For years my IT consulting shop ran operations powered by a carefully constructed combination of Exchange calendars boasting color-coded appointments, a free open source ticketing system, and QuickBooks. When we operated with a half dozen staff, we made it work. But the consultancy's growth to a few dozen engineers strained these systems. Over time we met with principals at other consultancies and repeatedly heard the same story: Technical consulting firms seeking to maintain high service and reasonable profitability levels must invest in a capable professional services automation (PSA) application. We did, and the benefits were immediate.
The efficient use of a PSA application -- such as one provided by AutoMate, ConnectWise, Kaseya, Spiceworks, or SysAid -- enables IT consulting firms of any size to exponentially improve customer service, relationship management, and back-end operations. From sales and job estimating to project management, dispatch, and invoicing, a PSA empowers consultants.
Our previous platform didn't include a formal sales prospecting agent. We relied upon Microsoft Outlook Task and Toodledo reminders to help manage our sales, prospecting, and marketing efforts. As a result, we occasionally encountered situations where more than one staff member approached the same organization. Forgetting when to follow up, neglecting to send regular marketing messages, and distributing consistent messaging proved difficult. A PSA tool with a properly integrated sales process tracking mechanism solves all those problems. Better yet, the PSA platform provides a single point of entry for new customers, prospects, and clients.
Remembering to follow up on sales visits, estimates, and completed projects is a clunky process at best without a formal customer relationship management (CRM) program, yet it's one of the easiest ways to maintain goodwill, ensure customer service levels remain high, and generate new business. Fortunately, most PSA applications integrate CRM (and sales tracking and management) within the software platform to ensure follow-up opportunities are automatically scheduled.
Estimating projects, from pricing specific server builds to building out a new site, used to be time-consuming initiatives that required maintaining a half-dozen open windows while repeatedly entering the same information within spreadsheets, QuickBooks, and other tools. An intelligent PSA utility integrates project estimating by connecting estimating functions and client information directly with large vendors, such as Ingram Micro, Tech Data, and other distributors.
Integrated ticketing and performance monitoring
In order to possess any hope of normalcy within the tech consulting industry, firms must deploy automated performance monitoring and alerting platforms. Implemented incorrectly, these remote monitoring and management (RMM) tools become yet another disparate system requiring manual management within the consultancy. The best PSA platforms integrate strong RMM engines directly within the software solution to help automate trouble ticketing and even automatic fixes to common issues.
For example, as configured our RMM automatically detects badly fragmented client hard drives, generates a ticket when specific custom thresholds are exceeded, automatically schedules defragmentation at predetermined times, and then closes the ticket on its own when the defragmentation process completes. An engineer doesn't need to do anything but properly configure the RMM agent when onboarding the client.
Without a PSA solution, project managers must manually maintain engineer swim lanes, equipment ordering and status updates, estimating, actual vs. real-time costs, and resource scheduling responsibilities. That's a lot to manage even for a single project, and most project managers must simultaneously manage multiple projects while also wearing other (sales development, account management, and staff management) hats.
PSA solutions help automate project management tasks. We've heard first-hand that many consultancies who deploy a PSA platform can redeploy staff to fulfilling other tasks, because the new processes the PSA introduces are so beneficial.
Scheduling resources, assigning engineers, and making adjustments on the fly as new crises arrive are no longer exercises in frustration; good PSA tools help managers ensure internal resources are properly scheduled and utilized. In many cases, profitability gains in this area alone help offset the cost of the PSA solution.
In the past our support technicians, systems engineers, and project managers were responsible for entering their project time, travel costs, and delivered services within QuickBooks. The time required subtracted from time available to service clients. Plus, delays would inevitably result. Staff would occasionally forget to bill a client for a box of Ethernet cables, external hard drives, and even computers delivered in a rush. With invoicing automatically tied to trouble tickets, scheduled onsite service visits, and remotely fulfilled tasks, invoicing is more timely and accurate.
In a nutshell
Leveraging a PSA platform's power and capacity assists even small technical consulting firms in better servicing clients, while improving operations and lowering costs. That's a compelling combination in any industry, but the combination is particularly impactful for IT consultants.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.