When business & IT collide.

I had the pleasure of showing a team the features of their new CRM software. Have I lost you yet with how boring that sentence is? Fortunately the reality was far from boring.

To me – the CRM system is a plugin to a Joomla website. There are some bits I can configure & some bits I can’t (especially as I’m not the Joomla site admin nor do I ever ever want to be.
To the business owner – the system means no more monthly fees to a Cloud CRM system. This one off purchase will last her for at least 3 years and will handle the growth she is expecting. It’s also one place to see how her sales pipeline is looking & to get instant access to the conversations had with & information that’s been provided to her customers & prospective customers.
To the team members – this is a ‘central console’, one place to get a picture of what they have on the go and what others are working on too.

So you see, I’m the only person who views this system with technical eyes.

The business owner sees the results she can get from it and the capability it will give her.
The team members see how it can track the work that’s being done & how it will help them organise their next move.
THIS is the value of I.T. This is truly ‘information technology’ at work, delivering business benefits.

The session was purely run by demonstrating how to create & edit information & how to report on it. It was filled with ‘what happens when’ and ‘if we do this, what would enter into the system’ type questions. 99% of the answers actually had more than one way of doing things and were solved by refining the business process or drilling into more detail about what they actually do right now, without this system in place. As nervous as they may have been about learning a new system, they walked away with lightbulb ideas about how they would be using it.


Now they’ve been sent their logons. Even more importantly, they’ve been given a test Person and a test Company to play with. Change details. Create, edit & delete deals. Play. Try. Do.

This is not the Rolls Royce of CRM systems. It’s also not the prettiest web-based software I’ve seen. But right now, it suits them. It’s functional without being overly complicated. And sometimes that’s all you need.

Don’t be distracted by new, shiny things. Be inspired by how it will actually help your team to do their jobs (and help you to do yours).
When business & IT collide, in a good way, it’s actually pretty exciting.



Customer Service – you are doing it right!

Wow, another chance to write a non-ranty blog post! I love it!

With Miss 7 at home on school holidays, I’ve been running some errands with her in tow. Today I had two great examples of customer service from the most unlikely of places – the Family Assistance Office and Westpac bank!

1 – Insider tips from the Family Assistance Office

After submitting a Medicare refund claim in person, I popped across the room to talk to someone about a Family Assistance claim I’d submitted a month ago. The actual submit process was great – it was all done online and,  as I’m already a client, they’ve got all of my details on file already. No need to visit a service centre. But while I was in the neighbourhood, I just thought I’d check up on it. Robyn at Strathpine confirmed that it was in the system waiting for someone at their end to action it, and I didn’t need to do anything else. She said if I hadn’t heard within 2 weeks, to phone them. And then she leaned forward and gave me an inside tip “Phone the call centre & leave your mobile number for a callback, don’t sit on hold in the queue. Don’t let your phone leave your side for the next 24-48hrs. When you see a Blocked number calling, answer it. Our number is always blocked & we don’t call back a second time if you miss us. That will save you having to come back in here on the school holidays with your daughter.”

Oh my gosh. I’ve been let in on the secrets of the Family Assistance Office because, wait for it .. it will make my life easier. Are you sure this is a government department? Can someone please promote Robyn, quick?!

2 – Let me help you

Needing a copy of a missing credit card statement that was no longer appearing on internet banking, I phoned Westpac who directed me to the form on their website I’d need to fill out and drop into a branch. Good service right there that met my expectations and enabled me to prefill the thing instead of doing it once I was at the branch. Dropped the form into anyone in a Westpac uniform, not at my home branch, which happened to be Scott at Strathpine. Scott actually said that if I had a minute, he’d check his system to see if he could pull up the statement. No such luck, but bonus points for trying and he assured me he’d get the form faxed to Cards right away.

Now you know what normally happens here, right? You wait three weeks and nothing happens until you phone the branch & they find an envelope that’s been waiting there for you for two weeks that no-one called you about. Ah, not this time. The very next day, Scott phoned me to say that Cards had faxed back my statement directly to the branch, and since he had my email address on the form, was it ok for him to scan and email it to me. Was it ok? Too bloody right it was! He actually put two and two together and thought ‘I can save my customer the inconvenience of having to come back into the branch’. Scott is now my favourite person in the entire banking industry and I’m transferring my massive wealth to be under his management (just as soon as I’ve amassed said massive wealth).

