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.

Free user meetings and business roundtable

Last week we announced the dates for our first series of user meetings and round table discussions for 2007. These sessions are good for networking and learning more about our software. They will start at 10am (sharp!) with a business roundtable discussion which I will facilitate. The purpose of this is to get business owners talking about the challenges they face and bring the navigation of those challenges back to the software and how it may help.

The business roundtable will be followed by a user meting which will include training on Retailer 2 and plenty of time to answer your questions. 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.

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.

Based on bookings for this first set of dates we will add Cairns, Wollongong, Darwin and Gold Coast next week. We don’t announce all at once as the meetings are expensive in terms of labour, room hire and travel costs and we like to gauge interest in the series.

Poor customer service for Sage CRM

We are waist deep in configuring our Sage CRM software to manage our sales and support teams. To help us along the way we paid a fair chunk of money to a Sage reseller – the same company through which we purchased the software licencees – on their advice that this will provide access to vital support.

When we signed for Sage support, the supplier committed to a six hour response time. We find ourselves waiting between two and three days for a response, any response. Worse than that, they now tell us they cannot provide the level of support we have asked for.

It’s interesting being on the other side of the IT help desk experience. I know if we did not respond at all for two or three days to our clients I’d be personally getting angry calls all day. This CRM company is getting away with poor service because we have let them. Frankly, I did not know their service level was so appalling. Now I know, I’m chasing a refund of the support fees paid and looking for another company which understands what customer service is about.

Respect for Qantas

I have greater respect for Qantas crew having seen first hand how they handle an in flight medical situation. A chap collapsed on one of my flights yesterday and the Qantas flight attendants were calm and professional in their care. Thankfully the chap was okay. Several people were quietly moved to create a more comfortable area.

I fly a lot and have not witnessed a medical situation like this before. The professional calm of the crew did the Qantas brand proud.

iPod shuffle experience

ipod.JPGLet me declare up front that I am not an Apple Mac user. My pc of preference is Sony.

I bought my second iPod at the weekend. The old 40GB unit us a bit bulky so I went for a shuffle. The experience is what I aspire to for clients of my software company. Easy to install and a pleasure to use. 10 out of 10.

Okay, so point of sale software is a tad more complex than a music player. However, Apple teaches us something about elegance of design, simplicity of use and missionary like focus on the goals of the product. I certainly found it motivating from the perspective of software development and a commitment to focusing on customer outcomes.

Free new user training

To help our many new users settle in with our software we have scheduled a free follow up group user training for Melbourne (level 3, 22 Horne Street Elsternwick) on Thursday March 22 at 11am and in Sydney at our Miranda office for Wednesday March 28 at 11am. Places are free and limited. These sessions are for people who have been using our software for three months or less. Please book by emailing training@towersystems.com.au. All bookings will be acknowledged. We will announce dates for a national tour of user meetings next week.

Big W self checkout not so helpful

A friend told me on the weekend of their shopping experience at Big W at Waverley Gardens using the new self checkout facility. They bought a DVD and use the self checkout without much difficulty. When they got home and opened the DVD they found a security device which had to be removed. So, they went back and were told by the helpful Big W staff that it’s their fault and that as users of self checkout they are responsible. Fair enough I guess – except that the great self checkout system did not advise them that their purchased item had a security device hidden inside which would prevent them using their purchase.

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These self checkout units may be great for Big W. To me they send a message that the business using them cares less for customers and more for profit. Why else would you put a whopping big machine between you an your customers. Okay, the more savvy people can get through faster. They could get through faster with better customer service but then that costs more.

As my friend discovered, these units provide Big W employees an opportunity to lash out with attitude when the customer does not think like a retailer and check everything when going through self checkout.

I found the image at flickr where it had been posted by jayjay04 a 20 year old Tasmanian guy.

Getting closer to your customers

We’re about to get a whole lot closer to a group of our customers. For many months we have been working on a new card and gift shop and we finally have an opening date – it’s ten days away. This new retail business will allow us to gain practical experience in the high end specialist card and gift space. I am certain that this behind the counter experience will lead to enhancements in our Gift Shop software as well as other versions of our software.

What has been interesting is the experience of setting up the software from scratch without any guidelines from an existing business to go off. We are already planning an advice sheet on this for others we sell the system to who are creating a business from scratch. We’re also talking internally about the learnings from a training perspective.

There is nothing like the experience of walking in the shoes of your clients.

Conflicted computer consultants

I have been dealing with a computer consultant recently who wrote a report for a client of ours criticising the hardware we proposed. His report claimed we were conflicted in providing advice because we wanted the business. This same report included a quote from him touting for the business. I found that interesting.

The client did purchase his hardware and we respect their right to make such a choice.

The hardware did not meet our published hardware specifications. The operating system is not supported by us. The hardware has not been configured in the way we recommend.

