Mobile phone towers and the workplace

Our head office is on the second top floor of a building covered in mobile phone towers. Following the RMIT news of the weekend about seven in their workplace being diagnosed with brain tumors, we sought answers from the owner of the roof about the risk to our employees and others who occupy the building. The owner pointed to advice from a consultant in 1997. I’m still navigating the issue with them to try and get more up to date advice and testing. In the meantime I have arranged for our workplace to be professionally tested tomorrow.

Also following the RMIT news story I contacted the Victorian State Government authority responsible for the workplace. Today, three days in, I am yet to get a response. This is despite three contacts initiated by me.

For what is a serious workplace health and safety issue both responses are unacceptable. There is enough information in the public domain about the RMIT story to suggest that employers in buildings with mobile phone towers need to take reasonable steps to have the work environment tested. At the very least this demonstrates good faith to employees.

It is the arrogance of the owner of the roof which concerns me the most. As soon as the RMIT story broke they ought to have commissioned up to date tests on all levels as well as seeking written undertakings from Telstra, Optus and others with mobile phone towers on the building.

POS software real-estate ads are distracting

I’ve been looking at how other POS companies use their real-estate, especially in the supermarket and convenience store space. More an more they are populating the POS screen and customer display with advertising. While there may be advertising dollars in this I wonder what it does for the experience of the employee. How do they feel about having to navigate around the se advertisements? Do the advertisements get in the way of using the software? Are they distracting?

Surely we have enough ads cluttering the world today. I would have thought that better training and better resourcing to provide for an improved customer experience at the check out counter would help up-selling customers. Or, smarter developments in the software to produce context sensitive coupons which lure the customer back in a defined time to get some deal based on what they just bought. Our software offers this and I reckon it’s the smart way to market at the checkout – except that the marketing is done at home when people check their dockets.

At the checkout counter I want efficient and friendly service without noise. The ads on some POS screens and customer displays are unwanted noise and they distract from accurate sales processing.

How lucky are Coles and Woolworths?

With petrol high again, the discount coupons from Coles and Woolworths are seen as more valuable. The perception of saving is enhanced by the Coles Flybys loyalty program. I wish there was greater disclosure on these deals so that consumers could be more informed. We’re like the silver balls in a pinball machine, bouncing between the bumpers (petrol and supermarkets) and never scoring.

3M repsponds to poor service, offers nothing

As a follow-up to my complaints (documented here), representatives from 3M met with my hardware and support management people. While they admitted that there had been a massive failure on their part, they refused compensation. Our experience is that their unit based on resistive technology is flawed and should have been recalled. We have advised to them that the only reasonable course of action is the immediate replacement of the resistive units with capacitive units and appropriate compensation for disruption and lost business. That is has taken more than a year just to get attention of 3M is an indictment of their customer service. we will not recommend 3M again.

Inefficient supplier hurts small business

I’ve been chasing a supplier of products to newsagents to get them to provide invoices electronically. This would enable users of my software to load new stock in a fraction of the time it takes for manual entry. We started doing this in our software in 1990 and that there are suppliers sixteen years on still questioning why they should do this is appalling. The same supplier provides electronic data for a national chain but NOT for small business newsagents. I know if I named them here I’d burn the capital I have with them but they would get an EDI link working with newsagents. I ask them again and if they continue to make excuses I’ll out them as the disrespectful and lazy supplier they are. I estimate that providing invoices electronically could save an average business eight manhours a month. That’s worth $200.00.

Business ethics (again)

What do you do about a competitor who consistently bags you to prospects? While the best approach is to trust that any good prospect will see through bullshit and make a choice based on facts, sometimes this is not the case. We’ve encountered this in the last couple of days. A competitor has said that they have switched many of our clients over to them in the last year. No such mass switch has occurred. The challenge on hearing this is how to react. The prospect is not at fault yet how they react to such a lie could mean you win or lose their business. We play it straight and focus on the facts. Sometimes that is not enough. For example, I still am treated badly today by a long lost prospect from 15 years ago who was lied to by a competitor. My mistake then was not dealing with the lie well. I hit out at the prospect for believing the lie and this, I suspect, convinced them that my company was as bad as they were told by a competitor we were. That’s in the past. Today, on the occasion of such a situation, we use facts for those who want to listen. It usually works. In this latest instance we will find out early next week.

It’s odd to me that in 2006 a software company would knowingly spread bullshit about a competitor to win business for themselves.

3M touch screen quality problems

We have put up with quality problems with 3M touch screens for long enough and have decided not to sell their equipment. The financial and reputation cost caused by the failure of the 3M gear has been very high and while they have repaired the units under warranty, it’s just not with it to us. We deal only with small businesses which cannot afford to be without their gear for even a day. 3M don’t seem to get this and have been tardy in responding to what has now been a year long problem. The quality pitch 3M sold us on has not been backed up with experience.

