Two things we love about Xero

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Xero’s been making a few nice moves.

We started our new financial year in a bit of a flurry. Our focus was on getting WorkflowMax bedded down so that we could continue managing jobs, capturing time and invoicing. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride so far as we adjust to new functionality and a different way of thinking.

But we’ve also been dipping our toes into the Xero pool. There are functions in Xero that do more than simply help you to get the job done. They transform the way you operate. Here’s couple of them

Payroll

A typical payroll run prior to Xero.

The payroll functionality is simply fantastic. We pay our team weekly, and our payroll person has said that even after only a few weeks of use, our payroll run is taking her less than half the time that it used to. That’s a massive productivity gain when you’re doing 52 pay runs a year!

It needs a few more reports (there’s nothing for deductions, for example), but overall there are features in the payroll component that leave you wondering how you ever managed beforehand! The employee portal is a great example of this. Employees can log in and see a summary of their leave, apply for leave and also view and print payslips (for those times where, say, they are preparing a finance application).

And the ability of the full version of Xero to pay your superannuation to all the various employee funds for you is an incredible time saver. This feature is only available in the top  version of Xero for clients, but is provided free in the practice ledger (i.e. for our own payroll). Even if we had to pay for it though, it would be worth the premium for the time it saves alone (but don’t get any ideas Xero – we prefer – and are extremely grateful – for having it included at no charge). It’s really like the government’s Small Business Superannuation Clearing House, but all the information is already there. No further input required.

Bank feeds

The bank feeds work brilliantly on so many levels. For the practice, our admin team have said that because so many things are reconciled for them, the time saving per month in data entry and report preparation is huge. Specifically, one comment was “Once you get a few months into using it, I should say you would just be mostly checking what Xero suggests and only entering details for one off type transactions. Will make thing a lot quicker.”

Our practice accountant (i.e. the person responsible for our internal accounting) said “..once I’d set up the bank rules, it only took me an hour to enter data for a 6 month period, which previously would have taken me about 3 hours.”

Naturally this also has fantastic implications for client work. It’s worth noting that bank feeds are not available on our basic ledgers – the ones we would use independently of the client and to which the client has no access (except to view some reports). Of course we pay a significantly reduced rate for those. They’re basically replacements for our practice general ledger software. So at a minimum the client needs to be on one of the retail packages, but there is a raft of options there and in particular some extra ones for Xero practice partners. In my opinion though the additional cost for a retail ledger (either charged to the client or absorbed by the practice) would pay for itself in terms of the savings it will deliver in total bookkeeping and accounting fees. Aside from the benefits of having much of the inputting automated, at the end of the year, with some involvement by the accountant, the ledger is basically complete. And you know the data integrity is going to be pretty good because you’ve been involved in keeping it that way. This opens up a world of possibilities for collaborative service delivery.

This isn’t the sum total of all that is good in Xero, but I wanted to provide some detail on a couple of things rather than sweep over a whole bunch of them. Generally Xero is extremely easy to use and very intuitive.

But it’s features like this that encourage us to remember why we’re in this. I’ve talked about how this isn’t simply a matter of replacing our old software, and how it is instead a paradigm shift in the mindset for operating a practice. This is where the rubber of that choice hits the road. In a future post I’ll discuss some of the functions Xero really needs to truly be practice ready. Sure, the ‘Avant-garde’ will look down their noses at that and tell us to get with the times. But we think there are just some realities of running a practice that have to be faced, and we’re pretty sure the next wave of more conservative practices (like us!) will agree.

But having said all of that, these features make us happy to make the compromise, Why? Because the goal is to provide better client service. Sure, if it’s a disaster internally then the costs outweigh the benefits. But what we’re seeing is massive savings on internal management like our own payroll and reporting, and features on the client side that quite simply will revolutionise our relationship with them.

Artist’s impression of ideal client meeting.

So what system doesn’t have compromises? The better question is where should you be making compromises? Ultimately, we don’t want to run a practice. That’s not the end game – it’s a necessary function of what we’re really here to do. We want to serve our clients in a way that compels them to love us! Not because we’re nice people or narcissists who need to be liked, but rather because happy clients are good for business – theirs and ours. And that’s the mindset shift in a nutshell. Should you compromise your product to operate a system that your accountants feel ‘safe’ with, or change your internal procedures to deliver the best result possible for your clients? Once you start thinking that way, it’s a no-brainer.

Keeping our eyes on the prize

On Monday morning our server went down. We were offline for most of the morning. These are the times you can see with clarity what the goal is and why it’s so appealing.

I’m not going to say that I haven’t experienced moments of doubt with what we’re doing. Even blind panic has shown its face on more than one occasion. But what’s interesting about this journey so far is that like many things in life, the agony and the ecstasy are inextricably connected. We’ve had a few frustrations. But it’s precisely because the goal is so enticing that we have had times where we feel challenged. A life without servers!

