Putting service back into the service station

In Bangkok last week I watched good old fashioned customer service being delivered at this Shell service station. They truly served the customers on the forecourt – filling their cars with petrol, checking the tyres and cleaning the windscreen. Amazing. I haven’t seen that level opf customer service in a petrol station in Australia for years.

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When people were not busy with customers they held flags and waved them at the driveway to attract people to the business. Talk about visible promotion.

Sometimes I think we have become lazy in delivering customer service and attracting new customers and while labour rates in Thailand may make these extra services cost effective the, it’s relative.

What I saw last week in Bangkok at this Shell outlet was inspirational.

Being honest with customers

How far do you go if a customer asks you for an honest opinion about their business? Do you tell the truth and risk losing a customer or do you sugar coat and possible deny them the opportunity of resolving issues?

We are regularly asked to comment on our customer’s businesses. While most requests are in passing, occasionally we are asked for a thorough review. If we uncover problems within the business we have to make a judgment call on how far to go with our assessment.

It is easy to say that we should be open and truthful. However, the world does not always operate that way. Some customers don’t want the truth. They would rather either not know about a problem. Others would rather you blame anyone but them. Of course, it’s not about blame.

Our goal is for our customers to have robust and growing businesses thanks, in part, to the technology they use. This is why we welcome engagement on business performance.

We have established an engagement process which works. Openness and truthfulness are at the core of the process. Where possible we use data from the business to support our views.

Our assessments are delivered personally and with care.

This is a difference between our business and a competitor like MYOB or Microsoft. With us, it is personal. We interact with our customers on a personal and enduring basis whereas our big business competitors cannot. So, while delivering bad news is challenging, it is an honour to have such a personal relationship with our customers.

Meeting the customers

I am often asked by small business owners what makes our software different to that from MYOB. Besides the obvious functional differences of software made for a specific marketplace, there is the customer service difference – our phones are answered by humans. Then there is our face to face contact. Take user meetings for example – our national user meting tour keeps getting extended. We have added more dates to accommodate those who want to meet face to face with members of our team.

What’s great about these sessions is that they are focused 100% of helping our clients build better businesses. Ten or so years ago there would have been complaints about our customer service. Not now. The meetings are packed with business questions and discussion between our clients – users helping users to get more from their IT investment.

The next dates are:

Sydney. Tuesday May 29. 10am.
Dubbo. Wednesday May 30. 10am.
Melbourne. Thursday May 31. 10am.
Hobart. Tuesday June 12. 10am.
Perth. Wednesday June 14. 10am
Darwin. June 22. 10am (Date just added – kind of a junket for the Tower people who get to do this one.)

The Sydney and Melbourne dates are the third for those cities.

Anyone is welcome to attend including people who do not currently use the Tower software.

London restaurants and customer service

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Last night I was working on my presentation at the national newsagent conference next month, looking to illustrate how businesses establish their point of difference when I came across the above photo which I took in London in November last year. It’s a side street, somewhere in the City, with wall to wall restaurants. I recall counting over twenty restaurants in a line on both sides of this small street.

I hung around the lunch and sure enough the street was packed. People seemed to have their favorite places to go. The Italian places had similar menus as did the seafood places and so on. The key difference seemed to revolve around the experience – service and comfort of space. At least to this visitor that’s what it seemed to be.

The photo reminds me of the challenge we face in small business. Not only are we competing with big businesses but we are also competing with each other. Software companies are software companies. Software is software. The key is how you deliver a point of difference so that your customers keep coming back to you.

I find the photo inspirational because it reminded me of the challenge of competition an the need for exceptional customer service as the most important point of difference. In the software business you come across your competitors infrequently. These restaurants, on the other hand, see them every day all day from opening to closing.

Years ago we gave our customers a fridge magnet – yeah, I know, inspirational! :). Anyway, this fridge magnet said we will always remember how important your business is to ours. The photo af these restaurants in a row reminds me of that and the need to recommit to excellent customer service daily.

CRM project progress

Our CRM project continues to seep further into the Tower Systems business. While our sales team has been automated for some months, last week our scheduling people started using CRM to schedule installation and training visits as well as other resources. Next week the plan is to trial switching over the help desk.

