Help! I need somebody! (Not just anybody…)

One of the biggest concerns we had when we started looking into what it would take to switch systems was tech support. We were used to having phone support on demand, whereas Xero and WorkflowMax only provided email support. Was it going to cut it?

Tech supportWhen it came to working out whether email-only tech support would be enough for us, there really was no way we could ever have been absolutely sure. We tried to do our due diligence as best we could. We made some investigations. We spoke to people who were already using Xero and WFM. In the end, we found out as much as we could. Beyond that, the only thing left was to experience it for ourselves. We took the plunge.

We’re in a great position now to compare our new tech support with our old, since we haven’t dispensed with our old accounting software entirely yet. We’ve kept it around while we wait for a suitable tax and document management solution.

Firstly let me say that email-only tech support isn’t as bad as it sounds.

It all comes down to the nature of the product. When you’re experiencing some kind of paranormal activity in your desktop application, there are a number of different possibilities. Perhaps it’s a programming glitch, sure. But maybe it’s your system. Maybe it’s something unique to the data file you’re working on. Maybe you just need to turn your computer off and on again. All of this makes you anxious and uncertain, and you want to talk to someone. But when you’re working in the cloud, you have (almost) complete confidence that any problem you find is unlikely to be at your end. Everyone is using the same application and the same data files. So immediately your mind starts shifting to how you will work around it or what help resources there are available. That’s somehow more reassuring. No one needs to remote access your desktop. There’s no uninstalling and reinstalling.

Help file for our old software.

Help file for our old software.

Good online help resources play a big part too. We’re used to the existence of a Help menu, but ours was structured more like a game walkthrough from the late 90’s. The term ‘help’ in this context is somewhat deceptive. It’s  something really to be consulted only by the truly desperate.

But good help resources are not enough on their own. You still want to know that when you do have issues, someone is there for you and that when you need to call on them, you’re going to get a prompt response.

It’s great to be able to report that for any given technical support incident we’ve experienced with Xero and WorkflowMax so far the time from reporting the issue to resolving it (or getting an answer as to why it can’t be resolved) is at least about the same as it was previously. And it’s often better.

How can that be?

The problem with phone support (or ours at least) is that it’s inherently inefficient. It takes a while to actually get to someone who can help you. Maybe you start out on hold for 20 minutes. When you finally get through, the initial response usually is something along the lines of ‘it can’t be replicated at our end’. You’re usually instructed to do the same basic routines again – uninstall and reinstall the product, reindex the database, reapply the most recent patches and so on. Incidentally, if ‘reindexing the database’ is always an early possible solution, doesn’t that say something about the stability of the product in the first place? How can I ever rely on the integrity of the data at any point in time without first reindexing? Ideally do I need to reindex every day then? Every hour? Shouldn’t this be a last resort rather than a first response? But I digress…

At this point you may or may not be escalated to a supervisor. When you finally get through, you’re often taken through the same things again, before you’re allowed to get into the good stuff. Maybe at some point after this you are able to resolve the problem. But it’s quite often the case that after all of that you end up only confirming what you kinda suspected from the beginning anyway – there’s a bug in the product. So you start thinking about workarounds.

So phone support doesn’t necessarily mean you get your problem resolved any faster, and the end result often ends up the same anyway.

The thing about Xero though is that there really aren’t a whole lot of bugs in it anyway. There are occasional functionality issues – things we wish it could do better – and they have tripped us up as we learn how to make it work for us, but when it’s essentially the same setup running on every desktop around the country, bugs don’t tend to stick around for long.

Contrast that to our old software. We’ve been finding more and more bugs in it lately, particularly in our tax product, and when we call for support it increasingly seems like the person on the other end is just flipping through knowledge base articles as we speak rather than knowing the product intimately. What’s more, the release of tax this year was late, after the end of the financial year, and even then the superannuation functionality was completely removed while they continued to work on it.

"Yeah, the ride is a little bumpy, but it's fine - it's by design!"

Yeah, the ride is a little bumpy, but it’s by design.