So listen up Telstra, Vodafone and every airline ever. Just because you are a big brand with a shocking reputation doesn’t mean you can’t have fantastic employees who actually act like the customer is worth taking care of. Us customers might actually enjoy that, stay with your brand & recommend you to others! Imagine that!


Vodafail by another name: 3 Mobile demands payment during overseas trip.

Brace yourselves – this is a rant.

In my opinion, mobile phone companies are right down their with real estate agents and used car salesmen. But let me lay out the facts and you can decided for yourself.

After receiving a wedding invitataion, we decided to pack up the kids and head to Wellington for a 10 day holiday. We’re self-employed with clients who rely on us, so by ‘holiday’ I mean ‘time away from the office’. We accept that our lifestyle means our phones come with us and so does the laptop. Then again, we didn’t have to get annual leave approved.

As bad luck would have it, someone’s server decided to have an inexplicable brain fade on the first business day of our holiday. This meant a number of phone calls and SMS messages over a 48hr period. A big number. Fine, that’s the cost of having your own business and deciding to go overseas, without staff back home to handle it. I was expecting to pay a premium for it.

Our first contact from 3 was an SMS asking us to contact them about our bill, currently $338.  No biggy, I thought, I knew why the charges were high. Great customer service that they are warning me that there might be something dodgy going on, or I may be unexpectedly be racking up mobile data charges by putting my happy snaps on Facebook.

The next day, Tony missed a phone call then I received a call from a blocked number. The Indian call centre wanted to talk to me about the large bill. But because I couldn’t remember the PIN number I had set on the account 9 years ago, though I could tell them a million details about the account, they refused to talk to me about the account. I explained the situation to them but they refused to listen.

Two minutes later, we both receive an SMS stating we needed to call 3 urgently about our $883 mobile bill or our account would be terminated. W T F ?

So, Tony calls them and explains the situation, to be told the following: 3 Mobile are allowed to demand immediate payment of a large overseas roaming spend or terminate our account. Note, we are on a business post-paid account here. And apparently this little clause is in the terms and conditions (not that I can find them on their website). So, we’re out sightseeing with our family, with no access to the internet and facing termination of our mobile service WHICH IS ESSENTIAL TO OUR BUSINESS.

We asked for them to extend the deadline until close of business the next day, still extremely unhappy about the whole thing.

Once we’ve returned to our friend’s house, I jump on the internet and can find no way to pay our account. Being post-paid, it’s normally taken out by 3 via direct debit, so I have no BPAY history to them. I could do a new BPAY payment if I had the reference number off my bill .. which hasn’t been sent to us and I don’t have last months because it’s back in BRISBANE. It’s not even viewable on the ‘My 3’ website.

Rock, meet hard place.

I’m not a young backpacker who doesn’t know how global roaming works. I still think it’s a complete rort that telcos get away with such huge roaming charges. I understand there’s extra admin between the visited country and the home country, to get your costs back to your home bill. But the extra amount they charge for that is ridiculous. This is Australia & New Zealand we are talking about, 3 & Vodafone (or should I say Vodafone & Vodafone).

But to demand that the phone user pay that amount immediately or be disconnected is complete bullying tactics. And to point out ‘it’s in the contract conditions’ is a complete waste of time and a cop-out. I’m still yet to find this clause, by the way.

So, that’s the first part of the saga. I’ll update you when I have more to add. Right now I’m starting down the barrel of another phone call back to 3 to hand over my credit card details presumably to pay the bill that I’ve just incurred. So much for monthly post-paid.

Let this be a warning, all you business owners. If you ever go overseas and, heaven forbid’ actually need to use your mobile phone for business purposes, you better keep your credit card handy and stand by for the call from the accounts department. Because, like me, I’m guessing you won’t have read all of the fine print of the mobile service you signed up for 9 years ago.


Customer service according to your bank

I’ve had two reasons on two seperate days to actually step foot inside a bank branch. This is most unusual, being an electronic payment kind of girl. The customer service I received has been rattling around in my brain as a blog post and refuses to let me get any sleep until I unleash it. I don’t think it’s going to sway your opinion about banks in general, but from a customer service point of view it is kind of interesting to put it under a microscope and analyse it.

