Software update ready

We have started manufacturing CDs for our next software update. The photo below shows our robotic CD manufacturer in full swing in our Head Office. This duplicates 4 CDs at once, tests for copy quality and then prints the colour label.
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The CD contains the latest update to our software, the first for 2008, as well as a fresh install version for safe-keeping by our users in the event of a hardware crash. It’s nice insurance which most software companies do not provide. It means that our users can get up and running without the need to have us send software. The fresh install version provides 30 days free access to the software.

we know from our customer research that our users prefer to receive updates by CD and to have control over when they install the software. We could provide a direct link and manage overnight updates in the small business market this is not preferred.
The software update has passed rigorous in-house testing as well as an extended beat program. As with previous updates, the release has been under the control of our QA people, once we gave them control of the GO button the update quality improved.

Ignorant blogging

Bernard Zimmermann, a Director of one of our competitors, POS Solutions, demonstrates a lack of support for his newsagent customers in his writing yesterday about an unfinished court case.

In an effort, I suspect, to demonstrate relevance to newsagents, Zimmermann has blogged about a case which is not over in terms of the impact on newsagents.

Why Zimmermann, not a newsagent himself, feels the need to comment on an incomplete is beyond me. He’d be better off investing time on working on his business or working in a newsagency.

In February 1996 I bought a newsagency so I could walk in the shoes of my customers. It re-defined Tower Systems and every day we see benefit from our continued ownership of a newsagency. Indeed, we now own two and have a significant share in a third. I spend time in the businesses, behind the counter, four or five times a week. I personally understand more about the challenges behind this court case and it is in the context of this personal experience that I label Zimmermann ignorant.

UPDATE (4/2): Zimmermann has removed his commentary about the case following representations.

Beyond the cash register

Owning a point of sale computer system is like faith, without action, it achieves little. It troubles me the number of times I see a computer system, any computer system, operating as little more than a cash register. Good software can be so much more yet often it is relegated to underperforming.

Our mission is to encourage better use of our software. We do this through the training about which I have blogged here recently, our well established national user meeting program, our national free face to face group training opportunities and a host of other services. Beyond these effoets, however, there are other strategies we are using to drive better outcomes for our small business customers.

We are making it easier for our users to achieve practical, measureable outcomes. This is not traditional work for software companies. Companies like MYOB sell a system and leave it to the user to drive outcomes. Too often, money spent on software is wasted because people give up.

We don’t want Tower Systems’ users to give up.  Hence even greater focus this year on leading our customers to tangible benefits from their IT investment.

T is for Tuesday and Training

We have hosted another two online training sessions for newsagents today.  One covered magazine management and the other was for new owners of a newsagency.  Both sessions went well judging by the quality of the questions asked.

Our investment in online training facilities is paying off based on participant feedback.  People tell us they are enjoying learning more about our technology without having to leave their shops. I am sure that the training being free is also appreciated.  We see this as an important part of our customer service commitment.

We are finalising dates for more sessions and can see that we will be hosting at least three or four online training sessions as week for the next month or two based on current interest.

Opportunistic hiring

Having created a raft of new customer service positions in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane we felt we were done with expanding our team for the moment.  As often happens, opportunities caused us to re-think.

A former long-term client and user of our software made contact looking for a career change.  The opportunity of tapping into real-world experience and providing a starting place for a new IT career was too good to pass up.  So, we created a new role in our Melbourne office from next week.

A former employee made contact last week to see if we had any positions.  We didn’t but we didn’t want to pass up welcoming him back to the team.  So, we created another position and he starts with us in a few weeks.  We have a track record for people coming back to Tower Systems.  For the right person we’re glad to hang out the welcome home sign.

Being opportunistic like this and creating positions for the right person is essential in small business, especially in a tough labour market.  We’re looking forward to these new roles as they will facilitate expansion of our services elsewhere.

Expanding in Brisbane

Last week I interviewed four excellent candidates for a new customer service role in our new Brisbane office, the choice was tough. Matt joins us next week. This new position continues our focus on on-the-ground customer service. Our Brisbane office has received considerable attention over the last six months in response to extraordinary sales growth. We have an office to cope with expansion and a growing team to cope with more customers.

Online supermarket shopping

For years I’ve done a weekend supermarket shop for our head office: biscuits, candy, milk, bathroom requirements, breakfast bars, bread etc.  I enjoyed it.  Even though it took an hour to do the shop, get it to the office and unpack, I found it therapeutic – if that does not sound too sad.  Anyway, last month I opened a Coles online account to try out that mode of shopping and see if freeing up an hour and  half on the weekend worked for me.

While there is no doubt that it’s more convenient to shop online and have the supplied delivered right to the office, browsing onlineis no substitute for browsing in a supermarket.  Maybe it’s me but I miss things.  I think I need to find my online shopping groove – but I don;t think the online thing will replace being in the store.  Who knows?

The Coles online service is excellent, their deliveries on time and the deals one sees in the shops, such as Coke, are as available online.  My frustration is more about what I miss.  In the real store it’s almost browser based shopping whereas in online it is destination (by product) shopping.

