There's got to be a more efficient system than what I have...

Discussion in 'IT & Internet' started by K0608, Aug 11, 2020.

  1. K0608

    K0608 UKBF Regular Free Member

    159 6
    Hi, I'm currently sitting here, scratching my head as to how I can improve the whole efficiency and effectiveness of running my mountain guiding business, which currently seems messy, clunky and quite time-consuming. It all feels quite manual and there must be systems and apps that could both speed things up and ensure fewer things are missed. I can't be the only one to come up against these issues.

    If I list out the process and some of the potential flaws, that might hopefully give you an idea of where I'm at.

    There are two of us that deal with the admin (and do most of the guiding).
    We use Office 365 Business to store files, calendar and emails (I personally use Thunderbird with an Exchange plug-in, as I find it quicker than using the desktop version of Outlook).
    Our website is built using Wordpress and we use Gravity Forms.
    We use Quickbooks for invoices.
    Most of our clients pay by BACS (to a Barclays business account, which doesn't give instant notifications when we are paid).
    We also take the odd card payment via Stripe and recommend that international clients pay by Transferwise.

    1) Clients get in touch either via contact forms on the website or via direct email.
    I use colour tags within Thunderbird to donate the status of each email, e.g. ORANGE for awaiting reply from the client, RED for I need to do something with the email, GREEN for invoice sent and awaiting payment, however, these colours don't show on my colleague's email client. He has a series of folders that he moves emails into, depending on the stage.

    2) We reply to enquiries, which tend to turn into short dialogues, to pin down dates and to discuss exact requirements. We offer a mix of fixed-date courses (which in theory, people can just book straight on to, these could be 'buy-now' items) and private guiding on dates to suit the client, which generally requires a bit more to-ing and fro-ing to establish what the client wants.

    At this stage, it's quite tricky to keep tabs on where in the sales funnel clients are at. Some need a gentle nudge to get them back on board, others will have enquired elsewhere and we may not hear from them again. There's nothing automated in place to chase up leads.

    3) Once dates have been established, I email our guides (I send an email putting the guides addresses, taken out of the address book, as BCC and put our email address in the TO field). The guides are split up into broad categories, depending on skillset.

    4) Guides reply with their availability.
    We can get quite a few replies from guides, which can clog up the inbox. I try to keep those emails until the client has booked, just so I can easily see which guides are available up until the point of booking. I’ve recently just thrown all availability emails into a separate folder so that my own inbox is just for client emails. As the guides work on a freelance basis, they’ll be entitled to take work from elsewhere as well, and if a client leaves it a while, this can mean that some guides are no longer available at the time of booking.

    5) Once I know we have a guide available, I’ll let the client know, and send them a link to their Quickbooks invoice, asking them to pay 50% deposit unless it’s less than 6 weeks prior to the start date, in which case, they need to pay the full amount. I also ask them to complete an on-line booking form, which when submitted, sends the info to me as an email. This gets saved to a One Drive folder. The folder is specific to each booking and the link for which will be sent to guides nearer the course date.

    Payments will appear on the bank feed within Quickbooks, which I need to manually update. Otherwise, unless the client tells me that they’ve paid, or I manually check the bank account, a payment can go unnoticed for a couple of days.

    6) Once the client has paid (either a deposit or full amount), by either card payment or BACS, I confirm date/work with guide and enter the booking onto the Office 365 Calendar.

    7) With about a week to go, so long as I remember, I send client details (as a One Drive Folder link) to the guide and ask them to get in touch with the client. At the same time, I send the client contact details for their guide.

    8) Guide and clients go out in the mountains

    9) Afterwards, I then email the client, asking for feedback. If excellent, which it almost always is, I then send another email asking them to post reviews on Trip Advisor, Google My Business and Facebook. I may also send a link to a Google Photos Album, which contains photos taken.

    So that’s it in a nutshell. There’s very little integration of the above processes, it’s largely all my doing, but also, I’m out guiding in the hills as much as possible, as that’s when I really earn money, rather than when I’m paying freelance staff to do it.

    I have a box on the booking form to ask whether clients want to sign up to the newsletter, but in reality, I’ve not had the time to do anything with those email address, such as enter them into our Mail Chimp account, never mind actually publish any newsletters.

