Monday, 5 November 2018

Banks have a cheek!

In both the national and local newspapers this morning I see the NatWest Bank running large advertisements proclaiming how friendly and helpful they are to their customers. The advertising fees they are paying must be enormous. Yet, in our town and the adjacent towns they've closed our local NatWest Branch offices. It is now an hour's round trip to get to the nearest Branch, plus add the cost of fuel and parking.  When they closed the Branch, their managers claimed it was because the locals didn't use the Branch enough. However I don't think I ever went into the local Branch office without encountering a queue during the previous four years.

A clear case of marketing over substance. These people really have a cheek. A few, or even a flood of, dubious adverts are not going to win us over.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

How secure is your business?

We have served many businesses over the years. The majority did not own the building from which they operated. Often there would be either a lease or a long term rental from a landlord/freeholder. The business would have to rely on physical security provided by the landlord. The landlord would seek to keep costs low by not providing substantial physical security features for a general purpose rental. 

The first step should be to undertake a risk assessment to understand what risks from which you want to protect the business. You then need to evauate what methods are available to provide the necessary level of protection. One option might be to move the vulnerable part of the business away from the area of risk. However when it comes down to basics there's often no substitute to having strong physical barriers to keep the bad guys out. CCTV systems and alarms are mainly of deterrent value.

By strong physical barriers, we mean better perimeter fences, stronger doors, stronger windows, stronger walls, floors and ceilings.  The elimination of intruder hiding spaces will help too.

If the tenant business wanted to undertake works to install stronger physical security in their rented/leased property, they will have to seek permission from the landlord. The business would also have to undertake to fund the removal of security features when they vacate the property. Some physical security measures, such as protective walls, are quite heavy, and some buildings do not have spare structural capacity to take the additional dead weight loading. It may be necessary to lnvolve a structural engineer in the discussions.

You also need to be sure that any physical security measures do not contravene safety regulations and building codes.


Sunday, 28 October 2018

Back up your office PCs

Would your business survive if you suddenly lost all of your desktop computers? How would your business cope if you lost your accounting data and client records? Could you recreate your design documentation and suppliers lists?

There's many ways you can suddenly lose your desktop computers and PC Servers. It might be a power surge at the worst possible moment. You might arrive in the morning to find a break-in had occurred overnight and your PCs are missing or destroyed. In these days of Internet threats, you might find your hard disk contents have been irretrievably scrambled without any warning.

The point is that total data loss  of computer records can and does happen without any warning. If you are sensible, you'll have procedures in place, and tested, to help you recover from such a loss. Those data back-up procedures should be automatic and not rely on human memory to be performed. In legacy computer set ups, this would often take the form of a magnetic tape drive which copies important data files  from the hard disks every day, or maybe once a week. The magnetic tapes can then be stored in a safe location, to be retrieved if you need to recover data. The bad news is that magnetic tape back-up is not always reliable when you try to retrieve the stored data, and on top of that it can take hours  to read serially through tape to find the piece of data you need urgently.

With faster Internet links and the establishment of Cloud Computing there is an alternate approach to maintaining back-up copies of your desktop and server PCs. It is possible to rent disk storage space from the likes of Amazon, IBM, Microsoft and Google running on their secure central server farms. You can have programs running in the background on your PCs and servers to perform the back up process. When you need to recover one or more data files, it is possible to retrieve them via an internet link. So if your premises have been trashed, flooded, burnt out; it is a relatively straight forward job to reconstruct your services in an alternate location(s), provided it has a good Internet link. If you use the right software tools the regular back-up process is reliable and unobtrusive without the need for constant operator intervention.

After some experimentation with Dropbox and SugarSync, we have settled on the use of Amazon AWS data storage with a Cloudberry Labs front end software to simplify the industrial strength Amazon interface. We'll cover more on this in a later article.  

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Pick up the phone!

Today, after a period of research via the Internet we decided to purchase a couple of pieces of equipment for the company. These were premium quality items, built to last, and as such should represent a reasonable profit to the suppliers. We made a short list of suppliers who we'd contact to discuss placing an order. They were outside of our normal portfolio of suppliers. The equipment is heavy and we'll need to organise additional manpower to receive and install the units.

We started to make the supplier phone calls at 9:30 am this morning. We'd already sent an enquiry, three working days ago, to a well publicised supplier via email because they don't publish a contact phone number!  This supplier (importer) is fronted by a national celebrity whose name is part of the branding. We'd received no response, so they were struck off the list. As their's was the most pricey item we'd be saving money anyway, so this was no major blow.