Retail, for me, is about personal contact with the products and with other shoppers – I’m fascinated to watch people.  I think this is what will get me back in the supermarket for the weekly shop.

This online shopping experience is on my mind at the moment because of work we are doing on a couple of fronts.  The key for retailers, online and offiline, is to ensure the consumer experience is what they expect for if it’s not, they will go elsewhere.

Greetings & Gifts cover

We are thrilled to be on the front cover of the latest issue of Greetings & Gifts magazine. Greetings & Gifts serves gift shops and newsagents and we have software solutions for both. We’re particularly proud of the creative as this was developed in-house by our Marketing Manager, Andrew Halpern.

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It takes a lot to truly serve a specialist marketplace such as gift shops and or newsagents, years of research and development and an attention to detail to ensure that the software itself really does fit their business needs. While we have been with newsagents for many years, gifts is a relatively new market for us. We’re stepping out now that we have some excellent reference sites and supplier relationships which enable us to deliver better management tools and genuine time savings.

New online training for newsagents

Below are the details of more (free) online training opportunities for newsagents.  The new courses on offer are:

Magazine Management Jan. 29 at 10am. Hosted by Jonathan Tay with special comments by Michael Elvey. This session will cover all aspects of magazine management; from Arrivals, Returns, Putaway Management and over/under supply. This session will allow for questions as the meeting progresses and at the end of the session time permitting.

Re-Ordering Stock 2pm Jan. 30 at 2pm. Hosted by Jonathan Tay and Gavin Williams. Learn how to make the most of Retailers advanced reordering functions.  Learn how to create an order electronically, send it to suppliers, then once the stock is in have Retailer arrive it automatically without the need to enter it manually.

Business Discussion: chasing magazine growth Jan. 31 at 11am. Hosted by Mark Fletcher. This session will start with an overview of magazine performance by MPA category, suggestions on steps you could take to increase sales and then a general discussion involving everyone on ideas they use in their businesses.  It’s likely we will get of topic and discus other aspects of business – we’ll make sure there are plenty of ideas to try.

New Owner Training Jan. 29 at 2pm. Hosted by Jonathan Tay and Paul Stamp. Have you recently taken over a newsagency? Well then this session is for you.  It is designed to give all new owners an overview of the software and its capabilities.  We will cover all the things that new owners find challenging, from balancing registers to arriving stock.  This session will have plenty of time for your questions.

Each session will run for between 60 an 90 minutes depending on questions and discussion.  To book, please email bookings@towersystems.com.au.  

New blog design

Richard Lee, our in-house web developer, has been working overtime to digest the emergency move to new blog management software.  What you can see now is the first step of his new design for this Tower Systems blog.  It will evolve over the next week to make navigation easier.

Waiting five days

I was contacted by a retailer last night who has not had his computer system running for five days. He has a one register system running on hardware designed specifically for retailers. He bought this because it was recommended by his software supplier.

The problem with specialist hardware is that repairs can usually only be carried out by a limited number of technicians and spare parts are forever in short supply.

Even though we did not supply the system, the business owner called me because he thought we might sell the same hardware. We don’t. We stopped selling specialist retail hardware around ten years ago – it’s not worth the hassle and the benefits for retailers is minimal. I see others using specialist hardware as a means of driving margin in a sale. It’s unfortunate.

It is rare that a retailer needs specialist hardware. Today’s scanners, touch screens, computers, laser printers and thermal receipt printers can work in just about any situation. Sure they may not be as compact as an all-in-one unit, however, anyone can fix them. You won;t have to wait five days for your supplier to get you up and running.

Retail tenancy inquiry

I have been contacted by the folks at the Productivity Commission Retail Tenancy Inquiry about a submission I wrote on behalf of newsXpress. I’m to present to the Commission when they hold public hearings in Melbourne. It’s an honour to speak for small business retailers and take the relationship we have with them a step further.

Supporting our customers

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We have committed to regular advertising in in 2008 in five industry journals over the next six months in part to promote our business but also, and more importantly, to support our customers. Trade journals play an important role in the lives of our customers and it is appropriate that we the communication channel – they support industry associations and other work of value to our customers so it is appropriate we financially assist in this.

National Newsagent, Australian Jeweller, Greetings and Gifts, Giftwrap and Australian Gift Guide will carry Tower Systems ads throughout 2008.

While we have advertised in trade journals before, 2008 is the first year we have a budget allocation of this size across five trade journals at once. We are looking at a sixth so our reach may be extended.

Talking small business development

We hosted our first online business discussion yesterday. This was different in format and content to the training and user meetings we have hosted in the last ten days. We used facilities in the software to discuss business performance of the participants and to consider ideas in pursuit of growth.

Being an open forum, the course of the discussion is driven very much by the participants. Key to the success of a session like this is people being open with each other – it’s refreshing.

It is a challenge in navigating the meeting management technology to ensure that everyone gets to participate and the meeting moves forward.

Playing outside the traditional IT company / customer relationship is something we enjoy.   We will have additional sessions announced by the end of the week – user feedback has been excellent.

Super Tuesday for training

It was a very busy day yesterday for our new online training and user meeting services.  We ran two training sessions: magazine management and stock re-ordering and a user meeting for users of our bike shop management software.

