Two Companies, One Story

Over the past three years I have had a chance to do some consulting for two very different companies.  Yet for all of the differences, my consulting has been very similar.  The common thread is my contribution of a missing element in these organizations.  Now I am not a “spring chicken” as I started my professional career after graduate school in the Spring of 1967.  Because of the varied experiences, I have come to have a generalist’s approach to problem solving.  For each of these clients I have been able to contribute a different, but vital function such that the receiving firm had a more complete offering.

The first client was a marketing communications (MarCom) company.  Although it had many unique aspects, even the most casual of observers would recognize the firm as an advertising agency.  It had a single, rather large, account that made up 90% of its business.  This customer was a high tech systems integrator.  The president of the MarCom had always wanted to be a full-line marketing services organization.  He recognized that his company could do a lot more for the systems integrator.  In particular, there was a need for a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.  How could a MarCom help?

In this setting the S. I. Inc. contribution was the development of this computer based marketing system.  In past issues of the WORKS we have explained about CRM systems.  Here we will explain how being a generalist can fill many requirements.  For years S. I. Inc. has been helping organizations in many areas of management.  Perhaps S. I. Inc. is not the most skilled at any one thing, but it has the breadth of knowledge to do many things.  This is particularly important when one thing relates to another.  For example, the MarCom created many direct mail campaigns for the systems integrator.  By retaining S. I. Inc. to build the CRM system, information gleaned from each mailing contributed to the over-all knowledge of the customer.  We provided a vital missing piece to both the MarCom and the systems integrator.

My second, and current client, is a software house.  They are trying to make the transition from a board-level (sometimes call embedded) programming shop to a more traditional full-line software organization.  At first glance the software house has nothing in common with the MarCom.  Look a little deeper and you see that this firm is a specialty organization that wants to become a full-line software company.  They are looking for a plan to grow their business in the area of what was once call business data processing.  That term is out and web services is in, but the function is still the same.  The software house has a client that needs to put their CRM system on the Internet.

What we were going to bring to the software house obviously was not going to be computer methods.  They have all of the computer techniques they need.  What was called for was some good old marketing management systems and procedures.  S. I. Inc. was able to recognize the need, create a plan, and develop customers that would buy the products and services.  The need recognition was to look at the software house’s skill set and see how these capabilities could be presented in a way the prospects would buy.  It is not easy to look at the skill called “writer of device driver” and see how that could be presented as “deliverer of CRM solutions.”  This was exactly what was needed and done.  Once the skill set was repackaged we went on to develop a plan to sell that skill set.  The software house is well on its way towards realizing its goals while enjoying its new “look.”

Why do I say these two stories are really one?  In each case a firm that specialized needed some one from the outside to point out what was missing.  Having identified the problem S. I. Inc., was able to use one of its skills to meet the need.  Providing the missing piece is what we do best.  I trust we can keep doing that into the foreseeable future.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Old saying, usually ascribed to the French

Using a Database for Time Management

You do not usually think of a database, or a database tool, as a vehicle for planning people’s time.  Even less obvious is using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application for time management.  But it is just what I have been doing while helping the second firm mentioned in the article above.  This was not the first tool that was employed.  The approach evolved over time.

The first generation “tool” was good old pencil and paper.  For more years than I would like to admit, I have been planning my time.  Those of you who know me well understand that I am a bit of a fanatic at record keeping.  Since the early 1970s I have recorded my time.  Not only do I do this in order to invoice clients, the Schuldenfrei family likes to eat, but I want to see how I spend my time.  Now recording time spent has utility, but it is a little like driving your car but only looking out the back window!  It soon becomes apparent that you are only looking at where you have been.  When you need to plan projects you need to look forward.  Thus, you quickly develop the need to forecast how your time will be spent in the future.  The instructive part of time management comes in the comparison between the forecast of time and how long things actually took.  Writing things down is the key.  Since I have had constant computer access since 1965, I augmented my paper with computer data files.  A big step forward came in 1979 when the cost of a computer became low enough such that I could buy one for my own use.  From then on it was time management in the electronic age.

Having a medium, the computer, is not the same as having a message with all due respects to Marshall McLuhan.  Over the years the need emerged for managing, not only my time, but the time of others.  Accounting systems gradually took over the chore of invoicing the clients.  However, accounting systems rarely look forward.  Project management tools, like the excellent package Microsoft Project, is good for forecasting and recording actual.  It, however, is project orientated and cumbersome too boot.  Let’s look at both of these issues in turn.

Microsoft will tell you right up front that Project is for projects.  A project has a beginning, a middle, and (most importantly) an end.  It is just great for client engagements of the right size.  The trouble with Project for managing a small group is that this type of time management is on-going.  It never comes to an end.  After many attempts to use Project where it was ill suited, I began to look elsewhere.  The second issue with Project is that it is large, cumbersome, and hard to use for modest sized projects.  It is great if you are running a missile development project, or releasing the next version of the Windows operating system, but it is hard to use for small projects that last a month or two.  This is because of the time commitment of set-up.  There is a real, and large, fixed cost of time to get Project established and ready for use.  Something else is needed for the day to day work of managing a team.

I have been using an Access based CRM system since 1993.  It is a design of my own creation and not meant to be a commercial product.  It does just what I want, and unencumbered by the wants and desires of others.  As I have performed consulting engagements over the last 10 years, I have brought this homebrew system to other organizations.  It has taken root in some shops and not in others.  Just recently I have taken to entering non-customers into the database.  Room was made for client personnel, competitors, and suppliers.  The features that make the tool useful for time management are: proximo scheduling, unlimited note taking, and the excellent database tools of Microsoft Access.

What is proximo scheduling?  This is the technique that keeps reminding a system that a reoccurring event is coming due.  The CRM system has a “date of next activity” field to remind a sales rep what must be done.  This field is used such that a report is generated every morning on what the team being managed is doing.  It does not have to be on a daily basis, but I like to be advised each morning.  Usually the team member is doing work for a client that is in the CRM system.  The proximo scheduling will report on the client record.  Both of these reminders are brief, one line on a report.  Here is where the second feature comes in.

The system has unlimited note taking ability.  Anyone who knows me knows I am a prodigious note taker.  By being able to explain what needs to be done by the team member on his record is very useful to me as the manager.  Further, by having additional notes on the client record I can get an over all view of what needs to be done for the client by each team member.  The notes are general and can be used in any way that makes sense.  Since the CRM records are not project oriented, cross project control is realized.  The notes explain in as much detail as necessary what needs to be done.  Each note is threaded to the CRM Contact record.  It does not matter if the contact is a prospect, customer, employee, supplier, or even competitor.

Finally, the excellent report writing features of Access allow for a rich set of standard reports to be available.  In addition, the query capability makes ad hoc reports easy and quick to produce.  I would not claim that these techniques make for a salable computer package, certainly not shrink-wrapped software.  They do, however, constitute an extremely powerful set of tools with high utility for time management.


For additional information:
     Phone: (781) 329-4828
     FAX: (781) 329-1696

     Or send USPS mail to:
     S. I. Inc.
     32 Ridley Road
     Dedham, MA 02026