FAST 3 AWARD UPDATE

Been talking with several clients over the weekend about their entries for our 2005 FAST 3 AWARD – where we reward the 3 fastest growing businesses using our software.

The process of getting the data for contest entry continues to shake information out of the trees and onto the screens of our client base. The latest callers have been asking questions about possible theft; why they are not growing; and, in one case, how to better manage the growth they’re achieving.

This is great stuff. It’s building the type of relationships we crave to have with our client base – working on their businesses using the facilities in our software. In two instances so far the interaction has led to decisions to enhance our software further so it better serves their needs.

Another key learning has been the realisation by some of our clients that they’re competing with themselves. This is a breakthrough. Getting small business people to compare trading periods by department, category and item and seeking understanding from what the reports comparing the trading periods show. Of course we compete with ourselves. This is essential in any business where costs increase faster than our retail price. Sales growth is crucial to profitabilility.

Many new entries this past week. We’re hoping to double the entries this week again.

Details on the contest can be found here.

Underhand sales tactics

We’re looking at new corporate phone systems at present and the sales guy from one company has just sent us through the bug list for the competitor product we are considering. The bug list is an internal document from his competitor. This hot shot sales guy sent the list to us in order that we would give more weight to his product. It’s had the opposite effect. If only he had focussed on the features and benefits of his products and left his competitors alone.

Our Fast 3 contest uncoverers struggling retailers

It’s always a challenge taking a call from a small business owner who reports their business is going backward.

That happened today. Three times.

In each case they were printing the report necessary to compare Jan-Apr 2004 with 2005 so they could enter our Fast 3 Awards. The results in these three cases was bad news rather than good.

That the business owners were surprised was THE surprise. I expected people would be printing even this basic business comparison report every week or two. I do. I want to see how I’m traveling and therefore quickly address less than acceptable growth.

In these cases the response was one of shock. It must be wrong. Okay if it’s not wrong what can I do? Help!

One of the reasons we created the awards is to get our small business retailers engaging with their software on a deeper level and tracking the performance of their businesses. It’s working. These calls and the entries received are proof of that. Great proof. We’re having good business conversations and getting involved where we are allowed to help address challenging situations. Our own team members are learning from the interaction as well.

We’re taking this seriously and plan to build some additional business training for our software users based on the learnings from the awards.

Starbucks and the folly of one size fits all

If you don’t know by now I’m over the one size fits all mentality of so many businesses. I like that I can walk down to local shops which do not have a recognisable national or international logo above their door and choose some products or access some services which are unique to that business. I like that one day service is not as good as the other. Such is life. I like that it’s local. It is unnatural to get the same experience every time or have access to the same product range in every store of the same product category.

Starbucks is in my sights at present because they are continuing their push in Australia when we don’t need them here. We are exceptionally well served with coffee houses, especially in Melbourne. We don’t need this US company coming in with mediocre over priced product.

I was comforted, therefore, in reading this story at MSNBC from 2004 about Java Junction a local drive through coffee shop successfully competing in the very crowded Washington State coffee marketplace.

Growth for independent retailers

Our recently launched TOWER SYSTEMS 2005 FAST 3 AWARD is attracting some excellent entries. Not that entry is all that difficult. The contest is about comparing trading periods for selected categories. comparing January 1, 2004 through April 30, 2004 with the same period in 2005.

Early results are showing Tower Systems users achieving good growth. It’s our hope that we can leverage valuable knowledge from the best performers to share with the broader independent retailer community. Small business helping small business.

Too often we see business awards requiring entrants to complete forms and reports open to subjecting analysis. In our awards we want the business performance to speak for itself since that matters above all else.

The independent retailer manifesto

To counter the one size fits all sanitised mentality of Starbucks, Blockbuster, Borders and all those other international stores, independent retailers ought to agree on a manifesto along the lines of:

  • We will carry the products you tell us your want us to carry.
  • We will not act as your censor.
  • We will, wherever possible, source products locally.
  • We will employ local people.
  • We will support the local community.
  • We will make our business decisions locally.
  • We do not believe in one size fits all.
  • We will engage in every way possible to nurture the local community around us.

    Independent retailers carry the flag of community, they are the crucial to the survial of towns and their cultures.

  • Starbucks coffee shop as censor

    Starbucks in the US has (according to Newsweek) decided not to carry the latest Bruce Springsteen CD RENO because of what they apparently consider to be raunchy lyrics.

