About johnatdewings

Managing Director at Dewings.

Mutiple ledgers multiply costs

When it comes to Xero, there’s a lot of talk about the ‘single ledger’. But what about multiple single ledgers?

calculator (Medium)Earlier this year we made the decision to pull back on promoting Xero to our clients while we focussed on bedding our internal systems down. This means to some extent that we haven’t yet promoted the great benefits of Xero as well as we could have. Marketing Xero as a client solution, as opposed to using it internally, has taken something of a back seat.

But we’ve still been talking about, and implementing, Xero whenever we can. So far the response has been almost all positive, even from those who are either not yet ready or happy with their existing software.

With one exception…

As a practice, we do a lot of larger business enterprises that have a number of entities as a part of their group. If they move to Xero, they need to pay a monthly ledger subscription for each of those entities, and those costs quickly escalate.

Employee of the month for ten straight years.

Employee of the month for ten straight years.

If clients are using QuickBooks or MYOB, they pay (at the most) a few hundred dollars a year in upgrade costs to stay with the latest version. For those who don’t use payroll, the upgrades may be needed even less often. The coveted annual tax scales are the prod that compels the goose to continue laying golden eggs for QuickBooks and MYOB. Without them, annual upgrades for these products are often more bloat than benefit.

In return for a single subscription fee, clients get to create as many different accounting entities as they like. This works well for those who have large groups where many of the entities involved actually conduct business. There is no additional cost involved in creating ledgers for extra entities.

To illustrate the difference with Xero, we have a client who has one large trading entity with employees, and a number of other entities that also invoice. We assessed their needs to be:

  • 1 x large entity ledger @ $64 per month (because of the many employees)
  • 3 x medium entities @ $49 per month (all three of which invoice)
  • Total monthly cost = $211
  • Total annual cost = $2,532

We’ve had even larger examples, but this one is probably the simplest because the  needs here are so absolute. We couldn’t, for example, consider downgrading any of the medium ledgers because every entity had to issue invoices.

This client was already using MYOB for their software and paying their annual subscription, so what we were asking them to commit to with Xero was an increase in annual costs of around $2,000 a year over a competitor product. And we couldn’t even offer them inventory management without the additional cost of an add-on! That makes Xero a pretty tough sell.

We love Xero. We think it has the potential to deliver significant savings to SMEs. But from a client’s perspective, Xero’s competition is really QuickBooks and MYOB. Clients see Xero as SME accounting software, and in terms of feature-set, they’re right. Its main competitive advantages are in providing a single ledger for clients and accountants, and in being accessible anywhere. These are great benefits, and it’s certainly easier to use too, but beyond these distinctions the functionality is similar, and in some cases more limited than the competition (again, inventory, for example). Yet when multiple entities are required, the dollars involved quickly move Xero up to the next level, competing with more expensive modular management accounting suites.

We’ve raised this issue with Xero before, but it’s not something that is high on their list of priorities. To some extent, I get it. If they’re giving away software to accountants, then on the client side they need to make every ledger count. But couldn’t there be a group discount of some kind? In our example above, Xero might lose a thousand dollars or more per annum in making such an offering, but at the moment they’re losing the entire subscription.

Xero may be easier to use. It may deliver efficiency gains. It may be ‘beautiful’. But in the end, for savvy people in business it’s a simple cost-benefit consideration. Sure, Xero is more efficient, but in this case that efficiency comes at a price. If you have to pay a significant premium to move all of your entities over to it, you’re going to have to weigh up those benefits against a very real and substantial cost.

It’s a bit like buying a diesel car. You can’t just say that a diesel is more fuel efficient and therefore better value, because the up-front cost of a diesel is usually much higher than its equivalent petrol counterpart. You have to quantify any potential future savings at the same time as you’re evaluating the cost, and work out how long it will take you to recoup the initial outlay. It may be the case that in many situations you’re better off sticking with petrol.

It does appear a little steep from here but you're just looking at it wrong.

It does appear a little steep from here but you’re just looking at it wrong.

With Xero, whatever the outcome of that analysis, the up-front costs when multiple entities are involved create a much steeper gradient for larger clients to make the switch. In particular, the comparison is often between real dollars in subscriptions and the mere opportunity cost of a person’s time, who is likely getting paid regardless. Like I said, it can be a tough sell.

So maybe we, as Xero resellers, could absorb some or all of the cost of some client ledgers by bundling up Xero as a part of an overall accounting solution? There’s a problem with this strategy too. Xero dangle a big carrot to entice accountants to switch over their practices to the Xero model – the promise of ‘free’ software. But this future hope is predicated on one significant assumption – that what you make on supplying Xero to clients pays for everything else. If we’re absorbing some of the cost ourselves each time, then the free software objective becomes a whole lot more difficult to achieve.

The solution?

