Rebuilding the help desk

We engaged a respected international market reseach company to survey our customers and those of our conmpetitors late last year. We wanted to know how we stacked up. The results were good and we privately backed in the glow of the report for a few weeks. The insight was worth the high cost of the survey.

Armed with a thorough analysis of the survey results and a desire to do even better we have spent the last few weeks redesigning our customer service/support processes. Tomorrow we start with a new program, aimed at delivering better customer contact outcomes more consistetly.

The principles at the heart of our customer service focus are human contact at every step of the way; easy access when it is needed; understandable advice; and honesty.

The main change from tomorrow will be more interventionist traffic management – getting calls to the right person each time. This will better serve customers and make better use of the skills at our disposal.

This is the small business focus at work. We don’t like calling automated answering systems so why implement them here? We don’t like spending more than a minute or two waiting on the phone so why do it here? We don’t like dealing with an impersonal call centre in some foreign land so why do it here?

The paper tidal wave

All of our small business clients are time poor yet their suppliers continue to drown them in paperwork – invoices, promotional literature, to do lists.

We have designed a new tool which is being built into our software called ONE CALENDAR. This is an open access calendar into which suppliers will be invited to feed business specific date based information for use in that business. At the small business end the owner will be able to more easily manage requests for in store promotions, requests for data and other requests. They will be able to allocate employees against projects.

In some businesses we have looked this will reduce ten to do lists to one and with this will come a better opportunity to actually achieve the goals.

Our challenge in pulling this off is at the supplier end – getting them to agree on a common file format and delivery mechanism to our 1,300 or so small business clients. Even though the pay off for them is significant, all they see is frustration at dealing with their internal IT department in trying to deliver what we and their small business clients want.

The more we can do to eliminate time waste in small business the better. Suppliers need to get with prgram and do more than pay lip just service to supporting such initiatives.

Word of mouth

Been doing some research on the success of word of mouth compared to other forms of customer acquisitior and came across this interesting report.

Word of mouth beats all other forms of marketing for technology and home improvements.

This is the voice of the customer at work and underscores the importance of getting it right for those you serve ytoday so thast you;ll have people to serve tomorrow.

It is time for regulatory controls?

Local councils around Australia exert their authority against property owners in an effort to preserve the heritage of an area. They control new construction and modification in the interests of planning controls.

I’m wondering why such regulation stops at buildings. Why not act on what goes in them – to maintain the community. For example, if a community has a couple of coffee shops does it really need a Starbucks factory? If a community has a locally owned convenience stores does it need a 7-Eleven? If a community has a local grocer, a newsagent, a butcher and a greengrocer does it need a new supermarket with everything under one roof?

My community doesn’t need such development.

I like being able to walk down the street and shop at these independent retailers. I like that the streetscape is not littered with corporate brands which would make my street no different to thousands of others.

Councils might wish to talk to their constituents and draw a line in the sand before every shopping strip is corporatised and we don’t recognise our homes.

Relentless giants

WOOLWORTHS has joined calls to open up the nation’s pharmacy market, saying its submission to the federal Government outlined “billions of dollars” worth of savings for consumers and the Government if the market were deregulated.

So starts this report in The Australian newspaper today.

Woolworths has not joined anything, they are running the campaign. They want pharmacies in their supermarkets and will stop at nothing to achieve this. The story includes this spin from Roger Corbett, Woolworths CEO:

“Eventually over a period of 10 years, probably billions of dollars can be saved for the consumer and the government by deregulating this market,”

Woolworths exists to serve its shareholders. This means they pursue robust profits for shareholders. I have no problem with that. To accept their argument one must accept that they are more efficient than small the small businesses they want to put out of business. That’s nonsense. Corbett should be called to account by journalists when he engages in such spin.

I reckon the Corbett strategy is to get pharmacy products in and use them as loss leaders – you know the game plan: LOOK AT US GOOD GUYS, HELPING YOU CUT THE COST OF LIFE SAVING MEDICINE – luring consumers to pay more for other products with the net saving to consumers close to $0.