We then started to work down the list of suppliers. The first three suppliers didn't answer their phones and the calls rolled over to voice mail. We didn't bother leaving a message. The fourth supplier had an answerphone message asking us to call a mobile phone, when we called the mobile number, we were advised the owner was not available and to call again later. All of these suppliers have established web sites with the expensive equipment advertised on their pages.

The fifth company we called answered the phone promptly. The person on the other end was knowledgeable and friendly.  He had to check some information with the supplier and asked if he could call us back, rather than us waiting on the phone. He called back 10 minutes later with the required information. We placed the order over the phone, Their profit margin should certainly pay that gentleman's wages for the week.

We just wonder why, during normal business hours, companies cannot have someone available to answer their phones. There are lots of methods of doing this cheaply yet efficiently. The first four companies lost the opportunity to receive an order, and subsequent follow up business. 

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Paypal - problems with account limitation and the alternatives

We're trying to set up a separate PayPal Account to isolate transactions relating to our holiday cottage. We want them separate from the main Trading Floor Business.  However PayPal are proving to be a real pain!  To such an extent, that we'd hesitate to recommend them to our clients and friends. In fact we'd recommend them only to our worst enemies. PayPal is demonstrating appalling communication skills in this case and their Customer Support and Complaints Team seem largely ineffective.

We have a primary address in a town called Belper in the middle of the English countryside.  We want to operate a side business in a nearby town called Wirksworth (8 miles away) at our holiday home. This is all above board; the local authorities know and the national tax bodies know about this set up. Our bank account is based on our Belper address. We own both properties outright with no mortgage.

We've provided Paypal with copies of identity documents and also address proof documentation. Yet they have chosen to limit the associated PayPal account effectively rendering it useless. They appear to ignore the proof of Id/address even though we have provided it five times with explanatory notes. Yet, other than a Case Id: PP-005-824-712-983, they have given us no explanation for the non-acceptance of Id/Address proof. They don't provide us with an appropriate contact email address or contact phone number to talk to the people validating our identity. We've repeatedly asked them to call us and explain the problem. Radio silence from Paypal.

We've spoken with their customer services - they couldn't help. We've submitted a complaint through their official complaints procedure. The response was: we handle cases in order of receipt and it will probably take several weeks to get to that point. We've even approached them by Facebook and had the case referred to the "right people". It's hopeless and smacks of Internal Politics. There's still no meaningful contact from their validation people, just a dumb "something's wrong..." message at a sign-on screen.

We have purchased one of their PayPal Here card readers, but with a "limited" account it is about as useful as a £75 chocolate oven glove.   Not to mention the abysmally poor battery life on the PayPal card reader, but that's another story.

This is no way to do business and is very much against the PayPal Strategy outlined by the PayPal CEO Dan Schulman (14th Feb 2017 - Goldman Sachs)!! Their behaviour has taken us from being an organisation who, for several years, used to recommend PayPal to clients, to an organisation who would advise against using Paypal.

We've given up and signed on to Square.com  It was up and working within a day. Their card reader will arrive in a couple of days. Square's software is much better than the PayPal offering.

Edit: 16 th May 2017
In fact PayPal are so unhelpful and uncommunicative, after using PayPal for almost 15 years as a business, we've decided to sever all ties with them. Any employee/associate expense form using PayPal payment will be rejected. Any supplier insisting on Paypal Payment will be dropped. Their domain name will be blacklisted on our firewall and any email from them treated as Spam.

17th May 2017
We just redirected the pre-agreed payments which had been via PayPal on the main business account. Alternative payment routes now set up. We've reviewed all Paypal purchases over the past few years by our business and associates and are about to mailshot the suppliers warning them to have alternative supply purchase funding arrangements. Change of policy note has been issued to all associates warning not to charge business related expenses via their personal PayPal accounts. The Square.com testing is going well and their mobile terminal is being well received. We anticipate it will be live soon.

The online shop facility will be set up using Square.com and weebly.com shop rather than PayPal buttons as we'd planned.  This route is a bit more expensive per month, but at least the receipt of cash will be more reliable and not exposed to the obscure quirks of PayPal support. Once we've moved away from PayPal services we are unlikely to return.

18th May 2017
We've tested payments live on the new web site using the  Square payment system. After some more website development we'll soon be live. The process of connecting payments was pretty straight forward, has been approved by Square.com and didn't require an affidavit sworn in front of a judge, with passports, bank manager and character witnesses which we assume in the absence of communication from PayPal is what we'd need for the other approach.

