I spoke with Brian Sweat of Alterity, Inc. about developing products for the Intuit Workplace App Center. The App Center connects QuickBooks users with a variety of optional software products.

Brian, tell me a little about your background and your company.

I’m the Product Manager at Alterity and have been working on the ACCTivate! product line for the last 9 years.  ACCTivate! is a full-featured inventory and distribution management system designed for QuickBooks® users.  We joined the Intuit Developer Network in 2003 and were in the first group of Gold Developers in 2006.

Alterity just released EZ Analytics for Inventory as a solution within QuickBooks’ App Center. Tell us how that product came to be and what business problems it aims to solve.

The Intuit Partner Platform was launched in late 2008 as a part of Intuit’s  “Connected Services” strategy.  We recognized this was a great opportunity for both Alterity and Intuit.

Advanced inventory management is a common need for many QuickBooks users.  We realize that many users don’t want to switch to a mid-market system for better inventory management.  EZ Analytics for Inventory provides simple tools to better understand their inventory without any changes to their business process.

Your inventory solution is Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). And that seems to be a trend for QuickBooks add-ons starting with the new QuickBooks 2010 versions…user data moving into “the cloud”. What do you think the users’ experience will be like compared to using desktop software?

The experience is great!  You can sign up with just a few clicks using your Intuit account.  Intuit handles the entire sign-up and billing process.   Of course, there’s no software to install and updates are automatic.  The user interface is much more robust than traditional desktop software.

What technical issues did you run into in developing a web-based product that interfaces with QuickBooks? And what is it like supporting a web-based product?

There were a few major changes for us.  First, it required a new set of development tools (ie Adobe Flex Builder).  We also switched from using Microsoft SQL Server to the online Intuit Data Services.  There was definitely a transition for our development team, but we’re really happy with the changes.

Providing end user support is very different as well.  Intuit is responsible for synchronizing and storing the QuickBooks data.  EZ Analytics for Inventory is pretty easy to use, so we really haven’t had much additional support.

On a closing note, it seems to me that for both financial and technological reasons, the App Center approach could be a win-win-win for 3rd party developers, Intuit, and end users. Any final thoughts, Brian, about the QuickBooks App Center?

We completely agree!  We are very excited to see more users and developers discover the Intuit Workplace App Center.  EZ Analytics for Inventory is our first Workplace App and we have big plans for the future.  I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.

Thank you, Brian!

I’ve got a phish story for you.

Someone I know buys and sells stuff on eBay. During the course of one of his auctions, he got an email from eBay with a question from a potential buyer. This is a very normal experience for eBay sellers. The email had details about him, his item, his auction.

He clicked the “Reply to question” link in the email, and logged in to eBay. Except it wasn’t eBay.

Just as he clicked the Login button, he noticed that his address bar didn’t say eBay.com. It had an IP address. Ding, ding, ding, red alert!

He immediately logged into the real eBay site and changed his password. So there was no harm done.

He had been phished. Actually, spear-phished. He was specifically targeted. Why? He had made the mistake of putting his email address as part of the auction information. So some cybercriminal had sent him a tailor-made phishing email that looked, felt, and smelled like a real eBay email.

The reason it worked is because he expected to receive an email just like the one he was sent.

How could he have avoided this? By not clicking the link in the email. He could have, and should have, logged into eBay through eBay.com.

That is the main way to not get caught in a phishing scam. Whether it’s an email supposedly from Intuit, your bank, the government, etc., the safe way is to avoid the link in the email and go straight to the website from your address bar or your trusted browser bookmarks.

Recently there have been a lot of phishing emails going around that falsely claim to be from Intuit. You can check on Intuit security alerts at http://security.intuit.com.

Do you have a phish story? Or any other advice?

If you are like most small businesses, you don’t have a systematic method or procedure for backing up your business data. I know this because I have talked to literally thousands of people over the years who find themselves needing a backup they don’t have.

So here’s a habit to get into that is not too hard to do, and that potentially can keep catastrophe away from your door. Backup on Fridays.