Our suggestion would be that Xero adds another tier above ‘Large’ – let’s call it ‘Enterprise’ for now – that offers a certain number of entities included under the one registration, at a discount to buying each ledger separately.

Ultimately this isn’t about whether Xero delivers value. It’s possible that in the final analysis a large client is still going to be better off. But five or ten times the annual cost for an SME accounting solution represents a pretty big up-front barrier to adoption, even if it is only perception. Perception often is, after all, reality, especially in terms of the impact that it has on buying decisions.

But we want our free software now!

But we want our free software now!

From a firm point of view, we’ve already seen some huge gains with WorkflowMax, and to think that a capable practice management solution can be had at no cost in return for such a small commitment is incredible. There’s still significant value here for an accounting practice. So we’re not complaining about the value for ourselves.

But we’re also trying to document our journey as honestly as possible for those who might be thinking of doing what we are. The value equation for clients with larger groups becomes a lot more difficult to quantify when multiple ledgers are required, and if these clients can’t be won over, this will have an impact on the feasibility of going all-Xero in a practice. Whatever you may hear, Xero isn’t free, and for practices that do a lot of large groups with multiple entities – particularly where those groups are already using QuickBooks or MYOB – the promise of free practice software could well remain a pipe dream.

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Document mis-Management

We’ve reached a point in our journey to the cloud where some of our other systems are going under the microscope. Document management is one of them. If only we could find what we’re looking for.

DocumentsA few months ago we were effectively given an ultimatum by our tax software provider: upgrade to our new offering or move on.

This year (2013) will be the last year that a tax product will be developed for our platform. After that, we have to upgrade to a new and improved version of our software to continue preparing and lodging tax returns. Ostensibly, this ‘upgrade’ is supplied as a part of our ongoing maintenance costs. But it requires more than just the installation and implementation of a new system. We need new servers and if we want our environment to be supported, quite possibly news desktops as well.

It’s not a prospect that fills us with enthusiasm. But perhaps the most grating aspect of this news is the way it’s being delivered to the many accounting practices affected around Australia – “if you want to continue lodging tax returns, you’re going to be up for tens of thousands of dollars. No biggie, just let us know when you’re ready to proceed.” Uh yeah, we’ll get back to you.

It highlights more clearly than ever what is perhaps the most compelling argument for moving to the cloud. In the end, I don’t care where our data is stored, so long as it’s secure and readily accessible. It’s about breaking away from this perpetual hardware upgrade cycle. In the model we’re working towards, if you have a web browser, you’re good to go.

DANGER: Exorbitant compulsory upgrade costs ahead!

DANGER: Exorbitant compulsory upgrade costs ahead!

This imminent support cliff has also prompted us to think more about our document management solution. DM and Tax are supplied by the same developer and are, in some ways, intricately connected. They are really the last two major applications tying us to our old servers (if we exclude Exchange, which we already know we can move to the cloud anytime). If we have to find a replacement for Tax, why not just fast-track this thing and rid ourselves of server dependence once and for all? We planned to ride these old workhorses for as long as we can and then put them out to pasture. If “as long as we can” turns out to be a year or two earlier than we thought, all the better!

With document management though, It’s not proving to be as easy as we thought. Admittedly, our experience so far is shaped by a fairly limited range of applications – General Ledger (Xero) and Practice Management (WorkflowMax). In both cases, while there has been some adjustment, we were able to see early on that we could adapt these products to fit our needs. Document management seems to be a different story though.

One of the more significant barriers to documents in the cloud is bandwidth. I don’t want to get all political on you, but to anyone who thinks that the NBN is nothing more than a popularity project, hear my tale! We work in the Greenhill Road precinct of Adelaide – essentially the secondary business district of our city. If not for the apartments outside of my window, I could see the CBD. I could walk there in 20 minutes. And yet we can’t get decent broadband. On a good day, the best download speed we can hope for is around 11 mbps using a microwave type solution, but the guaranteed minimum for our service is only 4 mbps. The copper is so old in our neighbourhood that ADSL is even worse – around 3 mbps – which is why we don’t use it.

We still considering other options for achieving faster transfer speeds in our district

We’re still considering other options for achieving faster transfer speeds in our district

None of that is great when you have, say, a large set of scanned working papers you want to open. But when it comes to document management, upload speeds become a lot more relevant too. Without going to some kind of expensive bonded ADSL solution (which even then, with bad copper, isn’t great), ADSL upload speeds are much lower than the potential download speeds even in the best of cases. With our WiMax connection, the maximum upload speed is 1mbps.

So the reality for us is that as long as we’re shackled to such antiquated infrastructure, off-site storage simply isn’t an option. It might work for backup (if we could send an initial image off-site first – to upload our entire server at those speeds would take months!) but when you need a document fast, those speeds just aren’t going to cut it for immediate storage and retrieval.

