Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My (Geek) Christmas Present to Myself

Another Christmas day has come and gone and I'm really "digging" the Christmas present I gave to myself!  I am sure many of you Dads and Moms are in the same mental place I find myself at Christmas … where you have come to grips with the fact that you must spend a significant sum of money on Christmas presents and then just be satisfied (yourself) with the joy those gifts give to others. 

I'm sure this bread winner dilemma has existed since the beginning of time, and I can remember first seeing it as a youngster.  My parents were divorced and my Dad achieved his serenity over the holidays by driving up to Reno, NV at Christmas for a couple of days of playing poker.  That used to perplex me but now I can see what he was doing … taking care of himself.  Me, I buy myself a Christmas present. 

Well the present I gave myself this year was purchasing the Windows 8 upgrade for my laptop.  The upgrade is something I've been thinking about since I started seeing those cool  Microsoft commercials (did I actually just say that?) over the summer.  If you read my blog post titled "Operating System Bigamy Bliss" a few weeks back you will recall that an integral part of my self-imposed operating system trinity is Windows and my home computer was the weak link in my tech infrastructure.  So, I was staying in my own home for Christmas day and have seen the movie Christmas Story more times than I can remember … the timing for an operating system upgrade was perfect.

At the risk of dating myself I will share some recollections from my technology past that went into this decision to upgrade.  I was always an early adopter of operating system updates and changes starting back in the 1980s moving from DOS to DR DOS then to early versions of Windows in the late 1980s early 1990s.  Some updates were painful and some were simple, but I always found enhancements and improvements that made upgrading worthwhile.   But, nowadays I question whether I have the energy or patience that it once took to do what I used to have to do.  How many of you can remember adding a new program to your computer then having to go in to the autoexex.bat and remark (REM) everything out and add them back in one at a time after rebooting to determine what was causing the problem? 

Well what the heck … I'm not going anywhere and I have all day Christmas to make this work so let's give it a try.  Plus, my laptop despite only being about a year old was running slow despite all my best efforts to troubleshoot with a combination of disk maintenance, AVG Anti-Virus,  Malwarebytes', and CCleaner.  Just maybe this upgrade can rejuvenate my laptop to the point where I can show it as much love as I had been giving my iPad over the last 6 months.

Well here I am typing this blog post the day after Christmas and I am excited to get home to play with my Christmas present to myself.  The upgrade went well … though the pessimist in me was a little stressed throughout the 45 minutes it took to install.  After the upgrade the normal "time suck" of playing around with the new shiny object commenced.  Initial thoughts are that Microsoft did things right with Windows 8 by introducing a completely new Metro USER interface while maintaining the old familiar desktop within the framework.  

I am liking how the Charms Bar provides an interface that spans the gap between the otherwise separate Metro and desktop experiences in Windows 8. It is available from any interface—the Start screen, PC Settings, any Metro-style app, and even the desktop—and it consolidates many important system-level capabilities and often-needed features into an easily accessed user interface that isn’t taking up any valuable onscreen real estate. 

OK, here's the part you can't tell my wife … after the successful upgrade I felt compelled to also give myself a gift of Office 2010.  Just snuck it in there like the clothes presents of Christmas' past that I claimed to her, "No Babe,  these shoes aren't new, just haven't worn them much."  But by adding Office's OneNote 2010 to my laptop I can now synch effectively on my laptop.  That laptop I've been ignoring the past six months is starting to look pretty sexy to me now.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Email Me That Receipt Please!

With another last minute Christmas shopping crusade in my rear view mirror, I am encouraged with the growing number of retailers that gave me the option of receiving an emailed receipt for my purchase. The eCommerce sales process has always been a beautiful thing in regards to receiving virtual receipts … but those pesky, curled up, crumpled, illegible, tiny slips of paper from brick & mortar retailers have frustrated me many times in my adult life.

