Training new owners

We were thrilled to host representatives of three businesses new to our software today for a free follow-up training session.

We have found that getting new users together to talk about common questions and challenges can be rewarding. We facilitate the two to three hour meetings with one of our support experts, usually someone who have used the software in business. We also learn about areas in the software where changes may help new users.

With so many new users who have switched from other software, we are scheduling more of these sessions. The benefit for us is reduced reliance on the help desk while the benefit for our users is greater confidence in the software.

When I introduced this free training two years ago I expected others in our marketplaces to follow. That they haven’t (to my knowledge) is a surprise.

More user meetings next week

Below is a list of our user meetings and group training sessions scheduled for next week. While the sessions are for our users, anyone is welcome to attend – watching us interact with our customers is a great way to evaluate Tower Systems.

Geelong: 3/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting
Albury: 4/12 at 11:00am – User Meeting
Sydney: 5/12 at 10:00am – New Owner
Sydney: 5/12 at 2:00pm – User Meeting
Coffs Harbour: 6/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting
Canberra: 7/12 at 2:00pm – User Meeting

Book by email.

Cutting theft in retail

Employee and customer theft in retail costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year. As this report at ninemsn shows, everyone pays. Here are the top five tips which, if followed, will reduce the impact of theft on your retail business:

Track all sales by employee – use a code or a staff card.

Scan everything you sell – train team members on how to scan so ‘free’ items fall out.

Implement a returns policy – make sure you sold any item a customer returns to the store. This is very easy in good software.

Balance to within $5 – make team members accountable for sloppy system use.

Spot stock take – understand the shoplifting problem in your store. This will drive your action.

For a more comprehensive list of actions around employee theft, check out our free advice sheet.

Perth Open Day a hit

Our Perth Open Day yesterday provided an excellent opportunity to meet face to face with business owners wanting to know more about Tower Systems. Away from their businesses, owners can take time to look at our software and just chat. Since it was at our venue, they can arrive and leave when it suits them, meaning they hve more control than a sales visit to their shop.

It was great to get signed business from the Open Day and we’re sure more will follow.

Gift shop software advances

It seems like only yesterday that we released our software developed specifically for gift shops. Already we are into the next generation of this software, working with suppliers and gift shop owners on facilities which serve unique needs.

The gift shop marketplace is especially interesting to us because learnings we are gaining from our gift shop customers are delivering benefits to our newsagent customers – such is the commonality between the two marketplaces. This synergy extends our product and the training we can provide in each of the marketplaces.

One consequence of our work is better data management (driven by suppliers) for newsagent customers in the gift space another is an active role in developing standards which will facilitate benchmarking.

Christmas marketing tips 2007

In what has become a happy tradition, click here for my 2007 Christmas marketing tips for retailers. Print them off and share them around.

I was pretty chuffed to hear from Jurek Leon a couple of days ago that he has included my 2006 tips at his Christmas Tips for Retailers website.

Here is my 2007 list:

1. FOCUS ON HERO PRODUCTS
Have one or two hero categories in the lead up to Christmas. Make a bold visual statement at price points which represent value. Plan to become known in the district as the go to place for these products. You do this by having the best range at a good price and displaying it accordingly.

2. THANK YOUR CUSTOMERS
Write a note of thanks to your customers and place copies in bags. Thank them for their support and share what this means to you and families supported by your business. Be personal.

3. HOST AN EVENT
Host a VIP shoppers night, a 24 hour Christmas Celebration Sale or a tree lighting night. Bring in Santa and create some theatre around the start of the Christmas season in your shop. Maybe do with other shops in your area. Offering free Santa photos is a good way to draw in families.

4. REMEMBER TEACHERS, NEIGHBOURS, FRIENDS AND OTHERS
It is the once a year gifts which can be challenging. Consider a display of gifts for teachers, another for neighbours etc. The easier you make it the more people will buy from you.

5. DONATION BOX FOR A LOCAL CHARITY
Talk to a local charity and offer to put a collection box at your door for customers to make a product donation which fits the needs of the charity. Include photos of work the charity does. Invite the charity to let its contacts know what you are doing.

