SweetTree Home Care services faced a number of key decisions and challenges in upgrading their accounting software to accommodate growth. Sarah Ghosh, Finance Director of SweetTree, goes into detail about their NetSuite implementation with AzroNet and the solutions we found to the challenges.
A Growing Business
Less than a year ago, SweetTree Home Care Services came to a crossroads.
For nearly 15 years, SweetTree had built a successful business providing self-care, household assistance, home health care and other services in London and other parts of England. In the process, the organisation had helped to make living at home possible for more than 8,000 clients – most, but not all, of them elderly and many suffering from neurological conditions such as dementia.
Over time, SweetTree established a training academy and not-for-profit farm, but the now three-company organisation desired to do more. Specifically, SweetTree wanted to launch another business, SweetTree Connect, which would provide telecare services. As finance director, my job was to help make that dream a reality.
One of the most important decisions we had to make was regarding our accounting software. Would the current system suffice or would we need to move in a new direction? Blessed with experience implementing finance systems in larger organisations, it was natural for me to take a lead role on this project. This article revisits our journey to a new accounting software solution, giving you a prime seat for a journey marked by pivotal decisions, unexpected challenges, and lessons learned.
The journey began in July 2018 with a review of our existing accounting software to evaluate whether it was capable of taking us to the next growth level, enhance our customer service, and support the new business venture, SweetTree Connect, which would operate on a different business model than the parent company, SweetTree Home Care Services.
The decision to move on from an accounting system with which your team is experienced and comfortable brings with it high-level risk – both for the team and the business as a whole. It’s difficult and stressful to transition from the familiar to something that looks and feels very different. On the other hand, the move to a new system can provide employees with marketable new skills that enhance their career opportunities and prospects for future development.
Another key factor in the decision was that we were keen to move to a cloud-based solution that would remove the risk of hosting on site, provide easy remote network access to employees, and supply a richer level of financial reporting to support business decisions.
All things considered, our project team realized that we needed to either upgrade our current accounting package or implement a completely new one. We ended up considering a number of accounting solutions, including our existing provider.
It was challenging to make a final choice. A lot of smaller accounting systems would have fitted what we needed at the time but did not demonstrate that they were scalable with the potential or development roadmaps to support SweetTree’s business diversity and desired growth.
After weighing all the options, we selected NetSuite, which offered a solution that would pull all our management information into a unified environment and give us ‘one version of the truth’. Though priced higher than our existing system, NetSuite brought quantifiable current and future benefits relating to simplified automated processes and supporting SweetTree Connect.
Another driver in the decision was the number of people in the team. One person had moved on before the project began, and we believed that NetSuite would save the team enough time in the long run that we did not have to replace that role. In the short-term, the team faced the challenge of completing project tasks and fulfilling existing operational responsibilities despite being a person down. Despite this risk and the system’s higher cost, we chose NetSuite for the reasons previously mentioned and for other benefits we perceived, among them:
- A level of reporting capability including the flexibility to slice and dice financial information in ways to provide insights for making business-critical decisions
- Streamlined processes which reduce non-value add activity such as paper filing, spreadsheet reconciliations and manual debt chasing
- Increased control through workflow approval levels, providing full audit trails
- The capacity to support a growing business and changing processes
- Audit trails on all supplier and client interactions
- Opportunity to further expand end-to-end processes through further module integration
- Cloud solution, freeing up on site server capacity and reliance
- The ability to move the invoicing for SweetTree Home Care Services from our operational scheduling system to NetSuite, allowing us to keep financial transactions in one place for ease of debt collection and management. This was especially important.
Plotting a path to implementation
The SweetTree project team lacked the technical expertise and time to implement NetSuite on our own, so we considered three possible courses of action.
- Course 1: Independent contractor
- Course 2: Implementation partner
- Course 3: NetSuite consultancy
We ruled out Course 1 because we found few contractors available with the necessary skills for this installation. In addition, these contractors charged rates on a per-day basis, opening up the risk of the budget being exceeded if the project overran.
We engaged with a couple of implementation companies to give us some initial quotes. We also spoke with NetSuite directly for guidance, and they were able to offer two potential routes – one was to use their own consultancy team and the other was through their alliance partnership programme.
We were given the details of one of their alliance partners – AzroNet. After a number of discussions about approach and after speaking with one of their clients about their experience, we decided to work with AzroNet. Their team of experienced consultants are specialists in NetSuite, and they could work both on site and remotely as needed. This made them very cost effective.
