Holding a grudge

I have got into some arguments over the years owning this business. Usually over issues which should have been ignored. No matter how brutal the argument, to either side, I am not one to hold a grudge. Life is too short. I’d rather focus my energy on the future than on remembering to hold a grudge based on an argument last century.

I was reminded of this today when I was cleaning out some old files and came across the remnants of an argument. I had a laugh thinking back to the long forgotten incident. Time certainly does provide a valuable perspective on these things. I know that too often in our early years I got caught up in battles which were not important, especially battles around competitive sales situations.

Thankfully, we (I) learnt the lesson and stopped fighting too hard for business. When we did that we started enjoying ourselves more and winning more business.

Benchmark project reaches far and wide

The Newsagency Sales Benchmark reports we have been publishing are being used quite widely. I received an email yesterday from one newsagent who has compared his business, found some issues and reconfigured his focus as a result. Even though he is not a user of our software, he was pleased to have access to the resource as well as the ability to access more detailed data and ask follow up questions without pressure to buy software or join any other group.

Our work on this and other benchmark projects is part of our way of putting something back into the newsagency channel.

The responsibility of market position

marketshare.JPGMore than 50% of all newsagents with a newsagency point of sale system use our software.

We have more sites than all of our competitors combined. Our nearest competitor is 40% of our size in terms of newsagent locations installed.

We are certain of this because of independent professional market research we paid to have conducted in April/May of this year. Once we had the results of the market research, we compared our numbers with topline data from two key newsagent suppliers. This confirmed the accuracy of our numbers. There has been no slow down in sales to newsagents since April/May so the results would stand up today, just three months on.

There is a risk in being so dominant in any small business channel, especially newsagents where there is suspicion of size. On reading these numbers, some newsagents will have an anyone but Tower mindset when considering software purchase. I know some do already – they think we are too big. I suspect that this is what prompted one industry association to consider, for a brief moment, purchasing a comptitor of ours a couple of years ago.

I can understand the concern. They would not want us to dominate the marketplace. The reality is that we do dominate in location numbers. However, dominance does not equal abuse. We have been respectful of our market share for years.

We are the only software company actively reinvesting back into the newsagency channel in practical ways. Over the last eight months we have been a Gold Sponsor of the national newsagent convention, a Platinum sponsor of Queensland newsagent conferences, a sponsor of a newsagent association website initiative and the instigator and key backer of a national TV commercial promoting newsagents. There are other investments which we will not discuss publicly as they relate to tangible pro-bono assistance to newsagents in need.

We are able to reinvest in this way because of our market share.

We robustly represent newsagents to suppliers, at a state level and nationally on a range of fronts relating to IT matters. There are instances where our representations have resulted in suppliers changing their position as a result of our representation.We are robust in our pursuit of a fair and balanced IT relationship between newsagents and their suppliers. Again, our market share enables us to take this approach. Suppliers like that they can meet with one company and effectively make progress with half the channel.

Through this blog and our newsagency blog we are transparent about our actions on behalf of newsagents. This is a key reason we continue to add new locations at an excellent rate.

We are thrilled to welcome more newsagents to our community. Our commitment is that we will serve the newsagent channel respectfully, fairly and transparently.  As other software companies pull out of the market, we will help newsagents make the transition.  We will continue to reinvest in the future of the newsagent channel.

We will never forget how important our customer’s businesses are to ours.

Dell not so easy

We have been helping a user of our software who recently upgraded his hardware with gear he purchased from Dell.  He has had some hardware specific issues with two of the computers early in the morning when opening the business at 4:30am.  His experience trying to get knowledgeable help at 4:30am is a reminder that saving a few dollars when you purchase could be false savings if you end up paying extra for basic service others include in the price of their hardware.

