Because Time Is Money, Billing Apps Pay Off

Donna Danis’s story is one that many small office/home office (SOHO) and even larger small businesses are familiar with. Danis, the founder and president of Just In Time Marketing in New Hampshire, kept track of her time on slips of paper, inputting the information into Excel spreadsheets at the end of each month or project. Typically, that exercise took Danis three hours — all of it nonbillable time. As her business grew and she added new clients and projects, that process became downright painful. So Danis looked for an affordable time-billing software solution.

After a Web search and a few free online trials, Danis went with Open Air, a leading professional services automation (PSA) vendor that is also an application service provider (ASP). For $10/month, Danis gets unlimited time tracking and invoicing capabilities, as well as tech support. She can bill hourly or do a flat fee. At the end of the month or the conclusion of a project, she can, with just a few keystrokes, find out how much time she spent on each project and produce an accurate, professional invoice for each client and/or project.

Saving You Time and Money

“What used to be a three-hour process at the end of each month is now a 15-minute process,” Danis said. “I can send out my invoices electronically [or through regular mail, if the client prefers]. And I can see when an invoice has been opened. So there’s less nonbillable time, the tracking is more accurate, and it helps me stay on top of the money that’s owed to me better.”

Using time-billing software has also allowed Danis to better estimate and budget her time. For example, if Client XYZ wants to know how much a data sheet will cost, Danis can go into Open Air and look up similar projects, quickly pinpointing how much time was spent and then sending the client an estimate. And with nearly three years of history to look back on, she has a wealth of data to draw on.

Never Miss Another Minute

Unlike Danis, Therese “Terry” Franzén, a partner/owner of the Georgia-based law firm Franzén and Salzano, P.C., knew she would need a good time-billing software package for her new private practice even before she hung her shingle. While still working as an in-house lawyer, she and her partner carefully researched the available packages. Franzén ultimately picked Timeslips, the time-billing software offering from Best Software, the makers of ACT! and Peachtree.

Since opening for business eight years ago, Franzén and Salzano, P.C., has grown to 19 people, including 10 lawyers and four paraprofessionals — all of whom use Timeslips.

“It’s been great,” Franzén said. “It allows us to capture time that would otherwise be lost, because our timekeepers use the feature that allows you to run a timer whenever you’re working on a particular matter for a client. So rather than someone trying to guess after the fact that [she] spent 12 minutes on this particular matter or this particular telephone call, we encourage everyone that the minute they start working on something for a client to turn that timer on. And when they’re finished, turn the timer off. We get very accurate time records because of that.”

Timeslips Timer
Timeslips Timer makes it easy to track how the hours and minutes are being spent.

Franzén also has her employees keep track of nonbillable time, such as marketing and administrative work, “so that we have a good idea of how we spend our time …. [And] when we do evaluations of the profitability of the firm and personnel evaluations, we utilize those extra time records for those purposes.”

Similarly, because the firm does a good bit of flat-fee billing, Franzén and her partner have their timekeepers keep their time on those flat-fee projects as well, “because that allows us to assess whether we’re making a profit on those projects or whether we’re actually losing money.”

So not only does the time-billing software keep track of time and help with invoicing, it’s a good project management tool. It’s also easy to use. “The biggest challenge for a new person if they haven’t been accustomed to keeping time is getting into the habit. And that’s where the timer comes in handy,” Franzén said.

Billing From Anywhere

According to small business experts, Franzén and Danis’s experiences are typical. Most small business customers have no idea how much revenue they are losing in nonbillable or non-tracked time — until they start using a time-billing software program.

“With small businesses, particularly professional services companies, time is really everything,” explains Will Breiholz, general manager of BQE Software, the maker of BillQuick. “Time tracking is so critical because that’s where all of their cost is. For job costing, for budgeting, for estimating, to have your staff utilized correctly, to allocate your resources correctly, to do profitability on jobs, to do profitability on your employees, it is absolutely critical to have all of that time captured properly.”

With an Excel-like user interface, BillQuick is designed to make it easy to properly enter info on billable and nonbillable hours.