Branch 1: The cheque and the change of PIN number

One of our dearest clients is a elderly couple with a passion for videography, who called us in the very early days of our business. Apart from staff members of our business clients, this is the only residential customer we’ve decided to keep. But as is there way, they pay by cheque, hence the reason for the first visit to Branch 1. Fortunately I also remembered that I had a new PIN number floating around in my handbag (just the little shiny window bit cut out) that matched a replacement card the bank had sent me. Don’t get me started on why my previous PIN number hadn’t been transferred to my new card, but anyway.

After filling out the paperwork for an express deposit of said cheque, I found I had to line up for a teller anyway to do the PIN change .. which meant they came out of the teller’s area and over to the reception counter. Now, this post will be peppered with some inside knowlege, having once lived the life of a bank teller and IT staffer. The ‘excuse’ for this inefficiency is that magnetic stripe writers, the ones that can encode a new PIN number, are expensive. One per branch will do. Now, either some banks are getting a better deal than others, or some banks see more mag stripe writers as an investment in good customer service, because some banks do have this at ALL teller stations (or even in their ATMS, but we’ll get to that next). Here endeth lesson number one.

I happened to mention to the teller that another bank has mag stripe writers in the ATMs, so you can change your number there, which is a good idea. Convenience rocks, people, especially with branches having such short hours and always having a queue a mile long. “Ooh, we wouldn’t want to do that, that’s a big security risk. Anyone could steal your mail, get your new card and PIN then and change it.” was the reply.

Now, I was in one of those ‘smile and nod moves and just get out of the branch as fast as I could because I have other things to do with my day’ so I smiled and nodded and left.  But I just couldn’t let it go. Apart from some glaring big holes in her argument .. she told me I was wrong!  But I’m the customer!!

I know it’s the teller’s job to pitch that their bank is the best and everybody else sucks. But that one small comment was like a pin prick bursting my balloon. When a customer tells you something is a good idea, especially when they mention your competitor is doing it, sure it’s natural to get defensive. I’m telling you though, an approach like “that’s an interesting idea” or ” do you think that’s beneficial to you?” would have left the smile on my face, even though I know the chances of this conversation turning into a bank-wide initiative are pretty much nil. And this is lesson two .. don’t tell the customer you are wrong and lesson three … look for opportunities to improve your business all the time.

So let me point out two of the big glaring holes:

1. The bank posts out my new card. The bank posts out my new PIN number. If someone steals my mail (both envelopes) then they have my new card and it’s PIN number. Regardless of where they are allowed to change it. They don’t need to change it to use it an access my funds. And how did they get this (apart from the obvious lack of security on my mail box (which by the way is a key locked Post Office Box))? Because the bank posted them. Ergo, the reason this thief now has access to my funds is because of how the bank manages this card issuing process, by postal mail. Lesson four … look along the chain of your process for any part which may contribute to the problem, not just the end result.  

2. During our conversation, the bank teller allowed me to change my PIN number but did not ask me to provide any identification. In fact, the process didn’t even ask me to enter the original PIN. This second part is due to the fact that the PIN could have been innocently forgotten. Perhaps if I’d confessed I’d forgotten it, she would have asked me for ID? I did see the irony that this exchange didn’t help her argument. Here I was, in a branch to change my PIN number and I could have been anybody. Like a mail thief. Lesson five .. if security is your thing (like a bank), make sure your processes reflect that (like using ID checks).

The last lesson from this visit came as I walked out the door, when another customer collared the teller before she’d had a chance to escape back behind the secure locked area. He wanted to roll over a term deposit, and she had to explain that she couldn’t do that for him and the person he needed to see was busy. As a teller, once you step out of your safely locked zone, you are just another staff member to the waiting public. Standing at a reception desk telling someone you can’t help them is also poor form and doesn’t really give the best impression.  Which is why tellers should have mag stripe writers.  

After that enlightening visit, I turned the ignition in my car & realised I hadn’t made a cash withdrawal. I got out and walked around to the side of the building to use the ATM, which was out of action. It was 09:40am, the branch had been open since 09:30 and I’m guessing the staff had been onboard since 08:30 at the latest. Plenty of time for them to sort out the ATM, unless it ran out of cash within the last 10 minutes. I gave up on this one, giving them the benefit of the doubt that it was a computer glitch or ATM hardware failure, not just a simple ‘run out of cash’.