There was an interesting article posted this week by Sholto Macpherson at cloud-computing advice site Box Free IT. You probably need to read it if you want to make any sense of the rest of this post. Reading between the lines, you can see that there is some concern amongst the incumbents at Xero’s success in changing the landscape. But ultimately what stands out the most to me is that I’m just not sure that the major players really get it.

“I came because I didn’t know any better, but I stayed because it would cost too much to change. Call me a fan!”

I’m not convinced that accountants stick with what they know because they are loyal. Don’t get me wrong – I think they would if it were that simple. But I don’t think that ‘pedigree’ is the reason accounting firms stay with a software vendor. Buying an enterprise level accounting solution isn’t like going to your favourite supermarket. It’s not a matter of going back to someone you trust each time because they’ve been around for a while, or they smiled at you as they sliced your ham. In fact, the barriers to changing software are so great that it would really be impossible to know what a customer thought of your product if return business were your only gauge. We can testify to sticking with something we really didn’t like, enduring exorbitant price rises year on year whilst getting almost no product development in return, simply because the thought of changing was too overwhelming. And even if we could get through it and were willing to wear the cost, we couldn’t be confident of seeing any real improvement at the end of the process anyway. Does that make us loyal?

It reminds me of Channel 9’s response to criticism of their Olympics coverage. Citing the ratings numbers as evidence of a successful package really tells you nothing of the quality of the broadcast. Unless your viewers have a pay TV alternative, where else do they have to go? If they love the Olympics, they’re going to tune in even if Eddie McGuire and James Brayshaw call every event! Does having no other viable option mean that your customers are happy?

This is entirely anecdotal, but based purely on my discussions with accountants over many years, I can’t remember meeting anyone who’s gushing about how fabulous their systems are. I can’t recall ever being regaled by tales of how software has completely transformed the way a practice operates. Instead, most accountants will tolerate anything if it means getting the job done each year. And the price they pay for this grudging forbearance is significant. For us, it was just under $20,000 a year in maintenance.

So this is the point. Why did it take something like Xero for us to make the switch? It wasn’t because we could replicate the features we had in our existing suite of software, but rather because we couldn’t. Why take the risk for something that basically does what we’ve always done, with perhaps some prettier user interface features and fancier reports? And at a significant cost in both software and hardware? Xero brings a completely new paradigm for running a practice, and the price makes it worth the risk. Especially when you know that others have already successfully implemented it.

When we’re done, it won’t matter if our server goes down. Will we even be using it for anything other than some storage of old data? Even if our internet connection drops out, we now have two services with two different ISPs (one ADSL, one wireless) so we’d just switch connections and carry on.

It’s true, as Sage managing director Alan Osrin said, that “Cloud programs such as Xero’s WorkflowMax Practice Manager…would take a long time to match the features of the server-based incumbents“. We’re wrestling with that to some extent right now. But is that the goal? We don’t want software that will match the traditional way of doing things. We want something completely new. Otherwise why change?

Don’t even think about it…

Server-based, enterprise level software solutions ultimately represent the same way of skinning the cat. We chose Xero not because it replicates but because it innovates. We can already see so much potential for positive change. There are ways of doing things that we hadn’t even considered possible.

If you’ve been following this journey, you’d know that we’re not here to tell you that it’s all beer and skittles. We’ve already discussed some of the hurdles we’ve had to get over so far and we expect there will be more to come. It happens with any new system, and even more so with one that requires a transformation in thinking. There are still some things that we think Xero need to take note of if they want to capture a big slice of the market (my next post will be a review of Xero so far – the pros and the cons). And Clive Rabie of Reckon is right on one thing at least – Xero needs tax, and sooner rather than later!

But this isn’t about finding another master to shackle ourselves to for the next decade. We don’t want a system that does what we’ve always done in a prettier way. This is a flight to freedom! If you want to make it to the Promised Land, you sometimes have to spend a bit of time in the wilderness. Uncertainty and change are scary, but we think the prize will be worth the effort.

The product champion’s perspective

We’ve been using Xero and WorkflowMax for a month now. So it seems a good time to start hearing from some of the team about how things are looking from their point of view.

So this begins a series of sorts. There’s no particular rules, timeline or end-date in sight, save one thing – whenever we do this, we’ll ask our contributor the same set of 6 questions. I guess maybe we should give it a cheesy name of some kind – ‘Pick Up Six ‘or ‘Six and Out’ or something. Then again…

It’s appropriate then that the first person we should hear from is our product champion. Very early on in the journey, FGS suggested that we nominate a product champion – the go-to person who will get to know the applications inside out and help us get everything set up. It was sage advice.

Recently retired facility used to customise a profit and loss statement in our old software.

That person for us was Claire Barber, one of our senior accountants. Claire is a CPA with extensive experience at management level. But even more importantly, she’s the only person in the practice who has even come close to understanding our old report writing system. If you haven’t picked up on this earlier, writing or editing a report in our previous system was a task somewhat akin to cracking the Enigma Code. Ideally you’d need a team of experts working around the clock, 7 days a week to really get a vague handle on it. And even then, like the recipe for Coca-Cola, there’s probably only a handful of people in the world who truly understand it completely. But Claire came as close as any single mortal possibly could to making sense of it, so with those credentials, she was the natural choice.

