Keeping the Flying Doctors Aloft: How SMB Consultants Delivered A Vital Tech Stack

Keeping the Flying Doctors Aloft: How SMB Consultants Delivered A Vital Tech Stack

Australia’s iconic Royal Flying Doctors Service relies on visitor donations and merchandise sales to stay flying – here’s how SMB Consultants took their business operations to new heights. 

Australia is a big country. Spanning over 7.7 million kilometers, the island continent is renowned for its remote, wild spaces. But this remoteness means danger for the people who live there. If they fall ill, or have an accident, help can be very far away. 

Over 90 years ago, the Royal Flying Doctors Service was founded to solve this problem. This extraordinary service provides medical services – encompassing everything from mental health support to acute care – to all of remote Australia, via its fleet of aircraft and ground vehicles. 

But this respected Australian institution and vital life-line for remote communities has a problem that not many Aussies know about. Funding from Commonwealth, State and Territory governments only covers part of the RFDS’ operating expenses. It needs donations and merchandise sales to be able to operate. 

This makes people like Steve Vine and Susan Williams a crucial part of a team that includes doctors, nurses and pilots. 

Steve and Susan are based in Broken Hill, the headquarters of the RFDS south-eastern section – the Royal Flying Doctor Service is broken up into “sections” that each serve a specific geographical area, and operate semi-independently. Each does fundraising their own way. The RFDS base at Broken Hill supports a geographical footprint of 640,000 square kilometers. And they do a lot more than the high-stakes emergency pickups popularized in the media. “We’re flying Monday to Friday an aircraft with clinicians on board, who will deliver health services to community members that have taken ill and have booked an appointment for our GPs to fly to them,” explains Susan. “And it’s not just GPs that go out – it could be psychologists, drug and alcohol counselors, or visiting specialists like ophthalmologists, dermatologists, and dentists.” It’s a much-needed service, as rural Australians have much worse health outcomes as those living in the cities. RFDS data shows that women live on average 15 years less, and men 10 years less, than urban-dwelling Australians. 

On average, Broken Hill sees 8000 patients a month via these clinical services. Rounding out the impressive numbers are about 180 inter-hospital transfers and an average of nine monthly aerial retrievals – “reduced mainly from accidents on rural properties,” Susan says. “You can imagine there’s a lot of farm machinery that causes significant injuries, as well as things like crop dusting with light aircraft or gyrocopters.” 

A huge proportion of this vital activity is funded by Steve and Susan’s remit, which includes the operation of the visitor center at the Broken Hill air base. “We encourage visitors to support us, either through purchasing merchandise, either in-store or online, and making regular or one-off donations,” Susan says. The Sout-Eastern section run their own shops at the Broken Hill and Dubbo Experience Centres, as well as selling merchandise online to customers in New South Wales, ACT, and Queensland. “On average, we’re raising around 30 million to fill that gap each year, just for our section.” 

Steve and Susan are the right people for the job. With decades of experience in tourism and business management, Susan is now laser-focused on moving RFDS merchandise. Steve’s job is in analysis, identifying where stock is selling, or when supplies are running low and need to be re-ordered.

That’s where things get tricky. Managing inventory across multiple locations and software systems while complying with specialist requirements is never easy. And when it came to implementing a technology stack to manage their business, the RFDS South-Eastern section had a turbulent time. 

Meeting quirky requirements with a seamless tech stack implementation

“When I first started, we were a very small player in merchandise, and our business was running on a MYOB desktop program,” Susan explains. “Then we progressed to TradeGecko, only for them to be bought and sunset by Intuit.” 

This was a huge challenge. RFDS South-Eastern needed to change systems before the sunset deadline, while avoiding any business downtime that might threaten critical funding cash flow. What’s more, as a charity, they had a lot of “quirky” things that needed to be processed as sales – like accounting for donations, admissions to the visitor center, and guided tours.

But they did have one stroke of good fortune. While looking around for software solutions, Susan and Steve found SMB Consultants. And after an initial meeting, they realized that SMB were the perfect team to help them get their new tech stack implemented and integrated. 

 “It needed to be as seamless as possible,” says Steve. “And with our quirkiness, we found talking with Jeff and the SMB team really helpful.” 

“Often, when a business hears that a product or service they rely on is about to be sunset, the initial reaction is to be upset,” says SMB Consultants founder, Jeff Atizado. “It’s not something that they planned for! But at SMB, we present it as an opportunity to review business workflows. If a business systems move is imminent, then there’s an opportunity  to learn from their previous mistakes and make improvements as you go through the process.” 

Systems over software

All SMB Consultants software implementations start from the same core value: systems over software. This systems-first mindset has two key results: clients are happier, and software is used better. 

“We were concerned about what the new system would be able to deliver. There were a lot of unknowns But that hesitation was helped by having regular check-ins with SMB,” says Susan. 

The RFDS crew could clearly see the workflow of the implementation, starting with scoping out the business needs, then pre-planning what the implementation process would involve. “They were there to virtually hold our hands through the whole process,” says Susan. “And it was great for us to understand that we wouldn’t be left alone, that there would be really good support and that we’d have SMB superstar Jess Silverio to handle day-to-day queries and deliver online training sessions.” 

Another massive benefit of working with SMB Consultants, Steve and Susan say, is the fact that they were able to consider the impact of all the systems they were using, and how every piece would fit together, rather than looking at each on a software-by-software basis. RFDS South-East doesn’t just need an inventory management system; they need it to work well with the world’s most popular ecommerce platform, Shopify, and the warehouse where all their merchandise is kept. 

