Believe in Better

On Saturday evening we went to hear my good friend Lauren Currie speak at the University of Dundee. Lauren is one of the people who’ve inspired me on my journey in the world of design over the last decade, so it’s always a delight to see her.

When she introduces herself on stage she’ll typically say, “I’m Lauren Currie and I believe in better”. It’s a simply phrase, but one that sits at the core of everything she is and does.

Lauren has this ability to make you look at the world in a different way, to see the things that aren’t working, and then to do something about it. All with a focus on social change and making our world better.

It’s become a mantra for me too over the past few years. It’s why I do what I do. Why I get involved in the things that I do. It’s a question I ask of myself each and every day – are you really making things better today?

Let me explain.

My world is the world of business. It’s where I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life. For several years I’ve been trying to find my ‘thing’. Where can I make most impact; how can I help people the most?

It was staring me in the face, and it was my son & business partner Andy who helped me to see it. You see, I’m an accountant. Always have been and always will be. An accountant with an ability to communicate often complex things in an easy to understand way. An accountant who’s embraced the world of design and who believes in better.

That’s why we setup our accounting business last year. We could see that the world of accounting wasn’t delivering what customers needed. Accounting needed to change and we were up for the challenge of leading the way.

We’re now 9 months into the journey and I believe that we’re making a difference. But there’s still lots to be done. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Do you believe in better? How can you use your skills and experience to make a positive difference? I’d love to hear your thoughts….

Let’s talk about paper

It’s been a week of talking about paper. Specifically, organisations that continue to insist on printing & sending information to customers, whether they like it or not.

In 2018 there’s really no excuse for doing that. The common refrain is, “well, we’ve always done it like that”. However that doesn’t mean you should be.

Last weekend I recorded a video about accountants posting financial statements to their clients for signing, without any explanation of what these statements mean. It’s a practice that many accountants have used for decades, but what we found in our research before we launched Ashton McGill was that clients really dislike this. They often don’t understand what they’re being asked to sign, it feels cold and impersonal, and there’s no attempt to explain or educate.

That video generated a lot of interest and people shared their individual stories with us. We got a bunch of enquiries on the back of it, and so for we’ve won 3 new clients as a result. There’s a message there for the luddites who insist on continuing to send stuff out in the mail……

The second example this week was a local college whose finance department insist on posting paper invoices out to customers. This seems to be a practice that many education institutions still use. They also expected us to phone them to make payment. I mean, really?!? Their process couldn’t have been less customer-friendly if they had tried.

And yet we see this sort of thing time and time again. Systems designed around the needs of the organisation, without any thought for the user or customer. Systems that are never reviewed, they just do it that way because……..well, because that’s how they’ve always done it.

Surely we can do better than that? You have my email address, you know my name, company, and our physical address (because you insist on mailing stuff there!), so why not email me a copy instead? It’s costing you money to post documents to me. Not only the paper cost, the ink, the envelope, the postage, but also the cost of someone’s time to do this.

Then I’ve got to do something with the paper documents. I’ll sign them if I have to (assuming I understand what I’m signing!), scan them, then email them back to you (see the irony there?) before shredding them. What a waste of time.

So, come on. If you’re the recipient of this type of behaviour, then insist they change (unless you like receiving mail!). And if you’re printing, stuffing envelopes, sticking on a stamp, then mailing them – ask yourself why? More importantly, ask your customers what they want.

We don’t need to print. Not only will it save you time, it’s also better for the environment. It’s time to be better.

Where do good ideas come from?

I had lunch earlier this week with an old colleague. He currently works for a global business, gets paid well, but feels no joy in the work. He’d love to setup his own business, but doing what? He just doesn’t know.

We spoke about different ways to start the idea generation process. When I worked at the University of Dundee a few years ago, we did some work with Stanford’s BioDesign programme. It’s designed to create new businesses in the healthcare field and at the time their process had created over 120 new ventures.

The first stage in the BioDesign programme sees students being immersed in the clinical environment (Stanford University Hospital), where their only job is to identify problems. Over a six week period they are tasked with finding 200 ‘needs or problems’. Things that don’t work, where staff or patients are experiencing frustration or worse.

They are taught not to think about solutions, simply to find things that don’t work. In the Design Thinking model this is what we’d call the Discovery stage, where empathy is vital to understanding how others experience a situation.

So I shared this story over lunch. My friend loved it and has decided to start noticing things that don’t work and writing them down. I suggested creating a Google doc or Evernote file so that these ideas are captured and can be shared. You see, idea generation is rarely a solitary endeavour. It involves conversation, sharing ideas and collaboration. The more diverse the people you share them with the better.

The other thing I’ve done recently, with thanks to running coach and writer Mario Fraioli, is create something called a Spark File. Not only do I use it to capture needs or problems, but also interesting articles or ideas for blog posts.

