6 reasons to ditch your spreadsheets
Where there are numbers, there’s Excel. Microsoft’s spreadsheet program is one of the most commonly used software applications in the world, used daily by everyone from financial traders dealing with billions of pounds on the international markets to housewives managing their shopping budgets. It’s incredibly powerful and easy to use, and can be employed in all manner of complex ways by even the least technical users. And therein lies the problem. Spreadsheets certainly have their place, but for many applications they fall short of the mark and dedicated software packages designed specifically for particular tasks are the only sensible approach. Consider the following shortfalls which may be causing you pain already, and in turn consider ditching the spreadsheet for comprehensive property management software such as RentPro.
1. Too easy to make mistakes
All software breaks occasionally, but since Excel allows you to quickly and easily change virtually any cell, probably without any validation or constraints, spreadsheets tend to break all the time. Now that’s not a problem in itself if you’re aware that you’ve just made a mistake, but spreadsheets don’t tell you when you’ve broken them, they just give you the wrong result. As we all know one formula can reference another, which may in turn span a series of rows, perhaps even across multiple worksheets. A new row or column is added, one or more formulae gets updated or out of sync but the user is unlikely to spot this until some value is so far out of kilter that it catches someone’s eye and that’s usually too late. A high-profile case of this type of error concerns the JP Morgan Chase global financial services firm in 2012 in an incident involving the “London Whale”. A trader who implemented his multi-million pound hedging strategy using a spreadsheet heavily dependent on copying and pasting incorrectly defined a formula to use SUM instead of AVERAGE and the resultant losses totalled a staggering $2bn!
2. Data is far from secure
You can password-protect a spreadsheet so it must be secure, right? Wrong, very wrong. Don’t confuse protection with security. Having a Rottweiler patrol your front door isn’t much use if you leave all your back windows open. The level of protection and encryption on Excel spreadsheets is very simplistic and is easy cracked using the myriad of cracker utilities on the web. If a trusted person decides to steal data then it’s a simple case of copy and paste into another spreadsheet. Many spreadsheets employ Microsoft’s VBA language to develop powerful macros but this language can equally be used to embed viruses and other malicious code in your systems. If your data is confidential and commercially valuable then it’s worth protecting properly in a dedicated secure cloud-based application with robust roles and privileges to strictly control access to the various spheres of key business data, and reliable backup processes to safeguard against data hacking or loss.
3. Spreadsheets do not scale
Most spreadsheets are conceived to perform a fairly simple task such as recording rent receipts against rent charged, and then over time they inevitably morph into hundred-megabit monsters with dozens of worksheets and interlinking formulae. As their use with your agency becomes more widespread the initial few hundred records can quickly grow to tens or hundreds of thousands. That “IT guy” who has taught himself the basics at college becomes the Excel guru and is entrusted with evolving (read “mutating”) it to meet the needs of everyone and anyone who asks. Each time you open the spreadsheet it slows down that little bit more until eventually it takes five minutes to open and ten minutes to save when closing it down. And did I mention backing that mission-critical file to a secure offsite location daily? Spreadsheets may well appear to function, albeit slowly, with huge volumes of data but they are not built for it, and performance will eventually grind it to a complete halt, along with your business. When you can feel your agency’s rent spreadsheet starting to grow out of control act quickly and invest in a suitable web-based property management package which can grow as fast or as huge as your agency dares to dream, with backups, resilience and blazing performance all included as standard.
4. No history or audit trail
I’ve already mentioned one of the biggest drawbacks of spreadsheets in that it is very (too) easy to overwrite cells with erroneous values or incorrect formula. What makes the impact of this all the more devastating is that once the spreadsheet has been saved and closed there is no way to recover the old data, and more than likely it will be some time before the error is spotted in any case so even file backups may not be able to rectify the damage at that stage. Spreadsheets have no history to be able to see when or how the data was changed. A web-based property management solution such as RentPro will have robust constraints in place to prevent accidental or indeed malicious data loss and should data actually be removed it will most likely be recoverable from a backup. Identifying who modified or deleted data and when they performed that action can be instrumental in determining the reason behind the changes and taking further action if required. Even just making users aware that there is a full audit trail of all activity within the system will act as a deterrent to deliberate data sabotage and will encourage users to take more care with data when they know they are personally accountable.
5. Version control becomes a nightmare
More than likely spreadsheets are passed around your agency in emails, with the owner changing each time it arrives in someone else’s inbox, until eventually no-one is quite sure which is the latest version. Indeed there may eventually be multiple “latest versions” and some lucky soul (that IT guy again) is going to get the grand job of consolidating all that data into one master spreadsheet, which will then be passed in an email to the department head from where it will recommence its erratic journey round the office once more. There might well be a master copy sitting in a designated folder on the company’s network but it’s all too easy to share that file in an uncontrolled manner, and unless you’re using an online spreadsheet solution such as Google Sheets it is even possible for two people to be making changes at the same time and the last person to save is going to overwrite all the other’s work. A proper web-based property management solution will take care of concurrent editing and version control automatically, ensuring that no data is lost and everyone is always using the trusted latest copy of all data.
6. The real world isn’t made up of cells and rows
To see how much rent John owes multiply cell D44 by the sum of C3 through C6, and then take that away from A9 in the second worksheet. Of course, it’s obvious now that you say it! We don’t think of the world in terms of rows, columns and cells, and trying to implement anything more than number-crunching or lightweight data analysis in a spreadsheet is quickly going to get confusing and data errors are sure to follow. Leaving staff to come up with formulae which are likely to be left open to modification by others is a recipe for further disaster. Dedicated property management software will present an attractive easy-to-use form asking you for names and addresses, management fees and transaction values, and then display all this data in nice tabular lists which are easily browsed or searched through an intuitive search bar. If you want a report click the button labelled “Generate Report” rather than getting your hands dirty with formulae and cell references. You’re less likely to mess up data entry and using the package will feel a lot more intuitive and enjoyable than labouring with spreadsheets.
All said and done, Microsoft Excel is still undoubtedly one of the greatest, most powerful, most important software applications of all time, but like any tool it must be used for the right job by the right person. You wouldn’t try to drive a nail home with a pair of pliers (unless you’re really stuck!) so don’t try to manage your letting agency with a spreadsheet. Invest in the right tool for managing and growing your business – take RentPro for a free trial today.