Etail Goes Retail – Amazon’s Opens NYC Bookstore

  • Posted on May 31, 2017
  • by Alan Blume

What’sAmazon Etail Goes Retail up with this, Amazon the king of Etail is opening retail bookstores? This sounds like an April fools story rather than a new strategic initiative. But as it happens, the latter is true as Amazon opened the first of three New York City retail book stores in May.

It was reported that the first Amazon store occupies 4,000 square feet, carries 3,000 book titles, and is located at Columbus Circle. It also carries Amazon tech products like the Echo and Kindle, and faces all books outward for easy viewing of the covers. Signs underneath the books note the Amazon online star rating (only 4 stars and up are selected for the store) and the total number of reviews for each book. Amazon Prime members pay a preferred rate, while non-members pay a higher rate.

To add a further touch of irony to the story, the store is located in a mall that once included a Borders bookstore. Will this be a trend for the giant Etailer, identifying retail opportunities once the retail competition has been decimated by their more efficient Etail model?

Amazon likely envisions a new type of retail opportunity, because the traditional retail book business has hardly been robust. According to The Street, Barnes and Noble continued to see declines in their 2017 comparable store sales, expecting a drop of approximately 7% for the year. Then again, Amazon’s new books store is not the same animal as Barnes and Noble, taking a page from the Apple Store concept with their own Amazonian twist. With malls trying to reinvent themselves, as more and more retailers shut their doors, a national chain of Amazon retail book stores would be a warmly welcomed surprise.

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Poor Customer ServiceLast night around 8pm, I called Netflix because an error message was displaying on my TV. I got a recording, which said my wait time would be less than two minutes. I’d estimate a customer service agent answered within a minute, completely fluent in English (likely US based), and not from an offshore call center. They solved my issue quickly and cheerfully. It was the second time I called Netflix over the past year. The prior instance provided the same result, fast, friendly, even cheerful service. I spend about $100 bucks a year for Netflix, so at that price, one would think almost any company could offer great service like this.

Two days ago, I was buying TVG train tickets to go from Paris to Avignon. I went online to the SNCF website (French National Railway Corporation website). I was having an issue processing my credit card, so I called them. They answered immediately, the customer service agent spoke English (quite well), and was very polite and helpful. However, he informed me that since I was from the US, I had to pay through their partner, Rail Europe.

When I went to the Rail Europe site, I found the ticket prices were significantly higher, so I called their support line. The estimated wait time was, 45 minutes! They did offer a call back service, but I would still have to wait 45 minutes. The tickets would run about $600. After reviewing online comments, complaining that Rail Europe charges extra fees, and there is nothing that can be done about that (sounds like Ticketmaster doesn’t it), I purchased the tickets.

Then we come to United Airlines customer service specifically, and the airlines in general. Another day, and another video surfaces. This one was about a United customer getting charged $300 to check a bag, and then having their reservation cancelled because they were video recording the discussion. The customer service agent seemed really cranky, the baggage fee seemed excessively high, and United seems to have a massive customer service issue. But for that matter, so does American, Spirit and many other airlines. Last winter, we pulled a delay due to an engine issue on an American flight, and missed our connecting flight. The next flight we could take was 6 hours later. American did nothing for us, and the customer service agent we conversed with seemed to care little about our delay or predicament. That said, I recently flew Alaska Air and Jet Blue, and thought their customer service was fairly good. I try to fly these two airlines whenever possible, as I’ve have mainly good experiences with them.

It seems that customer service has little to do with the price tag, and much to do with the company culture. There are plenty of companies that provide great customer service, and too many that don’t. It starts from the top down, and as consumers, we should do everything possible to reward those companies with great service, and avoid those who with a poor service record. Unfortunately, with companies like Rail Europe, and the airlines, sometimes there is no choice but to voice our frustration.

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UnitedHealth Group (UNH) had a banner quarter, as their 4th quarter earnings jumped to $1.7 Billion. Is this good news for UNH but bad news for healthcare consumers? With their stock currently trading at $165 a share, and total annual revenue approaching $200 billion, things are looking good for UNH executives and shareholders. But what does this mean for healthcare consumers?

For the past 12 years, as a business owner, I’ve paid for 100% of all my healthcare costs. This allows for a pragmatic view of the industry, regardless of political party rhetoric or politician promises. From my perspective the only constant has been increased premiums and reduced benefits. This was true under the Bush years and has not changed since. All the parties involved in our healthcare system, including hospitals, insurance carriers, pharmaceutical companies, and medical device manufacturers, are first and foremost seeking to increase profits. This includes many non-profit hospitals, which are actually extremely profitable, the difference being that their profits are reinvested in facilities, technology, research and of course compensation. Little has been done to provide patient visibility into the rising costs. Then again, why should these parties work to lower costs or increase patient visibility? Lower costs result in reduced revenue and profits, and these healthcare entities are motivated to earn compelling returns for their shareholders and executives. The same motivation as any business.

