Tips for VAT MOSS Registration

VAT MOSS is the latest brainchild of HMRC (the UK’s Tax & Customs part of the government) and it’s been giving everyone some weird and wonderful headaches. While I don’t have time to go into details about why it’s going to hurt small businesses a lot (here’s Ysolda’s great summary), I wanted to quickly pop a post up as it seems many others are getting the error message I got to. (Skip to the end if you’re in a rush)

When logging in to the Government Gateway site, the logical first place to look to register for MOSS (Mini One Stop Shop) is under the “Services you can add” header; This is where I previously had to register for other services. You’ll find a link to register for MOSS for Union and non-Union businesses.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 14.54.21

Pick the right one for your business (if you’re in the UK, you’re Union).

However, when using this link to register, I encountered this error:

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 14.48.55

No matter how many times I checked our details (which I knew were right), still that error.

I tried tweeting the @HMRCCustomers Twitter account and got flat-out ignored. I then proceeded to email the Online Services Helpdesk. Two weeks later, they responded with the following:

“For security reasons we are unable to provide any information, or carry out any actions, requested by email.”

I was instructed to phone the VAT helpline, which I did earlier today. After half an hour on hold, and an almighty battle with the voice recognition system (Did you say “I want to cancel child benefits”?, Did you say “I want to import a car into the UK?”), I managed to speak to a nice Scottish chap. After quite openly explaining that they were helpless and hoping for more information soon, he put me on hold a while longer and then pointed me to a completely different section through which you register. Of course. Because that makes sense…

You’ll find the registration section you need under “Register for HMRC Taxes”, accompanied by the confidence inducing “This is a ‘beta’ service” message.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 14.56.13

Once you’re in there, it shouldn’t take you long to register, but somehow, it has been absolutely teeth-pullingly impossible to get the information needed to get this far.

Good luck to everyone else who’s having to wrestle VAT MOSS for 2015!

8 Big Productivity Tools for Small Businesses

Lately, I’ve been meeting tons of great owners of small businesses with fantastic ideas, boundless enthusiasm and passion for their work. What struck me was how poorly equipped they were, technologically speaking.

From working with computers that only booted when they felt like it, printers that had to be coaxed into cooperating and accounting still done on paper or using software they didn’t understand, they all expressed frustration (some in colourful words!) at the challenges of running their business.

It inspired me to put together a list of some of the tools that are closest to my heart to run a small business without losing your mind.

The right setup

Anyone who’s ever popped by this blog will know I’m a Mac geek, so a few of the tools are Mac-biased, but the majority will apply whatever your platform of choice.

Abstracting from the software and tools, first there’s the right desk and working setup. Get a computer that’s fast enough for you to work efficiently. No, you don’t need a 24GB RAM Mac Pro if you mostly do email, browsing and word processing, but you need a reliable machine. If you’re a laptop user, do yourself a favour and take good care of your battery so that it gives you plenty of life when you’re unplugged.

Work from home? Set yourself up with a self-respecting desk, chair and screen. Sitting on the bed or sofa is going to hurt in the long term, trust me. I won’t lecture you about posture and ergonomics but, right now, sit straight please.

Software & web apps

FreeAgent Accounting Software

I’m starting with this one as it was SUCH a revelation for me. I used to launch a virtual machine into Windows XP, use QuickBooks and want to jump off a bridge every time I had to do any accounting. It was downright painful and I had NO idea what I was doing (thankfully my accountant was ultra-helpful, patiently talking me through it).

A few freelancers suggested FreeAgent, and when I finally gave it a go, I was bowled over. Not only is it born and bred in the UK (and therefore ready to cope with the weirdnesses HMRC throws our way, even flat rate VAT!), the team is totally on the ball and provides amazing support. As it’s a web-based service, you can get your team to enter their time slips daily, your accountant can log in and you can use it anywhere.

The overview screen means you’ll know exactly where you stand in terms of incoming and outgoing money. Words can’t describe how much this has saved my sanity and put me in control of my own business.

For what it can do for you, it’s worth every penny, but they make it even better by offering an affiliate scheme. As a bonus, if you’re interested in trying out FreeAgent, use this link and we’ll both get 10% discount!

Campaign Monitor

Quite the opposite of newcomer (to me) FreeAgent, Campaign Monitor and I have been in a long-term relationship, and it’s a relationship that’s getting better with age.

Campaign Monitor is an email marketing platform which allows you to send newsletters to your ever-so-precious list of customers. Templates make your life easy from one send to the next and reports are beautiful and automatically generated (great to send to clients or bosses!).

