You do well by doing right: The best chance of attracting and keeping clients is to provide the best service possible. However, try as you might, inefficiency decreases both the quality of service and clients' satisfaction.
One sure clue that your business is inefficient is if you spend too much time driving unnecessarily to client sites, a malady known as "windshield time." Another symptom is seemingly endless, often non-billable time spent on the phone straightening out messes.
How do you serve your clients well and remain optimally efficient? We contacted small business VARs and integrators and got this top-down view: Be prepared, create strong relationships with your clients, and learn how and when to use remote tools to diagnose and fix problems.
Earn Their Trust
Sometimes the best way to increase efficiency is to follow traditional, sound business practices. In particular, you'll save windshield time if you forge a strong, trust-based relationship with your client, claims Calvin Atkinson, vice president of Daedal Corp., an Atlanta integrator.
If you do that, he says, your client will trust your suggestions about how to fix problems. That, in turn, will lessen the amount of time you spend repairing damage and building bridges on-site.
"If your clients don't trust you and don't feel like you're looking out for their best interests, they'll go away," he says. "Do the right kind of consulting on the front end and you'll prevent a lot of wasted time."
The key to creating trust and providing efficient service is making sure you understand your clients' business problems, Atkinson explains. "If you implement solutions that meet your client's needs, you can eliminate a lot of trips to the client's shop. If you just sell them what they asked for, it may not solve their problem and you'll have to fix things later."
Atkinson learned that lesson when a client wanted a specific document management system. "They told us what they wanted and told us to purchase and install it, which we did. Once they got it in place, they found it handled images but not documents they created, like Word files." Looking beyond the request and getting it right the first time, he says, would have saved a lot of windshield time. Instead, the consultants had to uninstall the first program and install the second.
Always Be Prepared
Being prepared and making sure your staff communicates well also save windshield time, according to Jennifer Hodo, co-owner of Red Maple Technologies, a Dallas VAR that specializes in accounting applications.
"We burn CD-ROMs on a weekly or biweekly basis," she says. "The discs have patches, tech notes, everything. Our consultants carry them everywhere they go. That minimizes the return trips to the office and how much they have to carry around with them."
Hodo has a checklist of everything her consultants should carry with them. "It includes the CD-ROM, a demo CD-ROM in case somebody needs to see what a particular program does. We also have a service ticket book, which has everything we need to get support while we're on-site."
Atkinson and Hodo agree that having the right equipment is essential to efficiency. This enables their employees to easily get information that could save them a trip to the client site. "We all have cell phones and beepers," says Atkinson. "We also have radio equipment so the techs can talk to other techs in the field. Chances are, somebody has already dealt with a similar problem."
Adds Hodo: "We buy hands-free headsets for all our consultants to use in the car." After all, she points out, safety is important.
Train, Document, and Communicate
Hodo recommends maintaining strong internal documentation about the technology you sell and manage in order to increase efficiency. In addition, she advises, carefully document all interactions with clients, to make it easier for technicians to figure out what other technicians did previously. Good documentation and record keeping also means that if the primary technician isn't available, another one can read the notes and fill in.
In addition to internal documentation, thorough documentation for all products sold also is a time-saver. Instead of fixing simple problems for clients, Hodo can point them to the right page in the documentation. That's why her company creates extensive training manuals. "If training material isn't there, we create it," she says.
"We're very proactive with training material because it can lessen your support time," Hodo explains. "If I'm dealing with a client who came to our training class and he forgot how to do something, I can tell him it's in the manual and direct him to a specific page."
Some clients appreciate that kind of support because they often have high turnover and are reliant on one employee to know how the technology works."God forbid, the accounts payable clerk is hit by a bus, a small company could be in trouble," she says. "With solid documentation, somebody else can quickly jump into the breach."
Finally, Hodo suggests using the most efficient form of communication with clients. "For minor issues, I'll tell clients just to e-mail me. That's more efficient than a phone call or a visit because we have lots of tech notes that we can e-mail or fax back and they often can fix the problem themselves."
Stay in (Remote) Control
Most VARs and integrators already know this tip: Manage your client's hardware and software remotely. That is, use remote access software, such as pcAnywhere or Microsoft Terminal Server, in your office to work on client workstations and servers. Solving problems and installing new software remotely saves a lot of driving time.
"I don't know why I should visit a client if I can reconfigure their router from here," says Larry Twersky, CEO of Corporate Computer Center in Los Angeles, which specializes in sales force automation with a focus on customer relationship management. "If they need help, they don't necessarily need to be schmoozed."
But even if you can't solve the problem remotely, examining your client's system before you leave for an on-site visit will save time: You'll have a better idea of what the problem is beforehand and can think about how to solve it en route.
In some cases, remote access is mandatory. That's because as resellers become more specialized, their client base stretches out farther geographically and on-site visits become more difficult. Says Hodo, "We have clients all over. We require all our clients outside of Dallas to have pcAnywhere."
Still, you may encounter client resistance to remote access. Some are concerned about security, Atkinson says, but most of the resistance comes from the need clients may feel to literally watch somebody fix a problem.
"Clients sometimes will say, 'I don't want to pay for what I can't see,'" adds Atkinson. "It's a form of price resistance. They don't want to pay for two hours of remote access if they don't actually know you are there."
The solution to that problem, he reiterates, is a strong relationship with the client. The strategy is to help clients understand that remote access can save them time and trouble, reducing billable time in fixing problems more quickly
Sell and Train Remotely
Servicing accounts isn't the only thing that will cause you to run to your client's office. You also have to get the accounts in the first place and often provide training afterward. Twersky is a proponent of doing both of these tasks remotely.
"Last Friday, I did five sales presentations from my desk," he illustrates. "In some cases, the presentations were to people in multiple locations." His tool of choice: Microsoft NetMeeting, which comes free with Windows. This enables people located anywhere to view his screen so he can give the same presentation he would provide on site. All participants speak to each other via a standard conference call.
Besides saving travel time and expense, Twersky says that this method cuts his sales cycle dramatically. "It consistently saves me about four weeks in my sales cycle," he says. "It doesn't do that every time, but it does dramatically cut down the amount of time I spend chasing down a deal. You get the decision-makers together and making decisions faster."
Gone are the days in which face-to-face interaction is an expected part of good service. Using sound business practice and remote access tools, you can use your time--and your client's time--more wisely while still providing top-notch service.