The brilliant Choir of Hard Knocks

hard-knocks.JPGOn ABC TV news just before Christmas I caught a performance from Melbourne’s Choir of Hard Knocks. The performance of this group of homeless and disadvantaged people was deeply moving. You can sample their rendition of Silent Night here. The choir’s website provides further background:

This choir of homeless and disadvantaged men and women have pulled together to create a unique and powerful sound that truly captures the spirit of human endeavour, persistence and resilience.

The choir is supported by Reclink, a not-for-profit organisation which has been providing recreational opportunities to disadvantaged people for 15 years.

What touched me about this group was the emotion in their singing. It was pure and real and hard to not be swept away with them.

If you’re in Melbourne next Wednesday, consider going to their Launch Concert. It’s next Wednesday, March 7th at 7:30pm at the Melbourne Town Hall. Tickets are $10 from EasyTix 03 9639 0096 or www.easytix.com.au. We’ll see you there.

We are supporting the Choir of Hard Knocks as part of our 2007 giving program.

Beta software blues

I spoke too soon last week about the imminent release of the release of a major upgrade to our software. Beta (test) sites late last week reported a several problems with the beta release which, at first, looked serious. While the problems all related to a single change, that they got out at all is causing us to tighten even further our in house testing.

Part of the challenge is the complexity of vertical market software. Beyond traditional business functions there are many industry specific functions which interact in ways with can be unexpected. A small change last week had unintended consequences. While we tested the change, we missed a couple of steps and delivered some frustration for our beta tech colleagues. It’s our fault and we fixed it quickly.

We have played with commercial testing software and found this wanting. There is nothing like real world testing because you cannot code to emulate user behaviour.

In the past we have used pre beta sites to play with the software before it goes to a larger beta community. We’ll do this again and track the impact.

It would be easy to not blog here about the beta blues of the last week. To do so would deny a problem common to every software company. Software bugs, no matter how stringent the testing, get through. Design, development and testing are human processes. The keys are how you respond and what you learn.

Chinese New Year initiative makes customers happy

pig.JPGJonathan Tay, a champion in our customer service team, took it upon himself to send messages to our Mandarin and Cantonese speaking clients whishing them a prosperous year of the pig. His message also offered traditional Chinese blessings. Jonathan’s initiative was well received by our customers, many sent New Year messages back to him.

I was touched by the initiative as it goes beyond what is expected on Jonathan in his role with the company. It demonstrates a personal care for our customers and their culture which I really appreciate. That he did this without being asked is an example of exceptional customer service.

The majority of our customers are newsagents. We were the first newsagent supplier to offer Mandarin and Cantonese language support – we did this in response to the influx of Asians buying newsagencies. Jonathan has been central to helping us navigate the cultural differences and ensure good customer service for these clients.

Weak telecommunications infrastructure slows office search

We are looking for a new office in Brisbane and are finding ourselves constrained by Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure. We want an office in an area serviced by an exchange which supports the IP technology which is central to communication between our offices. We have used IP telephone between Melbourne and Sydney to cut inter office call cost to 6 cents. This enables us to take local calls out of Sydney and place them in our Melbourne based national call centre. We want to do the same in Brisbane but the exchange requirements dictate where we can locate our offices.

If only Australia had a robust state-of-the-art communications infrastructure. The boost to competition would be enormous.

Biting the hand that feeds

spruiker.JPGThe chap in this photo is a spruiker working outside Priceline, diagonally opposite my shop. He has been hired by the centre to try and shore up customer traffic since Kmart closed three weeks ago. He moves from store to store promoting items he sees out the front.

What surprised me the other day was that here he was outside Priceline, next to a hair salon and he was promoting hair shampoo saying “why buy it from an expensive salon when you can get it from Priceline cheaper”.

Maybe I am being precious but I was annoyed. It is the marketing fees paid by all tenants which fund his fee. It is inappropriate for him to talk down a neighbour of Priceline. If Priceline hired him then okay but they did not.

What does it matter to readers of this blog? Not much probably and I accept that. I wanted to record this minor frustration if only to put it out there as something else businesses encounter when what looks like a good turn sours. If I was the owner of the hair salon I’d b angry. The reality is that they probably didn’t hear the comment.