Even if they did though, there’s more to the problem than that. What we’re finding is that many of the alternative applications on offer simply don’t seem to be true document management solutions. Sure, WorkflowMax integrates with Dropbox and Box. These are potentially great storage and collaboration options, but at the end of the day, they are nothing more than that – glorified folder structures. It’s the same as having a shared server drive, only it’s in the cloud.

True document management is more than that though. Ideally, you want your document management system to replicate (in some respects) a paper system. So let’s say I want to pull out the 2012 tax file for a client. I should be able to search in a way that allows me to restrict my search to certain criteria. This is done using metadata – additional information used to profile a document. In a true document management system, whenever I save a document, I do more than simply save it to a location – I profile it. I give it a year, a client code, and some other tags – like what general area of operations it relates to (for us, ‘compliance’, ‘consulting’, ‘admin’, etc.) and then within those groups, a more specific descriptor (for the ‘consulting’ group say, ‘CGT advice’, ‘estate planning’, ‘succession’, etc.). I also profile what type of document it is – a letter, a form, a file note and so on. This is all information I can then later use to replicate that process of ‘getting a file out’, from which I can then search for the specific document I’m looking for. Full text searching is useful sometimes, but on other occasions you want to refine your sample to reduce the number of documents you need to look through..

As far as I’m aware, Dropbox and Box don’t do this (I’d be happy to be proven wrong though). They are document storage solutions, not document management applications. And what’s more they don’t provide the extended capabilities of a document management system. They don’t allow you to set up standard templates that can be populated from your database for mail merges and standard letters. They don’t proactively prompt you to profile documents (email is perhaps the best example – how do you make people store their client emails in Dropbox?)

I may be wrong, but it seems like there’s a big hole here (in Australia at least) – and an opportunity. To me the solution seems relatively simple in theory (the actual implementation may be more complicated, I concede):

  1. Store your documents locally on a shared NAS drive for quick and easy access.
  2. Sync that drive to an off-site storage location for backup purposes (perhaps even use Dropbox or similar for this, though there are potentially jurisdictional issues if the documents are going to be stored outside of Australia).
  3. Use a web-based document management application to profile, index and search your local drive, as well as providing other functionality.

Is it as simple as that, or am I missing something? Essentially what I’m getting at is using a cloud-based application to profile, index and search, but with local storage.

It’s really not going to take all that much to impress us

The only other criterion I’d add is that that it needs to be cost-effective too. I’m not expecting miracles or anything – I know there will be some hardware and setup costs for the storage component. But after that, all I’m looking for really is an online tool to help manage documents. I should add here too that I’m setting the bar on cost-effectiveness pretty low. We’re used to paying $8,000 – $10,000 a year in ‘maintenance’ for a product that hasn’t been maintained of developed in almost five years. If there’s something out there that can do better than that, it’s already ahead!

I guess in the end what this amounts to is a plea for help. I may be a little off in the specifics of how something like this could work. And maybe there’s an alternative logic to it all – a methodology and solution that I haven’t even considered. I’m open to anything, but the question I’m asking is simply (can I still use the word ‘simply’ at this point?): how do we get document management to work in this new 21st century cloud paradigm…in Australia?

Change – as good as a holiday

Last month we hit silver status for Xero. That means as a practice we now get WorkflowMax for free. Seems like a great time to get some thoughts from the person whose life has been most changed by it.

LeavesWhenever you implement a new system, there are going to be those who love it and those who don’t. There are going to be processes that translate well from the old to the new, and those that don’t. That’s why no review of WorkflowMax could really be complete without hearing from our Accounts Manager, Kim Buscumb.

Kim handles all of our invoicing and debtors processing, as well as looking after our payroll. It’s fair to say that 1st July last year was a watershed moment in her working life!

We took the approach that we would implement WorkflowMax first, while taking the Xero transition a little more gradually. For most of our team, this meant that on their very first day of work in July 2012, the biggest change they noticed was that they were using a different timesheet application. They were then able to ease into the job management capabilities of WorkflowMax over the next few weeks and months.

For Kim, it was like converting a nation to the metric system! On that first day, everything changed. Every process was now different. Her world was turned upside down. Not only did she have to now manage WIP and invoicing from an entirely new application, she also had to manage the setup of opening balances and historical data for all of her reporting. And on top of all of that, 1st July seemed like a good time to adopt the Xero payroll system and – you guessed it – Kim is also our payroll officer.

The team at Focus Growth Strategies were a big help as always. This was the very early days, so this was when we needed them most. They did the setup of our practice file in WorkflowMax and helped us transfer data and opening balances. We were able to throw a lot at them, on an almost daily basis, and they made sure that we got what we needed and that we understood how it all fit together.

But all of that ultimately still ran through Kim. She still had to prepare WIP reports and issue invoices that week. It was Kim who had to do a payroll run on the Wednesday of that first week, and make sure that all of the opening balances were correct for leave accruals. More than anyone else, Kim’s job needed to continue on as normal for the practice to function, but with a set of tools that were completely new and utterly foreign.

