Computerisation Question and Answer

1.      Should I use Generic Retail, Accounting or Salon/Spa Specific Software?

When talking to owners who are researching software for their spas or salons we are often quite surprised to find that they will be also be considering software that is not specific to their industry, ie accounting software, general retail software and even software designed for hospitality like restaurants. In my experience there is almost a 100% failure rate of these types of systems to satisfy the needs of salon and spa owners and they end up writing off the money initially spent on these systems and purchasing a system that is designed for them.

When it comes to the wellness industry which includes beauty salons, nail salons, day spas, hotel spas (amongst other types of spas) and even will cross over in to the hair industry and medical aesthetics there are core businesses requirements and processes that are common to all. These include things like detailed Client Record keeping, Appointment Scheduling, the Sale of Retail and Services, Gift Vouchers, Loyalty Schemes, Commission Calculations, Stock Control for both Retail and Professional Stock and Communication with clients via Email and SMS (amongst other things).

If you take the flow of information in a salon or spa environment it will go something like this. A client calls in to make an appointment. If not already on the system a new client record will be created. Thereafter the appointment will be created for the relevant service and staff member. Once the client comes in and has completed their service they will proceed to “checkout” and possibly add a Retail item to the sale. Once the sale is completed the information will appear on a day-end cash up so that you can account for all transactions that took place and ensure that all corresponding money is in the til. Stock levels will have been adjusted throughout the day as stock was sold. At the end of the period you will use all of the daily transactions to calculate staff service and retail commission as well as generate reports to see how well you have performed. You will also send out communication to your clients to remind them of appointments, inform them of news as well as promotions.

When the client returns for their next visit the cycle begins all over again but now you have a history of the client and are able to provide them with a more personalised level of service as a result of tracking all their previous visit’s information.

There are many other processes that could be mentioned but this process makes up the core of what is common amongst salons and spa’s. With all of this in mind it is very obvious why accounting systems, retail systems and restaurant systems are not applicable when running a salon or spa.

Apart from the different types of salons and spas already mentioned it’s also worth highlighting that a beauty salon could be run from home salon or an exclusive shopping centre. It could even be on a ship, in an airport or be mobile. It could be a standalone branch or belong to a group (or franchise).  The common elements amongst all of these include the fact that there are still clients booking treatments with therapists as well as purchasing retail items and gift vouchers.

2.      Should I use Desktop or Cloud Computing?

The question of whether to use Desktop Software (ie software that is installed on your computer and does not need an internet connection) versus Cloud Computing (ie software than is accessed via the internet running on someone else’s server and infrastructure, ie the software is not installed on your own computer) is one that is being asked more and more and is demanding more attention than ever.

Cloud computing is something that we are all making use of more and more on a daily basis and is starting to become more and more of the standard way of working.

Examples of cloud computing that we use every day will be things like online airline bookings or online movie bookings.

To put it another way DSTV offers the movies on demand option whereby you can pay for and view a new release movie (as long as you subscribe to their service) – this is similar to Cloud Computing. On the other hand if you have a DVD player you can purchase your own movie and watch it over and over for as long as you want. The down side is that your upfront purchase will most likely be higher but you will have unlimited access to the movie. To enjoy the movie that you have bought you will need to take the DVD with you and also have your own DVD player, whereas with the DSTV you can just take your smart card and use this as your “log in” to the DSTV infrastructure that will play the movie for you. One thing, from an infrastructure point of view, that Cloud Computing does require is an internet connection, which will give you access to your providers infrastructure. In much the same way as DSTV requires you to have a decoder that allows you to access its infrastructure.

In first world countries cloud computing is fast becoming the first choice for business software in many environments but in places where internet connectivity is volatile cloud computing has its drawbacks.

The nature of your business will determine the feasibility of your use of cloud computing. The main benefit of cloud computing is the fact that you can access your data from anywhere. Not only you but your clients and your staff. This means that a new world of opportunity is opened up that allows you to capitalize on things like online bookings and the like. Other benefits include low maintenance and downtime as only the server ever needs to be upgraded rather than every computer in your business and home. Also data backups are now (hopefully) managed by the company hosting your data and thus you don’t necessarily need to do your own back-ups, although this has other drawbacks like losing access to your data if you don’t pay your fees.

The first downside of cloud computing I want to mention is speed as this is dependent on your internet connection. So, if you are on a very slow internet connection then you may find yourself taking a lot longer to basic functions like sales and bookings.

The second is downtime. Usually the company that hosts your system will be online 99%+ of the time but your business is not and whenever your internet goes off then you will go offline and not be able to view bookings, enter sales or do other functions. In an office environment this can be managed as you can simply return to a task later when your internet is back on, but for a point of sale environment your clients will not be as accommodating if you are not able to assist them there and then.

The third point is functionality. This may be surprising but compared to desktop software cloud computing as we know and experience it on a daily basis is fairly new and systems functionality is having to be built from scratch. When compared with desktop software that has many years worth of programming the cloud computing versions often lack the array of features that the desktop versions offer. We just tend to be so focused on the fact that we can access our data from anywhere and the other benefits of cloud computing that we tend not to think about this point. However, cloud computing will catch up in time and surpass what desktop software can do because everyone’s energy is going into making this happen.

