Skills shortage

Given the coverage of the apparent skills shortage over recent months I expected that our ad for an IT support specialist would draw limited response and that our ad for a receptionist would draw a bigger response. The opposite is true.

Bike shop software marketing

bikes_catalogue.JPGHere are the first three panels of the new brochure we have created for the bike retail marketplace.

We have been selling software to bike retailers for six years and have around 17% of all bike retailers as customers.

A challenge in creating the brochure was to connect with bike shop owners – they are not your traditional business owners in that most are connected with their product category in a deeply personal way. They range from passionate weekend riders to former Olympians who have achieved success on the world stage. What they all share in common is a passion for their product unlike any other retail category in which we serve today.

The synergy between bike retail and newsagencies and other markets in which we serve is deeper than would be obvious to the casual observer. While I am not about to share commercially valuable insights here, I would note that there are enhancements in our newsagency software which have come directly from our bike experience – and vice versa. It is this broader retail world view which guides us to provide balance in our software offering.

The brochure was mailed last week and based on calls yesterday we are predicting that it will be one of the most successful we have ever sent to bike retailers.

Fifteen minutes free

We have an unwritten policy of helping customers who call with a problem with hardware they did not purchase from us. Call traffic permitting, we try and provide first level help without cost – evn though our formal policy is that we will charge for any call relating to hardware not purchased form us.

In most cases our approach is appreciated by our customers – we can usually help them resoolve an issue without having to hunt down a local hardware supplier.

Where we do draw the line is the regular calls from people about hardware we did not supply. A couple of customers abuse our generosity to the point where we may review the unwritten policy.

Finding a receptionist

We are having trouble finding the right person to fill our second receptionist position. Since mid 2006 this has been a challenge for us. We need two receptionists because we are busy and excellent sales growth will drive that even further.

This growth is part of the challenge in finding the right person – it takes skill to balance call traffic, mailing, organising travel for a large team and keeping on top of ad min functions. While we support the role with state of the art management systems, the role remains one of the busiest in the company – hence our decision over a year ago to make it two full time roles.

We have one receptionist, Amy – she is a champion. Amy is also my niece but Tower is not a place where such a relationship matters. Amy has earned her status!

It is the second reception role we are challenged filling. We have tried someone with years of experience – they wanted a role more high-level and less active. We have tried someone new to reception work – the call traffic was too much.

Given our difficulties finding the right person we have taken a careful look at the role and at ourselves to see if we are the barrier to finding the right person. We have also asked some of our longer term customers for feedback on the last two in this role who have not worked out. This introspection and research has led me to the conclusion that we hired wrong – we did not put in sufficient effort into finding the absolute best candidate for the role, we did not let the candidates feel the role sufficiently before they made their decision.

So, this time around, we are approaching our search differently. We have a better position description; we will offer time in the office prior to making an offer so our short-listed candidates can assess if the role and the environment is for them; we are open to a part time arrangement for the right candidate; we are including Amy in the process since she lives this role today; and, we are being open about the challenges in finding the right person for this role.

We have also moved some of the work offsite by contracting out some activity which does not have to be completed in-house. This should free up around 20% of the existing reception workload and therefore help us cope with bringing more customers on board.

Hopefully, the changes we have made will result in another champion joining our team.

Newsageny software brochure

newsagents-catalogue.jpgHere are the first three panels from our new newsagent brochure. This will arrive in the main in Australian newsagencies from early next week.

Like the other brochures in the series our focus is on the positive impact using Tower Systems’ software can have on a newsagency and all stakeholders from employees to family to suppliers.

With more than 1,400 newsagents actively using our software today we have a wonderful community of newsagencies of all sizes from which to draw ideas to continually improve our offering – this process of constant improvement is imparted in the brochure.

We know form our own experiences in recent years that providing excellent software backed by the best possible yet fairly priced service where all customers are treated equally pays off wonderfully. The brochure helps us celebrate that and invites more newsagents to join with us.

In the cover letter being sent with the brochure we continue our theme around the newsagency of the future – our mission to help our customers cultivate good data to drive better business decisions which, of themselves, help our customers find their own newsagency of the future.