Branch 2: The ATM, teller boxes and staffing levels

And so I thought that was the end of my adventures in branchland for months to come .. until the next day I tried to make that cash withdrawal I’d forgotten about. This time, I had my 2.5yr old. Right, quick in and out of the car at the ATM on my way past (if any in and out of the car with a toddler is quick). Only this ATM wasn’t working either, at a different branch. Into the branch we venture, to the delight of my daughter who heads straight for the pile of toys. This is actually a good move by the bank, as it’s in plain view when you’re waiting in line or being served by a teller and happy children make for happy caregivers.

It’s 10:35AM. There are 5 or 6 teller boxes and only ONE teller serving. Their ATM is down and there are 4 people in front of me. Did I mention I had my toddler with me?  And the one customer currently being attended to does not know the different between a direct debit and a recurring payment, which is being exlained to her, for the third time. Right now I’m wondering how much eye rolling and sighing and watch looking will be required to get some more staff out here, or if I have to find the branch manager myself. Hello, it’s morning tea time, your ATM is down and you have one staff member serving?

But soon – a miracle! A lady I could only assume was the head teller (sitting in the back of the teller’s area doing more important stuff than serving customers), notices our growing discontent, disappears and reappears with another teller, who opens. Happy days!

When my turn comes, I casually mention .. did you know your ATM is down? “Yes, it’s just being filled up with cash now.”  Lightbulb moment. So bear with my now why this revelation made it all crystal clear and took the steam out for me. Unfortunately it’s all to do with insider knowledge.

Like most other companies, banks have to justify the existance of staff members and don’t always get the amount of people they actually need during peak times. If you think of the ebb and flow of customers through a bank, most of the time 6 tellers would be overkill.  The reality is that most branches don’t have the budget to fill the number of teller boxes they actually have. This actuallly gives them room to bring on more casuals and temps over periods like Christmas, but doesn’t help the public the rest of the year. But hey, this is generally the case in any retail store.

The next issue is wrapped around what tellers actually do. It seems that more and more functions are being handled by this team, especially when you walk into a branch that has nobody at the reception des any more. This means that customers are staying longer at a teller box, when we used to move them over to a ‘retail banker’ to clear the way for actual deposit & withdrawal transactions. Oh and that head teller – yeah, you would not believe the volume of work she actually has to manage on a daily basis before even adding any issues or stuffups by other people that she needs to sort out. She’s needed as the boss and she can’t do that if she’s on the frontline serving customers.

So, here’s how the situation actually read: I’m guessing the branch actually had 3 or 4 tellers, plus the head teller. One (or two) filling the ATM. One serving. One at a tea break. And perhaps one off locating paperwork or getting foreign currency or performing some other task. And I’m wondering if Teller 2 was in fact yanked off her tea break to come and help, bless her.

Now I realise that none of the above excuses helped my wait time or my mood initially. But here’s the thing. While the banks announce mega-profits and don’t cut interest rates with the RBA, there are tireless, dedicated workers in branches doing the best job with what they have to work with. I’ve been one of them and so had my mother, my mother-in-law and many family friends. Just remember that those workers are not the ones pocketing $24 billion a quarter. Should the banks invest more in better customer service? Hell yes. And no, that does not mean staff training videos and roadshows, it means resources and more staff. But that costs money. And if we spend money we don’t have as much profit and our shareholders aren’t happy. 

The glaringly obvious hole in that last argument though is “but right now your customers aren’t happy.”  It’s a pity that the shareholders take priorty, isn’t it?

To the cloud .. or not? (A personal account)

To the cloud .. or not? (A personal account)

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive argument on how to evaluate if Cloud Computing is right for you or not.  I’ve written it to show where we use Cloud Computing in our own business, and where we don’t.  As most of my readers aren’t IT Providers, you may find something relevant in this, or you may not.  But I’m a firm believer in recommending the best solution to a client for their individual needs, so our own decision on Cloud Computing has been based on our current business needs.

