Friday, 31 July 2009

Who gives the best customer service?

A link on Dennis Howlett's blog led me to this commendation for FreeAgent from a guy who's only just started using it.

Mick says to the FreeAgent team:
I hope you sell the company for an enormous fortune.
Well sorry Mick, but I don't :-)

To my mind, the people who will provide the best product / service to customers are those who really love what they do.

And often, that's the people who started the company and for whom the product / service is their baby. They have the passion for it that nobody else can ever have.

So I don't reckon that we FreeAgent users will get any better from any other owner than we get from Ed, Roan and Olly, who've built a great product and provide very quick support.

I know, too, that Duane Jackson at KashFlow denies he's been tempted to sell out to Sage, and I think that's great because they just wouldn't have the passion he has for his product.

So don't sell up yet please guys :-)

I do wonder whether users of PTP accounting and tax software think the customer service is as good since it was bought by IRIS? Or whether TAS customers are still as happy since they've become Sage customers?

Monday, 20 July 2009

When customers won't help themselves

Another example from Airline.

A lady flying from Bristol to Paris had had her flight cancelled because of a strike by French air traffic controllers. She transferred to the following day's flight, then turned up only 5 minutes before it left - and, unsurprisingly, was refused entry to check-in and told she'd have to pay a £35 transfer fee to fly the next day.

She was in floods of tears, insisting she couldn't pay, but the manager stood firm and insisted she had to pay because it was her fault she'd arrived late.

And, as Tony Robinson the narrator put it, "Oh look. She's found a credit card."

Breaking the rules for no good reason, and then trying to pull a fast one and avoid paying the fee, is, I'm sorry to say, is the sort of behaviour that makes businesses mistrust their customers - and sadly, that mistrust will extend to the good customers as well as the bad ones.

(I'd be pretty sure that the transfer fee was originally introduced to deter people from changing their booking at the last minute and causing a headache for the staff.)

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Software Satisfaction Awards 2009 - the shortlist

Just checked out the shortlist for the Accounting and Finance section of 2009's Software Satisfaction Awards.

The Small Business Accounting Software shortlist contains not one, not two, but FOUR online solutions - and not a desktop-based package in sight.

That's right.

No Sage and no QuickBooks.

In fact, none of the "Business Accounting Software" award shortlists contain a Sage product. And I think this may be the first year this has happened (no doubt someone will correct me if I'm wrong). This year, Sage is up for only two awards and neither of those is in an "Accounting and Finance" category.

I think this is great news. It's an indication that business users are going online for accounting software and voting with their feet. I'm sure that Dennis Howlett would agree with me that we accountants have got to catch up and do the same or else we'll find ourselves floundering.

I'm also delighted to see that FreeAgent has made it to the shortlist in the Web Hosted Software category for what I think is also the first time. Great guns guys. And good to see KashFlow and Pearl both in there again.

I'll be watching with interest to see what happens on 8th October when the winners are chosen.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

How rigid should staff hours be?

Alan Young has just posted on Twitter;
The staff get full flexi time. They can take an hour off at any time in the day.
That's how it was at the practice where I qualified. Nobody minded if you went out for lunch at 2pm so long as you popped your head round the door and told the receptionist you were going then.

And that's great. Not only does it display a welcome level of trust in your staff, improves the partner-team relationship and encourages a relaxed and happy feeling to the working day, it also means that if you're right in the middle of something at 12 noon, you don't have to drop everything and go for lunch.

But, at the practice where I did some subcontract work earlier this year, they had set hours for staff lunches. You either went at 12 noon or at 1pm, for an hour. Which time you went was agreed with your manager. Any changes to that also had to be pre-approved by your manager.

So if you were due to go for lunch at 12 noon, and you were in the middle of a complicated VAT reconciliation which you wanted to finish and ended up not going till 12.15 - by default you'd lose 15 minutes of your lunch break. Stay out till 1.15? Not allowed unless you agreed it with your manager.

The two firms were very different. The first one was staffed largely by older, qualified individuals. I was 22 when I first went there and there were only two other team members anywhere near my age.

