – a good website – and ten thousand web design companies responded on cue in a Starbucks-sustaining din, accented by the sound of fingers-flying across Dell keyboards and the exuberance of freshman classes filling the seats of newly-created college web classes.A good web design, a user friendly shopping cart, the right niche products, and successful SEO and cost-per-click marketing quickly arose as ingredients of a winning web formula that companies had to struggle to discover, understand, and master. And, inevitably, as the necessary components of online business become more clearly defined, the opportunity to make money servicing those trying to make money selling was handsomely seized by ecommerce programmers, web developers, and web marketers.It is somewhat dizzying and mathematically staggering, looking back now in 2010, to remember just how fast the internet rose since its dawn, first cresting the technological mountains. Now those musing starting an online business over their cappuccino the morning after graduation can sign up with a monstrous drop-shipping conglomerate offering thousands of products, carefully select a design company promising exceptional custom work for a few hundred bucks, hire an inexpensive SEO firm promising first page results, and barrel head long into an unknown, optimism-laden online business future.Unfortunately, like falling stars on an August night, the sight of once-bright entrepreneurs burning out from their web dreams has become a regular statistical vision, and the reality considered by this article. Namely, how viable is creating an online business? And specifically, have ecommerce companies succeeded in delivering the services that give you a better chance of succeeding than failing?Sure, we’re way past the early ’90′s when everybody was jumping on the internet as it sailed away from it’s brick-and-mortar harbor, but ecommerce still has no end in sight and is, perhaps, more appealing possibility than ever for Americans analyzing the future of their financial well-being in a lengthening recession.Online adaption has taken place though, and while early internet pioneers faced a more uncertain journey – having less affordable options available for web services – modern web mavericks will face a different primary problem: themselves. There’s just too many people doing the same thing and the competition can be fiscally suffocating. It’s in the choices made during that critical growing stage that will play the largest role in being able to jump to the next milestone without drowning out. Like everything, to succeed online will, without question, require some investment, but spending little enough to put all the pieces in place – a dependable hosting solution, an appealing, dependable site, successful CPC and SEO marketing strategies, efficient ecommerce management tools, etc. – and getting a large enough return in the form of purchasing consumer traffic while make or break a new generation of potential web tycoons.Enter the aggressive arena of ecommerce and you’ll find numerous ecommerce software providers and web development companies standing by the gate ready to equip you for the battle for a nominal fee, themselves engaging in a tense contest to earn your money as you pass by. But choose wisely, young maverick, because paying too much for the wrong service could leave you strapped when you get the marketing gauntlet and have no padding left. There are specialized web designers, shopping cart providers, SEO gurus, custom programmers, and hosting giants all dangling their goods before you with appealing phrases like “scalable”, “custom”, and “#1″, vying for your selection. Other companies promise to do it all for peanuts, and while tempting, leave you with a nagging anxiety that may be getting less than you paid for, which is very little. Then there is an aisle of ecommerce giants that are well adorned, and seem stronger and more experienced, holding a long list of previous champions they’ve supplied, and they would likely be an excellent choice except that the young business warrior would suffer a debilitating loss just paying for the goods, before ever seeing their brand’s flag waiving in the arena.Though some may come to the ecommerce table with a sizeable sum and a wealth of business management experience, I am most interested in the plight of those who do not. For those weary occupational travelers, business confidence may fall sharply as hard earned start-up capital diminishes, and success will be carefully garnered by monitoring spending.For sake of those e-commerce combatants, we’re most interested in the growing breed of ecommerce providers who offer complete services – hosting, design, shopping cart, store management tools, analytics, seo marketing, ssl certificates – basically everything you need – at an affordable price. These vendors bring a ray of hope to the prospect of starting an online business, and can certainly bring forth operational proof of other companies they’ve assisted numbering in the tens of thousands. Which begs the question, with so many advanced yet simplified tools available and so many companies already enjoying success, how easy is it really? Does anyone with a desire, some cash, and a willingness to succeed really have a shot at the modern American dream – making a viable income working from home as an internet retail proprietor? A home-brewed latte, some checkered pajames, and a picture window for office adornments are the stuff of dreams for many office-scorched blue collar Americans.So, just how well do total ecommerce providers succeed at helping you succeed?There are numerous good ecommerce players out there – Volusion, BigCommerce, Shopify, and 3DCart are a few notables – that can provide your store with a site, hosting, ecommerce platform system, shopping cart, customer support, etc., however, they can vary significantly in quality, ease-of-use, and price – all factors that can affect the reality of online success.The question is, in a rush of e-commerce competition, have packages become like so many package products, appearing to include everything you need but lacking in fundamental quality. Children’s fishing sets are available at discount retailers that provide a pole, reel, lures, weight, bobbers, and an assortment of neon-colored tackle for under $15, but many Dad has faced crying toddlers after arriving at the vacation destination to discover that the reel jambs and the lures don’t work. When it comes to your ecommerce provider, you don’t want to be a victim of that old adage, getting only what you paid for. After all with competition and technology increases, can’t we demand that the functional value of our purchases exceed their cost, or at least exceed another product of the some price.Some ecommerce companies offer relatively cheap shopping carts and management tools, but their site templates are crudely commercial – replicas with differing color schemes – and obtaining a custom design is an additional service costing hundreds or thousands more. Once you enter into a deep-digging, nuts and bolts comparison you’ll discover the variety in price, quality, service, usability, is great even among competitors. Ultimately, selecting the right company will depend upon your particular business, target market, product catalog, knowledge level, experience and budget, with the latter likely holding more weight than all others.One of my favorite new ecommerce comapnies this year is AWDCommerce, (http://www.awdcommerce.com) an emerging Montana based e commerce software developer and a subsidiary of American Web Design, for their quality, cost, and small-town style customer support. They offer over 500 customized storefront designs for numerous industries of very high quality for a professional site, robust ecommerce management tools, exceptional small-town style customer service, shopping cart, unlimited products, support, and hosting for $39.99/mo. What I liked most is AWDCommerce combination of price, quality, and support – they provide everything, with friendly small town support to back it up, for under $40 a month. The storefront designs offered a superb quality against comparable templates – providing entrepreneurs with a truly, professional appearance – plus they offer agent-assisted assimilation and customization of logos and graphics, making the site formation easy for the unsavvy. Rather than offering “scalable” plans labeled like Olympic medals, they allow up to 10,000 products so you have room to grow without seeing a higher monthly bill. AWDCommerce developed ecommerce platform didn’t look as nice as some, but was very easy to use and offered a strong array of professional management features. The company also offers custom programming for any required app development and organic SEO and cost-per-click marketing services to help spread your brand wings.I wouldn’t be surprised to see AWDCommerce show significant growth in the e-commerce market this year, and are a good example of a smart, all-inclusive provider for proprietors with limited pockets seeking to get the most bang for their buck.There are many good companies out there able to provide a website, hosting, shopping cart, web-based management tools, analytics, and marketing and I would assert that, more than ever before, they do indeed make it possible for proprietor’s with the right niche product and work ethic to successfully launch an online business with as little as a few hundred bucks. One things remains certain though: choosing carefully in the selection of web services will have a measurable impact on your business once you enter the arena and find yourself before the cheering crowd, with internet royalty like Google and Yahoo watching your emergence with a robotic efficiency.So be encouraged. The merchant games have always been tough, and though the intensity may have make a daunting plateau, there may have never been as much help available or potential gain as now.As a previous cash-strapped, green-footed web proprietor myself, I wish all a happy deployment and good showing in the games.