Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Your phone: pay for more (but not in the usual way)

First 4 digits of a credit cardImage via Wikipedia
So you already think that your mobile phone can do everything? There's an app for this, an app for that, we can email photos taken by pinhole-sized phone cameras, and we can all wonder how its possible for an average teen to walk and text simultaneously. So are you ready to pay for more with your phone? And for once I don't mean this the same as 'pay more', I mean pay for more things, as you would get cash out of your pocket to buy a can of Coke from a vending machine.

FloridaToday.com talks about the rise of contactless payment technology (thanks to Bob Wieseneck at Applied-InfoSystems for sending me this story). It seems that this long discussed, and usually ignored function that has been so popular in Japan, and almost completely ignored in the rest of the cell-phone using world might be gaining popularity.

An interesting stat from the article:
The Smart Card Alliance estimates that there are half a million contactless terminals in the U.S., in 150,000 to 200,000 locations. That compares to perhaps 6 million locations in the U.S. with traditional card readers
Many of these terminals are in New York city taxis, which have the contactless NFC chips. This in my opinion is an ideal location for contactless technology. When in a cab I'm more likely to have easy access to my phone, or its already in my hand. I don't need to grope for my wallet in the dark, dropping $20 bills and my house key on the floor, when I can just tap the phone against the reader and I'm done. Better for the driver, better for me. Its the same anywhere I don't want to be troubled or risk taking my wallet out and flashing the cash and cards. I want to buy a Coke from a vending machine on a busy subway station? Tap and go. The same for parking meters. The benefit is not just speed, it is convenience and security as well.

An interesting point comes when you consider, according to the article:
In stores, phones with NFC could be popular if they do more than merely replace a wallet of credit and debit cards. They could help merchants track and reward loyal customers, replacing both loyalty cards and printed coupons.
What is it that allows stores to do this? Well, the stores are a little restricted with what they can do with your credit card number, and what you will allow your credit card to do (if I can buy thousands of dollars of stuff with a card, you guys aren't getting my permission to mess with it!). The technology and security around credit cards limits the information stores can collect and use at the point of sale. After all, its just a number, and your data and preferences are very separate. Outside the US, chip and pin credit cards have shown the security and anti-fraud benefits of getting away from a swiped card number.

With contactless technology, the stores aren't bound by Visa, Mastercard, Amex or the consumer's perception in the same way. If they can get your permission to use your contactless device to act as a loyalty card and payment card in one, then they start to get some interesting applications. It seems that the humble 2-D barcode I've been chasing for tracking consumer preferences could have a run for its money. You may now have an option: scan or tap to find out more about that enticing offer on the shelves of the local retailer?

I'm ready to pay for more with my phone. And maybe this technology will be led by smaller businesses as they upgrade their point of sale equipment a bit at a time. The large corporate retailers may be too slow to catch up given a need for standardization and mass rollouts of new card payment machines. This could mean that the little guy has a better chance of catching this wave of adoption of contactless payment technology by consumers.

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit www.consected.com
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

CRM made meaningful AND easy?

Small business does not need enterprise software (because it sucks) is a post I wrote just a couple of weeks ago. And CRM is one of those Big Enterprise systems that just screams "spend hundreds of thousands in consulting to implement me!". Even Salesforce doesn't make it particularly easy for small businesses that just want to manage their clients, prospects and contacts. Getting started is just too hard. Well, it seems that things might be changing. Just a few minutes ago, TechCrunch put out the story that Constant Contact Buys Social CRM Startup Bantam Live for $15 Million in Cash. For any of you who have been reading about my exploits getting my first email newsletter out to my contacts using Constant Contact, you'll know that I love what they do (and you may also remember that my wife works for them - I have not been rewarded for writing this). So I'm interested in how this new addition of Bantam Live to the Constant Contact suite will help small businesses to really know who they know.

I'm sure that Constant Contact are downplaying what this acquisition means right now. Sure, when I looked at Bantam Live during some research for my own efforts with Consected, just a couple of months ago, I would say that ease of use and fast start for getting contacts into the solution from numerous sources (including your social media contacts like Twitter) was appealing. And this is going to be considerably better than the sufficient email contact upload capability Constant Contact has available currently. But my hope is that you smart guys at Constant Contact are thinking about this more broadly. What do I mean? Well, as I have your attention, here is what I, as a small business owner want...

Just remember, as a small business owner I don't want to be looking in multiple places for customer contact information. So the CRM capability needs to really live up to the C in CRM - 'Customer'. Not just another contact I can engage through your email, event and social media marketing. But a true customer who is spending money with my business, and therefore sometimes contacts me about stuff. I need to know their history, know the key contacts, even mark some of them as 'do not send marketing emails', so that I can truly manage the customer relationship. And it all needs to just be there, up and running and configured when I first login. I don't have time, or energy to work out how to get it configured or choose from lots of options - it just has to work - now

It is around the true management of customers that I hope the really solid features of Bantam Live live on. Easy to use social CRM will certainly help me in the engagement of my contacts, not just through email. But the collaboration and task management capabilities seem to allow the opportunity to offer more of a small business suite than mere email marketing alone. I'm bullish about this for one reason - Constant Contact has proven to hundreds of thousands of other paying customers that they can make previously complex technology accessible to users who rarely venture away from their Yahoo home page. If they can do this with the Bantam Live CRM + collaboration capabilities, then I think they are on to a winner and will be loved by more and more small businesses, for more than email newsletters.