The notion that you can’t be creative or come up with ideas is a fallacy – it’s just that many of us don’t know how. The creativity that we had as children has been taught out of us, so we think we can’t. But maybe we just need to be shown a different way?

How do you come up with ideas? Any tips you’d like to share?

Xerocon day 1 – highlights

Yesterday I travelled down to London to attend my first Xerocon – the accounting software giant Xero’s annual conference for it’s accounting partners.

Although we’ve only been in business as an accountant for a couple of months, our history with Xero goes back a few years. Last summer I delivered a webinar & Masterclass Programme on Customer Experience as part of their Summer Camp for accountants, and we’ve been using the product in our business for a couple of years.

Xerocon gets a lot of love on social media, so I was intrigued to see if it would live up to the hype.

The opening keynote address this year was from futurist Richard Susskind. I’ve been a fan of Susskind’s for several years, so for me it was worth the ticket money alone just to hear him. He didn’t disappoint.

susskind

In a thought-provoking talk, Susskind challenged the room to reimagine what we do and to focus on what it is that our clients truly value. The best way to predict the future, he said, is to invent it!

The other session that grabbed my attention today was a panel discussion on ‘Frictionless Finance’. We heard from a variety of speakers from the traditional (HSBC) to cutting edge FinTech firm Curve. This on the same day that Challenger Bank Starling announced they’d be entering the business banking market in 2018. I’ll be writing more about some of these companies, and the opportunities they open up, in the near future.

Apart from that, it’s been standard fare for a product conference – product updates, a glimpse of the future roadmap, that sort of thing. All good, and it I’m excited for the future as a Xero Partner.

And I mustn’t forget about the catering – it’s epic! Scattered around the Exhibition hall are, in no particular order, an ice cream van, several barista coffee stations, a couple of smoothie bars, heaps of great food, and tasty Kiwi juice.

Day one’s been good. Tonight is the fabled Xero Party – they say there ain’t no party like a Xero party! Guess we’ll find out soon…..

Making life easier

Dundee’s a great place to live, we’re well connected by road & rail (just need to work on air!), which means that most of Scotland is little more than an hour away.

These days I prefer to take the train wherever possible. It’s less stressful than driving, and it means that I can get some work done, or catch up on reading and writing whilst I travel. Or, like last Wednesday evening, have a nap – you can’t do that if you take the car!

Travelling means that you’re going to be using a variety of services to get from A to B, and last week it struck me how much easier my life is today compared to even just a couple of years ago thanks to well designed services.

Here’s the story of my day.

5.15am Got up far too early, although anything after 5am now feels like a lie-in – that’s what marathon training does for you!

6.20am Get in the car, drive to Perth. Decide to try and park at the railway station itself – save a long walk later when I get back (I have an easy run to do this evening!).

6.45am Arrive at Perth Station. Plenty of parking spaces. Walk over to the parking meter to find that they now use the Ringo app, so I can park without any of the hassle of putting cash in the meter. Lovely!

6.50am Grab a coffee from the new Costa. It’s not Gordon Street Coffee, which is nestled next to the entrance to Glasgow’s Central Station, but it’s a big step up from the manky old station cafe!

6.55am Collect tickets, which I’d bought online on the Trainline app

7.00am Get on the train, get the MacBook out, hook into the free Scotrail wifi, and get to work!

8.20am Arrive at Glasgow Queen St, having got a tonne of work done, including a blog post on business partners, which I not only wrote but also posted whilst travelling, as well as engaging with commenters on social media!

8.30am Walk to Tinderbox in the Merchant City. Grab a flat white and fire off a few more emails.

9.15am Order an Uber from my phone.

9.20am Uber arrives. Have a great chat with the driver on my way to the east end. Turns out his wife’s family are from Dundee and he used to run a shop in Invergowrie!

9.27am Arrive at Rogart St. Uber takes the fee automatically and I access the app to leave a 5 star recommendation for the driver, thank him for his banter, and leave him a tip.

9.28am Realise there are two Rogart Streets (separated by a big building) and I’m in the wrong one! Phone Angela, let her know, then walk round. Google maps let me down (although maybe it was me, not paying attention….)

11.30am Finish a great meeting, call an Uber.

11.35am Uber arrives. Chat to my driver, John Paul, on the way into town. He offers we some chewing gum and asks if I’d like to charge my phone. I learn that he’s ‘running his own business’ with Uber as it gives him more time with his 6 year-old daughter. He likes Uber, it makes it easy for him and he doesn’t have to deal with drunk idiots.

11.50am John Paul drops me at Buchanan Street. I message Diane to let her know I’m on my way for lunch.

