The Lobster Cave and spam

The Lobster Cave is a well known seafood restaurant in the Melbourne suburb of Beaumaris. A few months back while dining there I agreed to go on their mailing list. Since then I’ve received several emails of 2MB is size or more promoting their menu. I thought, okay, I did give them my details for a list. Then, last week, I received four emails, all on the one day. Each was close to 3MB and each the same. What made these emails worse was that they included email addresses from the 1,000+ people on their mailing list. Poor form Lobster Cave. I’ve asked them to take me off their spam list.

Beware of a software support fee rip off

I got a call the other day from a newsagent who had just received their software support invoice from a competitor of ours. He was still in shock and telling me that the software support bill was for over $3,000 for software support – a service which he considered mediocre at best. I did a quick check and confirmed that our support for equivalent software for his newsagency would be $1,590 a year. Half that he was paying. This chap is one of a growing group of software users angry at heft support fees. Our support fees have not increased in over four years and while that pressures our margin, my decision of maintaining fees at our 2002 level is out of fairness to the 1,300+ clients we serve. While I am happy to win another client, I would prefer that the reputation of software companies generally was not besmirched by unreasonable support fee hikes.

Trademarking our support point of difference

We’re a small step away from giving a trademarked name to our point of difference. We call it the Tower Advantage – software, support, motivation and training designed to give our client businesses a competitive advantage. We decided to put a name to our offering to better focus our attention on our point of difference. What’s our point of difference? It’s the Tower Advantage. And what’s that? It is the package of tools which Tower delivers to my business which boosts what I make and how I feel about my business.

By packaging what we see as our point of difference in this way we’re building our own pride and tightening our focus. The label itself demands that we deliver an advantage. It keeps us true. While others provide computer support we provide the Tower Advantage. No one else can have that. No one.

Small business and the environment

If you believe representatives from Planet Ark and other organisations you would think that big business does more to care for the environment than small business. On the use of plastic bags especially. I heard an interview recently where the Planet Ark person said they he wished he could get small business engaged on the use of plastic bags. This frustrates me because I know that in my own retail shop and many small businesses I visit that I am asked about paper or plastic whereas at my local Coles and Safeway I’m not asked – they push plastic automatically. Indeed, I have to tell them I don’t want a bag for the two or three items they want to put into plastic for me.

It seems to me that Planet Ark and others could make themselves better informed on small business and acknowledge the efforts of many to reduce the use of plastic. Their support for Australia Post, Harvey Norman and other national retailers is offensive. The cynic in me suggests that the majors are only involved because there are sales in it for them.

Small business retailers are getting a raw deal on environmental matters.

Reference site request kills a sale

We’re in the market for a CRM solution and have been talking with a company representing a huge multi national software developer. We have trialed the software and felt that implementation would be a challenge. We wanted to talk with other businesses our size which had implemented successfully. Their rep said he could give us 30 reference sites but that it wasn’t about that. He ducked and weaved continuing the 30 reference site claim but never delivering. We stayed focused on our request. Yesterday we gave up. No reference site details had been forthcoming and we doubt they exist. So, another failure in the search for a good CRM solution.

We provide reference site details every day in our business. It’s an important part of the sales process. We’re glad to let our clients speak for us, warts and all. No software is perfect – it’s how you respond to the implementation and use challenges to service the business. That’s where we do well – business integration.

This CRM mob have not only turned us off their services but also off the multinational software vendor they represent.

How to cut employee theft in your shop

I’ve put together some tips for cutting employee theft in a retail business. These tips are based on several years helping clients address the problem when it has been discovered by our software. My sense is that employee theft costs many small businesses upward of 60% of all theft in the business. Yet, employee theft is the easiest theft to manage. I had to take a hit in one retail business I owned before I realised how much I was helping people steal. It was a $22,000 lesson and well worth it.

Here are my suggestions for reducing / managing employee theft:

1. Background check every new hire. Get their permission and use an agency to check with the police and other sources. Make sure you know the person you’re hiring! Often just asking their permission to submit to a background check will turn away those you don’t want.

