small business

20 years of Blaze...

The 1st of September marks a major milestone in my life.  It will mean that I have been running my company, Blaze Business Software Pty Ltd for 20 years now.  Two decades.  It seems almost unbelievable to me at times.

Back in September 1996, I had only been married for a month, I was about to turn 30, and I decided to start a software consultancy business out of my bedroom.  Thus began the rollercoaster, including getting an office in the Cullen Bay area of Darwin, growing the team to at one stage around 16 people, and then now coming full circle to just my wife and I working from a home office again in a 'lifestyle' business.

So many changes in the IT industry at that time.  When I started Blaze, the internet was just hitting mainstream here in Australia, and everything was still dial up.  We were one of the first offices to get an ISDN line into our office, and I clearly remember setting up a small Windows 98 server in the back which was running some sort of DOS mail daemon so that we could have individual email addresses for every employee.  Something that was so rare back then.

We were also one of the first companies locally to upgrade to Microsoft Exchange and implement ActiveSync.  I clearly remember proudly showing off how I could read and reply to emails on my Palm Pilot in real time to all my clients.  Nowadays that is just an expected thing, but back then I was pleased that we were pushing the envelope and being cutting edge.

Lots of nice memories, such as being the finalist in the Telstra Small Business Awards up here in 1998 I think.  Lots of other small awards and achievements.  But there were also some really tough times, and many days where I didn't know whether I wanted to close the doors forever and go raise sheep in the Italian mountains.

But through all that, I still wake up every day and look forward to doing the work I do.  I am always grateful to have met so many wonderful people through my business.  From clients (many of whom I still work with 20+ years later), to employees who have become close friends, to colleagues and competitors and everyone who has walked through the doors or called in the past 2 decades.  Thank You.

Proving that it is never too late to be a 'startup', this year I have embarked on a whole new reboot of the business, as we become a SaaS company providing subscription based business software.  Given that I will be turning 50 this year, I don't know if I will have the energy to keep on with the consulting and support role for many more years, and I am looking forward to setting up a passive income source from a modern, web based subscription platform.

Just another step in our long and interesting journey.  Hope to see you all along the way...

The key to good customer service - consistency

To continue my conversations on customer service on this blog, I'd like to distill the essence of what I consider good customer service down to one key element.  Consistency.

Humans thrive on the comfort of the 'known'.  As a species, we don't generally like surprises.  It moves us out of our comfort zone and clashes with our sense of peace and calm.

Any organisation that provides a service should have consistency as a high priority, and I don't mean the sterile, production line like consistency of, say, a franchise like McDonalds, that does everything according to a procedure manual.

I mean the consistency of providing that extra touch that delights the soul.

I will give you an example.  Given the fact that I work from home, I often crave the chance to get out to appreciate different scenery.  There is a cafe that opened up near me recently that I enjoy going to.  The coffee and food is great, and my 'usual' is a mocha coffee.  It is what I ALWAYS order when I go there, which is over 30 times now.

I recognise most of the staff, and some of them know me now.  A couple of them even are good enough to say 'Mocha coffee sir?' as soon as I walk in.  That makes me feel special, and appreciated.

There is however one staff member, who has been there since I first started going there, and who has taken my order over a dozen times, who ALWAYS asks me what I would like while giving me a blank stare.

That's all right, I will put that down to personality traits and perhaps some training, but there is another factor that has been irking me of late.

The first dozen or so times I ordered a Mocha coffee, it came to me with a single Tiny Teddy biscuit beside the cup.  A lovely touch I thought.  Then I began receiving the odd cup without the TinyTeddy.  That was a little disconcerting.  Consistency was failing.

What compounded it however, was the response of the staff.  I began to jokingly ask where was my missing biscuit when my coffee arrived without one.  On one occassion, the waiter was profusely apologetic and fetched me TWO biscuits as compensation.  On another couple of occassions, the waitresses just laughed it off and said something along the lines of "Oh Really?", without attempting to make amends or offer an apology.

That's the missing consistency.  I had an expectation that I would get a biscuit with my coffee, as well as the expectation that the staff would make it right when I pointed out to them that there was an inconsistency.

I know that most of you are thinking "First world problems", and it certainly is.  But this episode is building up a wedge of ill feeling between myself and this establishment.

On the other end of the scale is Sharon, my massage therapist.  I have been going to see her on a monthly basis for over ten years now.  The main reason is because she gives a great massage that makes me forget about the stresses and trials of my life, but the biggest factor is that in the whole decade that she has been treating me, her service delivery has been unfailingly consistent.

Sure she does introduce minor variations here and there, but the key elements of her treatment that I especially enjoy are always there.  Simple things like at the end of the massage when she bathes my feet with warm water to wash the oil off - I always look forward to that bit, and she never fails to finish my treatment with that thrill.  Ever.

I know that in my own business, I struggle to deliver consistent service to my clients, but I am willing to make the effort to try and discover:

(a) exactly WHAT elements of my service that clients think are special, and

(b) trying to ensure that I always deliver on those elements identified in (a) above.

Together, lets brings back great service to small business.