3.      Should I Rent or purchase upfront?

Generally speaking there are two ballparks that software pricing structures fall into, namely Upfront Purchases or Rentals. Upfront purchases then may or may not charge for support fees or license fees on a monthly or annual basis. Rental fees just go on indefinitely. In my opinion business software should be accompanied by a support & upgrades structure because the nature of business software is that it is a system (multiple elements and components that combine for a purpose) and implementing software is a process that takes time. This coupled with the fact that business needs change over time means that what you want/need today may be completely different in 6, 12 or 18 months. Therefore treating your software provider as part of your team rather than an outside supplier is a far healthier scenario. Whether this is provided as part of the rental or part of an additional fee the service should be considered important and therefore made use of.

When worked out over time you determine if you are spending the same amount of money and what you will be left with if you stop spending money. For example, at what point does your spend on your rental equal the amount you spend on your upfront purchase? Also, if you stop paying your rental do you get locked out of your data or can you still use your software but just not get any support? Personally I don’t like the model of compulsory annual license fees as these say that you have to buy your software and then pay for it again each year. I think that support services should be optional and if not subscribed to the user should still have access to their system.

Note that Cloud Computing generally is sold as a monthly service and is also known as Software As A Service (SAAS). The reason being is that by definition you are not supplied with a piece of software that you can install and use on your own without “subscribing” to the service on a monthly or annual basis. You may have started to notice that many software providers that provided installed desktop software using an upfront purchase option have also started to move towards the pricing model of monthly rental type payments. This means that the software is immediately accessible but over a long period of time you will most likely end up spending more.

4.      Should I download free software?

With the availability of just about anything on the internet the temptation to simply download a “free” piece of software is high. However, there is a cost involved. The cost Im referring to is the cost of the time that you will most likely waste in half-heartedly implementing the free software before throwing in the towel and investing in a system that will actually bring value to you.

Keep in mind that the implementation of management software is a process and takes time. It is not a TV that you turn on and off at your leisure. Rather it is something that you can influence based on what you put into it and this does take work. Therefore, apart from other benefits (like a quality product and good back up service) paying for your software motivates you to invest the time and energy required in order to implement your software because your money will be wasted otherwise. With free software, however, if you download it and fail to implement it then you have not lost any upfront money and so the motivation to “make it work for you” is low.

5.      Should I get my own software custom developed?

On many occasions over the years I have heard owners tell me that they had a friend or a relative custom build them a piece of software for their business only to find after 6 months, a year, 5 years that the programmer has either left the country, become too busy to carry on the project or has simply lost interest because the returns for them are not worth it to maintain on an ongoing basis.

Therefore there is a place for custom development but it should be on top of an existing system that is tried and tested in the market place and the custom development is more tweaking the system according to your needs rather than building it for you from scratch.

6.      Should I use an international or local system?

I remember a particular spa group about 11 years ago hiring an I.T consultant to help them choose a system. This particular consultant was concerned about choosing our company because we were a South African company rather than a U.S or UK or some other “international” company. The irony of it is that the “international” company that we were competing against for the business is no more and we actually picked up many of their clients over time.

When deciding on a software management system you need to look at the product and the company that is backing the product. What you will find is that the product is only as good as its local representation in an area. You can therefore have a situation whereby a company that on paper may appear to have an inferior product to another company may actually outperform its counterpart because their service in the local market place is better. It becomes a matter of successfully implementing 80%-100% of an inferior product verses 10%-20% of a superior product.

Other factors to look into apart from what the product and company can offer you today is what they can offer you in 6,12 or 24 months. You should therefore find out about the vision for the company as technology is changing the playing field almost daily now and things are shifting very quickly.

In South Africa I have seen many “international” systems come and go without making meaningful inroads into our market and instead seeing local system develop and flourish.

Part of the reason is that a local company will be more passionate about its own product than someone who is simply an agent for another company. Therefore the service at all levels will usually be better.

My final point on this section is that software support is key. You need instant access to a help desk at any time because your business cannot wait 2-3 days for a simple query to be answered, you also cant call at 4am or some other ridiculous hour because of time zone differences.

7.      How can I access my data from home?

We often get asked by owners how they can work from home. The most ideal scenario for this is cloud computing because this means that you can work anywhere, anytime without interrupting users at the salon. Using your web browser means that you can work on a Mac or Windows and even on a tablet or smartphone.

There are alternatives that are less desirable but still functional, like using remote desktop or an alternative third party remote access tool. The problem is that if you only have one computer at the salon then you will take control of that machine and prevent salon staff from working.

8.      Can I run my business from an Tablet?

With the advent of cloud computing and mobile / tablet accessibility the question is coming up more and more often as to whether you can use a tablet to actually run your entire business. My answer to this is more No than Yes. Even if you have a full cloud computing solution the point of sale / reception environment requires robust hardware that integrates with peripherals like cash drawers, printers, barcode scanners, fingerprint readers and magnetic card readers. I have no doubt that in time the mobile devices will start connecting more and more to these peripheral devices, but then the purpose of the tablet’s mobility is defeated as it would need to be “docked” in the reception area to work properly.

A tablet should rather be used to supplement your existing system, ie for clients to update their personal and medical information or for staff in the salon / spa to look up client and booking info from a tablet in their treatment room or in the staff room.