    Yeah, I’m happy having a global coffee company decide what music I should have access to.

    2005 FAST 3 AWARD UPDATE

    Our Tower Systems 2005 Fast 3 Award is drawing plenty of interest from our small business user community. Many are reading about the contest on our website and then call for help to extract the necessary four measurements so they may enter. This is the kind of engagement we were hoping for from the competition – getting people with computer systems using them in a way they had not in the past and actually using the technology to measure business performance rather than just processing sales day in and day out.

    I reckon that too many technology companies create technology for the sake of it rather than for the business outcomes the users generate with the technology. So this contest is about extending our engagement with our user community for the benefit of their business and, of course, a flow on benefit for us. Tower users getting more from their investment will tell others. But there is no expectation of such word of mouth if we do not successfully engage.

    So, we’re receiving calls from people and in a few seconds we advise how then can product the figures necessary to enter the contest. They I’ve had a couple of calls from people saying that their business has not grown over the year. This leads to a business discussion and that’s when very helpful engagement begins. One person suggested the results from their sales comparison report were wrong. So we looked at it through other reports and the results were verified.

    You’d think that business people would receive sufficiently regular financial reports about their business to track such things. No. Many small business people make an annual pilgrimage to their accountant and that’s when they find out how they are traveling. This contest aims to achieve better engagement between business owner and their business and that has to be good.

    Woolworths and pharmacies and community benefit

    Good to see The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia get some press this week basking the giant Woolworths and their push to get pharmacy only prescription sales into their supermarkets. Their media release makes some excellent points:

    Protecting public health is more important than Woolworths’ profits and should be the primary consideration in any government decision over whether to allow pharmacies in supermarkets, Pharmaceutical Society of Australia Vice-President Frank Payne said today.

    “Until now Woolworths’ sole argument for entering the pharmacy industry has been based on financial considerations, with managing director Roger Corbett claiming that Australians pay too much for medicines,” Mr Payne said today.

    “But yesterday Mr Corbett put forward the argument that allowing pharmacies in supermarkets would increase consumers’ access to prescription medicines, saying the move would ‘significantly broaden the community’s access to expert, professional pharmacist advice’.

    “How? Virtually every shopping centre incorporating a Woolworths store already has a pharmacy, as do most smaller centres and country towns with more than a few hundred people.

    “PSA is concerned that allowing pharmacies in supermarkets would undermine the progress that has been made in ensuring the safer use of medicines within the community, the so-called Quality Use of Medicines principles.

    “In addition, the existing shortage of trained pharmacists would be exacerbated, with remote areas the first to suffer as staff are drawn to large population centres.

    “Location restrictions were initiated by government as a way of promoting equality of access to subsidised PBS medicines and associated pharmacy services throughout Australia, not just large population centres. While such restrictions have been identified as a barrier to competition, we should not lose sight of the policy’s objectives.

    “The push for enhanced competition is understandable, and perhaps even justified, but care needs to be taken with any proposed reforms to ensure that the outcomes are an improvement for patient care.

    “PSA would argue strongly about the need for equality of access to pharmaceutical services across Australia – not just large population centres – as a guiding principle to determine the degree to which change is justified.

    “Mr Corbett claims that Australians pay far too much for pharmaceutical products, something not borne out in any international comparison, but he does not talk about a duty of care.

    “PSA believes that a pharmacist exercising professional responsibilities should not be influenced by commercial considerations – the health of the community is paramount.

    “Does anyone seriously believe that supermarkets will not let commercial considerations take precedence over impartial health advice? Remember, supermarkets sell cigarettes and alcohol, two of the major cause of disease and death in Australia.

    “We do not believe that ownership by entities whose primary focus is not on the provision of professional health care will enable pharmacists’ professional obligations to be met.

    “Pharmacists should, in their working environment, not be so encumbered by other requirements that they are not able to fully and freely exercise their professional judgements.”

    The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia is the organisation that represents the interests of Australia’s 16,000 professional pharmacists.

    Tower Systems does not sell systems to pharmacists. Our interest in this matter is the unreasonable pressure by big business against small business in pursuit of profit under the guise of community service.