View from Kim’s office, circa July 2012

I wouldn’t argue with you if you said that we threw Kim in at the deep end. I could justify that to some extent with jingoistic rhetoric like “we only did it because we knew she was up to the task” – which is actually true – but in hindsight, it was probably too much for one person to handle all at once.

But cometh the hour, cometh the man! Or woman. Regardless of what we should have done, Kim proved her mettle and got us over the line, to the point where we now have a functioning time-management and invoicing system. Not to mention payroll too.

That background makes what is about to follow all the more surprising. We asked the person most affected by the transition to give us a few thoughts on it all.

Tell us about those first few weeks of July, 2012.

“When I think back to last June/July I remember getting up for work each morning and part of me was filled with excitement, partly because the person that I am really thrives when the pressure’s on, and partly because we were making a change and the practice was evolving.

“But as we got to say July/August a bigger part of me would start welling up with tears the minute I actually sat at my desk each morning, and I think I even got to the point that I felt almost paralysed because there was so much to do and I just couldn’t decide where to start.”

What happened next? How did you get through those early days?

“Bit by bit, day after tearful day, the work got done, the WIP got transferred, the debtors entered into Xero, the templates were tweaked and tweaked again with FGS, and WorkflowMax and Xero slowly but surely became second nature.”

Now that it has become ‘second nature’, what differences do you notice in your work?

“The benefits have really started to show. I set a new record for processing wages in Xero last week – 24 minutes! February saw me looking for work to do before the month was out. March saw the introduction of a new client which we will do the bookkeeping for in Xero, and I am now handling that, which I would never have had time for before. I was able to process two months of invoices for a manager who was going on leave, and now April sees me once again looking for work by the end of week three. I’ve already done the month’s bills and the bookkeeping for the new client.”

Does it bother you that you’re now looking for other work at times?

“I love that I can now be utilised for some other work like Xero processing and bookkeeping for clients, instead of just trudging my way through WIPs and bills all month, every month.”

[ED: I can testify that we too love having more of Kim’s time available so that we can utilise her extensive range of skills for other purposes.]

What do you like the most about the system now that it’s working so well for you?

“I love the way Xero has more than halved the payroll/superannuation processing time each week/month.

“I also love the new ‘For Invoicing’ job state – bills are being sent much more timelier, and it helps to spread my work out, so the end/start of every month are not such a stress.

Is there anything you still don’t like?

“Yes – definitely the reporting. I can’t get a current WIP report by date range – you either get a Job WIP report which includes all uninvoiced time to date with no ability to set a cut-off date, or a Client WIP report to a specific date, which includes all Jobs AND all invoiced WIP too, which is useless!  Also, for example, the other day I tried to find an Aged WIP report – one that would break down the total WIP for the practice into what was left for this month, last month, etc. so we could do some analysis. But I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and couldn’t work out how to write one for what I needed. It just seems that some obvious (for Accounting Practices) reporting requirements are missing.”

Overall, how do you feel about the move to WorkflowMax and Xero now?

“I’m feeling very confident in my day to day use of both WFM and Xero, and extremely happy with the efficiencies gained and the possibilities that will open up as a result of that.

If you had to choose, new system or old?

“Definitely new.”

Can WorkflowMax really replace the practice management system of a traditional firm? Of course it can. But can it actually make your practice better? We’re increasingly convinced that it can.

Just another day at the office for Kim today

For us, Kim’s conversion story is the most significant example of this yet. If ever there was a person who would be justified in hating a system, it would be her. And indeed she did. But here she is loving it some 10 months later – so much so that she’s now an evangelist for the cause – happy in her work and helping us to drive change in the practice. We’re happy too because our processes are becoming more and more efficient each month. With another previously full-time admin team member due to come back part-time this year after taking some maternity leave, it’s now conceivable that we won’t need to employ anyone else to absorb the hours we lose there. That kind of efficiency goes straight to the bottom line.

And did I mention how much WorkflowMax is costing us?

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.

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.

Time for a sitrep…

You may have noticed we’ve been a little quiet lately. More likely you don’t really pay us that much attention. Either way, it’s probably time for a situation report. What’s been happening over the last few months?

war corrrespondent

After the initial invasion of Normandy during World War II, the Allies were forced to pause and regroup. They’d moved forward at such a rapid pace that they had stretched their supply lines too thin. They needed a break. Without that pause, they risked undoing all of the good results they had so far achieved. Troops were tired, limited resources were needed in too many places at once, and morale was depleted as the initial enthusiasm of early victory waned.

We’re no war heroes, and this is not exactly the liberation of a continent! But in the last couple of months or so we’ve had the opportunity to take stock of everything we’ve done so far, and we’ve come to the realisation that we also may have moved a little too fast.

