Advertising blackout

We try and run our business on the basis of spending nothing on advertising and relying on word of mouth. That’s the goal. It works – word of mouth helped us achieve record growth last year.

If we get our products and services right then advertising id redundant.

Imagine a world without advertising. I appreciate it will never happen and even suggesting it makes me sound somewhat dim. But think about it for a moment. What would happen to businesses if they relied solely on word of mouth for growth.

Those with deep pockets screaming at you incessantly – Harvey Norman, Coles-Myer, Telstra, McDonald’s, Toyota, Holden, Ford, Crazy Johns Phones, Target, Safeway, all the banks – I could go on. Advertisers spend $7.5billion last year according to AC Neilsen. I wonder what reserach has been done measuring customer satisfaction against advertising spend. I’d like to think that serial advertising based on price or some other factory other than service suggests poor service.

So, give me a month, a week, hell even a day without advertising and see what happens. Business will discover customers again and customers will enjoy a level of service they only ever dreamed of.

Sales are not a right. They must be earned. Too often we forget that because we’re too busy chasing growth down the wrong road.

If we take the advertising scream out of the business equation we show just how personal business is. If customers were not yelled at to go to Harvey Norman for great prices in every ad break on commercial radio maybe the independent would be checked out and customer service would win. Check out the Harvey Norman website, where is their customer pitch – other than price, price and price.

Big retailers fall over or get into trouble because they lose focus on customers. This where independent retailers can win. It’s where we must win – more than every before and passionately in every part of our businesses.

If you’re in retail go in tomorrow and make exceptional customer service your mission. Treat contact with customers as an Oasis experience – something the customers will enjoy so much they will tell others.

That’s where your growth will come from.

Me too ME TOO!

Our obsession in this world with sameness goes beyond retail. Indeed, look at newspapers, TV shows, housing estates … we’re a world in the grip one size fits all.

What happened to individuality?

I was watching local current affairs the other night, flipping between the two major network shows here in Australia – Today Tonight and A Current Affair. The stories were so similar that you’d have thought they came from the same team. Then later in the night it was hard to escape a crime type show – different names but very similar stories and plots. The same is true on television in every city in the world I have been and in the newspapers as well.

Commerce in each category is becoming a big mosh pit where individuality is checked at the door so everyone can jump up and down in the same style and to the same beat.

No matter where you look one sees people playing follow the leader. So few in business are engaging in creative original thought. It’s no wonder retro works – no need for originality there. Whole countries are embracing the pursuit of sameness – look at China and their pursuit of the western lifestyle. They’re even building towns and cities based on US models.

This sickness of sameness is where small business, if it were smart, could shine. Embrace originality, own it and wake consumers out of the slumber of sameness. While McDonalds, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Woolworths and Blockbuster et al will continue their march across the world, small businesses focusing locally can put up a fight. The challenge is whether the gatekeepers – the landlords – make it easy or hard and history is showing that they will make it hard.

In our own small business (a newsagency selling papers, magazines, cards, lotteries and stationery etc) in suburban Melbourne, Australia we have placed line in the sand and clawed double digit growth in product categories which have been stagnant for several years. We’ve done this by engaging with our customers on local issues and in very local ways. We’re proof of what can be done. It’s hard work and hit and miss (like all innovation) but the result is growth and money in the back.

It comes down to this – if you’re in business you’re in BUSINESS. Waiting for someone else to make decisions for you is not business like. The more small business people who act like business people the more small businesses that will post growth.

It begins with being individual and making your business YOUR BUSINESS.

Wither independent retailers?

Do we really want a one size fits all world? You know, a world where every shopping mall has the same mix of national brand stores with each store carrying the same products? Do we want fewer people controlling what we can buy and the price we will be asked to pay?

Current consumer spending suggests that this is what they want. Look at the chain stores closing the independents down because of the success they are having compared to independents.

Take at cake shops. Now I know a bit about them, having studied their products for several decades. There was a time I would navigate my way around Australia by cake shops. Today they are a dying breed – they are being replaced by one of several national brands. While each of the chains have a vanilla slice or a match (a delicious combination of flakey pastry, real cream, jam, icing and coconut), the chain version is not the same as this store or that where each was almost a one of a kind. Once gets lost navigating to corporate cake shops.

With each independent store closing we lose the local specialties and if enough of these types on businesses close we lose part of us. Independents keep prices down, they are the real competitors. The conglomerates are not competitive at all and the politicians who believe they are have been snowed.

I have a vested interest because my software company serves independent retailers. That said, I prefer to shop independent. I want the range. I want to know that the person who owns the store has selected the products they sell and not some faceless suit doing a deal for the whole country. I shop for personality as much as the deal.

Chains are voracious and once they dominate a country they look beyond their shores. It’s this need for profit which has given us global brands. Hamburgers from the corner store were more tasty and delivered with more character than the drive thru experience yet we have been happy to see the corner hamburger shop close. Thanks McDonalds. Coffee from the local café was more enjoyable than the always the same Starbucks experience. And on it goes.

Independents, across categories, need to unite and sell their point of difference before it is too late. This article on downstreet.net shows what the independent retailers in one community are doing to fight back. Of comfort is this article about a study in Chicago showing that locally owned independent businesses generated more economic impact per square foot than chain stores. The report authors hope that it encourages regulators to limit the growth of chains.

No matter how one approaches the march of the chains one thing is true, the independence of the independents will be their biggest barrier to beating the chains.

To win the daily fight for customers provide the one thing the chains have trouble delivering – exceptional customer service every time.

Looking beyond the horizon

Following on from my last entry…

What is on my mind right now is the future of independent small businesses in Australia and in particular newsagents. There are 4,600 newsagents and they rely on newspaper publishers, magazine distributors and lottery companies for their key direction.

While newsagents own their businesses it is their suppliers who lay out the road ahead. This is not a criticism. It’s a historic situation.