    Rewards for small business growth

    We have launched the 2005 TOWER SYSTEMS FAST 3 AWARDS. We’re rewarding the three fastest growing small businesses using our software. Entries are open for a month and we have just a couple of metrics we’re using to measure growth. The aim of the competition is to get our user base better understanding the growth or otherwise in their businesses and how they use the software to assess that. The link to entry is here.

    The idea of this competition came out of our Oasis strategy – a strategy designed to provide an exceptional relationship with each of our small business clients, a relationship unlike (better, more valuable and more enjoyed) the traditional software company/user relationship.

    Woolworths versus Pharmacies

    Good the see Australia’s independent small business pharmacisis fighting back in the press today against the greedy push by Woolworths to pressure the government into allowing them to sell prescription drugs:

    Brisbane’s Courier-Mail
    Melbourne’s Herald Sun
    Southern Highland News

    Unfortunately the pharmacists didn’t get the same press Woolworths did with their story Sunday and Monday. That’s what expensive and slick PR buys you.

    The Federal Government and Prime Minister have made a bunch of promises to pharmacists and small business generally. This issue will be a test of these promises. Let’s hope they support small business more than they have in the past.

    Greedy Woolworths chasing independent pharmacies

    The giant Woolworths supermarket group has unleashed an expensive media storm today in its pursuit establishing pharmacies in supermarkets. Woolworths CEO Roger Corbett has been the media tart of the day getting on TV, radio, in print and online. He says it’s all about saving money for consumers. Nonsense. It’s about Woolworths bottom line and Corbett’s compensation. This ABC Online story is more balanced than much of the reporting. At the other end of the spectrum is the Today Tonight story. Unbalanced and built around a price comparison of pharmacies and online services. Of course, the online service does not provide the face to face care and attention of a pharmacist.

    This is a battle of epic proportions and every independent business small business owner ought to engage to ensure that Woolworths does not win. There is more at stake here than the sale of prescription drugs in supermarkets. The Woolworths proposal, if it gets up, will see more small businesses close, customer service fall and Australia lose more independent family owned businesses.

    The Woolwoprths press release can be found here.

    Pharmacists need to get smart and quickly if they are to stop the Woolworths trial going ahead.

    Why do I care? Because I own a couple of small businesses and they are at risk from such predatory opportunistic action as pharmacies and it’s only after the forest is razed that you realise how much you wished it was there. There is still time to stop Woolworths.

    Hungry and rich woolworths increases pressure on pharmacies

    This report in today’s Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reports on a fresh assault by the giant Woolworths group to get government approval for pharmacies in supermarkets.

    Woolworths chief Roger Corbett says pharmacies are the most protected market in Australia.

    He has released a report from ACIL Tasman, an economics modelling consultancy, outlining potential savings that could be made if supermarkets operated in-store pharmacies.

    Current laws restrict the number of pharmacy licences in the country to about 5,000.

    “It’s almost a no-brainer, it’s so obvious and it’s just because of this enormous political pressure that has been established over the years, that this situation has been allowed to continue for so long,” Mr Corbett said.

    The SMH report is well balanced but could use some more depth to explore the value for the community of independently owned and operated pharmacies.

    Woolworths says it wants pharmacies in its supermarkets to help Australian consumers save money. That’s nonsense. They want it because of the profit it will generate. Anyone who believes otherwise is seriously gullible. This is a hungry and rich giant out to harm a struggling small business channel. Once they get pharmacy customers in their stores how do they treat them? While opportunistic promotion and pricing policies – they prey on gullible consumers. This is the strategy of big stores. Small business may look more expensive but you’re looking at a smaller (niche) range and so you don’t get lured into the price game of places like Woolworths.

    This report Woolworths has produced should be ignored by the government and Woolworths should be told to leave the small business sector alone.

    If the government does consider this latest push it also has to look at employment in the pharmacy channel, the employee:turnover ratio in small business compared to giants like Woolworths, the risk to high street tenancies, the damage to family businesses and the social cost of losing more small businesses from our retail landscape.

    Big is not better. Roger Corbett’s arguments are driven by his desire to push the share price up and make his options more valuable.

    Independent retailers in Australia need to fight this push we need to band together and educate consumers, fight the push from companies like Woolworths and support each other more.

