New gift voucher facilities for POS software

Our new gift voucher facilities have moved into beta release with several of our clients choosing to be part of our test program. This is quite unique software for small businesses in that gift vouchers can be quickly sold and redeemed as part of any sale – offering excellent flexibility regardless of the skill level of staff.

Once we’re through beta the gift voucher facilities will be released as part of our regular software update cycle.

Poor customer service for Sage CRM

We are waist deep in configuring our Sage CRM software to manage our sales and support teams. To help us along the way we paid a fair chunk of money to a Sage reseller – the same company through which we purchased the software licencees – on their advice that this will provide access to vital support.

When we signed for Sage support, the supplier committed to a six hour response time. We find ourselves waiting between two and three days for a response, any response. Worse than that, they now tell us they cannot provide the level of support we have asked for.

It’s interesting being on the other side of the IT help desk experience. I know if we did not respond at all for two or three days to our clients I’d be personally getting angry calls all day. This CRM company is getting away with poor service because we have let them. Frankly, I did not know their service level was so appalling. Now I know, I’m chasing a refund of the support fees paid and looking for another company which understands what customer service is about.

Software upgrade ships

r2-cd.JPGWe are in the middle of shipping our first software upgrade for 2007. What sets this upgrade apart is that we are replacing the Borland Database Engine with a more robust offering. The upgrade us free to our suppoirted users and ships following five months in beta. The decision to ship was based on the update achieving a strict QA benchmark.

We’re old school when it comes to updates. We send them on a CD. While users are welcome to download the update from our website, most prefer CD. Many don’t have broadband. The upgrade CD also includes a fresh full install as well as the upgrade – enabling them to have local backup in the event of hardware failure and the need to install the software in a new magazine. Also, by providing a CD, we overcome issues associated with copying downloaded files – something of a challenge for some small business users.

Over the next new weeks we will ship close to 1,500 CD packs. We’re anticipating an additional 5,000 support calls as a result from the very basic (where do I put the CD) to the complex. Any change to software makes small business owners nervous. Upgrades encourage some to jump at shadows. We’re okay with that and resource up to manage the call traffic.

Beyond the database change, the upgrade delivers some significant new facilities and a new ‘skin’ for our software – making it more attractive to the eye.

Respect for Qantas

I have greater respect for Qantas crew having seen first hand how they handle an in flight medical situation. A chap collapsed on one of my flights yesterday and the Qantas flight attendants were calm and professional in their care. Thankfully the chap was okay. Several people were quietly moved to create a more comfortable area.

I fly a lot and have not witnessed a medical situation like this before. The professional calm of the crew did the Qantas brand proud.

Walking in the footsteps of customers

For those who have not seen my blog post elsewhere, we opened a new retail store on Friday last week: Sophie Randall Cards and Gifts. We have created this new retail concept from scratch in part to help us understand better the needs of our gift shop customers.

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The year long journey in creating this new business has been educational and stimulating. Now that we are open we are getting the practical experience with our point of sale software which will lead to enhancements.

There is no substitute for walking in the footsteps of customers.

Followup from Economist interview

Further to my blog post last week, it seems the answers I provided the researcher for The Economist left them with more questions. They interviewed me again last night, longer this time. Again, the questions were stimulating and went to the heart of government IT policy and it’s impact on economic development.

I have been interviewed on TV, radio and for newspapers over the years and these questions for The Economist are the most probing, drilling down into detail which demands one to be certain of their views and the reason for those views.

Last night’s questions covered, among other topics, access to skilled IT professionals and how government policy impacts the size and candidate of the candidate pool. I was surprised to find myself with a strong view about the impact of government education policy on what the politicians now call a skills shortage.

I am of the view that the skills shortage is a symptom of a poor education policy. A government with eleven years in office has nowhere to point the finger but back at themselves.

Orange toilets

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Our office renovations are complete. However, we have now decided to repaint based around our company colours. The debate in the office surrounds my choice of orange for the toilets. Why not I ask. We have black tiles and the official ‘Tower orange’ will be a nice contrast – well, some of us think that at least. Orange has to b better than corporate white or beige.

As a result of the renovations, our help desk team has a better view of Port Phillip Bay – on a clear day we can see across to the other side.

The domino effect

Retail system installations are like setting up one of those dominos events – there are many pieces to line up so that the project is completes smoothly.