The only problem with it is that the recent Worldview feature, which allows you to see in real-time when your emails are opened, makes me look like a complete lunatic as I say “Hi Stig! Oh hello Paul!” to my screen as I see friends opening our newsletters. This aside, Campaign Monitor is a pleasure to use and pretty affordable for small businesses.

Evernote

There’s a reason Evernote uses an elephant as its logo; it truly has the memory of an elephant.

Evernote is a web-based service that allows you to save text, pictures or files and synchronise across multiple locations. For example, I have the app on my Mac, iPhone and iPad, so I can look up information I’ve saved from anywhere. I can make a little note or take a picture when I’m on the go, knowing I’ll be able to get to it later from any device.

With the premium version ($5/m or $45/y), images are scanned for text so I use it to take pictures of business cards and then dump the originals. Later, rather than flick through a dangerously large pile of business cards, I can type the name of the person or company I’m looking for and find their details right away.

Sitting on the train, I’ll make some notes on my iPad after a client meeting, then later edit them on the desktop. I also use it for hobbies, saving all my digital sewing patterns, project ideas and pictures in Evernote for future reference.

1Password

How often can you get your password right on the first go? And how many times a week do you have to use the “forgot your password” function on a website? (If you don’t, you probably use the same password everywhere, in which case shame on you!)

1Password is another external brain (do we sense a theme here?) which allows you to save all your passwords in one place and only remember one master password. You can then hit a key combo to auto-fill your login details on a site. Folders and tags make it easy to categorise the zillions of logins clients or suppliers expect you to remember.

It’s available for Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad and Android AND you can synchronise across them all! (yay!) Plus, they’re based in Canada. (double yay!)

Skitch

Need to send a quick annotated sketch to show what you’re trying to describe? Skitch to the rescue!

Skitch is a brilliantly speedy way to share screenshots and information. Use fewer words and more arrows and pictures to tell a story. Upload your screenshots to Skitch.com or Flickr to share easily and check your history when you need to return to an old screenshot later on. Resizing is as simple as dragging the bottom right corner so anyone can do it and there’s no need for heavy software like Photoshop.

This one is for Mac users only. 🙂

TextExpander

You might have noticed that I’m all about effortless efficiency. What can I say? The more efficient you can be, the sooner you can pour yourself a G&T! (hey, that rhymed…)

TextExpander allows you to save bits of text you use frequently and paste them by typing a few characters. For example, I can give the same links or replies in an email, in a tweet then in a forum without having to re-write it from scratch or find the link in my browser history every time.

As an aside, yes, my own app Alfred also offers Snippets as a way to save frequently used bits of text and I do use both, but TextExpander is a single-purpose app, while Alfred does a multitude of rather awesome things.

Alfred

What? You didn’t seriously think I’d talk about useful tools without including the one we’ve lovingly crafted over the past 18 months? 🙂

In its simplest form, Alfred is a productivity app for Mac that helps you launch apps, websites, do calculations, check your spelling and more without having to ever take your fingers off the keyboard. Start paying attention to how many times you need to use the mouse to get to apps and files, and you’ll quickly see that it isn’t so efficient. Click here, scroll down, oh where’s that app… With Alfred, pop up your window with a hotkey and type the name of the app you want. Tadah, launched!

With the Powerpack, which is the paid add-on we launched nearly a year ago, you can control your iTunes collection, set up global shortcuts to launch apps and scripts with a hotkey, use clipboard history and much, much more. In fact, Andrew is working on the next release, which will include extensions; these will be so flexible, I can’t wait to see what users will create to fit their own workflow.

The free version is available either from our website or the Mac App Store, and the Powerpack from our website. Soon, however, you’ll be able to upgrade to the Powerpack in the Mac App Store too if you become an OS X 10.7 (Lion) user.

Dropbox

Another useful tool for those who juggle multiple computers or devices is Dropbox. Using a background app, Dropbox synchronises the folders you choose so that they’re available from any device or from their website when you’re in a pinch and need to access files from elsewhere. Many Mac apps use Dropbox as the vehicle to synchronise settings across multiple computers and setup is usually completely effortless!

A word of advice, however, is to only share non-critical and non-confidential files on services like Dropbox. A few days ago, a bug in Dropbox allowed access to any account using any password for a window of a few hours. Scary thought, but then these are services to help make you more efficient, not a secret lock and key vault, so don’t store your deepest secrets there.

In summary…

Small business folks work SO hard to succeed that any tools or tips that can make us more efficient can make the difference between slaving until 10pm and being able to shut the door at a reasonable time and enjoy an evening in the garden.