We had an incident recently that took a number of weeks to get ‘resolved’, and at one point while we were waiting to be called back with an answer, we received a message telling us that the case had been closed because they hadn’t heard anything from us! Once we were able to get the case re-opened, they were finally able replicate the issue, but we were advised that this was by design. It was pointed out that an incorrect tax calculation would never be ‘by design’, so once we were able to agree on that the ‘resolution’ was that it was a bug and that we would need to wait for an enhancement at some point in the indefinite future. You’ll notice I used a lot of quotes there when referring to the solution, because ultimately there wasn’t one.

Now all of that is fine when you’re talking free support for some app that came with your printer. You get what you pay for, right?

But the last quarterly maintenance invoice for our tax and document management product was over $3,000! That’s quarterly in case you missed it, and that’s after we significantly cut our licensing back now that we use it a lot less.

So yes, Xero and WFM only have email support. And yes, so far they don’t have a tax product, which would dramatically complicate things. To date, most support emails we’ve sent have been responded to within the hour. But maybe that will change as these products become more popular and especially when there’s a tax product that needs to be wrestled with. Who knows?

I want to emphasise that before I continue because I don’t want to seem all preachy about it. Sure, we need good, reliable tax software to do what we do. But tax is complicated, and the Tax Office doesn’t make it any easier either. Each year, changes are abundant and deadlines tight. Sometimes this results in bugs. I get that.

Clown Customer Service

I can assure you we’re taking your problem very seriously.

But the thing is, we’re paying a pretty huge premium for our old software. And for that we get long hold times, no product development (our document management product is essentially exactly the same as it was five years ago when we rolled it out) and quite often no solutions. And on top of that, we have to support an internal server environment that costs us tens of thousands more every few years. If you’re paying that kind of money, you want to know that people are moving mountains to get your problems fixed. Or at least making you feel like they are.

To be fair, we should compare apples with apples. WFM and Xero are not free. We just made Silver status with Xero, which means WFM is now free. But up until this point it has cost us $199 a month. Even at that price it’s pretty cheap for a practice management solution, but free is even better. Silver status also entitles us to a range of other add-ons at no cost, including (as I understand it) the future tax solution. Plus, because we’re using Xero as our internal general ledger product, we need to pay for Xero ledgers even where clients don’t use them – the so-called ‘$5 ledgers’. So there is a cost, and at the moment it’s in the thousands of dollars a year.

But it’s still a lot less than what we were paying, and for that we get regular updates and prompt response times. There are also user-friendly and abundant help resources available. Plus Xero have a development team that listens to and implements enhancement requests.

But more than all of that, being in the cloud means there are less environmental factors that influence reliability and so therefore, simply, less support calls.

So – great support for a lower maintenance cost and no server demands whatsoever? Or $3,000+ a quarter plus server costs for the kind of support that at times resembles what you get with an obscurely-named mp4 player from eBay? You can probably judge for yourself whether or not we’re worried now.

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A cure for the WorkflowMax job list blues

So you’ve got those ol’ WorkflowMax job list blues? It’s time to turn that frown upside-down. Here’s a cure for what ails you.

Too much work

Out of the box, WorkflowMax forces you to create way too many jobs. A job isn’t merely a work code, like a description of the activity you undertook. It’s a project that has a start date and an end date. It has team members allocated to it and can be used to manage the workflow of individuals, teams and the practice as a whole. Turns out, accountants in public practice work on a lot of jobs!

What that translates to is clutter. It makes your job list unmanageable, because everything that you’ve ever worked on becomes a job for you. Most accountants we know want a job list just to manage the major tasks they are currently working on. They don’t want, for example, to start a job simply because they made a phone call that went a little long.

Breakdancing

Like most accountants, we enjoy breakdancing and recording all of our time.

For those of us that still kick it old-school, it’s not that you want to bill every unit of time you allocate to a job. But you at least want to record it for job costing purposes, not to mention for identifying capacity, monitoring productivity and so on. Maybe it’s just a case that old habits die hard. Perhaps we will completely revolutionise the way we record time and bill our clients sometime in the future. Even so, let’s do one thing at a time. Let’s get the software bedded down first and replicate what we’re currently doing. Then we’ll talk.

So for us, WorkflowMax was reduced to a time recording tool and nothing more. Jobs lists became too long and unwieldy. Even though it had promised so much, we weren’t using it to manage workflow at all. It was WorkflowMin.

We needed a solution. So the FGS team went into their laboratory to concoct a formula for making our work lists more manageable. This is what they came up with.

