Amex and Citibank stalkers at the airport

Is it just me or do others agree that the sales people from American Express and Citibank are offensive in their aggressive sales tactics? I travel frequently and am annoyed by their intrusion. Even if I pass their booth with a wide berth I have had them almost chase me down. Not always, but enough to make me consider getting a water pistol to cool them down. Their tactics are damaging the Amex and Citibank brands in my view.

Total cost of ownership of POS software

One factor often ignored by small business owners is the total cost of ownership of the system they are considering. For example, if company A offers a purchase price of $10,000 and annual support fees of $1,000 and company B offers a purchase price of $7,000 and annual support fees of $3,000 then company A is the better offer on financial terms. A good sales person can pitch against this by focusing on the sale price and ignoring support. However, given the compliance requirements in business today it is vital that software is enhanced – hence the need to consider support fees in the total cost of ownership.

We have won business recently where the combined purchase price and support costs for our software are less over four years than the support costs of incumbent software.

We have not increased our support fees in five years. That will change in 2007 but the increase will be lower than CPI.

Eftpos fees scramble

eftpos.JPGWe’ve modified our software to give our small business users flexibility in handling the new Eftpos fees. They can apply a surcharge based on a percentage or fixed amount with the fee kicking in if the sale is above or below a certain amount. The challenge for small business is to overcome the fear of what big business will do. Many wanted the ability to charge the Eftpos surcharge but then baulked because of fear that major competitors would not charge. By making handling the charge easy, our intention is to take some of the paperwork and counter-decision worry away from small business.

Fast 3 Awards finalists

We have culled our Fast 3 entries down to the final six. These awards are for the fastest growing users of our software. Same store business growth is the only measure. Next step is to get the data from each of the stores and verify the numbers. We hope to announce the winners by the end of the week.

We created the Fast 3 Awards because too many business awards are based on pretty entries and presentations. Growth is all that matters – especially in tough economic conditions. We were involved in the Telstra Small Business Awards a while back and felt it was more about form filling and talking up your business rather than actual performance numbers.

The growth achieved by the finalists is excellent.

Resignation by receipt

I can’t reproduce the receipt here because it’s offensive. Suffice to say that the employee tinkering with the facility in our software which allows the inclusion of a footer message on receipts now regrets his tinkering. Seeking sexual favors and listing your mobile phone number on a receipt is inappropriate behavior. The question I have is why would you do this? Why go into the software and include offensive text and your mobile phone number on all receipts? Did you think you’d not be caught? Did you want to really offend the customers? It just doesn’t make sense.

Most retailers are pretty open with their systems – allowing employees to get into most parts so that the business can function without too many roadblocks. This experience makes us question that. It happened in our retail business recently. It’s a first yet makes us want to build high fences around some parts of the software. Stopping employees changing receipt messages is easy. We just never thought we would have to do that. Now that the horse has bolted so to speak it is less likely that we would have to do this.

All in all a frustrating experience.

Friday breakfast

On Fridays at our Head Office we put on some food – bruffins, muffins, croissant and other delights. We’ve been doing this since the 24 hour days of the GST launch. The rest of the week we have fresh fruit and healthy breakfast bars. Friday is for comfort food.

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Deal or no deal for newsagents?

Is this a good deal or not? Access Pos, one of our competitors in the newsagent space, faxed newsagents yesterday with an offer which included the claim “MANY OF THESE PRICES ARE LESS THAN ONE THIRD OF OUR COMPETITORS.” It’s the same fax they sent early in October. Back then I emailed their Managing Director and advised (again) that the claim is untrue. Sure the hardware is cheap. However, you must buy their software. Once you do this and add some training and support, their price is higher than our price when compared to our most popular two package deals. They know this. I reminded them last month. Yet they again send out what is in my view, at best, a misleading statement. I have lodged a complaint with the ACCC.

