Sage annual upgrades for Sage 50.

August 22, 2009

For a number of years Sage have released a new version of Sage 50 every summer.  Each new version is chargeable (unless you have Sagecover Extra) and this can be a cause of, shall we say, disquiet for some users.

Some users, and their advisers, see the annual upgrades as evidence that Sage don’t listen to their customers.  For example eleansa  commenting on an Accounting Web blog says

If Sage really listened to its customers, who include my clients, then they would stop producing so many “upgrades” and merely enhance existing versions under their already expensive annual maintenance contracts.

Yet stripping this down to essentials, it is only a request for Sage to provide more for less, and so just another price discussion between a supplier and its customers.  My concern is how much discernment Sage exercise, not how many customers they listen to!

This “disquiet” is fundamentally unfounded.  The annual upgrades are optional, and Sage continue to support Sage 50 for a good number of years after their release.  For example Sage 50 version 11 will be supported until the end of April 2011, so by the time that support is withdrawn it will have been out for the best part of 7 years.

Sage 50 users can, then, take a pragmatic view of each new version.  The two obvious questions are:

  • Are the additional features of value to my business?
  • Does staying current reduce my IT risk?

We are relatively cautious.  For example our Sage 50 support team’s default recommendation is that clients wait until the first service pack  is released before implementing a new Sage 50 version.  Indeed, except for busy and sophisticated users, we tend to advise against annual upgrades.  Not on cost grounds, but because change without significant benefits bring risks.

Sage 200 aged debtors.

August 22, 2009

While Sage 200 includes aged debtor reports as standard, we prefer to work with the aged debtor reports in Excel though, and we prefer to grab the data directly, so that we can manipulate it at will

This poss includes a series of ‘SQL Server views’ that together give an aged debt, grab the most recent memo (which we use for recording credit control conversations) from the customer account, and show basic contact information.

Provided you or a colleague have basis SQL Server skills, it is straight-forward to create the necessary views in your Sage 200 SQL Server database.  You can choose your own name for the first view, and this is the one that you should link to from Excel, but the other views will need to use the names indicated.

This version doesn’t support foreign currency accounts, and it also can’t be used to produce retrospective aged debtors.  There are other ways of achieving much the same end, including the use of pivot tables which has the advantage of letting you drill down to transactions. 

The views don’t format particularly well as created via our blog software I’m afraid, but you should be able to cut and paste directly.  Also the views were put together by someone relatively inexperienced, so we know they’re not as tidy as they might be!

If you need help implementing this or similar Sage 200 aged debt reports please contact our Sage 200 support service.

Heat but no light, SaaS security questions.

August 22, 2009

Things have got excitable if not exciting in the world of SaaS finance applications recently.

It would be easy to join in with some cheap shots at Duane Jackson, who after all has previously used security issues with Sage’s entry level Sage Live product to generate free publicity.  Wouldn’t be fair though. 

First the issue reported by Dennis Howlett is actually very different, as it is really a feature choice (and yes I do know that security is a fundamental aspect of a software application’s architecture) not a flaw as such. 

Secondly the guys at Accounting Web  have apparently checked (haven’t they noticed the sun has been out this week) how much has been written about it and, at more then 12 000 words, too much has already been said about an issue which just isn’t core to the customers that Kashflow target.

SaaS does raise questions.  Security is one of them.  It is appropriate to ask who can access your data, but actually it’s far more pertinent to ask whether secure (as in continuing) access to your own data given all likely futures for your SaaS supplier.  Sorry, aside over.

The real issue though, is that (some of) the SaaS boys (and yes it does seem to be gender specific!), are more interested in the whys and wherefores of SaaS in the abstract than what it actually does for the customer. 

Kashflow is the result of a whole series of compromises.  Duane Jackson’s fortunes will wax or wane according to how well those compromises match his target audience needs (and the success or otherwise of his trumpet blowing).  That’s as it should be.  Dennis Howlett’s invective is entertaining, but ultimately empty.

I could go further.  Risk and security are not cost free.  It’s easy to promote a stance that more security and less risk is better, but it’s far more complex than that.  Who in business wants to be frightened and risk adverse?

Sage 50 2010.

July 28, 2009

Sage plan to release the next version of Sage 50 on 3 August 2009.  It will be called Sage 50 2010.

Full details aren’t available yet, but teaser information from Sage throws some light on the question of whether to upgrade.

Sage 50 (and it’s predecessors) have always tended towards steady rather than step changes, and it appears that Sage 50 2010 will conform to this pattern.  Sage highlight three areas of change, none of them radical:

  • Improved user experience (better processes, navigation and easier access to data)
  • A data import wizard
  • “Pay now” buttons on invoices, supported by SagePay, their service for collecting online credit card payments

Secondary areas for change include:

  • Support for legislation changes, particularly EC Sales List
  • Improved video tutorials
  • Barcode generation
  • Cash register

In summary, only a few users will regard Sage 50 2010 as a “must buy now” upgrade, but it is another steady step forward.  This then points to when.  The short answer for most people is not until at least September.  The cautious answer is not until the first service pack is released, which is likely to be later in the autumn.