“If we were working on our own, we could have had a look at what Cin7 does, in isolation,” Steve says. “But we needed it to interface well with our ecommerce system, Shopify, with our warehouse, and with other tools like SyncHub and PowerBI. Even to set up a trial version would have been a lot of work” 

To get a complete picture of all the organization’s existing operations and processes, the SMB team did Workflow Acceptance Testing workshops with Steve and Susan. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant lockdowns, all this was done remotely over Zoom, with the SMB team in Sydney and the RFDS South-Eastern team in Broken Hill. It was a challenge, but the end result was well worth the trouble: a complete picture of all the business operations, and an understanding of where the new software would fit in and what might need to be changed to make things more efficient. 

“It gave us the confidence that Cin7 was going to do what we needed it to do, helped us identify where it might not meet our needs, and where we could work around that,” says Steve. “By the time we got to the end of that process, we were confident we were going in the right direction.” All the data they’d had with TradeGecko was extracted and loaded into a sandbox version of the Cin7 software, and SMB Consultant’s Project Manager Jess worked with Cin7 support to make sure any issues were ironed out before go-live. 

“There were no crashes, no disasters. Everything just worked.”

The moment a new business-critical software goes live is always an exciting (if tense) event. But thanks to all the pre-work – scoping, WAT workshops, and pre-implementation testing – done by the SMB team, the actual go-live of the new software stack was almost a non-event. 

“We had this big moment where we were like ‘All right, we’re going to go live,” and Jess switched on the settings… and that was it,” Steve remembers. 

“There were no crashes, no disasters. Everything just worked,” adds Susan. 

After the go-live, business carried on as normal. It felt, the team says, like a completely natural transition – just “flick the switch” and go, as Steve puts it. 

“As a business, that’s exactly what you need,” says Susan. “You need that confidence that things will work. When I turn the lights and the cash registers on in the morning, start to stack the stock, or when I do monthly or even daily reports, I need to know that we made the right decision. And we did. It’s worked really well.” 

Of course, nothing in the world is perfect. However, the only issues that cropped up were minor. If there were any hiccups, Jess at SMB was always there to help the RFDS South-Eastern team out or communicate issues with the support team at Cin7. She’d follow up any issues the RFDS team flagged, meaning they never had to spend any time in support queues. “We were ecstatic, really,” Susan says. “We felt confident and comfortable asking even the silliest questions and getting great answers.” 

“Because Jess has that inside knowledge of what we were doing and how we’re working, it’s so much better than working with someone who doesn’t know us from any other business and who are looking at things purely from a software functionality standpoint.” 

There are other special requirements that SMB Consultants were able to help with. The national Royal Flying Doctors Service requires all sections to report in with regular financial reports. Cin7 is built to work with accounting software like Xero or QuickBooks Online, but the SMB team were able to set it up with SyncHub. This gives Steve the ability to access data and work with it to produce any report required. “It takes data from Cin7, puts it into a SyncHub database, and we connect Power BI to that to work with the data however we like,” Steve says. From this, he’s able to do advanced forecasting and cash flow analysis. It’s a fantastic outcome that’s helped them do better business. 

“To us, it demonstrates that we can get businesses to the level where they’re able to trust the data, and work with it to make better decisions,” Jeff says.

“We’re enabling them to work with systems in a way that goes beyond turnkey solutions – instead, they’re finding ways to go outside the box and solve higher-level problems.”

The work Steve and Susan has done with the RFDS South-Eastern section has, he says, set a benchmark within the organization in terms of how well they manage stock, platforms, and processes. 

From turbulence to smooth sailing: How SMB Consultants delivered

The SMB Consultants team says that helping an organization as important and vital as the Royal Flying Doctor Service has been “an honor.” Often, businesses that work with a software integrator do so as a last resort, but those who choose to work with a coach up-front reap enormous benefits. “It’s really, really exciting to see that transformation in their capabilities,” Jeff says. “It’s been a great experience to be on this journey together with them.” 

“SMB were there for us, and they’ll be there for us in the future too. As a manager, it’s comforting to know that they have Australian-based support, that their help-desk is there, and that we run ideas past them about how we want to grow in the future,” Susan says.

The RFDS South-Eastern team has already had discussions with SMB Consultants about how they want to develop their abilities and offerings further, and they’ve got a scorecard they can refer to every so often to see how well the relationship is working for them. “I’ve got no hesitation at all in suggesting that other businesses select SMB Consultants as their guiding hand and solution-solvers for their businesses. Investigate, talk with the team, discuss what your needs are, work out if you're the best fit, and go for it.” 

Steve agrees. He reckons that what they’ve been able to achieve with SMB Consultants is well beyond what they could have managed alone, and that the return has been well worth the investment. 

 “I’m really proud of what we've been able to achieve with SMB Consultants, Cin7, and the rest of our software stack. Being a charity organization, it was a big cost for us. But in terms of value for money, it was a good fit. We’ve got a great relationship with someone who knows how we work,” Steve says. “Being able to build on that, to take it to the next level – it’s really exciting. Without SMB, it’d have been a lot less seamless, and a lot more stressful.” 

“SMB Consultants know us, and we know them,” Susan says. “It’s a brilliant partnership.”