After hours customer service

It seemed like a good idea at the time: create a Support card listing our various contact numbers so our customers can get help when they need it. We have sent these bright orange cards out to all our customers twice over the last two months. While most follow the cards without a problem, enough are calling the wrong number at the wrong time to prompt us to issue this advice sheet today at our website to try and ensure they get to the right person.

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The events of the last two weeks suggest this advice is necessary: too many customers were calling the emergency numbers and ignoring the after hours numbers.

Our goal is to connect customers in need with the right person as quickly as possible. Hence the extraordinary step of publishing this sheet.

Needless to say we are publishing a new support card soon with clarity on after hours versus emergency numbers.

New Advice Sheets released

Wew have published the following new advice sheets at our website.

• N3.2 EDI: Supplier Setup (last modified Jul 20 2007)
• N3.3 EDI: Code-128 Barcodes (last modified Jul 20 2007)
• N3.4 EDI: Returns (last modified Jul 20 2007)
• N3.5 EDI: XchangeIT Scheduler (last modified Jul 20 2007)
• N4.1 Quatro Link Setup (last modified Jul 20 2007)
• N4.2 Quatro Link Usage (last modified Jul 20 2007)
• N8 HWT Automatic Stops, Starts & Customer Lists (last modified Jul 20 2007)
• N9 MPA Categories (last modified Jul 20 2007)

Hiring for potential

We are in the process of selecting candidates for a new help desk position and as I review the pool of candidates I find myself wondering who would benefit from joining our team. I do not mean this to sound arrogant. There are candidates others would ignore for one reason or another, people with good base skills but who would find it difficult to get their break in IT. In my 26 years here some of our most valued team members have been people who were in this category when they joined us.

We see it as part of our Social Responsibility to help people who would otherwise have not had such an opportunity – not always and not where it does not also serve our customers well. It takes balance and management.

In a Help Desk role, where you are in a group of tn or more, it is important that your piece of the jigsaw is as interesting, relevant and valued as the others – hence the complexity of the choice.

So, that said, today is about working through the pool of 30 candidates and getting that to a manageable level for interview. I will be looking for opportunities, diversity and attributes which will serve our customers well. An experienced chef, for example, wanting a break in IT may be more useful than a university graduate since he knows something about pressure and organisation.

High speed, what high speed?

Speaking of Boradband (see earlier post today) I am tired of paying $29.95 for “high speed” broadband access in my hotel room and having to wait forever for even mid size files to download. First up they should not sell high speed when they cannot guarantee that high speed is what I will receive. Further, what they charge ought to be at a fair mark-up to their cost. I suspect that I am paying $29.95 for what is costing them a few cents.

My most recent complaint relates to the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney. Their “high speed” was so slow I gave up working and read a book.

Broadband key to small business

With more and more products being offered electronically the politicians will have to stop their bickering and start delivering is small business is to have half a chance next year and the year after. Our development team (and development teams in other software companies I am sure) are busy adding facilities, links and hooks into products and systems within other companies – enabling more products and services to be offered at the sales counter.

Each new facility relies on access to fast and secure broadband yet many parts of Australia are yet to have this. Small business is affected the most since they rely more on public networks. The challenge is that many small businesses currently do not understand the risk to their businesses of not having such access. Some who do understand have gone as far as ensuring redundancy in their broadband plans.

All I know is that small business owners are to be swamped over the next two years with more business to be conducted online than ever. Right now Australia does not have the speed or coverage to enable these businesses to compete efficiently.

Gift shop software brochure

gifts-catalogue.jpgThe image to the left shows the first three panels of a four panel brochure we are mailing to gift shop owners around Australia later this week as we further introduce our software.

As the first Australian gift shop specific software solution, we are taking care as to how we help our potential customers get to know us. The material we are producing has been carefully crafted to capture the emotion and values of Tower Systems. It underpins our small business credentials and our desire to do more than install some software and leave. We make it clear that we crave and support long term business relationships.

We knew from the outset that a traditional software brochure would not work – hence the strong imagery and carefully crafted text. We have also gone for a landscape approach and used premium printing techniques such as matt laminating the finished product.

We will know next week what Australian Gift Shop owners think. If you would like a copy please email us.