One outstanding question is whether Sage 50 2010 marks the change to a commonly used database, rather than the current proprietary database.  There has been an expectation for some time that Sage will switch to MySQL.  This arguably won’t matter immediately to most users, but should improve access to information and in due course give performance and confidence benefits.  Certainly we’d expect it to allow us to offer better Sage support

BDE in administration, Sage support alternatives.

July 25, 2009

Sage Business Partner BDE Group went into administration in late May, leaving many clients scrabbling around for alternative support arrangements.

Protronics offers Sage 50, Sage Line 100 and Sage 200 support, and will honour the balance of BDE support contracts free of charge.  Please just mention BDE when you contact us.

Apologies for the plug, blogs aren’t really the place for them.  BDE’s demise was unfortunate of course, but there are lessons to be learnt from it:

  • Make sure you have access and rights to any software customisations that you’ve paid for, so that they can be maintained even if the supplier goes out of business
  • Big isn’t always better.  In the Sage reseller world in particular some of the larger resellers have grown by acquisition.  Acquisitions have to be financed, and often that will in turn leave the acquirer vulnerable.
  • Decide what’s important to you from your provider of support. The rational choices are: a small team which knows your business well and which you know and like; a larger team where you have certainty of rapid access, but at the expense of familiarity.
  • If your supplier fails, don’t rely on Sage’s recommendation. You’re more likely to be offered a favoured Sage Business Partner than one that has been specifically selected for compatability with your organisation.

Saas and why it doesn’t matter to Sage.

July 24, 2009

It’s great when you can make a quick decision about whether to bother reading an article.  Even better when the decision making process itself sums up the article!

If you’ve got this far, you’re unlikely to be just a user of Sage products.  Far more likely that you’re involved in the provision of advice or products to accounts software users.

That distinction distills the essential point that Dennis Howlett and others miss when discussing Sage and their disinterest in Saas.

Sage customers don’t use Sage products because they are great technically.  Rather they use them because:

  • Sage are going to be around for a long while
  • the products are known by professional advisers and are quite likely to be familiar to new staff
  • the products are good enough feature-wise
  • there are lots of choices for suppliers of advice, training and support

So from a customer point of view, the issues are about confidence not technology. 

Given this it’s perhaps unsurprising Sage haven’t really been a software / technology company for many years.  Instead they are a company that generates recurring revenues through services.  An extreme view would be that they only bother with software licence sales because such sales top up their recurring revenues.  And their financial performance says they are getting something right.

Dennis Howlett contends that Sage are more interested in keeping their financial analyst community happy than their customers.  To my mind this is to fundamentally misunderstand Sage. 

It is absolutely the case that they are a public company, so their financial performance is their primary concern.  But customers are without question next on their list.  Indeed one of my frustrations is that it is the weight of customer requests that seems to drive their decisions about what features to add, rather than original or imaginative thinking on Sage’s part.  So when customers want Saas, or even what it represents, Sage will give it to them.  Meantime Saas evangelists will continue to be disappointed!

One of the arguments for and consequences of Saas is “disintermediation”.  Or in simplistic terms reducing costs by cutting out middlemen.  But what happens if the middlemen perform an important service?  At this point I should declare an interest as one of Sage’s middlemen in the UK.

Given that I’m not exactly disinterested, lets instead look at Sage’s view.  Their primary accounts products for the small and medium sized products in the UK are Sage 50 and Sage 200.  The interesting point is that they sell and support Sage 50, which is aimed at smaller businesses, directly (as well as through resellers), whereas they don’t sell and support Sage 200.  Given their primary focus on profitability, this must reflect customer needs.

Sage 200 email statements.

July 18, 2009

In these times of carbon footprint awareness, tightened purse strings and an increased need to keep on top of credit control, an obvious – if admittedly small – improvement might be to start using emailed statements rather than posting them.

Sage 200 can produce a batch of statements, attaching them to a separate email per customer, addressed as defined in the customer’s details on the sales ledger. 

You can run a mixture of email and hard copy statements so that those customers who prefer to still be sent postal copies can do so.   For those being sent email copies, you will be able to see and manually amend email content, should you wish, before actually sending the email.

With a little time spent setting up the customer records to ensure there are up-to-date contact names and email addresses (possibly a good opportunity to call and re-start debt chasing anyway), and choosing the email statement layout in the Documents tab, you’re good to go!  (Assuming you’re running a compatible email application such as Microsoft Outlook, which most businesses are).  In Sage 200 2009, it is the contact who is assigned to the SendStatementsTo role whose email address will be used for this purpose, whereas in earlier versions it was the main contact email address as displayed on the first tab in the account setup.

