Workflow (not quite to the) Max

For an accounting practice, wasting time is like stopping the production line. So the last thing you want is inefficient systems, right?

OK look…I’m just going to say it. Our users don’t much like WorkflowMax so far. It might end up giving us great information on how the practice is tracking, but the process of getting the data in there – the day-to-day use of WorkflowMax – is cumbersome.

Call us cave-people, but we still believe that time costing for billing our work has its place. I could go into the reasons why, and perhaps I will in a separate post at another time. But for now, suffice it to say that’s how we roll. We’re happy to quote and work for a fixed fee based on a reasonable estimate when required. And we may not bill everything we record. – we often absorb time as client service or value adds. But we want to record all of our time . And besides, often the decision as to whether to bill or write-off doesn’t reside with the person entering the time, so by default all time needs to go to the job at the time of entry until that decision is later made by management. We know there are many others in the industry who agree with us and in fact many of our clients ask for it.

Primitive accountants lived in the constant shadow of danger. But perhaps the greatest threat of all was a timesheet that wouldn’t reconcile.

From our experience to date, using WorkflowMax in this kind of environment leads to wasted time. And that matters. Xero have said they want to give the accounting industry a shake-up. We welcome the rattling of some cages and we reckon Xero has the products to fundamentally shift the way accountants operate. We’re believers! But to really do it well, they’re going to have to have a time recording solution that is flexible enough to be used in a variety of ways. For those practices that operate in the traditional fashion – recording time using timesheets – WorkflowMax still needs a bit of work to make the experience a pleasant one for the user.

So what don’t our users like?

Let me put it very simply – recording lots of little jobs.

A typical manager’s timesheet may have 50 or more lines on it each day. And for every one of those, WorkflowMax requires that there be a job in the system.

Often then, this leaves you with one of two options:

  1. Record lots of small jobs that will clutter your jobs list or, if they are immediately completed, take almost as long to set up as the job itself took to do; or
  2. Put the time against a more generic job, which has the effect of adding a job to your list that may not actually be started. For example, let’s say you have a chat to your client in July about what they need to do to get ready for their 2012 tax work. The discussion touches on other issues and by the time you’re done it works out at around 20 minutes. In all likelihood we won’t bill this time, but we need to record it. You don’t want to create a tiny job in the system, so instead you put it to the “2012 tax returns and financials” job for the client (whatever that may be called). That job is now active. It appears on your job list as being in progress. But the client may not bring in their work until February next year. You now have a job started in your system, cluttering your work list, which actually isn’t started yet and won’t be for some time.

How could this be fixed? We can think of at least three ways.

  1. Introduce the ability to create jobs from your timesheet – perhaps with a popup or a prompt if a job isn’t in the system already. And prompt for a template too, that way you could use standard templates for those little jobs that actually repeat each year and set them up on the fly.
  2. Allow users to change a job’s state from within a timesheet. This would then allow you to set a job to ‘complete’ immediately. It has other benefits too. You may not use this every time, but where you know that the job state is changing with your entry, why not do it all in one action rather than having to go into a separate area to do it?
  3. Have a job state called ‘not started’ that doesn’t show on your job list but does allow you to record time against it. We’re open to suggestions on the state name, but something like that. This would allow a user to put small amounts of time to larger annual jobs that may not actually be started yet without it then appearing on their job list. If there is a concern about this time going missing, you could have a link on a user’s job list job list called ‘Jobs not started’ or ‘Untracked jobs’ which only expands when clicked.

Finally, just one observation about the overall vibe. The whole process of recording time just feels very ‘webby’ and isn’t geared towards rapid data entry. I’ve discussed already how having a table of some sort that allowed for fast entry and editing would improve that no end. Being able to create jobs on the fly would also help.

But even the programming and layout makes frequent use a time-consuming process. I’m no developer, so forgive me if this is way off, but it seems to me that if it were programmed using different tools (e.g. Ajax), this would allow for rapid data entry and editing without having to click and save each individual entry and then wait for the page to render before you can move on. The ‘slow and steady’ approach is compounded further by the fact that there’s actually a bug where if you are too fast it can record an entry twice, which has also been infuriating our users.