Come on journalists. Ask the tough questions and expose the grand plan.

What is at stake here is independent retailer jobs and businesses. Who wants that blood on their hands?

Independent retailers need a good union

Billy Bragg wrote words to The Internationale, a stirring anthem of a song which became a rallying cry for British unions and indeed many unions all over the world.

It this one size fits all world of bland corporate malls it’s a rallying cry independent retailers should listen to and take heart from. Working smarter and together we can compete and retain some crucial fabric of our society.

Stand up, all victims of oppression
For the tyrants fear your might
Don’t cling so hard to your possessions
For you have nothing, if you have no rights
Let racist ignorance be ended
For respect makes the empires fall
Freedom is merely privilege extended
Unless enjoyed by one and all

Chorus:
So come brothers and sisters
For the struggle carries on
The internationale
Unites the world in song
So comrades come rally
For this is the time and place
The international ideal
Unites the human race

Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We’ve but one earth on which to live

And so begins the final drama
In the streets and in the fields
We stand unbowed before their armour
We defy their guns and shields
When we fight, provoked by their aggression
Let us be inspired by like and love
For though they offer us concessions
Change will not come from above

Words: billy bragg music: pierre degeyter

Back in the real world

It’s easy to get pulled away from your core focus (looking over your shoulder) by technology shifts and how these might affect your company and or your clients.

The best competition point independent retailers have against new technology (online) solutions is customer service. Online provide access to information but not products and especially products which benefit from good knowledge in the sell process.

When I started this blog I was writing about our Oasis strategy – a strategy central to what we do here and central to what we are seeking to build into our software every day. Here’s a reminder of the Oasis strategy and how we view it:

An oasis, real or imagined, is a feeling, a state of mind or an experience.

It could be a smile, help, a deal, a glance, a kind word.

An oasis is where magic happens. The person there is nourished by it, encouraged and compelled to tell others.

It’s something remembered. So remembered that they think about it before they are in contact with you again and remember it long after they have had contact.

In a customer’s mind, it’s what you do which is special.

It’s exceptional service. Unexpected service. And it’s our biggest point of difference.

The oasis strategy is another name for exceptional customer service. Calling it that makes it easier for us to imagine what it is, what it feels like and the power it can have for our customers, for ourselves and for our business.

This is a home grown philosophy we have created to give a name to what’s important to us.

This Oasis strategy and our delivery of the experience is key to our future.

Feeding the aggregators

With aggregation of content from a wide variety of sources the big game in town and the game likely to put yellow pages and similar directories to bed, it’s essential that bricks and mortar independent retailers feed the aggregators with links/content.

This clickz.com report advises that consumers are more likely to look at aggregator sites than specific merchant sites.

Most online consumers (59 percent) begin their shopping searches on aggregator sites rather than at merchant sites, according to a report conducted by BizRate Research on behalf of Shopzilla. Aggregator sites include search engines, comparison shopping sites, shopping portals, and auction sites.

As a software provider to the bricks and mortar world we have to help our clients feed the aggregators so that products from our clients are found online.

Managing markups

Here’s the source of the poorly researched stories appearing around Australia about computer systems and markup.

Computer systems do not force business owners to charge more. Business owners set their pricing (for those items they can control price on) based on the operational costs of thier business and their profit goal.

It’s too convenient for ACA to blame the software raise questions about the ownership of the software as being the cause.

The game being played here is about the desire for Woolworths to get pharmacies into supermarkets. Woolworths will win.

Going local with Google

Google is embracing local businesses with Google Local business lookup which it has added to it’s mobile search facilities as this story from PC Magazine (12/4/2005) reports. The Google Local site can be accessed here.

Companies like ours where we manage the inventory data for local shops need to make product availability data accessable by such a Google Local search – the perfect marriage between a bricks and mortar small business and mobile technoogy powered through Google. Watch for this innovation soon.

Finger pointing

Interesting to see software being blamed for high prescription medicine prices in this ABC news story.

This story from today’s Daily Telegraph provides more background and shows the role Pharmacy wannabe competitor, Woolworths, sinking the boot in. Again software is the cause.

