Caught in divorce disputes

We have been asked by both sides of several marriage disputes recently to provide evidence for possible court action. Such requests place us in a difficult situation as the it usually comes from a lawyer fishing for evidence against the other side. The problem for us is that the other side is also our client.

In one instance a few years ago I was asked how our software could be used to demonstrate a particular position a lawyer wanted to prove in a divorce matter – a position we did not see supported by the data. When I advised this, the lawyer threatened me. Thankfully, the matter settled before the threat of being “aggressively examined in the witness box” became a reality.

Our core concern is always for the person in control of the software running the business on a day to day basis. Sometimes, because of games of lawyers, it is challenging to determine the identity of this person.

We try and take these calls between disputing parties in a business offline, away from the day to day Help Desk function. Sometimes lawyers keep calling until they get someone to say something even close to what they want to hear, even if there is no evidence to support this. It’s unfair to the Help Desk team to thrust them into a dispute where every word they utter could be twisted way beyond the intent.

A lesson from Hong Kong cafes

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Compare this cafe row which I saw in Hong Kong earlier this week with what I blogged here last month. While the competition was tough in London, it is even tougher in Hong Kong. In this one street I counted six eating places packed next to each other and I mean packed.

For the owners of these Hong Kong cafes, there is no decor to differentiate – it all comes down to product and service. I stood watching for fifteen minutes or so, in awe of the bravery of these businesses. They don’t have the tricks on which others rely – an expensive location, a sexy shopfit, staff uniforms, branding. No, they grow or fade based on their menu and service. I love the purity of the business model.

For me, watching these restaurants was a reminder that focusing on the core of your business is essential and that the benefits of tricks – marketing etc – will be short lived. It is your products and service which will really determine your success.

Small business health check service

We are offering our customers a free business health check. This involves us thoroughly reviewing business data as recorded by our software and looking for problems, large and small. We have a set of eight standards analysis reports we produce and these feed into a report back to our clients covering: the quality of their use of our technology; and, the actual performance of the business.

What we find when we do our analysis is that our customers tell us how they think their business is performing. Sometimes the data supports their view but most often the data tells a different story.

By undertaking this research we learn more about our customers and how they use our software and we see challenges which our customers can address before they become too serious.

Some of the most important enhancements to our software have come from the work we have done through this health check service.

Positive vibes from WA

I have been in Perth today meeting with some of our newsagent clients – the second last of our current series of user meetings. We don’t get here as often as the eastern states and so the questions and feedback from clients is different.

The biggest difference I noticed today is their attitude. Maybe it has something to do with the 10% mining boom led growth in the WA economy. Whatever, newsagents in Perth are a positive bunch and looking for ways to drive their IT investment further.

Frustrating job applicants

We are currently advertising for a new role we have created and three of the applicants live overseas and are asking for us to sponsor them. It’s frustrating because the advertisement explicitly says they need to be an Australian resident – essential because of local knowledge requirements.

Kudos to ANZ

I love the ANZ Bank ads featuring small businesses – they make the bank seem more connected to their customers than the usual ads we see from banks. As a happy ANZ small business customer I’m glad to record that these ads reinforce my own experience.

Why small business?

I was being interviewed yesterday afternoon for a magazine article and the journalist kept pushing as to why I have remained focused on small businesses for clients and why I did not evolve the company into larger businesses and markets. Since before I started Tower Systems in 1981 I knew there was more money working with bigger businesses but, having been employed in some, I felt there was less passion and, for me at least, less of a sense of value to the organisation.

When answering the journalist’s question I was reminded of an answer a recent new team member game when I asked him the same question in the interview. He told me about his bigger business experience and how we wanted to work somewhere his presence would be felt, where he, personally, could make a difference. He was coming from a company with over 1,000 employees to a company with 40 or so and his desire was to be noticed. His passion to make a difference was motivating.

It’s the same challenges small businesses themselves have – to be noticed. Sometimes we lose the passion in the day to day but it is never far away. All it takes is for someone to ask the right question and you find yourself reminding yourself why small businesses are important to a country and why, in my case, helping them improve efficiency is an honorable mission.