Back in the 1990s when the distribution of newspapers and magazines was deregulated, the job was not completed and newsagents were not adequately educated to become independent thinkers and business like. Further, the accounting and supply practices from the regulated era were maintained – unfair given the new deregulated and more competitive regime which allowed competitors an advantage.

But I digress. My core concern for the future of newsagencies is based on the future of their most important products – newspapers and magazines. The future of these categories is at the heart of the future of this retail channel.

In newsagents were truly entrepreneurial they would face the challenges and break through with a plan. That is not happening with newsagents. Hence my concerns

And while this has nothing direct to do with the technology my company makes, it is an issue central to my company because we own a newsagency, we’re close to opening a second and elsewhere we’re big investors in businesses connected with newsagents besides our software business. Besides the commercial angles, there is the matter of the iconic channel, the local nature of these businesses which compete against the corporate brands. Newsagencies promote competition whereas our competitors fight against it.

Newsagents lack strong industry leaders and this only exacerbates their individual and channel wide challenge. The current industry leaders have been aware of the signs of tough times ahead for years and have done nothing to find a future. They have not even facilitated open conversation about the challenges.

If you doubt the extent of the problems, consider that in some cases newspapers account for half the foot traffic in newsagencies. As this op ed piece published by the US ABC News organisation shows, mainstream media is becoming alarmed about the future of newspapers.

In years to come, what is happening and will happen with newsagents will become a business school case study.

We have the capacity to get it right. The keys are for us to achieve business like leadership in all industry associations and for all of us to be messianic about finding other traffic generating opportunity which ensure the future of Australia’s unique and culturally vital small business network.

So, in our software and in our advisory work with the newsagency channel we will try and find growth opportunities so that they may successfully weather the challenges ahead. In the short term newsagents ought to find a way to become part of the citizen journalism movement – so their businesses become news centres.

This article from the Editor and Publisher website shows how rapidly newspapers are embracing the world of blogging.

Dot Com Bubble II

The world loves sequels and mainstream media is working hard at giving the world what it wants. Another Dot Com crash.

Don’t worry it’s a way off yet. We’re barely at the start of the J curve of inflated prices for online businesses.

This boom has come about because mainstream media companies have realised they need to embrace online business models and that the best way of doing this it to buy someone else’s model rather than build your own.

The New York Times has purchased About.com for US$410 million; Knight-Ridder, Tribune and Gannet have purchased Topix; eBay has purchased 25% of craigslist.org; Barry Diller’s media company buys Ask Jeeves for US$1.9 billion; and countless other media companies span up smaller online businesses or forge alliances to create their own.

Closer to home Seek.Com has announced plans to float having last year sold 25% of the business to PBL. Not so recently, last year in fact, Telstra stumped up over A$700 million for Trading Post.

While it is not up to me to comment about the prices paid, it does seem to be a sellers market and that this will continue for some time yet – as long as you have businesses which feel threatened by something they don’t fully understand and therefore want to either control or have out of the way.

All of this activity is driving others into the online media space and this will add fuel to the already raging fire. While the concept of news by the people and for the people is at the heart of the blog/citizen journalism phenomenon, once the huge volume of news, information and comment is commercially and efficiently aggregated (beyond what we have today through RSS and other technologies) it will create a further push by mainstream media to deal effectively with a new competitor.

One wonders whether mainstream media might be like the motor vehicle manufacturers early in the 1920s when they purchased trolley car companies and dismantled them so vehicles had one less competitor. The Net being what it is such cold not happen today. However, it won’t stop those most at risk from pursuing a share of the pie.

In the meantime, there are businesses like ours on the periphery of the media (through our development of software for retailers of news and information product) who are watching the chess game with more than passing interest and with a desire to help our clients understand the changes in the context of their businesses.

Chocolate

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 23 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

I spent part of the day today serving in our retail business and a lady referred to me as a boy – an overly generous description by several decades. I thanked her for the compliment to which she said she deserved a chocolate. So I obliged with a couple of small Easter eggs. We set up a small bowl of eggs on the counter as a result to give away to customers.

The customer was thrilled that her bit of fun turned into something for all customers. She left the shop saying it made her day.

It may not seem a big deal to many but to me it’s the type of marketing/customer which is exclusive to small business.

This is what the world will miss of the chains take over the retail world as they and shopping centre landlords want. A homogenized landscape benefits no one in the long run.

Getting out of my IT business and into our retail shop is always good for experiences like this. I learn something every time and in this instance it’s that flattery will get you everywhere.

Customers give you the best marketing tips.

The challenge of good customer service

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 22 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

With some people your best effort is not enough. In every company there is a small group of customers who take more resources than all the rest combined.

Why do you think companies offer money back guarantees? Because their product is so good that the guarantee will never bel called in? No. It’s because around only 2% of customers will use it – whether more could or not.

Marketing experts know this and factor the cost of such refunds into their risk reversal campaigns.

This 2% is the group I’m talking about – they are the ones whop will want you to give the most amazing deal and then go the extra mile in every call and on every contact. They’ll cost amny times more to service than your best customers.

But what can you do? Especially if you’re focussed on the best possible customer service. The old school believe that you need to grin and bear it.

I used to agree.

Now we rank our customers and let the top 2% – those draining our resources to the detriment of others – know that there are “issues” which need to be addressed.

In our kind of business where we serve customers long term andfor a fixed fee each year it is in our interests and all customer interests that customers are efficient in using our time. hence the need to provide this type of feedback. It’s a risk though.

Our experience is that openness with customers and their need to lift their game is appreciated, they try harder and it creates a good win win. The risk is they label you as arrogant and go to the competition. It’s happened rarely and some have even swung back. Most, though, understand that we’re trying to help them and appreciate our oepnness.

So if I’m a customer of yours and I come with a high overhead, please let me know. I’d appreciate the feedback.