Like every internal project we undertake, the core question is – where is the customer in all this? Thanks to our CRM project we are better equipped to have a whole of company view of each customer relationship. This eliminates the silo approach where accounts didn’t know what support knew and so on. In a small but very busy business like ours – with over 2,500 customers – this whole of company view is time saving of itself.

Another benefit for our customers is the time we are saving in getting information to them. Whereas in the past we might have had to write a letter or address an envelope or send a fax, we’re able to do this from within CRM more often than not and therefore free time for delivering better customer service.

The CRM project has taken longer than we anticipated. This is in part due to poor service from our CRM supplier – Aaromba. We’d never use them again.

The people of Tower

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We’re putting a human face on our business via our Tower Systems website through our People of Tower series. In this picture from website we have Amy (reception), Norman (Financial Controller) and Renata (General Manager) – all important contact points for our small business customers.

We pride ourselves on hiring well and while there have been some missteps, our track record is solid. People tend to stay with us for years and move through several roles within the business.

Better on site support for no extra cost

Over the last ten months we have logged into client systems on 644 occasions to investigate and address questions with the use of our software. This broadband facility through which we can access client sites has been a boon to delivering more helpful service faster. We’re using a third party tool which insulates our clients from having to purchase additional software or complete local software installation. We offer the service at no additional cost to our customers.

Given its success, we have contracted to double our capacity for this service – enabling more members of our Help Desk team to directly and quickly access a client system during a call. While call length grows through use of this on-site connection, we figure that we’re better off spending more time and resolving any issue than focusing just of ending each call as soon as possible – the pursuit of shorter calls by other help desks is false economy.

The virtual on-site service will grow over the next year and with it our customer base as the good news spreads.

Email support growth

We have been offering support by email for several years now but it’s really only in the last year it has taken off. The attraction seems to be that simple queries can be emailed when they occur – any time of the day or night – rather than being held for a convenient time to call. People are also using our email support access point to provide more evidence to support their query and this is helping us better serve their needs.

Based on the increased use we’re managing email support differently to ensure that our customer service levels are maintained.

Skype support cuts call costs

More and more of our users are using our Skype support line and eliminating call costs. We have been live with Skype support since last year and while uptake was slow at first, it’s strong now. We’re pleased to offer another way our POS users can cut the cost of accessing support.

Buyer beware on POS software licence fees

Check the total cost of ownership if you are considering buying POS software.

Someone considering purchasing our software showed us an invoice last week they had just received from their current POS software provider. It included close to $3,000.00 for an annual software licence fee. This is on top of an annual software fee and an annual hardware support fee. All up, this business was being charged well over $6,000.00 just to maintain access to their computer system.

The licence fee came as a surprise to them. They say it was not discussed at the time of purchase nor was it part of any agreement. They were told that if they did not pay the licence fee and the support fee, the software would stop working. This is an extraordinary financial hump for any small business.

POS software ought to be like Word, Excel and other common business products. Once a licence is purchased, the small business ought to have free use of the POS software unless they elect to take out support coverage.

The new Tower Help Desk

Our Help desk team finally moved into their renovated space today. Here’s the team at work on calls as at 3:45 today.

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We have made the room bigger and given each person more workspace. What the photo does not show is the view, when the blinds are open, across Port Phillip Bay and beyond. It’s premium space and makes, now, for a professional and enjoyable work environment.

Meeting clients – face to face customer service

It is a proud moment to sit in front of a room full of clients with colleagues from my company and be accountable. This is what we have been doing in our current user meeting tour. Before we get into the meaty stuff about software enhancements and training we open the floor for a discussion about anything. I say proud but really mean risky in that there is no agenda, we’re in the hands of our clients.

I find the accountability exhilarating and invaluable. Indeed, it’s like a drug – this week we had just one meeting and we’re pining for more contact. In the newsagency marketplace we are the only supplier offering such face to face contact with out clients on a regular basis. We have done this since the late 1980s.