2. Pay above award wages. The quality of your employees is up to you. If you’re doing your job you have good employees. Value them. Pay above award – by up to 10%. This will reduce theft.

3. Engage and show respect. Ask for their honest comments about the business. The more they feel, genuinely feel, valued, the less likely they are to steal from you.

4. No employee bags at the counter.

5. Tight refund policy. Theft is less in business with tight and enforced policies.

6. Offer fair discounts to employees. Let employees buy products for a fair discount and demonstrate respect for their involvement.

7. Don’t take cash out yourself. If employees see you take money out for questionable items like a coffee or your lunch they will feel invited to do the same.

8. Roster mix up. Change your roster regularly. It is common that a roster change will show you a theft problem you never thought was there.

9. Tight internal systems. Setup good systems with little room for error. Demonstrate through your actions that employees will be caught if they steal from you. Experts advise that people likely to steal choose employers who they assess to be soft targets.

10. Roster rules. Don’t have friends working with friends if they are the only ones rostered on.

11. Speed humps. Have a day where you turn on receipts for ALL customers. Then a day where you require that everything is scanned (as opposed to using hot keys and the like). These changes will keep employees and customers off guard and make it easier for you to spot problems. It will also keep you on your guard and that’s good for the business.

12. Spend more time up front. The further you are from the action in your business the greater the opportunity for you to be ripped off. Spend time where the action is – unexpectedly.

13. Balance the register during the day. Do this every so often. Again to keep people on their toes. It is also good practice.

14. Don’t let employees ring their own purchases up.

15. Don’t let employees sell to family and friends.

16. Your local council. Many local councils offer theft prevention training and help as do some local police. (Local U.S. police stations are considerably more active in this area.)

17. Beware of popularity. There is anecdotal evidence that the more popular the employee the more likely they are the one stealing from you.

18. Tell employees you suspect you have a theft problem. This might uncover comments. It might also scare them to stop.

19. Install a camera system and use it. Too often retailers have the technology and don’t use it.

To do nothing is to invite trouble. These suggestions are easy and most involve no or only a low cost.

The great blog content con

I hate it when a blog entry is grabbed by a person or some clever software turned into content solely to lure punters through a search engine to an advertising site. In the search engine listing there is no reference to the source. How I found it was through a search and I saw these words which sounded very familiar. This has been happening a bit to me lately and there does not seem to be any way of stopping this. Take this post. Here it is at a crap advertising site. Take a look here as well.

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.

Indy cafes offer better indy music (and coffee)

Great to see independent cafes in Australia competing with the (safe) corporate music CDs in Starbucks and other production line coffee outlets with their soundslikecafe CDs. Soundslikecafe volume #4 is the CD I heard first this week at Gattica in Balaclava. A check of their website shows they have just released volume #10. So, rather than the bland Starbucks music offering check out Soundslikecafe music. This is how independent businesses can compete – by supporting each other and embracing the independent point of difference.

Rural businesses appreciate face to face contact

We’ve had key people from our sales and support teams on the road for a few weeks visiting clients and prospects offering anything from a quick “g’day” to a couple of hours free assistance. The feedback from our people has been that rural people enjoy face to face contact more than their city colleagues. We learn more from rural clients as well – they are more open with suggestions. Our goal in making the visits is to improve our connect with clients. A bonus is the sales we have been given by several either to them or their mates. Again this business came more from rural businesses than in the city. While we like our city clients, there is (generally speaking) more enjoyment in dealing with rural clients.

Well done Today Tonight

Kudos to Today Tonight and their petrol campaign. They are offering to promote petrol outlets offering real discounts at the pump without tricks. At last there is some media attention to the supermarket and other voucher programs which offer nothing like the real value they have printed on them.

I had a salesperson from Servo Savers try and sign my retail business up for their program. Not only was the sales person obnoxious and making wild claims as to what the campaign would achieve for my business, a genuine saving for the customer did not seem their focus.