Do we have a mutiny on our hands? Not at all. The reality is of course that we’re used to living with a system that we’re not entirely happy with, so we’re no worse off. And actually, up to this point, we love Xero. So if we’re assessing things on balance – replacing what we had with a combination of Xero and WorkflowMax – we still feel like we’re miles ahead.

Further, if the practice management capabilities live up to the promise, even if there were no hope on the data entry side of things, we’re happy to live with a compromise. We’re really excited about the wider possibilities of WorkflowMax. But we have to call it how we see it too.

Taking it to the street, accountant style! WHAT DO WE WANT?! Minor improvements to data-entry efficiency! WHEN DO WE WANT IT?! Sometime in the future, though generally we’re pretty happy so please don’t interpret this as dissent or a vote of no confidence in your overall product offering!

We know that Xero listen and respond to what their users want. So we’re asking Xero to have a look at this and see if they can find a way to make entering time quicker and more efficient.

But we also want to hear from you. So I’m about to get all ‘chain letter’ on you. Send this out to everyone you know! OK, not quite – but hear me out. I know that not everyone is interested in reading our little travel diary and that’s perfectly fine. In this case though we’d love to hear from as many WorkflowMax users in practice as possible – even those that aren’t following us. So we’re sending a shout out to any accounting practices that use WorkflowMax, and we’d love your help. Let us know in the comments – what do you think? How do you use WorkflowMax? And how do you get around the ‘lots of little jobs’ issue? We’re hoping that together we might be able to collaborate on a workaround.

And by the way – we already know about the ‘abandon the timesheet’ solution. We’re looking for an alternative.


10 thoughts on “Workflow (not quite to the) Max

  1. You can have as many job states as you want. Just add some under Admin -> Job States. You can also specify if these are excluded from scheduling, My Jobs etc and also filter them out of reports. I use custom “internal” job states as that suits how we work.

    You also might consider using the weekly timesheet entry rather than the daily. It can reduce the amount of entry if jobs are spanning the week.

    You can also enter times directly into the timesheet tab of the job itself, which might be suitable if you are creating a new job.

    VoomStudios make a desktop timer that pushes the info directly into Workflowmax –

    • Thanks for the suggestions Elizabeth. Really appreciate the response.

      Am I right that jobs that are excluded from scheduling still appear under ‘My Jobs’ though? Basically this just removes them from the schedule bar on the left hand side? We had a bit of a play around with that but it didn’t seem to remove it from the My Jobs list. Happy to admit I may be wrong though as we’re still pretty green!

      The issue generally is not so much with having to enter a lot of time, which the weekly timesheet method would help with to some extent (although the clunky ‘save and wait to proceed’ interface still makes that time consuming). We’re used to having to enter lots of time. It’s more just the number of ‘jobs’ that need to be added and managed – for us anyway. It takes a lot longer to add all these small jobs all the time and at the end your job list ends up not really being an accurate reflection of where things are really at. It’s far too over-crowded. And then the data entry process itself just doesn’t lend itself to rapid-fire entry and management. You could have everything the way it is and just make a few tweaks and it could be so much quicker to use.

      Thanks too for the link on the widget. We’re just trying it now. I’m not sure again if we’re doing something wrong but so far it’s acting really weirdly for us. All our entries are showing up twice and the final amount that goes to the timesheet seems to be overstated. Just out of interest, what does it do that the standard WFM timer doesn’t?

      • In the Job State preferences, if you untick “Show in Schedule”, then it takes it out of the Staff & Job scheduling (I believe!) but if you untick “Show in My Jobs Navigation”, then it won’t show in the sidebar.

        We probably use WFM a little differently to you for a number of reasons – we are a bookkeeping practice and we also have mostly monthly recurring jobs for clients with monthly fees as well as a number of one-off jobs such as set-ups and training.

        I use 5 main job states. “In Progress” is for new jobs that have been created from a recurring job or just new ones. “Job Invoiced” which is where these jobs move to when they have been invoiced (through Xero not WFM but using the Job # pushes them through to WFM), “Job Invoiced – Fee Only” for those jobs that will have no time recorded against them & no tasks (eg Clients with Xero fees only and are DIY) so they are still included in total revenue in WFM and don’t clutter up the timed jobs with tasks etc. And then I have one internal job state for all my own to-do tasks and recurring things that I need to attend to. And the last one is internal for staff. Unlike my own tasks, I create a new job for each task for staff otherwise it gets too confusing and unmanagable for them.