Someone should tell the journalists that with any software like this users can set markups. The software is merly responding to the demands of the master.

Chips anyone

I’m surprised by this story reporting on US FDA approval for chips to be inserted under the skin for a range of purposes. While being used at present in medical circles, who knows what the chips will be used for? Tracking is one application already in use with a deal between a chipmaker and a satellite tracking company.

Is this technology necessary?

Citizen power

Further to my post yesterday, there are plenty writing about citizen journalism, citizen media and the empowerment delivered through the ME age of the Net. (Of course, the Net was alwasy about ME but nore more than ever with the consumer power it is delivering through blogging, podcasting and the like.) Jay Rosen is a particularly interesting commentator on these and related topics as is Dan Gillmor. One terlm I like describing the move to consumer provided content is we-dia from Jim Treacher.

Each of these commentators is interesting because they and many of those linked to on their blogs are discussing the movement to a more local, consumer generated and driven media model. People are writing about and reading what they want and not what is aggregated and blended in an office far far away. This augurs well for the independent retailer. The writings of these commentators and the success stories some of their blog entries record show that local is in vogue.

That’s our turf – independent small retailers.

Where we have worked for many years to provide tools to help independent retailers compete with the giants, we need to keep focus on helping them succeed locally. This means helping them better engage with their local communities and thereby underscoring their point of difference over the giant chains.

The trend to local

Is it just me or is there a shift back to local retail and away from shopping malls?

Here in my hometown of Melboure Australia I’ve noticed high street retail becoming revitalised. In my local shopping centre in the last six months an ailing milk bar (convenience store) has closed and been replaced by an Italian deli, three restuarants have opened and two new coffee shops have opened. The local two screen cinema has been re-developed into a four screen centre. There are some new (non national chain) retailers opening too. Not just in my local suburb but all around the city.

On the Internet there’s a push for local content and consumer generated content (through citizen journalism sites). This report shows the importance of the internet when consumers are searching for local shops.

What does all this mean?

Is local back in vogue?
Are consumers showing they want choice rather than the limited offerings of the national chains? One can only hope so.

Independent retailers and small businesses do more to support and enhance the culture of a city and, indeed, country than the national chains every day.

Microsoft no longer a partner

I feel as if I have let myself and my team here down by not being aware that Microsoft was entering our patch as a supplier. I had no idea they were entering the small business accounting space until I read it a couple of days ago.

I’ve written a fair bit about independent retailers and the daily battle they wage with the national chains and ignored the threat this hungry giant poses to my business and others like mine.

While I am confident that customer focussed independent software companies like mine will continue to thrive, it appalls me that Microsoft with their ability to bundle products and mass market like no other will enter a well served space.

My company has spent tens of thousands on Microsoft product. We experience their version of customer service regularly. It’s poor. We experience their software every minute of every day. I’d rate it barely 5 out of 10. Yet they are the giant. Their size makes them lazy and complacent.

Small business computer users need to purchase from small business specialist software companies. They need to support their small business community. By ignoring the new Microsoft offering small business owners have an opportunity to register how mad they are at the national chains trying to take over the world.

Microsoft ought to back off.

Double standards (part 2)

Due to inconsistent and sometimes uneconomic performance of product from some suppliers to users of our software, we have integrated automated benchmarking tools whereby our users’ systems send to us data to enable us to compare supplier and category performance in their store against our broader user base.

We created these tools to help provide a higher level of assistance – beyond that of a traditional software company. It’s proof of the level of partnership we feel with the independent retail sector. Our motivation is pursuit of a fair deal for our clients compared to what some of them experience from suppliers today.

To me, this type of work is more interesting than sexier technology.

Once we have a reasonable database we’re going to approach suppliers with the results.

Double standards

In one of our marketplaces (newsagents) we serve 1,300 small business owners with vertical market software. On their behalf we deal with their suppliers (pubishers like News Corporation and Fairfax) on maintaining interfaces between small business systems and the supplier systems.