19th May 2017
Money taken from our cards during testing with Square.com reached our bank account today, so no substantial problems there. Unlike small business hostile PayPal, Square.com have checked our Id, undertaken credit checks with credit reference agencies all within the time scale they publish. Invoice payments and refunds all work just fine. One of our clients, who'd been thinking about payment solutions, saw what we'd done and have signed up to Square. 

Paypal apps/accounts have been deleted from all our mobile devices within our organisations.

21st May 2017
Now the only action planned by us is to close the PayPal account and to walk away from them. We'll leave it a few weeks to see if anything comes of our official complaint, but we're not holding our breath. We fully expect PayPal to act like a typical dumb large American corporation and not the business friendly corporation their adverts claim to be.

24th May 2017
We've removed banking authorisation and credit card details from Paypal for our business.

25th May 2017
We'd had a software problem between the Square/Weebly interface. We reported it to both suppliers customer services. In each case they were helpful and had good communication with us. Square.com in particular were very proactive in keeping us informed as what was happening. The problem is now fixed.  I've been working in computing and telecoms since 1970; I know things can go wrong with software. What is so important is how you respond to the customers. Both Square and Weebly passed with flying colours. In comparison working with PayPal is like kicking a dead dinosaur along the beach.

Late evening, same day:  Ohhh! Are we seeing some progress? Not: ... PayPal have assigned a new case Id: PP-005-842-910-593. There's still no other attempt at contact, other than a same sign-on message requesting Id data. People, you had a scan of my driver's licence on Day 1, perhaps you need a DNA swab? 

We wonder how many other people have been treated to these inflexible arbitrary procedures. It is now amusing, but of no commercial interest to us. Perhaps we should run one of those Youtube video clips "What happens when you blend a PayPal card reader?" We do have an unwanted device.

27 May 2017
We finally had some direct email contact from PayPal, their executive escalation team. It is much more communicative. Apparently the problems have been caused by a technical issue. The technical issues have now been fixed and our account released from limitation. Well not quite!!  After a couple of iterations of the limit/release cycle our account is still limited and their people are now away until Tuesday (weekend and public holiday). We'll maybe provide an update on 30th May; but you have to say it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the PayPal systems.

30th May 2017
No further direct contact from PayPal. Just a repeat login notice requesting information already supplied and yet another Paypal Case Id: PP-005-856-518-845. They really are hopeless at communication. So far this past 30 days they've lost the commission on £1678 which would have been normally directed through their system by our organisations. If they have lost the information already supplied by us, they are technically in breach of Data Protection law. Also there's been no response to the official complaint from us which was submitted 29th April.

7th June 2017
We've been assured by the Paypal Executive Interventions Office that our account is not restricted, yet when we sign-on to their system we still get the message that PayPal needs to validate our identity. We think this is due to the "technical fault" which is under investigation, but to be honest we are uncertain. We're not sufficiently reassured that the PayPal account is in a sufficiently stable state to direct any business through it. The last thing we want is to have money locked into the account or worse, having to tell customers that PayPal has restricted the account.

16th June 2017

There still no sign of PayPal fixing their problem with client validation. No response from them on the formal complaint.

2nd July 2017
The Paypal dinosaur has totally forgotten this problem. It remains unresolved. Meanwhile square.com is working just fine.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Corel back in the Sin Bin

You'd think I'd know better after my career in computing and IT infrastructure stretching back to the 1970s. Back in the 1990s I burnt my IT Manager fingers by installing Wordperfect as a standard word processing software for our company. It left scars. But no, I recently gave into temptation and purchased a Corel Software product for my new PC. I've been left disappointed, wishing I'd spent the money on better products.

My trusty 10 year old PC cannot provide enough memory to sensibly run the modern bloatware software need to run safely in today's Internet environment. I've been finding I've had to stop background programs to ensure others could run. So I've paid a specialist to build me a workstation with far greater memory capacity and processing power, using Windows 10/64 Bit.  I've gone from a a maximum of 6 GB to a current 32 GB and the potential to install at least double that amount. As part of the upgrade I've purchased new copies of software applications as I want to keep the old box available in the background. I'm pretty scrupulous about using only legally licensed software.

On the old box I have an old copy of CorelDraw Graphics Suite X4 which provides CorelDraw and PhotoPaint. It is perfectly adequate for office graphics, some photo handling/editing. On the new box I decided to purchase a full copy of CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X8 and loaded the 64 Bit version to be able to take advantage of the larger memory on the PC. 

