Communicating with clients during a web project is the most important part of the production cycle. That’s why we use web applications to make our projects as accessible to our clients as we can.
The design and development phase of projects can be hard to communicate to clients using the traditional routes. Whilst emails, meetings and telephone conversations are important it’s also necessary to provide access to the project at every stage of it’s development. This is how we overcome that particular problem and how we keep our clients in touch with progress at every step.
Web design communication
We have taken this so seriously that we’ve developed our own web application to handle it. Allworkedup is a design project management tool which neatly displays flat web design iterations (as they would appear in the browser) as well as providing a forum for comment and feedback. Once our designers have finished a web design iteration they upload it and notify the project stakeholders who are then invited to comment on the design and open up the discussion with others.
It really works for us and bypasses the completely unworkable situation where feedback is via email and iterations are presented over email. The main thing is that whenever is convenient our clients can log in and leave their suggestions and feedback in one place.
Keeping our clients in touch with (web) developments
The web development phase of any project can leave clients feeling like nothing’s happening with periods of ‘quiet time’, but only if we’re not managing it properly. We choose to give the client access to the project progression at every stage of the process so as a task is ticked off – the client is alerted of it.
We use a fantastic web development management tool called Pivotal Tracker which logs all the tasks as User Stories and shows which ones are queued for immediate development, which ones have been started, finished and delivered and which ones are coming up later on. This way our clients are always in-touch with progress and have a real handle on where we are and when we might be finished.
For years we’ve dabbled with the best methods of file sharing, calendar management and email setups. It’s been a long road but we’ve finally reached our ‘Mecca’.
So, after years of dabbling with POP3 iMap, exchange, Samba shares, Webdav calendars, hardware backups and endless disappointment, have we found the perfect business setup? Well we think so and we’d like to share it with other smaller business owners that want all the bells and whistles of what was formerly the domain of large business – the company intranet, file sharing and remote working… it’s now oh so easy.
With the advent of cloud computing comes a new era of accessibility – and here are the tools to do this (or the ones that worked for us at least):
By far the most efficient and cost effective (the Standard Edition is free) route to getting things kicked off is Business Edition of Google Apps. This suite of tools from Google provides just about everything you need in terms of business communication. The suite includes:
- 7GB of email – which is easily used with any email application, although we love the web based interface and ‘offline’ feature which uses Google Gears to cache your emails locally.
- Public, Private and Shared Calendars – This is so powerful. Create as many calendars as you like, and share them with whoever you like. The system has a great interface and also supports the event invite process used by most of us to confirm meetings.
- Shared documents – not file sharing you as you might know it but an online collaborative tool – fully compatible with the Office suite. Collaborate on documents in realtime and have them for easy access online anytime. We can’t remember the last time we needed to open Excel.
- Contacts – Each User can store their contacts using Google Contacts. This easily syncs with smartphones and other address books so you never have to worry about losing anything.
We wouldn’t be exaggerating if we said that every small business should start off using this – it’s an essential tool, it’s absolutely free and takes an hour to set up on your domain.
File sharing with Jungle Disk
After initially using the usual suspects (Samba and VPN) to share files we’ve now moved everything to the cloud (Rackspace and Amazon S3). This means that we have a repository of live files as well as several backups securely stored and available whenever we need them. Moreover we automatically sync with this repository on every machine we have – be it a laptop, desktop, Mac, Windows or Linux based machine. We use Jungle Disk to do this which is a background program which essentially watches the cloud repository (online storage) which you’ve set up and linked to a directory on your local machine. If any of us make a change on one then we see the new files on the other machines as long as it’s using the same repository in the same cloud.
There’s an iPhone application which allows us to access files if we need to and a web based interface should we require it. It also allows the setup of individual disks in the cloud for users so they can backup and sync their data or even entire machine backups.
So far we’ve had few issues and it just works.
What would we do without it? It runs our phone system so we use it for external callers, it keeps us in touch via chat all day and it gives us the ability to conference call with clients and each other.
As previously mentioned we use Skype for our phone system. This is a fairly new thing but it works exceptionally well. We have decent internet connections so why not?
The way this works is that calls come into our central Skype account on a Skype-In number which then forwards the call to each of the Hutchhouse offices (using their Skype accounts thus also making them mobile). It also forwards to a landline just in case. If the call is picked up then great – if not then it goes back to our central Skype answer machine. This means we can pick up calls wherever we are. It’s been a real time saver.
Customer Relationship Management, WorkflowMax
A CRM keeps everyone who needs to be in the loop… in the loop. It’s a real time saving application and – because we would only consider a web based solution – it’s amazingly flexible.
Because we wanted to use a CRM which combined our sales processes (including quotations and estimates with our production process) we decided on using WorkflowMax. This works for us because it not only keeps us ontop of leads and jobs but it also does timesheeting and billing. It also fully integrates with our online accounts package Xero. This means we have an end-to-end business system underpinning our processes. Notwithstanding there are several amazing CRM systems out there like Salesforce.com, SugarCRM, Capsule CRM and Highrise from 37Signals so go and try them out.
Online accounting, Xero
After years of being tied to our desktop based accounting package we have finally moved to Xero. As we currently run two offices we require multiple accounts in multiple locations. We couldn’t continue using the desktop software which had served us so well for years because (although very good) it just wasn’t flexible enough. We have to admit, the move has been refreshingly simple.
We now have a single touch point for all of our contacts, sales, quotes, invoices and reports. It’s revolutionised the way we work and frees up so much time that are able to expand as a result. All for a few pounds a month.
That’s it for now – we just felt compelled to write this as it feels good to have this stuff at your fingertips… and it’ll just keep on getting better.