Claire jumped into it boots and all and has made the entire process a lot easier for us. She liaises regularly with Xero and FGS on all sorts of matters to make sure that the rest of our team have what they need to function. Under her watch we’ve already completed an entire job in Xero, although her focus so far has been mainly internal – things like getting our practice file set up, arranging our bank feeds and charts of accounts, establishing a system for managing our new Xero clients and working out how to generate statutory financial reports. So from her perspective, how’s it going?

  1. What do you love about Xero/WFM so far?   The ease of the software. The help menu and support has been great too.
  2. Is there anything you hate?  I don’t hate anything but one limitation is with fixed assets and not being able to pool.
  3. Can you see it making a difference to the way you work?   Yes it will definitely provide more timely reports for clients with daily feeds and help create efficiencies on jobs.
  4. If you could only make one enhancement request what would it be and why?   I would have suggested being able to import opening balances into a Xero ledger as an enhancement however this has been done via the most recent upgrade so I am very happy about this.
  5. Is there a moment on the journey so far that stands out for you?  There have been only minor hurdles along the way and each time Xero support has been able to help out so the transition is running smoothly which is always good.
  6. Overall, if you had to choose, old system or new system?   New system for sure.

Workflow (not quite to the) Max

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

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

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

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

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

So what don’t our users like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom from the Sherpa

We’ve spent the last couple of months climbing a mountain. It’s time to hear from our guide.

This blog was conceived as a diary of sorts – our journey towards becoming an accounting practice of the future. The emotions and feelings, the new opportunities and limitations, any problems we might encounter and where possible the jubilation of triumphing over them – all of these will hopefully weave together over time to form a tapestry of the sights and sounds as they happen. You can probably tell I’d rather be writing for Lonely Planet! Alas, I am but a humble accountant and this is the best (only) outlet I have.

So far you’ve only seen things from my perspective. But in the coming weeks I hope to share the platform with other team members who are along for the ride.

We asked FGS for a file photo of Tim and this is what we got…maybe the lighting isn’t as good in our offices?

This time around though we’re privileged to transcend the plebeian ramblings of the pilgrims and hear directly from our guide and mentor, Tim Callcott from FGS. I thought it would be great to get some insight from the other side, and see how he thinks we’re travelling.

I’ve previously described Tim as our Sherpa, for the simple reason that changing systems can seem like difficult country, and having a guide who knows the terrain and its unique ‘personality’ makes all the difference. FGS have shown that much like leading someone towards a mountain-top experience, they’re committed to seeing us come through not merely unscathed, but actually enlightened.

It’s important to note though that FGS have no interest in this account – other than to make sure they do the best job they can at what they’re doing. After all, the outcome is being dissected publicly here on a weekly basis! Our own posts come unsolicited and unbiased. But while the ‘straight dope’ is our goal, Tim’s contribution here is entirely his own work.

So without further ado, here’s what Tim had to say – copied and pasted directly from his original.

I guess it is about time I had a crack at getting something on this blog.  John is doing an awesome job (who knew an Accountant could write so well) but from time to time, another perspective is needed.

It is a lot of fun working with the team at Dewings.  When John signed off on the proposal, his words to me were…

“Better buckle up mate.  You’ve never seen a practice quite like ours!”

Well, it turns we have and we haven’t.  The team at FGS have been working with accounting firms across Australia for a long time now.  And there is very little that we come across that surprises us anymore.  Not because we are jaded or cynical.  Not at all.

Instead, we have learned that every firm is unique.  And needs to be treated that way.  Where one firm manages its workflow or creates a marketing piece in a particular way, another does it completely the opposite way.

A one size fits all approach doesn’t work.  It never has and it never will.

Sure, there are core principles that apply to each and every firm – ultimately, they are all offering the same range of services.  And for any accountants reading this who scream “but we are different”, the context of this statement is that you don’t offer dental services or carpet cleaning.  You are accountants and you offer accounting related services.

At FGS, we have a view of what these core principles are and also an opinion on the firm of the future – what it looks like, how it operates and how to get there.  We infuse our advice with this view.  We elaborate when asked for more information.  We never ram it down our clients’ throats.  This makes us a valuable partner for our clients.

Anyway, back to Dewings……

Barely a day goes by that we don’t get a phone call or an email with a well thought out, interesting question from one of the Dewings team.  Sometimes, we must be on speed dial!

We love the fact that the team goes to the Help Menu first.  We really like that they generally have a go at solving the problem themselves first.  And finally, they turn to us.

Because we have worked with so many Accounting firms on their transition to WorkflowMax and Xero, if we don’t immediately know the answer, then we have an incredible database of resources to access.  We are also proud of our relationship with Xero and WorkflowMax – knowing who to turn to for the best answer is a valuable resource!

