Online Training is Plentiful and Inexpensive (Maybe Even Free)

We live in a changing world.  It seems like every day we hear about some new technology that has an effect on our business.  Either it's some new tool to help us operate more efficiently or it's some new advance in the products we sell that benefits our customers.  Either way, if we're not learning we're not just standing still.  We're actually falling behind.

Once upon a time, just a few years ago, the only way to learn about new developments in our industry was to attend industry trade shows and other events.  It was expensive and time-consuming.  Our sales reps might be able to give us the Reader's Digest version at your place of business, but if you wanted real in-depth training you had to go to where the products and the experts were.

Today, that's all changed.  The amount of training that's available on the web is amazing.  There's virtually nothing that can be learned that can't be learned over the Internet.  All you have to do is run a Google search to find it.

For example, this morning I sat in on an on-line sales training presentation on sewing products.  Using a product called WebEx, our Baby Lock Training Director, Doug Thompson was able to hold a two-way conversation with dealers and walk them through the steps necessary to troubleshoot and repair one of our hi-tech Baby Lock sewing machines.  Think about that.  In the past, the dealer would have had to spend the time and the money to come to St. Louis for the same training.  Because of the expense involved, the training would have to be intense, covering as much material as possible in a short amount of time. The high cost made it unlikely that a retailer would bring his entire staff to a training event, meaning only some would get the necessary training.

Software like WebEx and GoToMeetings, to name just two, allows the presenter to transmit video and graphics from his computer screen to yours.  It's even possible to download files for the presenter's computer.  It's truly amazing.  The software is inexpensive, making it possible for just about anyone, including you, to conduct on-line meetings.

The Baby Lock WebEx training is conducted in bite-size segments, with small groups of dealers.  It can be spread over time, giving the dealer a chance to absorb each segment before moving on to the next.  As the Irish would say, It's brilliant!  Everyone wins. 

This on-line training isn't restricted to just products and service.  Whatever aspect of your business you want to learn about is available somewhere.  If you want to learn about Microsoft software, they offer on-line instruction, as do other software manufacturers.  If you want to learn about sales, or marketing, or advertising, or any other skill you need to be successful, chances are someone has a seminar just waiting for you to attend.

Product-based seminars, like our Baby Lock sessions, are usually restricted to dealers.  Others, like Microsoft, often require you to register which puts you on the sponsor's mailing list.  But if you're interested in the topic, and the sponsor provides a product or service that's connected to that topic, receiving a few selling emails is a small price to pay.  My experience is that once you tell them you're not interested, they usually leave you alone. 

Here's the thing.  There's plenty of down time in most retail businesses, especially now with a weak economy and between selling seasons.  Taking an hour to improve your business skills, or letting your staff spend time in on-line training just makes good sense.  Continuing education is always a good investment.  When the education is free, how can you afford to pass it up?

Something else to think about:  Is there a way you could use on-line meetings to increase your

Using Technology to Make Your Life Easier

Technology changes so fast these days that you have to run like crazy just to keep up.  It seems like hardly a day goes buy that the "gurus" are aren’t touting the newest and best.  If you follow technology at all, you wake up every morning with an inbox full of messages about the latest tools.  The cycle usually runs like this.  Today you get a ton of messages announcing that Microsoft, or Google, or some new company has come out with a new service or piece of software that you absolutely have to have.

Tomorrow you get a flood of messages telling you what’s wrong with the same new gadget.  It’s buggy.  It crashes all the time.  It’s likely to make your computer explode.

Then things get pretty quiet for a few days until next week when we start all over again with something even newer to replace last week’s hot item.

Here’s the thing.  Computers and other high tech tools are exactly that–tools.  They should improve your life, either at home or at work. If all the new bells and whistles don’t do that, then why waste your time and money?  Combining an iPod with a cell phone to create the iPhone was a great idea, but it’s not for everyone.  If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.  If all you want is a device to stay in touch when you’re on the go, isn’t a simple cell phone with a reliable signal all you really need?  The more services and the more buttons you add to the phone, the more difficult it is to just make a call.

Personally, I use the heck out of Facebook and twitter, but I realize that they’re not for everyone.  If you like that kind of social network, then which one(s) do you choose?  Jaiku and Pownce are similar to twitter and MySpace is just one alternative to Facebook, although it is the most popular.  Then there’s Friendfeed which falls somewhere in between.

This morning I wanted to send a message to a friend.  I know that she’s on Facebook, Friendfeed, twitter, Jaiku, and has her own web site.  Where do I post my message?  I thought this stuff was supposed to make life simpler, not more complicated.

I suppose that over time the marketplace will make the decisions for us.  Remember VHS vs. Betamax?  Even the powerful Sony Corp. wasn’t able to force it’s system on consumers who prefered the VHS format.  It’s not unreasonable to think that a similar shakeup is coming with social media.  Meanwhile, we have to take the claims for the latest toys with a grain of salt.  Newer doesn’t always equal better.  Microsoft Vista anybody?