        I like to record ALL time myself and staff spend in the business to keep a handle on overall efficiency and look at areas that need targeting, no just client work.

        I don’t have jobs like yourself where you run a long WIP and might bill far in the future. Pretty much all of my jobs are either monthly or one-off and quoted up front anyway.

        I’m trying to think of a better solution for you for your odd jobs for clients. You don’t want to exclude them from WIP, and you want to capture the hours as it seems you will bill them in the future, but I agree, having them for 12 months or so as an open job in reports and screens is not optimum.

        Personally, I wouldn’t have individual jobs for each little client request. I would have say a year long job for each client, separate from the usual compliance jobs that you will be doing for them later on. Just something to log the hours against and then do progress billing when you are ready or full billing when you complete the yearly job along with the compliance job.

        I must say, though, that although I have been using WFM for quite a long while, I am still feeling the way myself. So I am sure there are better options for both of us that I haven’t thought of yet!

        Make sure you send a support ticket with your feature suggestions, because as you said, they *do* listen. Xero/WFM make the new features mostly by what users ask for, so it can help to make your needs known.

        As for fixed fee billing, are you just assuming what your clients would want or have you actually approached them about it? The reason I ask is I was very wary at the start moving from hourly rate to fixed fee mostly because of what I perceived would be my clients’ responses. But I found that they actually prefer it. No scary, unexpected bills for them. And when you think about it, billing by the hour actually promotes inefficiency – the slower and more inefficient you work, the more revenue you have whereas those working harder and faster are penalised by lower revenue. Now I see it from the other side, it doesn’t make sense to bill hourly. But of course, every business is different and you have to do what works best for you.

        I haven’t used that widget for a while, so I’m not sure why it’s giving you double posts. Perhaps the timer button is being pressed twice somehow? I don’t believe it does anything that the WFM timer doesn’t, but some find it useful not to have their browser open when timing.

  2. Thanks again for the tips re setting up the job state. We’ll definitely have more of a look into that. I think you may be onto something!

    We do quite a bit of specialised consulting work and generally have quite close working relationships with many of our clients which is making it harder to define everything in terms of jobs. Much of our work can be defined as a job of course, there’s just a few difficulties and that requires some adjustment on our part I think.

    In terms of the fixed fee billing, we’re totally ok with fixed fees and have those arrangements with many clients. I guess I’m contrasting the way we operate with so-called ‘value-billing’ – charging based on what you determine the work is worth to the client and therefore not tracking time at all, i.e. not using timesheets. And there are many things we don’t end up charging for so it’s not so much about having to recover every minute of time. Our fixed fees would be based on a reasonable estimate of the time and costs involved, and so we still want to use timesheets (for now) for costing purposes in many cases, i.e. was the estimate reasonable? Did we make money on the job? And so on.

    Having said that, we really do have clients that prefer to simply be charged for the work we’ve done. We have had situations where we’ve offered fixed fees and instead been asked to stick with time-cost, perhaps because they suspect there is a chance that in fact we would be the winners if we could work more efficiently than what we estimated (though that rarely happens, if at all) and so would rather things remain transparent? Certainly too we have had occasions where more detail is requested as who did what for how long and when, which can really only come from time tracking. So we still want to make that option available.

    I agree though, generally I think the future is in fixed fee billing. It’s just, like I said, we still want to be able to track time for job costing purposes.

  3. Hey John – I can’t give a great deal of detail – but I can tell you that we’ve had feedback about the pain points many accounting practices experience moving from a traditional client time recording approach to a fixed fee, value based approach. We’re listening! And in the next release you’ll be able to more quickly and easily write time against a client/ad hoc job. Could I get you to ping the Workflowmax guys on – they’re way more expert than me and can go into the nitty gritty 🙂


    • And this is why we love Xero! Thanks for the response, that’s exciting news. Really looking forward to what’s ahead and like I said, we’re actually still really excited by how things have been going so far overall. In context, these things are relatively minor. Good to hear we’re not totally alone in this too!

      It’s worth emphasising again that we’re comortable with fixed price billing and have a mixture of arrangements on the client side of things. We just track the time both to help us analyse the job costing aspect of that, and also for clients that actually prefer us to strictly use time-cost.