Now it’s true that it’s better to have a daily or nightly backup. And there are ways to do that that I’ll post about sometime. But don’t let perfection keep you from better. The best backup plan is one that will actually happen.

So if you aren’t making regular backups now, decide to make Friday your backup day. That way, your worst case scenario in case of a data disaster would probably be to rekey one weeks’ worth of data. For most businesses, that would be inconvenient but not a total nightmare. (Have the nightmare scenario? Click here.)

One critical element to this plan is to get your backup off your hard drive, and take the backup offsite.

Why? If you backup to your hard drive and your computer gets stolen, burned up, flooded, or just plain crashes the next time you turn it on, your backup is useless if it’s still on that computer.

But if you backup to a flash drive (aka USB drive, thumb drive, memory stick), CD, external hard drive, and you take it home or keep it in your purse or pocket, then you’re covered regardless of what happens to your office computer. Just common sense, eh?

A lot of flash drives have built in security, so you can password-protect your information.

You should backup not only your QuickBooks data files, but any mission-critical files, or files that otherwise would be inconvenient to lose (e.g. your /documents folder.)

So put it on your calendar for every Friday: BACKUP TODAY. It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s important.

What is your backup plan or procedure? Does it work well for you?

What version of QuickBooks am I using?

What edition of QuickBooks am I using?

What update patch do I have installed?

How big is my data file?

How fragmented is it? (And thus, how potentially unstable is it?)

Where is my data file located?

Where is my license number information?

All these questions and more are easily found simply by pressing the F2 key when you are in QuickBooks with your company opened.

If you find yourself needing support, through QuickbooksUsers.com or otherwise, this will probably be information you are going to need.

The update patch is shown right after your version. In this screen shot, it shows R5P.

If your file size is large (250MB or more for Pro or Premier versions, 750MB or more for Enterprise) and your DB file fragments are high (20 or more), then your file is potentially more likely to get corrupted. You can get those numbers down with supercondensing or a company recreate.

One other nice number from the F2 screen: free memory. QuickBooks likes to have lots of elbow room.

Nobody said it was easy making a living in this economy.

The good news is that if you have solid experience with QuickBooks, there are jobs out there for you, if you are looking for one.

The QuickBooks Jobs Forum lists QuickBooks-related jobs that are coming up every day.

Some examples:

Administrative assistant with QuickBooks experience in Brooklyn, NY

QuickBooks bookkeeper and file clerk in Harbor City, CA

And if you are lucky enough to be visiting Vancouver for the Olympics and you fall in love with the area, there is an opening there for an accountant with QuickBooks proficiency.

Supposedly, the entrepreneurial sector of the economy is the fastest growing element right now. And new small businesses need help with the books (and hopefully realize that!) If you are an employer hiring for a QuickBooks bookkeeping position, post your need on the forum. It’s free, and most of the listings are getting 60 or more views.

What is your experience with the QuickBooks-related  job market? Do you think it is favorable now?

I’ve read a lot in the last few months about people having difficulties registering their install of QuickBooks. I’ve heard Intuit employees respond that improvements have been made.

So with some degree of optimism, I installed and registered a new license of QB Pro 2010 on a computer running Windows Vista.

Overall, I found that the process seems somewhat better than a lot of what I’ve read. But there is room for improvement. See my four suggestions at the bottom of this article.

I insert the QuickBooks install CD and it fires up. I put in my license code. I accept the default options for an express install. About 15 minutes later, it’s done! No problems so far. Do I want to run QuickBooks now? Sure! I’ve got a good working  QBW file. Let’s open it up.

Error -6000,-77. What!? I don’t recognize the -77 part right off, but 6000 errors often mean data damage. Sometimes they mean environmental issues. I know this data is clean. (I look it up, and a -6000 -77 error means there is a folder permissions problem where the data is. Not sure why that would apply here though.)

I close out QB and it closes cleanly now. I find my QBW file through Windows on My Computer and double-click it. Voila! It opens up just fine now. Now it wants me to register.

