Picking the right tools for project management and CRM functions can feel like an impossible task. I've gone through a number of applications in recent years (just about all of them actually). What makes choosing (or building) the right systems so difficult are the variables we all deal with in our respective workflows.
At some point in the SEO process a checklist doesn't suffice, at some point intuition and experience come into play and these traits require some intellectual flexibility.
You can build tasks and sub-tasks up to a certain level, but at some point you have to replace the task checklist option with a free form area to capture thoughts and ideas. Those thoughts and ideas can drive the future of the project yet it's hard to foresee what tasks are resultant from this approach at the beginning of a project.
How to Determine What You Need
This is hard. You should have an idea of current needs and possible future needs. It really sounds a bit easier than it is. You have to take a number of things into consideration:
- Your current email, calendar, and document storage set ups
- You and your staff's mobile devices and OS's
- Features that you need
- Features you might need
- Scalability of the platforms
- Desire to rely on 3rd party integrations
- Ability to manage multiple 3rd party integrations
Inside each of those items are more variables but for the most part these are the key areas to think about.
The hardest part for me was thinking about where I wanted to go. At one point or another I fell into the following categories:
- Freelancer wanting to grow into an agency owner
- Freelancer wanting to stay a freelancer
- Wanting to exclusively work on my own properties
- Wanting to exclusively focus on client work
- Mixing client work and self-managed properties
- Providing clients with more services vs focusing on a core service or two
When you run through those scenarios there are all sorts of tools that make sense, then don't make sense, and tools that kind of make sense. In addition to the categories I mentioned there are also questions about how big do you want to grow an agency.
Do you want a large staff? A small staff? Do you want to be more of an external marketer or do you want to be more day to day operations? Inside of those questions are lots of other intersections that can have a significant effect on how your workflow will be structured.
I'll give you some insight into how I determined my set up.
Putting Tools Through Their Paces
I do a mix of things for "work". I run some of my own properties, I have some clients, and I love SeoBook. In addition to this I've also been (slowly) developing a passive real estate investment company for a year (very slowly and pragmatically).
I spent quite a bit of time determining what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go and what made me the "happiest". I've been fortunate enough to be able to take the proper amount of time to determine these things without having to rush into a decision simply based on the need to make a buck.
So, I decided the following was best for me:
- Work with select clients only
- Have a small, focused team of great people
- Continue developing our own web properties and products
Invariably when you make these decisions you leave money on the table somewhere and that's hard. Whether it's abandoning some short-term strategies that have a nice ROI or turning away clients based on a gut feeling or just being maxed out on client work, it's still hard to leave the $ there.
What Are Your Core Products
After deciding what I was going to do and the direction I was going to go it was a relief to eliminate some potential solutions from the mix. Overly complicated CRM's like Zoho and Microsoft Dynamics were out (fine products but overkill for me).
Determining the products and services that we would sell also helped narrow down the email, calendar, and document storage issue.
Sometimes a product is so core to your service that it has a significant influence on your choice of tools. I've been using Google Apps for business for awhile and our use of Buzzstream cemented that choice. We've also used Exchange in the past but it doesn't seem to play as nice with Buzzstream as Google Apps. Outreach is key for us and no one does it better than Buzzstream.
Our other "products and services" are fairly platform independent so the next big thing to deal with was document and information management. However, before we chose a provider for this service we needed to determine what CRM/PM system fit our workflow the best.
In my opinion, document integration is a nice add-on but not 100% necessary if you keep things in one place and have a tight file structure. In a larger organization this might be different but a proper client/project folder set up is easy enough to reference without having to compromise on a CRM/PM solution.
CRM and PM Systems
A post covering everything I went through would be like 10,000 words long but suffice to say the most important things to me with these system evaluations were:
- Ease of Use
- Task and Project Template functionality
- Solid reporting features without overkill
- Backup functionality
- OS agnostic
Compromises will be made when you place any amount of criteria against pre-built solutions. There was a period of time where we might have scaled agency work so I'll mention tools that would have made that cut as well. We ended up settling on:
Asana accomplishes about 90% of what I need. It doesn't work on IE which means it doesn't work very well on my Windows phone but I have yet to encounter a situation in 5 years of dealing with 50+ clients and many internal projects where I needed to check in on my phone or where it couldn't wait until I got in front of my computer. I have an iPhone for iOS testing so in a pinch I could use that. Plus, you can have activity data emailed to your inbox so you can see if the sky is falling either way.
Asana doesn't do backups really well, you have to export as JSON but it's better than nothing. I have a project manager whom I trust so I don't need to monitor everything but I can quickly see the tasks assigned to her in case things are falling behind.
We don't assign tasks to other folks (outreachers, designers, programmers, etc), we just let them do their thing. Asana also integrates with Dropbox and Google Drive if you need that kind of integration. Asana also is task/project only, there's no information storage like there is in something like Basecamp or TeamworkPM (for us, that's ok).
Alternative to Asana = TeamworkPM
The alternative I would recommend, if you have a larger team or just want to have more granular control over things (and also more reporting functions), would be TeamworkPM. It meets all my requirements and then some. I find it just as easy to use as Basecamp but far more robust and it even makes using Gantt Charts easy and fun :)
For us, it's too much but it really is a nice product that makes scaling your work far more easier than Basecamp. In Basecamp you cannot see all tasks assigned to everyone and their statuses, you have to click on each person to see their individual tasks. This makes multi-employee management cumbersome. TeamworkPM also has project and task templates while Basecamp only has project templates.
I like the ability to create task list templates only because many of our project requirements involve specific tasks not necessarily present on every single project, so having just project templates is far too broad to be effective.