    Learning Improv as business training

    Read this blog entry Lessons Learning from Improv and you’ll read about innovative business training. It’s brilliant in fact. The lessons John Moore blogs about what he’s learned from taking Improv. comedy classes. The applications for business are excellent. Take this gem:

    Failure is an Option
    In business we’ve been conditioned to believe failure is bad and most be avoided at all costs. Improv believes in the opposite. In Improv, I’m learning failure is good because it means you are challenging yourself to take chances in pursuit of living in the moment. Failure happens. Mistakes happen. Learn from failures. Learn from mistakes. If we don’t take chances and fail, how else will we ever feel the pleasure of learning?

    Some of us in our software company took singing lessons 4 or 5 years ago and learned similar lessons to those John blogs about. Stepping outside the business box and taking risks can set you free back in the business world. Singing in front of co-workers, when public singing is your biggest fear, proved to be invaluable.

    I’d add to John’s lessons: Respect. Singing with co-workers from different positions within the company put everyone on a level playieng field. That helped build mutual respect.

    The Tower Systems 2005 Fast 3 Award

    We take this software business seriously and feel it personally when we see the facilities we have labored over for months and years being abused or, worse, ignored. Good software functionality ignored is something I’ll never understand. Especially in small independent business where good help is hard to find.

    We’re on a mission to get our small business user base using more of our software. But we’re taking small steps to start with.

    We’re launching the TOWER SYSTEMS 2005 FAST 3 AWARD. This will be an award for the three fastest growing users of our software based on a year on year comparison of transactions and revenue. We could have looked at 10 or 20 or 100 but we want to start slow and work our way up. Look at this contest as foreplay. The main game is a way off yet. We also had to make it easy for our client base to enter.

    Once we see how this goes we will have follow-up contest ready to run. Each designed to get our users actually finding out about the data being gathered in their software.

    For the TOWER SYSTEMS 2005 FAST 3 AWARD we will be judging based on year on year sales of what we would call non agency lines – that’s sales of real products and services. No soft gambling, no transport tickets, no bill payment. We’re trying to weed out the areas of business which might have received a kick of growth for other (external) reasons. We want to reward growth chased and obtained by the business owner. This goes to the heart of small business.

    We see our mission as beyond software developer. We need to lead, cajole and guide our client community to better use our software tools so that they measurably benefit from this in their business.

    In reviewing the entries we expect to find some businesses which could use some help along the way and we’re ready with assistance there. This will be in the form of telephone calls and visits to help correct problems we find.

    Selfishly we expect to also find some brilliant ideas which we can learn from too. This will be the icing on the cake.

    So, the first contest is about comparing trading periods for selected categories. Users of our software can do this easily and quickly using our Monthly Sales Comparison report. We’ll ask them to compare January 1, 2004 through April 30, 2004 with the same period in 2005. We’ll then ask for transaction growth and revenue growth numbers in percentage terms as shown in the variance section of this report. This will be entered online and we’ll then ask the top 3 to send in further data to allow verification.

    The winners will receive a certificate, high praise from us and some other token gift we’re yet to determine. This is not about the gift since the prize will be the knowledge of such success and the opportunity to help other like minded small business people to achieve similar success in their businesses.

    Our website will have a link for entry early next week.

    The contest will run for four weeks.

    Openness

    In the small business software marketplace, especially in vertical niches such as those in which we play, credibility is a key selling feature. We’ve found that openness pays on many ways. On our website you can see how many employees we have, read their names and see their photos in all their glory. You can red the detail of our software updates. Find out about bugs. Read our user advice sheets and check the latest fixes. There isn’t any part of our website hidden for registered users.

    Such openness is an approach we have followed for more than 10 years. It’s something I first came across when I met Jack Stack from the Springfield Remanufacturing Company and author of The Great Game of Business. While this book and the Stack message is about complete openness with employees; business education; business literacy; we pointed outwards and became open about things companies often keep secret, software companies especially.

    We’re only human. Of course we make mistakes. By being up front about our mistakes we’re finding that our customers trust us more. It’s common sense really. Yet it’s amazing how many competitors try and use our openness against us. Occasionally they can dupe someone into believing that our software has bugs and theirs doesn’t but that’s rare. We’re only human. We make mistakes and they do too.

    As Jack Stack advocates, we see business as a game and while we’re not as open internally in some areas as we might be – due to time and cost constraints – we’re more than open in other areas and this creates for, we hope, a work environment which is more enjoyable and appreciated than most.

