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People are funny about money, as David Robinson realises when he tackles a client’s fiddly payroll structure. If that wasn’t enough, he has to make a payment the old-fashioned way.
This month, I've been knee-deep in payments. Payments are equally as important to businesses as the prices you charge, not least because if you don’t pay your employees promptly they get cheesed off and leave. Similarly, unpaid suppliers refuse to send you stuff and the whole enterprise grinds to an undignified halt.
Mitch is the accountant for one of our nice customers. I haven’t yet encountered a term that’s the inverse of ‘custard’ (a hybrid of customer and b$*^ard) but would be grateful for any (printable) suggestions. Anyway, Mitch is old-fashioned in outlook. He’s only recently cottoned on to the fact that his accounting system can automate payments for him and dispatch them via the online facilities provided by his bank. This would save endless amounts of work writing out cheques or setting up individual BACS payments for the payroll.
The following company names have been changed to protect the innocent. Mitch’s company uses a popular accounting program from Mega Accounts Software House (MASH) and enjoys the services of Porkshire Bank. The MASH software has plug-ins for all the major UK banks’ online systems. Mitch’s company got their accounts software from their auditors, and their PCs, servers and network from someone else. This arrangement is historic and Mitch’s boss is loyal to his suppliers. Our company provides custom software to Mitch’s that deals with the selling and manufacturing then posts sales invoices directly into MASH.
To smooth the process of paying his 150 employees, Mitch had set up the MASH payroll to send data to Porkshire Bank. MASH has a plug-in for each bank and Mitch had, he said, installed the one for Porkshire. “Doesnae work,” he said. He’d received an error message from Porkshire saying the data file was in the wrong format. He’d talked to the auditors who sold him the system and, being IT experts (sarcasm), they were baffled. He’d talked to his hardware suppliers whose response was “dunno”. He’d talked with MASH tech support, who said the plug-in was fine so it must be his system or Porkshire at fault. Porkshire customer support said the file was in the wrong format. Mitch was piggy in the middle. We were the last resort.
Mitch’s company is a good customer and we know how to deal with MASH software, so we had a look. According to the payroll setup screen, he had installed the correct plug-in. The data file it produces is a comma-separated variable (CSV) file; see Wikipedia for an overview of the problems that can arise with the multiplicity of formats CSV can take. The file output by MASH went:
200699, 08776655, "Fred Smith", 500.00 200699, 09554433, "Joe Bloggs", 600.00
You’d interpret this as the bank sort code being 200699 and a payment of £500 to Fred Smith’s account no. 08776655, and so on. Porkshire expects a format with no quotes, so 200699,08776655,Fred Smith,500.00. With MASH and Porkshire taking irreconcilable views as to who was right, how could we get Mitch out of making 150 payments each pay day? Mrs R had the answer. As we couldn’t alter what the plug-in does, she made dummy payments using different plug-ins until she found another one that matched the format Porkshire said they needed. We installed that for Mitch and tried a live payroll run. It worked. It looked like MASH was the element in the wrong. Problem solved. Only the following month, Porkshire rejected the file produced by MASH payroll. When we investigated, we saw the MASH software was set up to use the Porkshire plug-in, not the Grimace Bank one Mrs R had installed. “Argh,” said Mitch, “I forgot we’d changed the bank type, saw the Grimace Bank one and thought it was wrong so I changed it to Porkshire.” Argh, indeed – memory like a sieve.
This month, I’ve also done something I’ve not done for years. As I’ve reached an age where that sort of statement could provoke any number of ribald suggestions, I’d better clarify: I made a payment by cheque! Not one, but two!
Ten years ago, banking software was dire. No banks seemed to understand what user-friendly meant – user-malevolent, more like. But things have started to improve. I can only speak of my own experience with NatWest, which is positive. Its site is clearly laid out and easy to use.
NatWest provides you with a free copy of Trusteer’s Rapport security software, which prevents keylogging and other methods of intercepting the password and account information you enter when using its site. This works even if you have a PC full of malware. So all my financial transactions are by credit card, PayPal, direct debit or bank transfer. When my pensions adviser needed me to transfer some funds to an investment account, he requested two cheques – if you don’t do it that way, he said, the electronic payments will probably screw up and it takes weeks to sort out. So much for modern methods in investment banks. A week later, after rifling through drawers, I located the chequebook, chased the moths out and wrote the required cheques. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
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