Helping homewares retailers

When we entered the gift shop space earlier this year we saw it as our other vertical marketplaces – newsagents, jewellers and bike shops – narrow and specialist in focus. We were wrong. Under the umbrella of gift shops we are encountering a broad range of businesses from homewares to antiques. Curiously the needs are the same and our specialist gift shop software is serving well.

We specialise in being vertical in our approach – getting to know a marketplace, obsessing about it even so that our software becomes indispensable. While it is early days for us in the gift shop space, we are learning rapidly and closing some good business. Our education has been helped, in part, by the variety of business we are encountering.

The small business difference

While we are happy to land a $7,995 hardware, software and services point of sale order, a colleague in another marketplace is focused solely on $150,000+ software only orders. Curiously, we both consider the other has the tougher job.

From my perspective I see considerable value in closing many smaller transactions each year. It means my business is less reliant on a single big deal to make budget and therefore less reliant on the quirks related to big deals which can so easily derail them.

With business coming from many smaller deals we have learned to let go quickly if we miss a sale and pursue other hotter prospects in our pipeline. Arrogantly, our view is that the lost sale will be a client tomorrow. It’s a view built on 26 years in this business.

We have found a way, within Tower Systems, to make many smaller sales and smaller annual value clients work for our business. This is, of course, built around our software and our support working for our clients.

While my colleague landing bigger deals may make a healthier commission from each sale, he has, a risk which I am glad to leave to him.

All these smaller transactions provide a consistency which many software companies would crave.

Strategic deals for small business

We are finding more small businesses banding together to make a collective decision on IT. Curiously, this seems to be more about community than a deal on price. We have completed several such deals recently without dropping our pants on price. By signing several businesses in one area at the same time we can commit to a local presence which provides more comfort through setup than a price discount can offer.

Newsagents, Jewellers and Bike Shops have all taken this collective approach recently. We welcome such deals and it improves our efficiency with our savings invested in even better local support.

The biggest challenge is agreeing on timing but we’re developed an approach for that which seems to work.

A side benefit for us is that we can land some big deals without having the overhead of dealing with big business.

Job ad syndication works

The Now Hiring section we have added to our website is working well for us. Last week, 25% of the applications we received for a position we had came from the site and 75% from Seek. Given that our website is free and Seek costs $165.00 I know what I’ll try next time.

We developed the Find It online classifieds site from which we syndicate content to our own website. We did this as a live test of a facility we’re offering other companies free of charge – to advertise their vacancies without having to develop specific code to manage this.

Cheaper than MYOB

Our specialist point of sale system is cheaper than MYOB. True.

For years we have thought that the generic MYOB Retailer Manager offering is cheaper than our system. However, we were not comparing apples with apples. Once we factored in to a MYOB purchase the service, support and other items which are packaged with our system we came in cheaper. In one head to head quote last week our offer is $1,000 less.

While we are is a very different marketplace to MYOB, many prospects do compare us to the successful off the shelf product – hence our need to be able to answer price comparison questions. Now we have done the research – which we should have done a few years ago – we can speak accurately to the difference. This is about total cost of installation and total cost of ownership.

Meeting the customers

I am often asked by small business owners what makes our software different to that from MYOB. Besides the obvious functional differences of software made for a specific marketplace, there is the customer service difference – our phones are answered by humans. Then there is our face to face contact. Take user meetings for example – our national user meting tour keeps getting extended. We have added more dates to accommodate those who want to meet face to face with members of our team.

What’s great about these sessions is that they are focused 100% of helping our clients build better businesses. Ten or so years ago there would have been complaints about our customer service. Not now. The meetings are packed with business questions and discussion between our clients – users helping users to get more from their IT investment.

The next dates are:

Sydney. Tuesday May 29. 10am.
Dubbo. Wednesday May 30. 10am.
Melbourne. Thursday May 31. 10am.
Hobart. Tuesday June 12. 10am.
Perth. Wednesday June 14. 10am
Darwin. June 22. 10am (Date just added – kind of a junket for the Tower people who get to do this one.)

The Sydney and Melbourne dates are the third for those cities.

Anyone is welcome to attend including people who do not currently use the Tower software.

London restaurants and customer service

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Last night I was working on my presentation at the national newsagent conference next month, looking to illustrate how businesses establish their point of difference when I came across the above photo which I took in London in November last year. It’s a side street, somewhere in the City, with wall to wall restaurants. I recall counting over twenty restaurants in a line on both sides of this small street.

I hung around the lunch and sure enough the street was packed. People seemed to have their favorite places to go. The Italian places had similar menus as did the seafood places and so on. The key difference seemed to revolve around the experience – service and comfort of space. At least to this visitor that’s what it seemed to be.

The photo reminds me of the challenge we face in small business. Not only are we competing with big businesses but we are also competing with each other. Software companies are software companies. Software is software. The key is how you deliver a point of difference so that your customers keep coming back to you.

I find the photo inspirational because it reminded me of the challenge of competition an the need for exceptional customer service as the most important point of difference. In the software business you come across your competitors infrequently. These restaurants, on the other hand, see them every day all day from opening to closing.