12pm Arrive at Princes square for lunch with the lovely people from Xero and several of their other accounting partners. We talk about all sorts of stuff, including many of the apps that make up the Xero ecosystem. These apps enable us to tailor Xero to each client’s specific needs. Compared to the inflexibility of Sage this is a total game-changer!

2.40pm Send a DM to Craig to let him know I’m running a little late for our coffee meeting.

3.05pm Arrive at Wilson St Pantry back in the Merchant City. I’ve had too much coffee today, so order a Red Bush tea. Craig orders peppermint tea. Rock ’n roll! I’ve known my namesake Craig McGill for the best part of a decade now. Most of our chats these days are online via twitter or LinkedIn, so it’s good to catch up in the flesh. The hour or so we spend goes by in a flash. I leave feeling energised and inspired.

4.41pm Catch the train back to Perth. Reply to a few emails (thanks to the free wifi again), then get my headphones out, pop on some City & Colour, and then snooze until we get back to the Fair City.

5.45pm Walk out of the station to my car. Jump in, head home, then get out for my run.


Now just imagine what my day would have been like five or so years ago.

Firstly, you could never get parked at Perth Station! Then you’d need a handful of pound coins to park, assuming you were lucky enough to find a space and a working parking meter.

Forget getting decent coffee.

Then the taxi experience. The last time I jumped in a black cab in Glasgow (May of this year), the driver had dropped the F-bomb at least a dozen times before we’d even made it past George Square! And the taxi was mingin’.

I know Uber aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you take their culture and behaviour out of the equation, the concept behind the service is pretty damn good! Every time I’ve got in an Uber in Scotland the service has been significantly better than the traditional taxi experience.

Then the train. Free wifi is something that we take for granted these days, but it makes a huge difference to the travel experience. I’m always grateful when I get connected.

Even the simple messaging tools that we have today make our lives easier – twitter, whatsapp, even good old texting make a difference. I grew up in Perth, and met my wife Joanna there when we were at school (1986!). As you may know, Perth has two public parks known as Inches – the North & South Inch. One day back then Joanna and I had arranged to meet at the statue at the Inch. Only she’d assumed the South and I’d assumed the North. As hormonal teenagers, we both thought we’d been stood up! No text messages in those days…..

So life is undoubtedly easier today in many ways, and businesses like Uber, Airbnb and even Scotrail are succeeding by focusing on making their customers lives easier.

So here’s my question for you – what are you doing to make your customers, or users / visitors, lives easier?

Why are you still charging by the hour?

When I worked for Ernst & Young back in the early 90s, we had to account for every 10 minutes of our time. Each hour equated to 6 units, and we had a weekly target of billing a minimum of 75% of chargeable time.

In reality, most of us were billing over 100% of our time – working 70-80 hours, that was how you got on in the firm back then. Time was our currency.

The legal profession worked on similar principals, charging clients for the amount of time spent. It was a model that worked really well for the Professions – you could plan with certainty and huge profits were made.

Little has changed over the past 20 years.

So why do I have a problem with charging for time? Quite simply, it rewards inefficiency. The longer you spend on something, the more it costs me as the client. Where’s the incentive for you to innovate, to think out of the box? No, it’s easier just to load time onto the client.

But the world has changed. That kind of behaviour is no longer acceptable.

However the majority are still doing it and that’s where the opportunity lies. Modern firms think like businesses. They’re designed around the needs of the clients, not the needs of the firm.

Pricing is fixed. As the client, you know exactly how much you’re paying and what you’re getting for that. It’s much fairer. If you can innovate and find more cost-effective ways of delivering your service, then that’s absolutely fine. As long as both parties recognise the value that’s being delivered, at a fair price, then no-one will have a problem.

The days of the accountant & lawyer dictating terms are over. For those that don’t adapt, it’ll be a bleak future. Put the client front and centre. Focus on delivering value.

It’s what every other kind of business has to do, now it’s time for you to think like a business too…..

Time for a refresh

As you may have noticed, I’ve been playing around with different themes the past few weeks. I’ve also been consolidating a couple of websites I own into this one.

Previously I’d had a ‘business-focused’ site at http://www.alasdairmcgill.com, and a separate ‘personal’ blog, where I mainly wrote about running & cycling. However, like many people, my work & personal lives blend into one another and so it made sense to do this.

If you’re visiting here expecting to only read about business stuff, then prepare yourself for stories from my marathon training. Likewise, if you’ve come hear to read about my running exploits, then now and again you’re going to find posts about design, business, accounting and customer experience.

I’ll do my best to keep them all entertaining. There’s so much bad content out there, that I don’t need to be adding to the noise. I’ll endeavour to tell stories, to tell you about the wonderful people and organisations that I encounter on my travels.

I’m also going to start documenting the journey as we launch a new business in August.

I’ll keep it human, I promise.