It isn’t a perfect solution still because ultimately we’re limited by the functionality of the application. We’re waiting for the day when some of the changes we’ve requested are implemented, so that WFM is a better fit for more traditional practices. We made a shortlist late last year of the major improvements we’d like to see. But for now, this works for us.

We’ve introduced two new jobs states which can be included in any job.

New job statesThe first is Time Accumulation. This job state usually appears near the very beginning, though it may not always be used that way. The point of it is to have a separate phase in the flow of work which is not attributable to a specific task.

The second job state we introduced is For Invoicing. This is usually the last job state before a job is set to completed. It reflects precisely what it says – that often a job may be finished but not invoiced until later in the month or beyond.

On the face of it these jobs states may seem neither here nor there. It’s what comes next that makes the difference. Because of the way WFM can notify staff about changes to a job, we have these two new job states set to notify our accounts manager when a job is changed to one of these states. She then goes into those jobs and makes herself the manager of them while at the same time removing the names of anyone else who might have worked on the job and is associated with it (more relevant for jobs that have been in the system for a while and are ready for invoicing than new jobs that have started with the Time Accumulation state).

Sometimes you have to jury-rig things to get the result you're looking for.

Sometimes you have to jury-rig things to get the result you’re looking for.

This may seem awkward and clunky (and to some extent it is) but it’s a serviceable workaround that achieves what we want. Our accounts manager does very little chargeable work and so doesn’t use her job list. And this is an admin task so it helps to move an administration intensive activity away from our chargeable people. From their perspective, it all happens automatically, making their lives easier. Any job where one of these states is used is removed from our accountants’ job lists, which become far more reflective of the actual state of their current workload, i.e. jobs they are actively working on.

What’s more, the For Invoicing job state, with its accompanying notification, proactively tells our accounts manager that an invoice is ready to be raised, instead of her having to chase it up or wait for someone to let her know. She can log in each day and immediately see a list of bills she can raise.

This is a great example of how (with a little lateral thinking at times) WFM can be made to work for traditional accounting practices like ours, and even help to improve them. The question is, could we have ever worked this out for ourselves? I’m glad we didn’t have to find out.

Windows 8 – give it a chance to make you love it

I love technology. I especially love it when I find something that not only solves a problem but also helps me do things I hadn’t even thought of. With that in mind, I present part one of my very first product review – Windows 8 on a Dell Latitude 10 tablet.

Windows 8 Start Screen Angled

I’ve never really been attracted to the idea of a tablet.

I use a laptop for business purposes, and I have an Android smartphone for quick browsing, email, etc. I could never really justify the case for a tablet to sit in between those two devices, since it felt to me like I didn’t really gain much extra functionality.

But I have to confess that one of the things that attracted me about the ‘practice of the future’ was the promise that you could do it all on your tablet. I just needed to find something to change my mind about actually owning one. And recently I did. It’s a 10.1″ Dell Latitude 10 with Windows 8 Pro. It’s less about the particular brand of hardware though, and more about the operating system

No, it’s not a Surface. But it uses the same operating system as the Surface Pro.”

So begins every conversation I have with anyone who asks about the hardware I’m rockin’. From there I have to launch into a convoluted discussion about the various options you have when choosing a Windows 8 device. So I suppose I might as well get it out the way now.

The original Microsoft Surface RT (released late last year) uses an ARM processor – the kind you find in many smartphones and tablets today. A bit of rewriting of Windows was required to get it to work with these processors and as a consequence, you can’t use any old Windows applications (like, say, Office pre-2013). It looks like Windows, but it’s more a mobile operating system like iOS (on Apple devices) or Android. The advantage though is that it gets tablet-like battery life and doesn’t heat up too much.

Proposed new icon for the Windows 8 App Store

Proposed new icon for the Windows 8 App Store

To be honest though, to me there just isn’t a compelling reason to choose this Windows ‘lite’ over the established players if all you want is a tablet to consume web content. Especially when you can only install apps from the Windows 8 app store and that is still a bit of a ghost town. Windows RT confuses the market and requires drawn out explanations like this one to put it into its rightful place.

If I’m going to buy a Windows tablet, it’s because I want to do something more.

This year Microsoft have released the Surface Pro. This is a full blown Windows machine, using an Intel Core i5 processor like you’d find in a regular laptop. Great news for those wanting full Windows like me.

