Managing knowledge. Document management. Intellectual property management. All of these phrases are “buzz” words in the AE industry. It is a hot topic right now because being able to use your project documentation and historical data is critical. No matter what you refer to it as…being able to collect and store information about your firm, your clients and your projects is crucial to your business operations.
Capturing your institutional memory can mean different things to different firms but being able to easily search on and retrieve this information becomes invaluable as time goes by and personnel changes occur. At a simple level, a small firm should at the least consider storing:
1. Correspondence Documents – transmittals, letters, emails
2. Notes regarding client contact – when you are chasing work or for follow-up tasks
3. RFIs, Sumbittals and Supplemental Instructions
You cannot afford to be without a system where you can track this information, link it to a client and/or project and fully search on it. And, it would be even better if this same information was integrated into your complete project database where you are tracking all other details about your projects such as time slips, tasks, milestones, resource management and invoicing.
Even if you have a very small firm it will better enable you to compete with the larger ones when you have access to client and project data at your fingertips. Why is it important to track your “knowledge”:
- If a project manager leaves your firm (for whatever reason), do you have full access to all of the information that otherwise might be in their head?
- It isn’t just your own turnover that you need to concerned with – think about your relationship with your clients. If your client puts a new contact in front of you – how quickly can you bring them up to speed?
- One of the top warning signs of scope creep is a client that provides late or incomplete information. Do you have easy access to the records that you need to give to your clients to document a situation such as this?
Visit www.basebuilders.com to learn more about the Praesto AE Time/Billing and Project Management system for small AE Firms – where you can track your institutional memory, of course.
Collections. It might as well be a 4-letter word in the A/E industry. I know many firms are chasing accounts receivables that are often as old as 90-120 days and I know your Principals would sleep better at night if they could keep the average collection period to closer to 45-60.
How can you improve your average?
1. Require daily time entry of your employees. Real time access to data will help you issue invoices faster. Make sure your employees know how their time sheets affect your access to working capital.
2. Produce clear, simple, accurate invoices so that your clients will have less room to question or delay payment.
3. Breakout fixed fees, hourly and reimbursable components on your invoice so that if there are discrepancies you can easily ask for partial payment.
4. Involve Project Managers in the invoicing process from time sheet review to invoice draft review to collections.
5. Keep an integrated client contact database so that you can track your collection efforts. Use your system to track your interactions to stay on top of the situation.
The Praesto AE Business and Project Management system will give small AE firms the functionality you need to keep your receivables under control. We focus on giving small firms the same tools the “big” firms have in order to stay competitive – and keep it simple and affordable. www.basebuilders.com
In this Blog Series “Breaking Down Praesto AE: A Business/Project Management Software Solution for the Small AE Firm”, I will be dissecting the software by each major area. The articles include information about the system itself but also thoughts on how each component can help your firm improve productivity and increase profitability based on the feedback from our client base and industry tenure.
Project Time: You’re selling your time right?
Praesto AE will make your staff more efficient so billable hours are maximized. When you can monitor where time is being spent on your projects you can be sure that you are using the right employees in the right capacity. Our system gives you a snap shot that breaks out your time by Phase, Billing Rate and Employee. You can also run various reports to further analyze where time is being spent.
It is critical that you are gathering time information from your staff in as much of a real-time manner as possible so that you can see if your projects are on budget and schedule before you run into issues. If you give your employees insight into the project management reports that are derived just from simple time entries it will help them to understand just how critical daily time entry is to your firm. Setup simple budgets so that you can easily see your budget vs. actual hours and know exactly where you stand on your projects. One of our clients said it best, “It is great to be able to see the time spent by the entire team as well as individuals. Praesto AE makes it easy to see where money is lost when it is due to time spent.”
If you are using QuickBooks for your financial system but have spreadsheets or maybe even handwritten timesheets then you are probably spending a lot of time doing duplicate entries and double checking your work. With our integration we save you time and money! Use your industry specific timesheets to generate your invoices right out of Praesto as well (and then just push the invoice to QuickBooks for your accounts receivable and financial data)…but more on that next week!