And so far, we have nailed every question that the Dewings team has asked us.  Sometimes there is a simple answer (like the sub-accounts question from an earlier post) and sometimes, we have to create a work-around because the software simply cannot or won’t do what Dewings want it to.  

That’s OK though because Dewings also want to get our feedback on their operations and a new system and range of software is the perfect opportunity to update procedures and thinking patterns.

Finally, I know John is writing a “warts and all” style of story.  And I have thought and thought about any Dewings warts I could let you in on.  I am afraid there simply aren’t any at this stage.

Although, now that I think about it…….timesheets and the need to record ALL time could be close (nudge nudge, cheeky grin)

Might save that for my next post though.

No sub-accounts? No worries!

We had a little bump in the ride last week. Xero didn’t seem to have sub-accounts. But a sub-account by any other name smells as sweet.

I have to confess that I’m a bit of a nervous flyer.

I’m not someone who refuses to fly – ironically I love to travel – and I don’t get all panicky or anything. I just never feel quite at peace. Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Air Crash Investigations.

The worst part is turbulence. Just when I’m feeling about ready to relax and forget about the fact that I’m 35,000 feet in the air, the plane will hit a rough patch. To me turbulence is nature’s way of reminding us that human beings are not meant to fly. It’s just a subtle little nudge that breaks the repose and whispers in your ear “Hey buddy – you’re not supposed to be up here.”

I had a similar nudge last week during a Xero webinar.

We were all gathered in the conference room watching ‘Xero Essentials’ when the presenter began reviewing the Chart of Accounts function in Xero. As she was doing so, almost as an aside she said something along the lines of “..and of course because Xero doesn’t have sub-accounts…”. Cue dramatic music! A quick glance around the room revealed colour rapidly draining from faces. We weren’t sure, but that didn’t seem like something to simply be glanced over. Kinda like a pilot casually throwing in “…and of course because this plane no longer has any fuel…” A little further explanation might be required!

I admit it…I didn’t think to ask whether or not the plane had wings.

It’s not something we thought to ask about as a part of our decision making process. We put it in that group of things that were too obvious to even question. We didn’t ask whether it was double-entry based either, nor if it could handle GST.

It’s nudges like that on this journey that strike at your soul and leave you asking “are we meant to be doing this?”  All these people are counting on us. We’re meant be making their lives easier by giving them systems that help them rather than creating more work. What are we doing here?

I rushed out of that webinar and immediately called Tim at FGS. This may be getting old, but it’s another example of why we need them on this journey with us. They’re like our Sherpa. There are times when the terrain might seem hostile and a little frightening, but they know the territory and when you see it the way they do, you can relax a little and enjoy it.

Tim called me back within the hour. “I have a solution for you!” To be honest, I was reasonably confident he would because they work with accountants. We’re pretty sure sub-accounts form part of the basic building blocks of life for accountants.

Perhaps this is already out there. But a search through the Xero help resources yielded no results, and a Google search for ‘Xero sub-accounts’ (and variations thereof) was likewise inconclusive. A note to Xero: even though you don’t use the term, it might be worth putting an entry called ‘sub-accounts’ in the help section. People (accountants) will be looking for it.

Maybe some Xero veterans will look at this and think ‘I can’t believe they’re posting about this!’ Hopefully one day we’ll think the same thing too. But this is the view of the journey as it’s happening, not a retrospective slideshow where we’ve had the time to collate the best shots. So if you don’t mind indulging me a little, here’s the solution.

Use grouping. It’s still not technically sub-accounts, but for the purposes of our reports, it achieves the same thing.

  1. Let’s say you want to sub-account your Motor Vehicle Expenses. The standard code in the Xero demo company is 449, if you use them. So click Settings then Chart of Accounts.
  2. Create new expense accounts in the same range. Hopefully the process of creating an account is self-explanatory. So in this example, create say 449.01 MV Insurance, 449.02 MV Petrol and so on. Note that account names must be unique, so you probably can’t just have ‘Insurance’ as this will likely exist elsewhere for general insurance items.
  3. Once the accounts have been created, select or create a report where you want to show a summary of those accounts. For example, at the moment, these accounts will all show separately in your detailed Profit and Loss Report.
  4. Once you’ve screened the report, at the bottom of the report click Layout Options and then Edit this layout...

  5. Tick the accounts that you want to ‘group’ together. So in our example, tick all of the Motor Vehicle Expense accounts, including the main ‘header’ account.
  6. Back up at the top of the layout editing screen, click Group Selected Accounts.
  7. A popup appears. The Group Name should be the main account title (or whatever title you want to display on the report). In our example, this is Motor Vehicle Expenses. Select where in your report the group should appear. In this case it is an operating expense. Also, make sure to tick Show summary only.
  8. You can also get it to add future accounts to the group automatically by clicking Define how accounts are grouped and specifying the criteria.
  9. Once you’ve clicked ok, you’re almost done. You then just need to save these adjustments to the layout. On the right hand side of the layout window, either keep the same name or if you want to save a new report, rename it. If you’re basically making this a report that will become the standard, you can also tick Make this the default Profit & Loss for all users.
  10. Then click Save at the bottom, and you basically have sub-accounts that show as a summary in your main reports. Naturally, you can also create other reports that will show you the details of the sub-accounts if you need to.