At the second, on the other hand, the accounts team was much larger, and its members were nearly all late teen or twentysomething trainees. At 31, and fully qualified, I was definitely an odd one out.

I guess that you do need to teach young staff good habits, like that staying out for longer than an hour at lunch-time is bad news. And the receptionist does need to know where everyone is in case clients phone - and with a big team, that's harder to manage flexibly.

But does it really have to be so rigid as the second firm had it? I'd be interested to hear what people think.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Is it time for a small business accountancy qualification?

I'm reading the latest issue of Accountancy magazine, which is published by the ICAEW.

In it, there's an article called "Future Stars" which briefly looks at the careers and aspirations of "11 accountants from business, practice and the civil service, whose career achievements indicate they have the potential to be future leaders of the profession".

I'm impressed that of these 11 accountants, only 4 are men, the rest are women, given that an earlier article in that magazine says that in 2008 less than 25% of chartered accountants were women.

I'm also awed by what some of them have achieved. One of the women scored 100% in one of her ACA exams. That's gobsmacking.

But what I'm not so sure about is that these are all big business accountants. They're from practices such as PwC, Deloitte, KPMG, BDO Stoy Hayward, E&Y. And multinational businesses and government departments.

And it makes me remember how, when I did my own exams, very little of what I learnt, particularly in the later stages, had any relevance to my job. The small business clients I dealt with would have known little, and cared less, about hedge funds, the present value of future cashflows, blah blah blah.

Is it time for a qualification that's tailored to small businesses, that focuses on issues that are relevant to individuals? It'd have been far more useful to me to learn how to run a payroll and learn about the various different kinds of statutory parents' pay available, for example, than to learn how to do merger and acquisition accounting.

But if that qualification were introduced, would the stuffier ACAs out there see it as a "poor relation"?

One letter-writer to this month's Accountancy has been scathing about the ICAEW's "fast-track" membership scheme for CIPFAs, ACCAs and CIMAs, who can be admitted to the ICAEW by certifying their experience.

She says:
Since I did three or more years of intensive study, tough invigilated exams and wide-ranging on-the-job training I feel that my qualification is being rather seriously undermined.
Now I know nothing of CIPFA. But I've known ACCAs and did actually start my training doing CIMA. And those latter two qualifications both require "intensive study", "tough invigilated exams" and "wide-ranging on-the-job training". You can't become an ACCA or a CIMA without a great deal of blood, sweat and tears, any more than you can become an ACA.

The letter-writer goes on to say:
I do not wish to devalue the high-quality CIPFA, CIMA and ACCA qualifications.
I'm sorry, but it seems to me that's exactly what she is doing - making them out to be "poor relations" to the ACA.

So if that's the prevailing attitude amongst ACAs and FCAs to members of other accounting bodies, then I can't see a small business accounting qualification being seen as any other than an extremely "poor relation".

So much though I think it would be an excellent idea, I can't see it happening.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Impersonal customer service? Wave your customers goodbye

I watched Airline last night and saw a distraught EasyJet passenger being refused entry to her flight from Luton to Edinburgh because she didn't have any form of photographic ID. She had a paper driving licence but no photocard or passport.

She was worried sick because she was going to Edinburgh to pick up her children, then drive them down to Heathrow overnight, to catch their flight to go on holiday the following morning.

She protested that British Airways didn't require photographic ID for UK domestic flights (which is true - I've just looked it up on the BA website).

Her offer of a fax of her passport was refused, and when the check-in manager suggested she phone up her office, where the passport was, and have the passport couriered over, she said she couldn't afford it - nor did she have time to go home to fetch the passport, because her office was too far away.

In the end, she had to drive to Heathrow and get another flight with BA to Edinburgh. She left in floods of tears saying "Thanks a lot, EasyJet" and I don't think she meant that gratefully.

The EasyJet website does say:
All passengers to provide a valid form of photographic ID at check-in on all flights, including domestic services.
But that is fairly well buried in their website. Is a busy mum of three going to have time to delve through the website and find it before she goes?

Now maybe I'm too soft. And I know airlines have to be ultra-careful given the terrorist threat. But if I were EasyJet, I'd have handled the problem differently.