Newsagents looking for a computer system ought to shop around and compare apples with apples. Choose the best system based on what it does for you. If you’re not sure, get two or three systems on the table next to each other and compare function by function. Check out the business reports and that they are designed to help you buiold a stronger business. Take your time. Then, compare price and not just price today but the price over, say, five years including support. Then, check out what free support services are available including user meetings, documentation and business help. Finally, get at least ten references and call every one of them. The more work you put into your decision the better the decision will be.

Skype for help desk calls

skype.JPGWe are introducing Skype access for support calls – meaning people in far away places can contact our Help Desk free or call costs. This is a first at the small business end of the software marketplace and is another way we are trying to improve the customer experience.

New software for jewellers

Here is the front cover of our new brochure for jewellers. (Click on the image to download a copy of the full brochure.) We’re often asked if there is synergy between jewellers, our second biggest client base, and newsagents, our biggest. Our newsagency software is better for having jewellers making suggestions to us and vice versa. For example, jewellers are concerned about changes in stock movement patterns. We have built some reporting and alert tools to address this and they apply, unexpectedly, in a retail newsagency. Working with jewellers is one reason our newsagency software continues to deliver outside the field.

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Vacancy – software support, Brisbane

We’re looking for someone to join our Brisbane office in a systems installation, training and support role. If you know anyone with good current IT skills and a desire to help small business owners get the most from their IT systems then please have them email a cover letter and their resume to mark@towersystems.com.au.

Seven ways to cut employee theft

Independent retailers are an easy target for people who want/need cash. The more relaxed business processes surrounding cash the better. We get called in when it is too late and a considerable amount of cash has been stolen. Our job is to get the evidence for the police or insurance company as to the quantum. While that’s all well and good, the reality is we would prefer to help with prevention – thus saving businesses tens of thousands of dollars a year. Even without spending money independent small retailers can cut the cost of theft. If they do just these five things they will significantly reduce the chances of employee theft:

1. Background check every new hire.

2. Balance every day – chase down reasons for not balancing.

3. Track every sale back to an employee – any good system will let you do this.

4. Respect employees and pay above base wage.

5. No bags, memory calculators, notepads at the counter.

6. Spend time at the counter and pick up on poor behavior.

7. Track cash and every point between the customer and your bank account.

These will seem like basic advice to most but I have to say that in every instance when we get called in at least several of the items on the list have been ignored.

Cutting employee theft is easy – all it takes is good business management.

Hair salon software sales success

Our hair salon software is gaining kudos in the marketplace. After several false starts over three years it seems that this year we have really found the right offer for the marketplace. Sales are strong and our opportunity pipeline is stronger than ever. What is most interesting is that we are being compared more and more to the undisputed market leader, shortcuts.

The more we work with hair salons the more our newsagency software improves, odd as that may sound. While on the surface there is not much synergy between hair salons and newsagencies underpinning both businesses is a commitment to customer service. We have found that customer service facilities developed for hair work well in newsagencies – when called something else – and vice versa. For example, our employee roster and some CRM type facilities grew out of a major update developed for hair salons.

Point of Sale software user churn

Two stats we keep track of here relate to churn – users switching to our point of sale software and users switching from our point of sale software. Thankfully, the numbers for the former outweigh the latter by 10 to 1. It’s a challenge, especially with small businesses changing hands, on average, every three years. In our experience it all comes down to customer service – making every contact timely, personal and meaningful for the user.

The downside of the churn stats is the baggage of some people we are picking up. A bad experience with their previous POS company makes them wary of us. In the past we have not worked on this and it’s taken longer to develop the ideal relationship. Now, we have a program in place designed to help things start fresh for them, with us. We focus on building trust and guiding their unlearning of past practices. We have found that our structured approach to helping people switch to us is bringing even more across. This month, 75% of the systems we install are replacing other systems.