Renovated Help Desk

Our expanded and refurbished Help Desk is providing a better work environment for our front line support team. The photo below (6:30am this morning) does not capture the full room nor does it capture the spectacular views across Port Phillip Bay – to the left of the photo – which everyone can see in the room. It is only one of three rooms with the view – Given the team spend their entire day on the phone we saw the view as important to the quality of their day.

help_desk.JPG

Everyone has their own work station – this room has nine. We have additional facilities in Sydney.

EDI compliance for newsagents

We have revised our EDI compliance documentation for newsagents and will release of new 30+ page package to our customers later this week. For those not keen on reading the comprehensive document, we have a one page outline covering the key points. Accompanying our revised EDI compliance material is a suite of new advice sheets loaded at our website – these are available for anyone to see including people considering our software and our competitors.

EDI compliance appears to be a challenging hurdle to overcome for many newsagents. Central to the achievement is discipline in how the software is used and data managed. With 82% of the close to 500 newsagents who are compliant being Tower Systems Newsagents we’re confident that our approach is right.

Once we release the revised EDI compliance document we will announce free EDI compliance training sessions to help those yet to achieve compliances – and thereby unlock time and financial rewards – hit the mark.

A tax on airport use

I am utterly frustrated by the constant harassment by Citibank representatives and others at Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane airports. I am there to get on or get off a plane, not sign up for a credit card. On Tuesday night in Melbourne airport when I did not respond to a “Hi, good flight?” question in Melbourne the person said “no need to be rude”. It was my space they were invading. I was three metres from the front of their stand, they were over their lease line. These credit card sales people ought to be banned from airports, their grabbing my attention is like an additional tax on travel.

Gift Shop credentials

Five months ago we opened our first Gift Shop. We did this, in part, to gain experience in the gift shop space, to better understand the management and reporting needs of gift shop owners using our Gift Shop software.

Today, five months on, the experience is proving most worthwhile on a range of fronts. The shop, Sophie Randall Cards and Gifts, is doing very well. The shop is serving as a place where we can play with our technology, adjust its facilities to better serve our growing gist shop user community.

The needs of gift shop owners are unique in some key areas. To be able to develop our IP in a live environment to better serve our customers further separates our offering from the generic off the shelf point of sale solutions.

We have taken this approach previously – when we purchased a newsagency in 1996. In each case – with the newsagency and the gift shop – we resource them separately and provide our in-store teams with authority to operate separate to our software business.

Our software is already benefiting from facilities developed as a result of our Gift Shop experience. Since we understand what is possible with technology we will tend to add facilities which other Gift Shop owners may not see as possible.

Helping POS Solutions newsagents

We have helped more users of the POS Solutions software get their systems running over the last two weeks. In one case the system had been down for several days, leaving the employees to process sales manually. The problem was not with the software as such so we were ably to apply generic IT knowledge and fix what others apparently had been unable or unwilling to fix. In another case the problem was software or at least software / data related but we still sorted it out.

There was a time we would go to the owners of POS Solutions and let them know of a problem their support team appears to not be interested in addressing. The response at the time has encouraged us to beef up our ability to help their customers.

While we want our customers to take out support coverage, we focus on any problem reported first and worry about getting paid later – keeping the business running is more important than anything else. Not that I want to help a competitor but if POS did this they would lose fewer customers than they are at present.

What a competitor charges

I have been provided a quote from a competitor to see if I will match their price. It was given to me because I said I did not believe they were discounting so heavily. 82% off their advertised special price. Such a discount is not sustainable but I suspect they pick and choose the prospects they provide such a discount to.

We won the business by offering our solution for our standard price. Pat of our commitment is that we treat all customers and prospects equally. We don’t pay for kind words. We don’t pay reference sites. Likewise we don;t pay to win business we could not win on our merits.

All that said, the 82% discount is extraordinary. It exposes a weakness I had not seen before and a business behaviour which would upset many of their recent new customers who paid considerably more.

We quote on the basis that our offer could be seen by anyone and that it therefore needs to withstand existing customer scrutiny.

Second time around

We farewell a software developer today who has made an invaluable contribution to our offering over the last three years. This is the second time we have farewelled Craig. We have a few like that, here for their second time with a considerable gap in the middle.

