The Agency Business What to look for when buying a time-management system

As PR firms seek out time-management software that best matches their needs, they should focus on finding systems that allow for tracking profitability, nonclient time, and productivity.

As PR firms seek out time-management software that best matches their needs, they should focus on finding systems that allow for tracking profitability, nonclient time, and productivity.

What should you focus on when shopping for time-management software?

Brian Saunders, founder and CEO of Edison's Attic, which makes BigTime for the midsize-agency market, advises not to be distracted by fancy bells and whistles. Focus on your needs. "Don't apologize for the fact that you don't know software," he says. "Say what your business needs are."

For example, Jeremy Krol, VP of finance and administration at Airfoil, a small PR firm in Detroit, says that when it was looking for a new program a few years ago, "the things we were concerned with were ease of entering time for our staff, how all the modules tied together for financial-reporting purposes, and how easy it was for the accounting staff to go in and pull reports."

Another common mistake, Saunders says, is to buy a system built for engineering and IT services, rather than professional services. "They deal a lot more with tasks, projects, and to-do lists. They have definite start and end dates. An engineer wants to know you were working on [for example] subtask 1.1.2. PR wants to know you were working with media or a bylined article."

Saunders says still another mistake is buying more or less than you need. "We have clients that bought a software package like OpenAir and found out for a 20-person firm, they would have to have a full-time IT person to service it."

The refrain heard from most professionals when speaking of time-management software is the need to track profitability and similar measures in more ways. According to the Council of PR Firms, 63% of members track client profitability. Advanced agencies track profitability by client, project, and staff - on an ongoing basis.

"Figuring out the P&L at the end of the month is fine when margins are fat" as in the late 1990s, says Saunders, "but not when they're thin. You want to figure out whether each of the accounts you're servicing is contributing to the bottom line or detracting."

As several experts note, even if you can't do much at first about low profitability on an account, at least when it comes time to renew, you have knowledge about what the real cost is to you.

Krol says the system Airfoil uses, Wind2 Financial Management System, allows for breaking down profit by account and subaccount, "which was complex before." He also said the ability to link budgets to actual spend is easier than with some other systems.

Rick Gould, managing partner of PR firm consultants StevensGouldPartners, says a time-management package should allow for tracking three areas: productivity, profitability, and nonclient time. "The key thing most software programs don't do is profitability analysis," he says. "You should be able to do that by client, project, and staff. You should be able to push a couple of buttons and get how productive each staff member is. It should give the total accountability for everybody's time and each client, and not many do that. What most firms do is take their information and go further in Excel to get to the extra level."

Some systems also track nonbillable time so firms know how much time employees spend on staff meetings and the like. "If 85% of someone's time is spent on clients, what about the other 15%?" asks Gould. "It could be training, vacation, illness. Analyzing nonclient time is critical in any system. It uncovers a lot about your company and people. I get involved in studies of statistics that these systems offer, and it really paints a picture of your people and clients."

And that's just the kind of picture time-management software is supposed to give an agency.

  • Final of a three-part series.

    Time-management software: some packages and prices

  • Carpe Diem Electronic Time Sheet (Best Software) http://www.best-software.com/Products/CarpeDiem/index.asp; Starts at $250 per timekeeper

  • Timeslips (Best Software) http://www.timeslips.com; Standard edition, $399; multi-user up to five licenses, $699.99; multi-user up to 10 licenses, $1,299.99

  • BillQuick (BQE Software) http://www.bqe.com; BillQuick Basic 2004: two-user license, $395; three to five is another $100 per license; six to 25 is another $55 per license; more than 25 is $45 each. BillQuick Pro 2004: five-user license, $695

  • Clients & Profits (Clients & Profits) http://www.clientsandprofits.com; Clients & Profits Classic: $3,500; additional users, $350 each (maximum 15 users). Clients & Profits SQL (client/server version of Clients & Profits Pro): $29,999; additional users, $695 each

  • Millennium Practice (Commercial Logic) http://www.cli-usa.com; $295 one-time setup fee, plus $10 or less per month per active timekeeper. Minimum license three timekeepers

  • TrakTime (Commercial Logic) http://www.cli-usa.com; $100 per timekeeper

  • BigTime (Edison's Attic) http://www.edisonsattic.com; BigTime Basic: $895; BigTime for SQL Server: $1,340; Big Time Server Pack (for more than 50 employees): $4,635

  • QuickBooks (Intuit) http://quickbooks.intuit.com; Pro 2004 for Windows (full version CD-ROM): one user, $299.95; five users, $749.95

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