It starts with an order and ends (well, the first stage) with a smile and a handshake once the installation is completed. In the middle there is hardware to order, setup, test, pack up and ship; flights, rental cards and accommodation to book; finance arrangements to navigate; electricians to liase with; landlords to satisfy; insurance companies to satisfy; client employees to calm; training to prepare; pre installation questions to answer; other suppliers to co-ordinate; tension to manage; and, anything up to a week on site to complete the work.

A typical installation involves over a hundred tasks, anyone of which could delay the installation.

While most installations go off without a hitch – thanks to our exceptional installation planning team – some don’t. Those that don’t usually are caused by third parties such as local electricians, landlords, airlines and courier companies. We try and build in a buffer to our schedules to cover for such events but as busy as we are right now this is challenging.

I was thinking about this today because of flight delays this morning which I know will cause pain down the line with a couple of installations. Our team was on the first flight of the day and since it was late will have to put in extra effort to ensure that the client is satisfied. That this will be achieved is solely due to exceptional team members. These folk put the reputation of the company ahead of their personal needs many times. They soak up more grief caused by others than I get to hear about I am sure.

These front line people, those who interface the most personally with our customers, are the champions of Tower Systems. They make the dominos fall perfectly.

Beyond writing a cheque

A week ago I met with the CEO of the Lighthouse Foundation, one of the charitable organisations we are committed to supporting in a regular basis. It was good to get behind a brochure and gain a better insight into their work and talk about how we could be more practically involved.

What I like about Lighthouse is that their work is very practical. They provide long term accommodation and intensive support – in a family environment and for as long as it takes – for young people who may otherwise be homeless.

I’m glad that their CEO made contact with us and provided a better understanding of what they do and how. We now have some other ways we can participate and, hopefully, make a difference.

Seeking a Delphi programmer

We have posted a couple of ads online for a skilled Delphi programmer to join our development team. I figured I’d post a blog entry here given the queries I receive through this blog. Please email me if you are interested in a position description.

A challenging interview

I was interviewed by a researcher preparing material for an upcoming article in The Economist yesterday about IT companies in the Asia Pacific region and barriers to growth. It was a lengthy interview, delving deep into views of the impact of government policy and economic reform. I was one of many software company owners they are speaking with – such is the depth of research done for such articles.

The interview was stimulating, making me think about my business in the context of government policy and economic change – particularly considering the broader Asia Pacific region. I know that the Malaysian Government, for example, has invested heavily in developing IT capabilities at all levels of business. Their involvement is more active than an R&D tax break or export assistance. As the world shrinks, this more active involvement in the development of the IT sector will prove to be valuable.

I am not blogging here and calling for more Government intervention as I am not sure that is the answer. I do, however, think it is important for politicians to look at what they can do to develop our IT footprint in the region across businesses of all sizes. To me, such development begins at home and is based around smarter use of technology in small business in particular with benefits, maybe tax breaks, flowing back to the more efficient businesses on the theory that the financial rewards will flow through the economy.

There is much more to think about flowing from the interview – it has turned out to be a free self-help session, igniting ideas for consideration.

On the road to carbon neutral

We signed up for green power more than two years ago. In an effort to do more, we are looking at what it would take for our entire business to be carbon neutral. To this end we are talking with easy being green, an organisation which provides practical opportunities for businesses to achieve carbon neutrality in manageable steps.

The first step for us is to understand the emissions we generate in our offices (in five locations), our vehicle fleet (thirteen cars), flights (around 350 a year), taxi rides (around 300 a year) and other carbon producing activity. Like anything in business, the first and most important measurement is your personal benchmark. Once you have that you can work on efficiency and, in terms of carbon neutrality, offsetting through purchasing an offsetting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

We’re serious in our commitment and want to ensure that the next steps we take on this are more than just writing a check to absolve bad behaviour. Part of our process will be to find ways we reduce our carbon footprint.

From time to time I’ll blog here on our progress. This first step of measurement will take a couple of weeks to gather the data and have the numbers costed in terms of emissions.

Welcome Anica

We’re thrilled to welcome Anica to a new reception role created at our Head Office. Anica joins Amy in managing call, email, mail and delivery traffic through our software company.

Telstra small business awards

We received a phone call from Telstra pitching their small business awards to us. I’m not a fan. The application process is considerable and it costs money along the way which could be put to better use than pursuing a trophy. I’m all for others applying if they feel it is a good fit for their business. I do know folk who have applied and benefited by learning my about their business. Having looked at the application process I don’t feel it is right for us.

A few years ago we were rates #14 in the BRW Fast Company Awards, #23 in the Deloittes Tech Fast 50 Awards and a runner up in the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Each of those was different to the Telstra awards. Business performance was the measure for the first two and a thorough interview process was used for the latter. We got something out of each experience.