We have added even more dates to our current national user meeting tour following feedback from our clients. Here is the latest list of dates:

Townsville. Tuesday May 15. 11am.
Cairns. Wednesday May 16. 10am.
Melbourne. Thursday May 17. 10am.
Perth. Wednesday May 22. 10am
Auckland. Thursday May 31. 10am.
Albury. Thursday May 24. 11am
Sydney. Tuesday May 29. 10am.
Dubbo. Wednesday May 30. 10am.
Hobart. Tuesday June 12. 10am.

Anyone is welcome to attend regardless of whether you are a Tower Systems client or not. If you’d like to book, please email: bookings@towersystems.com.au.

Firewalls push support call traffic

Firewall issues now account for upwards of 10% of all support all traffic to our help desk. Our point of sale software is often the victim of new firewalls installed or settings changes so our users call us to help navigate data access.

These calls fall into a grey area as they are not strictly about our software and therefore not covered by our support agreement. However, we take the calls and provide help without cost to our customers.

My estimate is we’re helping our customers save several hundred thousand dollars a year. Firewall providers charge for the calls we handle for free. A customer told me yesterday that they had been asked to pay $150.00 up front for a three minute single call. They were offered a lower rate if they took out an annual contract for over $1,000.00.

The cost of computer security for small business is rising. At present we are soaking up much of this cost for our customers but I’m not sure how much longer we will carry what is a 10% help desk cost blow out for us. One way we are trying to address this if to have all of our customers use common firewall software. This enables us to publish standards and facilitate more of a self help approach.

Cathay Pacific and awful customer service

I rang Cathay Pacific when I was in Hong Kong last week to change my flight. After being put on hold for 20 minutes the line dropped out. I called back and was left on hold for 70 minutes before I gave up. While my desk phone was on loud speaker for the 70 minutes on hold I had R. Kelly’s I believe I can fly burned into my brain – it was their music on hold.

While on hold, I used my cell phone to call the Marco Polo Club to see what they could do – even though I am not a member. I was determined to find a human in Hong Kong who could take care of my simple query – I knew they had seats available from their website but it offered no facility to switch. I was lucky and did get to speak to a human in the Marco Polo Club but she refused to help and put me on hold. Their hold music was I believe I can fly but with the verses sung in Mandarin. So, in my left ear I had I believe I can fly being belted our in mandarin while my right ear was listening in English.

Cathay Pacific never came through. I spent 90 minutes on hold without success. This is appalling service.

I won’t bore you with the poor customer service I received at the airport from Cathay. Suffice to saw I will do everything possible to avoid flying with Cathay Pacific again. I’ll also try and avoid the R. Kelly song.

At Tower Systems we run a help desk. We process between 150 and 300 calls a day. The call volume depends on whether we have recently sent an update out or whether our suppliers are engaged in some network wide activity. We understand the importance of the human touch and have resisted installing an automated phone system. We allow our clients to set their own call priority – we work hard to match their expectation if a callback is required. There are days we don’t handle help desk calls as quickly as we and our clients would like. We do everything possible to keep these to a minimum.

Cathay Pacific told me they were busy with the summer rush and that’s why they didn’t get to my call. In my business if we know a rush is coming we gear up for it. It’s the unexpected rush which occasionally catches us out.

Tower Systems user meetings

We have added more locations to our current user meeting series. Even though we call these sessions user meetings we’re happy to welcome anyone along – it’s a great way for people to assess Tower Systems by seeing how we interact with our existing customers. We’ve had users of other systems along to several meetings and their contribution has been excellent.

Here is the next round of dates:

Adelaide. Tuesday May 1. 10am
Perth. Wednesday May 2. 10am
Newcastle. Tuesday May 8. 10am
Townsville. Tuesday May 15. 11am.
Cairns. Wednesday May 16. 10am.
Melbourne. Thursday May 17. 10am.
Auckland. Tuesday May 22. 10am.
Sydney. Tuesday May 29. 10am.

Anyone can book by emailing bookings@towersystems.com.au. It’s free.

By the time we finish this tour we will have met close to 1,000 of our clients in twenty locations. It’s a pleasure to catch friends, talk about ways their existing software can help their businesses more and listen to their suggestions for improvements.

Geelong, where it all began

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I’ve been in Geelong this morning, another stop in our national user meeting series.