Customers need to provide good ‘service’ as much as your employees. The challenge is how you let customers in on this need you have of them.

Having fun

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 21 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

In Melbourne (Victoria, Australia) where our Head Office is and where this business started, Aussie rules footy is THE game. If you’re not into footy, watercooler chats in any office can get boring and you can soon be on the outer. So even the most unlikely of people become ‘experts’. Like me. (Carn the Blues)

This game as a rich history as this article shows.

The AFL has succeeded in taking the game beyond its traditional one state home of 100+ years made are well on the way to making it a national game. It’s the most popular spectator game of the major codes in Australia. Their growth is a business lesson in itself.

In our business though AFL games are something to have fun with. Well, sort of fun.

We run a weekly tipping competition through the season and the person with the most points wins A$300. There are other prizes too. It’s all company funded. Plus it’s open to anyone who wants to join outside the business.

Our objective is to have fun and have something non work related to engage with. It adds something to the work environment and something to our relationship with the customers who join in and this is something we are very interested in – playing with the traditional business models and creating an environment which is more enjoyable and valuable for everyone.

Given that most of our clients are in places we do not get to each year, links such as the footy tipping contest and other non tactile or personal contacts are crucial to building and maintaining the community which is our client base. It’s a key element of our success in business. Plus it’s an example of our Oasis strategy of creating a relationship our customers enjoy and want more from and of.

If you want to join the footy tipping contest email danielb@towersystems.com.au. We post the results online.

David vs Goliath

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 20 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)
What is it with some big businesses? Do they wait for a small business to stumble before they sink the boot in? It seems that way if today’s events are anything to go by.

I have spent several hours on the phone with two small business owners trying to help them get stock for their businesses. They have been cut off because their accounts are late being paid.

In each case they have been making a concerted effort to get the supplier accounts under control by making weekly payments. All calls from suppliers are returned. Their indebtedness today is nowhere near as bad as it was just three months ago. Yet the suppliers are cut them off – just when they were a few weeks away from having all debts paid off.

Such unreasonable action by suppliers against trading partners of long standing is appalling. But I know it happenes every day.

I’m not suggesting small busines is given a free ride. I am advocating reasonable consideration by someone who looks at the situation and considers the relationship – not a bean counter looking to make quota for the day.

Each of these businesses is family owned and employs five or six other people. Without the stock which has been cut off these businesses will starve. Surely their suppliers know this. I should point out that I could make a case that the suppliers, in these two instances, created the cash flow problems by supplying more product in the first instance that the businesses needed and then demanded payment instead of allowing a credit for stock returned early.

One day the ants who populate small businesses will band together long enough to teach a big business or two a lesson about relationships, respect and service.

I hope that I am around to see it.

What all this has to do with business is this – small business is the lifeblood of the country an my company? If we let small business wither and die, our retail landscape will become one huge homogenised shopping mall and how awful would that be?

Trouble is, small business can be its own worst enemy and I should know because I own one.

Rest

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 19 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

As one who has been in the same business and in the same role for 24 years, I know something of the risk of getting stale. While I’ve matured in the position (immeasurably!), it’s been the outside professional activities which have made the company building work enjoyable and achievable.

My first big chill out was spending 1998/99 in New York on completely unrelated work (while maintaining a daily online link back home). It’s the creative writing projects which have given me the best perspective of the outside world and drive our growth.

Rather than write about them I’ll let you research for yourself: www.chasingrabbits.net and www.offthepage.com.au. They allow we to chill and enjoy work more and that’s central to what we are trying to do with the Oasis project – provide people with opportunities necessary so they enjoy work more. Not because we want more blood but because it’s a key part of live and there’s no point going to work every day if you don’t enjoy it.

Now, within the business a few of us are working on a new project and it’s providing tremendous excitement and many challenges. This is the first time one of my side projects has developed into involving more than one other in the company and it’s exciting.

Whether we get the new project up and create a new business or not is not the point, the point is to extend ourselves and have fun in a completely fresh sand pit while keeping focused on our core business.

Midnight at the Oasis
la la la la la

Theft

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 18 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)
As I’ve written before here my company supplies computer systems the business at the end of the food chain in the retail world – small independently owned businesses. It’s a place we are comfortable.

The frustration is their laziness with technology.

Today has been a good case in point. I’ve spent hours writing a report for a client who has suffered theft – $90,000 worth over a year. That’s in a business which cannot afford such loss. All the time the theft was going on the client had access to tools which would tell them the theft was occurring and would stop it.

It’s only when their accountant said their figures had a problem that they calls us and asked for help. We helped by using the computer system the way they should have. Sure it’s a lesson learned but who wants such an $90,000 lesson.

It’s like getting a car manufacturer to try and get you off a speeding fine once you have been caught speeding.

I know next week I’ll write a newsletter exhorting the theft management tools in our software and while some might take heed of the bulletin, many of our 2,000+ client base will ignore the message – until their accountant calls and suggests that theft might be a problem.

Part of the problem is that these businesses live with theft every day – it’s about 3% of turnover. Second, they run under staffed businesses which are very busy and so do not have the attention and time for vigilance. That’s where the software should help. But you cannot make people use the tools you provide.

So, we see this as a challenge to ourselves to give them the outcomes without needing to spend time checking if they are being stolen from. I know you cannot spoon-feed forever. However, in this instance it might save businesses. I’m not going to put a pitch here for what we’re doing – you can read about that on our website. Suffice to say it’s a clever and dramatic extension of the usual point of sale technology.

This is what we need to do – genuinely make businesses smarter and not just pay lip service to that goal. We have to do the work in our systems they do not have the time to do. Software companies have to stop thinking of themselves as software companies.

AND we have to force their big business suppliers to let the little guy save time – that’s another entry for another day but let me note that the way some big businesses treat small businesses makes me angry.