6. CHRISTMAS ART
Choose a theme and invite entries in your very own art competition. Give the winner a nice trophy and a gift voucher. Let the local paper know. A good theme would be Christmas in xxx where xxx is your suburb – bring out a local connection.

7. EMBRACE THE SEASON FROM YOUR DOOR
Everything about your shop must feel like Christmas. Music. Uniforms. Stock on display. Flyers. The moment customers step inside your shop they need to feel Christmas. Design your store layout for Christmas success, let it do your selling for you.

8. CREATE A TOP TEN
People love lists. Top Ten gifts under $10. Top 10 gifts for dad. Top 10 gifts for mum.

9. EMBRACE THE SEASON FROM YOUR HEART
While Christmas means different things to people, it is, overall, a happy season. Work with your team on ways to embrace and maintain a connection with happiness. Your generosity of spirit toward your team can set the tone for their generosity of spirit toward customers.

10. REST
Schedule enough time for rest. Recharge and make your days more successful.

11. COUNTDOWN
Create a H U G E handmade countdown calendar – behind the counter. 20 sleeps to go, 19 etc.

12. SERVICE, SERVICE, SERVICE
Christmas is stressful for shoppers. Roster extra staff to reduce customer stress.

Christmas Party resolved

The most important event of the year, the team Christmas Party has been finalised. We’ll gather next Sunday, December 9. The organisation of this is a lesson in customer service. The restaurant we first booked threw barriers in front of us when we tried to add simple things like canapes to start and sparkling water on each table – for which I was happy to pay. Simple questions were left unanswered for too long.

What really brought it to an end was their phone system. Every time I called I had to navigate three menu options on their phone system and invariably I had to leave a message. I wanted fast personal service and the phone system denied me this feeling. The experience reinforces my commitment to personal service at Tower Systems.

For the party this year we are going back to the same venue we used for our last Christmas party – we’ve never done this two years in a row. I am relieved and everyone else is happy. With 90 people to wrangle, it’s become a bit of an event. The folks at Vivace have been fantastic. Now, if only airlines and hotels made it as easy – we are flying 15 people in from interstate.

In a service business like hospitality and software you can never have too many customer contact people. Too few and there are missed calls, slow responses and soon you start to lose business. Many a software company has faded because of this.

Adding value to user meetings

We have decided to add value to the user meetings we announced here last week by making one of our Help Desk team members available prior to each meeting for one on one time. This time will need to be scheduled. The schedule of free users meetings is as follows:.

Perth: 28/11 at 2pm – 5pm (open day)
Perth: 29/11 at 9:30am – User Meeting
Melbourne: 30/11 at 10:00am – New Owner
Melbourne: 30/11 at 1:00pm – User Meeting
Geelong: 3/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting
Albury: 4/12 at 11:00am – User Meeting
Sydney: 5/12 at 10:00am – New Owner
Sydney: 5/12 at 2:00pm – User Meeting
Coffs Harbour: 6/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting
Canberra: 7/12 at 2:00pm – User Meeting
Brisbane: 11/12 at 10:00am – New Owner
Brisbane: 11/12 at 2:00pm – User Meeting
Rockhampton: 12/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting
Hobart: 17/12 at 11:00am – User Meeting
Launceston: 18/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting

Book your place by email.

Reception traffic cops

We have two receptionists working at our Melbourne Head Office fielding calls placed direct to us and through our Sydney office via VPN. Amy and Deb help make sure that support calls get appropriate priority and to the right person. We find this helps better manage the 200 to 300 support calls we receive each day.

While it is old fashioned to have a reception function like this, feedback from our customers is that they prefer this human touch to one of those automated phone systems. They also like that calls are screened than going right to the help desk. Between 5% and 10% of calls on any day are resolved at the reception desk with an advice sheet or general advice – all of which helps our overall customer service goals.

A pet peeve of mine is the dehumanising of business through computerised phone systems and the like. The more human we can take the Tower Systems experience the better. While we are investing considerably in CRM and other tools, this is focused on infrastructure and not at the customer interface level. Small business software users want to deal with humans – hence our use of two receptionists as traffic cops.