Choosing the right gift shop software

We have created a brief guide to help small business gift shop owners: Choosing the right software for your Gift Shop. It is a jargon and hype free document useful for any gift shop owner contemplating purchasing a computer system. You can download a copy of this brief guide by clicking here.

We created the guide in response to common queries from sales prospects. By making this report available from our website we help small business owners make their own choices. We also recognise that more software purchases are self service – with less interaction with the sales company.

If you have feedback on the document please share it with us.

What’s in a name?

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I have been in Hong Kong for the last new days and have enjoyed noticing the names of many businesses. They go for simple, positive names. No power names. No made up words for names. No, the Chinese like simple happy names. I like that. The name reflects an aspiration. Take the friendship trading company. How good a name is that? Everyone likes friends and here is a business extending the hand of friendship.

While I am certain I am simplifying the Chinese approach to business names, I reckon there is something positive in these happy names. It works with food – who doesn’t want a double happiness salad? I’d take double happiness any time.

Great customer service starts here

Here are some of our customer service team members, based in our Melbourne Head Office as photographed Friday:

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These guys are from the most important part of our business. We know that lousy support today will hurt our business tomorrow. It’s why we only hire the best possible people and equip them to provide great service.

Each of these guys has a story to tell, if they were the bragging kind, of amazing service above and beyond. However, it is the day to day calls which set them apart. We take between 150 and 300 calls each day and managing those to closure without rushing the client is not easy. These guys and their colleagues do it and they do it with a smile.

I am proud of our entire support team.

End of financial year sales rocket

Each week is getting busier thanks to the fast approaching end of the 2007 financial year. Many small businesses are pursuing the tax benefits which can be had in purchasing software and services prior to June 30. We’re keeping up, just – it’s a good challenge to face.

Peaks and troughs in sales can be a challenge when a major component of the business relates to professional services. It is the same with tradesmen. Our answer is to resource up the business above what a bean counter would so that peaks like June each year see us not turn business away.

The call centre budget

I was talking with a senior manager of a major business earlier this week and they commented that they are getting to help desk calls too quickly and plan to cut staff to get to their KPI response time. Right now they pick up calls in a minute or two. Their KPI calls for a response within five minutes. Given their size, this means they could lose several from their Help desk and still meet their service commitment.

Our help desk runs differently. We prefer to over staff so we can cope with peaks well. Trimming to a budget KPI means peak time wait times become unacceptable. We process anything between 150 and 300 calls a day and on most days it is impossible to predict since half our calls are supplier action generated.

Our customers are human and we are committed to managing our relationship with them in a personal and not KPI driven way.

Gift vouchers software a winner

We’re getting great feedback from people using the new gift voucher facilities in our POS software. We have unlocked facilities for small business retailers to be able to provide gift vouchers just as one sees at Myer, David Jones, Borders and the like. Retailers have flexibility in how our gift vouchers work including establishing the rules which appear on the vouchers.

Gift vouchers give retailers a second bite at a sale opportunity and, indeed, a low cost add-on opportunity. The most common scenario we hear about is where a customer loves a store but cannot find the gift they would like to give someone. The voucher is like a rain check – saying to the recipient hey, I know you’ll find something you love here without having to actually make the choice.

By embedding the voucher generation in the software we have lowing the barrier to entry for our small business clients and guiding them to one of the fastest growing areas of retailing in the US and Europe.

We’re seeing gift vouchers used in each of our markets: newsagents, jewellers, bike retailers and gift shops.

Dumbing down small business

I get annoyed when I hear governments, industry associations and suppliers to small business talk about compliance, accreditation and anything else which pursues a common benchmark. Too often these come with a cost at what I would call the higher end of the market.

In one channel in which my software company serves an accreditation process has been introduced in an effort to lift the standards of the small business members. To achieve accreditation one needs to attend a two day course which costs a few hundred dollars. While I applaud the process, it is disappointing that there is no mechanism for those already well ahead of achievement to be ‘granted’ accreditation.