You can have two separate emailable layouts (and two paper ones), so for example a UK and an overseas version asking people to pay into different bank accounts.  The layouts can be amended to include your logo and any other personalised information.  This has been the case for a while, but embedded logos used to cause a bit of an issue in versions prior to 2009 as they would sometimes appear as a separate attachment to the statement html file on the email; this would read OK and re-embed itself on opening the statement, but wasn’t ideal.  However, Sage 200 2009 attaches the statements as pdfs, which holds the embedded logo correctly.

When running a batch of statements, you can then choose whether to run the statements to email and printer (which will reflect the setting per customer on the Documents tab) or to send all to the printer if you want a paper copy regardless of the preferred sending method; if you have your output options set to spooler, this will obviously just spool, rather than print the document.   This can be useful if you just wanted to run a copy for your own reference, of if you then wanted to use the Email option on the print spooler to manually send a copy to different one-off recipient.

So, if you are a Sage 200 user and want to streamline your credit control processes, getting as many of your customers as possible onto email format statements is a great place to start because they’re then quick to produce, targeted, received immediately, and cheaper to send as well!

Sage 50 online VAT Submissions.

July 4, 2009

Perhaps not news that will dislodge Michael Jackson from the front pages this week, but online VAT submissions are on their way.  Indeed they will be compulsory from April 2010 if your turnover is above £100 000.

HMRC are already accepting and actively encouraging online submissions, and Sage 50 2008 and 2009 are on their list of compatible software for doing so automatically.  Sage 200 does not currently have an e-submissions feature, but can of course be used to generate the relevant figures, which can then be keyed in to an online submission form.

HMRC extol the virtues of online submission, promoting it as a quick, efficient, accurate and reliable way to make your return since there is no postal system in the way, there are built-in data validation routines.  Somewhat oversold perhaps?  At least with Sage 50 the submission is automatic so you should be able to grab all the modest time savings on offer.

However, the fact that only 14% of returns are currently being filed online suggests that either people are not aware of the option, don’t know how to go about achieving it, or are simply not comfortable in making the submissions that way.  Articles such as  the International Tax Review’s  one in April this year  contend that a key factor is concern about the reliability of the HMRC systems, though HMRC are keen to reassure users that they have been thoroughly  tested and are very stable.  

Sage technical support list a series of known issues or error reports relating to Sage 50 e-VAT submissions over the government gateway.  In all the instances I’ve reviewed, however, the HMRC end is squeaky clean, as the errors can be traced back to the likes of the configuration of the e-VAT settings in Sage 50, issues with internet connectivity, or problems with the data itself (e.g. errors on the EC sales list, invalid VAT account numbers and so on).  To take a positive view of things, using the e-Vat facility encourages good practice, as it requires a better level of housekeeping of your accounts data than manual returns do.

Whatever users’ feelings on the matter, though, the fact remains that online submissions are soon to become compulsory for many businesses, and arguably it is better to get to grips with this method sooner rather than later, whilst postal copies are still acceptable as a fall-back if any difficulties were encountered either at a user or system level. Of course, this still doesn’t have to involve use of the e-Vat facility even for Sage 50 users, but would at the very least involve completing the form online using figures taken from the system.

In order to make online submissions, you need to sign up for a government gateway account, with more information about the online services available and terms of use here.

It is a notable condition of making online submissions that you must also pay electronically.   Both the submission and payment can be handled through Sage 50’s e-VAT facility if you have also set up the e-banking facility. Alternatively, you can choose to pay by direct debit or BACS (amongst other electronic methods authorised by HMRC), as indeed you would if you were using the online form to key in figures from another source such as Sage 200.

Sage 200 retro reports don’t work!.

June 27, 2009

The problem is that the allocation date, which is set within the top right section of Sage 200’s allocation screens, defaults to the current date.   This is really easy to overlook, and calls to our Sage 200 support team suggest most users are, quite reasonably, unaware of the implications of that date. However, this can cause a few hiccoughs if left unchanged, affecting retrospective debtors/creditors reports, retrospective statements, and any view of average times to pay by customers (visible in the account details report).

With this in mind, it is generally a good idea to change the allocation date from the default of the current system date to that of the latest transaction in the batch being allocated, to keep analyses based on transaction and allocation dates consistent.   Sage 50 does this automatically, so perhaps this is something the software developers need to talk to each other about!

There is a fix, however, if you forget to do this when allocating.  You can always go into the Amend Allocation option under the Adjust Transactions menu on the sales or purchase ledgers and either undo or amend the date on the problem allocations.