Geelong holds a special place in my heart as it’s where things really kicked off for Tower Systems in our early years. Newsagents in Geelong were our early adopters and this set us up for our position in the newsagency marketplace today. Some of our best users are in the Geelong region.

The other reason it’s great to get back to Geelong is because it’s where I was born and lived for eight years – including two years at Geelong East Primary – called Old East back then if my memory is right.

The drive in this morning included the mandatory stop at Eastern Beach – the best of its kind I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Like any regional city, Geelong is close enough to a capital city and connected enough with the world to be up to date yet it retains the friendliness and personal nature of a country town. It’s wonderful driving along some of the wide streets and seeing a streetscape less impacted by the high density living we see in the city.

We put considerable effort into these user meetings – being personally in front of our customers is important to us. Gavin Williams, our Software Development Manager, and I are at each. We’ve found this provides better outcomes than having non management people running the sessions. Our commitment and presence prove our accountability.

Cut the marketing budget and increase sales

We have been reviewing our numbers the first three quarters of this year and are pleased (but not surprised) with the correlation between the decline in our marketing spend, the increase in infrastructure (support and development) spend and increase in sales. The decline in marketing and increase in infrastructure was deliberate in pursuit of the increase in sales. Not a lot of science, just a belief in pursuing the best products back by the best possible service.

Up close customer service

We are in the middle of a national round of user meetings where we get close to our clients in more than twenty locations around the country. We’re trying something different this time by preceding the tradition al user meeting – where we provide some training, take questions about the software and discuss enhancements suggestions – with a business discussion.

The business roundtable as we’re calling is the part of the meeting I run. There is no agenda. Issues raised by our clients about their businesses are put on the table and we talk through how these might be navigated with the software. What is interesting from the two so far – Tuesday in Sydney and yesterday in Brisbane – is how differently people interact with the software.

Some see a computer system as something which ought to be able to assist with any business question or challenge and they drive it accordingly. Others see a computer system as something to fear and engage with as little as possible. I prefer clients who actively interact with the software and push its boundaries.

While more interactive users present more challenges for a software company, they are the people who will help you create better software. Better software makes for a better software company. And that’s what the roundtables are about – helping demonstrate practically to our clients how the software can help in any business situation.

Business ethics and customer service

I have been given something which is dynamite against a competitor. I won’t name them or even the marketplace in which they operate – Tower Systems competes with 38 software companies across five marketplaces.

I am glad I have the document but not for the reasons you may think. I don’t plan to use it publicly or internally to arm my sales team.

This document serves to remind me of the importance of a key message in our marketing: we will never forget how important your business is to ours. The company in question forgot this. Not once or twice, but consistently with many customers over a sustained period of time. And now they suffer as a result.

At Tower we make customer service mistakes from time to time. It’s how we respond once we realise that which defines us. This document demonstrates to me the importance of strong internal systems built around, from the top down, pursuing excellent customer service.

The 3am support call

We protect our software from illegal copying by registering each copy. If someone installs the software in a new machine or if they change the registered user details the system warns that it will not be usable. The call at 4am was frustrating because one of our clients had ignored the two warnings and proceeded to change what they were advised not to change without getting a new serialization code first. Their action got a couple of people out of bed and a young family woken – all because they did not follow the simple advice on the screen.

Such are the frustrations of some middle of the night support calls.

Some may say why allow people to change something which could disable their system. Our view is that you can only go so far in protecting people against themselves. When we say they need a new access code we assume they follow that advice and get it prior to proceeding.

I really feel for the members of our team who take these 4am phone calls, especially when the reason for the call could be avoided by the user of the computer reading the message on the screen and following the advice. Some users have the view that they are awake at that time of the day so why not everyone else.

We’ll continue to take these middle of the night calls but we will be tougher about holding people accountable for not following basic advice which could have avoided the call.

HP and customer service

Recently, we purchased two printers – HP P2015 and HP 2605 dtn – for a client. Both printers fail at their task. Barcodes wipe off the label and even plain paper. The stock we are using is the same as we have used for years on other HP printers. The client relies on these barcodes. Clearly the printer is not working as it should.

