The perspective of travel

I was in Singapore for most of last week and was reminded of the value of leaving the business for a while to gain perspective. Away, some issues don’t seem as important as they seemed when closer. Other issues seem more so. I find this type of travel, overseas and for a few days, like spring cleaning for what’s on my mind. So, next week will be about refocus, ensuring priorities are right for the run home to the end of the year.

So much of running a software company like ours is about agenda setting, innovating for our chosen marketplaces while at the same time taking care of the core needs. Constantly moving so that the software we develop improves in value. This is crucial to generate the support revenue necessary to feed the infrastructure necessary to provide support.

One of my take aways from this trip is the need to focus more on transactional detail. While some customers like big picture stuff like new reporting tools or deep analysis of their business, for most it is about shaving 100ths of a second off this or that function so that their business is more efficient and so that they can serve their customers better. This time travel has allowed me to see good and bad execution of technology in the retail situation. This is where we can and will help our small business customers.

And Singapore? A wonderful city. Lunch in Little India eating off banana leaf was a treat as was dinner at My Humble House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a waste of time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self checkout dehumanises retail

With the installation of self checkout technology by major retailers increasing rapidly I was glad to have an opportunity to touch and play with a unit first hand this week. What I noticed immediately is that purchasing is a lonely and technology driven event. No smile, no chat about the weather, just you and the machine. You and some cold and heartless metal.

While those companies adopting these technologies will spin that they cut costs and the savings mean cheaper product, they dehumanise retail and without human interaction what is retail anyway?

These devices are not progress. They are about retailers telling consumers that they make more money by interacting with them less and that’s bad for society.

Having played with a self checkout unit I see them as an opportunity for small business retailers. By increasing human contact and the quality of that contact we can reinforce the social value of small. We can demonstrate that self checkout is about profits for the big retailers, profits at all costs.

If I were in a situation where a competitor was about to install self checkout I’d have a campaign running already. Hit them hard and long. Machines don’t smile. Machines don’t share anecdotes. Machines don’t follow football. Machines don’t make mistakes. Machines don’t have a family to support. Machines don’t contribute to the social fabric of our society. Machines won’t add value to the business transaction like a cooking tip.

Sure we can codify some of these requirements into technology. I don’t want codified emotion or social interaction. I want human interaction. Otherwise what’s all this for?

Self checkout dehumanises interaction in each store where it is implemented and this affects the community around it.

The Latham Diaries; a retrospective blog

Unrelated to what is usually posted here; I am two thirds of the way through reading The Latham Diaries. Regardless of your politics, this “occasional diary” has all the hallmarks of a blog except that it’s been published on the page. I’d like to see Mark Latham blogging today on the reaction, personal and public. Through such a blog he could engage in a dialogue which demonstrates the power and connection of the medium as well as continuing the discussions in the book, particularly those in the essay which precedes the diary entries.

Is it time for social responsibility labeling for businesses so we know if they are good for us?

Just as we label packaged goods and list fat, sugar, vitamin etc content, it’s we offered similar labeling for businesses. With an appropriate label consumers could select a business not only on the product range and price but also on arguably more important criteria. We’d need to agree on a common measure of value which works for big and small businesses and which uses measurements which consumers can quickly understand. I’d be proposing value measurements of:

  • Local value. Based on number of local employees, proximity of major shareholders to local community, local involvement, local source of products sold.
  • Economic footprint. A measure of the business economic footprint on a community’s economic development. This would take into account an employees/sales ratio.
  • Environmental footprint. A measure of the impact the business has on the environment.
  • Social responsibility index. A measure indicating what the business puts back into the community, local and beyond.
  • Just as we focus on obesity today and read labels more carefully as a result of this focus, we ought to focus on the social and economic value of businesses.

    I am sure there are other measures which could be added. They need to be easily understood and that a business could not easily ‘fudge’ the figures. This list is a start. Good measurements will drive me to one business over another, how could it not?