Then I decided to transfer my computer peripherals from the old machine to the new PC. Most were just plug and play, starting to work as soon as I plugged them in. Amongst those there is a Panasonic  KV-S1025C document scanner. It is a professional quality device which is fast, reliable and rarely jams. I took the precaution of downloading and installing the latest 64 bit drivers from the manufacturers Panasonic site. The scanner now works fine with all of my new software except the CorelDraw X8 software. It will start the scanning process but as the scanned document is loading from the scanner the CorelDraw software collapses. The Corel X4 software worked on my old PC including the scanner, but I'd had to downgrade to the 32 Bit version of Corel some years back.

After doing some research on the Internet I discovered I'd have to use the same work-around for the new Corel software. Corel have known about this problem for years but haven't put the investment in to fixing their software to work reliably on both 32 Bit and 64 Bit scanner interface software. Anyway I decided to persevere and made contact with Corel support. I mentioned in my query I'd updated the driver software to the latest 64 bit version. Their response was I should visit a third party website who provide alternate scanner driver software for $80. 

When I protested I'd already installed the latest Panasonic drivers the Corel Support team asked me to perform an audit scan of my PC configuration, they helpfully provided a link to a freeware software product (winaudit).  Unfortunately the URL link is reported as a malicious link by Google Chrome browser. I don't fancy loading malware on to my new PC so I replied to Corel asking if they had an alternate scanning tool to allow them to investigate the problem in their software,

Nope, apparently they can only use winaudit. So I guess that is the end of their support efforts! I already have problems with Corel about UK price gouging but this failure to provide a reliable scanner interface for graphics software in a 64 Bit environment is the last straw. I'm off to Adobe and the Corel product can languish unused on my PC. I just wish I'd read this wikipedia entry before making the decision to purchase a new copy of Corel.

Edit: The Corel Helpdesk saga continues

The Corel people are now trying to clear this from their stats:...

27th Dec: The first request by Corel that I download and run malicious freeware software
28th Dec: I respond that I don't like loading malware on my PC. Do they have an alternative?
29th Dec: Corel respond it is the only tool they can use.
2nd Jan (00:35) Corel ask me if the issue is resolved
2nd Jan (06:55) I reply no it isn't resolved, as I don't run malicious software
2nd Jan (07:33) Corel sends me a blank email; subsequently I discover it is a repeated request to download and use the malicious freeware.
4th Jan (02:58) Corel sends me another blank email. Subsequently I discover it is a Corel reminder to say they are waiting for information.
4th Jan (19:24) I log into their help desk system and record a message repeating that the scanner works fine with other software, but not the Corel software and no I don't want to load malware on my PC. I asked the Helpdesk to escalate the matter if they don't know how to fix it.
5th Jan (07:51) The Corel Support Tech now tries repeating the earlier advice of using third party Vuescan software ($80) to solve the problem of Corel software not properly interfacing with my Panasonic Scanner. 
5th Jan (13:21) Pointing out they were now going in circles, I rejected spending on third party software to possibly fix the Corel problem. I repeated the request for them to escalate my query.
6th Jan (07:30) The Corel Support tech, comes back saying the VueScan software download is free. I respond with a link showing the prices charged for the third party software. It's fairly obvious this poor chap has no solution in his arsenal and is hoping I'll give up rather than him having to escalate the issue to his management. I've noted on the response if he doesn't escalate the matter I will, which I think is fair warning.


Friday, 16 December 2016

Hotel Blacklist

The Hilton chain of hotels is on my blacklist. 

In my line of business I get to travel a lot on technology project work. It will mean that I get to stay in international city centre hotels for spells of up to three weeks at a time. I don't particularly like staying in hotels, but regard it as a necessary evil. I generally sign up to the hotel loyalty scheme to accumulate points, but infrequently use those points until I'm going on a holiday with my wife. I'd prefer if the hotels just had lower rack rates for regular customers.

The Hilton Hhonors Scheme decided to confiscate my points with them because I'd not used their scheme for a couple of years.  So much for loyalty!  They continue to send me automated emails about all of the "opportunities" I'm missing with their hotel products. This theft needs punishment.

I now boycott their Hilton chain and subsidiary hotels. I'll stay somewhere else when in a city.  I even have an automatic blacklist on their domain name so all their email and web sites are blocked and treat as Spam in our offices