How Much Does an X-ray Cost?

Let’s look at a real life example of the problem. I had a sore ankle and was referred by my primary care physician assistant ($50 Tufts copay) to an ankle specialist. The ankle specialist ($75 Tufts copay) directed me to get an X-ray. So I asked the front desk staff at the ankle specialist a simple question, how much would the X-ray cost? They said, “Your insurance will cover it.” Of course this is no longer true, as deductibles and copayments often apply, and even if my insurance did cover it, shouldn’t I know what they get charged? The physician’s staff then told me to ask the radiology department.

About 10 minutes later, I was in radiology, and asked their scheduler the same question about the cost. She had no idea and seemed surprised by the question, but said she would call the radiology billing department. The billing department told me (indirectly since she was on the phone speaking with the scheduler) that it depended upon my insurance company. I provided my Tufts insurance card and asked again, how much the X-Ray would cost. I was then told to speak directly with their billing specialist, who would help me determine the cost of the X-ray. After a 10 minute discussion, and twice being placed on hold, I was finally told what my carrier allowed and the likely range of costs, which she estimated to be about $100 to $150. It was an arduous journey to get what should be easily and immediately accessible from the hospital and insurance carrier, on a PC or on a smart phone app.

Many millions of X-rays are done in the U.S. every year and the costs should not take on a mystical property. If we can quickly learn the cost to add the most insignificant item to a new car (readily available online), or quickly determine the average cost paid for any model car, new or used, in any given area of the country, why should medical procedures be different? The simple answer lies with the providers, as hospitals, clinics, labs, etc. don’t want us to know. Keeping rates hidden, helps mitigate competition and limits patient insight into their costs. If “Hospital A” charged $200 for an ankle X-ray, and “Hospital B” which was 5 miles away charged $100, patients might choose the latter (assuming they were in your network which must also be checked). Look at this a different way, if you wanted to purchase some groceries and they would cost $200 at the convenience store around the corner, but only $100 five minutes away, would you drive the five minutes for the savings?

Fortunately, this is changing, albeit much too slowly. There are progressively more online sources and services to help determine the best quality of resources available at the best price. This includes pharmacy sites and apps (GoodRX) which compare drug costs by pharmacy within a specific area, physician (PriceDoc) and hospital quality and costs (LeapFrogGroup or even, surgical costs, and there are numerous sites to now compare dental fees. This is potentially good news for consumers, and the faster and more pervasive the better.

It’s all about the Profits

Now let’s get back to UnitedHealth specifically, and healthcare carriers in general. What happens when healthcare insurance companies are focused mainly on profits? Our capitalistic system is in many regards the most enviable model for the entire world. It’s typically efficient, often transparent, and open to most everyone (anyone can start a business in America). It fosters innovation in part because of the inherent competition. That’s pretty impressive. But when it comes to healthcare, the system seems to break down.

You may recall that in 2016 UNH was pulling out of certain markets relating to Obamacare. Forbes reported that, “UnitedHealth entered 2017 selling individual coverage under the ACA in just a handful of states after scaling back its Obamacare footprint significantly.” That said, UNH did see promise in offering coverage under Medicaid, which was expanded to 31 states under ACA. Why did they do this? Remember, their top priority is not about providing health insurance and caring for patients, it’s about making profits. And if $7 billion dollars in profits is insufficient for their shareholders, then UNH needs to go (or leave) and find a place they can make even greater returns. Granted, healthcare companies do need to make a profit in the current climate, the question is, how much profit and how do they make these profits.

Are profits derived from selling cars different than profits derived from saving (or not saving) lives? Before Obamacare, insurance companies could turn down people they deemed an unacceptable risk. For example, let’s say there was a 60 year old male we’ll call “Mike the mechanic”, who was changing jobs and moving to a new health plan. Mike was healthy for his entire adult life (almost 40 years from age 18 to 58), but then had a heart attack on his 59th birthday. Prior to Obamacare (ACA), this would be a preexisting condition, and even though Mike the mechanic really needed health insurance, and had been a net contributor for almost four decades, insurance companies could simply say no, or charge him dramatically higher rates.  That doesn’t sound like a fair or equitable deal, and it leaves the insurance carriers holding all the cards.