The thing about the fear of flying is that it’s mostly in your head. Statistically airline travel is probably the safest way there is to get around. It’s just being in an unfamiliar place that makes you lose perspective when you hit those little bumps. Chances are you’re going to be fine. Better than fine even.

Xero to the rescue

We’ve been using WorkflowMax for a week now and it’s all going pretty well. But last week we had a couple of minor ‘adjustment’ difficulties. The team at Xero came to the rescue that same day.

One of the things we love about our Xero/WorkflowMax experience so far is the enthusiasm of the Xero team to help and collaborate. They really seem to take the user experience seriously.

This is especially so in the way they that have responded to our questions. Maybe these issues are covered in the comprehensive help resources somewhere, or perhaps there’s a forum post about them. But we will also capture them here as we experience them.

So I want to go back to my Xero Hour post last week. It was actually more about our first week with WorkflowMax than Xero, but ‘WorkflowMax Hour’ didn’t have the same ring to it. We’re really excited about WFM and the way it can empower us to manage the practice better. But in the interests of being as transparent as possible, I mentioned a couple of things that we were still having a hard time adjusting to.

In what is now becoming pretty standard practice, the Xero guys responded that day with some tips to help us come to terms with those adjustments.

  1. It’s slow.” Response – use multiple tabs. This ‘problem’ mostly derives from the fact that WFM is web-based and that can make it a little slow to navigate around. The suggested solution is to have multiple tabs open in your browser, showing different tasks, or even multiple browser windows on different screens (we have 2 screens on every desktop). This works well, for example, when you need to set up a new job once you’ve already started entering time. What started out as a problem (being browser-based) actually has some benefits. Provided you keep track of what save state everything is in, being web-based allows you have any number of different components of the same application open at the same time. Note: Another suggestion to speed things up is to use Google Chrome as your browser. So far it seems to make a difference.
  2. Entering time should be tabular.” Response – we’ll look at it.  Maybe it’s just us, but our users have said managing time would be so much easier if you could enter and edit timesheet entries in a table, since having to do them individually and waiting for your browser to process and save each line is time consuming. We can see how the current process might be fine for those who only work on two or three jobs in a day. If your managers are like ours, you can multiply that number by 10 some days! Not quite, but you get what I mean. With lots of interruptions and working through issues with junior staff and having to respond to partner requests, etc. your timesheet soon bloats with lots of little entries, and these become cumbersome to manage. There isn’t a ‘solution’ to this since it’s just about style. But Xero’s first response was that they would talk to a developer about having a tabular option. From the way these products are developed and the speed at which updates are released, we have no doubt that they mean it. Whether it actually changes in the end isn’t as important as knowing that at least they’re listening.
  3. Job focus can make managing a day difficult.” Response – use a clearing job.  Again, an accountant’s day often can’t be divided up easily into ‘jobs’. This makes things difficult to manage, especially when you need to put down a little time for a regular client that isn’t really a job – something that’s more an ‘odd-job’. Xero suggested we should set up a generic ongoing job as a clearing account for all staff to temporarily get that time in and then have an admin person later set up the correct job and reallocate the time. We’ll have to try it to be sure but it seems like a workable solution to reduce the admin burden on accountants and allow them to get their time in faster.

You might also remember the little (read: huge) security issue we covered with the WFM login page. As yet no action on that but we’ve been assured by the Xero guys at least that now that WFM has come under their banner they’ll be making sure it’s addressed and fixed. We live in hope!

And ‘hope’ is a great word to finish on. To be honest, we’ve grown accustomed over the years to coexisting with our software vendor in a kind of symbiotic tolerance. Our enhancement requests would be ignored and in return our maintenance would only go up by twice CPI every year! But we weren’t going anywhere. Changing systems can seem as big as changing banks, and they know it. Even if you’re getting the worst deal possible, the thought of everything that needs to be done to switch to something which is not guaranteed to be better is so overwhelming that you reluctantly submit to any injustice just to get it out of your mind.

Our new software vendor seems dreamy. Do you think they feel the same way about us?

Then one day it just gets to the point where you’ll do anything to get away. It’s nice when that decision is actually rewarded. You find yourself wondering what you were so worried about and why it took you so long. It’s too early to say that Xero is everything we hoped for yet, but at the moment all signs point to yes. You’ll never find the perfect application. There are likely as many conceptions of that as there are businesses. But we can now testify that you can find a developer who will listen and engage and help you to get it as close as possible to what you want it to be. It feels great to be finally having a conversation, and that fills us with excitement at what might be possible.

Next time: subaccounts and the fear of flying.