Summer holidays are coming and it’s often a time where business is slower for some industries. Why not take advantage of that time to improve processes and make yourself more comfortable in your work environment?

If you’ve got more tips to share, please do leave a comment as I’d love to expand this list over time!

Do It Your Way: Are You a Recipe Person?

I was making dinner the other night; salmon fillets wrapped in parma ham, steamed in the oven with a bit of wine and broth, with a bashed-up Vivaldi potatoes in a wasabi mayo dressing and some nice green beans. I popped the salmon in the oven hoping it would turn out right, hoping the parma ham would give the salmon flavour and guestimating the cooking time.

While pottering around the kitchen, I was thinking: I don’t think I’ve ever cooked the same thing twice in the same way. Every time, I tweak, adapt or change based on what’s in the fridge, the mood I’m in or the seasonal produce available. In my opinion, recipes are a great way to get inspiration, little else. My mom, on the other hand, always had a great little handwritten recipe book – covered in splatters from teaching us to make pancake mix – and usually followed recipes closely.

The same applies to business; Why do some of us love clear, repeatable processes while others prefer to try something new every time? Rationality versus instinct. Structure versus winging it. One’s not better than the other, necessarily. My mom probably ended up with a lot less weird-tasting dinners than I did, that’s for sure.

Personally, I’m certainly leaning towards the “creative thinking” end of the scale. I have processes and skeleton structures for projects I manage yet no two ever turn out the same. I’d be a terrible analytical chemist, air traffic controller or software tester but for what I do, it’s great; It allows me to nurture that bit of magic (wow, that sounds cheesy…) that’s unique to every new project.

I’m curious whether anyone consciously chooses to swing one way or the other, or whether we’re just made a certain way. What’s your style? What excites you enough to drop all normal procedures and just go for instinct?

British Telecom: The Enemy of a Successful Business

[See updates at the bottom of this post]

This feels like groundhog day. British Telecom has managed to screw up yet again. Last time, they pissed me off to about a 4 on a scale of 1-10. But this time, I’m not sure the scale even stops at 10.

BT has somehow managed to get itself in enough of a muddle to close our account and disconnect our phone line without prior notification. And what’s reliant on a phone line? Why yes, it’s our ADSL home internet connection. Which is where we run a business and develop Alfred. See where I’m going? This isn’t good news when trying to develop a new product!

Below is the letter I sent to BT last night. The only positive here is that a nice Scottish advisor from the BTCare Twitter team called me this afternoon – but couldn’t help much, unfortunately.

All I can do now is hope that by some miracle, our issue gets fast-tracked and resolved. If anyone at BT can help, please let me know.

Letter to BT on 25th March

To whom this may concern,

We called BT last night after being notified by a friend that our phone line appeared to be inactive. According to your call centre rep, our phone line was disconnected on 22nd March after being restricted on 6th March. As we only have a landline with BT for the purposes of our internet connection (provided by Fast.co.uk for business use), we were unaware of this apparent restriction until today.

After over 45 minutes waiting on a never-ending ringing line, we finally got through to an advisor. According to the advisor, we were sent letters on 1st February and a final reminder in early March – I can categorically confirm that none of these letters were received. When I asked the advisor to confirm the address on file, she read out our old address [redacted], from which we moved back in March 2008. She sounded flustered when I said that this address was wrong, and that we’d received letters from BT to this new address [redacted] since. She backtracked her story and assured us that recent bills had gone to the new address.

At this stage, and prior to closing a customer’s account, why does BT not attempt to contact customers by phone? It baffles me that no direct attempt at contacting us was attempted other than by the notoriously unreliable British postal system.

The advisor requested on 25th March for the line to be reactivated, but this cannot be done until Tuesday 30th March. At this point in time, it seemed to surprise your advisor that our Internet connection was still functional. As we run a business from home, it is critical that our phone line remains functional, so my only hope is that the incompetence of your team at disconnecting a line will work in our favour this time and mean that our internet can remain functional until reactivation on Tuesday. We have been given a temporary number of [number redacted], which I hope will not affect our Internet connection.

I’ll make it clear at this point that, should our Internet stop working between now and Tuesday or be affected following the reconnection on Tuesday, I will absolutely be seeking damages compensation from BT.

I’m furious with BT’s incapability to answer any questions last night, and implore you to review your shambolic processes so that mistakes like this one are avoided in the future. We have been BT customers for many years, paying faithfully as soon as a bill is received, so the lack of attempts at resolving this issue on BT’s part is truly disappointing.