Meet the Tower experts

We are hosting a series of online workshops based around experts within Tower Systems. Over the next few weeks you will be able to share in online workshops with Gavin Williams, Simon May and Michael Elvey. Each has ten or more years experience with our software. These sessions are your opportunity to tap into their expert knowledge, ask your tough questions and gain an insight into ways they see our software can help your business. The session details are as follows:

  • Gavin Williams, General Manager. Gavin has been instrumental in managing key supplier relationships. He can answer almost any supplier related question. His session will start with the three most important yet under used functions in the software. Expect to end the session with good knowledge on how to get more from your software. Gavin will take your questions on any issue. Session details: September 9 at 2pm.
  • Simon May, Technical Services Manager. Simon has been our go to person on complex and tough technical issues. His session will start with an update on current hardware and operating system standards and the common issues which get in the way of our users gaining the most from their software. Simon will take questions on any issue. Session details: September 10 at 2pm.
  • Michael Elvey, Customer Service Manager. Michael has hands on newsagency experience as well as exceptional Retailer software knowledge. His session will start with advice on how to ensure you get the magazine supply you want and the credits you deserve. This will focus on key compliance challenges. Michael will also take questions on any issue. Session details: September 11 at 2pm.

We are offering these sessions to help you more directly connect with our most senior people and thereby get more from your software. Participation is free. All you need is a computer with broadband access and a phone for a toll free call for voice content. Please book by emailing bookings@towersystems.com.au.

Keeping support costs down

One way we help our users keep the cost of software support down is by offering a settlement discount. We have happy to take 20% off the annual software support fee if the support account is paid early.

Another offer is for our users who wish to purchase more than two years in advance. Besides locking in today’s support price for up to four years, there is a discount of up to 25% on offer. We have offered this for years and are pleased to have helped several long term users save considerable money.

Business discussion with newsagents

We are hosting a free online business discussion with newsagents at 2:30 next Tuesday, September 2. This will be an interactive discussion around the state of newsagency retail and the ideas which people participating find work for them. We will be start with a discussion around our recently completed Benchmark Study. To book, please email bookings@towersystems.com.au. There are only 15 places available for this discussion. All you will need to participate is access to a computer with broadband and a phone for as toll free call for the audio.

New repairs software for Jewellers on show

We will be previewing our new repairs software at the JAA trade show in Sydney late next week. While we have engaged with many jewellers as we have designed and developed the new facilities, this will be our first public airing. We are all quite excited to get feedback from existing users and from prospects.

E-commerce live from website

We have turned on the e-commerce facilities from our website this morning. This enables people to purchase almost anything we sell from software modules to hardware to consumables live from our website and to pay for this through our integrated banking solution. Software companies are often like doctors – taking of their needs last. We are using our website to practically demonstrate our point of difference and our commitment to making dong business with us even easier.

Watch for more enhancements to our website soon.

Finding stress balls

tim_balls.JPGWe had a sales meeting today and one of our team, the soon to be married Tim, said we were out of stress balls – though I am not sure of any connection to Tim’s impending nuptials. I figured the best way to show we are not out of stress balls was to dump a box of 300 balls over him. We all had a laugh and talked about the value of the stress balls at trade shows and in demonstrations. We have used these balls at four trade shows now and people love them. They give us several excellent talking points outside of the software. But most of all, they are fun and that’s key to this business, having fun!

Understanding the competition

In May this year we paid a professional market research firm to survey newsagents to determine what system they used.  This information was important so that we could be accurate in our representations as to our market share and the market share of our seven competitors in the newsagency marketplace.  We have compared the results of this professional research with numbers held by several industry suppliers and found all to agree.

Beyond helping to guide our marketing and support efforts, the market research results are shown, on a confidential basis, to newsagents interested in knowing whether the market share claims of a competitor are true.

Newsagents considering partnering with Tower Systems are welcome to ask to see the results of our market research.  This, coupled with the ANF newsagent software support survey of last year provide an excellent view of the state of newsagent software companies.

Managing the stock arrival process

stock.JPGWe are currently arriving five pallet loads of stock for our Sophie Randall businesses. The data part is easy thanks to the supplier providing an electronic invoice formatted to our standards. The real work is allocation and tracking of the stock across the stores and physically moving stock. We are undertaking this process in our offices so we can better research opportunities for streamlining arriving and allocating stock to multiple stores.  With more small business owners owning multiple store, knowledge of the operation is essential for us.

While the work is considerable, the learning gives us a wonderful advantage – we are able to have various team members observe and even participate.

There is no better learning for a software developer or a software trainer than using the software they are responsible for.

New employee manual

We are in the final stages of editing our new employee manual.  With more than 75 people directly employed by Tower and its retail businesses it has been important that we lay out shared obligations, our processes and some important stories of what we believe in.  Documentation like this is a key element to achieving consistency in what we do.