In addition, Basecamp's file handling is poor and messy for our usage because:
- There's no file versioning
- You can't delete a file without deleting the conversation attached to a file (so you have to rename them)
- No integration with any document service
TeamworkPM integrates with various services and also does file versioning in case you use a service they do not integrate with.
Using Pipeline Deals
PipelineDeals is dead simple to use. It meets just about all my requirements and it has the most important integration a CRM can have; contact integration with my email application (Google Apps). It also has a nice gmail widget that makes email and contact management between Gmail and Pipeline Deals really slick.
We use Right Signature for document signing and Pipeline integrates with that as well. It doesn't integrate with BidSketch, which is what we use for proposals but that's ok. We don't do 20 quotes a week so that level of automation is nice but not necessary.
PipelineDeals doesn't integrate with Asana either. Again, that's fine in our case. We don't need the CRM to speak to the PM. It also does task templates which are a big deal to me and our workflows. Reporting and mobile access are excellent as well, without being overly complicated.
Documents and Information
Before I get to what could be a all in one solution for CRM/PM let's talk about documents and information.
I love the idea of easy information retrieval and not having to think about where to put things or where to look for things. There are a few core choices of document and information management to consider:
For more robust, enterprise level solutions we also considered Sharepoint. It's pretty complex but very robust and overkill for us.
Dropbox is excellent except for collaboration. Conflicted file versions are a pain in the butt but if you don't need any collaborative features it's a good solution. It syncs locally, stores native file types, integrates with a lot of services.
Evernote is a solid tool for textual based information sharing but I don't like it for files because it can't be your only file solution and I'm interested in a file solution that handles all files.
Google Docs is a wonderfully collaborative document management solution and could handle probably 60-75% of files. However, we do some custom stuff with Excel, Word, and some stuff with videos and not having the native file available for quick editing is a hassle.
Also, while emailing from Google Docs is a cool feature it doesn't work if you are emailing inside of an existing conversation. If you email inside Gmail you'll share a link to the file rather than the file itself and many times we have to send a Word doc or Excel file so we have to export from Google Docs to the proper file extension and then email.
Skydrive does what Dropbox does and what Google Docs does while maintaining the more widely accepted Office formats. We chose Skydrive for this reason. It's OS agnostic and works across iOS, Android, and of course on Windows phone. For iOS and Android you need an active Office 365 subscription. On iPad's you would still access via the browser though I believe an iPad version of what's on the iPhone now isn't far off at all.
We use Skydrive for project files, reference files, and collaborative files for site/project strategy. This leaves email correspondence with clients as the remaining piece of the information puzzle. CRM email storage is great for pre-sales, up-sells, and billing correspondence but what about project related email?
Project Related Emails
Most PM solutions allow you to email a message to a client from your PM interface and continue the correspondence there. This is great until someone starts adding other bits of information to an email (not everyone sticks to the subject line :D) and it quickly becomes unruly.
Probably the most tried and true solution is to either decide to keep all email correspondence (and notes from calls) in a CRM and label the note appropriately or try and document project related stuff in a project notebook or message. Asana doesn't have this option but TeamworkPM does.
My preference is to just keep that stuff in a CRM for easy reference but for larger teams I'd go with keeping it in the CRM + summarizing in the PM system.
There's another solution though. There's a product out there that combines CRM/PM into one app and makes keeping information together fairly simple.
Insightly is a pretty robust and affordable CRM/PM solution. It's email dropbox allows you to keep emails stored for quick reference across projects and contacts.
The reason it can handle emails in this way is due to its unique linking relationships. You can link a contact and/or an organization to a project (and multiple projects).
You can easily see all projects associated with X but what's even more powerful is you can link vendors to projects too. When you BCC your project dropbox it will also link the email to the participants on the project as well has have a "Email" tab in the project interface so you can see all the relevant emails for that project whether it's with a client, vendor, staff member, etc.
If we were to move into a more client-facing company Insightly would merit strong consideration for its unique ability to easily keep all related information together.
Is Automation Overrated Sometimes?
I like automation, to an extent. I like syncing 2 apps together directly. There's a service out there called Zapier which does a great job linking otherwise incompatible services together. My hesitation here is relying on too many "parties" to accomplish tasks.
Automation is wonderful, really, but I would recommend sitting down and thinking about what automation do you really need and how helpful will it really be and what happens if a 3rd, 4th, or 5th party goes under.
For me, an example would be when I was considering Highrise.
- Contacts sync provided by a third-party
- Task templates provided by another third-party
- Document integration provided by another third-party
I'm hesitant to rely on these extra services for core functionality because these functions are crucial for my business. There could be situations where those services get abandoned, an API changes and you're waiting for a fix, and so on.
There's plenty of services that offer integration between core apps like contacts, billing, time tracking, quoting, and so on. I just think it's wise to consider very carefully what you are relying on for core functionality and if you have to go outside of your chosen application too much it might be time to consider a new one.
Compromises and Moving Forward
If you choose any pre-built solution you're going to probably have some compromises. I have found that structure is really important and easy access to information, data, and task progress are more important than features and "options".
I think having too many services inside of your operation is a hindrance to being as productive and efficient as possible. Knowing where to look and why to look is half the battle. If you're running multiple project management solutions, multiple document management solutions, and so on then you might want to consider more efficient ways to handle your operation.
Without going through this process multiple times over the years there is no way I would have been able to stay as lean as possible while being as efficient as possible. Doing both of those things correctly usually leads:
- Happier clients
- A more productive work environment
- A more profitable business
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