    A business doing more for the local economy and operating in an environmentally sustainable way is of more interest to me than a business shipping profits overseas and putting profit above social responsibility.

    10 reasons why independent retailers matter to Australia (or any country for that matter)

    By no means complete or scientific here is my list of ten reasons why we need independently owned retailers in Australia.

    1. Community. Small businesses are more likely to support local traditions and tell stories which need to be passed on.

    2. Creativity. Whereas national and global businesses make creative decisions a long way from the place of execution, local businesses make creative decisions in the back room and at the counter – in the local community. This helps develop creative skills and interests of those working in the business.

    3. Competition. In a global only world, competition is by arrangement whereas independent businesses compete for day to day survival.

    4. Diversity. No two independent retailers in the same channel are the same. Yea!

    5. Entrepreneurship. Independent retail is where entrepreneurs cut their teeth and where motivation begins.

    6. The local economy. Independent retailers are more likely to hire locally, shop locally, live locally and invest locally.

    7. Family. Independent retailers offer families places where teenagers can get their first job, they offer flexible credit terms, they are less corporate and therefore more likely to be family friendly in decision making.

    8. Leadership. Impendent retailers are developing leadership skills and assisting their employees to develop leadership skills since more decisions are made in an independent retail business than a national or global brand store.

    9. Life. Whereas the local outpost of a national or global brand is a number on a balance sheet, the independent retailer is a living breathing, stumbling and excited representation of the life of business.

    10. Humanity. At an independent retail business you’re more likely to observe humanity at work because there is no corporate manual of dos and don’ts.

    My list is as incomplete as it is unscientific. Some points could be compressed. As it is, though, it serves as a reminder about what’s important abut independent retailers and small business to a country and its people

    Going into business can be like having a big wedding – it’s about the fairy tail more than the substance of the marriage

    I talk with many small business owners every week. They’re usually in a stressed situation and wondering if they will ever get their business performing well. A question I ask is why are you working for yourself? Half don’t have a ready answer – they drifted into small business ownership. Most of the other half are in business for themselves, in pursuit of the dream. Usually the dream is economic as opposed to social.

    Just as many people spend a fortune on being princess for a day at their wedding, many small business owners spend too much time and money on the feeling of business rather than the operation.

    Owning a small business is not a dream come true, it’s not a fairy tail. It’s hard work and it’s serious. The obligations are enormous: economic and social. There’s no point in stepping onto the path unless you have a mission. A mission is crucial to providing the drive and the ability to overcome what seem like insurmountable obstacles.

    Just as the marriage is the thing, as opposed to the wedding; the business and its achievements are the thing rather than being the boss.

    I’ve owned this business for 25 years in January 2006. It’s a long time in one place. While it is a successful company, it is not wildly profitable in a financial terms. The real benefit of ownership of this business is the opportunity to give opportunities – to colleagues, to clients. I feel that on our small patch of the world we carry more than our weight in terms of economic value – measured by the value to our clients of our software; our number of employees; tax paid; efficiency improved etc…

    I also feel that we are performing well socially – in community support; providing assistance beyond traditional business assistance; being environmentally responsible etc…. I count people who got their start with us, positions we created to give a person a break, the number of people we provided their first overseas trip to, the number of people we provided their first ever flight to, the marriages, the babies born … every human connect like this makes me smile. It’s a reason to be in business. To help people achieve their own goals.

    It is the area of social responsibility where we need to improve and this is a key driver for me and for the company as we move into our 26th year. We want to engage more with the community and leave footprints of which we can be proud. It’s a challenge and a motivation.

    That’s why I own my own business.

    Courier companies drive me nuts: too often too late

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

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

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

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

    This is appalling service from Allied.

    The Australian Taxation Office and their double standards on the Privacy Act, this taxpayer risks retribution (an audit) and complains

    Last year I had cause to write to the Australian Taxation office about an adjustment they had made to my tax return. It took six letters before someone from the ATO called me to advise that they could not write to me because they did not recognise me at my home address. They said they would only write to my accountant.