Big business would have no idea about something like the Oasis strategy – they’d pay lip service to it but that’s all.

Aggregating data to make small business stronger

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 17 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

We’re a software developer, that’s our core business and it’s what generates our revenue.

Every day though we step outside the traditional software developer space and engage with our clients on other matters. This happens because we like the diversity in activity and because our technology puts us in unlikely places.

On a daily basis we struggle to encourage, lead and pressure small business owners to actually use the technology they have purchased closer to its potential. I reckon that small business retailers use less than 20% of the systems they buy.

In the last couple of weeks we’ve taken a risk and put some hooks deep into our software which help us help our users. We’ve made it so their systems automatically send us selected summary data which we then centrally aggregate so that the data can be used to help them individually and as a group. This data lets us benchmark their businesses and provide specific feedback on their performance.

The hooks effectively link all of our users in a data sharing/aggregation network hitherto only dreamed of in our small business marketplaces.

This step redefines what we do. It takes us out of being a traditional software developer and makes us more of an advocate on behalf of our clients. It also obligates us to use the collected and aggregated data wisely and valuably on their behalf. Along the way we will learn more about their businesses and interact more deeply with their suppliers.

Clients wanting to opt out of sharing their data can do so easily. We’re not getting item level data so supplier contracts precluding provision of this to a third party are upheld.

The result we’re looking for will be tangible business outcomes for our clients. We’re already getting data and it’s fascinating, challenging and exciting all at once – it certainly takes us further away from the role of software developer.

This is another part of our Oasis strategy.

Fences, moats and electronic shields

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 16 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)
Programmers in our company are very protected. We’ve built fences, moats and electronic shields between them and our customers. Otherwise they’d forever be being asked questions and getting involved in work which does not valuably use their time.

We did this about 8 years ago up until which time they were as accessible as any member of our team.

Yesterday we let the shield down briefly in an experiment.

A couple of updates ago (December 2004) we released employee rostering software – free to all clients. This was a completely new area for our software to cover and unrelated to our core focus of retail and stock management. We were happy with the roster software and thought it was both functional and sexy. We enhanced it in the update sent out ten days ago.

Now, to the experiment. Yesterday we emailed our clients and invited them to engage in direct discussion with the programmer responsible for developing the roster software. One on one.

We were nervous and had no idea what to expect. However, it was crucial we did this otherwise we would not be true to our commitment to an open relationship with our customers.

Here it is a day later and the result has already been excellent. We’ve received valuable feedback in plenty of emails on how people are using this new facility and suggestions for improvements which will make it to the next update. Nothing unreasonable and no one emailing to complain. People have respected the opportunity.

We have protected the programmers in the past because they are not help desk trained and therefore inclined to be less consistent in the advice they provide and because it slowed down the development process. This peek out the gate has encouraged us to do it again.

The result is better software and a broader understanding of what the wider world wants.

How does this relate to our Oasis strategy? It results in better software and opens the door for our customers to provide direct and positive feedback to our programmers – it’s as good as a playwright getting audience feedback by sitting in the theatre.

We want to experiment more with removing barriers from developoment and the end users of our efforts. This will provide our customers with more enjoyment and more value and that’s the Oasis strategy at work.

The best people to have driving the direction of our R&D effort are those using our products.

Let me try on your shoes and see if they fit

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 15 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

There is no better way for a software company to understand how useful its software is than if it uses its software itself.

In February 1996 we bought a newsagency. For people reading this outside Australia I’d note that a newsagency typically is a retail business (newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, stationery and lottery products) and a distribution business (home delivery of newspapers and magazines) and a wholesale business (newspapers and magazines sold to resellers).

Anyway, we bought our newsagency in February 1996 and still own it today. It’s a live experiment in the value of our software.

We experience behind our counter what our clients experience.

In fact, it continues to change our view of the world.

All of our employees spend time at the newsagency every year – it is also the entry point for everyone working for the company since it helps them understand our software from a client perspective.

For a year after I bought the business I kicked myself for being stupid. The cash flow drain was enormous as we came to grips with account ting processes (from suppliers) from the dark ages. The manager of the business was the hero who kept everything together and laid the foundation for what is today an exceptional retail business.

We’re lucky because not only is our retail newsagency a live place for us to experiment with our software but it is also a place where we can forget IT for a while and play shop – that was always a fun game when growing up. But this shop is no lemonade stand. It’s busy seven days a week. You can see photos here.

Now, since we have started focusing on the Oasis strategy – our goal for exceptional customer service – the newsagency has become a place where we can feel our customer feelings first hand and tweak our IT support and software offerings so that they continue to improve. It also provides us with the ability to measure consumer interaction with our point of sale technology and this is crucial as so many times in IT we get it wrong by focusing on sexy technology to the detriment of the user and or consumer experience.

Since we began our journey toward Oasis experiences for our clients, employees and those touched by these folks, our retail business has become a more important playground for us. The changes have been dramatic. Most important, it has allowed us to make mistakes without hurting too many paying customers. Our software has changed as we have focused more and more on the consumer experience.

It gives us an unfair advantage and we love it!

Mistakes still get out to our wider user community but nothing earth shattering – thanks to us spending time standing in the shoes of our customers.

For those new here, this Oasis thing we talk of is the desire to provide an employee, customer and supplier experience which is so exceptional that you rave about it to your friends. It begins with the workplace – making it somewhere people want to work and ends with customers wanting to come back to your business and wanting to spend money.

A stumble

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 14 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

There is no easy way to tell someone they are the problem, especially when they have rung you to tell you that it’s your company with the problem. They were on a mission and in full flight.

That’s what happened today.

They rang and talked for 10 minutes about all the problems they were having with our software and wanted to know what I would do about it. I checked their file and our call tracking database and found that they were in out top 10 of callers and that we’d over recent months made 6 free visits to provide extra training. They are the only site experiencing the problems they report.