As a word of note, we pay every other bill we receive by Direct Debit. However, there’s a very good reason we were no longer paying by Direct Debit for BT services. In late 2007, BT took £223 from our account without our permission following an engineer visit for which we should not have been charged. We received no apology and spent hours on the phone before we were refunded the amount.

You may want to read the past exchanges I’ve had with your colleagues and familiarise yourself with some of the comments left anonymously by some of your own staff on the 20th December ’07 blog post:

The original post:
http://www.thatcanadiangirl.co.uk/blog/2007/12/13/complaint-letter-bt-stole-my-christmas-shopping-money/
And the follow-up posts:
http://www.thatcanadiangirl.co.uk/?s=british+telecom

I have faith that the recipients of this letter will have more power to act upon this issue than call centre advisors have, and trust that you will resolve this matter in a prompt and efficient manner. I would like a BT representative to contact me ASAP to provide more information on resolving this.

Please find all of our contact and account details below.

Vero Pepperrell

Anyone? Help?

[Update at 10:20am, 27th March: Last night, following my post, I was approached by BT’s MD of Customer Service, Warren Buckley. This morning, a member of his team called me, having reactivated our line with the temporary number, assuring us that our old number would be back in place this afternoon or Monday. Fingers crossed, the Internet might not go off. A huge thank you to JP Rangaswami, Warren and Alison for their speedy response.]

[Update 28th March: Phone number reinstated by yesterday afternoon, ISP made aware of the account number change. In theory, this ordeal is over and our Internet shouldn’t drop at all. Will hold off celebrating until about Tuesday, but it’s promising. Thanks again to those who got involved.]

[Update 26th May: As of today, I’m closing the comments on this post as this isn’t an official BT support channel. Get in touch with them on Twitter @btcare if you need a hand with resolving your issue!]

The hardest thing about an idea is to get it started

Ryan Sarver from Twitter presenting during LeWeb 09

Last week, I was kindly invited to attend LeWeb 09 as official blogger. LeWeb is a yearly, two-day conference in Paris, which takes a deep look at the web now and in the future. It’s a frenzied opportunity to meet new people, see old faces and hear great talks.

While watching the world go by at Ebbsfleet Eurostar station, (the best kept secret of European travel) before heading to Paris, it hit me that we nearly halfway through December. I started thinking back on 2009, the successes and failures I’ve experienced or witnessed others experience. It’s been an interesting year, with a few victories, but a few scraped knees also.

Then yesterday morning, in one of the first talks of LeWeb, Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder said:

“The hardest thing about an idea is to get it started”

I’ll tell you a secret: I used to really hate being rubbish at something, to the point where, when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t even rehearse for my vocal music classes in front of people for fear they’d hear me do something wrong. Yet I’d happily sing in concert in front of a huge crowd at the end of the year! And I didn’t speak English til I was in my teens, not because I couldn’t, but because I was embarrassed by my accent.

It doesn’t take much to realise that nearly everyone feels that way to a varying degree; the fear of failure can paralyse us and stop us from doing things we REALLY want to do.

LeWeb is filled with people who’ve taken that jump, who’ve conquered their fears, their peers’ fears, or at least sidelined them long enough to give their ideas a go. Whether it’s launching a startup instead of staying in a cushy-but-boring megacorp job, launching a new wacky iPhone idea or creating and manufacturing a small-run Psion-revival pocket computer.

These people and startups risk money, energy and years of their life for something they’re passionate about or think might change the world (or at least make a dent of difference). They use events and conferences as an opportunity to gain visibility, get feedback on what they’ve created and meet existing and potential users. Needless to say, they also leave with a few bruises from those who don’t “get” their idea and either say it bluntly or tweet it publicly.

Of course, only one out of five* will break even, and only a handful will become rockstars. But some of those who failed will get back up, try something else and one day, succeed.

So as we hurtle towards 2010, why not let ourselves get inspired by brave startups and self-employed ppl who’ve flown the nest of safety and try doing something awesome?

Hopefully, some attendees (or some of the thousands of online viewers of the LeWeb video stream) will be inspired to do something for the greater good in the process. Whether it’s organising a BarCamp event, running a charity-focused event in support of 1GOAL (as presented by Queen Rania) or providing charitable organisations with free coaching, share your wisdom with others.

As Gary Vaynerchuk said, in his usual blunt way, “Everybody’s got a shot, I don’t care if you are in Sillicon Valley or in France” (See his talk here) As Gary has done, from being co-owner of a New Jersey wine shop to becoming a web celeb, he’s shown us that with enough passion and drive, we can achieve just about anything.