Tower Systems sells software to hair salons. We understand some the challenges they face in winning customers and making money. They don’t need someone they are part funding talking down the shampoos and other products they sell.

Sweat shop socialites

We are in the middle of a massive direct mail marketing campaign for two of our businesses involving the assembling and mailing of 20,000 items. To help us do this work our Marketing Manager, Andrew Halpern, gathered together three of his cousins and the son of a client. Over two nights this group worked feverishly in our boardroom on the project.

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From the outside it looked like child labour, a sweat shop you’d read of in a newspaper. Inside the room I saw some of the most efficient collating and packaging I have ever seen. I also saw four young guys getting on well with each other in a way which would put many adults to shame. They were social yet focused on their work.

While the amount of work they got done was impressive, it was their interest in each other which really caught my attention. These young guys would not usually have come in contact with each other and could easily have spent their time working in silence. Instead, they found out things about each other’s lives which will stay with them for a long time. It will stay with me because they demonstrated social skills of which I am in awe.

I’d like to get this team together again if only to help them foster the friendship struck over two nights. I know that may seem odd. Sometimes it is social connections made in the workplace which provide an enduring positive influence.

Lazy personnel agencies and employee reference checks

Part of my role I dislike is reference checks. Not because I don’t want to support former employees in developing their career but because of how some companies and some personnel agencies go about the process.

What happened to written references? Surely they could call and verify that you are the person who wrote and signed the written reference. This ought to be enough – especially in the care of a glowing reference.

I have just hung up from a call from one personnel agency which kept me on the phone for fifteen minutes with question after question. I refused to answer half the questions because to do so would have required me to judge the values of the former employee. Don’t get me wrong, he was a top bloke and I’d be glad to hire him again. My written reference was very supportive.

Here are some of the more offensive questions the caller from the personnel agency wanted me to answer

Would you class his values system to be strong, average or weak?
Would you consider him to feel fulfilled in life or not?
Would you consider he puts his personal life ahead of his business life?
What would consider he should change to make him a more valuable employee?

It went on like this for too long and it’s not the first time. I took a call on Monday from an agency asking about someone who left Tower Systems four years ago and they had a similar list of questions. When I read the reference they always so “ we don’t use written references any more”. When I say, I was sorry to see them leave, I would gladly welcome them back and I highly recommend them for a role like they had with us they get agitated and tell me to stick with their questions.

These agencies get paid a lot of money to find people for companies yet they expect former employers to do a chunk of their work for them.

I’m contemplating refusing to provide reference checks in the future other than a statement of service and a written reference on departure. I have provided a reference in an immigration situation and it was less onerous than what these agencies ask for.

Structured help for small businesses doing it tough

We’ve been helping a group of users of our software doing it tough because of the drought, local circumstances and issues in their industries.

As a result of this pro-bono work we have created some structure around the assistance process. It begins with getting a good understanding of their business and ensuring they have an equally good understanding. It’s through this initial process that some good business changes are being discovered an implemented by the business owners themselves.

The biggest challenge to turning a small business around is the understanding of all the problems by the owners. While they know the business has problems, they are often in denial as to the specific nature of the problems.

To me, the place to start is the business data. This tells us how well the business in being run and the day to day performance of the business. If the data is rubbing then that’s the starting point – getting the operation of the business on track so that it can be measured.

We have a package of six reports which give us what we need to analyse any business and make benchmark comparisons. This is where we start along with photos of the business – it’s important to see the store layout and get a feel for the presentation of the business.

What we enjoy about this work is getting to use the analysis and reporting tools in our software in a very practical way. We often come out of a project with tweaks we want to make to the software here or there which help guide our users in a more practical way as they use the system. Our goal is to guide them to better outcomes before business really starts to fall.

Word of mouth hiring

Finding the right employee for a vacancy is tough, especially in IT where any advertisement results in a tidal wave of wannabees and recently graduated foreign students – especially for small businesses.

Having been in business for a while we often receive tips from clients about people they know with IT skills who are looking for work. It was while working through applications for two positions last night that I realised how good these word of mouth recommendations have been for us.

To find someone with good IT skills and experience using your software in a client site is a dream come true. In fact, the experience has been so good that we give such client recommended candidates preference.

In business we’re often reminded of the importance of word of mouth from a marketing perspective. I’d add to that the importance of word of mouth when it comes to hiring.