Another key driver in choosing AzroNet was our desire to reroute invoice generation from our operational system to NetSuite. Due to the complexity of how we bill and invoice our clients and funders, this is not standard within the package. AzroNet agreed to carry out bespoke development. We also felt comfortable with their expertise and ‘can do’ culture.
Planning for Success
We followed a structured approach to the Netsuite implementation, working to an overall plan provided by AzroNet behind which I had a detailed plan (See “Accounting Software Project Schedule”. We divided the billing and invoice development timeline into sprints, which gave clearer visibility of what the outcomes of each would be (See the box “Sprint – Overview”).
To guide the initial set-up, we were required to fill out a business requirements document. Following an intense workshop with AzroNet to discuss key elements of the configuration, we were provided with a template to set some initial parameters. This document was revised over time as the implications of what we had asked for were better understood.
Challenges and Solutions
Our careful planning for this project did not prevent us from encountering many challenges, which caused delays. Following is a look at several challenges and our solutions for each one.
Challenge: Although we would like to have started our journey with 100% data integrity, we knew that daily operational priorities would prevent us from achieving this. We had already spent a considerable amount of time reviewing our source data and historical transactions prior to starting the project so we were aware of the potential risks relating to the data cleansing.
Solution: Given what we already knew, we decided to set some parameters in terms of level of detail and history on what we needed to transition over to the new system. We then focused on making sure the data to transition was reliable and gave ourselves a set timeframe to complete, concentrating on data elements that were critical to ensuring that we could report out accurately.
Challenge: We had to decide how much data we wanted to migrate over and what needed to be in place to ensure a seamless transition. Initially, across all our companies, we identified 30 different potential data loads. We also had to ensure that the necessary accounting entries were set up correctly as part of the migration.
Solution: As we learned more about the NetSuite configuration, we decided to migrate 15 files that were on the original data migration plan (See “Example Data Migration Plan”) — and apply some data manually. We would still be able to access our existing system after the installation, so it was not business critical to replicate all transactions in NetSuite. Over time, our need to reference the existing system would reduce.
Example Data Migration plan
Challenge: Even after installation, the finance team would still have to import key data into NetSuite on a monthly basis: The monthly data loads would come from bank transactions for reconciliations, payroll data to capture people-related costs in our reporting, and expense transactions from our cloud-based app for expense analysis.
Solution: We understood more about the mappings needed to import data through the data migration, but the team still needed AzroNet’s support in setting up the import templates and mapping fields correctly. They provided us with training on importing data, and we were able to use live examples to test. The first live run required some rework as the team became more familiar with mapping the data. We now have the capability to build our own import templates.
Challenge: The building blocks for NetSuite are very different from what we had in place in our previous accounting system. NetSuite is based on segmenting data across a number of elements, which was a new concept for the team and required some thought on how best to do for us to get the richness of reporting we desired across all of our companies.
Solution: AzroNet helped us define what would give us the reporting capability we needed to support our business structure at the business requirements stage. As we understood more about how the segmentation worked, we were able to refine it to ensure we had a final structure that would work for us now and in the future.
Chart of Accounts
Challenge: The growth of SweetTree’s suite of companies has created several different chart of accounts structures, which did not facilitate ease of reporting.
Solution: Migrating to a new system gave us the opportunity to rethink our P&L structure and to consolidate this across all our companies. We had to undergo a mapping exercise which required some dedicated time and effort from the team. With AzroNet’s support we were able to set up a structure that gave us the financial reporting format we required.
Challenge: We were burdened with a very manual process for bank reconciliations. We wanted to automate this as much as possible and remove the paper trail. NetSuite can fully automate bank reconciliations, but we chose to start with a simpler approach and to add the integrated banking module later to get the full end-to-end process automation. Another challenge was that during the project NetSuite enhanced the way that the reconciliation functionality worked.
Solution: We worked with AzroNet to understand and test the impact of the changes and automated the process as much as possible. We still have some steps that could be automated when we integrate the module to communicate directly with our bank.
Challenge: NetSuite offers a range of support options with different cost implications, but we didn’t know at the beginning of the project exactly what support we would need in the future.
Solution: As AzroNet were able to guide us through how NetSuite worked, and with our access to the extensive online help reference earlier, we decided to go for the NetSuite online support package only. What we didn’t appreciate at the time was that this impacted AzroNet. The NetSuite support to their technical queries on our account were by email exchange and ticketing, rather than immediately on the phone. We would have gone for the higher level of real time support if we had realised this at the outset.
