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I work for a small (3 person) consulting/Investment Banking group. For the last 2 years I've been looking for some kind of software to help us manage our "projects" but our projects look nothing like the kind of projects that PM software is typically designed to help with.

An example of a typical project for us is one where we're helping a client sell one of their subsidiaries, a project that we've been working on for about 18 months, during which time we've communicated with 50+ companies (and usually multiple people within the company).

At any point in time I need to get an overview of what the status/last communication is with each of those 50 companies, and then, ideally, click on the company name and get a chronological listing of all the communication we've had with them related to this project.

When I'm on a call with a client it is expected that I should be able to answer within a few seconds a question like "Last year we had active discussions with company X on both projects Y and Z, what was the last communication and why did discussions break off?" I should also be able to send a client a report with this summary level information for all the 50 companies, or alternatively, a report that details all of our communications with one of these companies over the course of the project

I've looked extensively at cloud based CRM providers (we currently use Zoho), but the focus of CRM is almost always around the sales process and getting new clients. I've looked less carefully at PM software, but everything I've seen has been around managing a product where you actually produce something, and any communication management tools are focused on managing an internal team, or maybe communications with the client, but certainly not designed to organize communications with dozens of different organizations. I've also looked at software that is supposed to combine CRM and PM into one product (Solve360), but it still is the traditional CRM for the sales cycle, and PM for delivering some kind of product. I haven't found anything that is designed, or seems like it can be customized, to fit our needs.

The current process, as much as there is one, involves searching through email archives and CRM records, and sporadically trying to summarize in Excel when we need to provide a report for a client. The result is messy, time consuming, and means important information is often overlooked on review. Perhaps most importantly, it can not scale as the organization tries to take on more projects.

I realize this is a forum mostly for and populated by software developers, and the types of projects we work on are fairly different from those. But I haven't found any other place on the web that seems to have as thorough and well thought out answers as there are here, so I'm hoping I might get lucky and someone has some ideas.

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Hi Dylan, actually, it's mostly PM's here; although many are software PM's. However, we do have PM's from other industries on this site as well. One suggestion, I highlighted the problem you're facing in bold font so it stands out a bit more. –  jmort253 Nov 13 '12 at 5:56
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Thanks Jmort253. Good to know that people from other industries frequent this site as well. I'm new to stackexchange, but my browsing has found a lot of useful information on a variety of topics. Appreciate you highlighting the specific problem, as I agree it makes it easier to get straight to the objective. –  Dylan Nov 13 '12 at 13:43
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4 Answers 4

Define Your Process, THEN Automate It

One of the (open) secrets of managing any process is that if you can't do it manually, then you can't automate it. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, solve your problem with whatever process works, and then automate that process to whatever extent is practical.

Getting Down to Specifics

In your case, you say:

At any point in time I need to get an overview of what the status/last communication is with each of those 50 companies, and then, ideally, click on the company name and get a chronological listing of all the communication we've had with them related to this project.

One assumes you communicate routinely with these 50 companies. Further, one assumes that you have some process currently in place for tracking this communication, however manual it may be. You may be using:

  • Index cards.
  • Emails.
  • Faxes filed in folders.
  • An old-fashioned Rolodex.
  • Sticky notes.
  • Jotting things on the back of napkins.
  • All of the above, any combination of the above, or something completely different.

It actually doesn't matter what you're doing. The point is that if you had no process at all, you'd already be out of business. So, you clearly have a process---the first step is just to document it!

Once you've documented your current process, you can re-engineer it or automate it if you really need to do so. If you decide to automate it, your freshly-minted process documentation will give you clear guidance on the feature set you need so you can comparison-shop.

How to Pick a Tool

It's always important to pick a tool that maps to your current or desired work-flow, rather than building a process around any specific tool. The best way to fail at automation of any kind is to automate something you aren't really doing on a routine basis.

For example, if no one is currently making notes after each client contact, it doesn't matter if your tool is a shared spreadsheet on Google Drive or the "Magical Happy-Time Customer Tracker" someone will gladly license to you for a mere $3 billion per seat. You have to address that process gap before you automate.

There are also times when there just aren't any off-the-shelf tools that fit a given work-flow. If that's the case, your choices are to stick with a manual process, customize an existing tool, or build your own. The smart money is on the first option, but the others can also be reasonable choices if you're honest about the cost/benefit analysis or have the in-house skills to support a custom solution.

Examining your processes is always valuable. Automation may or may not be. Your mileage will definitely vary.

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The system before I joined seemed to rely mostly on memory and email filing. I have a pretty poor memory and there is a very high volume of email, so I knew going in that this system wouldn't really work well for me. When I'm on a call with a client it is expected that I should be able to answer within a few seconds a question like "Last year we had active discussions with company X on both projects Y and Z, what was the last communication and why did discussions break off?" Currently I have to search email archives and/or CRM which takes too long. I've tried Excel, and it gets unwieldly. –  Dylan Nov 13 '12 at 14:11
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Really interesting question - I'd recommend moving the use case from your comment on @CodeGnome's post up into the question, because that really helps me to understand it.

I don't know of any software that is designed for this purpose. You may wish to look at xobni and some of its competitors in the customer relationship management suite, but I think you've already done that, and I think that they're not ideally suited to your needs.

If I were in your shoes, I'd build on what @CodeGnome has suggested - build a process that supports your needs and then automate based on cost benefit analysis.

If you were just looking for "What is the status of our discussions with company X?" and "When did we last communicate on X about Y?" then you could probably use a google search appliance. (heck, I could write those queries as pre-formatted gmail queries relatively quickly).

The other approach I might consider is to build an email alias for each project and for each company, and BCC the project and company email address on all official correspondence. Then I'd add to my stakeholder management/communications management procedures a monthly summary of where are on each project. Starting that up might involve some cumbersome errors, but I suspect that over time you would construct a valuable source of business intelligence. (in fact, I suspect that you probably already have an analogous process, I just don't have the right terms to describe or reference it). You'd be better able to value the subsidiaries for sale, identify the key metrics that each company is using to select and prioritize their acquisitions. Better valuation would lead to more precise presentation to the potential customer and that leads to both parties being more satisfied.

Let us know what you find out.

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Thank you. I've moved the use case into the question per your suggestion. I do use Xobni, and it is a wonderful tool, but as you suggest, not ideally suited to this particular problem. I like your suggestion for an email alias for each project, I currently do something similar with Outlook categories/tags, so I'll have to think to see if an alias would improve upon that process (or maybe expanding the use of categories instead) –  Dylan Nov 13 '12 at 16:45
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It would require a certain level of technical skill but how about integrating MS Outlook and Access? There's little in terms of information that you cannot pull out and organise in Access using queries and it's quite possible you already have these tools and someone who knows how to use Access.

Or alternatively, you could integrate Alfresco (which has a free "community edition") with your e-mail service. Check out this video for some ideas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gETmGAwytNQ

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I was unaware that you could integrate Outlook and Access. Unfortunately no one in our organization has those skills, as we are a fairly non-technical group, but I will investigate further and if this looks like a good option we might be able to contract for development. I had not heard of Alfresco, but I'm looking into it. –  Dylan Nov 13 '12 at 16:59
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]project-open[ is an open-source project portfolio management system that includes a package for email integration plus a full-text search engine. This way you can associate emails with users and projects and later search either via user name, company name or keywords in the emails. ]po[ also includes time sheet management and general PM features. These might also be interesting in a company

Affiliation note: I might be biased, I'm part of the ]po[ team.

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