Mike’s Premiums Versus Steve’s $110 Million Paycheck

But wait a minute, what happened to Mike’s 40 years of barely used premiums? During that time, Mike’s premiums went to pay for less healthy people, and to pay for health insurance company profits. Let’s look at an example. Let’s say that UNH charged $10,000 a year when Mike was 50 and healthy, and earned 10% on an average policy. Mike contributed $1,000 toward their profits, while the remaining $9,000 would pay for his healthcare costs (which were nominal for 40 years) and others who needed more care than their premiums would cover. Of course profits can be a deceptive metric, as they are determined after executive compensation, perks and other costs. And just in case you’re wondering how much that might be, UnitedHealth Group’s CEO, Stephen Hemsley, received total compensation of about $110 Million in 2010 and $66 Million in 2014. Total compensation can include salary, stock option rewards which are often a great factor in compensation, deferred compensation benefits, expense account perks, health benefits, life insurance policies and more. Whether or not you think some of these CEOs are paid too much, it seems like it should be different when it comes to healthcare and health insurance. When a health insurance company turns down someone with a preexisting condition, they are enriching themselves by refusing to pay for those most desperately in need. That makes sense from a profit standpoint, but not from a healthcare perspective.

Say No and Hope That the Claim Goes Unpaid

About six years ago, my daughter travelled to Moscow for her “mod abroad” program at the university she attended. She was a government major, and had been studying international politics and learning Russian. At the time, our insurance carrier was Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. We contacted them to ask about her coverage wile in Russia, and what our daughter should do if she became ill. They were very specific, offering three choices of physician offices and clinics in Moscow that she could visit in the event of illness.

Several months after her arrival, she came down with conjunctivitis, visited one of the clinics suggested, got a written receipt for the visit, and sent the receipt to me. I filled out the proper BCBS form with a detailed explanation and submitted the form and receipt to BCBS of Massachusetts. What happened to that claim? It was rejected! So I called the claims department, and was referred to a supervisor, who told me that the claim was reviewed, and it was determined that it wasn’t part of our coverage. I said, “They didn’t review it.” The supervisor again said that they did. We volleyed back and forth a couple of times, when I said, “So how many of your claim processors are fluent in Russian?” The receipt was in Russian (Cyrillic characters), which is essentially unreadable for your average English speaker. I also told her that we followed the BCBS protocol exactly, and that we documented everything to ensure we had an audit trail. The supervisor put me on hold, twice, and returned about five minutes later to say they would pay the claim. That was a lot of work for a claim that was around $150, but that seems to be the idea. Consumers tire out, fail to understand the nuances, or simply throw in the towel when it comes to dealing with these types of issues.

It’s been extremely difficult to get cost estimates from insurance companies. Here is another real life example. I had turned 50 which means the time had come for a routine colonoscopy. I called Tufts Health to ask about the procedure cost, and after a series of transfers and holds, was finally on the line with a representative who told me that the procedure would be covered 100%, as it was a preventative care procedure. A couple of months after the procedure, my EOB (Explanation of Benefits) arrived with the patient responsible portion costing me thousands of dollars. After another series of calls, Tufts agreed that there was an error, and said it would be 100% covered. Another month passed, and I received a new EOB, this one for hundreds dollars. Once again, I made the requisite call to Tufts, and they said that the new error would be fixed, and I would not owe anything. And after many months, and many calls, Tufts Health Plan finally did what they should have done in the first place, and paid for the procedure. But what happens to people who don’t have the time, the knowledge or the patience to make all these calls? Many give up, contributing to the profits of the insurance company. Does our compelling capitalistic system work well with most types of businesses, but fail to do so when it comes to providing healthcare?

ACA Protections versus the Pursuit of Profits

There are other protections which were created under Obamacare. Prior to ACA, many twenty something children were not covered under their parent’s policies after they graduated college. There were restrictions on yearly and lifetime maximums that were devastating to families which encountered a severe illness. And as mentioned prior, the ability to turn down people with preexisting conditions was a major problem for many healthcare consumers. These issues were exacerbated by the exorbitant “retail rates” charged by hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies. For example, an ankle X-ray which might be billed at $150 for an insurance patient, could be $500 or more for a private pay patient without an insurance coverage.

One reason for all of the restrictions above gets back to the profit motive of healthcare related companies including the insurance carriers. Though profit opportunities typically yield positive results in our highly competitive capitalistic system, as companies work hard to cut costs and improve efficiency, healthcare creates some unusual barriers to this paradigm. For example, when Mike the mechanic was having a heart attack, he had no concern with price, he wanted the best care possible regardless of costs. And therein lies a big part of the problem. When it comes to the healthcare of our loved ones, we often don’t care what it costs. But not all problems are urgent care related, and in many instances patients can take the time to weigh the costs, quality and venue of procedures, if providers would just let us know.