Years ago we gave our customers a fridge magnet – yeah, I know, inspirational! :). Anyway, this fridge magnet said we will always remember how important your business is to ours. The photo af these restaurants in a row reminds me of that and the need to recommit to excellent customer service daily.

CRM project progress

Our CRM project continues to seep further into the Tower Systems business. While our sales team has been automated for some months, last week our scheduling people started using CRM to schedule installation and training visits as well as other resources. Next week the plan is to trial switching over the help desk.

Like every internal project we undertake, the core question is – where is the customer in all this? Thanks to our CRM project we are better equipped to have a whole of company view of each customer relationship. This eliminates the silo approach where accounts didn’t know what support knew and so on. In a small but very busy business like ours – with over 2,500 customers – this whole of company view is time saving of itself.

Another benefit for our customers is the time we are saving in getting information to them. Whereas in the past we might have had to write a letter or address an envelope or send a fax, we’re able to do this from within CRM more often than not and therefore free time for delivering better customer service.

The CRM project has taken longer than we anticipated. This is in part due to poor service from our CRM supplier – Aaromba. We’d never use them again.

Engaged! Love is in the air.

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Four engagements in a few months, Cupid has been busy. 2007 is the year of love in our Head Office. Starting at the left we have Craig, lead developer for a major online project; Andrew, our Marketing Manager, Amy, our Receptionist, and, Tim, our Victorian / South Australian Sales Manager. All engaged in the last few months. Tim is the most recent member of the engaged club having asked Kim this past weekend.

Not in the photo is Gavin, our Software Development Manager who is to marry in November.

While we’re not huge on celebration here in that we don’t do the usual birthday cake / lunch thing we’re planning some form of mid year / engagement / wedding party so everyone can shower the lovebirds with good wishes and chill out at the same time.

Do you hire friends of friends or not?

Some business experts say you should never hire friends of existing employees. Other business books say you should never hire friends of existing employees. What is interesting is that each pitches their view single-minded passion. The reality is that the best person for any vacancy is the best person, regardless of how they came to you.

It’s on my mind today because we are about to hire a new team member in Brisbane and two applicants have connections with the business from others already here. Their skillset tells me I should not knock them out because of the existing connection.

This process of hiring people is time consuming but incredibly valuable if you can find the right person to add value to the business and help the candidate develop their skills as the same time – regardless of whether they come through friends or not.

Jewellery software update kicking goals

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Our latest jewellery software update has been in the market for two months and the word of mouth is driving some excellent sales. This will kick along even further when our next update, delivering better multi store tools, is delivered in two months.

With in just over 300 jewellers actively using our Windows based jeweller software we’re small in the marketplace compared to others. However, we’re on a growth spurt thanks to these recent enhancements.

Gift shop software advertising

Education is key in the advertising strategy for our gift shop software – helping gift shop owners see how our specialist software can better serve their needs. here’s the third ad in our launch into the gift shop marketplace.

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We’ve used a photo from our own gift shop as the background and highlighted specific products to illustrate how the software can help improve the quality and speed of business decisions.

Our entry into the gift shop space is having excellent crossover with our newsagency clients – the synergy is good. Newsagents are moving more into the gift space and some of our gift specific facilities are helping those in our client community making this move.

Gift shop software briefing

We are hosting four briefings on our gift shop POS software next month in Melbourne and Sydney

Sydney – Tuesday, June 12, 8am and 11am
Sheraton on the Park, Elizabeth Street, Sydney

Melbourne – Tuesday, June 19, 8am and 11am
Novotel Hotel, The Esplanade, St Kilda

These breakfast and lunch briefings will provide an opportunity to see the software and discover how its gift shop specific facilities are being used to make good businesses great.

We’re looking for ward to an opportunity to get feedback on our new gift shop facilities and to discuss the next step in our development in this marketplace.

The people of Tower

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We’re putting a human face on our business via our Tower Systems website through our People of Tower series. In this picture from website we have Amy (reception), Norman (Financial Controller) and Renata (General Manager) – all important contact points for our small business customers.

We pride ourselves on hiring well and while there have been some missteps, our track record is solid. People tend to stay with us for years and move through several roles within the business.

Better on site support for no extra cost

Over the last ten months we have logged into client systems on 644 occasions to investigate and address questions with the use of our software. This broadband facility through which we can access client sites has been a boon to delivering more helpful service faster. We’re using a third party tool which insulates our clients from having to purchase additional software or complete local software installation. We offer the service at no additional cost to our customers.

Given its success, we have contracted to double our capacity for this service – enabling more members of our Help Desk team to directly and quickly access a client system during a call. While call length grows through use of this on-site connection, we figure that we’re better off spending more time and resolving any issue than focusing just of ending each call as soon as possible – the pursuit of shorter calls by other help desks is false economy.

The virtual on-site service will grow over the next year and with it our customer base as the good news spreads.

Email support growth

We have been offering support by email for several years now but it’s really only in the last year it has taken off. The attraction seems to be that simple queries can be emailed when they occur – any time of the day or night – rather than being held for a convenient time to call. People are also using our email support access point to provide more evidence to support their query and this is helping us better serve their needs.