It’s a lopsided relationship with the small business owners being required to provide data on time and to a strict quality while the suppliers refuse to engage in discussion about providing accounting data electronically so that small business can save time.

By my reckoning newsagents, 4,600 of them nationally, could save at least 10,000 manhours a week. That’s worth A$10 million in a year. We’re about to make our case again and while it has nothing to do with developing software, we feel an obligation given that we understand how easy it is to implement the type of EDI solution which can fix this.

Goliath stirs

It’s disappointing to see Microsoft enter the small business accounting space. Their doing so has the potential to harm small business software developers who are serving their user community well.

While the press will focus on the battle between Microsoft and Intuit (makers of Quicken and QuickBooks) and MYOB (when Microsoft releases Australian accounting software), it is the Microsoft push against small software companies where sigficiant damage will be done.

There are thousands of small software companies serving clients well and providing quality software for fair pricing who will suffer at the hands of the goliath Microsoft.

Moneyball – a baseball book for business

I’m not a fan of business books, they tend to take too many words to get across the simplest of messages. I think we tend of have answers ourselves if only we looked at our businesses and ourselves.

I’ve just read Moneyball: The Art of Winning and Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. This book about the Oakland As baseball team was consistently outspent 3:1 by opponent teams on players yet seemingly effortlessly outperformed these opponents on the field.

This is a must read business book. It shows the value of breaking the rules and understanding that what looks good is not always good for you. It teaches something about the inefficiencies we too often take for granted.

Reading Moneyball makes you go back into your business and challenge conventional wisdom. It tells us to base decisions on cold hard facts and not what looks good or is the way things have always been done. Moneyball shows how a baseball team got businesslike and taught their competitors a lesson.

Lewis has written book about baseball which is accessible to those who know little about the game. I am sure many faculties will add it to required reading lists.

There is an Oakland As opportunity waiting for most of us in our businesses.

Self service checkout

I’m not a fan of putting technology between the consumer and customer service. I see it as a marketing ploy by IT people keen for stuff to sell. Maybe I’d accept it in a library or for purchasing petrol (gas) but not traditional over the counter enterprise.

I accept I’m not a loud voice in my displie of self service checkouts. The IT press is full of stories as you can see here and here.

Already there are sites with dialogue on getting around self service checkout systems as this rottenegg.com entry shows.

In researching this it was comforting to find a blog entry from ‘nelson’. He says I miss the human interaction with the clerk. But mostly I found the experience intimidating.

I own a software company and it doesn’t make sense to me that we are trying to create technology products which dehumanise retail. No sense at all.

Service Fatigue

Don’t you sometimes want to go into a shop, browse and leave without being asked if you need assistance or being told of some special offer? I know I do. I crave being left alone in retail situations. No, I don’t need help! That’s what the loom on my face screams if someone asks sometimes. I suffer from being over serviced and drop out of shopping on days that happens.

Businesses large and small have their troops on the shop floor asking customers if they ant to be helped. All customers. When in fact they should train employees to read customers and only approach if they look like they could use some help.

In one shop recently I was stalked throughout the shop until I left frustrated because I wanted to make a purchase but refused to give the employee (stalker) the gratification of a sale and a notch on her belt. I reckon it’s one reason men are enjoying the online experience more than women – they like not being over serviced.

I think service fatigue is real as is advertising fatigue and loyalty fatigue covered in the previous two entries. Someone does something. It’s reported in the media and the world follows rather than creating their own original approach.

Give me a different experience and I’m yours.

The customer service experience has to be intuitive, personal and memorable. So memorable that you tell others. Easier said than done but it must be your goal. This is where small business can excel.

Advertising fatigue

Following from my comments yesterday regarding loyalty fatigue, I felt it appropriate to consider advertising fatigue. This continues a series on the “me too” approach to business adopted by many small businesses and independent retailers. Where has original thought gone?

