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Project management software can spell the difference between success and treading-water. Source: Shutterstock

Project management tools for professional service providers

THE CHALLENGES facing any business that provides its time as a billable service are very particular. For instance, a software developer produces one product and sells it many times. A software consultant, however, sells multiples of a very particular service, each of which will have been individualized for each client.

This makes every job undertaken by this type of professional service provider unique, and so, therefore, one would assume, not the sort of business that technology can help, particularly: after all, computers work well with certainties and patterns. Bespoke, individual offerings are difficult to code for!

However, there is a subset of business software that enables time-billing based organizations to effectively increase profits, by cutting costs and improving internal processes. As a secondary effect, although by no means an unimportant one, improved efficiencies should mean that clients get a better deal from the time freed up by the service provider.

Of course, many organizations in today’s world bill for their time. Perhaps the most well-known (if not notorious) is the legal profession, whose obsession with time tracking can run to individual phone calls being billed to their clients by the second.

While this is an extreme example and one that has endowed the legal profession with a particular reputation, many business owners whose “product” is their time and expertise will recount tales at the other end of the spectrum: wasted hours, hours not billed-for, opportunities lost through having staff not able to be “out there”, earning money.

Unfortunately, once a precedent is set by a company that bills for its time badly (perhaps, as is often the case, too generously), reputations are made. It’s important, therefore, for organizations to be able to set the right impression, right from the word go. And by establishing efficient processes, be more successful.

The range of time-based businesses is pretty wide: consultancies of all types, bespoke service providers, specialists operating in niche areas to different industries.

But despite this divergent range of organizations, the workflow is fairly uniform, as follows:

  • New or existing client requests work
  • Consultant prepares quote
  • Work begins on the project
  • Time is spent on the project, as are expenses
  • Time and expenses are tracked
  • Quote is turned to invoice, with changes made according to “real-life” time & expenses accrued, if agreed/possible
  • Post-mortem on efficacy of project
  • Repeat

Naturally, the day-to-day processes are a great deal more complex than this, and as ever, the devil is in the detail. It’s easy, especially as businesses grow, to lose track of an expense or two, forget the occasional invoice, or underbill time to establish a good rapport (when perhaps this isn’t actually necessary).

When these disparities mount up as the company grows – and mount up they will – then there is a real threat to the viability of the business.

At a management level, it’s also very difficult, other than by the proverbial sticking a finger in the wind, to get a firm grip on the business’s performance. How to assess which projects are profitable, which consultants perform well, who the company should work with again, and perhaps which clients might need to be (politely) avoided in the future.

As businesses of all types grow it’s common to turn to technology to let some computing power do the heavy lifting. Tech is, after all, good at undertaking repetitive, mundane tasks. By implementing the right tech, the organization’s time is freed up.

And for the time-based service company, time is what it’s all about!

There is a multitude of business software on the market that promises to save organizations money, improve efficiency and generally change the situation for the better. But jumping to write cheques to the usual suspects can be an error.

While SAP, Salesforce, Trello, QuickBooks and the like are highly capable products, they are not specifically designed for the service provider whose main commodity is their expertise and therefore, their time.

By employing one of the behemoths, software which is often designed with large enterprises in mind can be put in place. But, often, a great deal of functionality is being paid for that will never be used.

Marketing teams will paint a rosy picture, but the truth is, that not only are time-based services companies’ requirements very specific, but even these larger ERP providers’ products don’t tick all the boxes required.

With this in mind, here are three providers of software for the modern consultancy practice (or knowledge service provider) we here at Tech Wire Asia consider to be worth examining.

AVAZA

The founders of Avaza had backgrounds in software consulting, and it was in the course of their work in this capacity that they began to develop a solution to manage their own processes more efficiently. The Avaza product was born of this project.

It was when their teams of consultants reached around the 30 strong that their need became particularly apparent – it is often this cusp, between a micro and small business that technology can be employed to maximum effect.

Avaza offers a professional services automation tool that combines resource scheduling, time tracking, expense reporting, quoting and invoicing alongside project management facilities.

The aim of the company is to bring ERP-level project management features to smaller organizations. The offering’s user interface (UI) is particularly attractive and easy to use. This aspect ensures user take-up levels are high in all areas of the organization.

Management-level users can view utilization reports, billable and unbillable time, and profitability in terms of whether projects were financially viable.

While projects are in progress, the software also gives a good overview of whether targets are being met and generally, whether the work is on track to satisfactory completion.

Avaza offers a free version of its cloud-based solution to individual freelancers; once consultancies start to grow, they can move seamlessly onto the paid-for plans. Both free and paid-for solutions have all the features advertised – there are no further modules to pay for and add, down the line. Read their full review here.

MAVENLINK

Mavenlink’s has a focus on integration and is something that underpins their whole approach to the service, or time-based professional market.

Its software integrates with Salesforce and the open API offers tight integrations with other applications. This includes ERP solutions such as NetSuite, Oracle, Sage Intacct, SAP, Workday, and Xero.

Further applications familiar to some of our readers include Jira for collaboration, Google Drive for storage and Expensify for expense management. This strategy was recently laid out in a whitepaper Mavenlink itself published.

While stressing the product’s interoperability with third-party solutions, the company’s publications advocate the avoidance of what is termed “a hairball architecture”, which is an overall solution that’s knitted together by many different apps.

Mavenlink advocates that four or fewer solutions should be employed for a successful organization. While companies can select multiple cloud applications, they need to ensure double entry is avoided and there’s a minimum of duplicated effort.

While the so-called “hairball of apps” is to be avoided, Mavenlink’s approach may suit organizations who already have other systems well bedded-in, such as accountancy solutions or third-party storage provision in public clouds – DropBox, Box, Google Drive etc.

ASANA

Asana offers a range of support for the professional services organization, or indeed, any business which effectively sells its time as the leading commodity.

Aspects covered include project management, both day to day and from a reporting perspective, so potential bottlenecks can be identified as work proceeds.

Collaboration across the organization is also supported across the product, so no third party messaging/group chat applications need to be used – such as Slack, for instance.

The company actively supports software development situations, with the management of Agile-structured projects possible. Individual tasks can be assigned, “sprints” planned and so forth, in order that projects proceed according to budget and hit the series of micro-targets that Agile dictates.

Kanban boards are possible – an example of skeuomorphism, in which the “do, doing, done” whiteboard with sticky notes on it is represented on-screen.

Asana offers a RESTful API, providing programmatic access to much of the data held in the system. The API accepts JSON or form-encoded content in requests and returns JSON content in response.

This enables any third party application to be integrated that can be addressed in this (pretty much industry standard) manner. This leaves the way open to an organization’s expansion and adoption of specialized systems down the line.





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