To the Cloud … Website, System Monitoring, Ticketing & Job Management

Website – We have our own server, and it currently hosts our http://www.ctaspley.com.au website (as at Feb 2012).  We did this because we could, when we started our business nearly 8 years ago. It gave us full control of the website and a chance to practice with website publishing, in an environment that wasn’t too critical (and was backed up).  Since then, our franchise has developed WordPress sites with common themes on a hosted server at another location.  I’m slowly customising (re-writing) the content of those pages and when I’m happy with it, we’ll change our website address to point to this new site.  Our website will then be ‘in the Cloud’ .. so to speak.  The downside? I won’t have full control over all of the design elements. But you know what – I don’t really care. I’m happy with the structure and as long as I can update the content to suit, I don’t need to change the design.  In this case, we are the exception to the rule, as most businesses don’t host their own website anyway.  And if you did want full design control, there are plenty of hosting companies that will let you have that.

System Monitoring –  Now we use some pretty amazing software that monitor’s the health of our client’s computer systems, especially those errors that are screaming silently into the event log. Our access to this is through the Internet to a server managed by a fellow Computer Troubleshooter in New Zealand, who also provides access to North America and the UK.  Whilst the company we buy this software from doesn’t have this internet hosting capability, our NZ group have paved the way for our global franchisees to use this in the Cloud. Once again, I have no control over the server. Once again, I don’t care. As the information on this system is only really useful when it’s real-time, it will re-generate on the current status of the systems when it comes back up.  There are also other monitoring providers that have cloud-based systems as an option (or the only option).

Ticketing & Job Management – Details of our work, including billing hours, are stored in a cloud-based system. This is far more advanced that the previous in-house effort, for a fraction of the cost, plus it has the advantage of the input from thousands of other IT providers in terms of functionality requests, bug reports etc.  At worst, we stand to lose our historical data to some extent – the data centre has hourly backups and offsite backup storage. This information is transferred to our accounting software too, so we have two sources (one in-house, one in-cloud) of our billing information.  And once again, as long as the system works, I’m happy to do the data entry and let the provider take care of the systems administration.

Not in the Cloud … Financial software, Applications, Email and File storage

Financial software –  Our financial software is something that I would have considered using a Cloud-based version of. The problem is that Cloud versions are not compatible with the integration we get from our Job Management software. In English, if I do a job and bill some time, I can transfer that invoice directly to the financial software installed on my PC. I can’t transfer it to a Cloud-based financial system.  So, to save double data entry, the financial software is staying on my PC.

Applications & Email – As an IT Provider, we’re fortunate to get a great deal from Microsoft on their computer software. This includes the latest versions of pretty much anything, so we can use them, learn them and recommend them.  And while some may argue that many Cloud apps are free, I like my Microsoft benefits and most of my clients run Microsoft software too.  It’s a bit hard for me to troubleshoot or duplicate an Outlook\Exchange problem if I use gmail, or a Word problem if I use OpenOffice. Ever heard the term ‘eat your own dog food’?

File storage – Our files are on our server, because we could. Once again, we had the means to have our own server, support it ourselves and experiment with it. Primarily, it provided our email, website, file storage and printing.  We could also experiment with it. So it made little sense to place our file storage in the Cloud, with our local server handling the job quite nicely and also giving us remote access to these files from the Internet anyway.  Yes, it’s backed up.

We did contemplate switching our server to ‘play only’ mode – making it a box that we ran up when we needed it, instead of it being on 24×7. After moving our website, we could have setup a print server box, a Network Attached Storage device (NAS) for our files (or gone Cloud), and moved our email back to our franchise headquarters (as a POP only service, which would have limited some of our functionality).  But we like having a server because it keeps our skills current.

So, as you can see, it is possible to run a mix of in-house and Cloud IT solutions in your business.  You have to weigh up the pros and cons of each, and also look at the big picture. What’s the point in moving to Cloud for email if you still have a server doing file and print?  Where do you think you will save money? If you think that IT support is expensive, have you looked into a Managed Service (with a fixed price and a results focus) instead of support at an hourly rate?

I’m not saying ‘don’t investigate the Cloud’. It’s enabled us with some capabilities that would have been significantly more expensive to do in-house.  And that’s where I think it absolutely rocks for small businesses.

If you want to look at Cloud Computing, make an informed decision that looks at the bigger picture of your business needs, your current IT infrastructure and your support costs.  Whatever route you decide to go, as long as it supports and enhances those three principles, you’ll be on the right track.