Fast 3 Awards – rewarding small business

fast3.JPGWe have announced our 2006 Fast 3 Awards where our customers compete with themselves to be recognised as one of the three fastest growing users of our software. To enter they print a report which compared sales over a ten month period in 2006 with the same period in 2005. We measure on unit sales and the three with the most growth win.

The Fast 3 Awards get our users interacting with their software, underscores the importance of competing with yourself and rewards growth regardless of the size of the business.

Entrants are vying for prestige more than a financially rewarding prize as this is more about the process than anything else.

UK newspaper supports independent retailers

post_office_200.jpgThe UK Daily Telegraph is running a campaign to lobby the government over the closure of rural post offices. The Stop Jim campaign (Jim Fitzpatrick is Post Office minister) is interesting because of its support for small businesses and the cultural importance of these in towns and the country as a whole. Now if only we could engage Australian newspapers in similar support for independently owned retail businesses.

Let them eat cake

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This cake shop, in the back streets of Vienna, is a perfect example of what local businesses do best. Their window is full of unique cakes – cakes one would not see in the window of an outlet from a chain of bake houses. In Vienna cakes tell local stories. Pastry cooks from different areas preserve their traditions in their recipes and designs. They compete to showcase their profession, working by hand to create works of art. It’s part of the charm of exploring the city, a charm I would like to see continue.

Back home in Victoria, thanks to tougher food regulations and the success of some chains we’re losing local cake shops. When they close we are left with supermarkets and chain outlets where the products are, often, less natural and certainly less local. While this will not necessarily shorten our lives, it takes away the delight of walking into the bake house to explore today’s delights.

I don’t see the sense in this kind of progress, replacing a local bake house with a chain store. However, I would not legislate to stop it. The answer, of course, is to eat cake, from an independent bake house, at every opportunity.

I am a fervent believer in small businesses. We uphold traditions. We employ locally. Our profits remain in the local area. We care more about our people and our community. We deliver better service.

A profitable small business profits many people. A profitable global giant, by comparison, profits few.

So, I eat cake and toast small business.

Small businesses keeping local traditions alive

blog_kaffe.JPGThis is how coffee is served in Vienna coffee houses. It’s a tradition the independent businesses uphold. Small businesses are good like that, upholding traditions. Sure a coffee in a take-away cup is hand if you are on the go but sometimes sitting and taking time to reflect over a coffee can be more useful than forever being on the move.

While I was sitting at café Mozart looking at my second coffee the tradition of their service led my mind to wander about the difference between this experience and that of a less traditional coffee house like Starbucks, or Cafe Nero in London or Hudson’s back in Melbourne. While those corporate coffee houses clearly provide a worthwhile service – you only have to see how busy they are – it’s more about the community aspect, providing a comfortable place for conversation and identifying with the aspirations represented by the brands.

Café Mozart, Café Schwarzenberg and the many other similar cafes here in Vienna seem to me to be more about respecting their heritage of good coffee, good food (cakes) and good service. They have not, from what I can see, moved with the times. They don’t need to. They are proud keepers of tradition.

Many small businesses are equally proud keepers of tradition, in the face of competitor, media and peer pressure to move with the times and adopt the next big thing in their channel. We need to find ways to make it cool to preserve traditions, good traditions of course. We need to understand and uphold that change is not always necessary. We need to show our small businesses as being important for keeping our part of the world like we like it.

I’d hate to come back to Vienna and find fewer places serving coffee in this way. It’s part of the charm of the city for me. If the global brands win more business and close more independent coffee shops down then I’d have less of a reason to travel here. That may sound extreme but local experiences, like coffee served this way, is one reason I enjoy travel.

Global giant Starbucks unwittingly helps a small retailer in Vienna

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I was shocked, when I rounded the corner just outside the Hofburg Palace in Vienna today, to find a Starbucks store next to Halder, the place I had come to visit. Halder is quintessentially Vienna, offering fine crafted products backed by perfect Viennese service. The quiet back-street has been disrupted by the coffee giant. Starbucks is the star and Halder the chorus. In this city of excellent coffee I could see no value in a Starbucks presence let along here next to the Halder store. I walked past the Starbucks and muttered something critical of globalisation.