Challenge: We had to make a decision on the length of time we would need the test environment, the Sandbox, to fully test the bespoke invoicing solution AzroNet were delivering.
Solution: Our initial plans called for our bespoke invoicing solution to be completed in four months, so we agreed with NetSuite on four months’ access to the Sandbox. In the end, we had to extend this on a month-by-month basis to enable the invoicing solution to be fully tested.
Implementation partner working remotely
Challenge: Not having the AzroNet team permanently on site during the critical stages of the project did introduce some risk.
Solution: We had weekly project calls to review progress against the overall high-level plan and to discuss specific problems and their resolution. We also had a number of dedicated site visits by their consultants, which really pushed forward the team’s understanding of how NetSuite worked and gave AzroNet direct access to the team to resolve questions about what was asked for in the business requirements document.
Challenge: The finance team had to manually chase invoices via email and telephone each month – an activity that caused problems because of its resource-intensive, adhoc nature.
Solution: NetSuite was able to offer dunning functionality with the automatic sending of reminders at set time intervals. However, we did encounter another challenge with this as, during our project timeline, NetSuite introduced a different process for setup. This delayed the implementation of the dunning functionality as the AzroNet consultants had to assess the impact before we could install the module and carry out the testing.
Results and Lessons Learned
We recognized at the outset that we would not be able to support go-live of all four SweetTree companies at once given operational priorities and resource constraints. We built in a four-month timeline to get all companies transitioned and the bespoke invoicing solution in place by [initial completion date target goes here]. This was an ambitious timeline, especially because of the technical complexity around the billing and invoice process.
What helped us with the timeline was that we were able to transition over a smaller company first and resolve any teething problems before we then focused on the larger companies; SweetTree Homecare Services and SweetTree Connect.
We wanted all companies switched to NetSuite before Christmas so we focused on this as a priority. However, the bespoke development on the invoicing was so complex that AzroNet required more time, so we decided to defer this until February 2019.
We had already mitigated the risk of the invoicing solution being delayed by ensuring we had a workaround to enable us to continue invoicing from our current operational system and importing data directly to NetSuite.
The changes introduced by NetSuite on the banking reconciliation and dunning functionalities unfortunately did delay our timeline. We had no visibility of NetSuite’s development pathway to be able to mitigate this risk at the time of defining the implementation dates.
The overall outcome was that we went live with one company per month in October and November and two companies in December 2018, with the bespoke invoicing solution scheduled to go live by February 2019.
The objective was not to get to our destination in the quickest time, but to go at a pace that was realistic for the team and the business as a whole. In that light, two big lessons learned emerged.
First, we could have arrived more quickly if we had in place a full-time project manager to work directly with AzroNet and to ensure all risks were being managed. More focus at critical points of the implementation would have reduced the timeline.
Second, as we were unfamiliar with NetSuite at the start, we devoted more time than needed on defining the use cases and testing. NetSuite’s flexibility allowed us to operate in a live environment but be able to make changes as and when we needed to.
The implementation of NetSuite has given us what we were expecting to achieve. We now have a system capable of supporting the growth plans for both SweetTree Connect and SweetTree Home Care Services. Even better, we are aware of more possibilities that we were at the project’s start. We now have a tool to try out ‘what if’s’ as we continue to streamline our processes and focus on the value add of what we are here to do. For our finance team, this is an exciting place to be.
Takeaways from working with AzroNet
Project Management: Our project planning process was very much along the lines of an agile project framework, but without the internal project management resource to focus on delivery 100% of the time. We were fortunate to have the AzroNet director, John Wynn, managing the project at a high level to keep us on track with overall weekly deadlines and to advise us via a weekly project call and plan review.
Training: Throughout the project, the team had limited formal training and that was relating to the data imports that we identified as a risk in terms of getting this right on a monthly basis. The knowledge transfer from AzroNet was very much hands-on using real examples of what we needed to import on a monthly basis.
Remote Support: All of the consultants from AzroNet that supported us throughout the journey worked remotely with us to provide us with support and guidance. This worked very well for us as they were always available when we needed them if we had any concerns or required their guidance on some particular issue. It also fitted with the team’s availability given the operational priorities. We were not able to spend dedicated time on the project during month-end close, but afterward it was easy for us to pick up where we left off.