My favorite part of my job is attending industry conferences! I’ve always felt is important to keep a pulse on the industry so that we know what issues/challenges our customers are facing. Education sessions at conferences and tradeshows are definitely worthwhile but roundtables with open yet structured conversations are invaluable.
The American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) Small Firm Council (SFC) Winter Meeting last week was no exception. There were a variety of topics on the table for these Owners and Principals of 1-50 person Engineering firms that included everything from the Affordable Care Act to Social Media. The conversation that really caught my attention was about Hiring. I want to share a few observations from the trenches.
All attendees agreed that hiring Engineers is very tough these days and keeping them might be even harder. Companies across the country are using a variety of hiring methods including Headhunters, interns from local colleges and career fairs. However, these small firms mainly agreed that career fairs are hard for them to participate in because the Owner themselves don’t have time to attend and they don’t have the large marketing and HR department to represent them. It was shared that it is important to build a relationship with your local universities so that the Professors and engineering department heads can be sure to educate about the small firm opportunities as well as the large.
It is key to note that it was also mentioned that across the board firms need to use their young bright leaders to help attract new hires. These current employees can use their social media outlets, associations and social groups to help “spread the word” about your firm. Several people in the room also mentioned using hiring incentives to help attract key people and that this can be less expensive than using a head hunter.
Retaining employees was also a hot topic and the discussion included using additional incentives that varied from giving days off to do public service work, to letting people work from home when possible to offering a flex schedule.
My firm offers time/billing software so I was very intrigued with how firms track the flex scheduled and one comment from a Principal who said that he uses his time sheet tracking that offers real-time reporting to know who is working and when and what project /billable work they are getting done. “It is the management part of my job” he said. I’ve always looked at the timesheet portion of our software as a tool to make sure you are billable or to have a pulse on staff utilization in general but it is also great to know that it can help you monitor flex time for your staff – and our system happens to also include an In/Out board that would definitely lessen the management time involved in this tracking.
Once again I learned that if I open my eyes to the challenges that AE firms face that I can happily help provide a solution.
Thank you, ACEC, for a great roundtable!
We just received one of the greatest compliments about our business/project management software – ever! “It’s almost as fun as a video game!” And really, why shouldn’t it be?
One of the things that I hear most often from the small architecture/engineering firms that I work with is that they need their project management system to be simple. They often call us because the systems they currently have in place are too complex or cumbersome and they just can’t get their employees to use the features available to them. Because we also know what features firms in this industry need, after all we were developed by an Electrical Engineer, we made sure to include a full set of functionality. Full featured functionality that is easy to use!
Do you want customer relationship management? How about proposal generation and tracking? Scheduling? Budgeting? Praesto AE has it all — but we keep it simple! You have the ability to track notes and task assignments; you have a proposal module to build your fees and track the job you are pursuing; and you have a clear picture of milestones on projects and a resource management module.
As a software company we focus on being great at one thing – we want our clients to increase productivity and profits. We purposely do not include our own accounting back-end but rather we integrate with QuickBooks. If you are not learning an entire new accounting system while you are learning a new project management system – it is deemed more user friendly! We enable you to run industry specific and project centric reports that are more informational than you get from QuickBooks alone but we also import your data out so there is no re-entering of data.
Our clients are often up and running within just a matter of weeks. And, yes, that includes getting invoices out the door. When your office manager or accounting personnel can produce efficiently and effectively they will find the fun in using the system. When Principals give feedback that they love the invoice and report formats – it makes it a joy to do your job. And for our very small clients where the Principal is running the system themselves, we make it fun and simple!
This past fall we surveyed our Praesto AE Business/Project Management System clients to find out what they love about the program and I want to share the results with you so can see what is important to these companies.
The respondents were from all flavors of architectural/engineering firms that range in size from the sole proprietorships to 40 employees – with the average size being about 10 people. We had a great response with a cross section of about 30% of our database participating.
When reading through the written responses to the question that was posed as “How has Praesto AE made a positive difference in your firm?” – I saw a common theme. With a program like Praesto in place these firms felt that they can now better understand their utilization and profitability. The key word that really hit me was “understand”, not only can they report on the project based figures but they can also understand them better because they know where the data is coming from and with full integration and a central repository for that information they know what they are looking at and they can trust it. One client said that they really feel like it has helped their small firm to progress because they know where they are on projects with regards to time, money and profitability.