Cloud computing picture


Technology considerations for your new startup business

If you’re thinking about starting a business (congratulations!!), then technology might be the very last consideration on your mind.  With a long list of tasks in front of you (like getting a logo and stationery designed, finding an office, and working out your marketing plan), you may just requisition your home computer to start running your new business.  Let’s look at some of your very first technology decisions.

New computer or your home PC? – For a while, your home computer may be adequate to handle the necessities of your business.  However, if your computer time is conflicting with the children’s need to surf the internet for their homework, it may be time to consider a dedicated business computer.  Study any system specifications carefully and check the manufacturer’s websites.  Many ‘cheap’ retail deals are superseded models, cannot be upgraded easily or may not connect to a bigger computer network, which will all be important as you grow.  Also, talk to your accountant about any tax benefits that may be gained from leasing instead of purchasing your IT assets.

Voice over IP – When considering a phone number for your business, take a look at your Voice over IP options.  The quality of this technology has improved significantly and it can provide great local, national and international phone rates.  Today’s systems can plug into a standard cordless phone and your internet connection, so your computer doesn’t have to be turned on for you to make and receive calls.  It makes a fantastic ‘second line’ for businesses that run from your home.  You can have your office phone answered outside of business hours and still receive personal calls on your standard home phone line. 

Internet domain name – Once you have decided on your business name, look at registering your internet domain name.  This will prevent someone else from registering it.  Having your own domain name (like marysmith.com) will give your emails a more professional look and enable you to have a simple webpage established.  Don’t think you have to spend a fortune on a comprehensive website before your first day of actually doing business.  As long as your contact details (phone number, email address, fax number, and location) are easy to find and you have some great information about why your business is different from your competitors, you will be giving the search engines something to find.  This is much better than an ‘under construction’ picture or no internet presence at all.  Use your domain name in your email address to look much more credible than someone operating from a free email account (like myname@gmail.com).  You can still use your internet provider for your email service.  Make certain to check what protection they have in place against email viruses and spam.  Remember to include your website and email address on all of your stationery and marketing materials.    

Email marketing – Investing in an email marketing program provides you with a great communication channel to keep your business in front of your future customers on a regular basis.  Supplement your email marketing with monthly newsletters and occasional special offers.  Get permission to store your customer’s email address from the day they start doing business with you and you’ll build up an impressive database.  

Talk to your local Computer Troubleshooters about how to make the right technology decisions that match the needs of your new business.

Planning the survival of your business

If your technology stopped working, would your business stop functioning too? Is your business totally reliant on the information stored on your computer systems or could you continue to deliver 95% of your products and services and catch up on the computer work later? No matter which end of this scale your business is at, you will fare much better during a major technology outage if you plan in advance, before it happens. This month we take some of the mystery out of Business Continuity Planning.

Business Continuity Planning (BCP) is the process of working out how your business will continue to function during a disaster. These threats to your business could include:
Fire      Burst water pipes      Burglary       Flooding (severe rainfall)      Earthquake      Influenza outbreak      Hardware failure      Software Failure      Internet outage       Tornado/Hurricane/Cyclone      Severed phone cabling      Security breach       Damage by disgruntled employee      Employee error      … And many more!

BCP begins with identifying the possible risks and the impact they would have on your business. What functions would be affected if your main administration PC crashed? How long could you be without internet access? It’s important to evaluate the probability of these incidents occurring and the severity of their impact. This will help you to determine which incidents are the highest priorities to be addressed.

Next, you look at how these risks can be prevented, or the impact of them lessened. This could include copying data to a different site or having a laptop that has the same business-critical software applications as your administration PC.

Finally, you plan the actions that would be needed to help you respond when this incident occurs. Do you need to go to another site to get a copy of your data or bring the laptop in from home? Do you need to temporarily relocate to another site that does have internet access? Can you run a paper-based system until you can access your computers again? Think about who will be responsible for doing what and what resources they will need. This also needs to include any third-party suppliers of your business, like your local Computer Troubleshooter.

Your Business Continuity Plan should be examined, tested and maintained on a regular basis. This is to ensure it still reflects the changing needs of your business and also to make sure that the key parties within your business understand their roles in the process.

Whilst it may seem a little daunting, some forethought and planning will save you a lot of time, stress and money when things do go wrong.