I’ll declare – I am tired of advertising. The TV commercials, ads in newspapers, the billboards, the telemarketers, those awful signs on trailers pulled behind cars and motorcycles, ads at the movies, radio commercials, SPAM, cell phone junk messages. All of this intrusion in my head space annoys me to be point of turning me off the major offenders. What really irks me is the insidious whisper campaigns and the product placement in movies, computer games and now rap songs.

Independent retailers think they have to join in and so you see ads in local papers, billboards on shop walls, posters in the shop. Clutter soon takes over.

Surely we should all be building businesses which offer good products and services backed by such exceptional service that advertising is not necessary.

Independent retailers should claim the GREEN ground. Pursue less noise in advertising. Spend the money on the business. Improve customer service. Make a public statement about the approach. Denominate what you will save in paper, ink and noise in this noise drenched world.

We have opportunities within existing customer traffic and relationships to reinforce business offerings and therefore reduce reliance on advertising. I know this is true in our own software company and our retail newspaper/magazine business. We do better serving existing customers than chasing new owns as it’s the existing customers who point the new customers your way.

From a software perspective we can and should build facilities into our systems to help independent retailers rely less on traditional advertising. Look at the real estate we manage – receipts, screen space, customer displays. We can also structure front line associate/consumer interaction. We can guide up sells. We can also more effectively manage appreciation shown by the business to customers post purchase – through direct mail and other communication mechanisms to show appreciation. All of this for small business without the need to add to what consumers will perceive as advertising noise.

Advertising fatigue is a real phenomenon. We should respond before consumers do.

Loyalty fatigue

I’ll declare from the outset that I am a skeptic of customer loyalty schemes. It seems to me that you spend a lifetime accruing points so that you can get some lame discount or free product or flights from an airline if you’re prepared to travel overnight and make 6 stops.

Loyalty schemes are on my mind today because small businesses feel they are missing out because of what their big business counter parts offer. In Australia we have FlyBys. It’s a crock – certainly not what I would call a loyalty scheme – you know, a scheme which genuinely rewards loyalty. FlyBys in my mind is designed to dupe customers into thinking they are being rewarded when they accrue points at the point of purchase. It works!

Some of our small business clients want to imitate it regardless – because they think that’s what they have to do. They think that big Australian businesses have got it right and that accruing points for redemption is the best form of loyalty management.

I reckon they’re wrong because most of them do not have capacity in their bottom line for the level of reward they want to provide. Also, copying big business in this way is your way of saying to customers that you want to be compared to big business.

With the number of schemes out there and the greater awareness among consumers about the dubious value, loyalty fatigue is creeping in. Thankfully!

Independent retailers and other small businesses can capitalize on loyalty fatigue and differentiate themselves from big business. We’re small at the small business end of the world. Surely we can come up with something unique and therefore turn our back on the FlyBys and other big business loyalty?

As a software developer we’re working on this right now – a fresh loyalty model managed by the software which presents a unique value proposition which the independent retailer can put to their customers. In part it is based on the campaign we have been running in our own shop.

I think it’s time for some instant gratification.

Imitation leads to failure

Software companies have an ethical and commercial obligation to not only create valuable software but to drive its appropriate and valuable use.

We must encourage, lead and even force our user community to extract every cent of value from the investment. See what we do here. This means rolling up the sleeves and working along side the users so that they understand the software tools and use them at full throttle. We have to ensure that our software provides the right structure and internal systems which genuinely help our clients compete.

In independent retailers and small businesses, too often software is used at the minimum level. The independent retailers lose and software companies lose because a user who does achieve the potential of a system is not a good reference site. It is our obligation to force deeper use of the software.

My view is that if your software company is in the small business / independent retailer space you need to believe in the mission and share the road of the mission every day. We have to help our small business clients compete with Wal-Mart, Woolworths, K-Mart, Staples, Office Depot, Officeworks, Coler-Myer and the other national chain brands hell bent on putting our clients out of business. It bothers me when I hear of Microsoft entering the small business space. Microsoft does not have the capacity to walk in the shoes of small business to create useful solutions and strategies to support them.

As a small businesses ourselves we have learnt that one does not compete with big business by imitating. So, we don’t build big business imitation tools into our software.