I can still remember the delight of receiving one of my first emailed receipts after a purchase from Nordstrom Rack. During the checkout process the clerk asked me for my email but did not say it was for the purpose of emailing a receipt. I was “OK” with giving out my email and was delightfully surprised to see a receipt moments later when checking email on my phone. IMHO, the Nordstrom clerk should have communicated the value proposition of an emailed receipt so as to avoid opt outs that may result from jaded consumers wary of a torrent of junk email.
To-date the best POS emailed receipts execution I have experienced is from Dick’s Sporting Goods. Once the clerk enters your Scorecard Rewards number your email address is visible on the PINpad’s LCD screen with the message “EMAIL RECEIPT …. YES /NO.” My only criticism would be that the clerks don’t talk it up enough during the checkout process, but it works like a charm if you remember to look at the PIN pad.
If your POS system has the functionality to email a receipt you have an incredible customer loyalty tool that most customers will opt in for if you just ask them if they would like the option of an emailed receipt. Emailed receipts are a new and unique POS feature that consumers appreciate, and the retailer benefits from by capturing the two of most important components of a loyalty program – an opt in and a method of customer contact.
Admittedly, the two examples I referenced are huge big box retailers with beaucoup $$$ to outfit their POS, but several really cool new, low cost, simple POS solutions are bringing email receipt functionality down to the mom & pop retail store level. One system that I am intimately familiar with because we recommend it to our merchants is the cloud-based NCR Silver iPad-based Point of Sale solution.
The acquisition of an email at the POS can be frustrating for both the clerk and the customer. NCR Silver remedies this situation by providing a strudy iPad stand that attaches to the cash drawer or counter and easily swivels the iPad to face the customer to allow them to enter their own email address as well as sign on the screen for a credit card transaction. This truly speeds things up and effectively eliminates email entry error. Once the email address is captured it is linked to the customer for future transactions and not only emails subsequent transaction receipts, but also captures valuable customer data with every transaction to ensure the most relevant marketing possible. For example, if you’re a sporting goods store you can send a message to someone who bought a pair of running shoes and hasn't been back in four months; or if you're a wine shop, and you just got a new shipment of red Bordeaux, you can send a message to everyone in your database who has bought red Bordeaux there before.
NCR Silver's email marketing can also be set on auto-pilot to automatically send an HTML email to all new customer registrations, or to customers that have not visited the store for a specific period of time. These emails can also contain a coupon special offer to further motivate a return visit.  The initial set-up is simple.
My virtual organization is pretty good, if I say so myself. Though admittedly my inner geek has me spending probably way too much time naming, archiving and just generally thinking about saving the things I accumulate in my daily life … but it sure is a beautiful thing when I can pull up that email receipt when I need it. On the other hand, my brick & mortar receipts are intermixed in growing pile owner’s manuals, instructions, and warranties ... can't wait to quit adding to that jumble of paper!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Clone Your Best Customers

Lots of cool stuff going on in the industry around the merging of mobile, social, gifting and loyalty into small business retail solutions … and the prudent small business CEO should be closely following these conversations that can future proof their customer acquisition and retention strategies.  Though the signs of a shift in consumer adoption are slowly appearing -- and in today’s world things happen rapidly – IMHO, it is still a little early to hitch your wagon to any one solution.

So as I see it, mobile technology will minimize the friction at the POS, and social will further spread the offer making it even easier for a retailer to benefit from the basic principles found in traditional Gift & Loyalty solutions.  You can’t get much more old school than gift cards, and the CUSTOMER CLONING principle of gift cards will surely be incorporated (and improved upon) with whatever mobile/social/gifting product emerges as the leader.

Merriam-Webster Online: clone (verb) - one that appears to be a copy of an original form

The close parallel of this Merriam-Webster’s definition to one of the major benefits of gift card programs is uncanny. Think about it, a retailer’s best customers are the ones that will purchase gift cards and then give them to their friends, family, and business associates. It just makes sense that these gift card recipients will have similar demographics, spending habits, and likes and dislikes. So at practically no cost to the merchant, they have walking in their doors a new customer cloned from their best and most profitable customer segment.

This new “cloned” customer will come in – heck they have free money burning a hole in their pocket – and when they do, the odds are that they will stick around. Retailers can then cultivate this new first-time cloned customer into a future best customer with loyalty program techniques that will yield a high customer lifetime value.

Studies show that the average cost of acquiring a new customer is 5-7 times higher than the cost of getting a current customer to buy again, so the benefits of gift card cloning are huge.  For the cost of the plastic card a merchant is driving an extremely qualified new customer in their door. Considering the shotgun approach taken by most small business CEOs in spending significant dollars on expensive mass media advertising, incorporating gift cards into a business’ customer acquisition strategy is a no-brainer.

Gift cards allow a merchant’s best customers to give a gift of their business to folks just like them. That gift can also be thought of as a recommendation of, “I like this place and you will too.” So not only do gift cards clone customers but they also bring Word of Mouth (WOM) marketing down to a plastic card level. In today’s consumer environment the Internet has magnified WOM by making it easy to find recommendations and even have them pushed in your direction. Today’s merchant can take advantage of this time-tested marketing methodology that is making a comeback on the Internet and push a unique twist to it down to the face to face POS environment.