Based on the increased use we’re managing email support differently to ensure that our customer service levels are maintained.

Free school books software

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We’ve offered school booklist software free for several years now. It’s a web based application which allows newsagents to collate school booklist orders across schools, classes and students. It uses traditional booklists as well as ad hoc ordering to enable the small business owner to collate all orders into one for bulk purchase.

As we have done in other parts of our business we made the software available free of charge. This open approach ensured use and provided some excellent feedback.

Having worked with newsagents for many years and seen all manner of approaches to managing school books, we felt that a free software model was best if we were to encourage more newsagents to get involved.

The Booklist site is live today. It’s still free. Newsagents maintain their own data under their own password. We never access their data.

No to moving IT jobs offshore

I am experiencing increased activity from offshore software development and support businesses pursuing outsourcing deals. Their telemarkers are clever at getting past our barriers for such calls getting to me. One even got a few minutes of my time before their intent became clear.

As an Australian small business serving Australian small businesses I, as the owner of the business, feel it is appropriate that we maintain these vital functions in-house and on shore. Our commitment to social responsibility guides us through our position on this.

The pitch earlier this week was the most professional so far. It caught my attention and while I didn’t consider following up, their approach was educational – particularly in terms of comparing their costs with Australian costs.

I appreciate that these offshore development companies have shareholders and employees to serve and it’s not that reason that I am not making a personal attack on them here. They’re doing their job just as my company is pursuing sales opportunities overseas.

Skype support cuts call costs

More and more of our users are using our Skype support line and eliminating call costs. We have been live with Skype support since last year and while uptake was slow at first, it’s strong now. We’re pleased to offer another way our POS users can cut the cost of accessing support.

Competitors help drive sales

We have analysed sales for the last ten months to assess the source of new users of our newsagency software. While we continue to attract many greenfield locations, we are also attracting many customers from existing software providers. The graph of this data is telling:

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To support these business switching software systems we take extra care during the settling-in period. We want to ensure they don’t bring frustration with their old software provider to us. Plus we want to ensure that we are on top of conversion and re-learning challenges.

Switching systems is not easy for any of the stakeholders and we’ve found that paying extra attention early on creates better outcomes.

Making sustainable communities an election issue

Small business owners in Australia ought to be interested in the progress of the Sustainable Communities Bill in the UK parliament. As the bill itself states:

The principal aim of this Act is to promote the sustainability of local communities.

According to a press release published at politics.co.uk, the bill has the support of over 400 MPs, including over half of all Labour MPs and all Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs.

Local communities are as important in Australia as they are in the UK. I’d like to hear what both sides of politics here think of this legislation in the run up to our Federal election.

Security camera season in retail

All of a sudden our POS integrated security camera solution has taken off. While we have some good sites, it’s not a product which has been a best seller. It’s like health insurance, you’re more likely to take it after a health scare or when you hear of someone having a health scare.

Thanks to some good recent word of mouth from success stories, we have plenty of enquiries from existing customers wanting to integrate their Tower Systems POS software with our video recording and searching solution. These, of course, will build even stronger word of mouth.

We’re the only software company in each of our markets with such a solution that we know of and this is also binging new POS customers to us.

What’s smart about our offering is that we bridge our POS software and the video technology to enable fast searching of incidents of interest – discounts, returns, end of shift, cancelled sales, deleted items and the like. Owners can focus on these events of interest rather than watching surveillance cameras for too long.

Buyer beware on POS software licence fees

Check the total cost of ownership if you are considering buying POS software.

Someone considering purchasing our software showed us an invoice last week they had just received from their current POS software provider. It included close to $3,000.00 for an annual software licence fee. This is on top of an annual software fee and an annual hardware support fee. All up, this business was being charged well over $6,000.00 just to maintain access to their computer system.

The licence fee came as a surprise to them. They say it was not discussed at the time of purchase nor was it part of any agreement. They were told that if they did not pay the licence fee and the support fee, the software would stop working. This is an extraordinary financial hump for any small business.

POS software ought to be like Word, Excel and other common business products. Once a licence is purchased, the small business ought to have free use of the POS software unless they elect to take out support coverage.

Peer pressure drives software use

It’s fascinating watching users of our software talk to each other about how they use certain parts of the software. We’re enjoying the opportunity during the user meeting series we are currently hosting.

Some of the more aggressive users (in terms of the extent to which they work our software for their business) are mission like in driving others to do what they do. Some passive users ‘buy in’ and soon talk about how they could improve their business by better using the software. Peer pressure is a powerful driver.

Getting this close to our users and their passion first hand helps guide the setting of development priorities. There is no point in developing facilities in the software which do not bring out such passion.

The feedback we get from our user meetings is an important element in our business model.

The new Tower Help Desk

Our Help desk team finally moved into their renovated space today. Here’s the team at work on calls as at 3:45 today.

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We have made the room bigger and given each person more workspace. What the photo does not show is the view, when the blinds are open, across Port Phillip Bay and beyond. It’s premium space and makes, now, for a professional and enjoyable work environment.