Managing information when you are a project services company

Last week, we completed the third phase of our IT systems migration. With each phase, we’re gaining insights into how information can be best managed inside a company selling and delivering project-based services.

There are a number of basic IT systems needed to run a project-based business, such as ourselves:

  • Prospect database. This is essentially for sending out mailshots and any freebies offered on a website.
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM). This is for following up new enquiries, past customers and carrying out other sales-related activities. This involves keeping a record of past conversations and next steps.
  • Project management. This involves keeping a record of conversations, repositories for files and contracts, time spent on a project, and other project-related activities.
  • Accounting. This involves invoicing and payments.

In numerous companies where I’ve worked there’s been a problem in finding the ideal solution. A single system that does everything may force you to work in a particular way of working, and these systems can be expensive for smaller organisations. Having separate systems can lead to information not being shared across the systems. For example, many of the project teams I’ve worked with have found CRM systems, such as Salesforce.com, too complex. They simply don’t use them often enough.

We’ve decided to have separate systems, loosely joined together.

We’ve decided to implement separate systems for managing projects, CRM, the prospect database (i.e. mailshots) and accounts, but be able to transfer information between the different systems. In our situation, the vast majority of enquires and project communication involve email. As well as standard email exchanges, website enquiries arrive by email, and telephone calls usually result in notes of a conversation being emailed to others. In the case of the projects system, we can aggregate all the emails relating to a particular project into a dedicated mailbox, simply by cc’ing (copying) all correspondence to its dedicated email address. We can do the same thing in our CRM application, as that also has dedicated mailboxes.

Files are stored in the Cloud, so we can provide links to them in emails, and from both the project and CRM systems.

Another issue with having separate systems is they need any relevant client details recorded in all of them. You need to create a record in the CRM when you get the enquiry, a record in the projects system when they become a customer, and a record in the accounting system when it’s time to send them an invoice.

We’ve tackled this issue by selecting systems that have apps and APIs which enable data to be exchanged between them and Microsoft Outlook. Services such as Zapier and CloudPipes can automate this process. For example, we can categorise an incoming email as “Add to Newsletter”, and that email address will be automatically added to our newsletter database (MadMimi). This means project staff don’t need to touch the CRM. They just need to cc and categorise relevant emails – the system will then copy the necessary information across automatically. Equally, sales staff can copy relevant emails and contracts to the project system quickly and easily.

The result is, we hope, that we have a system for managing projects that the projects team likes (ditto for the CRM and the Sales team), and we’ve avoided information overload in each of the applications. We know some may see this as hardly cutting edge, but it is already saving us a lot of time and effort.

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