I’m writing this post sitting outside at a local coffee shop, St. Louis Bread Company.  (Outside of the St. Louis market they’re called Panera Bread Company.) The network at the office has been down all morning making it hard to get anything done.  But through the magic of WiFi, I’m able to move MYOB and the rest of what I do to a remote location and actually get more done than if I had stayed at my desk.  That’s what got me to thinking about tools that make life easier.  There’s nothing more exciting here than a laptop with a wireless connection and a business that offers free access to the web.  What’s in it for them?  When I get done with this post, I’ll stay for lunch.

With some of the newer, sexier tools around, what I’m doing isn’t all that unique or exciting.  There must be a dozen other folks around here working away on their notebooks.  But it gets the job done, and that’s really all that counts.

Something New on the Blog

We’re always looking for ways to make MYOB more useful and convenient for you.  That’s why we’re currently experimenting with a new tool called Apture.  You might say Apture is linking on steroids.  Where you normally see a link on a web page as different colored (usually blue) underlined text, Apture takes it a step further. 

Apture lets us link to wikipedia definitions, pictures, videos, sound files, and a bunch of other things.  For example, suppose we mention a city like St. Louis.  If you click on the link you’ll be taken to an image of the Gateway Arch.  Or maybe we’ll take you to a song about the city.  We could even use Aptura to link to a video on You Tube.

Or, maybe there’s a post about sewing machines, we could link to a how-to video, or a picture of the latest Baby Lock machine.  The possibilities seem to be endless.

We’ll be experimenting with Apture for a while to see if it really does add value to the blog.  In fact, we’ve added some Apture links to some recent posts.  Check it out and let us know if you like it.

Credit Where Credit is Due

We often post here about poor customer service.  Heck, it’s so easy.  It’s a subject that could support the blog all by itself.  But in all fairness, it doesn’t hurt to point out some good service once-in-a-while.

For some strange reason, my brand-new HP printer recently decided to go into Mr. McGoo mode, printing everything in twice its normal size.  On the one hand, that might be good for my middle-aged eyes, but it’s not very efficient, paper-wise.

So I went through the multi-lingual owner’s manual, but couldn’t find an answer in French, Spanish, or English.  Next stop, HP’s web site.  That was no help either.  Finally I clicked the "email us" link on their site, expecting I might get an answer before the end of the month if I was lucky. 

Within five minutes I got the usual "Thanks for contacting us…." automated message promising that someone would be in touch.  Right! But lo and behold, I got an email from an actual human being in just another five minutes.  I followed his instructions with no results and emailed him back.  In just a couple of minutes I received another email telling me that the problem wasn’t with HP, but with my Firefox browser.

"Sure, pass the buck," I thought.  But when I checked the printer settings in Firefox, they had been changed to 200%.  One click and the problem was solved.

While I’m not normally a fan of automated customer service schemes, I have to hand it to HP.  This time they got the job done.

Since most well-run corporations scan the web daily to see who’s mentioning them, there’s a good chance someone from HP will read this.  So let me say, nice job, HP.  Keep up the good work.

More on Passwords

To follow up on yesterday’s post on password security, here’s a tip from Anna Farmery heard on "The Podcast Sisters" podcast, episode 52.

First, for high-security sites like your bank account, nothing less than a random combination of letters and numbers is good enough.  But, for other less secure sites like Facebook or Digg, or anyplace where the world won’t come to an end if somebody gets your information, this is a neat trick.

Using Facebook as an example, use the name of the site plus your favorite number.  For example, facebook1776.  The number you use should be something you can remember, but something that’s not easily guessed.  For added security, since passwords are almost always case-sensitive, capitalize one letter.  Of course, it always has to be the same letter or you’ll never remember it.  For our example, the Facebook password becomes facEbook1776.  Our Digg password would be digG1776.  Notice that it’s the fourth letter that’s capitalized.  [Hint:  Your choice of letter to capitalize shouldn’t be much higher than letter number 4.  As you can see, if our choice was the fifth letter, we’d be out of luck with Digg.]

By the way, if some of this computer stuff leaves you scratching your head and wondering what’s wrong with a pencil and a piece of paper, "The Podcast Sisters, ‘The Podcast for non-Geeks’" could be just the thing you need.  Every week the "sisters" discuss a computer topic in plain English (British and Irish English actually).  It’s a great introduction to Web 2.0 and it really is for non-Geeks.

Password (Not the Game Show)

There’s a good article by Lorie Marrero on the Lifehack blog about password security.  Most of us have way too many passwords to remember, so we resort to some kind of list to keep track.  It may be a written list, a MS Word document, or an XL spreadsheet.  Of course, if we lose the list we’re in deep trouble.  If someone else finds it, we’re in even more trouble.

Another alternative is to use the same password for everything, which is an ivitation to disaster.  If someone gets their hands on your one-and-only security code, they can gain access to just about your entire life.  Another point Lorie makes, and one I’ve never thought of myself, is what happens if you become incapacitated.  How much trouble would it cause if no one knew how to access your stuff?

There are a number of software tools that you can use to protect your passwords and another recent Lifehack article listed ten free ones.  Some reside on your computer, some store your information online, and some do both.