    As well as a policy of openness is a policy of no spin. Tell it like it us. Sugar only gets in the way of what you’re trying to say and will dull the potential of the message.

    Free training … a word of mouth experience

    One of the challenges we have is when one of our small business clients sell their business. The new owner, having paid a big chunk for the business, usually doesn’t want to pay for training in the use of our software. But they need training to understand our system. To address this situation last year we commenced offering a free day of training for new owners. While new user training would usually run for 3 days, we felt that with a day from us and a couple of days at hand over we’d cover the issues.

    This decision has helped us retain businesses as clients and ensure that bad habits do not transfer to new owners. A good win win.

    Now, we’re expanding on that with a mentor program for new owners and a series of consultations to help them settle in with our technology. We also offer general business advice/assistance for those who want it.

    The interesting news today has been a couple of leads from people who have bought businesses where software from a competitor is in use. The competitor has refused free training and that’s got these new business owners considering a switch.

    You gotta love word of mouth.

    Human’s rule

    Colonial First State has been running a TV commercial promoting that their phones are answered by humans. None of this press 1 for xxx, 2 for yyy etc.

    I like the ad because of a ‘discussion’ we have been having internally about a new phone system we’re buying. I have refused to consider any of the automated options. Customers, of any business, want to talk to someone and not a computer. Our human response in small business is our point of difference and we should never lose that.

    National Independents’ Day

    June 1 in the UK is National Independents’ Day, the day when independent retailers across various categories will be in the spotlight.

    Millions of money saving coupons on leading brands will be in circulation The Mirror in England and Wales and The Daily Record in Scotland on May 27.

    Coca-Cola Enterprises, Britvic Soft Drinks, Walkers, Scottish Courage Brands, Masterfoods, Nestle Rowntree and Heinz and the suppliers supporting the discount initiative. Once can only expect thsi this list grows in the second year of the campaign.

    This is an excellent initiative supporting independently owned retailers. It’s an initiative associations in every country ought to be creating to re-energise their networks and reconnect their stores with consumers. The overall theme of the campaign is My Shop is Your Shop.

    Technology fatigue

    Good to read Bill Gates’ top researcher, Richard F. Rashid, telling The Associated Press in an interview that technology in some ways is outpacing people’s ability to use it meaningfully. Read more in this ABC News report.

    Richard, I agree. We’re storing more than people can consume in so many ways. In fact, our approach to information hoarding is somewhat like the gluttony of the consumption era of the 80s and 90s which turned much of the world’s population into fat slobs and taught too many kids to be unhealthy.

    The support employee:client ratio

    The support employee:client ratio is an interesting metric for a business like ours. In terms of pure technical support employees it’s a 1:100 ratio. If we look at it in purely help desk numbers we change the metric to employees:calls and in this instance we aim for 1:22. That’s an average of 22 calls per active help desk employee per day. This provides sufficient time for the 2 hour calls and plenty of the < 5 minute calls. We're not bean counters in measuring these things but every so often we check in with the metrics as a measure of efficiency of our internal systems and our software which is an active participant in generating call traffic. For it's all about customer service and making sure we get to people when they need us and with quality assistance.

    How open do you get?

    We pride ourselves on being an open company and advise our client base when we uncover a bug in our software so it’s frustrating to hear of a competitor ‘spinning’ this information provided to our clients as demonstration of bug ridden software.

    Our software is not bug ridden. In fact, it’s stable. Our last 3 updates have been our best ever in terms of stability. Yet this competitor says, apparently, see – they have bugs. They apparently follow this with: we don’t issue a bug list because we don’t have bugs.

    While you would expect most to ignore such claims, in a marketplace where you’re dealing with first time computer users it’s a challenge and occasionally the pitch from the other side wins. Our openness has come back to bit us. But we won’t stop. We’ll report bugs when we discover them and provide updates and or patch as necessary.

    Is Google the next Wal-Mart?

    For Australians reading this Wal-Mart is to the US as Coles-Myer is to Australia. A big fat giant of a retail business which scares the breath out of small business.

    This article by Adam L. Penenberg at Wired News takes the reader through a number of comparisons between the two companies to support his position that Google is the next Wal-Mart.

    It’s an interesting comparison but insufficient to make the claim. The companies are very different. But then, in a year or two and with some changes at the top of Google who knows?