by Jeffrey D. Zbar
An attorney’s office in Tennessee reduces its paperwork and makes it easier for clients to get the information they need. A Georgia accounting firm keeps traveling employees in touch. A Florida property-management comany saves itself time and legal trouble by improving its human-resources processes.
And they’re all using the web to do it.
Most service-based businesses don’t expect much from the Web and don’t bother to do much with it. While catalogers and retailers hoping to sell on line have e-tailing, professional service providers like doctors, real estate developers, or lawyers — essentially anyone without a tangible widget that can be dropped into an online “shopping cart” — are left wondering how to make the Web work for them.
A few have found ways. Like e-mail servers and cell phones, the Web is just one more technology that can help simplify business processes. Service professionals can now find services to help manage clients and bolster office functions like human resources or accounting. “Web-based solutions can make business professionals more effective,” says Wally Bock, a technology consultant based in Wilmington, N.C. “Technology lets you do the stuff that you do best and more of it. It lets you spend more time on billable hours, and lets you reduce the staff necessary for quality service.”
But there’s no magic bullet out there for service businesses. In order to use the Web well, they need more sweat than does a retailer who can sign up for a canned storefront. Knowing tools exist to improve the operation only helps if someone within the shop realizes that something needs improvement, adds Ellen Caravello, managing director with e-techStrategies LLP, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based Web consultancy. The goal should be to tap available tools to improve the sales organization, reduce overhead, make the operation more efficient, and connect with customers.
To identify weaknesses in the organization, Caravello suggests tracking the sales, marketing, and administrative processes within the company to see where efficiencies may be lacking. Bring in managers from given areas to discuss their problems or concerns, and tap their ideas for improvement. Identify what tangible results will justify the potentially considerable costs.
One day last year, Greg Siskind saw a news story about how the Social Security Administration was allowing U.S. taxpayers to log on to monitor their payments into the system. Then Siskind thought about online banking, which was allowing customers to safely call up very specific, confidential information. All this led up to an insight about the problems with his own firm’s processes.
The 50-person law firm of Siskind, Susser, Haas & Devine in Memphis, Tenn., found itself needlessly burning hours on rote tasks. The clerical staff spent hours each week inputting information from client forms into the firm’s database. Forms often were faxed to the firm after being filled out by hand and faxed back by clients. Error rates were high, and additional work was needed to correct the mistakes, Siskind says.
What’s more, when staff members weren’t busy inputting data, they were often fielding calls from clients checking the status of their cases or requesting copies or summaries of their current bills. In all, Siskind suspects hundreds — possibly thousands — of hours were wasted each year on these efforts. The firm works on a fee basis and not by the billable hour, and Siskind knew that streamlining and automating any process to make the practice more efficient would also make it more profitable.
“This is very much a paperwork-driven type of practice,” Siskind says. “We get rewarded when we can figure out how to do things faster and more effectively for the client.”
Clients benefit from companies that use the Web, according to Wally Bock, because they can access information automatically and send information they need to communicate electronically. “The tools can move data entry to the person who owns the data or provide basic information in a self-service search tool,” he says.
In this case, Siskind’s law firm enlisted its clients to eliminate their data-entry logjam. “It just occurred to me that people were always driving us crazy calling us to look up information that’s just sitting on our system and that we were spending hours typing in information that they could be inputting themselves,” Siskind says.
Acting as the firm’s Webmaster, Siskind posted a variety of the most common immigration forms used by the firm’s clients, including families seeking residency or corporations in need of visas for foreign workers. The client now fills out and submits the appropriate form. The document is automatically directed to a staff member, who then directs the form or application to the right path: either for review, into the client’s file, or for submission to the appropriate government service. Clients also have password protected access to the company’s Web site (www.visalaw.com), which allows them to log on to view their own applications and other limited information.
To alleviate the volume of calls from clients seeking updates, Siskind chose ILW.com, an immigration law Web portal that lets clients track the status of their immigration cases. Using a case number, a client can track the case’s progress — without calling the firm, Siskind says. His company also uses OpenAir.com for client invoicing. Clients receive their invoices via email or the postal service, or they can log on to view the latest invoice. This eases the load on the bookkeeping department and reduces the cost of mailing.
The services and tools closely match Siskind’s own style, he says. With a simple layout and no heavy applets to slow downloads, Siskind’s global clients, who may have dial-up connections through older computers, can enjoy quick downloads from his site and the others he uses. “It’s very much 1996 technology,” he says. “That keeps the site simple, and simple has turned out to be better for us. Clients want speed and quality. Through the use of these applications, we can improve both.”
To date, the firm has spent just under $50,000 on the process, though Siskind anticipates more expenses down the road. He hopes to bring an IT employee on staff full-time to handle site services and network functions. Today, Siskind and another attorney continue to handle much of the Web service for the practice, including writing the electronic newsletter and updating the site.
Siskind says he feels somewhat hamstrung that he doesn’t have the deep budget that larger firms have to explore new technology. On the other hand, “Big firms may have a lot of money to throw at these things, but they also have committees,” he says. “I’ve always thought that small firms have an advantage in that they move faster and create more customized applications. Big firms have less customization, so it may not be ideally suited to the practice.”
Everyone Accounted For
With several accountants traveling around the country, the support staff at the accounting firm Davis, Nichols & Associates LLP in Valdosta, Ga. often found themselves playing “a whispering game,” says managing partner Tom Davis. Accountants would call in seeking updates to their calendars, contact data, or other information that resided on the company computer. Support staff would stop what they were doing to ferret out the information and relay it back to the accountant.