Like Open Air and Timeslips, BillQuick strives to make the time-billing process as quick and as easy as possible. Flexibility is also key. With BillQuick, for example, users can access the software just about anywhere.

“If you have a satellite office, if you have employees or even subcontractors that you want to record time to that are out of the office, it can all be done through the Web,” Breiholz said. “You can also do it through e-mail [or] in PDAs, either a Palm Pilot or a Pocket PC. You can even record time through Microsoft Outlook. So if you have a scheduled event in Outlook, you can click on that event and it will become a time entry. You can even record time through cell phones.”

Timeslips also offers solutions for PDAs and laptops, which allow users to easily sync with a computer back at the office.

Working With Existing Data

Another key consideration when choosing and using time-billing software is how quickly you can get up and running on it, which often depends on how the software handles your existing data. Which is why all the leading software packages allow you to easily important data from QuickBooks and Excel.

“The biggest factor is the format of the existing data,” said Mike Savory, the senior product manager for Timeslips. “If you can output your [Excel or other] data to a .csv file or some type of flat file, importing is going to be no problem. I’d say give it an hour or so. Once that’s done, and that’s the biggest hurdle, if you were to use some of the online training videos built into the product and review key parts of the program, such as time and expense entry, generating bills, and entering payments, which is really all you need to know to get started, you can be pretty comfortable with the product within the matter of a couple of hours.”

BillQuick and Open Air also tout ease of use — and features that allow users to get up and running fast.

“BillQuick is geared to small businesses,” said Shafat Qazi, the president of BQE Software. “We know they don’t have time for training. So every tool they need to get up and running in a matter of hours is there. [For example,] most small businesses use Excel-type spreadsheets to keep track of their time.” So BillQuick’s timecard functions similar to an Excel spreadsheet. “That way they are up and running really fast using BillQuick, without having to know much about it,” he said.

Similarly, with Open Air, Danis was able to easily import all of her Excel spreadsheets without having to re-input all the data. And as with Open Air, both BillQuick and Timeslips allow users to produce a bill using the stored timecards and then customize the type and look of each bill, whether the project was hourly, flat fee, or recurring fee.

The Price of Better Billing

A single-station version of Timeslips sells for $399.99, which includes time and expense tracking, billing, accounts receivable tracking, custom invoicing and reporting. A five-station networked version goes for around $700. Both versions come with 30 days of free technical support. After that you have the option of purchasing a yearly support plan, which includes unlimited access to toll-free technical support, as well as some online tools. The single-user support plan for a year is $229; the networked version is $349 per year. All of Timeslips’ support programs are SCP (Support Center Practices) Certified.

BillQuick Basic 2005, which comes with a two-user license, costs $395 and offers 30 days of free technical support. An additional 12-month support contract costs $220. Each additional user, up to four users, costs $100 per license for the software and $25 per user for tech support. For five or more users, BillQuick offers BillQuick Pro for $695 for five users, plus $65 for each additional user up to 15, and includes 30 days of free tech support. An additional 12-month unlimited tech support contract adds another $295. BillQuick also offers a Lite version, which is free (though tech support is extra).

Nothing But Time

As anyone who has used scraps of paper and a spreadsheet to track time knows, some time is going to be missed. “Compare that to having a stopwatch on your PDA,” said BQE’s Breiholz. “Even if it’s just one hour per week [that gets missed]. Let’s say you bill at $100 per hour. That’s going to be $400 per month. For BillQuick Basic you’re looking at $395. So in just one month it’s already paid for itself.

“But the big thing is the intelligence that it provides,” he said. “It helps with decision-making. So often now, small businesses are moving to flat-fee billing. So BillQuick is not limited to just billing per hour. It can bill flat fee. It can do hourly not to exceed. It can bill recurring amounts. It can bill on a percent complete basis. Excel is not going to give you the same answers that [time-billing] software will, where you can click a button and know how much you [made] for this job. Or if you didn’t make any money on the job, next time you go to bid something similar, you know where your proper floor is.”

“The best way to manage time and make it useful is to become aware of it,” BQE’s Qazi said. “Right there is an indirect ROI.”

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff writes about business and technology.

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