Our technical team is frustrated. They have tried to take the issue up with HP but find their Indian call centre staff unhelpful and, in many cases, difficult to understand. We are told that the printers work to specification. I know from my first hand experience with these two printers that this is not the case.

HP makes it very hard for anyone in Australia to have direct contact with them. They have created a high and impenetrable wall and to me this demonstrates a lack of interest in customer service.

Yesterday I emailed the four names I found listed for media contacts in Australia. So far, no response. I hope that HP does not let me down. I like their printers but would shift my business elsewhere if they do not lift their customer service game.

Late in the day we were given a Brisbane phone number to call but we had to ensure we had an incident report logged in India first. Most odd.

Grudges and Tasmanian Devils

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As I watched the two Tasmanian devils fight over food today at the Tasmanian Devil Park, I thought about the fights small business owners have, often daily. The fights with landlords, competitors, banks and others can be debilitating whereas these little marsupials fight aggressively one minute and curl up asleep with each other the next. While I am no expert, they don’t seem to harbor grudges. Small business owners often do.

I was thinking about this on my trip to the devil park today because of what I’ve heard a chap said about me and my business based on contact from twelve years ago. This chap took a cursory look at our software, asked for changes specific to his business, I said they were not appropriate to others in the market and quoted accordingly and he has been critical ever since. Even though he has not seen our software since and we have gone on to dominate the specific marketplace, this chap reportedly tells others that our software is awful and that we refuse to make changes. The grudge he apparently holds is serious.

I wish people like this chap were like the Tasmanian Devils – fighting for what they want and believe in and then letting go for a new day. Life is too short to hold a grudge.

Open user meetings

We are about to start our first national series of user meetings for 2007. These are open to anyone including businesses not using our software. We have found providing the opportunity to live the Tower Systems life is helpful in countering spin put out by some competitors. We have nothing to hide and plenty to gain from such transparency.

The user meetings will be preceded by a business round table session – a proactive and open discussion among business owners who want to achieve the best from their businesses. I am hoping the sessions will help those participating navigate challenging business issues.

The businesses round table starts at 10am (sharp!). The user meeting will start by 11:45am. Locations are: Sydney. Tuesday April 17; Brisbane. Wednesday April 18; Melbourne. Thursday April 19; Canberra. Friday April 20; Geelong. Tuesday April 2; Hobart. Thursday April 26; Adelaide. Tuesday May 1; Perth. Wednesday May 2; Newcastle. Tuesday May 8.

You can book by emailing bookings@towersystems.com.au. We need your business name, the session you are booking for and the number of attendees.

We expect to add Cairns, Wollongong, Darwin and Gold Coast next week.

Hammering the help desk

Our help desk has been hit hard by calls this week as our clients prepare for Easter – many suppliers alter product delivery arrangements over Easter and our clients need to cope with this. Much call traffic has come about because some suppliers did not give us a heads up on changes they were making – leaving us scrambling to sort out the right advice. I emailed our clients with this apology today:

It’s been a crazy week on the help desk. Call traffic is up more than 100% over the last three days. This is due to Easter related questions, several suppliers making unexpected offers which we needed to provide advice on and questions from users installing Retailer 2 – many questions have related to virus software settings where we have not provided the software. This massive increase in call traffic led to it taking a few hours for us to clear the backlog each day. As of this morning we are in good shape but who knows what the day will bring. We have reallocated people to better cope with a huge day if traffic is double again. Please accept our apology if we took longer than usual to get to your call.

To cope with a 125% increase in call traffic we have pulled people off other work and while the wait time got out of control for a day, we’re ending the week in good shape. We have two additional help desk resources joining us as a result of recent new positions created – they are going through final training this week.

Bank merchant fees

I cannot work out how the banks set their merchant fees for Eftpos and credit cards. I have one business doing huge numbers each month paying more than another doing less. Another bank comes along and offers a considerable discount to win the business and my bank responds with a discount to keep the business. I am curious as to what the low point might be.

All this discounting makes me even more cynical about bank fees. Better customer service would see banks adjust their fees to ensure they always remain competitive and not just when they face losing the business.