Davis recalls as recently as several years ago having to fetch information about scheduling, client services that needed to be performed, or other pertinent data. If he was working in the field, Davis would have to dial into the office to get information. His assistant might have to call another staffer who could find the data and call Davis back with the answers. The traveling accountant was often without vital information until the staffer could fish it out or get back in touch, says Davis, who travels 130 days each year and manages the practice as much from his laptop as from his desk in Valdosta.
“The workflow had a fairly long time span associated with it,” he recalls. Besides being a time drain on support staff, it sapped efficiency and became a strain on the ability to serve clients, Davis says. Clients expect more service, and firms are trying to deliver without having to staff up, he says. “We’re fighting all these fires because we don’t have the people,” he says. “At some point it begins to hurt the delivery of the service.”
In 1997, Davis began searching for a tool that could seamlessly link him with the office. “Firms are getting more adept, and they want to have this information with them,” he says. The solution he sought would go beyond using such Web-based tools commonly used by his peers for client support and interaction, including NetMeeting, Timbuktu, Citrix, and WebEx, he says. “It’s more than contact or personal information management,” he says. “It’s managing and combining several different data sources that flow into a single point that help you effectively manage the information and relationships.”
Davis was not alone in his need for remote access. At the time that he was looking for a solution, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants was considering a similar tool for other CPAs. The result at the AICPA is CPA2Biz (www.cpa2biz.com), a remote interaction tool and ASP scheduled for a mid-2001 launch that will allow small- to mid-size firms to mimic the client service acumen of their larger brethren. The CPA2Biz suite will manage a variety of accounting and administrative services on a Web-based infrastructure for CPAs and small businesses, says John Hudson, CPA, senior director, and head of marketing strategy for CPA2Biz.
In the end, though, Davis created his own system. Designed as a LotusNotes-style application, it communicates with Microsoft Exchange and is similar to Act! or Goldmine. The system also links with other information sources and databases, including time and billing packages and telephone billing and rolls them into a single-view platform. It worked so well for him that he’s now looking to market it to other accounting firms as a Web-based application.
For Davis, any Web-based tool must offer all the capabilities that are available internally as quickly as if the users were in-house. “We are using the Internet to allow remote staff to access information like they would in the office,” he says. They also must do it at a price that’s reasonable for the small to mid-size practice.
Now, when Davis or his partners are on the road, they can access the firm’s Web site, client information, calendars, and a variety of data that previously had to come via a phone call to a staffer. For in-office users, the system uses caller ID to identify inbound calls and bring up the desired client information on the company computer: case profile, last activity or correspondence, or even the bill or receivables.
Davis compares this element to the local pizza-delivery chain, whose system uses caller ID to call up past customers’ names, orders, and addresses. In either case, the result is the same: customers are served, time is saved, and the company operates more efficiently. “That pizza technician is not wildly scribbling your order, and we’re not trying to retrieve information on the fly,” he says. “All these things are coming together to help us be as efficient as we can and make sure our clients are being taken care of.”
Getting Back To Business
Danburg Management Corp. of Boca Raton, Fla., has 24 staffers and more than $10 million in annual revenues from commercial real estate development and management, but the firm’s admitted Achilles’ heel was its human resources department: It didn’t have one.
When either interviewing candidates or signing a new employee, staff accountant Karen Wildstein handled the whole process. She had to fish through dated forms in the file cabinet or call an outside HR consultant to get newer ones. Neither she nor anyone else had the time to make sure employees were properly prepared and informed of company policies, and the double-duty taxed Wildstein’s attention and cluttered up her schedule. It also could have led to costly mistakes and potentially a lawsuit, says president Jamie Danburg. “As an employer, these are things I have to worry about,” he says. “We’re a multimillion dollar corporation, and I can’t afford to get sued for reprimanding or terminating someone.”
Danburg had heard concerns from Wildstein that she was spending up to two hours a week on issues unrelated to her primary job of managing the company finances. “We’re a high-dollar-volume company, but we’re reasonably lean in personnel,” he says. “We have a constant HR need, but we can’t afford to hire a full-time HR person.”
In 2000, the company turned to Setnor Byer Insurance & Risk, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based risk management company, and began using their online human relations and risk management service, The Human Equation (www.thehumanequation.com).
Danburg Management now has its own forms and site on a password-protected area, and Wildstein now downloads the employment forms or packages she needs or reviews the site’s advice columns and information on hiring, firing, and a host of other issues. When Wildstein needs an application or tax ID form, she heads on line and downloads one from the site. If Wildstein has a question on policy or the law, she can check the frequently asked questions area or call for advice. When employees are hired, Wildstein can request driver’s license information and credit and criminal background checks. Making sure employees’ records are clean can help keep a company’s insurance rates low.
Wildstein now steers new hires and current staff to the site to review Danburg Management’s employment policy. If a question arises about whether a hire was informed about company policy, Danburg can rest assured everything was covered, he says. “It’s all there automatically, and it’s the most current laws or regulations on the books,” Danburg says. “It has helped very much for us to have a cohesive operating manual. Nothing falls through the cracks.”
The service has brought professional HR acumen and policies to a company that for years operated that department loosely, Danburg says. Previously, requests for time off were met with Danburg’s mood; if he felt like it or if the office seemed to be running smoothly at the time, he may have granted the request. “There wasn’t a cohesiveness or policy to it,” he says. “We weren’t able to keep track of those situations.”
By following procedures, the company knows that new hires have been told about company practices and policies, which limits liability and exposure. Documentation is backed up, and policies are followed. “Policy is on the Web site,” Danburg says. “No one questions that. If something were to blow up, we’ve dotted the Is and crossed the Ts.”
Danburg spends approximately $2,000 a year on the service and feels it’s money well spent. “A couple thousand bucks a year — that’s nothing compared to what we have at stake,” he says. Wildstein now spends around one hour a month on HR and has more time to concentrate on what the company really does — imagine that.