The ACCC ought to bring some consistency to how businesses value loyalty points, discounts and the like with any purchase. Without this consumers will continue to be ill informed about the real value of their loyalty to a business.

Woolworths, Maleny and local communities

The battle continues in beautiful Maleny in Queensland between the Woolworths corporation, independent retailers and many in the community who do not want Woolworths in their part of the world. The Maple Street Co-op news has a front page story about some of the tactics Woolworths has reportedly been using to track who visits their new store. As recent reports in the UK have shown, local communities can have their opinions count when it comes to companies the size of Woolworths. The key to is ensure that everyone in the community is fully informed about the economic and social cost of large corporations compared to small businesses and that an equal or higher over the counter price for an item may, in fact, be more economically valuable than a lower price at a major store.

The Maleny battle is far from over according to the co-op news and what I read at the Maleny Voice website. All of us involved in independent retail need to support the Maleny action in any way we can. Otherwise, the big two will get bigger and too many of our number will disappear in their wake.

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.

Catching employee theft

We offer our clients a free theft check service which involved us analysing data gathered using our Point of Sale system in search of usage patterns which suggest theft. We’ve just caught another employee stealing from the business. The story is the same each time. Denial by the owners as to the magnitude. This is following by a pit of the stomach sick feeling. Then comes anger and, usually, a call to the police. The cost to the business goes way beyond the financial loss. Despite every one of our systems having tools to enable the owners to track and even stop much of the employee theft, too often these are not used. Employers in small business are more likely to trust their employees and the crooks know this. I’ve seen instances where poorly run small businesses are sought out because of the opportunity. Justice takes too long to be achieved if indeed the goal is reached. I know of once instance where a case was been dropped because the cost in terms of public funds – this is despite the insurance company paying out and weeks of time spent by many including us gathering the necessary evidence.

My biggest frustration in all this is that the small business owners who need to use the tools they have at their disposal are those who ignore them. Maybe they get what they deserve.

Newsagent software at the core of what we do

We’ve been in business 25 years now and what began back in 1981 as an idea on a kitchen table has developed into a solid national business service Australia’s 4,600 newsagents. Our software has been re-written from scratch five times. We started with a newspaper home delivery package and quickly moved into the point of sale (POS) space. Today we serve in excess of 1,300 newsagent users. In addition to our core newsagency software we also have magazine sorting software (for the Network Services Delivery program – NSDP) and school booklist magazine software. Both of these have been made available to the industry at no cost. While the business of newsagents has changed and ill continue to change, our business is strong as is theirs. Newsagents are evolving. We know because we own a newsagency ourselves and we have a considerable shareholding in a newsagency franchise group – newsXpress.

We’re about to launch several new products through our software for newsagents. These include a betting recharge product which will take newsagents into a service area new to them. By adding value to the POS without any capital outlay, we able to boost the return newsagents achieve from an investment in or technology. This extends our reach and enhances their business.

By getting involved in newsagency businesses in this way we’re strengthening our connect. Being exclusive with these products further boosts our sales.

So, while many aspects of the newsagent marketplace are challenged, entrepreneurial newsagents and suppliers are working hard to build a strong future.

While we enjoy working with jewellers, bike retailers and hair salons – and invest in software development for their businesses – it’s our newsagent connection which sits at the core of Tower Systems.

The CRM search is getting too hard

Our search for an ideal CRM (Customer Relationship Management) solution has been going on, in earnest, for almost a year. In that time we have had three different favorites we expected to do business with. In each case, at the last minute, something got in the way – a new release from a competitor, an internal user complaining that a particular package failed their needs, a mysterious drop in price. We’ve been badgered by claims and counter claims by some sales people. Some are too ready to bag their competitors. The proposals are written in a way which makes comparison of price offering next to impossible. Just about every question is answered with a positive response until you want to see it in action then you’re often faced with smoke and mirrors. Too much is left to the implementation where you’re paying by the hour and where, in most cases, the true scope of the work is not documented until the meter starts running.