      I suppose the point of the post was more that it seems that Xero-WFM have ridden a wave of early adopters in the accounting profession who seem to be like Apple groupies – love whatever their vendor does even if it means adapting their methods to suit! They’re personally invested in the success of Xero, which is actually great marketing. So I appreciate that. We like to see ourselves towards the front of the next wave. It’s a group that will be a lot more diverse and perhaps fussier, but likewise much bigger. This is really the group whose hearts Xero will need to win to be more than a niche product in the enterprise accounting software sphere – to really ‘disrupt’ the profession, as they’re looking to do. So WFM needs to be able to be more than simply a solution for those willing to value bill and get rid of timesheets, since so many in that next wave will either want to continue using time-cost, or at least will need to keep using that method while they make the mental and practical transition required. Of course it is capable of doing both – it’s just the timesheet aspect of WFM feels a bit like an afterthought at the moment. Actually, that’s not totally correct. It feels more like something designed for those that might only have a handful of entries each day, rather management level public accountants who might have many, many lines to enter.

      I guess to put it simply it’s about more than just the pain in changing methodology, as though somehow we’re a stubborn minority desperately clinging to archaic methodologies. Practices like ours will make up the majority of that next group that Xero wants to reach, so to really maxmise market penetration WFM needs to be easy to use for both groups.

      It sounds as though that might be just about to change though, so thanks again for the feedback.

  4. Great post John
    It will be interesting to see how Xero moves past the “groupies” and engages the next wave who aren’t swept up in the hype but simply want a product that works. And if Xero can keep the early adapters happy and make the next wave as big advocates, then they are on a winner.

    From what I have seen and heard, the foundations for this transition are definitely being laid. It is all very exciting for accountants who are looking to transform their Practice

  5. Thanks for interesting post John

    I am glad to hear that I am not the only practitioner out there who has been struggling a bit with WFM. While operating in the cloud with Xero is the way forward for my small practice, the biggest challenge I find with all these new cloud systems is the time to wrap my head around it, learn it, implement it.

    I don’t have 3-5 partners in my firm to help me out and share the load. It’s just me and I still need to run a business and serve clients in the meantime. I recognize that there are businesses like Hansens Solutions to assist in the implementation and I might have to seek their services.

    When WFM is free with Xero Silver Partner status, I don’t like to complain too much. Especially considering the cost of the Handisoft package, MYOB AO and (ouch) APS. I also find that WFM is relatively intuitive and easy to use when compared to these legacy systems.

    But I also wonder if we are being too harsh. Are we getting to “if I can’t use it in 30 minutes, I give up” ? If this is our mentality, we will never succeed with the Cloud or be able to come up with solutions for clients. I’m the sort of guy who is more than willing to invest some time and money in training and implementation.

    Xero/WFM Team, I know your listening and I am glad you do… Some more dedicated WFM , training and maybe a “how to” implementation guide might help us smaller guys out. This support and training is vital if you want us to be recommending and rolling out WFM to our clients.

    Thanks again

    • Thanks David. All good points, and like I’ve said a number of times, there are compromises with any software. We didn’t love what we had either, and it cost us a whole lot more for the inconvenience! So I agree – we need to give it time and adapt. We’re committed to doing that and there have been some great benefits that have come from it so far.

      I’ll be writing another post sometime about some of the other compromises, but it’s worth noting that the promised change posted earlier in these comments by Xero about being able to add ad hoc time to a client didn’t amount to anything much in terms of a solution. So we’re still waiting to see a better way to deal with all of the small one-off jobs and to manage the excessively long job lists that are the inevitable result. The change promised here was really nothing more than a quick add feature to allocate time to an ad-hoc job, but critical info is still missing from the job (like who the manager is) and it automatically sets the due date as today so that ad-hoc job now appears on your job list as immediately overdue. It actually creates more work because you have to then go in and edit these things, so it’s of no use at all, as far as we can tell.

  6. Great article. Is the incredible struggle worth the effort of spending hours researching the best set up structure, hours adding jobs and tasks and templates etc? I currently use Paymo – a great little time recording app but a bit cumbersome wrt to invoicing and syncing to Xero.

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