Would UNH post lower profits if they provided better coverages, or less costly plans? The simple answer seems to be, yes. From what I’ve seen, there doesn’t seem to be much competition, as all the major healthcare carriers charge similar (and confusing) rates. When I’ve compared carrier rates and coverage each year, including the dizzying array of seemingly similar plans, they all look comparable. But that’s not the case when I compare auto and home insurance coverage – there is often a wide disparity – likely due to competition and transparency. Is there really any true competition between healthcare insurance carriers?

With all of these healthcare players (insurers, hospitals, pharma companies, medical device companies, etc.) striving to increase profits, and lobby our politicians to allow them to do so, how will costs be reined in, and how can coverages be fairly administered? Just imagine how many more billions UnitedHealth (or any healthcare insurance carrier) could earn if they could refuse anyone they deemed to have an expensive potential condition. Or perhaps they could earn even more if they refused to cover those who were genetically predisposed toward a health condition. And actually, some of the carriers and large employers tried to do so, resulting in government legislation to prevent carriers and employers from refusing to insure people based on genetic profiling. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), prohibited discrimination on the basis of genetic information with respect to both health insurance and employment.

What if health insurance companies could successfully lobby congress to cut back on those pesky annual or lifetime limits? Perhaps they could really make those profits soar, with shareholders recording windfall profits. Or perhaps insurance companies could lobby to cover only healthy young people up to the age of 50, or charge 10 times the rates for older people. These statements strike at the heart of the paradox, the fair distribution of health insurance versus the profit driven model of our current healthcare system.

Health insurers now operate under a law referred to as the 80/20 rule, which is designed to help consumers by guaranteeing that at least 80% of insurance premiums will be used to pay for health care related costs. The other 20% goes to general administrative, overhead, and marketing costs. In some cases, like group benefits, or certain state requirements, the spending level required is 85% to 88%. This regulation may be helping, but it is not be helping enough. The incentive to cut costs is mitigated because a bigger top line revenue number will often result in greater profits. Simply said, an insurer with a billion dollars in revue could earn $200 million while an insurer with half that revenue might only earn $100 million in profit, even though they are doing a better job controlling premiums and costs.

Imperfect but a Step in the Right Direction?

Obamacare is an imperfect solution, let’s examine why this happened. Obama needed to build consensus with existing players, to try to refine the existing system. His attempt to create a government option failed, and as a result of this and the special interests lobbying Congress, ACA didn’t do enough to reduce costs. It also added complexities and compliance issues for many businesses, and created a Cadillac tax to help defray the costs of the program. That said, it added many important protections and helped provide subsidized insurance for millions of uninsured US healthcare consumers. Though imperfect, it seemed like a step in the right direction, insuring tens of millions of people, and curbing potential abuses by insurance carriers.

Repeal And Replace

However, our new president and our Republican controlled Congress are trying to repeal ACA. Trump has promised to resolve all these issues, reduce costs, and retain the key benefits of Obamacare. To me, that seemed difficult to believe. And recently the POTUS seems to have realized that changes to our health system are difficult, “It’s an unbelievably complex subject, nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” I’m not sure where he’s been, but it’s been complicated for as long as I can remember. Perhaps the POTUS should spend less time Tweeting and more time reading books like America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System, which details the highly nuanced politics and complexities involved in our healthcare system.

Will ACA be repealed and replaced with a “less expensive and much better… insurance for everybody,” as Trump has stated?  The American Healthcare Act, appeared to contradict Trump’s lofty and seemingly unrealistic promises. And though Trump said everyone will be insured, The U.S. Congressional Budget Office said that over 14 million people will lose their health insurance coverage if the American Healthcare Act is ever approved. As more details finally emerge about the Republican replacement plan for ACA, one of the early proposed changes is said to allow insurance companies the ability to charge older customers up to five times more than younger customers. Sounds like bad news for Mike the mechanic if this is allowed to happen.

It’s Still About Visibility

Regardless of the proposed changes, costs will never be curtailed if consumers don’t gain visibility into the prices we are all charged. Not that visibility is the sole answer to this complex issue. But it is a good beginning. We should all be concerned with the cost of an ankle X-ray, including the physician’s office referring the patient for the procedure. Does it cost $200 at the medical office building, but $100 around the corner? Is the radiology practice around the corner in “the network”? What are the patient ratings for each of those two providers? Sound complicated? If Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Edmunds can readily share a plethora of information, including specifics on restaurants (which meal to order), hotels (best rooms to ask for) and cars (average price paid in your zip code), isn’t it feasible to offer access to the billions we’re spending on healthcare?