OK. I’ll be curious about this. There has been a kind of conspiracy theory on Twitter about the registration process. Some say that Intuit wants to upsell their users hard, so the online registration never works – it  always makes you register over the phone. Why? So you have to hear the sales spiels, you see. That’s what suspicious minds think, anyway.

I start the process of registering online. I already have an Intuit ID, so I log in. It wants more info about me. OK. I have to put in my billing information. Why? I am not going to buy anything. But the asterisks say it’s required info. so I enter it.

I’m in my account overview screen, but, uh, where did QuickBooks go? On my monitor, part of the information is off the screen, below the last field. Is there a submit button down there? This is not a scrolling or resizeable window. I have no idea where the focus of the window is right now. I dare not just press ENTER, fearing that I’ll then be signing up for all manner of optional services.

I monkey around with tabs and clicks, and somehow can now see the “Save” button. I save. Now what? I can’t see a “Return to QuickBooks” button, if there is one. There are no relevant navigation controls at all. The only thing remotely “exit-y” is “Sign Out”. I click that. Uh oh. The registration takes me down a dead-end street and drops me off. I see this screen:

What the heck? No navigation controls except links to Intuit corporate pages. I’m not in a browser window, although it kinda looks like one. Close Window control doesn’t respond. I’m tempted to Task Manager/End Task my way out of this but that definitely wouldn’t be right, and as far as I know, my company data is still open. It would be a sad thing to CTRL-ALT-DEL it into corruption.

I poke around. F2 brings up my QuickBooks Product Information. OK, QuickBooks is still alive in there… It says my product is still UNREGISTERED. Figures. I randomly hit ESC. Voila! Back in QuickBooks again. It says that the online registration failed and I have to register by phone.

Ah, so here we go. I call the 800 number. Please enter my phone number. I do, but it doesn’t like it. “You will now be connected with a registration representative to help you.”

You know those March-of-Dimes coin funnel things they have in grocery stores sometimes? I feel like a penny spiraling down the giant funnel of this registration process – my destination is inevitable. There is no way I’m going to avoid talking to a rep who is going to try to sell me a bunch of stuff.

So in less than a minute, a fellow named Brian comes on the line. He asks me a couple of questions. He gets my license codes. HE DOES NOT OFFER TO SELL ME ANYTHING. He gives me my validation code and has me press F2 again. REGISTERED.

Brian bids me good day. OK! All’s well that ends well.

I suggest that Intuit consider changing the following aspects of their product registration process:

  1. Launch a browser session to capture the information, rather than putting me in an ill-designed pseudo-browser with non-standard flow and controls.
  2. Don’t ask me for billing info. If I want to buy an optional service/app later, there is plenty of time to get my billing details later.
  3. Give me a nice, clear, “Return to QuickBooks” link somewhere, or other appropriate form controls. Don’t dump me in a blind alley. CTRL-ALT-DEL shouldn’t be coming into my head…
  4. If I registered, count it. In spite of the difficulties, I was able to save my information on the form. So why didn’t QuickBooks show that it was registered?

My first tech job long ago was doing software quality assurance, so it was kind of fun analyzing my experience with the QuickBooks registration process.

My final thought: Kudos to Intuit for listening to users’ complaints about over-marketing and toning that down. I am impressed that, though they are large, Intuit seems to respond to its users.

What are your thoughts on the current QuickBooks registration process? Was your experience like mine?

QuickBooks disasters come in at least three flavors.

Scenario #1: System failure: A QuickBooks user has some kind of system catastrophe. A fire, a computer theft, a flood, a server hard drive crash and trash. The computer goes down and takes QuickBooks with it.

That is the time when current, reliable backups are more than handy — they are the lifeline to restoring your normal accounting and/or business operations. It’s true that my company can repair damaged QuickBooks files, but the cost is not insignificant. The best thing is just to have a good backup from, say, yesterday. How to avoid a QuickBooks disaster? Backup.

Scenario #2: Human failure: Your brother-in-law is pretty good with computers, you say. So he got on your computer, and trying to clean things up, ended up deleting your Quickbooks files. Or your just-fired bookkeeper sends you a message: he/she reformats your computer before he/she walks out the door. How to avoid a QuickBooks disaster? Backup. IT pros can maybe recover your files intact, or maybe not. Best thing is to have good current backups.