2012 was quite a year for us. This time 12 months ago we were (un)happily plodding along with the same software we’d been using for more than a decade. Now here we are using a cloud based SME product for practice management and general ledgers. And blogging about it!

We had big, bold plans to change everything. And as soon as possible! The truth is it hasn’t been without its difficulties which, when you really think about it, is to be expected. Sure, Xero and WorkflowMax are essentially products for small to medium businesses. We should be able to get our heads around them pretty quickly, and in that we feel pretty comfortable with using these products with and for our clients. But at the same time, internally we’re discarding a pretty complex practice management system and some long established processes and practices, and as we’ve progressed, we’ve learned a lot more about the magnitude of the task.

Even the office gossip mascot needed some respite.

Even the office gossip mascot needed some respite.

So where did we get to? By the end of 2012, troops were tired, limited resources were needed in too many places at once, and morale was depleted as the initial enthusiasm of early victory waned. We needed a break.

For us this means putting aside some of our wider aspirations to radically transform the practice – just for a short time – to focus specifically on the day-to-day functions that make our practice tick. Instead of doing many things passably, we need to concentrate for a while on doing the important things well – tasks like recording the time that it takes to do our work, managing our workflow and invoicing and monitoring the performance of the practice. This is all taken care of by WorkflowMax.

We gathered the whole team together late last year and met with Tim from Focus Growth Strategies (FGS) to go over some of the problems we were having. What wasn’t working and why wasn’t it? We discussed the rollout and associated problems in three main areas:

  1. General usability;
  2. The invoicing process; and
  3. Practice management.

Here’s what we learned.

Tim Callcott from FGS .

Tim Callcott from FGS working on his manifesto while we vent.

General Usability – For our users, the main issue is (as it has always been) the size of each person’s job lists. This develops primarily because all time in WFM must be allocated to a job, and accountants in public practice tend to work on a lot of jobs! It’s not ideal, but it happens. What we learned was that our job lists had become so unwieldy that any purpose for WFM beyond the basic task of entering time was being largely ignored. We know that WFM is capable of so much more, and yet after six months all that our team is doing with it is recording time. It serves no workflow management purpose at this stage, mainly because people are too discouraged to bother using it this way.

Invoicing – From an invoicing perspective, we’ve found WFM to be pretty flexible. We’ve been getting our bills done, and for the most part we’ve been doing it more efficiently than with our previous system. The big problem we had though was in tracking which jobs were ready to be billed. Team members were setting jobs to ‘complete’ to get them off their lists, but then because these were ‘complete’, they weren’t showing as being ready to be billed. There are some minor reporting gripes too, especially in not being able to set date ranges for individual WIP reports (which was discussed in our ‘All we want for Christmas‘ post late last year). There was also some difficulty in getting accurate WIP reports because of fixed fee invoices that were being prepared in Xero. These were coming through to WFM to show as invoices, but weren’t reducing WIP balances, so balances in WIP soon became meaningless. We fixed this last issue by moving our fixed fee billing back into WFM.

Practice Management – Finally, from a practice perspective, we aren’t really using WFM as we’d dreamed we could have. As directors, we need information about how the practice is performing. Because our previous system had very little reporting capability in this regard, we had developed quite complicated monthly reporting systems using Excel to give us all the KPI data we needed for the practice. We dispensed with that when we brought in WFM, but we’ve never really worked out how to get that same information out of WFM.

Again, practice-wide the overall conclusion has been that we are using WFM to the bare minimum level.

This whole process has illustrated again for us the advantage of having a partner working with us who knows the terrain. After giving the team an ‘open mike’ session to air their grievances, we’re starting to develop workable solutions in conjunction with FGS. I’ll detail some of those solutions in later posts.

It’s also be great to have Xero listening. We know that Xero has big plans for WFM, and we’re looking forward to seeing many of our problems addressed as WFM becomes more and more tailored for the specific needs of accounting practices.

So it’s not perfect. But what system is? It’s been worthwhile going through this process and realising that with some tweaking, even in its current form, we can get WFM to work as a practice management solution.

Two things we know for sure. Firstly, this is costing us a lot less than a dedicated accounting practice suite, and not only is it no worse, in many respects it is much better. And secondly, in 100% of cases so far where we have discussed the Xero approach with our clients, they’ve been blown away. On the client-side, the hype is justified and the marketing material is not exaggerated. Clients do love it, and it does bring economies to the whole relationship that allow for better service delivery. That alone makes it worth the effort.

All we want for Christmas

We’ve made our list and we’ve checked it twice. These are the WorkflowMax features we’d like to see under our Christmas tree.