Of course it would be great if we could all get what Trump promised, namely “less expensive and much better” health insurance. But since all these promises sound like empty promises, I’m not going to hold my breath, because that could cause a lung rupture, and that is likely to be a preexisting condition.

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Which US President Posted The Largest Dow Gains In History?

  • Posted on January 23, 2017
  • by Alan Blume

Market Performance By President - image from BespokeWhich US president posted the largest Dow gains in history? According to MarketWatch and Bespoke, it was Calvin Coolidge. His 252% gain outpaced all other US presidents. There were however, other presidents who enjoyed triple-digit percentage Dow gains during their terms including: Democrats Bill Clinton (227%), Franklin Roosevelt (197%) and Barack Obama (148%), along with Republicans Ronald Reagan (135%) and Dwight Eisenhower (120%). Who were the worst performing presidents? Hoover, a Republican, saw the largest Dow drop (-83%), with the second and third biggest falls occurring under Republicans George H.W. Bush (-22%) and Richard Nixon (-16.5%). What will Trumponomics yield over the next four years? Your guess is as good as mine, though after eight years of market gains, a correction would seem to be more likely than not.

What’s the only sure thing? Try a complimentary insurance agency marketing and lead generation review with the experts at StartUpSelling. Click here to learn more.

Original MarketWatch article and Bespoke image here.

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My 10 Favorite Books of the Year 2016

  • Posted on January 2, 2017
  • by Alan Blume

My Top 10 Books of the Year 2016Every year I look back at the books I read and select my ten favorites. This past year certainly a tumultuous one, a year of bitter campaigning, failed pollster predictions, and the surprise election of a real estate magnate who refused to release his taxes and had six bankruptcies on his resume. This may have influenced my reading selection which tended to be fictionally centric, perhaps in part because of the constant reality of political bickering during the election. Also notable was that none of my ten favorite books of the year were about politics! This year I read some great fiction and non-fiction, science fiction, business, and poetry books. For what it’s worth, here were my favorites in alphabetical order:

  1. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

In the early months of WWI, an opulent ocean liner sailed from New York toward Liverpool. The Lusitania was one of the fastest liners in service, and thought to be able to outrun attackers, if any dared to threaten a civilian ship. Enter U-boat Unterseeboot-20, on a mission to sink large tonnage ships, and the mystery of why British intelligence tracked this U-boat, but failed to warn the Lusitania. Though we all know this sad tale, Larson once again provides a compelling, historically accurate story that makes the reader feel like they were there. Another great work by Erik Larson.

  1. IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation by Edwin Black

In this day and age, where a single smart phone provides greater computing power than a building full of computers in 1940, it’s hard to fathom how thousands of IBM keypunch machines and tabulators effectively ran the Nazi war effort. But Edwin Black details the intricate and concerning business dealings of International Business Machines (IBM) and its European subsidiaries, as they helped the Hitler government during the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Black’s meticulous research examines, in disturbing detail, how IBM’s Hollerith based technology helped facilitate everything from Nazi genocide to the efficient running of the German train system. Black illuminates how every Nazi concentration camp maintained its own Hollerith Department, responsible for keeping tabs on inmates using IBM punch card technology. It brings a new and nefarious connotation to the “Hollerith punch card” and how IBM and Watson capitalized on profits by empowering Germany’s national data programs.

  1. Macaroni And Cheese Manifesto by Steven H. Biondolillo

This is a wonderful collection of poems and prose by an author who has faced and overcome adversity. Many of the poems have an athletic theme, including my favorite, In Centerfield. To read these poems is to understand the author, his life, his challenges and his pervasive optimism. Biondolillo was orphaned by the age of 10, went on to become an elite free style wrestler, and ultimately a successful entrepreneur and businessman. I found the poems compelling and inspirational.

  1. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

Foer is on a mission to improve his memory, and decides to seek out the top mental athletes of our time, those competing in the world memory master championships. Along the way he explains the history of memory training, and how it’s changed over the millennia. Readers learn about the link method, the story method, the peg system, the Loci method and the memory palace. Ultimately Foer trains for, and enters the USA Memory Championship, with surprising results.