Something wasn’t right.

When I chased down the last people they had spoken with it turns out that the problem then was caused by the people in the shop. They’d made a mistake, hadn’t told us about it and we’d lost half a day hunting down the evidence of the mistake. Once we showed it to them they agreed they’d done something wrong.

But back to today. What they called about today had been fixed yesterday with some telephone advice. They didn’t tell me that today so we lost another hour or two hunting this information down.

They desperately need more training and need to use some common sense – there is no joy to be had when you turn your computer off while it is in the middle of something! But they didn;t want training. They wanted their problems fixed because they saw the problems as entirely caused by us and nt them. Ugh!

The Oasis strategy calls for us to aspire to exceptional customer service. How can I provide that if I need to tell them that they are the problem? It’s never an easy conversation. I start by explaining that he’ll be grumpy with what I have to say and head into my pitch – that he is the problem.

The alternative was to agree we were the problem and face this same problem every couple of months forever. I took the hard road and stumbled through it.

We followed up the bad news with a couple of calls from others on our team who explained in detail what was being done wrong at the site. The finale was arranging another visit to provide another training session which I will follow of a reminder that they need to not do wrong things – things they know are wrong at the time – and then deny them.

It’s a lose lose situation and so frustrating.

In my book it’s okay to make mistakes. Geez we all make them. It’s just that some of us hide them or talk out way out of them easily.

In my business mistakes, especially the ones you identify yourself and as long as they are not repeats, are find and should be cheered. Lessons are great.

When people don’t admit mistakes now that is frustrating.

But back to this site which cost us a few hours today. We’re planning to assault them with knowledge and help over the next week to challenge them to lift their game. We know that if they do this they will reach their own Oasis in terms of the computer system and they’ll look back on the situation and laugh. Our hope is that they engage with the effort.

At least we have drawn a line in the sand and let them know that they need to work on things.

So today has been neutral on the Oasis strategy. Yeah, it makes you wonder about the effort but tomorrow is another day!

Tomorrow we’ll send chocolates and some training notes.

Midnight at the oasis
Send your camel to bed
Shadows paintin’ our faces
Traces of romance in our heads

Flowers

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 13 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

I picked up a new car for one of the employees at the weekend and in addition to the usual smooth hand over they gave me a bunch of flowers, a voucher for an $850 photographic session (I agree – why???) and tickets to a couple of pretty special events and they asked what else they could do.

This was on top of excellent pricing and some freebies thrown in for the vehicle.

Oh, and they threw in regular washes (as many as I want) for life.

I’ve bought many cars over the years and never had such an exceptional experience. It was enough to make me want to go back there again. And, of course, I will eventually.

This was not what I’d call a luxury car and their margin would not have been anything special so why all the treatment? It’s part of their culture – part of what they train all new employees on when they join the business.

And that’s the special bit – every employee I came in contact with treated me as if they really did appreciate my business. Not because they were playing a role but it was truly like they believed it. Amazing. Now, maybe I am gullible. Maybe not. I’d like to think I know when someone is genuine or not. I’d say these people were genuine.

I almost want to buy the same car at another dealership to see if it is a brand thing or unique to this dealership.

For me all contact with the dealership was an Oasis experience, memorable and something I’ll talk to others about. It was beyond what yould expect for this type of business. It’s a reason they will do considerably better than others. What I will talk about is how the treated me, not the price or the freebies, but their personal treatment.

When I see the flowers they remind me of the saying “wake up and smell the flowers”. We need to wake up and see that others are getting this customer service experience right and their businesses are booming as a result.

What they are doing I want to do even better in my business.

Midnight at the oasis
Send your camel to bed
Got shadows paintin’ our faces
And traces of romance in our heads

Skip the menu tonight

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 12 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

I went out for dinner last night to a pretty nice restaurant in Melbourne, one I’ve had the fortune to visit several times in the last month. They’ve got to know me and always provide excellent service.

Last night they suggested we don’t order from the menu because the chef – an award winning master of his field – wanted to visit our table and offer a special meal just for us.

The chef visited our table said as a mark of appreciation for our support of the restaurant recently they wanted to create a special four course dinner for us. He told us the key elements: salmon, crayfish, venison and pork and offered no more detail than that. We had no idea what to expect but accepted the offer.

The meal was wonderful, each course a delighting our taste buds. Then, dessert, another wonderful experience. The meal is one of the best I have ever had.

It was an experience which I will remember and talk about for years to come as it was unlike any other dining experience. Here is this master chef wanting to show his appreciation for loyalty and he did it using his considerable talents. The result is that we felt their appreciation and became even stronger supporters of their business. A perfect win win.

His staff were part of the process and provided even better service than usual, and they got as much a kick out of what he created as the four diners at the table did.

We were still charged for the meal so there was no deal on price – and we didn’t expect one.

The experience reminded me that exceptional service in more important than discounting in building loyalty. .

In our businesses we should focus more on the experience we provide and worry less about how we can position our offering to beat the price of others.

Last night was an Oasis experience. We were carried away from the usual restaurant evening to a very special place.

It’s been a weekend of that … but more on that tomorrow.

But you won’t need no harem, honey
When I’m by your side
And you won’t need no camel, no no
When I take you for a ride

Playing when they don’t want to play

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 11 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

There are times when, no matter how sincere your efforts, customers don’t want that something special which you think makes you special. They don’t want to engage in the way you hope.

In a shop they refuse to wait to be served, even for a few seconds. One the phone they get grumpy when you can not answer their question immediately.

The challenge is to leap over these situations, for dwelling on them could de-motivate you from helping those who really want to engage with you.

It is in situations like this where fakes can be discovered. By fake I mean someone who has the words and actions of exceptional customer service but they don’t feel it in their heart. Probably because they (you) are unhappy at work.

If you don’t like your job, leave. If you don’t like owning your business, sell.

