Can Sage One Accounts fill the Microsoft Office Accounting gap?

31st January 2011

Can Sage One Accounts fill the Microsoft Office Accounting gap?

Last week Sage re-entered the ‘on-demand’ accounting software market with the launch of its Sage One product aimed at the SME business and sole traders who probably aren’t using any software package at the moment. It’s a heavily contested market and FSN readers will remember the rise and subsequent fall of Microsoft Office Accounting Express (MOA) which Microsoft offered free to end users and then withdrew almost as quickly when it found it couldn’t make money!

But it’s left a gap in the market for an easy to use or entry level system – an idiot proof accounting package that accountants can point their non-accounting clients to, safe in the knowledge that they can process most business transactions reliably and without falling foul of HMRC. Gary Simon, FSN’s managing editor takes a look at Sage One Accounts.

Unlike MOA which (except for the payroll) was a completely on-premises solution, Sage One is an on-demand application running in the so called Cloud on the web. The charges, £10 + VAT per month are relatively modest and include 24/7 help line support – about more of which later.  Fledgling and start up businesses will appreciate the flexibility of the Cloud and the monthly fee seems to me to be reasonable for what is on offer – which is essentially a general ledger, purchases, receivables, banking and VAT system with some reports and even a little performance dashboard to boot.

So I signed up for a 30 day free trial (which can be converted to a full subscription) in order to review what was on offer and to see how the Sage’s claims for the product stack up in practice.

The most prominent claim is that “Sage One requires no formal training and is easy to use.” It is interesting because this is where Sage started in the early eighties. Financial competence and ease of use are what propelled Sage into one of the most popular brands in the UK accounting market.  So how did Sage One do?

Well I found my way around the product in about 5 minutes.  OK discount the fact that I have been writing and reviewing accounting products for around 28 years – but I reckon the average businessman could navigate the plain English menus and terminology without any real difficulty and with a few minutes help from his accountant (what VAT scheme is he on, preparing opening balances, unpaid invoices) could set up the system in anything from a few minutes to an hour.

As with any system it is the ‘behind the scenes’ settings – the one-off decisions about for example, payment terms, revenue and expense types that takes a bit of thinking and time.

What was impressive was the responsiveness of the system.  Nothing took more than a split second or two to generate including a PDF of sales invoices that could be automatically emailed to customers.

With the set up out of the way, including the addition of customers, suppliers, bank accounts, products and services – oh and sales invoice formats I was ready to roll. (By the way Sage, if you are reading this, please could you make the invoice templates easier to see at set-up – I could barely read them they were so small).

What is excellent about the system is the ease with which most of the basic transaction types could be processed.  Sales invoices took a few seconds to create, print and email to a customer, purchase invoices and non-purchase invoice expenses (overheads) were similarly processed with ease.  Matching cash received to invoices was a doddle and VAT cash accounting was updated exactly as expected.

So - to the little performance dashboard. It’s a great little feature that shows key items in the business, for example, invoices outstanding, sales, profit and cash in the bank. Not rocket science but valuable, pithy information that any good businessman needs at his fingertips – automatically generated of course and available from anywhere in the world over the internet.

The SAGE ONE performance dashboard produces essential information

 Performance dashboard.jpg

Reports at this stage are workmanlike but sufficient for a small business with one major exception.  A profit and loss account, balance sheet and trial balance are on offer (as well as a VAT report) – but there is no aged debtors report.  It is really surprising that Sage has released the product without this essential report, especially in the current economic climate.

SAGE ONE produces the classic VAT return report

 VAT.jpg

All of the reports can be exported as a CSV file for incorporation in a spreadsheet or another system but there is no ability to automatically import any data. Given the segment of the market that Sage is targeting with Sage One it could be argued that there is no expectation of an existing system but even the ability to import a csv file (to Sage One’s specification) of customer/supplier information would be helpful.

Admittedly, importing trial balances adds quite a lot of complexity in terms of mapping and dealing with system reserved control accounts and missing nominal accounts but the absence of this functionality could deter some potential customers – especially accountants looking after small businesses. Sage One Accountant Edition (not part of this review) apparently gives accountants access to client data over the web and the ability to work collaboratively with clients in real time.

What about the support that comes with Sage One?  Well Sage says that “Sage One comes with free 24 hour support, either on the phone, via email or on the web, giving business users and accountants’ access to Sage’s unrivalled infrastructure of professional expertise and software support whenever they need it.”

So we put the telephone support to the test but with very disappointing results. At 9:21 AM I called support to ask whether it was possible to import a trial balance automatically into Sage One Accounts. The answer was shocking. “This is all a bit new to me”, said Sage’s support specialist. “Is this something you would normally do in another accounting package?”  “Yes – sometimes,” I said and waited while he went away to find out for me.  Two minutes later he came back with the answer; “There is no functionality to import or export any information because we do not have the API’s for connection”.

This was very poor. Firstly, as noted above, Sage One provides the capability to export information as a CSV file and secondly would a small businessman have any idea what “we do not have the API’s for connection” means?

Unfazed and giving Sage the benefit of the doubt that we just had an untypical experience I called back at 10:40 AM to ask another very simple question. “Can you produce an Aged Debtors Report out of Sage One Acccounts?” only to get this response from the help desk. “A what? I’ll have to find out for you”.  Three minutes later I get the answer, “It is on the product roadmap – it’s a report that tells you your biggest debtors isn’t it?”  I politely pointed out that it tells you the age of your debtors!

So what have we got? Sage One is a competent (in some parts excellent) product in the context of the market it is trying to satisfy. Simple and easy to use – small businesses will get on with it.  However, there are, in FSN’s opinion, some functionality gaps – for example, aged debtors report and trial balance import but I’m sure these will come in time.  Overall we agree that the package is good value for money.  The potential for the Sage brand to dominate the small end of the on-demand market with Sage One is significant, especially since the demise of MOA – but please Sage – fix the quality of your support.

 

Gary Simon is author of;

Using Microsoft Office Accounting to the MAX

Fast Close to the MAX

and co-author of Budgeting, Planning and Forecasting to the MAX

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