The cloning concept is a common sense principle that can easily be understood by the small business CEO, and cloning is just one of the many benefits that a solid gift and loyalty solution can bring to retail merchants.  So as mobile and social media are molded into solutions that claim to help merchants acquire new customers and increase customer longevity … always evaluate how they improve upon the basics, like customer cloning. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

PC POS: Changing Your Merchant Service Provider

The lack of transparency in the Retail Point of Sale (POS) industry for the small to mid-sized business retailer is extremely frustrating … not only for the small business CEO, but also for the multiple industry business players that need be synchronized in order for everything to work as advertised. Whether you are a small retail business evaluating POS solutions, or your profession requires you to sell in this marketplace, this murky infrastructure is surely causing you pain.

The Industry Players

NCR created the POS industry way back in 1884 (yes, 1884) with the introduction of the mechanical cash register. It was a much simpler time back then that allowed the merchant to deal with a single vendor for all their POS needs.  Now, there are several business sectors involved in the POS industry.  The software developer that developed and updates the POS software application, the Value Add Reseller (VAR) that sells, installs and supports the software & hardware, and the Merchant Service Provider.

POS software developers naturally partner with VARs (formerly and often still called Cash Register Dealers) giving them the ability to distribute their applications nationwide, but the merchant service provider has always been the outsider in this necessary alliance of POS business sectors.  Just like the spouse or significant other that is brought to the company XMAS party, the merchant service provider walking in the door of a retailer knows very little about the current POS relationships but by asking the right questions can add significant value to the equation that benefits everyone.

The Interchangeable Piece of the Puzzle

Merchants often times bring their own merchant service provider (MSP) to the party, but more commonly MSP sales personnel enter the POS equation while making sales calls on retail merchants.  After a rate review they can normally show significant savings on credit card processing fees, so at face value it looks like a good deal for all.  But if a rate review is the extent of the evaluation to-date it is a disservice to all parties to consummate a deal without further research.

The Merchant Services industry was created around the credit card terminal back in the early 1980s … the CC terminal was game-changing technology back in the day, but has seen its market share continually eroded by the increased capabilities and flexibility of today’s computers and mobile devices equipped with POS software.  Unfortunately many in the industry rode this credit card terminal cash cow for too long and ignored the PC POS industry that started emerging back in the mid 1990s.

So, you need to evaluate whether this money saving opportunity (switching MSPs) may cause you future frustration and business disruption.  It shouldn’t if you are working with a quality merchant service provider that has an infrastructure built to educate their personnel and support the POS merchant.

The Need to Know

OK, back to the party where this seemingly savvy sales professional is promising you significant savings … what else should you tell him to see if it is worth moving on to the dance floor?  If he is not asking you for the following information then you should proceed with concern:

POS Software Name and Version? – Knowing the POS application helps start off the compatibility investigation, and the POS version number determines PCI compliance giving the merchant service provider “piece of mind” that you have implemented industry mandated credit card security updates.

Who is your VAR? – Basically, who do you call for support and updates?  In most cases it is who you originally purchased the POS system from, and normally they need to be involved in the process of making the processor change.  These VARS want to be compensated for their time and normally your new merchant service partner is agreeable to cover “reasonable” fees associated with effecting the change.

The Transparency Dilemma

Business works because people make money.  So just because your POS system is compatible (BTW, in most cases it will be) according to your new friend from the merchant services industry, you could run into a business relationship roadblock.

Probably unbeknownst to you, your current merchant service provider that your VAR highly recommended when you inked the deal with him a year or two ago is paying your VAR basis points on every credit card transaction you run.  Not necessarily a bad thing if your merchant service partner is treating you as a valued client and educating you on other business building solutions that naturally evolve from the merchant services industry.

But, if it does make sense to make a change, a POS savvy merchant service company can turn things in to a “win-win” for all parties with the exception of your unresponsive merchant services company that has been regularly raising your rates.  You will probably get a call from them trying to save your account by offering to match your new rate quote, but pardon me, “consider what it took to get them to help you out.”  Consider the value that this new merchant service provider brought to your business and give them the deal assuming they give you the assurance of a smooth transition.  BTW, changing processors in a POS environment is not “rocket science” and good merchant services provider should have POS trained customer support staff dedicated to this process.

Hopefully this post has served its purpose of giving you a little better understanding of the POS ecosystem. Just to provide full disclosure, I have worked on both sides of the Point of Sale industry, starting out in the mid-90s with a couple of POS payment software developers, and I am currently employed by a merchant service provider that I believe is succeeding in being an eco-friendly payments processor in the small to mid-sized POS merchant community.  Feel free to ping me if I can provide some clarity to your POS payment questions.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Operating System Bigamy Bliss

I'm a long time PC guy with roots back to the DOS days, but I must say that the times they are a changing. I now find myself toting an iPad around the office, with an Android phone in my pocket, and a Windows 7 laptop on my desk. Somehow I seem to be making these disparate operating systems accomplish my goal of staying organized and productive on the job. 