Xero Hour

The clock struck Xero Hour at Dewings this week.

Since we first started this blog I had this post slotted into the plan as a kind of timetable of events for our first day. ‘Xero Hour’ I would wittily call it (genius), and it would detail the frantic state of day one as we wrestled to adopt this new and kinda weird looking stranger into the Dewings family.

Here’s what ended up being my notes from the day:

8:07am – arrived at work.

8:18am – entered results for footy tips (some matters take priority over all others).

8:47am – set up laptop, projector and video camera in conference room for WorkflowMax training.

…and that’s it.

Tim from FGS stepping into the breach and training the team Monday morning. Video available at all good DVD outlets.

I wanted to document the day a lot more thoroughly than that, but it never happened. You might think that the reason for this is that we were so busy putting out fires that there simply wasn’t the time. And certainly the morning was a busy one. But by the afternoon, there really wasn’t that much to report. If I was to add some post-dated entries now, they’d be:

11:15am (ish) – completed WorkflowMax initial training to enable us to enter time.

11:30am (ish) – located list of jobs in progress and set about getting those into the system so that time could be allocated. This was meant to be done prior to 30th June but we overlooked it and only noticed during training that there were no jobs in there yet.

1:22pm (precisely) – sent email to the team advising that all current jobs were in there and that they could start entering time.

Naturally there were a few questions and issues that needed to be resolved during the afternoon. But overall, the afternoon was characterised largely by its normality. So much for my dramatic ‘live from the warzone’ post!

FGS have been a big part of that. They’ve had all of the answers to our questions, and have been incredibly helpful and patient for the most minute of queries. We can’t emphasise enough the value in having someone like FGS to help make Xero work in an accounting practice. Even with our short timeframe, they have made sure that everything that needed to be done happened on time.

So far, we’re really just using WorkflowMax (WFM) with a little Xero by a select few staff. For WFM, the relative calm has largely been because our team members can see how to correlate what they have been doing with what they now need to do. There is some adjustment, of course, but in the end, they’re just recording time in a timesheet.

Actual photo of team response to new systems

We want to affirm that it’s very much a case of ‘so far so good’ with WFM. But we’ve also pledged to give you the straight dope – a warts and all account of our journey. And we know that you know that no system change is ever a worry-free frolic in the meadows. So it would be disingenuous of us not to mention some of the teething problems and adjustments we’ve had to make so far. Like a bride-to-be preparing for her big day, we’ve been a little gushy before the event, swept off our collective feet by the anticipation of all of the possibilities that lie ahead. Now it’s our first week of having to live with each other.

It’s worth noting firstly, for the uninitiated, that WFM is job based. What you’re trying to do with it is manage and monitor jobs in your system.

The complaints at this early stage have been:

  1. It’s slow – It’s web based, and we all know how sometimes your browser can just pause for a little while, as it thinks and processes. So each time you enter a time, you have to wait for it to save, and that can be slow going compared to a locally hosted system when you’re entering a bunch of items.
  2. Entering time should be tabular – This is really an extension of the above. Because each entry must be saved individually, not only can you not enter multiple line items in at once, but reviewing and editing is a little cumbersome too, especially if you’re used to just being able to click on a field and change it. With WFM you must first click on the line item in a list, wait for the page to render, then edit the item, then save again, and so on. Bottom line we think is that it would be great to be able to see all time for the day in a table where any field could be freely edited simply by clicking it, instead of having to go to a separate page for each item first.
  3. Job focus can make managing a day difficult – There is a real upside to tracking jobs in terms of workflow management. But the downside here can be that an accountant’s day is not always so easily divided into ‘jobs’. There are all sorts of interruptions for a manager during the day, often unrelated to jobs they are working on. You can’t quickly record that time. There must be a job in the system. And some of the work we do is better categorised as an ‘odd-job’. That quick phone call from a client where they have a question unrelated to anything that you’re currently working on for them. This can be fiddly to manage. There have been occasions where it has taken as long to set up the job as it has to actually do it! We need to get the balance right.

The obvious solution to this is to move away from the traditional accounting model of recording every second of time. That’s a great goal and one we hope to work towards eventually. I guess the difficulty is that WFM is supposed to be able to handle both the old way and the new, and it does. But if you do use a traditional timesheet model it’s a little more cumbersome. I guess that’s a motivation to change!

There is one final gripe with WorkflowMax, and that is security. Gasp!

We sat in on a Xero Essentials training video on Wednesday just to help the familiarisation process. One of the first things covered by the presenter was security. Very reassuring. It was emphasised during the demo that when logging into Xero, the browser would not prompt you to save your username and password like ‘some other sites’ because of the big security risk this poses.