Software update ships.

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We have started shipping Retailer 2, a major upgrade to our point of sale software. R2 delivers a complete database engine replacement and a host of application enhancements. Supported users receive this without cost.

Green shmeen and the business of the environment

We need to stop business buying a green stamp of approval.

Okay so everyone is now going green. Great. Businesses are trying to outdo each other by being greener than others. This is the new loyalty program – you remember loyalty programs – they used to offer a point of difference to the early adopters until everyone came along and made loyalty programs pretty much useless as a differentiator. Do you really believe you’re saving 4 cents at the petrol bowser with the supermarket dockets? I don’t. Do you really think FlyBy points are worth anything? I don’t

Green is heading in the same direction. Do you really trust the companies, and I mean BIG companies, which claim to be chasing a carbon neutral operation? I don’t.

Now that companies realise they can make money off of being green it suits them to buy green power, recycle more and do anything to get the logos on their websites and products. We’ve done it – more than a year ago we switched to green power – because we believe in it not to make money. For years, Gary Hall, one of our software developers, has been running a recycling program: – paper, cans and plastic are all recycled; three years ago we switched to filtering water in-house from water in plastic bottles; for years all toner cartridges are recycled.

I’m all for companies becoming more green, as long as it is real and not just something they cost justify based on the returns they could achieve. Before paying for trees etc to offset the damage their processes cause, maybe they could look at making the processes more efficient.

We are working on other practical steps:

Reducing use of the lift by walking the stairs to our offices.
More efficient lighting.
Updated cooling systems.
Moving from petrol to hybrid vehicles as we change over.

Government and environmental organisations need to ensure that big businesses cannot buy greenness and that it is earned through practical and worthwhile change to their business practices.

A call to the help desk

Customer: My computer’s not working.
Help Desk: Okay, what are the symptoms.
It’s not working.
Is there an error message.
I can’t see one.
Is there anything on the screen?
No, it’s not working.
Can you please check the computer itself for me.
I can’t see it.
It’s usually under the counter.
(Agitated) I can’t see it. We’ve got a black out here and I could hardly find the phone.
Okay, there’s your problem, no power.
Oh. When will the power be back on?

Mandatory software support

We’ve heard of another software company in one of our vertical markets now charging a mandatory software support fee. That is, if a user does not pay a software support fee then the software stops working as it should. People buying a small business with software need guarantees as to what they are paying for in terms of the software. If the software is a year to year proposition as described above then there ought to be no charge in the purchase price.

With Tower Systems software support is not mandatory – we let our users choose year by year if they want this coverage. If they elect to not take software support, the system keeps running as usual.

Building repairs over, finally

After six weeks of drilling, chemical treatment and repainting the covers are off and scaffolding down on our building. The concrete cancer has been successfully treated bits of the building are no longer falling on passers-by.

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We own the third floor and half the first floor and this work not only provides a better work place but also protects our investment.

Now that this project is down we’re looking forward to the completion of our internal renovations.

Energiser vs Duracell vs Varta batteries

For the last three months I have been using a Sony VGP-BMS30 Bluetooth Mouse. My average daily use is 12 hours. This mouse was chewing up batteries faster than I could buy them. Both Duracell and Energiser batteries lasted a few days. In frustration I sent for the cheaper Varta batteries. The first pair has lasted two weeks – less than half the price and, so far, three times the life.

Misleading advertising of POS software and hardware

Access POS, one of our competitors, has been claiming for at least six months that many of the prices they offer are “less than one third of our competitors” . As their biggest competitor, I want to put on the public record that none of their prices is less than one third of our prices. Some are less and others are more expensive. For example, their receipt printer is 30% less than ours. However, a comparable computer from Access is 22% more expensive than our price. In the software area one module is 30% less than our price and another module is five times what we charge.

We have around seven times the Access newsagent client base so why should I care? I care because even one newsagent taking the Access bait without shopping around and carefully comparing prices and total cost of ownership would be one newsagent too many.

Not all employers are the same

I hate it when I hear people on the radio representing employers saying things I don’t agree with. I don’t know who it was today but there was some bloke on ABC Radio (The World Today I think) saying that Workchoices was great because it got rid of unfair dismissal laws and made it easy to get rid of renegade employees. He was right of traditional right wing views yet he was an employer spokesman. Well he was not speaking for me.