Woolworths, market power and consumer choice

Against the backdrop of the Federal Court imposed fine of $8.9 million against Woolworths in a long running price fixing case…

Samsung 1610 has released a new computer printer. It’s available exclusively through Dick Smith (Woolworths owned) stores. What is not made clear to consumers at the point of purchase is that toner for the Samsung printer is not available anywhere except through Dick Smith.

One of my businesses, Inkfast, sells ink and toner online. We have excellent wholesaler relationships. None of our wholesalers has been able to supply the toner for the Samsung 1610 printer. One wholesaler, who deals direct with Samsung, advised us that they understood there to be an exclusive deal involved because they are unable to source toner for this printer.

While Woolworths (aka Dick Smith) is welcome to negotiate special deals on printers, it is unreasonable to restrict access to the fuel, toner, for these devices. Toner is where you make the money long term and a deal providing Woolworths exclusive access to toner for the Samsung 1610 for even a short period of time is bad for consumers as it does not deliver the same price pressure as if the toner is available elsewhere.

On the back of yesterday’s Federal Court loss, Woolworths and Samsung ought to reconsider their position on this. Woolworths makes considerable noise about being consumer friendly and socially responsible yet its actions on matters such as this demonstrate otherwise.

Suppliers who hurt small business

My software company services in four marketplaces. Most of our clients are newsagents. We work with close to thirty suppliers to newsagents and facilitate the electronic loading of invoice data from suppliers to newsagents. It frustrates me that three major suppliers to newsagents – News Limited, Fairfax and Group Newsagency Supplies (GNS – a newsagent stationery wholesale co-operative) are the worst at providing clean data. These same three are also the worst at general IT implementation which cold save many hours each week in small business newsagencies.

The EDI developments which would be necessary for News Ltd, Fairfax and GNS to implement have already been implemented by Hallmark, John Sands, For Arts Sake, other card companies, magazine distributors, tobacco wholesalers and many others. It’s not brain surgery.

News Ltd, Fairfax and GNS need to want newsagents to have the ability to run their businesses efficiently. Based on their current practices I’d suggest this is not a high priority for these three companies. They are happy with an incomplete IT link with newsagents. They get what they want and bugger the newsagents and they time they lose in their businesses.

It is unfair that newsagents are treated poorly by these suppliers and are therefore forced to lose many hours in their shops each week on manual data processes which lead to in store mistakes and cost each business significant revenue.

I’d tired of big business suppliers complaining about small business when I know that these three companies are focusing at least 4,600 small businesses in Australia to live in the dark ages.

Years ago Coles refused to accept stock which was not barcoded. Maybe newsagents could refuse to deal with suppliers who do not meet basic EDI standards. Of course this would require newsagents to be united and actually see through the ban. It won’t happen.

I risk getting into trouble from the suppliers I have named. They will say I should have gone to them first. Well, I have, many times over recent years. Absolutely no progress has been made. I am using this blog entry with feint hope to shame them into some action. This small business channel deserves more esepcially from News Ltd and Fairfax.

What’s in it for me? Nothing really other than the comfort that newsagents will actually gain hours back thanks to better use of their IT resources.

An update on OzJet customer service

Flew back from Sydney yesterday with OzJet. No mention of them canceling my flight the day before of their shifting of me from OzJet to Qantas. A company concerned about customer service would have called to respond to the complaint I submitted only and spoken with me face to face at the next opportunity (yesterday). OzJet does not live up to its marketing pitch.

There was a time when we (in business) were told by customer service experts that one bad experience would be told to 20 people and they would tell friends and the ripple effect would/could mean a loss of significant business over time.

Thanks to the Net, the amplification of stories of bad customer service stories has grown dramatically. This should make businesses more vigilant about delivering exceptional customer service. Start-ups especially.

OzJet has no future unless it delivers on its marketing promises – like any business – and unless they take corrective action in relation to their cancelled flights over the last few days.

Thanks to blogging and other online forums the 20 rule of thumb of the 1980s is 100s today.

Just look at the impact Jeff Jarvis had with his comments in 2005 about Dell computers. He blogged about a bad customer experience and within hours he was joined by a large chorus of unhappy Dell customers.

I want OzJet to survive and indeed flourish. To do that they have to start living their marketing pitch and being more communicative with their customers.

Customer lines

I was in an Australia Post shop yesterday and waited five minutes to purchase $10.00 worth of stationery. At lunch I waited 2 minutes to be served at Subway. At the bank I waited 5 minutes to do some banking. In the morning I watched the counter at my small retail business and checked to see the average wait time before customers were served. In each case it was one minute or less – for large and small transactions – and in two out of ten cases customers were grumpy for waiting that long.