Why not offer to pay for the passport to be couriered over? Then instead of sending away a very unhappy customer who'd be very unlikely to book again, you'd create a "wow", the customer would be overjoyed and relieved, and it'd be well worth the cost of the courier in repeat business from that lady and her friends.

Or, why not accept a faxed passport if the fax is certified by a professionally qualified individual such as a solicitor, a teacher or an accountant? That's what banks do when accounts are opened.

Then you'd have to set clear guidelines for under what situations you'd do that. Once and once only for any customer? Only if there are extenuating circumstances, e.g. children involved?

But a blank wall of a "No", particularly when it's shown on national TV, doesn't show the company in a good light.

Put it this way, I'm unlikely to fly EasyJet if there's an alternative, because the impersonal nature of its service - which I've experienced personally as well as a viewer of Airline - puts me off.

I loathe unreserved seating, for example. I hate being squished in the middle of a row. When I used to fly to Cornwall it was always with Flybe or Air Southwest where I could book a seat in advance and sit in the emergency exit row with more room for my knees.

When I have to fly EasyJet I always make sure I get there early so as to be one of the first on to the plane. But they scuppered that once at Newcastle by bussing us all out to the plane. The first people in the queue were squashed to the back of the bus and had no chance to make their choice of seats. Bleurgh.

Impersonal and rigid customer service is bad news and will put current - and potential - customers off.

Customers are individuals with individual needs and I think it's vital to treat them that way.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Different strokes for different folks, accounting-software style

It's something of a hobby horse of mine that when it comes to accounting software, one size most certainly does not fit all.

For example, I'd never steer someone who wasn't either a highly skilled bookkeeper or a qualified accountant towards Sage 50. It's far too complicated.

I have two businesses - a limited company and a sole trade - and I keep their books on two different pieces of online accounting software. The company's on Pearl, the sole trade's on FreeAgent.

Both of these products are suitable for different kinds of businesses.

Pearl has a free version called Express for start-ups and micro-businesses. But, given the layout, look and feel of Pearl, I would say that this is aimed more at businesses that are starting small but are aiming to grow. The scope of Pearl is broad. There are lots of different menus and options within the software.

FreeAgent, on the other hand, is aimed fair and square at freelancers, consultants, and other micro-businesses that have started small and mean to stay that way. It's much simpler to navigate, because it has much fewer menus.

So before you choose your software, or choose what you're going to recommend to clients, think about whether the business plan is to stay small or to grow.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Timesheets - mark 2

My last-but-one post attracted several great comments - thanks folks.

Two commenters were in favour of "trashing the timesheet" pace Ron Baker, the other was not. Ali said, in answer to my point that there would always be "fudging" with a timesheet and that they take time to fill in:
I wouldn't think the fudging would have a significant impact on results. Getting minute-by-minute detail would be counter-productive if you're trying to foster efficient working habits.
To answer that, I'd like to quote again from Hugh Williams, this time from his book "Life Without Timesheets; The Freedom to Charge what you are Worth".
Let's face facts; we make up a very great deal of what we put on our timesheets.

If you don't accept this accusation, then let me put something to you. For the last hour you have been working on client A's affairs but, during that time, not only did Client B telephone you to ask if he has to pay his latest tax demand straight away, but your fellow partner also called in to ask you if you saw that great programme last night on TV - and you went to the loo.

Now you may have a policy of not charging less than 1/4 hour for any work you do for a client, and if you follow this policy you will end up charging 1 1/4 hours for just one hour's work - 1 hour to client A and 1/4 hour to client B. But in fact you worked for less than an hour, if you take account of the loo break; yet you charged your clients 1 1/4 hours. This is wrong. The clients know we do this and they hate us for it.
Some practices get round this by charging time in 5 minute blocks. But to that I say - OW. As far as billing goes, that's so petty it's untrue. I hate it when I know a solicitor is doing that to me.

And as for the effect on your staff, having to account for every 5 minutes of your day is what you do to primary school children.

I simply can't see a fair way to record time (fair to the clients, that is). If anyone else can, please comment.