Yes I am happy to have some balance in dealing with dismissals. However, the new system is easy for employers to rort and that is where small business will suffer because small business owners are more likely to operate under a conscience than their big business share price driven counterparts.

I wish media outlets would canvass more widely when looking for employer representatives as we’re not all always signing the same song.

What should software support cover?

Often in the sales process the total cost of ownership of a computer system is overlooked. This can mean that the purchaser is locked into a cheaper purchase and a more expensive support regime – especially with the systems which demand an annual fee just to keep running. (Ours does not.) Our annual support fees have not changed in four and a half years. Support includes:

• Help Desk access. 24 hours a day. No long wait times. Professional. Friendly.
• Regular software updates. Including exclusive products for you to sell.
• Regular user meetings and group training in cities and rural areas.
• A free day of training at the time of a change of ownership.
• Advice sheets – better than a manual. Updated regularly. Online and printed.
• Theft Check service. Free. We help you cut the cost of theft.
• Backup Check service. Free. We help operate safely.

Sometimes we get it wrong and so support is backed up by an escalation process which provides for the issue to be dealt with by management and even senior management. By bundling all this into a fixed price agreement our users have certainty over the cost of ownership year on year. It also preserves the sell price of the software should they sell their business. Supported software is usually sold for replacement value – unlike what happens with the usual office software products.

I am compelled to publish this because of a competitor I am told is saying that we charge extra for everything – updates, calls, training, theft check etc. So, I am blogging to put the record straight – knowing that many of our prospects check us out here.

Tower System is an open book and our software services highly regarded.

Windows Vista early adopters

Windows Vista has barely been out two weeks and we already have small business users wanting to upgrade their pos systems. We’re advising against it until we have thoroughly tested our software on Vista in-house and in the field. The nature of our client support relationship is such that our everyone on our team needs to be Vista thoroughly aware and friendly before we place it on a supported operating system list.

We’re playing with Vista and liking what we see and expect to add it to our supported operating system list in a couple of months. In the meantime we won’t block people who want to install it – their support calls may take us unexpected places if Vista issues are encountered.

Petition to stop supermarkets selling lottery product

Please help Victorian newsagents lobby the State Government to NOT permit the sale of instant and other lottery product in supermarkets. The Government is considering granting the Greek company Intralot rights to sell scratch tickets. Intralot has been reported as saying they plan to sell scratch tickets through supermarkets. The petition is setup at the respected Go Petition here. It takes a few seconds to sign online. No sign up or registration necessary.

Apologies to those who have read this post at my Newsagency Blog

Hiring wrong

We have realised that we made a mistake with a recent hiring decision. Difficult as it is, we have decided to let the person involved go just a few weeks into their role with us and start the hiring process again.

We’re a small business and don’t have the time to train people in very basic business and IT skills, skills which are essential when you’re helping small business owners with their IT systems.

The person involved did nothing wrong. They hid nothing from us during the hiring process nor did they have any misleading information in their resume. This mistake is 100% ours.

One answer for the future would be to hire through an agency. They charge too much and, the few times I have used them the outcome is no better. We’ll learn from the mistake are review candidates more carefully.

While our track record over our 26 years is good, a stumble like this makes you take stock not only for ourselves and our customers but also for the people who apply and are ultimately hired.

Boy in the bubble

Tim Batt, a ‘gun’ in our sales team is caught in a plastic bubble being created around his current office as our builders start work this morning on his side of the office.

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We own the entire third floor of the building we’re in and these renovations are ‘adjusting’ half of the total space to improve accommodation and functionality.

There are 28 of us here in this office working around the renovations.

Office renovation blues

Just when the work on the outside of our building is coming to an end, work has started on our internal changes. The photo below is part of our software development area. It accommodates seven. We’re replacing an open plan design with two private offices and more people-friendly and practical work areas – all so we can accommodate a larger team.

The noisy, dusty and smelly work will go on for another two weeks. Once the developer’s area is renovated, our builders extend our help desk room, install new presentation equipment in our board room, renovate our bathrooms and retile the kitchen.

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The lone person in the photo is long term software developer Gary Hall. Gary is key to our social conscience – driving our recycling program for many years, getting us to switch to green power and building social interaction between team members.