I understand that CRM companies are in business to make a profit. However, I come from a background of providing small business with software based on tangible outcomes. The needs of my company are not that unique. I’d suggest that any small to medium software company would share the needs we have. Yet too many of our requirements are greeted as unique and therefore requiring customisation. This is when I get suspicious.

I’m happy to take an off the shelf solution and modify business practices around it as long as it is in the playing field of our needs. This is proving to be a challenge for us to find.

We’re going to take a break and spend time talking with others who have implemented. It seems that there are many varied experiences with CRM out there and it might be that by talking with those who have gone before us we find the path we need to follow. The stories I have read in some forums about wasted investment in CRM are the reason for our pause.

In the meantime we’ll sell our own small business software to prospects on the basis of tangible outcomes experienced in more than 1,300 small businesses.

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.

Ethical dilemma

I have a retail store and we sell AFL football cards. We have been approached by someone who wants to weigh each pack of cards to find those containing bonus (more valuable cards). Once found, he will buy only these packs. The sale could be worth in excess of $200.00 which for a football card sale is excellent. However, it leaves with the knowledge that none of the remaining packs contain the bonus cards. This means we already know that a kid spending his or her pocket money on a pack of cards in pursuit of the rarer bonus cards is going to miss out. What is right for the business in the short term is to take the $200.00+ sale. The sooner I move the stock and bank the cash the better. Ethically, it is better to ask this guy and his scale to leave and let each customer try their luck with fair odds. The ‘card shark’ would trade the cards at a profit, extracting more money from the kids. Some are already on eBay.

Fairness is at the heart of this and it’s a consideration on various levels. The ‘card shark’ uses the scale to gain a significant advantage. Is it my job to police that? Is the world a fair place? No! So why should I perpetuate the myth? Taking the money and running and not letting on to the kids is business at work. The reality, however, is how I live with myself. If I expect fairness in business and life then I need to deal with it that way myself.

I’ll tell the ‘card shark’ to get his stock elsewhere.

Social responsibility index for business

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I’d like to see a social responsibility index established to allow consumers to compare businesses. It is a point of difference more important that price yet it won’t matter until it is too late for many small businesses. Small businesses can compete with the chain stores by being actively socially responsible and using a rating system (like my idea above) to rate their performance against four key criteria. The better we in small business educate consumers about the difference our businesses make compared to others the sooner we can achieve some traction to counter massive advertising budgets. I see such a rating system as a practical step towards greater social responsibility for all businesses. While some tout their businesses as socially responsible, the lack of a transparent measure means that consumers can only go marketing noise and too often this is more hype than substance.

A responsible government would implement something along the lines of the ratings I suggest and provide consumers with a trusted measure. It would put my small software company on a even footing with Microsoft and others with whom I compete. Prospects could make a decision on more than price alone.

I first posed the idea of businesses including a label like this at their front door in October last year.

What are the ethics of photographing customers?

We have linked our POS software to our security system and can easily track who purchased what and when if the store owner wishes? This enables easy checking in the event of a dispute over a refund or change given. With appropriate signs in in the shop I see no problem with this. The same technology can be used to track who enters the shop. This information cold be used for more than traditional theft management purposes and it’s where I have ethical questions? What if the images are being used to track people protesting against your business? What if you’re involved, somehow, in racial profiling? What if there is a more sinister purpose to you capturing images of browsers as well as those who purchase products? My feeling is that the store owner would need to disclose such behavior and to make the data available to any customer seeking access to their records. I’m interested because it’s been suggested to me that at least one major retailer is testing face recognition software for scanning people entering its retail locations.

Bank manager recommendation

Selling small business software is a challenge because you’re competing for cash in a tight marketplace. Our efforts have been helped unexpectedly recently by recommendations by two bank managers. Each has recommended our POS/theft management system to customers in an effort to cut the cost of theft and therefore significantly shortened the sales process. In 25 years with IT I’ve never experienced such support from a bank to a prospect as we’re seeing with out theft management product. Now I only the bank would let me quote their people in our marketing literature. The reality is that a $10,000 capital investment will return, on average, around $70,000 over tree years.