A crucial hub

The ideal business software system should hit that elusive spot between ’powerful and complex’ and ’nice and simple’ – and also help in developing new business. Anna Richardson speaks to a range of design groups about selecting the right software packages for their needs

Design consultancies trade in creativity and ideas, sometimes to the detriment of efficiency and cost-effectiveness – at least, that’s the impression some convey. But running an efficient ship has been more important than ever due to the recession, and business software systems can help.

Duncan Shaw, creative director and co-founder of Living Group, which specialises in branding and design for the financial sector and uses Coefficient, says the system gives ’a very good picture of the financial health of our consultancy’. There are many business systems that help with running a consultancy – from scheduling to project management (and basic accountancy software is a must for any start-up) – but they also play a vital part in nurturing new business.

New business development is of much more concern to consultancies since regular business shrank during the financial crisis. According to James Flook, who specialises in designing customised systems for design consultancies, many design groups moved to acquire CRM (contact relationship management) systems in the past two years.

Helping to manage databases of contacts, CRM systems can range from the straightforward Act from Sage to the more expensive Genesis, which includes regularly updated data. Getting new business staff to speak to the project management team and making sure communication is clear between both parties is a key element. Another is managing data – ’Otherwise, you will end up with a huge dump of names and telephone numbers that are useless,’ says Flook.

Business systems can help with other key jobs including calendarising leads and contacts, and centralising and recording progress reports.Converting new business leads into a steady stream of income is notoriously tricky and data analysis can make it easier.

’If the initial contact and client has been mapped from the outset, you can create an audit trail that follows how a certain project started through to how it turned into real work,’ says Flook. Building and storing industry data on clients with its Coefficient system helps Living Group attribute information to each individual within a client. ’It helps you build a new business picture,’ says Shaw.

IE Design, meanwhile, developed its in-house system, Periscope, to cope with the rapid expansion of the business when a large new client drove the monthly number of invoices processed from around 15 to more than 70. The Web-based system, which the consultancy has just made available to competitors, includes a central e-mail repository that employees can copy all correspondence to.

’It helped us defend our margins, which was hugely important at that moment in our history, and started to open up knowledge held within the consultancy, rather than keeping it embedded in individuals’ e-mails or their own heads,’ says Ollie Leggett, managing director of IE Design.Periscope has key project management functionality built in, such as time sheets and contacts, and IE Design is currently trialling a new sales pipeline module that allows leads to be classified by their probability of turning into clients and potential value of work, allowing the management to track targets on a month-bymonth basis.

Also if the sales pipeline is growing, IE Design knows it needs to start recruiting. ’Being able to monitor and track your profitability and preempt future income gives us more confidence in the business,’ says Leggett. ’That’s essential when selling its services.’ According to Leggett, the consultancy was put off by the cost of some of the bigger, off-the-peg systems.

’We were overwhelmed by their complexity – a bit like climbing into the cockpit of a shuttle, when all we wanted to do was ride a bike,’ says Leggett. Some of the smaller bits of software, such as Basecamp, meanwhile, were considered too narrow and not so good at talking to each other.

But as Flook says, no two groups are the same. The Flipside Group opted for Synergist after much research. ’A good database is the most important part of any new business and keeping it detailed and accurate is important. Synergist allows us to do that,’ says Andrew Dickinson, director of operations at Flipside.

It’s not just a new business tool, but also a customer relationship tool, Dickinson adds. ’You enter a new lead, you give them a call, that turns into an opportunity, which becomes a prospect and a customer, if you’ve won a pitch – everything is centralised. New business is not just about bringing in new customers, but about developing them – and this allows us to do both, and be a lot more scientific about it.’

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