Managing training and user meetings with CRM

We have implemented the next phase in our CRM (Customer Relationship management) roll out – managing user meetings and training sessions. This expands the management of contact we have with our customers and helps us have better records of who received training and when. This will help us better manage compliance issues – where suppliers want to know which users are at what level etc.

One practical outcome for us from this latest innovation will be that we can better target the locations which have not had recent training. Even though training is free, it is easy for a small business owner to eb pulled elsewhere in their business. If we see people slipping behind in knowledge we can more effectively encourage them to catch up and therefore better interact with suppliers.

Compliance in small business with supplier standards is becoming more critical as suppliers want small bsuiness to be as efficient to deal with as their big business competitors.

When it doesn’t work out

Hiring for our on site installation and training team is a challenge. It is demanding work which involved considerable travel and a need to work unsupervised – making key decisions without the support of an office team.

It takes between three and six months for someone to truly settle into this role and fully represent Tower Systems – beyond the knowledge of our software, knowing the decisions we would make in each situation and just our we want training delivered, beyond the knowledge itself. We have no deadline since we focus on the long term.

It is difficult to interview for the right skills since it is about more than technical knowledge. We take care in the interview and other material provided prior to hiring to fully disclose the nature of the work and the challenges, it’s only when you’re in the role that you feel it. Success in this role is about wanting to prove something to yourself, enjoying your own company, being happy away from home and being able to see through fog to core issues which need attention.

This is on my mind today because one of our new team members who joined us five weeks ago has decided this role is not for him. While we are sad to lose such a skilled person and a nice bloke, we have wished him the best and vowed to maintain contact – which we will do!

Our retention track record is good but the considerable growth this year highlights the need for us to find a better way for prospective candidates to feel the work before signing on. This is why we’re offering paid trial periods to candidates who are interested. By shadowing one of our skilled team members, they are able to see the highs and lows first hand and understand the demands which will, be placed on them if they were to join us.

Serving in the small business marketplace is challenging because we are often entering businesses without the necessary structure in the IT and related areas. We know from people is mid size and bigger business IT installation areas that they don’t have these challenges – they can take a cookie cutter approach. The reinventing the wheel, which is an aspect of small business we enjoy, has a time and focus cost and it is this which can wear on the patience of installation people.

Another change we are making is offering contact with existing team members, as references, following an interview. We feel that the more open we are about the work the better the outcome from the recruiting process.

So, we’re looking again. If you know someone in Queensland looking for IT installation / training work and they enjoy travel, working alone and want a challenge please get them to make contact.

Moving products between stores

I had first-hand experience with a key aspect of our multi store software today – transferring product from one of our gift shops to another. Our software handled this easily. In a few seconds I scanned the items I wanted to move, selected the destination store and was done. Thirty minutes later, after driving to the destination store, in two clicks of the mouse, the stock I wanted moved was in the system and ready to be sold. An audit trail was maintained of the transfer. Should I run short of the stock I moved, I can see from the original store how much stock is elsewhere.

This was my first time personally using the multi store software. It was an encouraging experience. Not that I don’t trust that our development and QA team, I do implicitly. There is nothing like personal experience however. Multi store is a complex version of our software as it serves in various marketplaces and brings a new layer of requirements to the table.

Using it personally, as with the rest of our software, helps Tower Systems better position our offering to the marketplace. It also helps us continue to finesse the software since we can see opportunities other regular users may miss.

That we have a live business where we can demonstrate multi store in use demonstrates faith n our software software companies without such would find challenging. It ensures we make claims we know are true.

Farmer Tony

tony_smith.JPGTony Smith is an unusual bloke. A farmer for twenty-five years, Tony moved to IT a year ago, putting himself through tertiary training to take his practical computer knowledge to a more formal level.

We hired Tony for his IT skills and his life skills. It’s one thing to know stuff about computers and another to understand context. Tony’s maturity adds to the diversity of our Help Desk team and is part of what makes the Tower experience different. A hood support team is not one person, but, truly, the sum of the parts. Tony’s knowledge of sheep is also helpful.