  1. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

In this interesting, illuminating and entertaining book, Gladwell asks what attributes, conditions and circumstances make people the most successful. In what way are these over achievers different from others? His answers are intricate and fascinating, stating that timing, culture, family, their generational imprint and their up upbringing are all part of a complex formula that separates the greats from the rest. From Bill Gates attending the right high school at the right time with the right computer technology, to why hockey players need to be born early in the year to become stars, to why the Beatles became one of the greatest rock bands, Gladwell advances his surprising findings.

  1. The 5th Wave: The First Book of the 5th Wave Series by Rick Yancey

This is a YA novel is similar in genre to Hunger Games and Divergent. It is an apocalyptic scenario, where aliens invade earth in five well defined waves. The first wave results in an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which destroys all electronics. In the second wave, an object causes massive coastal flooding, wreaking havoc and destruction on all coastlines. The third wave unleashes a virus which wipes out most of the remaining population. And so on. The book follows our heroine Cassie, as she forages to survive, and meets some interesting people and challenges along the way.

  1. The Frontiers Saga by Ryk Brown

I’d describe this as a “Star Trek meets Star Wars” series of 15 books. Each book is an episode, similar perhaps to one hour television show (or perhaps a two hour Star Wars type movie). The year is 3472 and the Earth is recovering from a millennia of despair caused by a plague that nearly destroyed the entire population. However the discovery of a “data ark” allows the Earth to advance rapidly. Enter a brutal enemy invasion, a James T. Kirk type captain, and a loyal starship crew, and Ryk Brown has a formula for an entertaining book series, and perhaps a new TV show. Readers who like Star Trek and Star Wars, will probably like this series.

  1. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This work was written in an interesting style, from the first person perspective of three women, Rachel, Anna, and Megan. Rachel is a 32-year-old alcoholic, Anna is a young stay-at-home mom, and Megan is a beautiful woman with a troubled past. It was a little confusing in the beginning, as the author slowly weaved the progressively intertwining tales of these women. The Girl on the Train is full of twists and turns, mystery and suspense, love and murder. It keeps the reader guessing until the very end. What did not come as a surprise, was that it could be repurposed into a movie.

  1. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

If you liked River of Doubt, you’ll undoubtedly like this book. This is a story about an explorer, Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in 1925. He vanished with his son while exploring the Amazon in search of an ancient lost city. For decades thereafter, dozens of explorers and scientists tried to find evidence of his journey, without success. Enter David Grann, a New York journalist who knows little if anything about camping or exploring, who is compelled to make his own journey into the Amazon, to find new evidence about Percy Fawcett and the Lost City of Z.

  1. The Second Variety by Philip K. Dick

PK Dick was ahead of his time, and a prolific writer. Many of his works have become movies (Total Recall, Blade Runner, etc.), and most recently Amazon has created a TV series, Man in the High Castle, based on one of his stories. The Second Variety is a post-apocalyptic tale, where the world has been destroyed by a US/Russian nuclear war. The last remaining humans are hunkered down, fighting from bunkers. But perhaps there is hope, as the Americans have invented robots capable of roaming and killing the Russians. Then again, it looks like the Russians may have invented robots of their own. Or is it the robots who have invented new robots, a foretelling of the famous Terminator stories to come?

And for those who might like to read one of my books, or learn more about marketing, please visit my website:

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Highly Targeted Email Marketing That Works

  • Posted on December 29, 2016
  • by Alan Blume

sell-more-work-less - insurance email marketing

It’s difficult to get published, by many estimates less than 1% of would be authors ever receive an offer from a reputable publisher. Of course it is easier to get published if you have a literary agent representing you than if you approach publishers directly. Landing an agent is a formidable challenge; nonetheless, it seemed that literary agents offered the most viable path to publish my book.

Finding and signing with a literary agent seemed no different to me than finding and closing a prospect for any product, service or solution. I would simply use the same approach I use every day. It was a simple beginning, after a half dozen Google searches resulted in many sites listing literary agents. Next, I downloaded about 1,200 agents from several of these online list sources into an Excel file.

Many agents list their emails for book query submissions (a brief letter or email to whet the interest of a prospective agent). As a proponent of the virtual model, CEO of a virtual company, and would be author of the benefits of virtual business, I couldn’t imagine working with an agent who did not accept query submissions via email or a web form. If they didn’t accept email solicitations, they were culled, cutting my list to about 800. My list was then culled further to 100 agents who were interested in business books, non-fiction and prescriptive books (most agents listed the types of books they typically publish). And lastly, emails were sent to these 100 agents, with a succinct message about my book and background.