With the Telstra Awards there are forms to complete for people you don’t meet to decide if you make a shortlist. This is the part of the process which does not work for me. The forms don’t gather what I consider to be appropriate assessment data.

Business awards are good if criteria is clear and easily measured, the judging process transparent and the experience valuable for all participants. Oh, and the process ought to be free so that there is no barrier.

Security camera theft systems – what to avoid

A more recent part of our business is our theft management solution – digital cameras connected through a server based smart card and tightly interfaced with our POS software. It’s a high end solution for retailers wanting to more efficiently manage employee and customer theft. The key benefits of our solution are that we dramatically cut the time taken to track theft and we help quickly provide video evidence of situations tracked by our POS software. It’s an ideal application marriage.

We’re not too noisy at promoting our security camera system because, frankly, we’re pretty busy at present and these systems are labour intensive to install.

The break has given us an opportunity to reassess our pitch. This reassessment has meant we have looked at how others pitch their offerings. It’s a dirty marketplace. By that I mean just about every man and his dog offers a security camera system. The problem is, not all of these offerings are suitable and it is very easy to dazzle a prospect with jargon and pretty pictures. below I have put together a list what I’d suggest you avoid if you are looking for a system:

Tape based systems – they’re so yesterday’s technology.

Systems which do not provide easy searching of archive footage based on items purchased.

Systems not deeply integrated with your POS system.

Systems which require you to watch hours of footage looking for what you want.

Systems from companies less than five years old.

Systems from companies which do not provide reference sites.

Systems offering a package deal which seems too good to be true – it probably is.

People more expert than me will have their own list. The key is to research your purchase well. B sure to talk with people using the system.

The time you want the very best system is the time you are chasing evidence for an expensive crime. Scrimp today and solving the crime might cost more than you saved on a system.

iPod shuffle experience

ipod.JPGLet me declare up front that I am not an Apple Mac user. My pc of preference is Sony.

I bought my second iPod at the weekend. The old 40GB unit us a bit bulky so I went for a shuffle. The experience is what I aspire to for clients of my software company. Easy to install and a pleasure to use. 10 out of 10.

Okay, so point of sale software is a tad more complex than a music player. However, Apple teaches us something about elegance of design, simplicity of use and missionary like focus on the goals of the product. I certainly found it motivating from the perspective of software development and a commitment to focusing on customer outcomes.

Government surveys … ugh!

Is it just me or other small business owners tired of the constant stream of surveys they are asked to complete by the Australian Bureau of Statistics? I am now on my third survey this year. While they tell me these things guide government spending I see no evidence of that. I only complete these things because they tell me I will be fined if I do not.

Looking for a free ride

Our software works whether people take software support coverage or not. I’ve never been e for blocking the software in order to force someone to pay for support.

A small number of our clients opt to not be supported. Out of fairness to those who do maintain support and therefore the currency of their software we have a reinstatement fee to help cover the cost of catch up updates. This gets to be a challenge for us to navigate as there are some who cancel support and then haggle over the reinstatement fee when they want to get supported again.

We try and not get in the way of people being supported and apply a rule of fairness when a published list price does not apply. What we look for in return is fairness from the customers reinstating support. I guess this is my code for saying we are working at ensuring that people don’t take us for granted in this area and that they don’t take our other customers for granted.

There is plenty of grey in software support for small business. Many calls don’t relate to your software. These calls require careful navigation as we seek to deliver on a service promise yet maintain a fair price for this service.

While it would be easier for the software to stop working if people do not pay support, the reality is that would take us to a place which does not suit our conscience.

Corporate giving and charity pressure

I find it very difficult to say no to charities when they call for donations. While you can bin a letter, a person on the other end of the phone is harder to reject. They are usually skilled at putting their pitch across and you feel like a heel for refusing to help their cause. I get two or three calls a week which get past the usual screening.

The charities need money to keep doing their work, I understand that. However, some resort to emotive and aggressive tactics in soliciting donations. Sometimes after a particularly strong call I find myself feeling awful that I have said no. It’s like the health problem they are fighting or the families they are assisting will suffer because I have said no. The pitch too often becomes personal to the point where I feel a responsibility. I hate the feeling.

Maybe I am too soft and should ignore these calls. I wish they would never get to me in the first place. But then if the decision is mine I need to be able to deal with it. Sometimes I deal with it by being a prick, saying no quickly and hanging up. That’ a cop out I know.

