SMS alerts helping small business

Our Point of Sale software has been providing SMS alerts for more than three years but it’s only bee in the last year that the SMS alerts have really taken off among our customer base. More of our customers are using the service to receive end of shift sales data as well as indications of possible fraud. For the latter we use some clever keystroke mapping matched against historic data to determine if a potential fraud situation exists – the software alerts the owner and they can take action to investigate not matter where in the world they are.

Customers using the SMS alert facility tell us they like the comfort of being in touch with their businesses without being on site.

I guess I’m surprised it took three years for this to take off but, hey, I’ll enjoy success whenever it comes.

New gift shop software campaign

We have launched a new marketing campaign for our gift shop software. Last year we entered the marketplace by announcing our presence and developing some excellent reference sites – to prove our credentials. With runs on the board, this year we are focusing on the aspirations of Gift Shop owners. Here is the first of a series of full page ads we are running in trade journals starting this month:

gift_shop_ad.JPG

These ads will be supported with postcards and trade show activity.

Our is ideal for independent card shops, gift shops and homewares shops – a marketplace we know well through or 26 years working with independent retailers. We deliver these independent store owners time saving and business management tools which enable them to be more competitive and therefore more able to enjoy the lifestyle they want from their business.

Our 2007 campaign focuses on these strengths.

Syndicating job ads

We’re proud to have completed our ‘white labels’ syndication for Find It – the online classifieds site we are developing. You can see it in action at our corporate website. The Now Hiring box is the ‘white label’ syndication at work. We call it ‘white label’ because our branding is minimal.

When you post an ad Find It also generates HTML code which you can paste direct to your site or blog like I’ve done below. No programming required.

The syndication is free and is available for all ad categories.

Small small business

western-union.JPG

Western Union is a ubiquitous brand. Here it is in a back street in Hong Kong, bold as ever. I took the photo because I was surprised at how little space they had and also because it’s a single product business.

Small businesses here in Hong Kong tend to be small – physically. In Australia we pressure ourselves to make our small retail businesses bigger and bigger. The smaller footprint allows for tighter focus and, I expect, better return on a smaller stock investment.

Business names

elderly-stick.JPG

They love straightforward business names here in Hong Kong. I say this sign on the side of a truck this afternoon packed with, I presume, elderly sticks.

Tower Systems user meetings

We have added more locations to our current user meeting series. Even though we call these sessions user meetings we’re happy to welcome anyone along – it’s a great way for people to assess Tower Systems by seeing how we interact with our existing customers. We’ve had users of other systems along to several meetings and their contribution has been excellent.

Here is the next round of dates:

Adelaide. Tuesday May 1. 10am
Perth. Wednesday May 2. 10am
Newcastle. Tuesday May 8. 10am
Townsville. Tuesday May 15. 11am.
Cairns. Wednesday May 16. 10am.
Melbourne. Thursday May 17. 10am.
Auckland. Tuesday May 22. 10am.
Sydney. Tuesday May 29. 10am.

Anyone can book by emailing bookings@towersystems.com.au. It’s free.

By the time we finish this tour we will have met close to 1,000 of our clients in twenty locations. It’s a pleasure to catch friends, talk about ways their existing software can help their businesses more and listen to their suggestions for improvements.

News in Fiji (2)

Following the interview Monday with the Fiji Sun, I was interviewed by the Fiji Times about our focus on the Fiji marketplace and our interest in partnering with a local representative. Their story was published today.

Geelong, where it all began

eastern-beach.JPG

I’ve been in Geelong this morning, another stop in our national user meeting series.

Geelong holds a special place in my heart as it’s where things really kicked off for Tower Systems in our early years. Newsagents in Geelong were our early adopters and this set us up for our position in the newsagency marketplace today. Some of our best users are in the Geelong region.

The other reason it’s great to get back to Geelong is because it’s where I was born and lived for eight years – including two years at Geelong East Primary – called Old East back then if my memory is right.

The drive in this morning included the mandatory stop at Eastern Beach – the best of its kind I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Like any regional city, Geelong is close enough to a capital city and connected enough with the world to be up to date yet it retains the friendliness and personal nature of a country town. It’s wonderful driving along some of the wide streets and seeing a streetscape less impacted by the high density living we see in the city.