This hardware chap continues to claim that we are to blame. This is despite many businesses across the country successfully using our system by following the standard configuration advice. Problems at this one site can be traced to inappropriate hardware an or configuration.

While there will be differences of opinion between IT people – in part due to different levels of knowledge and in part due to commercial interests – the differences and consequences in this instance are significant. We have put in many hours rectifying problems caused in inappropriate hardware and configuration.

I am all for businesses buying their hardware from the location which they feel best suits their needs. However, it is critical that the hardware meets the requirements of the software company. Sometimes, consultants for hardware business ignore their conflicts in chasing the sale.

Barista business training

latte.jpgMatt, the barista at what I consider to be the best coffee house in Melbourne, Gattica, yesterday demonstrated the importance about being obsessive in the service industry.

With a bunch of baristas working over the course of a week and customers often visiting multiple times you’re likely to have coffees made by different baristas with the result of you establishing favourites. This makes the barista the brand as opposed to the coffee shop and like with hair salons, customers will follow a barista if they become the brand.

When I rocked up yesterday Matt was training a new barista, pursuing a common latte experience between what Matt makes and the new guy. I always through coffee was about taste but it’s more than that. Colour, froth/milk ratio, art, temperature … so many measurement points.

Walking away with another perfect coffee I realised that my software company and Gattica share common challenges – the quality of the service experience.

Hiring is the start, making sure you have ideal stock – that is someone with the right manner and values. Training is next – equipping them with everything need to deliver the common experience. Measurement is the most important part – making sure the experience is common so that when a customer recommends you their colleague receives a similar experience regardless of their contact point.

Matt is obsessive about his coffee and I realised we are just as obsessive about the service outcomes delivered by each of our team.

Beta software blues

I spoke too soon last week about the imminent release of the release of a major upgrade to our software. Beta (test) sites late last week reported a several problems with the beta release which, at first, looked serious. While the problems all related to a single change, that they got out at all is causing us to tighten even further our in house testing.

Part of the challenge is the complexity of vertical market software. Beyond traditional business functions there are many industry specific functions which interact in ways with can be unexpected. A small change last week had unintended consequences. While we tested the change, we missed a couple of steps and delivered some frustration for our beta tech colleagues. It’s our fault and we fixed it quickly.

We have played with commercial testing software and found this wanting. There is nothing like real world testing because you cannot code to emulate user behaviour.

In the past we have used pre beta sites to play with the software before it goes to a larger beta community. We’ll do this again and track the impact.

It would be easy to not blog here about the beta blues of the last week. To do so would deny a problem common to every software company. Software bugs, no matter how stringent the testing, get through. Design, development and testing are human processes. The keys are how you respond and what you learn.

Chinese New Year initiative makes customers happy

pig.JPGJonathan Tay, a champion in our customer service team, took it upon himself to send messages to our Mandarin and Cantonese speaking clients whishing them a prosperous year of the pig. His message also offered traditional Chinese blessings. Jonathan’s initiative was well received by our customers, many sent New Year messages back to him.

I was touched by the initiative as it goes beyond what is expected on Jonathan in his role with the company. It demonstrates a personal care for our customers and their culture which I really appreciate. That he did this without being asked is an example of exceptional customer service.

The majority of our customers are newsagents. We were the first newsagent supplier to offer Mandarin and Cantonese language support – we did this in response to the influx of Asians buying newsagencies. Jonathan has been central to helping us navigate the cultural differences and ensure good customer service for these clients.

A call to the help desk

Customer: My computer’s not working.
Help Desk: Okay, what are the symptoms.
It’s not working.
Is there an error message.
I can’t see one.
Is there anything on the screen?
No, it’s not working.
Can you please check the computer itself for me.
I can’t see it.
It’s usually under the counter.
(Agitated) I can’t see it. We’ve got a black out here and I could hardly find the phone.
Okay, there’s your problem, no power.
Oh. When will the power be back on?

Finding a Victorian in Queensland

Filling a new system installation and training role in Queensland has been a challenge, more so than other new roles we have filled recently. We had some good candidates but for various reasons we could not seem to in the right mix of good skills, good communication and ‘can do’. Tech skills are easy to fill. It’s the communication and attitude which are hard to find. Especially for small business where each new hire is important to the culture of the company – once you get over 100 people businesses don’t feel new hires as much.

Just as we thought we’d be advertising for the third time in Queensland, we found our person, a Victoria who moved to Brisbane a few weeks ago. Don’t tell the Queenslanders because some still consider Victorians Mexicans.

Kerwin is a ball of energy and starts with us Monday. Like all new hires he is spending the week at our retail newsagency, learning the software from the sales counter out. Then it’s off to Sydney for training with our most skilled installation and training person. Then, once Kerwin and ourn people are happy, he’s going to be let loose in Queensland as part of our ambassador team.

The Tower Advantage TM is about our customer focused culture first and foremost and this is why we take such care in finding new team members.