    Any recommendations would be hugely appreciated, as things stand, the admin isn't exactly a barrel of laughs. From a financial perspective, hiring another pair of hands isn't really an option.
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2020
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: K0608 Member since: May 22, 2017
  2. Wayne Smyth

    Wayne Smyth UKBF Contributor Free Member

    38 16

    Yours is typical of a lot of businesses once they get to a certain complexity or size. Your processes and technology choices are getting in the way and creating stress, bottlenecks and inefficiencies.

    A lot of what you describe can be completely automated, and many of your manual processes can be removed entirely using some bespoke software.

    You may be able to find something off the shelf to do what you're after, but I suspect not since every businesses needs tend to differ.

    You could have a single integrated system which interacts with the 3 main participants in your business:

    * Customers
    * Guides
    * Admins

    An admin would enter guide details into the system once, including their skillset. Each guide would have an availability calendar which could contain known bookings and they could enter other periods of unavailability they know about by logging in.

    Customer details would find their way into the system, either directly with a booking request, or via one of the admins.

    Once a date and a service is agreed, you'd set some type of status on the job which would flag it automatically to your guides who would be registered on the system. This could be via email or sms.

    Only appropriate guides(filtered on skillset and availability) would get a notification of the new job and have an option to accept it electronically.

    Once the job is accepted by a guide, an email automatically goes to the customer confirming the booking and requesting payment. The guide would have that date marked as provisionally booked so they don't get future notifications for jobs on the same day.

    Once the customer pays, an admin updates the status of the job and the guide would automatically receive an email confirming the booking. Your O365 calendar could be updated at this point if you still needed to use it.

    With a week to go, the guide would receive an automatic notification with client details - which they could also access from the website at any time if they log in - and the client would recieve the guide details automatically too.

    etc. etc.

    My gut feeling is that you could start out with a limited back office system rather than try to automate everything. Law of diminishing returns etc

    I'd recommend that client details would get into the system via admins only, not via direct registration since that interaction discussing requirements potentially sounds messy. I'd also keep payments separate for now and just make a record on the back office system of what has been paid and what is due. You could have a dashboard indicating late payments etc.

    Kind Regards,

    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 11, 2020
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: Wayne Smyth Member since: Nov 11, 2019
  3. Chris Ashdown

    Chris Ashdown UKBF Legend Free Member

    11,861 2,465
    Not sure if over the top, but would a project software package be of use to you, I used to use Microsoft Project and found it quite simple to use though it was a early edition. its easy to plan things like this allocate where people are and keep a track of costs, you can do as much or little as you need but one page display gan give you a lot of information on current projects and future all combined along with personal

    More than likely some far simpler software these days at far less cost. you just look at each holiday as a project
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: Chris Ashdown Member since: Dec 7, 2003
  4. Darren_Ssc

    Darren_Ssc UKBF Ace Free Member

    1,242 382
    This is going to be your problem, either use a mix of free and cheap solutions or create your own system that is going to be expensive and may not prove to be any better than what you have already.
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: Darren_Ssc Member since: Mar 1, 2019
  5. TopSpek

    TopSpek UKBF Regular Free Member

    175 13
    I don't know whether there is a set of apps which will increase the efficiency of your system, but it does sound very much like your best option would be a bespoke system. A bespoke system would remove a huge percentage of your current administration workload.

    I'm not allowed to self-promote here, but I can send you a private message if you're interested.

    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: TopSpek Member since: Jul 15, 2019
  6. Wayne Smyth

    Wayne Smyth UKBF Contributor Free Member

    38 16
    I think the idea that a bespoke system is more 'expensive' is not always the case...because it depends how much you value your time.

    This was why I suggested it as a back office system so that their existing customer website, client discussion process, payments and were all handled as they are now, for maximum flexibility and zero cost.

    What you're left up with is a back office system which different types of people can register and login to, which has the concept of different user roles. Can store guide skillsets and a calendar, customer details and their 'booking', some notes for payments etc, and can automatically send out emails and sms's based on users requirements. None of that is difficult or need be costly.

    If we assume that system can save you an average of one hour a day by automating many of the processes around the booking process, then that's 365 hours saved per year. So the last question is what is an hour of your time worth?

    When you work out the value of your time, all those free/cheap solutions - which is what the business currently uses - don't seem so free or cheap after all.