Charities would be better served if they were less emotive in their pitches and if they did not engage in clever call techniques to get beyond reception and other team members.

We have a giving program through the year as well as a separate Christmas program. We are consistent and robust in supporting: Make A Wish, Lighthouse Foundation and Choir of Hard Knocks. It is the knowledge of these commitments which makes taking the unsolicited calls difficult. Even though I explain we have a committed giving program I suspect they don’t believe it.

We plan to document our giving commitments and policy on our soon to launch new website in the hope that any charity researching us can see that we’re already committed.

Founders At Work

founders.JPGJessica Livingston has written an excellent book based around interviews with founders of famous technology companies. Founders At Work documents what happened in the very earliest days. It takes us back to the challenges of startup life in an accessible way. Every company story has learning – certainly I found that to be the case.

For those of us who have been in our IT businesses long enough the interviews are fascinating because we recall being around at the time and watching companies like Apple grow from nothing.

Some interviews are personally revealing and wonderfully motivating. Reading the decisions people made and why they made them will help any business owner and especially tech startup owners.

Founders At Work is not your traditional business book in that it is primarily stories from tech people – in their own words. No froth and bubble. No rev-up motivation.

I highly recommend this book.

Vale Foxpro

FoxPro is dead. Well sort of. Microsoft has announced that it will not be releasing any new versions of its Visual FoxPro development software past Version 9.0, but the company will continue to support the technology through 2015. Here’s the Microsoft announcement. We’ve never developed in FoxPro as we viewed it as quite inferior to the Delphi environment we use. This announcement is interesting because FoxPro is used by two of our competitors one of whom is on the market. Their software is worth less today as a result of the Microsoft announcement.

Good candidates are worth waiting for

We have three new positions to fill and after weeks of looking we seem to have found excellent people to join our team. What’s odd is that the successful candidates came late in the application process. Indeed, the candidate quality, this time around, improved with time. Now I don’t know if that’s what happens elsewhere but it seems true with us this time.

Many early candidates are people without the right skill mix or with knowledge but no application. This latter group are a real problem – people coming out of uni with a bit of paper and great photographic memories but little in the way of knowing what that knowledge actually means.

That’s behind us as we’ve found three excellent new team members.

Alan Jones supports small retailers

It’s good to hear the noise being made by Alan Jones on his 2GB radio program and on the 9 network Today show supporting independent retailers. In his editorial Wednesday this week he talked about the exorbitant rents being charged for small businesses compared to big businesses by landlords. Click here for a list of Alan’s editorials. While some find Jones’ style emotive, his passionate words have a history of getting attention of those who can make a difference. here’s how he finished Wednesday’s editorial:

The retail sector in this country is on the brink of being destroyed, and the Government watches from the sidelines and sees small business and farmers wiped out, one by one.

And it scratches its head to work out why its support continues to plummet at the polls.

And the clueless ACCC still believes the market is highly competitive.

Small business is being driven out of the market because a large buyer is able to obtain advantage over its smaller competitors simply by bullying.

And if there aren’t laws to prevent that from happening, all Australian families will be the losers.

My software company deals only with small businesses. We feel their pain daily in the business issues they seek our help with. The more attention people like Alan Jones can bring to the challenges faced by small business the better.

Finding a moral compass

The term moral compass has been in the news a bit lately. First in relation to our handling of David Hicks and more recently in terms of politicians and their behaviour. Then I read the term in a book yesterday about IT startups, one founder talked about his moral compass. For reasons I won’t go into here it’s something which has been on my mind for a while and so these recent references spoke to me.

Last night, doing some research online, I discovered moralcompass.org, a website which “examines the impact of competitive self-interest (as pervasively promoted by market-based economic theory) on our traditional idea of a moral compass”. This site is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to research morals particularly in a business context. The survey at the website is particularly enlightening.

It can be challenging business because you’re in a world where certain behaviour is essential to survive – especially if you’re in a small business competing with big business. It can be compelling to check your morals at the entrance to the stadium. But then you end up as bad as the politicians who are so rightly pilloried for their ‘flexible’ morals.

The moral compass website is a good and timely find.

Free new user training

To help our many new users settle in with our software we have scheduled a free follow up group user training for Melbourne (level 3, 22 Horne Street Elsternwick) on Thursday March 22 at 11am and in Sydney at our Miranda office for Wednesday March 28 at 11am. Places are free and limited. These sessions are for people who have been using our software for three months or less. Please book by emailing training@towersystems.com.au. All bookings will be acknowledged. We will announce dates for a national tour of user meetings next week.