Thought I would share with everyone how I have mashed up device interoperability with apps and services that I use on a daily basis in my personal and work endeavors. Now this is how "I" do it, and like my most things in my life it is a continual work in progress, but it is working pretty well as I type this post. Maybe this will help jumpstart the process for those of you with a similar device mix … plus I’d love to hear other ideas from you folks that are also embracing cross platform solutions.

I have always been a gadget guy and still have fond memories of running my Palm Pilot thought its simplistic paces ... note taking with graffiti, to-do lists, and gaming. So I first noticed the power of interoperability back in the 1990s by using a Palm app called Intelligolf that let me replace the scorecard while golfing, tracked all the betting, and yielded some amazing historical stats on my PC. It was worth all the teasing I took for showing up with the Palm Pilot safely encased in a neoprene case on my belt, and I kind of liked my new moniker, "database," that one of my golf buddies bestowed on me.

Capturing Those Fleeting Thoughts

So let’s move on to my current device and app mix. The initial entry point of many of my current to-dos and ideas is my Galaxy S II phone via the free version of Tape-a-Talk (free). The "gadget guru" in me reflects back on my voice recording device evolution from micro-cassette recorder to digital recorder, and now getting rid of the extra device and evolving to an Android app is a beautiful thing. My best personal brainstorming seems to most frequently occur on the drive into work and capturing those "fleeting" thoughts for later development is simple with Tape-to-Talk's minimalistic interface. Push the red button, talk while my Jawbone Icon is in my ear, hit stop and the result is an idea that is not quickly forgotten and can be reviewed later on the phone, or even better yet emailed to myself as a *.WAV file.
I have tried numerous To-Do apps and I am sure many of you use something that works for you, but my primary concern was interoperability with all my devices. After trying several that claimed interoperability I have stuck with Google Tasks as my base system using gTasks on my iPad ($3.99) and the gTasks for Android (free) widget on my Galaxy SII for access. Lots of other systems had more bells & whistles and prettier interfaces, but IMHO simplicity is the key for to-do systems. I gravitate to my iPad's elegant gTasks app to add or work my To-Dos, but in a pinch I also have easy access via gTasks on my Android phone or directly from within Gmail Tasks on my laptop.

Never Thought I'd Say This

OK, here’s the really hard part for a long-time PC Windows guy to say (deep breath) …. I love my iPad for taking meeting notes. Just like everyone else I have taken many a note on yellow legal pads, but I rarely went back and reviewed the pads when completely filled, but I always felt compelled never to throw the pads away. Equipped with smartNote ($3.99) and a Bamboo Stylus that clips nicely to my iPad’s Incase book jacket cover I have turned my iPad into a note taking monster. I tried out several note taking apps and found smartNote to work the best for me. Sure you can create multiple notebooks and mirror the “yellow pad” process, but I like smartNote’s ability to take notes at a specific meeting, and then email them as a PDF to myself for distribution to the attendees or simply archiving in the appropriate iBooks category. 
Now on to where I keep all the digital content that I am either working on, or need as a resource. Admittedly, there is a little duplicity here but I think this is just something you need to work through until you realize what works for you. My goal is to have the information available no matter what device I have available. That said, availability is one thing, but usability is important too, so I plan my content development schedule loosely around the device that I know will be available. For example, most of the heavy lifting for this post was done in OneNote on my laptop, and OneNote's syncing with Skydrive gave me the flexibility to review and add a few things on my iPad during my son's jujitsu class today as well as while ignoring the previews in the movie theater tonight.

A Five Subject Notebook On Steroids

My "go to" app for initial content development is Microsoft OneNote ($62.76). The OneNote app is like having a 5 subject binder on steroids. With a little categorization forethought upfront you can create an information archive that is hard to beat. Plus, the formatting tools in OneNote give me the ability to simply and quickly create project team communications that look good enough to even share with the CEO. OneNote's free iPad and Android apps extend accessibility to the content by synching with Microsoft's Skydrive cloud storage - and with 7 gigs of free storage I do not see needing more space anytime soon. 
Speaking of cloud storage options, I also cobble together a couple of other free systems to accomplish my backup and accessibility needs.... Google Drive (5 gigs free) for my cloud photo backup needs, and Evernote (60 meg of data transfer monthly) for my day in day out life details. Both solutions have extremely elegant apps for all 3 operating systems.

Just Do It

You know it’s easy get caught up in the cycle of constantly seeking out the "coolest" apps … but at sometime the rubber must meet the road and you gotta start using what you got - and stick with it awhile - to know if it’s working. This is what is working for me and I would love to hear what is working for you. Things will only get better for us operating system bigamists my friend!