The second response that I saw over and over again had to do with invoicing. Our clients told us that being able to invoicing more efficiently they can get paid faster. One person also pointed out that they get paid more quickly when they have an invoice that is clear and easy to read and provides appropriate backup that is integrated right from time slip entry. Wouldn’t you like your invoicing to be a “breeze”?
The last common theme had to do with our integration to QuickBooks. Because such a large percentage of small firms are already using this widely adopted accounting system they don’t want to replace it. They know the program, their CPA knows the program and they just want to add the front-end component for the business/project management that is so specific in this industry. To that end, I heard from many people that having the information pushed from Praesto into QuickBooks to save from doing duplicate entry and to ensure accuracy is one of the most loved pieces of the program.
We had a lot of other comments about our real-time data entry, being able to plan ahead with the budgeting/scheduling tools, being able to prepare accurate proposals and track those and much, much more but the one comment that really summed up what our clients are looking for and what they get out of Praesto was this: “We haven’t been using Praesto long but we immediately saw that our billing was out of line with our labor spent and we have been able to correct the situation already!”
I would love to hear from you if you can relate to our clients or if you have some of the issues mentioned above but haven’t yet found a resolve.
I’ve just returned from the PSMJ A/E/C Industry Summit – it was an education filled two days with sessions covering all aspects of business management in the industry. One of my favorite sessions was regarding measuring client satisfaction led by Mike Phillips, AIA, IIDA the President and Founder of Phillips Architecture and the Client Feedback Tool.
For the past 20 years I’ve been speaking (and preaching) about measuring metrics – it goes hand in hand with marketing and selling business management software. It is important for me to relay the message that AEC firms need to know their metrics if they are going to be wildly successful.
Mike fully agreed with measuring metrics but he put a different spin on it. He talked about measuring what really matters. Your client feedback. Why are you in business after all?
If you are aware of your client expectations and perceptions and realize that they will change then you can improve your value to your clients. The number one reason that you want to obtain client feedback is to make your client experience better but it can also help you to improve the way you run your overall business and can have a big impact on your staffing and employee relationships.
Think about it in terms of what is important to your employees – one of the number one reasons that a person leaves a firm is that they feel they are not recognized for their performance. If you are measuring their performance in terms of client satisfaction you will be able to provide them with the recognition they deserve and therefore can improve your retention. And, the feedback can help you identify future leaders as well.
Be sure to measure your helpfulness, your responsiveness, the quality, budget, schedule and accuracy of your project deliverables. Be sure to measure real-time at the project start and through each phase as well as at close out. Include your employees in the process of gathering the feedback — you might think that the hardest part of this is gaining your employee buy in but remember this quote from Mike: “Whatever is measured matters. Staff pays attention to what matters.” If you are using the information you collect then you will prove the value of the information and your team will want to participate.
While I still fully believe you need to measure the financial indicators in your business – I have also added a new talking point to my “war chest”, let’s all measure client feedback and improve the value we offer.
You can learn more at www.clientfeedbacktool.com and more about business/project management software for small firms at www.basebuilders.com.
When I ride my bike or I go for a long run I spend a lot of time thinking about Architects and Engineers. It’s a good time for me to think about the next blog, the next phone calls, the tradeshow coming up or the sale that I am trying to button up. There is a theme, it is all business related.
Of late, I have been thinking of all of the things I am thankful for in my life. Hearing the term “Thanksgiving” every day for a month, tends to lends itself to turning your thoughts to the subject.
In making my gratitude list, I thought of all things personal and professional and realized I am thankful for Architects and Engineers. I have a lot of professional reasons to thank Architects and Engineers, after all I’ve spent a 25 year career selling software solutions solely to this industry, so it is fair for me say that this industry is my bread and butter.
But as my feet were hitting the pavement on my run this particular day I realized I am also personally thankful for the men and women of this profession – the trail I run on, the neighborhoods I run through, the buildings I pass, the mountain roads I see in the distance…it all is possible because of a vision seen by Architects and Engineers and the teams that hire them.