‘Some other sites’ it seems includes their own product. WorkflowMax does in fact allow you to save your login credentials. As accountants, we’re a little nervous that all our data is out there in the cloud. But we’ve been reassured (and rightly) that when executed correctly, the cloud is more secure than any office. Amen! When executed correctly…

The reason remembering passwords is a security 101 no-no for any site that contains personal identity and financial data is because anyone can come along behind you and log straight in if those details have been remembered. Xero/WFM prides themselves on providing ‘anywhere access’ to your data, which means you can use a tablet or other portable device, or (God forbid) a public computer. So all it takes is for that portable device to get lost, or for someone to accidentally click ‘remember me’ on a public computer, and it’s potentially all over. This is a feature that’s intended for membership of TV show forums and the blogs of 15 year old kids, not for sites that host sensitive identity and financial data. Obviously Xero agrees, since the Xero site does not offer to remember your login credentials, and this was specifically emphasised in the Xero demo.

When I asked WorkflowMax support about this last week, the response was:

“…the ‘remember me’ functionality is a heavily utilised function by our users and therefore they will not consider removing it.”

“We could have had a no smoking policy around the chemicals…but our employees just really like to smoke.”

This seems to suggest in this case that convenience trumps security. I’d love to be able to walk straight into the office every day without unlocking the doors and turning off the alarm. Unfortunately if I can do that, so can anyone else! The price of security is some inconvenience – you have to fiddle with the keys a little and jiggle the lock every day, which can be annoying.

We love the guys at Xero and WorkflowMax (now owned by Xero). They’ve been incredibly helpful and they really do ‘get’ how users work and how this translates into the features of their products. To their credit, WFM have since said they’ll consider it further. But every day that goes by without this being addressed is one that puts sensitive data at needless risk.

By the way – if we’re wrong on any of these things, or we discover a workaround or change in practice that can actually make it work better, we’ll let you know. And hopefully you can do the same for us. At the moment, these are all just first impressions.

And that’s not the note we should end on. For the most part, we can see why we chose to spend the rest of our lives with these guys. Sure, they leave the toilet seat up sometimes or forget to clean up after a shave. But the one percenters shouldn’t overshadow the 99. Right now, we feel like we’ve got a keeper. Once again, the most significant thing to note this week has been the relative sense of calm and normality that has prevailed. Normal is good. We like normal. It’s different, of course. But we can already see that with some minor adjustment to our practices there is a wealth of great management information at our fingertips.

‘Twas the night before Xero…

It’s Xero eve at Dewings, which seems a good time to do a little introspection. Who are we, and how did we get here?

It’s all very existential. The truth is that there’s a lot more to becoming an accounting practice of the future than software. The final decision to go with Xero was in one sense the beginning of a new direction. But in another it was the culmination of a process we’ve been working through for a while.

Dewings takes its name from Phil Dewing. It’s fair to say that he has a savant-like talent for creative business advice. While everyone else is staring at a pile of matches lying on the floor, Phil already has them counted. It’s like he can see the matrix. This isn’t a marketing blurb – it’s just who he is. It’s relevant because it informs who and where we are today. And traditionally it’s been the reason clients come to us. We currently have three directors – Phil, Kathy Allen and me, but his reputation has traditionally been the source of much of our work over nearly three decades.

In recent years we’ve had to start thinking about what life at Dewings will be like without our namesake. That’s involved us doing some succession planning, and it’s a process we’re still working through.

‘Twas the night before Xero
And all through the firm
Were dwindling memories
Of the great pachyderm

But the elephant in the room during the process was a question: where is our work going to come from into the long term future? When Phil – our figurehead and poster boy – starts to wind back, how will we promote ourselves without him out there banging the drum for us? It’s never been something we’ve had to worry about because Phil’s reputation alone has often brought the work in (even though our team delivers the results).

Marketing! That was the solution. And by ‘marketing’, we meant advertising! The only problem was…we’re accountants! Do I need to say any more?

We were really fortunate to have Lowen Partridge of Peartree Marketing as a tenant in our building, so we turned to her for help. Lowen is a leading brand development specialist with a heap of experience. What a fantastic resource!

Or so you’d think we’d think. It didn’t turn out to be what we were hoping for (it was better, but I’m getting to that). We had a limited budget and all we wanted to do was spend that on getting the word out. But Lowen was all about ‘brand engineering’! While we were thinking ‘print or radio?’ she was asking ‘how do you know what you’re going to say anyway?’ Again, those fundamental questions of existence – how can you tell people about yourself in the best, most efficient way, if you don’t know who you are? What would you say?

So begrudgingly we took a step back and began to try to answer those questions. Some of the process was about specifically naming what we already knew about ourselves. Some of it was aspirational – as much about what we wanted to be as what we already were. But much of it was about self-discovery.

In the end it was a brilliant decision, if we might say so ourselves. Defining who we are – everything from our reception area and what we wear to the standards of service we want to deliver – gave us a standard to measure any new initiative against. Does that fit with our brand?

We talked to our team about it and asked for their input, and we summarised it in a brand identity statement that now informs all of our interactions. And we set about implementing it by renovating our offices, scheduling regular training sessions to reaffirm our values, developing new materials and so on. Everything that is seen by someone else, whether internally (by staff) or externally (by clients) eventually needs to fall into step with this identity. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.