Multi store expands users

We have installed our fifth multi store client this week. This new software is gaining a good reputation as being robust and capable. The key we have found is a business grade internet connection to the business. This delivers the speed and stability necessary for the facility to work. The experience of the last five sites has enabled us to bring more structure and certainty to the installation process – important for any new software.

Since we are using multi-store ourselves in two and soon to be three locations we are usually discovering challenges ahead of others and this helps us be more proactive.

The multi store project is important beyond retail since it delivers a framework to facilitate access to any module of the software from multiple locations. In the newsagency marketplace this will be important since more newsagents are retreating to distribution businesses yet want bills paid in multiple outlets.

Navigating the skills shortage

We are sponsoring a Scottish citizen for permanent residency. He is a programmer with exceptional skills and is making a valuable contribution to our software development efforts.

Despite following the rules, paying the fees and completing the mound of paperwork, the application process became frustrated due to a lack of a response from our case worker.

To their credit, the Department of Immigration moved quickly today once we escalated the matter. It took some detective work on our part to achieve the escalation.

Given the skills shortage and that many companies like us looking for the best available in IT, I’d hope that the Immigration Department is appropriately resourced so that it can better serve the people of Australia.

We are thrilled that this case appears resolved and we can keep our valued programmer (part of a great team) on board.

Newsagent open day in Perth

We have scheduled an open day in Perth on Wednesday November 28. This will be followed by a user meeting on Thursday November 29. The purpose of the open day is to provide another opportunity for Western Australia based newsagents considering joining the Tower community. Several of our team will be there to answer questions, demonstrate the software and talk business away from the interruptions of business. You can schedule a time by booking online.

Transparency in action

Below is a list of free user meetings and group training sessions we are running over the next three weeks. At each session we’ll deliver training in the software, preview our next update and answer any questions. While the sessions are for our users, anyone is welcome to attend – watching us interact with our customers is a great way to evaluate Tower Systems.

Perth: 28/11 at 2pm – 5pm (open day)
Perth: 29/11 at 9:30am – User Meeting
Melbourne: 30/11 at 10:00am – New Owner
Melbourne: 30/11 at 1:00pm – User Meeting
Geelong: 3/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting
Albury: 4/12 at 11:00am – User Meeting
Sydney: 5/12 at 10:00am – New Owner
Sydney: 5/12 at 2:00pm – User Meeting
Coffs Harbour: 6/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting
Canberra: 7/12 at 2:00pm – User Meeting
Brisbane: 11/12 at 10:00am – New Owner
Brisbane: 11/12 at 2:00pm – User Meeting
Rockhampton: 12/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting
Hobart: 17/12 at 11:00am – User Meeting
Launceston: 18/12 at 10:00am – User Meeting

Book your place by email.

Supporting the Choir of Hard Knocks

The Choir of Hard Knocks is one of three community groups we have financially supported this year, the other two being the Lighthouse Foundation and the Make A Wish Foundation. Based in Melbourne, the Choir of Hard Knocks is made up of around 50 homeless and disadvantaged men and women. They were the subject of an excellent documentary on the ABC earlier this year. On December 1 at 8pm at Melbourne’s Vodafone Arena you can see the choir in action first hand. Details of the concert are at the choir’s website. Maybe we will see you there…

Why software for gift shops?

I was talking with the owner of a gift shop yesterday who had just been given a presentation about a generic point of sale system. They wanted to know why our software was better.

My brief pitch of we’re gift shop software specialists didn’t cut it. Rightly, they wanted detail. Over the course of the next forty five minutes I took them into the detail of our software for gift shops and demonstrated how our specialist software better served their needs than generic point of sale software.

They liked how we handled lay-bys, packaging, customer loyalty and, especially, rewarding employees. These are all facilities implemented in a way to carefully serve the needs of gift shops. They also liked the work we are doing with some key gift shop suppliers.

There is more to point of sale than being to process a sale, track GST and do some basic business performance reporting. Local computer shops and other front line representatives of off the shelf generic point of sale systems need to better research the needs of their customers. Sure a MYOB or Quick Books might be cheaper, but that does not mean it is better value for the business.

