This morning I awoke to an email from Jo Ann Benzer who is the Executive Director of The IT Alliance. This is a group of IT Professionals who have a general meeting twice a year to compare notes on best practices in IT, hear from interesting speakers and share a nice dinner and bottle of wine or 15.
Jo Ann’s email requested a list of top WOW moments for 2010. These are items that you have found worked well in business and can be practice tips, marketing advice or cool technology that you’ve used.
One of my top WOW tips is to never write a lengthy general purpose email to someone without also re-purposing it as a blog post. These items which if sent via email can go to waste or reach only one or two people. Whereas if you post the item on your blog you share with the world.
Therefore, in the spirit of sharing – here are my top WOW moments for 2010!
Many of these are not earth shattering WOW moments however taken in total with other feedback from the group they may validate or add weight to help build a consensus of what items are working:
1. Our 90 Minds Consulting Group (http://www.90minds.com) – an informal alliance of over 27 Sage ERP MAS consulting partners – ditched our old Yahoo Groups email in favor of Socialcast (http://www.socialcast.com) .
This tool (similar to Yammer) is similar to Facebook in that members of our group share and comment on items. What’s different from email blasts is that the members are in charge of what items they’re notified about.
Here’s an example that I posted two days ago. Are your email blasts inside your company getting this much engagement from other staff?
In the past we had over 1,000 emails per month going to all members in the group.
Now with Socialcast members can login (or they can still choose to be bombarded with email notifications) and view, comment and share information. Email is saved for important client interactions.
Result: A significantly less cluttered email inbox resulting in more time to pay attention to client emails.
2. About 3 years ago I switched off Microsof Exchange in favor of Google Apps for Domains. My email, calendar and contacts are all hosted there. SPAM as a problem no longer exists to me. Cost is $50/year and well worth the price. Integration with Google’s Android OS is very smooth.
Result: No need for any third party assistance with email, calendar, mobile integration
3. This year I switched from an on-premise time and billing system to a hosted billing system – Freshbooks.com. While there are many features of Freshbooks which I continue to think make it mostly suitable for “the little guy” — the overall concept is a huge timesaver.
At a glance I can see who’s viewed the invoices I’ve sent. If any of the clients have a dispute over the amount or items on the invoice they can click a link displayed on their invoice which will send back a message notifying us of the problem.
In advance of any work being performed I send an email estimate. This is perhaps my favorite feature of Freshbooks. The client reviews the estimate via a link they receive. If they approve they click on the “approve” and I quickly follow-up with a final invoice. The client can also propose changes. The bottom portion of the estimate screen retains a history of all the back and forth proposals.
The client approves the estimate electronically.
I generate an invoice which they pay (integrated payment processing via credit card is supported).
I’ve found that Freshbooks works best if you’re billing by a project as opposed to trying to do a lot of hourly billing. The tracking of hours spent by work code was a report that I never could readily view.
Ultimately I’ve moved to fixed price billing I do not miss the breakout of hours – however some users may want to think about whether lack of hours is an issue for them.
As an added benefit since Freshbooks is hosted I find myself billing clients for incidentals ( like software renewals ) on the spot rather than waiting for my accounting department to enter, print, mail an invoice which can sometimes be a week or more delay.
Freshbooks also handles recurring invoices. I’m able to offer clients monthly, quarterly or semi-annually billing options for support – without needing to remember to generate a bill when due!
Recurring invoice capability is a huge timesaver – and it opens up our list of services to less frequent billing options. Instead of only offering an annual support plan we now can offer a quarterly or monthly plan (at higher rates). This has been a hugely convenience feature that we expect to use a lot more in the future.
4. Fixed Fee Billing for projects — This is the year that we embraced it and since just about everyone in the group will likely have better methods to share I’ll just chime in to say we find that it works better for us on several levels:
a. We are spending more time with clients on follow-up (we build this into pricing) whereas before we’d shy away from being on-site because our old hourly method made “all on site work billable”.
b. We are billing realistically and retaining customers who are looking for solutions rather than low bids. This means that a certain percent of people receiving fixed fee quotes go elsewhere looking to get a low rate. Overall we think these are low value customers that we’ve never made money on. The fixed pricing seems as if it serves as a good filter.
c. Collections is much easier since we won’t start a project into scheduling without a downpayment – you’ll be surprised how quickly the money will arrive when you have that policy.
d. We use options and the lowest cost option is almost always a “do most of it yourself” and provides the low end customer a way to save money. A surprising number of customers have selected the “do it all” pricing.
5. Using Basecamp for adhoc project management – Increasingly we’ve noticed that as we use fixed pricing that the work we’re doing is mostly projects. Clients rather than purchasing labor are purchasing a result or outcome. This meant that we really needed a better way to track our efforts (what was done, why and the tools used).
This year we’ve started using Basecamp (http://www.basecamphq.com) for tracking project work. Each client engagement is setup as a project. We keep all the communication inside there and when the project’s over we archive. In three years when the client asks “do you remember that set of reports you created ?” — we can go to Basecamp and have all the information in one place.
6. One of my favorite marketing tips that I started using about two years ago is to use Google Apps and the built in form feature to create links that I post on my web site to gather lead inquiries.
I’m able to create what’s essentially a front end to a Google Spreadsheet and post a link on my web site titled “click here for more info”.
This in and of itself isn’t earth shattering. There are tons of ways people do this now (collect leads). What’s interesting is that (a) it’s free with Google Apps and (b) It stores results right in a Google spreadsheet and (c) emails you when someone completes the form.
I have also found it very helpful to provide visitors with enough information so that you’re not getting a dozen inquiries a week looking for free advice. So I link our full support agreement right in the “Request Help” document and mention that we’re not able to provide free advice via the form. This may seem harsh but from experience I’ve found if you don’t do that then you’ll waste resources replying to people who really cannot afford (or won’t pay) for your professional services.
And as a last WOW tip – I recommend never wasting any type of general informational email that you might send to a group.
This blog post started off as a private email to Jo Ann. Then I copied all the information, added some pictures and posted it online. Instead of sending the content I can send a link. Members get the same benefit — however by re-purposing non-confidential emails you also can develop interesting content for your blog!
PS – I almost forgot — here’s my most helpful new technology tip that I’ve been trying for the last three months. The we site is Tungle.me and it links to your calendar (in my case Google) and provides a handy link that you can send to a client so they can pick a day to meet.
I’m not sure about you but in the past I’ve sent clients a list of three or four days that were convenient for me to meet with them. The client invariably takes a week to get back to me on the days. They pick out a convenient day — but in the passing week my calendar has suddenly become fully booked.
Tungle.me takes all that away.
Now I just send a client a live link to my Google Calendar. It doesn’t show ANY detail. All the client sees is my open times (see the image below — or click this link to look at my Tungle.me calendar).
I find this to be an impressively helpful tool that takes all the schedule tracking off my shoulders. In the past I’d have three or four clients who I’d given out differing open dates to. They’d all take varying amounts of time to get back to me with a request for a meeting — when in the interim another client would take the date they were requesting!
No more calendar scheduling conflict! Tungle.me is free. It connects to most calendar systems including Google.