You’d think this process would be expensive, but in fact relatively speaking it hasn’t been. A coat of paint doesn’t cost that much. And it’s been gradual, taking place over a couple of years. It’s not that ‘everything must go’. It’s more about making sure that everything fits. Many aspects of our business already did.

One of our rejected marketing strategies: “Hey! Is that car tax effective?”

One area that this certainly helped us was in realising in the end that ‘advertising’ (as we understood it anyway) doesn’t fit with our brand. Our work is based on relationships. That means we need to do more to cultivate our reputation and build connections through networking, sponsorships and specialisation.

This isn’t about giving shout outs. We’re writing about this journey completely independently. This is just what happened. So I say with sincerity that another person who has been a great help to us in this regard has been Michael ‘MC’ Carter of Practice Paradox. It might be tempting for some to lump Practice Paradox in with so much of the other accounting industry noise. That would be a big mistake. MC isn’t so much about operations – burdening you with the guilt of all the things you’re doing wrong. He’s more about teaching accountants how to market with new tools while working with what they already are. Once we had an idea of what wouldn’t work for us, we had to start thinking about what would. Initially through a lot of free material, and then through his  ‘Marketing Masterclass’ which we attended, MC opened our eyes to a whole new way of marketing the practice, including better networking, the value of social networks and yes – blogging!

All of that brought us to where we are now. Xero is not a punt. It’s not one choice from many otherwise similar and largely indistinguishable options. It’s the logical – in fact the only – choice for us because the Xero ethos is consistent with our own aspirations. How we engage our clients and team must be an extension of who we are. Every component of that is critical, and that includes our systems. Xero fits our brand. And we only know that because we’ve been through the exercise of defining it.

We’re going dark now. Next time you hear from us, we’ll be a Xero practice!

Minds blown by basic features

Like a stray puppy that finally finds a warm home, it’s fair to say we were ready to love almost anything. But it’s nice when you do better than that.

I’ve just walked out of a demonstration of WorkflowMax (WFM) using our own practice data. There’s a little more to do yet, but the idea was for us to get some of our management team together and see whether it was on the right track.

Naturally we’re reserving a thorough critique until we get in and use it. But initial impressions are quite simply…wow!

If you’re reading this but unfamiliar with the Xero architecture, WFM is the job/practice management module that integrates with Xero.

There were a total of five of us in the room and you could actually see smiles appearing on the faces of people as questions were answered and concerns eliminated. It was a great mix of the old and the new. We felt comfortable that we could get our data into WFM in a way that was familiar. But it was also quickly apparent that we could leverage that data in an entirely new, more powerful – and frankly better – way than ever before.

We’ve pledged to be as honest as possible in this story. We want to cut through the marketing hype and give a realistic assessment of what’s involved in transitioning an accounting practice to Xero, and whether it can deliver on the promises. I’ve sat through many software introductions over the years and I can honestly say that this is one of the first times I can remember where the experience has matched the pitch.

So far, of course. There’s a way to go yet. Today was somewhere between a demo and a first hand experience. It was a demonstration but it was using our data, and responding to our questions about what it could do with that data.

The most significant impact came when realising the number of separate systems that can now be replaced with a single – and integrated – solution. Sure, it does our invoices and then automatically posts them to our ledger for accounting purposes (our existing system doesn’t post them).

But it also can manage our leads and quotes. Previously we’ve used a makeshift spreadsheet for lead management and it doesn’t integrate with anything. We’ve always generated quotes using Word. Now we can generate a quote using our task list and when the time comes to turn that into a job, we can automatically convert the quote.

We can see all of our practice KPIs on a single report, generated automatically from live data in the system. Previously we have always had to generate special management reports on a monthly basis by manually inputting key data from our system reports.

Sure, we can measure that galaxy for you. If you want a customised debtors report though, it’s going to take a little longer…

And while we’re on the subject, just the ease at which we can customise and create reports was staggering! You mean we can just use a graphical interface and select fields? It currently takes a post-grad in astrophysics to even interpret our report writing system itself, let alone output anything meaningful from it.

We currently use a separate workflow management system which requires us to manage jobs separately from our practice management system. OK, so it’s nice to be able to see at a glance where everything in the practice is up to whenever we go into WFM. But even better, WFM can proactively remind us of progress dates and deadlines via RSS or by integrating with our Outlook calendars!

There is much more to say but that’s a good start. Perhaps at this point you’re thinking that none of that really sounds like a big deal. And you’d be right. We’ve become so accustomed to mediocrity that we’re too easily impressed. Almost all of the data that WFM will give us to truly manage our practice is in our existing system. On a day-to-day basis, our users won’t have to do much different to what they have always done. They enter their time each day, allocate it to a job/client, nominate a task, and hit enter. But it’s one thing to have data. It’s something else entirely to have information. We thought we already had a practice management system. It turns out all we have is an invoicing and debtors system – and not a great one at that.