Christmas Tree (Medium)

We’ve been using WorkflowMax for almost 6 months now. Over the course of the journey so far, we’ve made no secret of the fact that while we love some aspects of WorkflowMax, we don’t think it’s quite there yet as a practice management suite for accountants. It’s no surprise really – it wasn’t developed with that specific purpose in mind. And from what we’re hearing, there’s going to be some big, and very welcome, changes coming in the next 12 months or so. If we could have it all now though, what features would we like to see in our virtual Christmas stocking this festive season? Like a good eggnog, we’ve distilled it down and brewed a carefully crafted offering – our top 5 most earnestly desired enhancements.

  1. In field testing, some users have found the speed WorkflowMax to be 'more than adequate'. For everyone else, it's a tad slow...

    In the interest of balanced reporting, not everyone finds WorkflowMax a little slow…

    Speed improvements – This request is exactly as it suggests. WorkflowMax is slow from a data entry point of view. Part of this is the way it works – one entry at a time, saving each entry and rendering a new page every time. For accountants with a lot of entries each day, there has to be a more streamlined way to get data in. But even putting that aside, purely as a website WorkflowMax just seems slow to open links and render pages. For an industry where time is the product, it’s like having a permanent glitch in the assembly line.

  2. Make timesheets central – In the current iteration of WorkflowMax, timesheets almost seem like an afterthought. Again, to some extent this makes sense when you consider who it was developed for and how it has evolved. But for most accountants (us traditional ones anyway), the timesheet is the centrepiece of our day. Rather than having multiple tabs open all day, it would be so much more efficient to be able to do everything from the timesheet – add jobs and clients, allocate people to jobs, change the state of a job as the entry is made – without having to navigate away to a new section all the time. At the moment, simply to get a day’s worth of time in and manage your work list, you have to go to a multitude of different areas, and because of the problems outlined with respect to speed in request no. 1, this is an arduous process.
  3. Create a job state that doesn’t appear on job lists – The reality of what we accountants do means that there are simply some jobs that effectively go for an entire year. Maybe you call a client to discuss their tax situation with them, but they don’t send in their info for another six months (just as an example). If the call goes for a while, you may not necessarily want to bill this time, but you need to record it. As soon as you do, that job becomes active and clutters your job list. We’d like to see a job state that can be used without having that job become active.
  4. The Model T Approach to reporting - you can have your estimated billings report at any date you like...as long as it's today.

    The Model T approach to reporting – you can have your estimated billings report at any date you like…as long as it’s today.

    Include the ability to specify a date range in an individual estimated billings report – For the uninitiated, an estimated billings report in WFM is effectively a WIP report. Incredibly there is no way to specify a date range for this report when looking at a WIP for an individual client (and we had to verify this a few times to be sure, so unlikely did it seem to us). If you’re billing time as opposed to a fixed cost (and we have clients that specifically request we do this), you can’t see a WIP report for a client as of a certain date. It’s all or nothing – there is one report, and it’s the entire WIP regardless of date. So unless you do all your invoices the first morning of the month, before anyone puts any further time in, your WIP reports will have all the time that has been entered for this month in there too. If we have clients that we bill monthly, we quite literally have to calculate the WIP for the previous month manually, subtracting from the WIP report total each and every individual entry subsequent to the end of the month, line by line.

  5. An integrated and customisable dashboard – There is so much great information in both WorkflowMax and Xero. The problem is that you have to move around so much to get it, customising various reports and repeatedly logging in with your full email address every time you just want to quickly check a figure (for example, your bank balance). And different numbers appear in different applications. Xero handles your bank balance and debtors, while WFM looks after things like billings, productivity and so on. We’re not asking for infinite customisation – there has to be limits of course. It would just be good to have a range of practice KPIs that could be selectively summarised in a single page report.

Ok, so we know we’re being a little childish to expect anything more from the Xero development team between now and Christmas! And we’re not sure whether we’ve been naughty or nice this year anyway. Maybe Krampus is coming to take us away in his sack instead!

But one of the things we love about Xero is that they listen, and they frequently update based on user feedback. So if there is a roadmap for where WorkflowMax is going in the next year or so, we’re hoping some of these features will be on it.

We’re fans of Xero/WFM and their philosophy for practice management. There were things we didn’t like about our old software too, and we were paying a whole lot more for it! After 6 months, WFM is working. We are doing it. But we’re also committed to doing what we can to make Xero and WFM the best they can be, both for ourselves and the industry, precisely because we believe in the Xero approach to running a practice.

It’s been a wild ride this year! Our thanks to the Xero and WFM teams for all their help (and for putting up with us), and to Tim, Daniel and the FGS crowd for getting us this far.

We hope you have a great Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year.

Hey you, get off of my cloud!

There’s a war raging right now amongst accounting software providers. The spoils are potentially massive, and as in any war, the propaganda campaign is almost as important as the actual fighting.

Hopefully it’s pretty clear by now that we think the future of the accounting practice lies in collaboration – between accountant and client – using a single file for data entry and report preparation. So we’ve put our future in the hands of Xero.