    I had written November 2004 proposing a face to face meeting. The telephone call to me was made six months later. The meeting I wanted finally happened last week.

    By their admission in the meeting last week, the ATO refused to correspond with me because my home address was not registered for my tax file number. They claimed that the Privacy Act precluded them from writing to my home address and responding to my letters.

    There have been several instances where the actions of ATO prove it is not the Privacy Act which precluded them from responding to my letters and my request for a meeting:

    1. When called by two officers of the ATO on my mobile phone on two separate occasions no effort whatsoever was made to determine if it was me they were speaking with. Anyone could have answered my phone.

    2. When I met with tow officers of the ATO last week, no effort was made to determine if I was who I claimed to be.

    3. When I requested an ATO officer change my registered address details while at the ATO office last week no proof was sought that I was who I claimed I was. Indeed when I offered the officer proof of identity his response was that the computer does not require it.

    Each of these events makes a mockery of the ATO claim that they did not respond to my six letters because it would be a breach of privacy to write to my home address since it was not the address registered with the ATO. The ATO has demonstrated a systemic disregarded for privacy rules.

    As a customer of the ATO I expect at least the courtesy of a response to correspondence.

    The embrace of personalisation by consumers tells us that one to one is a good value proposition for business

    There can be no doubt that this is the era of personalisation. Whereas in the past we would buy a CD, now we buy songs; where we would listen to a radio show, now we can grad the bits we like; where we would buy a newspaper, we can get the stories on topics which interest us delivered to the device of choice.

    Consumers can get the content we want when and where we want. They want what they want rather than all the stuff they don’t want. I take this to be a rejection of one size fits all, in part at least. Sure we may not be seeing it in traditional retail, that it’s happening in music and entertainment could be reasonably assed as the start of a possible trend.

    We’re seeing something like this through our dealings with our small business clients. Where in the past we would get excellent numbers to our group training sessions and events, now they prefer one on one contact or to access content in a personalised way. The feedback we have is that they like to be able to pick and choose content. This has only come about in the last eighteen months. What’s happening in the broader community is changing how they want to run the IT side of their business. Hence our pursuit of podcasting and other technologies to deepen our connect.

    The ability to deliver personal content more closely aligned with the consumer is a point of difference for small business. It’s one we exploit (to our sales success) and one which many of our small business retail clients exploit. Too many small businesses have failed trying to emulate their big business competitors. We’re better off smiling, providing exceptional personal service and gently reminding the customer that they wouldn’t get this attention elsewhere.

    Back to my company, the cost of one on one connects is high but so is the customer retention rate.

    Workplace giving

    Good to see the Federal Government getting behind the Corporate Social Responsibility movement and workplace giving in particular. I received a pack with a letter from the Prime Minister, a 12 page colour brochure, a CD of resources and a link to their website on the subject. The website has some excellent resources and valuable links.

    As a business new to the CSR path we will welcome all the advice we can get. (New to the extent that we are engaging others here in the journey.) We’ve been looking at the issue of carbon credits or similar to offset the impact of our company vehicle fleet. We’ve received conflicting advice and warnings from environmental experts that paying someone to grow trees in a plantation may be more harmful than valuable. I mention this as an example of the type of issue we’re encountering.

    There are businesses established to profit from the pressure on companies to engage in CSR and while that in itself is not ‘worng’ some do so in such a way as to ‘spin’ the social responsibility of their offerings.

    We leave Acer for a supplier who cares

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

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

    Acer laptop service sucks if you are out of warranty

    We have five or six Acer laptops in use within the company and one of these units needs repair work. It’s seventeen months old and out of warranty – we’re happy to pay for the necessary work. The Acer service people told us today that it will take at least five days before the laptop is fixed. They told us that if it was under warranty the repair time would be 24 hours. We understand commercial demands, we offered to pay more to get on their 24 hours turnaround line. No way they say. No amount of escalation was going to shift the five day minimum it seemed.