We put considerable effort into these user meetings – being personally in front of our customers is important to us. Gavin Williams, our Software Development Manager, and I are at each. We’ve found this provides better outcomes than having non management people running the sessions. Our commitment and presence prove our accountability.

News in Fiji

The Fiji Sun interviewed me yesterday about our recent sale of software to a Nadi based business. We’re looking forward to developing our business in Fiji and this first sale is a good start. Even though things are still getting sorted out politically, business owners we talk with are optimistic.

MYOB / Quicken link taking off

For several years we provided a link to the MYOB small business accounting software. Every so often MYOB would change the specifications without telling us and we’d fall behind. They were a frustrating company to deal with.

Last year we were approached by a company committed to navigating linking point of sale systems to MYOB and Quicken. We have implemented a link to their third part software and they navigate the accounting system links. This new approach has been tested by our in house team including our financial controller with our own two retail businesses. It has also been tested externally. Today, the link is live and it’s making our lives easier.

Our skill is developing exceptional point of sale, back office and business management tools. By partnering with another company to facilitate a general ledger link we can remain focused yet still provide a whole of business solution.

Software export success – Fiji here we come

Yesterday we received an order for our software from a business in FIJI. This is the second sale in FIJI in our 26 years, the last one being eight years ago. We’ve also sold software in Malaysia, Singapore, the Cook Islands and up and down New Zealand.

The FIJI sale came out of the blue as a result of a meeting at a trade show a few weeks ago. In fact, this trade show has proven to be exceptionally valuable – generating more business than any other in recent years. What makes it more interesting is that it was not a major trade show and was a little off topic for us. It shows that sometimes straying from tradition is worthwhile.

One of our team heads over to FIJI in a few weeks for the installation.

Jeweller software update

We have released new details of our jeweller software offering at our website. We’re transparent about price, functionality and services.

We know we’re not the biggest in the jewellery space – but that does not dilute our commitment. Our jewellery product team has made some excellent moves in the last year and this is reflected in the new jeweller marketing materials released at our website.

The synergy between our various vertical markets continues to help is deliver unique and valuable solutions to our many small business partners.

Cut the marketing budget and increase sales

We have been reviewing our numbers the first three quarters of this year and are pleased (but not surprised) with the correlation between the decline in our marketing spend, the increase in infrastructure (support and development) spend and increase in sales. The decline in marketing and increase in infrastructure was deliberate in pursuit of the increase in sales. Not a lot of science, just a belief in pursuing the best products back by the best possible service.

Up close customer service

We are in the middle of a national round of user meetings where we get close to our clients in more than twenty locations around the country. We’re trying something different this time by preceding the tradition al user meeting – where we provide some training, take questions about the software and discuss enhancements suggestions – with a business discussion.

The business roundtable as we’re calling is the part of the meeting I run. There is no agenda. Issues raised by our clients about their businesses are put on the table and we talk through how these might be navigated with the software. What is interesting from the two so far – Tuesday in Sydney and yesterday in Brisbane – is how differently people interact with the software.

Some see a computer system as something which ought to be able to assist with any business question or challenge and they drive it accordingly. Others see a computer system as something to fear and engage with as little as possible. I prefer clients who actively interact with the software and push its boundaries.

While more interactive users present more challenges for a software company, they are the people who will help you create better software. Better software makes for a better software company. And that’s what the roundtables are about – helping demonstrate practically to our clients how the software can help in any business situation.

Business ethics and customer service

I have been given something which is dynamite against a competitor. I won’t name them or even the marketplace in which they operate – Tower Systems competes with 38 software companies across five marketplaces.

I am glad I have the document but not for the reasons you may think. I don’t plan to use it publicly or internally to arm my sales team.

This document serves to remind me of the importance of a key message in our marketing: we will never forget how important your business is to ours. The company in question forgot this. Not once or twice, but consistently with many customers over a sustained period of time. And now they suffer as a result.

At Tower we make customer service mistakes from time to time. It’s how we respond once we realise that which defines us. This document demonstrates to me the importance of strong internal systems built around, from the top down, pursuing excellent customer service.

The 3am support call

We protect our software from illegal copying by registering each copy. If someone installs the software in a new machine or if they change the registered user details the system warns that it will not be usable. The call at 4am was frustrating because one of our clients had ignored the two warnings and proceeded to change what they were advised not to change without getting a new serialization code first. Their action got a couple of people out of bed and a young family woken – all because they did not follow the simple advice on the screen.