But this isn’t an exclusive relationship. We’re free to see other people. We believe in many cases Xero is the perfect accounting solution for businesses in Australia. But we don’t want to force a square peg into a round hole. There may be any number of reasons why a client may not want or need Xero. Perhaps they already have a solution they are comfortable with, or maybe there are some features that they must have that are not yet readily available in Xero. Whatever the reason, it’s not our intention to compel our clients to use Xero where they don’t want it or it won’t suit.

To that end, we had the opportunity to trial an alternative ‘cloud’ solution a couple of weeks ago. This product is touted as being ‘2nd generation cloud’. In this ‘2nd generation’ world, Xero and others are supposedly ‘1st generation cloud’, requiring a constant internet connection and possibly a stripped down feature-set to make the experience browser friendly. ‘2nd generation cloud’ installs fully functional desktop software locally and syncs data files to a central online repository when it can. The benefit lies in the fact that a user can continue to work offline, when internet access isn’t available, using a suite of software that is far more feature rich.

A few more happy workers on their way to the cloud.

Or so says the propaganda. There’s a difference though between the official account of proceedings and the reality of the frontline. What follows is a real-life story of one recent battle we had with ‘2nd generation cloud’.

Let’s set aside for now the general experience of many that syncing type solutions traditionally cause problems. If you’ve ever sync’d anything, be it your contacts or Evernote data or whatever, you know that it’s often a recipe for losing information. Let’s even allow for the fact that this was a trial and so perhaps there were still some bugs to be ironed out. We still ended up with a pretty clear picture of where the future of the cloud lies.

In short, our morning went something like this (and make no mistake – it did take an entire morning to sort this out):

  1. Received an email inviting us to be added to our client’s company file.
  2. Clicked a link to download the latest software to be installed.
  3. Downloaded and installed the software, but there was no way to access the client file online.
  4. Called the client, then downloaded and installed a different version.
  5. Could now see how to access online data generally, but still could not see our client’s file.
  6. Called support and it turned out that we still did not have the right version – we had 2012.0 and we needed 2012.7. The correct version was not actually available for public download, so we had to download and install yet another version from an email link provided exclusively to us.
  7. Over two hours and a GB of data later, we were able to access the file and start working.

2nd generation offices now have two phones. Go crazy!

Versions? Installation? Really? One of the things we’re desperate to free ourselves from is the constant productivity drain of wrestling with different versions. The software provided by the two biggest players in the Australian market are updated frequently, and each update requires a new installation to be able to access your client’s data. There are even times where you seem to have the same version as your client and still can’t open their data file. Each mid-year release or service pack requires an updated data file that will not work in any other version. I’m not sure we’ve ever totally understood why the versioning in SME accounting products has to be so specific. It’s like getting a Word document that has been created in Office 2003 and not being able to open it in any other version and even worse, not even being able to open it in Word 2003 if the creator has installed a minor service pack and you haven’t! This endless versioning cycle and the restrictions that come with it is something that costs accountants money in lost time. The cloud promises to put an end to this by having everyone on the latest version, all the time. Or it should.

And what happens if I’ve borrowed a computer or I’m working from a tablet? This isn’t how it’s meant to be! We’re no experts, but this doesn’t seem like cloud to us.

Calling this ‘2nd generation cloud’ is like calling regular postage ‘2nd generation e-mail’. Sure, today’s mail systems are far more ‘electronic’ and take advantage of the internet and other connectivity advances to improve processes and add services. But e-mail it ain’t!

And neither is this ‘cloud’. Call it 2nd generation desktop if you like, but not cloud. It uses online storage. It allows a degree of collaboration. But this is not what the cloud is meant to be – at least as far as we’re concerned.

Another ‘world’s first’…

If you’ve ever been to Adelaide, you may know that we have this crazy one-way freeway that changes direction half way through the day. It allows traffic to come into the city in the morning, then funnels it out in the afternoon, but it only ever goes one way at a time. It’s an infuriating construction, mainly because it always seems to be going in the wrong direction whenever you want to use it. The truth of the matter is most likely that the funds were not available at the time to do the job properly, and so we ended up with half a freeway. In typical government spin though, it was hailed as the ‘world’s first reversible freeway’ – or superlatives to that effect. Perhaps there was a reason why nobody else in the world had done it? Marketing hype can’t mask reality once you start using a product.

Spin it however you like, but as far as we’re concerned, there are no ‘generations’ when it comes to the cloud. There’s cloud, and then there’s everything else.

All a-twitter about Twitter

One common concern with the cloud is the ‘what-if’ factor. What if there is a security breach? What if the cloud provider winds up or goes into liquidation? And what if the service is offline? Last Thursday, WorkflowMax went offline – and it really wasn’t that bad.