You have to like what you do. If you don’t then give up. Now!

If you really enjoy what you do and want to be there and if that’s what a grumpy or non-engaging customer sees then they have got the take-away they need. This is why even a smile in such a grumpy situation is better than any words. But it has to be a genuine smile and not smile number 22, the fake one you do when you don’t want someone to know what you really think.

Qantas needs to provide its employees some of this training. I continue to be amazed that it was Qantas that survived while Ansett didn’t. Ansett employees were friendlier than Qantas employees. I encountered someone the other day at a Qantas counter in Sydney who was so wonderful and helpful that I told them their service was so good it was un-Qantas like. They told me they used to work for Ansett! Qantas employees are courteous but I rarely get a sense that they mean it. I doubt that many of the ones I encounter (and I encounter plenty each week) actually like their job. And I don’t think it’s me making them grumpy. No, they do this all on their own. Because they don’t like the company they work for.

Liking what you do is crucial to being able to serve those you interact with (customers, co-workers, the boss and friends) well. It’s worth the effort to find work you like to do and a company which provides the environment which helps you enjoy coming to work every day. Once you have found it, it shows. And that’s what will work with those who don’t wish to engage with you when you try and go the extra mile.

You cannot learn this feeling of liking what you do. You either do or don’t. This is why the Oasis strategy is mutli-faceted. It’s about the two-way relationship between you and your customers, you and your co-workers, you and your employer and you and yourself. The you and yourself relationship is the key. It’s also the relationship you have the most control over. It starts with finding the right place to work and then doing what is necessary for you to want to come to work every day. (personalizing your workplace, music, time out, good coffee, making friends and bringing something of you into the business).

This is hard work because it is personal and emotional. As I said earlier, you cannot learn this, nor can you fake it.

The rewards are happier times at work, better relationships and more take aways for you.

Those grumpy customers who don’t want to engage with you will get it one day, maybe thanks to you.

You don’t have to answer
There’s no need to speak
I’ll be your belly dancer, prancer
And you can be my sheik

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 10 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)
Our view of just about everything we encounter in life is based on prejudices, ingrained views.

Surface beauty counts for more than inner beauty.

Muscle on the sporting field gains more attention than tactical strength.

Financial profit gets the headlines rather than emotional profit.

Older people are grumpier than young people.

Younger people are more likely to steal from you.

Women working in a shop tend to talk more and therefore get less work done.
See what I mean? We have all sorts of prejudices which determine how we approach tasks, even every day tasks.

We have to put these preconceived notions aside if we’re to gain and at the same time provide a near perfect experience. We have to interact with people in ignorance of the prejudices which have been injected into us since we were kids. We have to unlearn our prejudices in order for us to be more successful in our business and life endeavors.

Let me personalise this. In my software company we take hundreds of calls every day. Our best support people, those most enjoyed by our clients, are those who treat the caller as a friend, someone they want to genuinely help. These people look at the horizon and not the next step they are about to take. They want a call they get something from – so it’s not all one way.

We need to banish prejudices from our systems about the type of people we serve, their honesty, their values and their interests. Ignore those things and deal with them as people like you. Make them your friends. Genuinely care about them. And express this in personal ways. Don’t be afraid of that.

The result will be a relationship far more valuable to your business than you could imagine.

The ideal interaction is based around a leap of faith and I mean LEAP. Being brave and bold and providing an experience unexpected in your line of business. An experience which the customer loves and which you are proud to have provided.

This is the heart of the one on one point of the Oasis strategy.

Let’s slip off to a sand dune, real soon
And kick up a little dust

Stepping backwards

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 9 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (RANT?)

The Oasis strategy (which is what these 30 days of entries are about) is an approach to business which puts those you serve at the centre of everything you do. Your customers, your employees. They’re the ones who need to have an oasis experience if they are to continue doing business with you, working for you. So it is their needs and desires you have to serve.

So, start with your customers and step back, though each process and contact point, unscrambling things as you go so that you can objectively assess how you are doing.

We did this around three years ago and found that our customer service wasn’t up to scratch. People were waiting too long for support calls to be answered and the quality of the answers was less than ideal. Our own view of ourselves at the time was that we were in good shape. We compared ourselves to others and assessed we were better. Mum doesn’t care about the other kid though. (My mother used to say that when I told her about trouble I was in and I tried to use ‘the other kid’ to deflect attention.) Our self assessment was inadequate.

Our customers, when asked, told us we needed to improve. Sales weren’t affected but if we did not act they could be.

So we invested. Brought on more people to our help desk function, made support accessible through a variety of means, ramped up our user meeting process and became more open with our customers.

While we’re still on the journey it’s paying dividends. Our independent market research (conducted by AC Neilsen) has shown what our customers think about us. Sales show us as well. As does direct client feedback at user meetings and in face to face meetings. In fact, the commercial impact was such that the clear take away was do more of this and less marketing and you’ll grow even more. And that’s what we are doing.

In a help desk sense, given that this is where we have most day to day client contact, we focus on:

Access. We aim to answer calls when received or within 15 minutes.

Quality. We train our help desk team in a structured way and unstructured by having them work in our newsagency.

Follow-up. We try and get to 25% of our customer based every 8 weeks in an un-requested follow up call just to see how they’re doing.

Increased value. Through software updates we always look beyond the requested and try and deliver new tools to enhance their business and personal experience.

Comfort. We try and make each contact comfortable. We’ve brought in some foreign language experts to help in that area. We’ve added more people to the help desk than needed – so we can devote more time to calls.

All of this is well and good but it is not enough. To create the completely unexpected Oasis experience for our customers we need to reinvent the help desk. Here is some of what we are about to deliver: (I won’t detail everything because one should only give so many free kicks)

Structured time out. So that our team is not ground down in an 8 hour shift.

Better traffic management. Watching for businesses calling out of their usual habit – suggesting a more serious problem.