    As a long term customer Acer is treating us as second class citizens.

    Acer makes a lot of noise about their 24 hour turnaround on warranty work. It is a reasonable assumption that this is the turnaround they offer after the warranty expires – especially since you are paying for the work. Not so.

    Unless Acer changes its tune on this we will not be arming our field force with Acer laptops in the future.

    Global brands, global bland

    One of the advantages independent (small) businesses has over big business competitors is our ability to socially engage with customers. We don’t have the rules of the 10 or 12 (or whatever) steps to a sale. We are not commanded by a head office to treat every customer the same. We are not trained to be bland. If we work for a good independently owned small business we are allowed to be ourselves and in doing so give something of ourselves in every contact. This is our obligation and it is our point of difference.

    If we lived in a totally clone retail world with only global brands in our shopping malls and on our high streets we’d lose that individuality and with it creativity and eventually our passion.

    So, as independent businesses we have an obligation to engage in a personal way with our customers. We need to tell stories, share a laugh and be individual with our customers. Each time we do this it keeps our independence alive. While we cannot match the advertising spend of the global brands we beat them on passion and hope tat one day that counts for something among those who count.

    Independent retailers can prove that global brands = global bland by not being bland themselves. Embrace independence of the business and of each person in the business. Bring back personalities and celebrate!

    Qantas booking charge

    In reference to my earlier post complaining about the new $27.00 fee Qantas now charges for making a booking through their call centre, I have been thinking about other companies which charge consumers a fee for doing business with them by way of human contact rather than online. I can only come up with some banks. No one else. If you think of other business models which offer online and call centre access – insurance companies, banks, entertainment tickets etc, non charge the human contact fee which Qantas charges.

    It amazes me that the media has not picked up this story.

    Software pricing scams hurt small business

    I’m in a competitive situation in one of the marketplaces my company serves in which is most frustrating. A competitor says their software is, say, $1,400 and points at ours costing three times that amount. The fine print reveals that they have a mandatory annual access fee if you want to keep using the software. In our case there is no mandatory fee – the software keeps working regardless of whether you take up our support service. Even including our software fee our solution is cheaper over a four year period.

    The problem is that the marketplace this is being pitched to is so not tech and contract savvy that some will take the bait and not discover the higher cost until they are locked in.

    While we can go to the ACCC about the matter I have no faith in their interest in such things.

    Transitions in small business

    Being a small business (around 40 employees) we get to participate in our fair share of transitions. Employees coming and going, engagements, marriages, births, deaths, divorces, holidays and the other changes to lives. Being a small business we get to notice these transitions more than in bigger companies. I guess it’s a reason I like being part of a small business.

    The transitions of employees departing can be bittersweet. There is the loss of the asset yet the joy of watching someone move on and the hope that they have something valuable to take elsewhere which they have learned from their time with you.

    Small business plays an important role in giving people a break in their first position in the workforce. More important than that is the opportunity for people to step up into roles which extend their skills and confidence. My sense is that small business provides these opportunities more than big business. We certainly see this as our responsibility. Often the faith in the person stepping up is justified.

    While departures unlock a raft of emotions, hindsight, more often than not, leaves me with a sense of pride at what the time with our business has meant to the individual and a sense of thankfulness for the contributions they have made to the company and its community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    CRM or not CRM

    We are in the final stages of assessing whether to replace several in house developed technologies with an all singing all dancing CRM system.

    For the CRM investment to generate a positive return we need to achieve revenue growth directly attributable to this investment or a cost reduction. However, given the nature of our client base it is unlikely that our clients will want a self serve help desk experience – that is, they like speaking with a human compared to navigating the technology to find an answer for themselves. Also, we’re not the type of business which will cut positions with a technology solution. (I’m glad I wasn’t around during the start of the industrial revolution.)

    I want the consistency of service, management reporting, duplicated effort elimination and goal focus of a good CRM yet I am wary of where the financial benefits will come from given my aforementioned reluctance to use this to replace people.