I’m curious as to why people will wait in a post office for five minutes to put a pack of paperclips but get grumpy in my newsagents when waiting a minute for to purchase the same product.

I think a key difference is that at the Post Office they organise their line whereas at my shop and many small businesses we do not have a regulated line. I suspect that our lack of regulation makes people feel we are not taking the next customer and the next and so or whereas at the Post Office that always happens so there is some certainty.

It’s the same here at my software business with help desk calls. People want to know that they are being dealt with in a linear fashion. Hopefully our CRM solution will provide the transparency they want so they can see that we do take them in order of arrival and not just pick off favorites.

In some respects I wish the Post Office customer mentality was available for small business customers – where people accept delays and public service like service. But then I don’t want their behind the counter arrogance. Not at all.

Offer of collusion spurned

A few months ago a competitor approached me about the support fees we charge, suggesting I might consider reaching an “accommodation” on support fees. His suggestion was that we both increase fees and stop trying to take customers off each other. I refused to even consider the suggestion, knowing it to be illegal. His response was along the lines of no one will find out.

I’d forgotten about the brief exchange until reminded today when talking with some folks about the Trade Practices Act. Thinking back to the suggestion of a few months ago I wondered how many such collusive arrangements go unnoticed.

Small business is tough enough. While I’m not about to dob in the competitor I am wary of everything they do because their suggestion demonstrated the lengths they would go to for revenue.

I’ve taken the opportunity to remind my sales team members to be careful about what they promise and to be even more careful about any conversation with a competitor.

While I was never going to agree to anything which disadvantaged my clients and prospects, just being invited to consider it makes me feel somewhat dirty.

A lesson in how not to sell from Servo Savers

Servo Savers have been chasing my retail business, trying to get us to be part of their fuel discount program. Their latest pitch came today in the form of a call from their sales representative for our area. He was rude, obnoxious and threatening. I had said I would not consider meeting with them unless they provide up front an outline of what the costs would be. He refused and said I was the only one who ever demanded such information. he told me my business would suffer and may even not survive without Servo Savers. He said he had Harris Scarf, Priceline, the Kodak shop and a couple of others ready to go and wanted my newsagency in for the area. He brown nosed so much about me and my business it was embarrassing. In fact, he had no idea and was throwing everything (compliments and threats) in an effort to interest me.

I have a loyalty program operating in my business. It’s just over a year old and is responsible for 28% sales growth. It rewards customers from within the business. The Servo Savers model is built around fear about high petrol prices. It would drive my customers to petrol outlets where they can purchase what I sell in my shop./ That does not make good business sense to me. I mentioned this to the sales guy and he went off on a rant about how I don’t care about how much my customers pay for petrol. It was time to end the call.

This call was a reminder about the sales process and the damage which can be done in a high pressure sales situation. This guy lost me from any future pitch he might make and indeed any pitch from Servo savers. They ought to be more careful who they have representing their company.

The call was also a reminder to review sales processes our team follows and ensure that their pitch is professional and respectful.

Konica Minolta disappoint

We have bought three monster Konica Minolta digital copies machines over the last year and a half. Two colour one black and white. Our total spend is in the vicinity of $65,000. We’ve been using these machines plenty, often spending above $4,000 a month on per copy charges. Konica have just rewarded us for our loyalty and our significant business by increasing our per copy charge. A request that they reconsider this met with a refusal.

What galls me about this is my discovery that a colleague is getting a much better deal than me having bought just one machine and generating less per month revenue for Konica.

Maybe we’re just bad negotiators. The Konica representative told us it was the best deal ever. We are feeling burnt by this and would not recommend Konica copies to anyone.

Banks realise they are a service business

It’s taken many years but it seems Australian banks have finally realised that they were wrong to run from customers and close branches. According to today’s newspapers the major banks are busy opening or planning the opening of branches. Duh! Banks are service businesses. By opening more branches and providing better customer service sales will increase as will profits. While retreating from customers might have lowered costs, the benefits were short term. Customers soon started drifting to banks which offered service.

Of course the banks are not opening these extra branches as a community service. This is still about profit and it fixes their earlier mistake.

It’s frustrating that while most of the banks stumbled over this customer service issue small business, in the main has remained focused on delivering good service, locally.

The “nice day” chant wears thin at the end of the sale

I was at a clone coffee shop, no, not Starbucks, in a foreign city this past week. I went to the same coffee shop twice and each time the words used when my coffee was ready were the same. Small latte, nice day, next.