We are grateful for the time our users invested in the sessions.  Their participation is helping us refine how we use these new online event tools.  We feel that the experience is almost as valuable as being face to face with a group for a training session. 

We are enjoying watching people interact who would, in the usual course of events, never have contact – they learn from each other.  And that’s what these training events are about as much as the training itself – getting our users to interact with and challenge each other.

Grocery price inquiry

I am glad that the new Federal Government has asked the ACCC to inquire into grocery prices. I am especially pleased that the inquiry will consider the competitive position of small and independent retailers.

Coles and Woolworths dominate supermarket and related retail in Australia. Their dominance is unhealthy for farmers, other suppliers and consumers. They do little to genuinely support local communities and care less about genuine development of their people.

While I am not looking for any protection for small business, I am keen to see fairness imposed in these massive supermarket chains in their dealings. In my work with some of our small business customers I have seen first hand the impact of major supermarket behaviour. Hopefully a formal inquiry by the ACCC will pull some of the more questionable behaviour back.

Welcome Phoebe

We have a new voice on our phone system this week. Phoebe has joined us. It’s her first office role so if you call and Phoebe answers please be gentle. Be sure to say g’day. Phoebe is our second receptionist. Business is such that we need two people full time to manage this, mail and filing.

Loving small

I did an interview for an Asian publication over the weekend and they were asking why we focus on independent retailers rather than the chains. While not an unexpected question, it was put in a way which suggested the interviewer felt as if independent retail is not as ‘good’ ad chains and banner groups.

I love independent retailers. Gift shops, newsagents, jewellers and bike shops. There is nothing better than dealing with an owner on a business issue which can be helped through our software. Their business and ours, being small, can respond quickly. I like that we don’t have to navigate committees, franchisees and other hurdles which can slow the software from improving.

By adding a customer at a time, we have built a strong and sustainable business. That’s what I like about independent retailers – their loyalty. It works for us and it works for them.

The interview ended well – the question led to a robust discussion about size which I enjoyed immensely.

Outsourcing month

Did I miss an announcement?  Is January outsourcing month?  I feel like I’m in the dark on this.  Seriously!  So far this month I have received six unsolicited approaches from offshore IT companies offering their software support, testing and development services. 

In three cases, the email query was followed up with a phone call – two in the case of one company.  Very pushy.  The claim is that they can cut our Help Desk costs by 75%.

I’m not about to find out.  I suspect that our customers are like me.  When they call a company for support they expect to be talking with an employee of the company, someone in the loop who is able to resole the issue immediately or escalate it within the company for a quick outcome.

I hate waiting on the phone when I call a bank or insurance company only to have to deal with someone who is not Australian based.  We need to keep these customer service roles inside Australia.

Launching the gift card

We have been working very closely with a client on the launch of their store branded gift card.  Our software will manage the cards across multiple locations, with customers able to pay for purchases off the card in any of the company’s locations.

While well entrenched in major retailers, small business has been slow to embrace the store branded gift card opportunity.  This is in part due to limited redemption opportunities and in part due to the challenge of managing the financial side of the card.

While we have clients who have used account facilities in our software to manage gift cards, our new facilities take the offer to a new level and will help our small business customers more effectively compete.

Cutting humans out of retail

I was interested to see a report in The Age about Microsoft playing in the shopping space with a console connected to the cart you walk around the store.  While it may attract retailers looking to cut labour costs, I see it as another example of big business not understanding that retail is about human based customer service – yes, even in supermarkets and massive department stores.

A dishonest reference

There is a newsagent in Victoria who goes out of his way to put me and my company down.  He talks as if he has first hand experience with our software and our support service.  I have been told he calls our software “crap” and service “useless”. 

While people are entitled to their view, this chap has no way of knowing these things.  We have never demonstrated our software to him.  He has never used it.  I suspect his motivation is that he backed the wrong horse years ago and is angry at himself. 

Newsagents considering the purchase of a computer system ought to talk to other newsagents they find for themselves – reference sites provided by a software company are bound to be favourable and some downright dishonest.

QuickBooks Link

In all of our promotion and talk over the last two years about our MYOB link, we’ve neglected to promote that we also link to the popular QuickBooks software.

Our Point of Sale (POS) software and QuickBooks make an ideal POS and accounting software solution for just about any small business but especially those we serve with industry specialist POS solutions – newsagency, gift shop, bike retailer and jeweller.

While we continue to support the MYOB link, the QuickBooks link gets equal time.

Special deal on Epson receipt printer

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We have a special deal for a limited time only for the Epson thermal receipt printer we recommend.

Our price is $525 including GST and shipping anywhere in Australia – for orders received and paid for prior to 31/01/2008. It’s an offer available to anyone.

Email us at sales@towersystems.com.au for an order form.

While hardware is not core for us, we have put this offer together because of the marketing features some our long term users with dot matrix receipt printers want to use such as sale sensitive coupons. The graphic features don’t work on the old dot matrix technology.

By cutting the usual thermal receipt printer price by more than $100, we are making sexy software facilities accessible to more people. The marketing facilities are in the software today -no additional purchase is necessary.