    My frustration is that the sales people we have spoken with are not clear about the business case other than vague comments. We’re a small business software company and they are used to selling to big companies. They wouldn’t survive down here in the rough and tumble of small business territory.

    For CRM to work in my business I need to understand the cost benefit equation (without losing employees) and to see this reflected in the experiences of our customers.

    How Qantas is focusing on customer service

    Call Qantas to book a flight and they will tell you that there is now a $27.00 charge for using their telephone booking service. That’s right! This airline has decided to demonstrate its focus on customer service by charging a fee for human interaction as opposed to no fee for online interaction. Now that might be okay if their online booking service was not so useless.

    This $27.00 is a tipping point for me. Now I will check out Virgin Blue and compare.

    Charging a fee to book (and spend money with Qantas) is nuts.

    Social responsibility

    We want to demonstrate as practically as possible that a corporation, albeit this small corporation, can demonstrate a social responsibility. We want to show that by supporting our small and independent business the community is better served than by supporting Microsoft or the other national and international brands which compete with us.

    We have appointed someone to the position of what we will call social responsibility officer.

    Their job is to audit decisions and challenge them when they feel we may be outside good social responsibility. They will consider our decisions and actions in the context of our social responsibility in the areas of:

  • Environment
  • Individual rights
  • Local community
  • Australian economy
  • Ethics
  • Responsible consumerism
  • Culture
  • I recognise that it is one thing to write a few blog entries bemoaning the clonisation of our shopping malls and high streets and to criticise the might of big business against small independent operators and another thing altogether to demonstrate the value of such small businesses.

    Independent and small businesses should not be protected for the sake of it. They have to offer something of value to the community. Hence our effort in terms of social responsibility. While I would suggest we have always been responsible, we now have someone else who is not a shareholder (in the strict sense of that term) making the assessment.

    I expect the result will be debate and some changes along the way.

    Podcasting frustration

    Our plans to release training via a podcasting platform are being frustrated by poor access here in Melbourne (Australia) to good advice and products. From the outset our goal has been to create podcasts of a high audio quality. We created a shopping list based on advice from professionals and we’re heading back to their shop now for the four time for the extra device or cable they say we will need to get this working.

    Sure this is an area outside our technical realm. However, it should be easier than this, especially given the interest in podcasting now.

    We should be up and running within a week. We have two programs ready to go content wise and while we could have had them available by now we did not want to fall into the trap of poor production standards.

    More SMS (text) frustration

    There was a time when I’d receive a call to confirm an appointment with a particular service provider. Now I receive an SMS. Poor software design by their software supplier means there is confusion as to whether I have confirmed and I have to then call to confirm or they have to call me.

    If software developers and businesses are going to embrace SMS as a means of interacting with customers it has to be within the context of such communication. It has to be relevant, efficient and something I want. That the software I am frustrated with did not allow me to opt out adds to a bad experience.

    Personally, I don’t want SMS messages to be the new junk mail. Ugh!

    In my retail business, where we use the software developed by my software company, we’ve been using SMS for 2 years and opt out options were there from the outset. We have significant new business achieved as a result of offering the SMS facilities. If we had botched like these other folks the success would not have been achieved.

    Unsolicited SMS marketing is as annoying as the telemarketing call

    We’ve had SMS (text) messaging facilities within our software for a couple of years now. It’s used by our users to remind customers of appointments; the arrival in store of special orders; employees of their roster for the coming week; and, the owner of end of shift cash balancing accuracy and sales turnover by department. Practical stuff.

    Now I don’t know if I am alone in this but this week I have received four marketing messages on my mobile phone, each from a different business. In one case it was from business I shop with while the rest were from businesses I have never shopped with.

    These messages are unwanted and an intrusion. They clog the inbox. One message, from the business I knew, offered an opt-out facility – which I assume I have to pay for, while the others did not.

    This advertising noise will put me off these companies.

    At least the messaging facilities integrated in our software have a practical use and are only used if the recipient requests such contact.