Talking about driving… Heading down to Ebbsfleet station, I couldn’t help but be amused that it was a fairly leisurely drive, albeit one involving some of the busiest motorways in the country. Two years ago, the thought of having to drive down the M25 gave me cold sweats. I could have gone on to avoid driving like I had done until I was 25, but I reluctantly went through the scary challenge of driving lessons (it was scary in my eyes, alright!?) A few years on, I couldn’t be happier that I’m on the other side of it all. In hindsight, the hardest thing was to get started.

We all need to occasionally tackle a few fears or go above what we believe we can achieve right here and right now. It takes a while, trudging through how frustratingly bad we are at something at first, but then… oh THEN we feel like we’ve really achieved something great!

What will YOU do with 2010?

To read more from other LeWeb official bloggers, visit the aggregated posts page – with most of them doing a far better job summarising the event than I have done!

[* Stat entirely pulled out of thin air to be representative, don’t quote me on that one and see the experts for real stats]
[Photo credit: LeWeb 09 by Blogowski on Flickr, Creative Commons license]

Your Call is Important to Us: Why customer service must improve

When I started writing this, I was waiting, seething, for someone at Hewlett Packard to pick up the phone to answer a query I had. As I waited, I had to grit and bear, listening to the second most annoying hold music I’ve ever heard. HSBC wins for the worst hold music hands down – I even recorded it last time I was on hold for what felt like a century, so that I could share the pain with you.

In HSBC’s defence, I don’t usually have to wait very long with them, but when I do, I get a hell of a twitch. As for HP, there was no excuse for the lengthy wait times I experienced.

In fact, an HSBC staff member admitted on the call that day that he’d had many complaints about last summer’s choice: Amy Winehouse’s cover of Valerie. He confided that it wasn’t unusual for customers to be in a call queue for half-hour with nothing but a lo-fi version of Valerie as company – Enough to send anyone into mental meltdown. At the very least, it’ll cause your mild annoyance to snowball into a murderous mood by the time the poor call centre guy/gal picks up the phone.

Anyone who has had to call the Applecare phone line will have experienced the same frustration I did when my MacBook casing cracked:

I went through to an Indian (?) call centre where the quality of the phone line was so poor and crackly, I had to shout my MacBook’s serial number six times, with Andrew giggling increasingly with every “E for Echo, L for Lima!”

The amount of time spent repeating information to the call centre was a waste of my time and theirs, and a crackling poor quality phone line caused tempers to rise. Clearly, the relationship between customer and call centre needs to change.

What’s wrong with the current relationship?

  1. Businesses need to value existing customers
  2. Generally calls to call centres are made by EXISTING customers. Is it any surprise then that it takes five times longer (scientific finger-in-the-air statistic) for calls from already-acquired customers to be answered, versus nearly instant answer for the new-customers-only line? Businesses need to stop treating existing customers like crap based on the assumption that we’re tied in with them.

    The “Brand new customers only” approach doesn’t work anymore.

  3. New technology needs to be adopted more widely
  4. If Online Chat widgets were more commonplace on business sites, I’d often be just as satisfied to ask my questions that way. However, in my experience, the staff answering questions on online chat are often under-informed and working based on a very strict data sheet, most often leading to a conclusion that I’ll need to call the sales line to get an answer to my question.

    Some businesses have embraced services like Twitter as an informal customer service channel, and their success is usually proportional to the efforts they’ve put in; a consistent and regular response to questions, rather than the occasional outburst will no doubt have a positive impact. But reality is that not everyone’s on Twitter, so while I enjoy seeing businesses use it, I also want to see the more mainstream services like corporate websites and call centres acknowledge that new technology can help make customers happy, albeit at a cost.

  5. Staff need to be encouraged to have a friendlier approach
  6. Treating customers like liars, making them guilty until proven otherwise is a nasty way to start a relationship so while it’s fair to ask for a proof of purchase receipt in order to provide a refund or ask callers to provide identification details before answering questions, customer service needs to be friendly, approachable and proactive in wanting to solve the customer’s issue.

    No more robot-like scripts or refusing to escalate the call to managers who can take action, the entire team’s objectives should be to create happy customers, resolving problems and using common sense to solve them in a timely, cost-effective way.

While working on this post, I came across David Cushman’s customer service manifesto, and Heidi Miller’s post who flagged up BL Ochman’s bad customer service experience over a $34.32 accounting error.

How would you improve customer service online, on the phone or in person?

Oh hello there!

I'm Véro - a crafty, knitty, spinny gal who enjoys making (and drinking) a cocktail or three. If you've stumbled here, you might enjoy browsing some of my older posts with the tags over to the right or finding out more about me.

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