It is as if the process is more important than the business outcome. I know of at least fifty businesses in this particular which perform way beyond the accreditation standards yet for them to get the tick they need to take two days out of their businesses and pay the fee – to learn about benchmarks and processes they passed some time back.

Why does this matter? Well, only accredited businesses get the best discounts. So, these stellar performers, leaders in their field, have to spend time and money looking back before they can get a discount off stock which lesser businesses get for achieving less.

This doesn’t make sense to me. For this benefit linked accreditation to work, stellar performance needs to be recognised with a credit process. It works in tertiary education so why not in the small business area.

I could be smart and suggest that the top performing operators run their businesses according to what they learn in accreditation training – no, they won’t do that because to do so would slow their growth.

The principle of accreditation for small business is smart. It’s the execution I see all too often which is dumb.

Darwin user meeting

The final stop in our current national user meeting tour will be Darwin on June 22. It seems right to conclude a very successful national tour where we will have met close to 1,000 of our clients in Darwin, at the top end.

This series of user meetings, like previous series, has held us accountable to our customers. It has demonstrated our consistency and provided an opportunity for our users to re-focus our attention.

Following Darwin we will package the key suggestions and feedback and report this back to our customers through our newsletter.

Software support or licence fee risk

Small business owners need to be very careful when they “buy” software. More and more companies are “selling” access to the POS software for one year only. Unsuspecting customers find out about the one year licence when they receive an invoice for a licence fee as well as annual support when year one comes close to an end.

We don’t do this. When our customers purchase a licence to use our software there is no time limit. They can use the software as long as they wish.

I saw an invoice yesterday from a newsagent using a competitions POS solution showing a total software cost for year tow of $6,000+. The small business can’t afford this. However, having invested man weeks in setting the system up to their requirements they are not keen on switching. They feel; duped.

Hence the need to thoroughly research the total cost of ownership of any POS software you are considering.

Bike shop owners are evangelists

Bike shop owners are among the most evangelistic small business owners I have ever met. They love their businesses and, more important, love the products they sell. They are passionate about bikes.

This passion makes for better businesses in my view. Because they love what they do, they obsess about the detail – this results in greater success. Sure, bike shop owners are among our toughest customers – that’s good because the outcomes for them and for us are good.

We have been providing software to bike shops for eight years. It is a small but important marketplace. Specialist in its needs. Our biggest competitor is MYOB but we’re in different spaces – their system is generic retail whereas we offer a bike shop specific software solution.

Our work with bike shop owners has helped us in other marketplaces. There are facilities in our software for newsagents and jewellers which have grown from our work with bike shops. This is where we really benefit from playing in several vertical marketplaces.

We have a lot to thank our bike shop customers for.

Putting service back into the service station

In Bangkok last week I watched good old fashioned customer service being delivered at this Shell service station. They truly served the customers on the forecourt – filling their cars with petrol, checking the tyres and cleaning the windscreen. Amazing. I haven’t seen that level opf customer service in a petrol station in Australia for years.

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When people were not busy with customers they held flags and waved them at the driveway to attract people to the business. Talk about visible promotion.

Sometimes I think we have become lazy in delivering customer service and attracting new customers and while labour rates in Thailand may make these extra services cost effective the, it’s relative.

What I saw last week in Bangkok at this Shell outlet was inspirational.

Being honest with customers

How far do you go if a customer asks you for an honest opinion about their business? Do you tell the truth and risk losing a customer or do you sugar coat and possible deny them the opportunity of resolving issues?

We are regularly asked to comment on our customer’s businesses. While most requests are in passing, occasionally we are asked for a thorough review. If we uncover problems within the business we have to make a judgment call on how far to go with our assessment.

It is easy to say that we should be open and truthful. However, the world does not always operate that way. Some customers don’t want the truth. They would rather either not know about a problem. Others would rather you blame anyone but them. Of course, it’s not about blame.