Reviewing some of the content has been interesting.  On the one hand formal information is essential in business.  However, it can come across as impersonal too legal.  So we are walking a fine line as we ensure that we meet our obligations to fully inform on processes yet do so in a way which reinforces the relaxed approach we take to business.

The manual will be ready for release to our entire team by the end of this month.

Meeting with newsagents at GNS Market Fair

gns_syd_1.JPGOur stand at the GNS Market Fair in Sydney today was busy from the opening of the show.  With more than 600 newsagent customers in NSW (more in this one state than our nearest competitor has nationally) we always get plenty dropping by to day hello and catch up with our Sydney based team.  The photo shows our NSW/ACT Sales Manager Nathan Morrison on the left and two of our installation and support team, Peter Nikolaros and Luke Matheson, on the right.

We have been doing the GNS Market Fair for around twenty years.  It has grown considerably over the years.  We embrace the opportunity to be in front of existing customers as much as prospects.  This level of public accountability keeps us focused on delivering the goods.

This is trade show number five is a very busy year of trade shows.

Training in Mandarin

We are planning on offering free online training in the use of our software in Mandarin. This is being announced to our users today, seeking expressions of interest so that we may discuss content and timing. We feel that offering online group training for our users in Mandarin will help improve the benefits gained from the software and bond this group together for mutual support.

We have offered one on one training and telephone based support in Mandarin for four years.

Doing lunch

We are not big on the traditional business lunch.  This is probably due to me, I am not a huge fan of spending two hours eating and drinking and discussing something which can be discussed in less time without the meal.  I do, however, know people with better social skills than me who successfully run their businesses around breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

With several new team members joining us in new rolls recently we are organising a series of lunches to help people better connect across departments.  I am embracing the opportunity and looking forward to helping some of our long term Tower team get better acquainted with recent arrivals.

Getting behind the counter with suppliers

A key benefit of owning a newsagency and a software company has been evident this week in two separate meetings with two major newsagent suppliers.  Both suppliers wanted a behind the scenes look at how their businesses interacts with a newsagency.

In separate meetings we have taken the suppliers through the operational implications for newsagents of data issues – both incoming and outgoing – to demonstrate the value of tighter processes at their end to improve outcomes for newsagents.

It is good to be able to participate in a discussion about options they are considering and workshop these options from a newsagent perspective.

Usually, software companies are brought to the table once standards are set and that makes sense.  Over twelve years owning a newsagency helps us bring additional perspective to discussions which can precede the usual software company discussion.

This call may be recorded

I wonder how many calls are recorded by banks, insurance companies and other businesses.  How many times have you heard “this call may be recorded for quality and training purposes”?

Thousands of calls a day must be recorded across Australia.  Since this started years ago I have not noticed any improvement in call handling by the businesses which record call.

The cynic in me says the recording is so they have a record of the call for later should you query anything and not for training or quality.

When I hear the message at the start of a call it is another reminder of how impersonal some businesses have become and how easily one copies another.  Someone suggested to me that the announcement about recording was meant to suggest that the company was concerned about quality and training. 

If you want a laugh next time you receive a call from someone who advises that the call may be recorded for quality or training purposes advise that you do not wish it to be recorded.  It will stop them in their tracks.  They have become so used to this tool that they expect you to say yes without thinking.

At Tower Systems we do not record calls.  Our Help Desk team works in an open environment and people can easily coach each other.  If we are training someone new we will have two people in on a call live to ensure the best advice is given.

Slow training

Slow food is popular in Melbourne and, I am sure, other cities around the world. It is based on a movement which encourages us to take our time. Care is taken with preparation and cooking time. There is no rush. The best outcome is pursued with passion.

The same is true with our approach to training new team members. The best training is hands-on, dealing with real issues which guide you to learning opportunities and at the pace dictated by the person learning.

I am happy for our new team members to take as long as they need to learn our software and support processes. Extra time taken now will save time later with better outcomes for our customers.

We pride ourselves on providing a support service where our team members provide real advice on each user’s specific situation. This is why taking time to learn how to support the software is crucial. Beyond the knowledge it builds, there is the context which helps ensure that the advice provided is genuinely relevant.

As with the slow food movement, haste with training does not mean the best outcome.

