I've audited numerous servers, workstations, and networks by hand, scribbling on an old-school legal pad. Then I'd transfer my notes to manila file folders to track everything from client contact names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses to IP configurations, administrative passwords, and more. The same used to be true when, while driving between client sites, I'd receive new client or service requests and then jot down critical information on Post-it notes.
No more. Why? Paper-based file systems don't work for IT consultants. Physical documentation — including the files that contain invoices, correspondence, estimates, or other client information — has too many drawbacks. Below I highlight six drawbacks to paper-based files and note why electronic documentation is the way to go.
- Legibility: Written documentation is often scribbled in the heat of the moment. Some of the most critical information I've ever recorded (server error codes, protected technical support contact information, obscure server registry tweaks, administrative passwords, etc.) has been written on the back of receipts, old mail envelopes, and even fast-food bags. In the past, sometimes you just had to use whatever was handy. But too often, information transcribed in a rush proves illegible. Is that a 0 or an O? Is that a 3 or a B? With electronic documentation, this is a problem of the past.
- Knowledge sharing: Handwritten or printed documentation is difficult to share. You have to make a physical copy and pass the duplicates to each person requiring a copy — that's time consuming and wasteful. It's much easier to share electronic documentation. Attach the file (whether it's a simple text or a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, a Visio diagram, a Project plan, or other file) to an email and send it to as many contacts as required. No hard copy required. Better yet, the recipients don't have to struggle to read your handwriting, symbols, or shorthand.
- Portability: Paper files quickly add up. Within a year of running my own consultancy, I filled numerous drawers with information on 100+ clients. Two years later, the rolls had grown to hundreds of customers. Five years in, merged with an IT shop with multiple technicians, our QuickBooks client registry now exceeds several thousand customers. That's too much paper. Electronic documentation helps ensure any of our technicians can access critical client information regardless of whether a technician knew they were going to visit a client that day when they first loaded up the truck for on-site visits. Too many emergency calls arise midday to make paper-based documentation remotely realistic for IT consultants; our field engineers manage too many clients and can't return to the office to pick up paper-based files whenever they get calls for help.
- Revisioning: Updating paper-based files is inefficient. Often a single entry or item changes, yet no technician wants to recreate an entire page to accommodate a single change. Over time, you end up with documents that have numerous pieces of critical information crossed out multiple times; that's messy, especially when technicians just add a piece of paper containing a new password. Context is lost and confusion reigns. Electronic documentation makes it very easy to edit just those singular items that require updating.
- Redundancy: Lose a client file folder, and you're toast — especially because, unless you've taken notes using some special coding only you can interpret, anyone who sees the file will possess critical and sensitive information that is best kept secure. Electronic documentation permits IT consultants to password protect documentation and even encrypt particularly sensitive information.
- Inefficiency: Even moderately slow typists can enter electronic data faster than they can write longhand. Taking notes electronically is simply faster. Many IT consultants believe they'll ultimately transfer their handwritten notes to electronic documentation. Someday. Later. It could happen, right? It never does, so always start the documentation process electronically.
Electronic documentation tools
There are numerous tools that enable electronic documentation, including Notepad, Word, Excel, Visio, Pages, Writer, TextPad, Lotus Symphony, Vi, and Emacs (like Neal Stephenson).
After you choose the tool you want, follow these steps:
- Create a subfolder for each client.
- Create subfolders for each project.
- Create a Clients folder.
- Store everything that makes sense, from PDF copies of invoices to systems documentation to notes from telephone calls.
By keeping electronic documentation in a single folder for each client, you can significantly improve how information is collected, shared, and updated. Even if you're on the road, Dropbox and other cloud-based computing platforms make securely accessing documentation easy using a smartphone.
I believe that moving to a paperless system for client documentation can improve your productivity and efficiency.Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!
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.