Such are the frustrations of some middle of the night support calls.

Some may say why allow people to change something which could disable their system. Our view is that you can only go so far in protecting people against themselves. When we say they need a new access code we assume they follow that advice and get it prior to proceeding.

I really feel for the members of our team who take these 4am phone calls, especially when the reason for the call could be avoided by the user of the computer reading the message on the screen and following the advice. Some users have the view that they are awake at that time of the day so why not everyone else.

We’ll continue to take these middle of the night calls but we will be tougher about holding people accountable for not following basic advice which could have avoided the call.

Aussie products can’t afford supermarkets

Small Australian companies are finding it harder to get their products on the shelves of major supermarket chains:

This policy, which is being adopted by both Coles and Woolworths (who together have over 70% of the market place) is to free up supermarket shelf space to allow for the introduction of their own private label range. In effect it is proposed to limit consumer choice across all products sold. For example the jam or tomato sauce category will include their two top selling products plus a range of Coles or Woolworths branded products.

The effect of this policy is creating major difficulties for all the Australian owned manufacturers, including those that produce our products, to the point where we have been struggling to keep a large proportion of our product range available on supermarket shelves for our loyal customers to purchase.

In recent weeks the problem has been compounded by Coles suggesting to many of our manufacturers that unless they receive large sums of money by way of an up-front payment, which in some cases is up to $100,000, then they will no longer be prepared to carry our products. Interestingly, none of the requests for money are being sought in writing.

You’ll find more about this at the Disk Smith Foods website. Small businesses need to work together to provide competition for the two major supermarket chains. We should promote each other, buy from each other and lobby on behalf of each other. Coles and Woolworths are big, in part, because of the laziness of small business.

Thanks to Craig Kelly of Southern Sydney Retailers Association for pointing me to this story. Kelly says our food prices are rising faster than elsewhere and that this is in part due to the last of Price Discrimination Legislation.

My interest in all this is small business. Tower Systems only sells software to small business. It’s what we have done for 26 years. Commercially, it suits us to support small business. Outside of that, I believe small business has more to offer our community than bland retail experiences offered by the majors.

HP and customer service

Recently, we purchased two printers – HP P2015 and HP 2605 dtn – for a client. Both printers fail at their task. Barcodes wipe off the label and even plain paper. The stock we are using is the same as we have used for years on other HP printers. The client relies on these barcodes. Clearly the printer is not working as it should.

Our technical team is frustrated. They have tried to take the issue up with HP but find their Indian call centre staff unhelpful and, in many cases, difficult to understand. We are told that the printers work to specification. I know from my first hand experience with these two printers that this is not the case.

HP makes it very hard for anyone in Australia to have direct contact with them. They have created a high and impenetrable wall and to me this demonstrates a lack of interest in customer service.

Yesterday I emailed the four names I found listed for media contacts in Australia. So far, no response. I hope that HP does not let me down. I like their printers but would shift my business elsewhere if they do not lift their customer service game.

Late in the day we were given a Brisbane phone number to call but we had to ensure we had an incident report logged in India first. Most odd.

Government handouts in the 1980s

I was interviewed by a business magazine yesterday for a feature they are writing on small business software companies in Australia. Their first questions took me back to the software development scene in Australia in the 1980s. They were heady days with millions of dollars of money from State and Federal Governments sloshing around. Not at the small business end but certainly for the bigger players.

In Victoria in the 1980s we had the state government VEDC dolling out cash, chasing an IT future for the state. Last night, long after the interview, I struggled to recall one IT business still around today which was helped by the State Government cash. Maybe those of us from the time who are around today are here because we did not get the cursed cash and had to make it on our own.

This got me to thinking about business handouts. I hear the olive growers up in arms at the moment because they are losing their tax break in a year. My small business does more for the economy than any olive farm – we are creating new jobs and we are helping small businesses become more efficient and competitive. And we do this without a tax break. So why olives? Because some lobbyist got into the right ears I suspect.

Politicians ought not be able to hand out selective tax breaks and cheap or free cash to businesses. History, such as that of the 1980s in Victoria, has shown that wise decisions are rarely made and the cash is lost.

