More firms use time-management software to calculate bills

As agencies increasingly begin to bill by the hour, more are utilizing systems that keep track of productivity. But with all the software on the market, it can be difficult to pick the right one.

As agencies increasingly begin to bill by the hour, more are utilizing systems that keep track of productivity. But with all the software on the market, it can be difficult to pick the right one.

It seems the days are disappearing when PR agencies whip up a bill "for services rendered," with just a total amount due, and mail it to clients. Increasingly, agencies are billing by the hour. That means they're using time-management software. Even with retainer arrangements, agencies are tracking hours to figure out profitability and productivity. In other words, they use time-management software to run a tighter ship. But such systems raise many issues - and frustrations. There are literally dozens and dozens of packages out there, all with different features. Getting objective information on them isn't easy. A common way to view the industry for time-management software is by size of the customer agencies. Different packages are geared toward different sizes - small, medium, and large. Consultants StevensGouldPartners polled CEOs and CFOs at 50 small and midsize PR firms, and found the most popular system used was Timeslips, made by Best Software. Twenty-eight percent of the total used that program, as did a third of the 29 agencies with under $3 million in billings. The two next most-popular were custom systems made with the help of consultants (18% of the total) and QuickBooks Pro (6%). Of the 50 firms, 14% said they had no time-management software and billed on a retainer basis only. Other programs mentioned include Clients & Profits and Big Time by Edison's Attic. According to StevensGould, "in just about every case" the queried firm said it would switch to a different program if it found better software that could be easily expanded for additional needs. "Everybody is still seeking the perfect software to use for time management," says Rick Gould, managing partner of StevensGouldPartners. "There really is no perfect software yet." Time-management software for mega-agencies, such as PeopleSoft's Time and Labor, Carpe Diem Electronic Time Sheet by Best Software, and OpenAir, are obviously the most complicated, often requiring an IT person on staff to oversee them. Edelman uses PeopleSoft in its US offices. It switched to that about four years ago from Best's TimeSheet Professional, which "didn't have the same flexibility," especially in hooking up with the billing system, says Edelman CFO Meredith Mendes. Waggener Edstrom uses ESM, a system from Paradigm Technologies. Kathy Schaider, VP of business services at the PR agency, said a couple of years ago it looked at other systems but decided to stick with ESM. Schaider says the system is more flexible than others the agency looked at, for example, in changing hours already entered. Brian Saunders, founder and CEO of Edison's Attic, says he sees more midsize PR agencies turning to time-management software. "We've seen a huge jump in the last 12 months." Big Time is targeted toward midsize firms, especially those with about 50 to 60 timekeepers, though it can range from five up to 70. Packages for small agencies include Timeslips, BQE Software's BillQuick, and Microsoft's Solomon. Mike Savory, senior product manager at Best Software, says the average Timeslips customer has six computers and about eight timekeepers, but other clients have dozens of networked computers. Airfoil, a 4-year-old, 21-professional tech PR agency in Detroit, started out using Peachtree Software but about two years ago switched to Wind2 Financial Management System. Jeremy Krol, VP of finance and administration at Airfoil, says the agency spent a lot of time looking at packages. Krol lauds Wind2's flexibility, reporting features, and speed. While there is a web-based version of Wind2, Airfoil doesn't use it. Instead, the firm allows employees to access it remotely through a virtual private network. Krol also noted that Wind2 has spell check, which, he says, many of the other systems he looked at don't have. That's useful because the firm sends out billing-documentation reports that come right from the time-management software. "When we pull our weekly report, we do work in progress by employee and client, and we do a summary report, as well," Krol says. "I can go in at any point in any day and can say, 'We seem to be short on our hours.' We can do that very easily. It better prepares management to make decisions." This is especially important, Krol says, because Airfoil has several clients that are on yearly retainers, but the monthly budget varies.
  • This is the first of a three-part series. Next week: issues and trends in time-management software. ----- Time-management survey StevensGouldPartners polled 50 firms to learn which time-management software they used. (Numbers reflect how many firms of the 50 used that specific software): Timeslips: 14 Custom-made: 9 None (retainer billing only): 7 QuickBooks Pro: 3 Clients & Profits: 2 Big Time: 2 TrakTime: 2 Wind 2: 1 Great Plains: 1 Data Maddix: 1 Elite: 1 Excel: 1 Silent Partner: 1 Advantage: 1 Tabs: 1 Solomon: 1 Journyx: 1 ESM: 1

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