This is not really a story about the perils of being offline. The bottom line is that with any server based application, be it online or local, you have glitches from time to time. So far there’s been nothing with Xero or WFM to cause us any great concern.

No, this time I’m talking social networking, and Twitter in particular.

On Thursday last week we came into the office to find a variety of issues affecting WorkflowMax. For some it was excruciatingly slow. Others couldn’t get to a log in prompt at all – it would just time out. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the rest of our internet service, so we figured it had to be a problem with WorkflowMax. I took to Twitter to find out.

It’s a pretty big deal for Twitter to be my first thought. Six months ago, as a firm we had no social networking presence whatsoever – and a year or so ago neither did I. In the space of a few months it’s become instinctive to turn to Twitter when I need up-to-the-minute information.

But there’s another reason I turned to Twitter. Fresh in my mind was a story I’d read just a couple of weeks prior. When Xero experienced problems with one its providers, CEO Rod Drury took to Twitter and publicly admonished them for not keeping their customers abreast of the current state of play. One of his tweets lamented ”why would a cloud data centre not have a Twitter account?” He clarified this later by saying ”One of my suggestions to them was it would have been great to have a Twitter account so all our staff around the world would have known exactly what was going on. What [Xero] has learned in the few times we have had outages is it is important to communicate.”

Being relatively new to the cloud space and all that, this really resonated with me. So when WorkflowMax, now a subsidiary of Xero, was experiencing some problems, I took to Twitter for all the same reasons.

The WorkflowMax social media department in action.

What I found was silence. In fact, the WFM team hadn’t tweeted anything for close to three weeks! Yet Xero CEO Rod Drury had only recently declared how essential was the use Twitter account during times of outage.

A number of users had taken to Twitter to ask the same question – is there a problem with WorkflowMax at the moment? – and were getting the same response, or lack thereof.

This in itself, however, is a great example of the value of Twitter. Although there was no response at all from the WorkflowMax team at this point, at least I knew that others were having the same problems as us.

Still, this lack of interaction from the WorkflowMax team was enough to break the naively over-enthusiastic heart of a new recruit like myself. Maybe this whole thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

But this is where the story takes a turn for the better, because believe it or not, this tale isn’t about calling out WorkflowMax for their lack of Twitter engagement. Rather it’s about what a difference this new way of operating actually makes.

I wasn’t about to let my fervour for the new paradigm be crushed by this radio silence! So I tweeted:

This was my attempt at igniting some action! For the uninitiated (and I say that with no condescension at all, given my background) the @names in the tweet are ‘mentions’. They are the Twitter handles of other users, and in this example their identities should be obvious. By using them in a tweet like this, it specifically alerts the people concerned about this message. So this was an explicit shout out to Xero, WorkflowMax and Rod Drury himself. Why not shoot for the top? He set the goal posts after all!

I soon received a response from our partners at FGS. Then not long after that, a reply from WorkflowMax themselves!

By this stage, things had pretty much righted themselves, so I let them know it was all good again. And the Twitter updates kept flowing from WorkflowMax. I couldn’t be sure, but was it anything to do with my tweets? I may never know. But to be sure I got my message across, I thought a follow up was required:

The short link was to the Rod Drury article. I was pretty high on my own success by this time so perhaps I was being a little cheeky. But they might as well know why I thought it mattered.

Then a couple of hours later, it happened. A tweet from the CEO himself!

In the space of only a few hours, my query had made it all the way to the top. I like to think that it it also resulted in some action behind the scenes, but perhaps I’m getting a little too full of myself.

Getting support for our old system could often take a while.

This is the point – has there ever been a time when it’s been this easy to interact with your software vendor and get action? We had a problem and were able to find out almost immediately that others were experiencing the same thing. And we did it without having to sit on hold for 20 minutes. Sure, in this story, the WorkflowMax team weren’t as proactive as they could have been. But all we had to do was agitate a little – a few characters in a tweet – and they were spurred into action.

And has there ever been a time when a CEO can be this accessible to the unwashed masses – if he or she chooses? This was, in truth, a relatively minor issue. I was having a little fun, and there was no need really for a personal response. It was only three words from Rod Drury – but it meant the world! A small gesture that probably took a few seconds, results in an immensely more satisfied customer. It’s win-win. This is what it’s all about – customer and vendor working together in collaboration.

Twitter isn’t simply an optional luxury in a cloud based strategy. It’s becoming an indispensable business tool – for any business, regardless of their systems. And I say this not as some gen-y attention junkie who tweets as instinctively as breathing, but rather as a forty-something manager of an accounting practice who had never used any form of social networking 12 months ago. If I can get this, anyone can. And of course I haven’t discussed here at all the fact that we can use Twitter in the same way as Xero – conversation with our clients – to build and enhance our own brand. Chalk this one up as another lesson learned.

Thanks to the WorkflowMax team, and thanks to Rod Drury.