    For sure, if you can run your business with free/cheap software, then there is zero need to look at something bespoke. But, for a lot of businesses, they do quickly outgrow off-the-shelf software.
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2020
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: Wayne Smyth Member since: Nov 11, 2019
  7. TopSpek

    TopSpek UKBF Regular Free Member

    175 13
    And furthermore, bespoke software is not as 'bespoke' as you might think, because a good bespoke software development house will already have much of the required functionality in their archives. :)

    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: TopSpek Member since: Jul 15, 2019
  8. gpietersz

    gpietersz UKBF Ace Full Member

    1,409 333
    I agree with @Wayne Smyth , but it really depends on exactly what you want to do.

    If there is something free off the shelf why develop your own?

    There is a huge difference between free and cheap. Free usually means open source, which means you are not at the mercy of a single supplier - even if the developer goes bust or decides to discontinue the product someone else will pick it up. It can also be extended or tailored, which is a lot cheaper than starting from scratch.

    On the other hand, yes, quite often its better to have something that does exactly what you want. For example, I wrote my own timer web app for tracking billable time. Its simple, even crude (especially visually!) compared to existing apps, but because it does exactly what I want it works better for me.
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: gpietersz Member since: Sep 10, 2019
  9. K0608

    K0608 UKBF Regular Free Member

    159 6
    Hi, thanks for the reply. What open source systems might help us out?
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: K0608 Member since: May 22, 2017
  10. K0608

    K0608 UKBF Regular Free Member

    159 6
    Thanks Wayne. To be honest, the guides side of it is quite straight forward, well it would be great if client details could be automatically be sent to the guide a few days before the trip, but with regards to assigning guides to do the work, it takes very little effort.

    What do you mean by a back office system?
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: K0608 Member since: May 22, 2017
  11. Wayne Smyth

    Wayne Smyth UKBF Contributor Free Member

    38 16
    No problem. My suggestions were based on the obvious easy wins I thought you could achieve by automating some of the processes that you mentioned, to give you an idea of what could be accomplished fairly cheaply. It could well be - as you suggest - that there are other areas which need to be tackled which are causing you more pain.

    I didn't, for instance, mention anything about the "sales funnel" issue, but it is entirely possible to have a screen on your system where you can view potential sales which have gone cold, and manually or automatically trigger some sort of standard email to poke the client, or at least highlight that you need to give them a call.

    If you wanted to work with someone to actually build you such a system, you would definitely need to spend some time with them first so they can understand your business process more fully and you can help them understand exactly which bits you think need to be automated. There are countless possibilities, it all comes down to automating the bits which prove most useful for your particular situation.

    When I referred to a back office system, I meant a system which your customers don't necessarily interact with directly. A backoffice system would be used directly by you or your admin staff, or perhaps the guides. So it wouldn't replace your existing wordpress website, but could work alongside it, and perhaps integrate with it. Again this may not be what you want, but it is one option.
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: Wayne Smyth Member since: Nov 11, 2019
  12. TopSpek

    TopSpek UKBF Regular Free Member

    175 13
    I am also curious.
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: TopSpek Member since: Jul 15, 2019
  13. TopSpek

    TopSpek UKBF Regular Free Member

    175 13
    K0608. Very rough ballpark figure for a basic but extensible and robust bespoke system, which you would be able to hand over to any qualified software developer without any problems because your system would include a design document, would be somewhere between:

    £5,000 and £15,000

    Can't be more accurate than this without further details.

    The only other option I can see if you don't have this kind of budget, is to see someone who might be able to improve the system you're currently using. Try ffox - a member here on UKBF. He glues together systems which are similar to the one you are currently using. He might be able to see a way to make your system slightly more efficient. But if you want to make significant efficiency gains, then you really do need a bespoke system.

    And as Wayne has pointed out, you would certainly save money into the future, but you and your developer would need to estimate how long it would take for the system to pay for itself.

    Last edited: Aug 11, 2020
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: TopSpek Member since: Jul 15, 2019
  14. gpietersz

    gpietersz UKBF Ace Full Member

    1,409 333
    Not sure. I was suggesting that you might be able to find something - i.e. its worth trying.

    A CRM might do a lot of what you want. So might "groupware". There are quite a lot of options.
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: gpietersz Member since: Sep 10, 2019
  15. TopSpek

    TopSpek UKBF Regular Free Member

    175 13
    gpietersz: "There is a solution."

    K0608: "Great! What is it?"

    gpietersz: "What? You mean you can't see it?"