Further improving the room. Our call centre looks good already but we want it to be better.

Better phone system. Allowing better use of our interstate team.

Online training. Using Internet technologies – helping our customers learn more about our products and without cost.

Our goal is for the caller to, once they have hung up the phone, be thankful that they’re with our company. If we do the things listed above and the other things we’re thinking of we’ll continue to be a bright star in our marketplaces and that creates a win for us, a win for our team and a win for our customers.

In our business we know we’re only as good as the last call. Hence the need to focus on the help desk. It’s a key measurement point.

We process between 200 and 300 calls a day so the pressure is on.

This Oasis thing is serious for us. We’re in the hunt for an regular/consistent exceptional customer experience and to achieve that we have plenty of work to do. There, in that moment, everything is worth it.

Midnight at the oasis
Send your camel to bed
Got shadows paintin’ our faces
And traces of romance in our heads

You’ve got 12 seconds baby

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 8 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (SOAP OPERA?)

YOU: Hello.

THEM: Just the paper mate.

YOU: That’s a dollar thanks. (PAUSE) Out of five? (PAUSE WHILE YOU MAKE CHANGE) Four is your change.

THEM: Thanks.

YOU: Hello.

Twelve seconds max is all you get in a newsagency. I’ll use a newsagency as an example because I know about about them, I work in one reasonably regularly and they are a channel where customer service is a goal many owners focus on.

I reckon that an employee/customer interaction lasts 12 seconds in most cases. Little time to provide the experience we’re talking about here. So what do you do?

Here are some simple rules to help:

Make sure your employees want to be there. If they don’t then help them find work elsewhere.
Respect employees and bring them into your confidence. If they sense a lack of respect you’ll see it in poor work and lower sales.
Offer employee training to build their skills. The more you put into them them more you will get back.
Build your counter for upsells. No point is trying to earn more from customers if you do not provide opportunities.
Rotate employees. People get tired. Build a roster which reflects that.
Consider half shifts. The full day shifts make for a poor performance second half of the day if you’re at the counter.
Talk to customers – YOU, the boss. Find out what they think. If they like something, do more of it. If they don’t, stop.
Train your employees on contact. By contact I mean genuine engagement with customers. Even in 12 seconds you have an opportunity to make someone’s day with a nice comment, a smile, extra service.
Offer extras. Have free offers and bonuses available and make sure employees know about them. Such offers should focus on your point of difference.
Create a customer newsletter. Be local and personal and find ways, briefly, to connect with customers.
Make the shop comfortable. Have some chairs for people who have to wait. Let people see your stock. Keep the shop cool in summer and warm in winter. May seem like commonsense – but you’d be surprised.
Engage with customers. Like a contest for the best smile, the happiest greeting.
Employee of the month. Let your customers decide. Ask them to vote.

You’ve got just a few seconds to make a difference with customers, so that your business is remembered. It’s tough but the rewards are business growth.

Take a shot and start with your sales counter. This is where the oasis t=strategy can come alive for any retail business.

It’s where independently owned small retailers can make the difference because we get it, we understand it, it touches every cell of our being. Whereas our corporate competitors do it by rote and this will, one day, collapse against our genuine exceptional service.

This type of service makes us memorable and that’s certainly something we want to be.

If you’re up for a challenge:

Get rid of your counter.
Replace retail employees with non retail employees.
Once a month have a customer serving.

CUSTOMER: Thanks mate.

YOU: (After leaping across the counter in a single bound and while embracing the customer and with a tear rolling down your cheek) No, thank you.

WOM

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 7 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (SOAP OPERA?)

The Oasis strategy is all about providing shelter, comfort and magnetic memories of a service, a contact, a job, a phone call … any form of person to person contact.

If you achieve what I’s call Oasis status in the recipient’s mnind then I’d suggest you’re backing a winner. Repeat business. Recommendations. Good old WOMword of mouth.

I look at all employees in my businesses as transient. I hope it works out otherwise and that they stay for many years (because they want to). But one has to recognise that people are always on the look out for better opportunities (inside and outside work) and they eventually move on. This knowledge drives me to provide opportunities for their development and for their enjoyment at work.

So a practical way of pursuing Oasis like employment relationships comes from offering employees professional training. This week we have two of our team members commencing external courses which will make them more valuable to my company and more saleable to the next employer. More coming soon. And these courses aren’t cheap – $1,500 a pop. Gee a few years back we even provided singing lessons for some team members!

There was a time I’d just say no to such courses. However, once I saw the light and wanted to provide the best possible working situation/conditions the decisions became easy. This is why we sent our entire programming team to the U.S. last year and will do the same again this year. Professional development proves a commitment to within and this helps them team make judgements about how to best serve the company outside.

It’s a huge playground of swings and round-a-bouts and while I dislike that phrase (a client used it in the year I started the company promising if I did this he would do that – that never eventuated…my first lesson in business trust which I have had to un learn since)it works in this instance. I create an Oasis for my team and they are more likely to create an Oasis for customers.

Natural human behaviour I’d suggest.

If you’ve entered this blog on today’s entry you need to go back 5 days. It’s a series you see.

What we are creating is the most exceptional customer experience in a call centre, IT sales situation and in our retail business – a newsagency. And we’re doing this because it is right. We get more out of it than our customers.

I’d doing the blog out of discipline to push this “thing” deeper into myself because it’s not something to read about and do by rote. This, if you get it, exists in every cell of your being and your business.

And it all surfaced because of Maria Muldaur.

Send your camel to bed (pt 2)

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 6 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (SOAP OPERA?)
Of course a boss or owner of a business cannot guide people to an Oasis in terms of their work place unless they have achieved this for themselves.

Too often owners are grumpy because of the pressures of ownership and because they take care of themselves less than their team. While some team members might disagree from their perspective, often the grumpiness is well founded if you factor in time, money and personal sacrifices in keeping a business moving forward on a day to day basis.