Here are the results of the highly targeted email campaigns to the 100 literary agents:

  • 100 Sent
  • 9 Interested
  • 32 Not interested
  • 59 No response

The results were impressive, as 9% of the targeted agents expressed interest, and responded as such to the email call to action. Normally I would follow-up an emailing like this with a phone call, however most literary agents prefer no phone calls, many stating so on their web site. Of the nine agents who expressed interest in my query, four of them asked me to email my full proposal (a proposal usually has a biography, marketing section, competition section, chapter outline and sample chapters). Another four asked me to print out a full proposal and mail it to them, and one asked me if I would like him to immediately contact publishers on my behalf to determine if they had interest.

I sent my book proposal to all four agents who requested it via email attachment, and called the agent who expressed interest in contacting publishers on my behalf. Two of the agents quickly reviewed the proposal and asked if I would speak with them right away. One of these was Wendy Keller from Keller Media, who asked if we could set up a conference call the next day. The call (actually a web meeting) lasted about 30 minutes, and I was impressed with Wendy’s background and enthusiasm. She was excited about the direction and topic of the book. During the meeting I secured a commitment from her for representation. It took less than four weeks from the time I approached the literary agency market to sign with a prominent agent.

Six months later, with help and guidance from my agent, we secured an offer from a well known business book publisher, Career Press. My book, Your Virtual Successwas published, and my second book, Sell More & Work Less was published a few years later.

Although there are additional nuances involved with successful current email marketing best practices, the basics used for this seven year old campaign are very similar to that which can be used for effective digital marketing and lead generation today. Contact the email marketing experts at StartUpSelling and learn how to extend your reach and jump-start your pipeline in the new year.

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Posted in: B2B Sales & Marketing, business, insurance agency email marketing, Insurance Agency eMarketing, insurance email marketing
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Liberty Mutual Insurance: Twice The Price – That’s Not Nice

  • Posted on November 11, 2015
  • by Alan Blume

Liberty Mutual Premium IncreasesIn 1974 I insured my first car with Liberty Mutual Insurance, the insurance cost more than the car, but then again, I was 17 and my clunker only cost $100. Since then, I’ve had a great track record, never an at fault accident, and only had a few small claims (glass breakage for example). On occasion, I’d compare their rates against competing carriers, and found them to be competitively priced. Their service was good, though rarely required.

I also had an apartment, then a condo, then purchased a home and umbrella policy, all subsequently covered by Liberty Mutual. That added up to 4 decades of premiums, with only one modest claim about 25 years ago (about $1,000 as I recall). Succinctly said, that’s a long term relationship, with a great loss history. So one would expect, that type of loyalty would be returned in kind.

Let’s fast forward to 2013 when I purchased a small boat, and then called Liberty Mutual for insurance. Insurance for non-speed boats, is very modest, and Liberty quoted about $170, which sounded reasonable. Meanwhile Progressive contacted me (likely from the boat registration) promising easy online service and great rates. So I did as they suggested, went on line, and a few minutes later purchased boat insurance for $110, for the same coverages and deductibles. While on-line I called their 800# and spoke with a representative promptly. Though the premium dollar difference was small, the percentage was significant, and I made a mental note to check my auto and home rates on the ensuing renewal.

A year later,  my 2014 Liberty Mutual auto insurance bill arrived with a fairly large increase, raising the premiums for my two cars to $1,593, a 6.3% increase from the prior year. That seemed significant in an era of low inflation. My cars were a year older, but my premiums were increasing at a rate well over the rate of inflation. So, I decided to compare prices and was shocked at the findings.

Every car insurance carrier contacted was significantly lower than Liberty Mutual Insurance. We’re not talking about $100 lower, I was quoted rates that were 25% to 60% lower for the same deductibles and coverages. I also requested home owners’ insurance quotes, and found that everyone was much lower for that too.  I called my Liberty Mutual representative to ask if there was some mistake. But they confirmed the rates quoted by Liberty Mutual were accurate, in spite of my great loss history. They even asked me to make sure my quotes weren’t for six months (that seemed to be an out of touch statement from my carrier of 40 years).

Why such a large premium difference? Is their service much better than other insurers? My experiences with them were quite satisfactory, but I know someone who had a very difficult time getting paid for damages to their home. Online reviews were mixed for all the carriers. So what’s up with Liberty Mutual, is this a buyer beware tale? Perhaps they’ve decided that personal lines accounts aren’t worth their time, or they want to move away from this market, or perhaps it’s their beautiful brick and mortar headquarter expansion that explains the difference (check out that cool rendering of their HQ expansion). If the latter is the issue, I wish they’d stop spending money on their new palaces, employ more people virtually, and return the premium difference to their policy holders. Then again, it probably didn’t help that their CEO was paid “an average of nearly $50 million a year from 2008 to 2010, making him one of the highest-paid corporate executives in the country” according to the Boston Globe. Last year their CEO was paid a more modest sum of only $14 million.