The landscape of my day, and yours, wouldn’t be the same without this industry. I feel lucky to be able to provide these people and the firms they work at with project management tools to make their businesses run smoother.
On behalf of Base Builders LLC, I extend a heartfelt “Happy Thanksgiving” to our clients and to the entire Architecture and Engineering community.
I have a 25 year history in the A/E industry that started at a small software company in Fort Collins, Colorado. They shall remain nameless but we offered an accounting/project management system for small architectural/engineering firms. Over the course of the first 18 years of my career I got to know how these firms manage their businesses intimately. That firm was acquired by another company that mainly had a focus on the larger AE firms and my love for the small business had to take a back seat. My career took a different turn or two over the last year but recently landed me back with a firm that is similar to where I started and I love it!
Praesto AE was developed by an Engineer, for engineering firms (of course, working just as well for architects too!). The system is a unique product because it doesn’t try to also be an accounting system – the founder of our program recognized that most small firms would be using QuickBooks for accounting and it would work fine for the financial side but that these firms need the same time/billing and project management features that are afforded to larger firms with some of the “big” (and more expensive) packages that are out there. So, rather than replace an accounting package – we push your data over to QuickBooks for you.
A/E firm Principals have asked me many times about the size that a firm would need to be before they would move away from QuickBooks and look at some of these fully integrated packages. There are many parts to the answer:
- Do you employ an “accountant”? Is your firm large enough to have a full-time person doing your books? Or do you have a person that answers the phones, maybe does some marketing and does the books? Can you afford to pay more for what we might consider a full blown accountant vs. a bookkeeper?
- Do you want to easily be able to replace your front office staff if the need arises? It is generally easy and normally costs less to find someone that knows QuickBooks.
- Is your outside accounting firm willing to work with you if you are using a system they might not be familiar with?
- Consider what you don’t like about QuickBooks for your A/E firm. Generally the parts that don’t work so well for you have to do with the fact that you need the front end component to be project based. (The piece that Praesto AE covers for you.)
- What information do you need at your fingertips? If it is project information that you need daily then having a system like Praesto will give you what you need. Your bookkeeper can provide your financial reports for you as needed but I’ve had many Principals tell me that as long as they can see the over/unders on schedules and budgets that they can keep a pulse on the business on a daily basis.
- What is your comfort level with having your accounting system on the workstations of all employees that might only need time/expense entry? Granted you can block access with security settings…but all the same it’s about a comfort level.
So if you are a small A/E firm and you want the advantage of using QuickBooks, one of the most widely used accounting systems available, but you know that you need industry specific business/project management, take a look a www.basebuilders.com.
And, remember, we know (and love) small firms!
I’ve spent the last two days in Phoenix at the ACEC Annual Fall Convention. Not only is this an opportunity for us to exhibit and talk to engineering firms about Praesto (our project management system for small firms) but it’s also an opportunity for me to gather tidbits of information I can share with our network.
This morning I sat in on a roundtable where the topic of discussion was “What strategies could be employed to take your firm to the next level?” Below is my synopsis from the session. I was with a group of 12 Principals from firms that ranged in size from 10 to 500 and covered the board as far as MEP, Civil, Structural, etc.
- Keep up on technology. Building Information Modeling and Revit were the most talked about topics in this regard.
- Grow from a single office to multiple locations. Go where the money is. Grow organically rather than looking at an M&A situation.
- Diversify your markets. The most success is seen when you have one Principal or Project Manager in charge of each silo. (This might also lead to opening another office…again, go where the money is.)
- Structure your organization so that you can go after projects as the Prime not just a Sub. Build the relationships you want to have with the Architects you work with.
- Develop new leaders. Build talent. Foster an environment that is focused on recruiting good people and retaining them. Everyone is hiring from the same pool and recruiting good engineers to tough right now so be creative. Provide professional development and build the people you want.
When we reconvened to the larger group our spokesman said he would summarize it as “you have to kiss a lot of frogs”. The firms that held on for the past five years basically did whatever it took to survive. They looked at maps, they looked at markets, they kissed a lot of frogs and found the prince.