If you use a paper-based system, Lorie suggests that you not label your password notebook with "PASSWORDS" in big, bold letters.  A further suggestion is to use a code system for your written records.  For example, if the password is fido1995 you might record it as dog + year.  Just make sure you can remember your own code.

In case your idea of a secure password is your phone number or you cat’s name, here’s another Lifehack article on creating strong passwords.  With identity theft a growing, serious problem, password security isn’t something you should take lightly.

Free Photo Editing

In a digital world, most of us need to edit photos from time to time.  LifeClever offers up a list of ten free tools that edit your photos on line.  There’s no need to download software.

We tested one of them, Splashup, just to see how on-line editing compares to the more traditional tools.  (We normally use Picasa from Google (which is also free), or an old standby, Paint Shop Pro (which is not free)). 


For basic editing Splashup did a great job.  With a fast Internet connection, it’s just as fast as the programs that live on the hard drive and the results are just as good. 

One convenient feature is SplashUp’s ability to open photos directly from Facebook, flickr, and Picasa, as well as from your hard drive.  In fact, you can access SplashUp directly from Facebook if you install the application there.  Again, the app is residing on the web, not on your hard drive.Splashup_2

  No free editing utility is going to do the job if you’re a professional photographer, but if you occasionally need to edit a picture for an ad or for your web site, SplashUp should do the trick.

Downgrading Your Operating System


You may have heard that Microsoft’s Windows  Vista operating system has been less than a booming success.  You may have also heard that you will no longer be able to buy Windows XP, the system that Vista replaced after the end of this month.  Really?  Well, yes and no.  Here’s the real scoop from PC World.

Microsoft will stop selling XP to retailers and OEMs on June 30.  But, the retailers and OEMs can continue to sell XP software and XP computers as long as they have inventory.  So the imminent demise of XP has been overstated.  Microsoft will continue to provide support through 2014.

But wait, there’s more!  Because there have been so many problems with Vista, Microsoft offers what they call  "downgrade rights."  A computer manufacturer can sell you a new machine with Vista installed and then downgrade it to XP before you take delivery.  You’ll receive the installation discs and drivers for both operating systems, giving you the option to "upgrade" to Vista if you choose.

The "downgrade option" won’t be available on all computers, so check before you buy.  System builders, that’s people who custom make computers to order, will be able to offer XP until the end of the year.


Microsoft will offer what it calls "mainstream support" which includes bug fixes security patches until April 14, 2009.  From 4/15/09 until 4/8/14, you’ll be able to get "extended support".   Extended  support includes security updates but no bug fixes. 

There it is, crystal clear.  There seems to be a love-hate relationship with Vista.  Some people love it.  Some people hate it.  MYOB runs on XP and we have no desire to change.  Vista may be great, but have you ever heard of any manufacturer offering "downgrade rights" on anything?  It does seem a bit odd.  It’s like selling you a 2008 Chevy but giving you the option to trade it in on a 2007.  Sounds like an admission of guilt, doesn’t it?

Virtual Business Cards


Thanks to Steve Gardner at Steve’s Vac Shack in Willmar, MN for this tip.

There’s a new service called BusinessCard2 that allows you to create a virtual business card and put it on your web site, or attach it to your email.  It’s based on the principal of the VCard, meaning that your customer can download it directly into their contact managing software.  The advantage of BusinessCard2 over the basic VCard is that you can add a photo and additional information about yourself or your company.  In fact, the more information you add, the better your chance of placing higher in the search engines.

The service also allows you to create more than one card.  For example, maybe you do volunteer work and you’d like to have a card with your home phone number rather than your work number.  You can do it.  Or, maybe you do both retail and commercial sales.  Again, you can create two different cards.

It looks like a good service.  I’ve added a link to my virtual business card in the right hand column.   The basic service is free with an additional charge if you want your card to be listed more prominently.  If you decide to check it out, let us know how it works for you.

Dear First Name,

I actually received an email today that began "Dear First Name,".  Obviously it was a direct email piece that wasn’t set up correctly.  Considering the source of the email, I know that the mailing went to hundreds, maybe thousands, of people.  I’m not upset.  In fact, I think it’s kind of funny.  I never suspected that someone at the company sat down and wrote a personal email message just to me.  On the other hand, the larger the mailing list, the more people see your error.  The glaring mistake really weakens the message of the email, especially when it’s the very first thing you see when you open the message, and may even damage the reputation of your company.  Computer software can save a lot of time and money, but you have to be careful not to make mistakes.

Your mailing list may be quite a bit smaller than the list that my "Dear First Name" "friend" uses.  Your customers may actually think they’re getting an email or letter written just for them.  That’s a harmless illusion that you probably want to keep going.  If so, check and double check your work before you hit the "send" button.  In fact, before you so a mass emailing, your best bet is to send just one message….to yourself.

When you receive it, go over it with a fine-toothed comb.  Is everything right?  Is it addressed "Dear You" and not "Dear First Name"?  If the customer’s name is repeated in the body of the letter, is it correct?  If everything is the way you want it to be, then and only then go back and hit the button sending your message to your entire mailing list.