Our goal is for our customers to have robust and growing businesses thanks, in part, to the technology they use. This is why we welcome engagement on business performance.

We have established an engagement process which works. Openness and truthfulness are at the core of the process. Where possible we use data from the business to support our views.

Our assessments are delivered personally and with care.

This is a difference between our business and a competitor like MYOB or Microsoft. With us, it is personal. We interact with our customers on a personal and enduring basis whereas our big business competitors cannot. So, while delivering bad news is challenging, it is an honour to have such a personal relationship with our customers.

End of Financial year tax savings

Now is the time for small business retailers to consider purchasing new point of sale (POS) hardware and or software. Commitments made over the next few weeks could result is a tax deduction this financial year – without breaking the law.

While we are not tax specialists or advisors, we do understand that some of the packages we sell could be financed in a way which could result in a deduction of several thousand dollars this financial year. Hence the need to act in advance of the end of the financial year.

We are wary of tax minimization schemes and would never guide our clients in that direction.

The newsagency is our killer app

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As I blogged at my Newsagency Blog, this past week has been a reminder of the value to us of owning a newsagency. We serve over 1,400 newsagents with point of sale (POS) and home delivery software. I’ve owned a newsagency for 11 years and over time have become a bit blasé about this. Daniel Kenny joined Tower Systems on Monday of this week to work out of our Brisbane office. He spent much of his first week behind the counter at our newsXpress Forest Hill store. There is no better way for a Help Desk team member to understand the needs of our clients than to use our software in a live situation. It helps us contextualize support calls and humanise the relationship we have with our customers.

Software companies often talk about the killer app – the killer program which will make their business. In my case, it’s the ownership of my newsagency. For eleven years it has provided the point of difference which ensures better software and better service. Daniel’s experience is a good reminder of the value of having the newsagency.

New jewellery software a hit

The new jewellery software we launched for retail jewellers has taken off with excellent sales over the last few months. We have been surprised – now there’s an admission – by how strong the sales have been. Our management reporting, marketing tools and data extract facilities have been driving the sales. What has surprised us is the conversion business from other systems.

We committed earlier this year to significant enhancements of our jewellery software and while the bulk of the work is yet to be completed, even the early changes have helped us to win this new business.

Making catalogue sales work for small business

Catalogue sales can be daunting for independent small business retailers. There are many factors to co-ordinate and a high price to pay for mistakes.

The catalogue management tools built into our point of sale software for newsagents, jewellers, bike shops and gift shops seeks to make catalogues easier and the commercial outcome more certain.

We eliminate the need for the sales team to work off special pricing. Our software supports catalogue special pricing which is date and time based. The pricing can be for a single item, multiple quantities of an item or even for coupled items. We have found this to offer the best flexibility.

If there are discounts for additional purchases our Retailer POS software can guide the sales person to pitch the offer and therefore increase the opportunity of successful up sell for the business.

To ease the burden of creating special catalogue pricing, our system can import supplier files which relate to a specific catalogue. We offer a free data check service to ensure that any supplier provided file is in a format which can be easily imported into the software. If necessary we make adjustments and thereby insulate our client from needing to get too technical.

Once the sale is over we facilitate reporting to enable the business to measure the success of their efforts. Our catalogue reporting tools also make it easier for the business to plan for regular seasonal offerings. Our clients can also export their reports to another format to facilitate analysis externally if they wish.

A pitch we often make to our clients is that small businesses are regarded by consumers as expensive. We’ve certainly seen data from market research which supports this consumer view. Any business wanting to counter this view of a price barrier needs to have in place a sale or special offer program. By structuring these within our Point of sale software, our clients are able to better plan and execute the strategy with minimal effort.

The elusive Queensland office

We continue to search for a new office in Brisbane. Our criteria is simple, or so we think. Each freeway access, close to the airport and served by a phone exchange which supports VoIP – we want this office to be part our internal phone network and thereby facilitate local call support to our Queensland client base.

Each place we look at has an issue – and we’re not being picky.

I’m blogging about this in the off chance that someone reading may know of an office which is suitable.