Just read: How Starbucks Saved My Life

how_starbucks.JPGHow Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill could easily be one of those syrupy feel-good quasi-business books you finish in the blink of an eye. I bought it through Amazon when buying some other books and left it on the shelf for too long. I read yesterday How Starbucks Saved My Life when I sent eight hours flying. I couldn’t put it down. Michael’s very personal and honest story touched me. His story of what he learnt in his first year at Starbucks is inspirational. Buried Michael’s personal story in an excellent business book about business processes, communication and leadership. I highly recommend this book to any business owner.

Offering flexibility in pricing

stack_em.JPGWhen the temporary Crown Casino first opened in Melbourne in 1994, we provided time based pricing options in our software which enabled the newsagent operator to increase the price of cigarettes between certain times according the the rules under which he traded. Our software would automatically adjust prices according to his preset rules, maximising return. We showed this around and soon other users wanted the same facilities. We added these to our catalogue management tools which manage catalogue offers.

Today, these time and date based pricing options are a standard part of our software. They are used in each marketplace in which we serve. It work particularly well in newsagencies where items like copy paper are priced aggressively like many FMCG goods. Using our software, newsagents who want to compete on price are able to pre-program their pricing requirements and have the software manage this – thereby helping newsagents position themselves are more price sensitive.

The same facilities are being used by some non newsagent users in tourist areas where evening prices vary from daytime prices. This is where we beat MYOB and similar basic point of sale products.

We have many facilities in our software which were developed for one person around a specific need and which have been implemented in a way which serves the broader user community.

Important support for small business

I have been in Cairns today speaking at a regional meeting of newsagents. It was good to see so many newsagents give up a Sunday to get together and discuss ways they can improve their businesses. We were a sponsor of the day, one of four.  I appreciate the opportunity to provide such practical assistance newsagents – helping fund the day so there is no cost for attendance.

Suppliers in small business retail channels have an obligation to support those channels. Unfortunately, it is the usual companies providing financial support. While I am happy that Tower Systems the only software supporting newsagents in this way, I would welcome any of our competitors joining in and demonstrating practical support for the channel. It is a way they can prove their commitment.

New payment method exclusive

We have signed an agreement for the exclusive introduction of a new method of payment for account customers of businesses using our retail management software.  The full details will be announced with the update about to shop.   The software enhabncements to enable use of the new method of payment will be provided free to all supported users (in all marketplaces) with the update.

The method of payment enables fast and efficient processing of regular accounts for customers.  This is ideal for lay-by payments, special order payments and newspaper home delivery customer account payments.  beyond the time saving of the new payment method, we have also reduced paperwork and made tracking payments easier.

We are committed to cutting the cost of running a business using our software and this latest exclusive facility helps deliver on that promise.

User meeting in New Zealand

We are adding a user meeting in Auckland to our planned trip in early October for the Gift Fair.  We will announce details when we announce details of our next Australian user meeting tour – we should have the details finalised by the end of this month.

Sales benchmark report released

Yesterday, we released our latest newsagent sales benchmark report. While the report is about data from the newsagent channel, the process we undertake in gathering and analysing the data benefits our entire user community.

The sales benchmark research process enables us to help our users identify trends locally and more widely.  Each study also guides further enhancements we can make in the software to facilitate this local and channel wide analysis.

Coupled with the data presented in the report are my suggestions for how newsagents can address the trends.  I draw here on my own experience in my newsagencies as well as experience from the opportunity of working with so many other newsagents.

Here are the headlines from the report we released yesterday:

  • Overall retail sales in newsagencies up, on average, 2%.
  • Newspaper sales fell 4.8% in the city and 2.3% in the country.
  • Magazine sales fell 4.5% in the city and rose 2.2% in the country.
  • Card sales increased 3.3% in the city and 2.3% in the country.
  • Stationery sales fell by 7.8% in the city, and 2% in the country.

The benchmark study provides more evidence of consumers migrating from the newsagency channel and migrating from traditional paper based news and information sources to online.

The study also grouped newsagencies by size of magazine sales. In this analysis of newsagencies with $200,000 a year in magazine sales and higher, the year on year results showed the top performing store achieving magazine unit sales growth of 5% and the bottom performing store achieving a decline of 7%.

In the group of newsagencies with less than $200,000 in sales, the range was between 12% growth and 8% decline.

Undertaking these benchmark studies is is a free service we have offered through Tower Systems for close to eight years.