Bank fees don’t make sense

I have three businesses which process credit card payments – a newsagency, software company and online ink and toner sales business. Our eftpos merchant fees were .79, 1.15 and 1.45 respectively. The online ink and toner business is 100% eftpos transactions yet it has the worst fees.

An email to the bank last week resulted in a 20% reduction in fees for the ink and toner business. While not ideal it is a start. The bank says online transactions are riskier. I pointed them to our perfect record over two years. They said we may be good but the industry is not. So, the bank makes us pay for others – not fair in my view.

We’re going to talk with other banks and see if we can do better. We’re on a mission with bank fees having cut our mobile and fixed line phone bill by more than 60% in the last year, we know what can be achieved with some of these fixed business overheads.

Fake fuel discounts

Woolworths must think consumers are idiots. They want you to shop at their supermarkets to get 4 cents a litre off petrol and then buy something in the petrol outlet convenience shop to get a further 4 cents off. Checkout the details of the deal here. The discount is off inflated prices – just go to an independent fuel outlet to see what the real price of petrol is.

If I owned an independent fuel outlet I’d be vocal in exposing the sham of the Woolworths offer. It’s a discount when you don’t get a discount. Unfortunately, their size and advertising spend will stop consumers seeing the campaign for what it really is.

Small businesses need to use clear and consistent messages to demonstrate the real discounts they offer every day. They need to NOT mimic the likes of Woolworths. They ought to give every customer a flyer exposing the Woolworths offer and comparing it to their genuine discount offer.

Pay as you go software

I am surprised by the number of software companies which have switched to the pay as you go model. Instead of charging a one off licence fee they apply an annual or monthly fee which keeps the software unlocked for use. It’s never the market leader making such a move but one of the smaller suppliers. It offers them a price differential pitch. One has to hope that small business owners do their homework on the total cost of ownership and realise the risk of taking on pay as you go software.

We will not embrace this model as we consider it unfair on the client. By charging a once off licence fee and making annual software support coverage optional everyone knows the cost going into the transaction and can control the annual fee going forward.

When people ask, I tell them to be very wary of pay as you go software. I know of a couple of instances where monthly fees have risen significantly in the last six months – blowing the budget of some users and making the system more expensive from year two on. Often by then the business has spent too much.

Grudges and Tasmanian Devils

tas_devil.JPG

As I watched the two Tasmanian devils fight over food today at the Tasmanian Devil Park, I thought about the fights small business owners have, often daily. The fights with landlords, competitors, banks and others can be debilitating whereas these little marsupials fight aggressively one minute and curl up asleep with each other the next. While I am no expert, they don’t seem to harbor grudges. Small business owners often do.

I was thinking about this on my trip to the devil park today because of what I’ve heard a chap said about me and my business based on contact from twelve years ago. This chap took a cursory look at our software, asked for changes specific to his business, I said they were not appropriate to others in the market and quoted accordingly and he has been critical ever since. Even though he has not seen our software since and we have gone on to dominate the specific marketplace, this chap reportedly tells others that our software is awful and that we refuse to make changes. The grudge he apparently holds is serious.

I wish people like this chap were like the Tasmanian Devils – fighting for what they want and believe in and then letting go for a new day. Life is too short to hold a grudge.

Open user meetings

We are about to start our first national series of user meetings for 2007. These are open to anyone including businesses not using our software. We have found providing the opportunity to live the Tower Systems life is helpful in countering spin put out by some competitors. We have nothing to hide and plenty to gain from such transparency.

The user meetings will be preceded by a business round table session – a proactive and open discussion among business owners who want to achieve the best from their businesses. I am hoping the sessions will help those participating navigate challenging business issues.

The businesses round table starts at 10am (sharp!). The user meeting will start by 11:45am. Locations are: Sydney. Tuesday April 17; Brisbane. Wednesday April 18; Melbourne. Thursday April 19; Canberra. Friday April 20; Geelong. Tuesday April 2; Hobart. Thursday April 26; Adelaide. Tuesday May 1; Perth. Wednesday May 2; Newcastle. Tuesday May 8.

You can book by emailing bookings@towersystems.com.au. We need your business name, the session you are booking for and the number of attendees.

We expect to add Cairns, Wollongong, Darwin and Gold Coast next week.