Well, I’m glad Liberty Mutual is doing so well, though I’d rather not be donating so much to their cause. So, after 40 years, I moved my car insurance to GEICO. How did GEICO’s rates compare with the Liberty Mutual auto insurance quote of $1,593? GEICO’s quote was $704, for two cars with the same deductibles and coverages.

Of course, the thought occurred to me that GEICO’s rate could be a loss leader, a thinly veiled attempt to glean market share – then hitting customers with a dramatic price increase in ensuing years. What happened one year after moving my insurance to GEICO? Their rate increase was a modest $30. And what about the boat insurance from Progressive? Well that went down 10% to $100 a year. Bottom line, regardless of your loss history, perceived rates, or longstanding relationship, consumers should compare insurance rates frequently, or work with an insurance agent who will do so on your behalf. And if you happen to have Liberty Mutual for auto, home, boat, etc., check your rates now!

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Posted in: B2B Sales & Marketing, business, Virtual Business
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Can yYou Are What You Eatou identify these foods from their list of ingredients? This should be an easy test, but the ingredients below make it much more challenging. Take the test and see if you can guess the food item. Many nutritionists would argue these are not really food. If we follow Michael Pollan’s advice In Defense of Food,  the processed items below would not meet the criteria for “food”.


Were you able to identify the “food” here? Check out the list below to see if you guessed correctly, and to determine why each food item has a boldfaced ingredient.


Notable Notes:

The boldfaced ingredients are common on the top 10 lists of important food additives to avoid.

Campbell’s classic chicken with rice soup has 820mg of sodium for a ½ cup serving, though many people would likely consume a cup. 1,640mg of sodium is all or most of the daily recommended sodium intake, which ranges from 1,500 to 2,300mg.

As consumers become more aware of the benefits of single ingredient foods, and the issues with fast food and the western diet, it’s important to take a look at what many adults and children ingest on a daily basis. Processed foods like the examples above can commonly include 20 ingredients or more.

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Posted in: business, eco-friendly, Education, green
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My Customer Experience – Inversely Proportional To Cost?

  • Posted on March 10, 2015
  • by Alan Blume

ThMarketing and Communicationis week I investigated purchasing four products or renewals. These include a healthcare plan renewal, a QuickBooks upgrade to the 2013 version, a Dell laptop and re-subscribing to Netflix. Each of these required a call to the respective customer service department. There was a massive discrepancy in wait time and customer service experience, and some might be surprised at the results:

Netflix won handily for wait time and customer service experience. Though their service is only about $100 a year, I was greeted by an automated voice stating my wait time would be about a minute, a representative answered the call within 40 seconds and spoke English perfectly. There was no background noise on the call (if it was a call center I couldn’t tell), and I was up and running within a couple of minutes.

Dell finished second, the wait time was a few minutes, and I was connected to a representative who had an accent, but was understandable. He seemed to understand my questions, was patient, and at the end of the conversation I placed an order for a new Dell XPS13 solid state laptop with Microsoft Office. Overall, it was a good experience, at a purchase price of about $1,300.

QuickBooks finished a distant third, with a very poor customer service experience. The wait time was about 15 minutes, and we finally reached what we assumed was an offshore call center with significant background noise. The representative had a very strong accent and was very difficult to understand. The call clarity was poor and the advice offered was questionable. We were uncertain if the representative really understood the question. A QuickBooks upgrade is about $240.

And in last place, far behind the pack from a wait time perspective, was my healthcare renewal. It took 28 minutes to connect with a representative to discuss the health plan options from Tufts Health Plan. Once through, the experience was much better than QuickBooks, in that the representative was easy to understand and proficient with the plans. That said, there were so many plan nuances, it was still challenging to discuss. The wait time was egregious, especially considering the renewal which is valued at around $14,000. There are at least two “big” issues here, with the vast array of plan options, the system is overly complex and too confusing, causing too many questions and service challenges. And with rapidly escalating healthcare costs, consumers are increasingly concerned, resulting in more questions.

The correlation is interesting here, with the worst wait time associated with the highest cost item, ten times the cost of the other purchases. The conclusions are obvious here, though the answer in one case is complex. I would order Netflix and Dell again based on these experiences. QuickBooks remains a concern, but we won’t likely switch (maybe they know that). And our healthcare system remains costly and confusing, still broken and in need of improved transparency and efficiency.

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Posted in: business, Customer Service, Home Office Business, Virtual Business
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