Since when did “have a nice day” truncate to “nice day”. I never really liked “have a nice day” because of the lack of feeling with which it was often delivered. Also, I didn’t like the obligation of it – in the giving and the receiving. But I accepted it as part of the Americanisation of our culture. I even use it occasionally when working behind the counter in my retail business. Not all the time, just when it feels right.

So, twice in this one coffee shop “have a nice day” became “nice day”. When it happened the second time I wondered if the suits at a far off office had decided to cut the two words and save time or whether it was an efficiency push at this store or by this employee as a lone crusader for efficient communication. Who knows? I didn’t ask so all I can do is speculate.

Regardless, it’s nuts. “Nice day” could be a commentary on the day, a command to me or pure laziness.

I suspect that this employee was so busy and they were stepping through the motions of each sale as mandated by the corporate manual that without thinking and that “nice day” was another tick in the sale process they needed to deliver every time to ensure compliance.

What a waste of time.

The coffee was good and that alone would get me back there. Not the consistently frustrating service. Not the mediocre compliance with operation guidelines.

What is the world coming to? Not this truncated retail speak I hope. We ought to encourage and cheer individuality in our businesses. Individual social interaction is an important part of any transaction.

Too often the weakest in society bear more than their fair share of costs

Small business, a crucial part of any economy, bears more than its fair share of costs. We pay more for products than big business; put more into in store marketing; provide better and more expensive service; (probably) pay more tax per dollar earned; and give more back to the community.

I was thinking about this today when blogging elsewhere about a decision by Vodafone to cut the commission newsagents earn for selling their product by 37.5%. This is the second cut this year by the big business Vodafone. It’s hurting this small business channel.

It seems to me that small business is hit with such cuts first. We bear the brunt of cutbacks and fee increases. Primarily because we do not have negotiating power. yet we generate more economic benefit.

Newsagents are responding by pulling down Vodafone signage in their stores. A protest is forcing. While I am not sure where I sit with such a protest I can understand the frustration of small business newsagents. Like any small business channel they seem to get the raw end from big business too often.

What Vodafone has done is appalling and greedy. If the face of strong profits they have hit hard at the retail channel which is their face to the consumer. They have seen newsagents invest in infrastructure on the basis of a revenue model and then hacked away at the revenue model. Bad form Vodafone.

This is but one story about big business arrogance against small business. Small business need to fight for itself.

Courier companies drive me nuts: too often too late

We had a trade show last weekend in Brisbane and we were relying on Allied to get our brochures, giveaways and products to Brisbane in time. They left our office with plenty of time – three days in fact.

Alas Allied let us down. We rang and made an arrangement to collect the items which they confirmed were in Brisbane only to find that they missed the arrangement. We now find out that Allied sent the goods to the Gold Coast.

So, we went to the trade show without the materials we needed.

Do Allied care? No. What’s their response? To invoice us for the items which arrived after the trade show ended. The only consolation was that they paid to ship the goods back to our Melbourne office – and that took a week to happen.

This is appalling service from Allied.

We leave Acer for a supplier who cares

Given the importance of the various Acer laptops our sales team uses here and given the five day delay to get even straightforward repairs done, we have made a decision to switch to another brand. This could have been avoided if Acer provided the same timely service for computers out of warranty that they offer for computers in warranty. I’m happy to pay, this is not about money. It is about a company which does not understand the mission critical nature of many laptops and their appalling interest in good customer service.

The cynic in me wonders if the Acer policy on out of warranty repairs is designed to encourage customers to replace a sick laptop rather than have it repaired. No matter, we bought the first of our new laptops yesterday and will slowly migrate the rest of the team away from Acer.

The arrogance of Qantas and how they would go running my software company

I’ve been thinking about my post a couple of days ago about the new $27.00 charge by Qantas for telephone bookings and our journey toward a CRM purchase decision.

If Qantas were running my software company they would charge my customers for using our help desk service in addition to the annual software support fee. The additional charge would be for human contact.

Think about it. I want to fly from Melbourne to Sydney and back and the flights will cost, say, around $600.00. That includes the various government taxes and multiple fuel levies imposed by Qantas. Since they have an online booking service they seem to have the view that I can use that without cost or that I can use their human booking service for $27.00. I find that a human booking can be done in less than 2 minutes. $27.00 for 2 minutes plus their various other surcharges and you see the money which can be made.

If Qantas ran my software company and given that most of the support we provide is available in a self help form, Qantas would be charging my customers at least $135.00 per call since an average call runs for ten minutes. The annual support fee would be the knowledge and the per human call fee would be for those accessing the knowledge using a human.

If Qantas ran my software company they would be out of business in no time. Their arrogant pricing policies would not be acceptable to the small businesses I deal with.

I think we’ll be taking the CRM plunge without any additional charge to our clients and with maintenance of all current human contact for no charge. It’s the way small business operates.