Note: Making backups seems to be one of my big themes; I hope you don’t tire of it. The reason I talk about it so much is because I have conversations almost every day with QuickBooks users who find themselves wishing they had more or better backups than they have. The fact that they don’t have them is good for my support business, but not much fun for my clients. FYI.

Scenario #3: Accounting control failure: QuickBooks has the reputation of being pretty easy for non-accountants to use. That’s a double-edged sword: it gives people in small business the power to do their own books, but in the wrong hands, it also gives an avenue to embezzle money. This is especially true in businesses where one individual is responsible for everything related to the books.

A lady in my town was convicted a couple of years ago of defrauding the construction company she worked for out of several tens of thousands of dollars, and that was their scenario. How to avoid a QuickBooks disaster? Have more than one person involved in the bookkeeping, and have your books audited. There is a lot more to say about this; consult your local CPA.

I just read a great article in Start Up Nation Online. It describes customer service in pretty stark terms: people notice either really good or really bad customer service.

A quick search of  tweets on “QuickBooks” from the last 24 hours shows the following:

  • installing quickbooks required me to call support to register the product. No web based reg? have to call? really? sheesh.
  • I want to integrate my bank transactions with Quickbooks Online Plus, no one at your bank’s 800 # has a clue, any help?
  • Is QuickBooks Online down for anyone else this morning? #needtopaypayrolltaxes

A tweet on the positive side: The QuickBooks Balance for those using online banking has been added back to the homepage per QB Online user requests. Yeah feedback! !

And another positive example: @RebeccaTervoCPA Just had a potential client call to say “My Quickbooks are a mess, and I need them fixed for the bank by next Thursday!” I’ll try my best:)

So it gets me thinking. What makes for a really great QuickBooks customer service or support experience? These tweets plus my own experience suggest these qualities:

  • Great communication: Listening to users and responding with action
  • Great empathy: Responding to the urgency of the problem.
  • Great competence: Dealing with someone who is an expert.
  • Great timeliness: Getting  a quick and effective solution to the problem.

What would make for a really bad software support experience?

  • Poor communications: Having difficulty finding out the status of what’s going on.
  • Poor relationship: Being treated primarily as an upsell prospect
  • Poor system: Being put on hold for a long time.

No support organization is perfect. It’s great that Twitter makes it easy to feel the pulse of the QuickBooks user; all of us who support QuickBooks can adjust and improve the way we serve end users.

When QuickbooksUsers.com helps someone with a software issue, we often send them a “How did we do?” questionnaire to get feedback. We use that feedback to tweak what we do. But maybe we have some blind spots. Let me know…

Do you have anything to add to the list of what makes great or awful service and support?

Here are four ideas to be more successful with QuickBooks for the balance of this year:

1. Make a good backup plan, and implement it. Talk to your local IT pro or give us a call for practical advice on this. Everyone knows they should have good regular backups. Studies show that 90% don’t follow through. But you go ahead! If your computer crashes later this year, you will thank me. Yes! You will.

2. Get your versions of QuickBooks, Windows, and your hardware all lined up. Don’t run QuickBooks 2005 under Windows 7. Or run QuickBooks 2010 on a PC you bought in 2005. Hardware, operating system, and applications work together best when they were produced around the same time.

3. Make QuickBooks work harder for you. It can do more than just pay your bills and reconcile your bank account, you know? Have you ever showed your QuickBooks reports to someone who can interpret them for you and tell you how you could tweak your business to make it way more profitable? That’s where some hidden accounting beauty lies…in the potential bottom line. Talk to your CPA, to a virtual CFO, or talk to us to get connected to one. You’ll spend a little, but maybe save or make a lot.

4. If you are using QuickBooks 2010, check out some of the optional services/apps. Online document management, online check depositing, email marketing…there are lots of new services to consider that can help save time or create new revenue.

Are you going to try anything new with QuickBooks this year?