The owner of the Halder store soon set me straight. I asked her what she thought about Starbucks, expecting some venting. She almost whispered how happy she was they were there. Even though they have only been open in this location for four months, business was up. Starbucks was proving to be an oasis for weary tourists – Vienna is a city where you walk most of the day to get around the key spots – and enough stopped in the Halder store to make Starbucks a welcome neighbor.

While business was steady before Starbucks, it was not showing great growth. Since Starbucks there has been good growth. New customers are finding Halder and as my own experience illustrates (three trips to Vienna and three trips to Halder) it’s a store you go back to. Their range is unique.

So, what does this mean for my views on globalisation? I cannot begrudge the owners of Halder the growth they have thanks to Starbucks. I also acknowledge that the coffee giant has created a store with some effort to fit in. Those points made, I have serious problems with globalisation: the bigger companies get, the more smaller competitors close; the more local customs are lost; the more service is a KPI and not something from within; and, the more a shrinking few control a growing bucket of global wealth.

It’s not all bad, as I found out in Vienna today.

Globalisation has London in its paw

starbucks.JPGMy take-away from the last two days in London is that globalisation has London in its paw. Major high street real-estate is controlled by global brands. Even side streets are populated with global brands. Local, quintessentially English businesses, are fading fast. From the coffee chains to fast food to fashion, London is less London today than it was a year ago and less then than a year before that. Soon, we won’t need to travel because the local experience we used to travel for will be gone and everything else, if one can make money from it, will be on tour.

Postcard marketing a hit with newsagents

Our latest marketing postcard is enjoying considerable success. It’s generated some excellent leads in the week it has been out in the marketplace. Part of the appeal is that the reader can get to the ad without opening an envelope or without fax paper being used. We’d like to think the main appeal is clarity of the pitch itself. Designed in house, this postcard is another in a series which we began last year. The reverse side is a simple black and white message with pricing and contact details.

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Marketing software to small business is a challenge. When you find a medium which works there is no sense in changing until the results tell you. We sent out 3,000 postcards nationally. So far, the best per capita responses have come from Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales.

Con the tow-truck driver and a lesson in exceptional customer service

A colleague had a car accident, his first ever, and his vehicle needed to be towed from the scene. Con, from Masterbeaters Smash Repairs in Box Hill, not only towed the vehicle but he also sorted out insurance issues for a difficult situation – ensuring that my colleague did not have to pay for the vehicle to be held too long and ensuring that he was compensated for the written-off vehicle. This service was provided on the day and a couple of days after the tow. There was nothing extra for Con or his company to make from this extra service. He went above and beyond duty, providing exceptional service for what was a basic $200 tow job. What he did was a great reminder to me and others at the office about the value of good customer service.

No more credit

Please don’t ask for credit as refusal often offends.

I should have put one of those signs on the wall. Instead I believed a sad story more than a year ago and today have lost almost $10,000 as a result. Okay, I’m gullible. I’ll always help a client who asks. Discounts on support fees, canceling support fees or giving them time to pay if they are in what sounds like a real bind.

More than a year ago the story was sad. I believed it and allowed time to pay for a major upgrade. The warning signs were there. Slow and then no payments. I allowed more time. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

we need to remind ourselves that this is business and people will take you for a ride. So, rather than our business being offended with a bad debt, we’ll refuse and let people fix their problems elsewhere. It’s only fair.

I can afford the $10,000 but not the pain caused by being let down.

Software for Jewellers

We have loaded the just completed brochure for our new software for jewellers to our website. This brochure is being sent to every jeweller in to country to introduce our Marketing Manager, Andrew Halpern, and our new software. It’s exciting for us as our new software is rich in features and already getting great kudos in the marketplace.