by Rakesh Sharma
Published on 28 March 2012
Online applications that manage projects, clients or tasks are a dime a dozen.
What's more, their feature sets are almost identical across the board. Besides unimaginative developers, the roots of this problem lie in the assumption that all business sectors are identical. They are not.
Another problem is that developers focus on what suits them, not what a business needs to run successfully.
Thus, even after purchase, most such solutions require extensive customization or integration to suit your small business, and juggling multiple tools for projects, support, timesheets, CRM and billing sometimes creates more work than it saves.
This week, we will take a look at a customized solution for a specific sector, which manages a business, not just a project. We will review AffinityLive - a SaaS application specially designed for the professional services sector. We will look at its features, interface and see how it can be of use to you.
AffinityLive founder Geoff McQueen makes the case for his solution with numbers. According to him, the more than 17 million Americans employed with small businesses are stuck managing their work and businesses with outdated 90s technology, most commonly spreadsheets.
The end result is that their productivity gets affected. McQueen says AffinityLive was designed to solve a problem that "really, really, really" caused pain to small businesses - helping you manage the work in front of you, and get paid for the work you're already doing, easily and without fuss.
Having worked for 10 years in the professional services sector. McQueen should know a thing or two about the subject. "All of us (McQueen and his co-founders) decided that there had to be a better way to manage our clients, our work, and deadlines," he says.
So, they designed and developed an affordable solution that provides end-to-end solutions for the professional services sector, including resource management and invoicing solutions.
McQueen says that AffinityLive distinguishes itself from a glut of CRM and project management solutions in the market by focusing on the business problem of running lots of projects and support activities for lots of clients with lots of staff, and making it much easier to manage building in business processes to improve quality, consistency and profitability.
He says this differs from other, similar solutions in the market that assume isolation in project execution in their design model. "Very rarely do successful businesses start a project in isolation; they are often repeating a project delivery framework, using the same stuff and becoming successful by doing things for different clients on the same sort of basis," he says. Thus, AffinityLive works the way businesses work with many parallel projects and shared resources and uncertain real world timelines.
In the process, McQueen says he has liberated many small businesses from the tyranny of cumbersome spreadsheets or trying to coordinate multiple, disparate systems. "Where have you been all my life? That's the kind of feedback AffinityLive gets from our users," he says.
Developing An Affinity for AffinityLive
To understand AffinityLive, it is important to understand that it provides end-to-end services by breaking down functionalities into repeatable processes in purpose built modules.
Each module enables you to perform specific tasks related to your business - such as sales, projects, issues for support and retainers for ongoing service delivery. All modules work in concert with each other to establish and manage data work flows in the solution.
For example, the client and contact list module enables you to search for clients and view interactions in a single, consolidated format that resembles a Facebook feed. The sales and marketing module enables you to capture key information through the sales process and generate comprehensive reports. The Jobs & Projects module helps you manage client jobs and projects using preconfigured templates and established workflows. Similarly, the issues module makes it easy to provide billable client service, and the invoices and payments module ties it all together and enables you to easily invoice clients using the time logged across projects and issues.
McQueen identifies three features that set AffinityLive apart from other solutions in the market.
The first one is automatic email capture that captures all email correspondence with clients in a feed format, without the need for plugins, special email addresses or messing with subjects. All emails, whether they're sent from Gmail, Outlook or the iPhone are captured automatically against the client, sale, project or issue they relate to.
AffinityLive's second distinguishing feature is dynamic scheduling, which enables businesses to adjust schedules and track resource utilization forecasts for the entire team and business in real-time as work and deadlines change.
The third (and, in my opinion, the most important utility) of the business lies in providing businesses with the functionality to manage their own work flows and business processes. "This is the first time that professional businesses have been given the tools to grow and develop scalable businesses," says McQueen. Using the solution, you can define paths for each business process and activity with relevant status progressions and prompts for information and files. The good part is that you can do all of this with a point-and-click interface. The first benefit to this approach is that it reduces the learning curve for managers. The second benefit is that it makes business process configuration easy and scalable, enabling you to define new processes to scale with your business - customization without coding.
The Basics: What Does It Look Like?
AffinityLive used to be a very ugly kid. At least, that's what McQueen says. "No one is going to tell you that your kid is ugly," he says. "Unless it is really ugly. And our kid was really ugly." McQueen's moment of truth arrived when he heard Jack Dorsey talk about the importance of design at a conference. "I knew he was speaking about our Achilles heel," he says. "We knew we needed to do better - so we bit the bullet, stopped our other work, and focused on shipping a brand new version, based on a new design, as our #1, #2 and #3 priorities."
Their efforts to do better have transformed the ugly kid into a beautiful one. Each page consists of a global navigation panel and module-specific navigation. You can navigate across multiple modules using a global navigation panel quickly and easily. Similarly, you can also customize your home screen by selecting appropriate choices from drop down lists. The color schema is excellent. In addition, the system scores great on the usability front. You do not need more than two clicks to perform each task on the screen.
Support Systems for Professional Services
AffinityLive's support branches out into community forums, YouTube tutorials, and extensive help website and agent support. I especially liked the YouTube tutorials because they combine a business case for the feature along with a brief demo.
Is It For You?
The solution combines an excellent feature set with ease of use. Despite the fact that it covers multiple modules, AffinityLive is not complicated or difficult to learn or navigate through. Instead, it has an easy-to-use interface and interdependent modules that make it easy to manage your business. This one's a winner all the way.