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit www.consected.com
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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why are we afraid of accounting processes?

office of Jacob Fugger; with his main-accounta...Image via Wikipedia
I didn't question it too deeply when I was a product manager for an enterprise Business Process Management (BPM) software firm, although it was always there nagging at me: why don't we do more work with accounting systems and the Finance team in general? They are core to the running of a business, but BPM (at least the stuff I worked with) generally tries to avoid those types of business problems. Looking back on it I think there are two easy reasons. But before I get to them, I'll repeat to myself and others the justification that always came out from the marketing team's collective mouths:
Our solution, ExeClassyProcess720 (made up name, and now waaay uncool as any teen snowboarder will tell you - since everyone is landing 1080's now) focuses on the bigger business problems. You know, like the ones that address the customer facing transactions which when done consistently well help companies attract new clients and make current clients more profitable and happier. That back-office stuff doesn't interest us because that involves working with accountants, and they never have any money to spend.
That's a fictional description of how enterprise BPM justifies any particular niche it works within. The real issue is not the first piece of the discussion, which may be a very realistic way of positioning an individual product if that's where its strengths are. But it is the second piece that really gets to the meat of the matter: it is perceived that any team that reports to the CFO is unlikely to have any money to spend on improving how they work. Is it really true? After all, Oracle seems to do a pretty good job making money out of businesses requiring Financials packages and all the related modules.

So BPM software vendors go the easy way - they look for the obvious issues that they can solve, then when they run out of the easy stuff they get stuck. So during a vendor's decline, it goes down justifying to itself why it can't address the thousands of other process problems that appear in a business, because the mind-set is still locked in the "can't go near the Finance team" mode.

Back to my two easy reasons why BPM avoids anything that has accounting software related to it:
  1. BPM'ers are scared of accountants as we don't know their business
  2. BPM doesn't play well with other software, despite all the hype

Why are BPM'ers afraid of accountants? We've been pretending we know or can learn other people's business better than them for years, so why can't we raise the same level of BS with accounting? Probably because the numbers don't lie, whereas there is such a lack of formal measurement in other parts of the business that its easy to "bluff it and hope" when fixing some of those other business problems. 

The reality is that accounting packages really don't address well many of the inputs and outputs related to the financial running of the business and could really do with some help. I'm thinking of travel expense reports, accounts payable invoice handling, and even the financial planning and forecasting process. These are ripe opportunities that any BPM'er could address, if they could get over their allergy associated with accounting.

The fundamental issue I think is that enterprise BPM is put off by the fact that an accounting system exists and is the guardian of its data. Business processes can only touch that data, feeding it, watching it for an hour or two like a good aunt or uncle, but always returning it safely and soundly to the watchful accounting system when its time is up. Despite all the 'web services' hype, BPM tends to be greedy. It wants to consume that data, chomping on those healthy numbers and mixing it with its diet of junk food data from operational processes. If it really can regurgitate those numbers in any useful form, they needs some really good cleaning up before returning them home.

Despite the rather gruesome imagery, BPM just doesn't play well with others. The accountants that BPM'ers are afraid of will make them look dumb, and the data that those accountants so carefully enter into the accounting system are just too pristine to mess with in a BPM solution. So BPM software and practitioners back off, and wonder why the big consulting firms just get bigger. 

For small firms like Consected this is great. It leaves plenty of room for financial management systems, ERP, and big consulting firms to do such a bad job that eventually the CFO will recommend some new investment in technology, with a proven ROI (imagine that in other parts of the business). At that point the non-BPM crowd get their chance to show that business processes can be made better where there is an accounting system and that we can all play well together.

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit www.consected.com
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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Email marketing - it really works!

I've been talking about my experiences with email marketing, after my wife who works for Constant Contact persuaded me to give it a go. The main effort I have been putting into it is providing subscribers of my newsletter (mostly Consected customers) with valuable information that they want to receive in their inbox, not just another spammy sales effort. Well, it has finally come together. I sent out my first newsletter to a test group of 99 email addresses on Tuesday. Why 99? Well the free-trial from Constant Contact limits you to a small list of contacts initially. But this set was plenty for me to start to see the response. And I can say that based on this I have already signed up for the real service! That represents a high recommendation for the service, trust me.

Following some advice from the expert on communications, my wife, to go with a single topic for the newsletter, I managed to pull together some pretty good content. It followed my current area of interest, barcodes, and how they can help business organize information better. For those of you interested in seeing the newsletter, and the demo it contains, take a look at the archived copy: Can you improve your business with hundreds of little dots?

What kind of feedback did I get? Well, the Constant Contact reports are nice. They report email opens, link click-through, and other useful stuff. I signed up because I was amazed to see that the email was opened by more than 30% of recipients on the list. That means that 30 people at least opened the email to see what it was talking about, rather than just hitting delete. A couple registered 'do no mail', which is good to know. But frankly I messed up on the click tracking, as I disabled it in a few important links, so the Constant Contact reports don't give me that information and I have to hunt around elsewhere for it. And quite honestly, my cheapie website host kept putting my shared server offline the day the email went out, so many people wouldn't have got to the website anyway. I see a move to the Consected production Rackspace servers in my crystal ball.

But I went one better than the great open rate. After seeing the newsletter, a business partner I hadn't spoken to in months contacted me -- with a great new business opportunity! That will be worth the effort and monthly subscription fee without doubt!

I'm going to follow the same format for my next newsletter, in early March. If I get the same rate of response I'll be stunned (and happy)!

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit www.consected.com