I know other employers who would not welcome someone back for a second time. I am not one for closing doors on a good working relationship and often the second time around is better than the first.

First time or second time goodbyes are not enjoyable. We did it differently today – having lunch with a small group away from the office. A primarily social lunch like this is rare during the week – it is good to have a laugh and a bit of a feed together. Today it respected the esteem of the guest.

Do not call

We have paid to have one of our prospect databases washed against the current do not call register and have removed the numbers of 139 businesses as a result. While the data washing had a price, the cost of this is considerably less than the potential fine for calling someone on the do not call register. I am glad our Marketing Manager insisted we take this step.

Given that the register is a moving target, we will need to engage in similar washing prior to any outbound telephone based marketing. This makes for an added cost which may encourage more use of mail for marketing.

When the register was launched, I saw it as mainly for individuals. That 139 businesses have registered out of around 6,000 from the specific database we are using is interesting. I’d certainly register if it could stop some of the questionable charities from whom I receive calls.

Overfeeding / overeating in the workplace

We are quite generous with employee amenities in our Head Office – breakfast bars, toast, fresh fruit, chocolates and biscuits. Good snacks to fuel a busy team. Even though we try and balance the offer to ensure that here are healthier options such as the fruit, low fat and high fibre snacks as well as low fat candies, I worry that just offering less healthy options is not good for the workplace. Some will choose the bad food if it is there.

I am considering cutting off the sweet stuff and having an all fruit week or removing the premium biscuits and going with low fat fibre options only. But then I think about how much is eaten and it is obviously being enjoyed. Plus, it is not my responsibility to ensure people always eat healthy.

I don’t know what to do – I like that we provide good amenities which people like. I also like that people who skip breakfast or work through lunch have a range of grazing options. But I don’t want to negatively impact their health. Hence my wondering about having a fruit only week – to draw attention to the need to think about the food choices they make in the office.

Reading back I sound indecisive on this – an attribute I do not like in others and which I hope people do not see in me. The reality is that I am not indecisive on this. I don’t want to change the food offerings. By blogging here I am opening the issue for discussion internally – and externally – in the hope of some wisdom on what constitutes the right balance of employer provided food options in the workplace.

Telstra sucks

I cancelled (in writing) a mobile modem account I had with Telstra a year ago – after it was out of contract. yesterday I received a notice they were handing the matter to their debt collectors – chasing $222.00. By my reckoning Telstra owes me around $500.00 because the account was mistakenly paid for several months after it was cancelled. The $220.00 relates to charged raised months after the cancellation. The modem was not used in that time.

I have written to Telstra eight times about this and I have called them. All to no avail.

That my letters and calls go unanswered is evidence of an organisation which cares little for its customers.

Free software take-up doubles

In the week since I blogged here that 20% of our customers accepted our offer of a free gift voucher module add-on to our point of sale software, another 20% have said yes. This is $500,000 worth of software given away. We’re happy and our customers are happy.

What is extra wonderful about this giveaway is that we are getting to engage with customers we don’t hear from that often – the self sufficient people who call the Help Desk, say, one a year if that. These folks call to get the software loaded. We’re glad to help and often get to engage on other aspects of our software.

We have really hit on something with this giveaway – beyond the kudos from our customers, we are learning from the experience and the deeper connection with our customers.

Overseas press coverage

David Sims, Contributing Editor at TMCnet writes about our growth in the newsagency marketplace and our commitment to customer service. Beyond the feel good factor, it is interesting to see how others view your business actions, especially our chunky investment in CRM technology to further improve customer service.

Congratulations Choir of Hard Knocks

Prior to Christmas and again in February we supported the work of the Choir of Hard Knocks. They along with the Lighthouse Foundation are two of the charitable organisations we are supporting this year. The achievements of the Choir have been exceptional and it was a pleasure to see them on 60 Minutes Sunday night.

Choosing charities to support is difficult, especially with so many calling and writing seeking assistance. We are a small business and our contributions modest. We approach our giving like any purchase – ensuring that there is real value, that the donations are not consumer by administrative overhead. I am skeptical of charities with advertising budgets beyond community service announcements on TV and radio. With the Choir and Lighthouse we see the results of the work and this reinforces our commitment.