Threat to blog

One of our competitors has threatened to blog in negative terms about Tower Systems unless we take certain action. The problem, beyond the threat of blackmail, is that we are not engaged in the action which he claims. As has happened before, he will write what he will with little regard for truth. He’d be better served fixing his customer service issues rather than fabricating issues with my company.

14 new user meeting dates

We have just announced to our user community fourteen new user meeting dates and locations we will get to between now and mid December. This latest series will bring to well over 70 such meetings for the year.

This round of user meetings will preview the new release of our software, provide training on common areas our Help desk is asked about and answer questions from the floor.

A typical user meeting will run for between tow and three hours. The first hour is structured content delivered by our team and the remainder driven by our users.

I try and get to most user meetings to maintain personal contact with our community. If I can’t make it one of our senior managers is there along with sales and support people. I like having sales people in front of people they have sold our software to as it holds them accountable. I hear stories of sales people who disappear once they sell a system and vowed years ago that such stories could not be spread about Tower Systems.

Newcastle user meeting popular

We have booked a bigger room for our Business Round Table / User Meeting in Newcastle tomorrow. We’re flying three people in from Melbourne to spend a few hours with our customers in the region to make sure that everyone gets good attention. We’ll also have someone from our Sydney office

Newcastle is a hive of activity for us with more installations scheduled there over the next two months than any other region in the country. Most of this growth is being driven by good word of mouth.

This is our third user meeting in Newcastle this year – we’ll keep running these free sessions as long as users want.

A party for 90

We have 90 people coming to our Christmas party this year and not every employee is able to make it. Some are bringing partners and others not. It’s a big affair – or will be if the restaurant we have booked with gets back to me!

Working through plans for the party makes me realise what a big year 2008 has been for us in terms of team expansion. It’s a lot to digest for the new team members and for the existing team members. The Christmas party takes on the added role of introducing team members who are yet to meet each other.

Looking down the full list of employees, I realise this is not a small business any more. We probably are by usual government measures but it does not feel like it when I see list or consider the weekly payroll.

The most important thing through this expansion, on our software and retail fronts, is to maintain what we call the Tower Advantage, the community spirit of our mission to help small businesses. To do this, we need to make sure that we’re not a biscuit factory where every contact is the same and where we automate.

So, we’re taking time to ensure new team members connect with these values, add some of their own, and become part of the community. We’re not writing it in an employee manual or building it into boring corporate training – that would be too impersonal.

The Christmas party and associated events provide an excellent opportunity to share some Tower stories and help people connect, even if we’re not that small a business any more.

The firewall challenge

Firewalls are problematic for users, software providers and others supporting the systems. Everyone wants settings their way. A change here and impact a connection from somewhere else. When you;re dealing with small business owners who do what they are told in this area, you can quickly find yourself with operational problems because one supplier connecting to the system has demanded firewall changes which cause another to be compromised in their access.

The cost of managing secure access to a small business system is growing as more suppliers connect directly with the business. We have small business customers with regular direct online access with an many as eight companies and all it takes is for one of those to demand a change and the others may have a problem. We have produced a standards document to try and navigate this but some suppliers don;t care – it’s their way or no way.

Some days, twenty percent or even more of support calls we take are firewall related – not to do with our software as such. The calls come to us because the supplier involved usually does not want to help, the supplier of the firewall can’t help with industry knowledge and the industry itself has no central approach to managing these things.

Security is important. I wonder if economists have costed everything associated with data security for a small business.

Training new users

We have scheduled three new user training sessions. These are for people new to our software regardless of whether they have just purchased the software or purchased a business where our software is being used. People new to our software, to any software, have questions which often determine the enjoyment they receive from the software. We are glad to offer this free training for this specialised group. The sessions will be run by an expert from our installation and training team. The dates are:

Melbourne – November 30
Sydney – December 5
Brisbane – December 11

Each session will start at 10am and run at least two hours – longer depending on questions. Our goal is to cover areas of the system of most interest to new owners and have you leaving better trained and more confident. Bookings only by email: bookings@towersystems.com.au.