    LOL! Who needs competitors with consultants like that?! :D
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2020
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: TopSpek Member since: Jul 15, 2019
  16. ffox

    ffox UKBF Regular Free Member

    1,354 253

    You already use an Office 365 business plan. Why not enhance that? There are 1001 functions in O365 that aren't immediately obvious and one that springs immediately to mind on reading your post is MS Teams.

    This is included in all O365 business plans and can be used to bring the elements of your business together. Your guides can become team members if they have am O365 licence in their own right, or if they have a free MS account (, etc). They can then view the teams calendar(s), you can have many, and make entries of their own. Documents and tasks can also be made available too them,

    Hard to say without looking into your systems, but I would say that your use of colour coding in Thunderbird is probably causing issues. Both of the business principles need to use that same system, and preferably the same data. If you can get your guides accessing the same bookings calendar and tasks lists even better.

    Moving email into calendar and then into tasks is not hard and you can schedule auto prompts on elapsed time so you forget, or overlook, nothing.

    If you want to fully automate you can, but you may need to add a Power Automate Plan to your Office 365

    Come back on here if you want more detail
    Posted: Aug 11, 2020 By: ffox Member since: Mar 11, 2004
  17. mattk

    mattk UKBF Newcomer Free Member

    2,297 844
    I'm going to upset the apple cart here and say you should be extremely caution of people touting bespoke solutions. If the largest companies in the world can use off the shelf software from the likes of Oracle, SAP, Workday and Safesforce with simply configuration changes to meet their business processes, then so can you.

    For example, at a high level, taking customer emails/queries, recording customer data and turning it into a workflow is standard fare for most CRM solutions. That would solve a large chunk of your current manual and pretty painful process of trying to manage your sales funnel via colour-coded emails!

    You have described many steps which touch different parts of the overall process - if I were advising you, I would ask which ones are a priority for you to streamline? From there, you need to delve a bit deeper into the different scenarios and outcomes. That will then allow you to come up with a detailed list of requirements in order to choose a suitable off the shelf solution which meet your needs.
    Posted: Aug 12, 2020 By: mattk Member since: Dec 5, 2005
  18. Financial-Modeller

    Financial-Modeller UKBF Enthusiast Full Member

    782 272
    Another option to consider, @K0608 is:

    They seem to offer a suite of tools that you can select on a PAYG basis for a few pounds per month each.

    edited to add the link to the CRM page. Several options available from free to GBP36pcm
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2020
    Posted: Aug 12, 2020 By: Financial-Modeller Member since: Jul 3, 2012
  19. Wayne Smyth

    Wayne Smyth UKBF Contributor Free Member

    38 16
    Matt, I'm not sure that is a fair assessment on a number of levels.

    Firstly, any software you can't configure yourself as a normal user/business owner is to all intents, bespoke software. Whether you have to pay the 'crm guy' or the 'wordpress guy' or the guy who built you something with a different architecture, you still have to pay someone to configure/develop something to do what you want.

    Secondly, the idea that these big companies run their businesses mostly on these large CRM's or systems is bonkers. They might use these systems. These systems might form a backbone of how they carry out their operations, but you can bet they pay an absolute fortune for customisations or other custom integrations to do things that can't be done as standard or for which the CRMs don't do a good job.

    Ultimately a CRM is just another tool in the box that can be used to solve business problems. In the end it comes down to a few things:

    1) How much will the solution cost to create and also to run.
    2) How well does it fit my business
    3) How flexible/costly is it to change

    A CRM could be the answer, or it may be overkill, expensive or a poor fit. It's certainly not a silver bullet.

    As TopSpek alluded to earlier, a "bespoke" solution isn't necessarily written from scratch. Much of the code that typically goes into it is simply pre-written well-tested opensource components which are glued together in a custom fashion/architecture.

    You are correct about one thing there though, until the full requirements are understood, you can't be certain what the best solutions are.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2020
    Posted: Aug 12, 2020 By: Wayne Smyth Member since: Nov 11, 2019
  20. Chris Ashdown

    Chris Ashdown UKBF Legend Free Member

    11,861 2,465
    As expected many developers offering expensive solutions to a two man small business trawling for business. Maybe more honest to offer a available solution that could be adapted to fit at little cost

    Whilst i suggested one item there must be plenty of other software around that takes in booking and staff allocation etc after all hotels, camp sites, holiday lets and many other industries must use something already available and the OP does not seem to need a complex system
    Posted: Aug 12, 2020 By: Chris Ashdown Member since: Dec 7, 2003