The non-RT version of Windows 8 (i.e. regular Windows) now gives you the best of both worlds – two interfaces. There’s the new ‘Modern’ interface which uses touch scrolling and live tiles, and allows you to consume content via web-connected apps. Microsoft have intentionally set out to do something completely new here. It’s not an iOS rip-off. It’s altogether different, and that can be infuriating. It really takes some getting used to. But once you do, it’s not only effective, it has a couple of killer features that make iOS and Android tablets seem like over-sized smartphones. So if you stick to the Modern interface, any Windows 8 apps you install will work without you ever having to see the ‘old’ Windows. I’m not convinced yet that Microsoft are right to force this interface onto desktop users, but in a tablet it works well.

For older Windows applications, it drops you back to the familiar Windows desktop. To the Apple zealots, this might be a point worthy of derision. Windows desktop on a tablet?! And to be honest, the experience on a touch-only device isn’t always what one might call smooth. So perhaps it deserves some mockery – until you want to use a full blown desktop application for something. Then it’s irreplaceable.

But there’s a problem with the Surface Pro. Because it uses laptop hardware, it gets laptop battery life  – abysmal relative to a tablet. And the heat is such that it still uses fans to cool itself! I’m not sure about you, but I can’t imagine using a tablet and putting up with fan noise as hot air blows all over my knees!

This is why the Surface Pro is more of a laptop replacement. I like the idea, but I would wait for Surface Pro 2.0 or 3.0.

What to do?

Well, as it happens there is a third category of Windows tablet. I’m surprised that Microsoft haven’t made more of a big deal of this category. Remember the old Atom processors that were popular for a while when Netbook computers had their 5 minutes in the sun? They were mostly terrible of course. The processors that powered them are still around though, and they’re now much better – power-efficient, low heat and dual core. And best of all, they use the old x86 architecture which means you can run full Windows 8!

The Dell Latitude 10 - hot air ballooning optional

My new pride and joy – they’re so cute at this age!

That’s where my Dell fits in. Other devices to use this processor include the Samsung Ativ and the HP Envy x2. For me at least, this is where it’s at for Windows 8 tablets. Little to no heat, great battery life and full Windows 8 Pro. It’s like a tablet, only I can do laptopy things with it. I can put it onto a Windows domain. I can print from it. Because it has a full-sized USB port (hallelujah!) I can plug an ethernet cable (using an ethernet to USB connector) or a USB stick into it. And I can run any legacy Windows applications I like, without the need for a permanent internet connection.

The other day, for example, I needed to make a change to a PowerPoint animation on the road. No need for a VPN or a feature-barren app that’s not up to the task. I just dropped back to the desktop and opened PowerPoint. No catches. I can even sync an iPhone to it!

I’m not going into a comprehensive review of the device and the OS in this instalment. Microsoft’s unnecessarily complicated product strategy means that I need an entire introductory post just to explain what it is I’m reviewing! But let me try to summarise.

I’m a person who’s reasonably OS agnostic. In our house we have both Windows and Apple computers, as well as iOS and Android smartphones. So I hope it counts for something when I say that for me at least, a Windows 8 tablet is the best tablet for business use.

The Modern interface is a complete break from the iOS/Android way of doing things. Yes there’s a learning curve, the app store is pretty barren for now and when you do have to drop back to the desktop, it’s a little clunky. Each element on its own is not best in class. But put together, a Windows 8 tablet is the best compromise of all worlds.

Thankfully, days like this are now behind me

Thankfully, days like this are now behind me

I ride my bike to work as many days as I can. When I first bought my tablet, I assumed I’d leave it at the office and use it for meetings and so on, and continue to take my laptop home each night. Of course, this is pretty heavy in my backpack, but what can you do? Turns out what I can do is leave it here and take my tablet home instead. In fact, I’ve taken my laptop home maybe twice in the last 2 months. I can do everything I need to on on my tablet now – including playing a few retro games from the early 2000’s (Half Life 2 runs great on low detail).

Coupled with the great productivity features in the new Modern Interface, Windows 8 as a business tablet makes an iPad seem like a consumer toy.

And of course, when it comes to using Xero and WorkflowMax, it really doesn’t matter what you use.