I know I’ve said it a few times in this meandering thing already, BUT, this is where it begins, this Oasis thing. It begins with you. Do whatever is necessary for you to enjoy what you do every day. If you achieve that then you’re more likely to be able to deliver an Oasis workplace – you know, a sanctuary, a shelter. And that’s what we all want really. Maslow was right and this need for a safe, comfortable and nourishing workplace is pretty basic. Without taking care of it you can become sick and this leads to sick, or bad, decisions.

If I really want the best possible customer experience, which is what the Oasis strategy is all about, I have to get right with the business myself first. Not out of selfishness. But out of common sense.

This is the first building block.

Send your camel to bed

Cactus is our friend

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 5 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (SOAP OPERA?)

Here’s what it means for the employer / employee relationship, this Oasis thing. If you’re serious that it because this thing is not for the feint hearted. Oasis is not a business philosophy you can latch on to and spruik without living it. If you try that you’ll get sprung by the people who matter most, the people who will deliver oasis benefits for your – your employees.

So, I’ve created some ground rules, guidelines if you will, which I see as at the heart of this Oasis thing:

Wherever possible empower employees. Let them make decisions. Let them know that they have authority and are accountable.

Within the guidelines of their position of course.

Demonstrate trust and if you feel you cannot, provide training and counseling so that once day you can.

Let them, as much as possible and as much as practical, make decisions about their hours.

Let them create the work space most suited to their needs.

Let them personalise their work space.

When I say them I don’t mean it as if its us and them because that is NOT how I see it. I’m not a boss. Never have been. Don’t like the thought. Yes I want to work for myself. But I’m not separated from employees, not in a class way. So it’s not really us and them.

Provide good amenities. Good coffee and tea. Decent biscuits – the sort you’d have at home.

Throw lunch every month or so.

Celebrate birthdays.

Go out to dinner – on the company.

And let the team make suggestions as well – the more they are in control of the workplace and its comfort the more they will enjoy.

The office, shop or factory floor, has to be an oasis. And every work environment provides opportunities for doing this. For example, if you have people on the road, give them a good phone and a decent car so that they get some enjoyment from their work. Bragging rights are worth their eight in gold if you genuinely listen to their needs and provide what you’d want for yourself.

The more the team have control the more they will regulate each other and act as proprietors of their patch and this is where exceptional customer service begins.

So, the oasis philosophy begins at home and it’s between the employer and employee. If you get that right the rest is easy. Getting it right will take a while and you’ll only know if your employees let you know. They have to judge whether you’re got it right or not.

I appreciate it might seem a difficult notion for some to embrace – this employee power thing. Try it. They’ll show you the way.

Come on, Cactus is our friend
He’ll point out the way
Come on, ’til the evenin’ ends
‘Til the evenin’ ends

MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS – DAY 4 OF A 30 DAY BLOG (SOAP OPERA?)

An oasis is a haven, a place of shelter, a sanctuary. A place where all that’s been swirling around you is forgotten or put aside while you are there. It’s a place of respite and recharging. And it’s or those reasons that you would go back to it again and again for the break, for the haven.

So coming out of this trip was the thought of something beyond exceptional customer service, something akin to an oasis experience. And that this would be the goal every time because in any service business you’re only as good as your last support call or service contact. It’s a tough world out there and customers are brutal. One bad call in years of service and your name is mud probably forever.

In my head, meandering out of the many thoughts was some structure to this thing. The oasis strategy was about, in my business – because that’s all I was viewing it as – would be about, an exceptional service experience. Every time. Beyond exceptional, creating something which was genuinely unexpected and delightful. An experience which was, of itself, a sanctuary.

And then I realised that before I could concentrate too much on that I had to think about the people who would be expected to focus on delivering this – ensuring that they, themselves, were having an oasis experience working for the company. I realised that if they were not then how could they come close to delivering it for others. This is something you cannot manufacture or even teach in many respects. This has to come from the heart and it had to come from the employees first before they could give it to others.

And I guess that’s what I connected with the song because songs are emotional and this oasis thing was emotion – certainly emotion is at the heart of it.

I always thought I provided a good environment in which people could develop their skills and earn a living. But this oasis thing demanded that the bar was lifted to a new height. I had to make sure that the employees achieved an on going experience which was exceptional and which would motivate them like nothing else could. Not because I wanted them to work harder or longer but because I wanted them to give something to our customers which was exceptional and which was of them.

I reckon this is where many customer services and business philosophies fall down. They take the conveyor belt approach. Say these words, cock your head this way, smile and move to the next customer. That’s not customer service. That’s acting and anyone can do it if they are trained well enough. Monkeys even. And I don’t employ monkeys. What those training programs miss out is the magic, the song, which makes for the customer service experience which brings people back again and again. Just like it had brought me back again.

So the next step was to being oasis to the employees. Not just once but in an on going way such that they get it and embrace it as their own. For themselves, for their partners and for our customers. It’s a task much harder that you could imagine. There is no roadmap, no easy way. It’s not something you’d hear a highly paid guru from the US out in Australia talking about because you cannot teach this in 90 minutes. You have to live it in the little things and big things. And while you’re on that road you learn plenty.

The oasis strategy in terms of employees and management means more trust, more respect, a workplace under the control of those who work there and policies, as much as possible, set by them. Such that they make day to day decisions as if this were their business.

Jack Stack wrote in the 1990s about Open Book Management where employers are encouraged to share financial data bout their businesses with employees as a lure toward empowerment. Oasis goes people that. Oasis is open source company – where the employee / customer relationship drives everything but how is, in most cases, set by the employees.

Heaven’s holdin’ a half-moon
Shinin’ just for us
Let’s slip off to a sand dune, real soon
And kick up a little dust

It’s personal, between you and I. Win win.