Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Why. Now there’s a thing to ask. I often can’t ask enough questions. If I didn’t ask questions, projects simply wouldn’t get off the ground.

OK, first of all, sorry about the long absence; I’ve been very, very busy over the last several months. Right now, I’m working on several large projects (more about those some other time, perhaps) that are soaking up a good measure of my time. However, I was aware of the time between now and the last article, so here I am, with some thoughts of mine from the front line.

A question of taking the lead

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working on a lead that came through the Octane website from a freight company in London. They want a system to manage consignments and customer payments that their staff can use both here and abroad, where their customers’ consignments are being shipped to. After having sent something like 25 emails to them, we were finally edging closer to something resembling what they wanted, as a brief, and here’s what they had to say:

“Thanks for your input. Really appreciated. I must say you are the second person that we would consider if we do go ahead with the system development. I really like the way you broken down things and you are also detailed and have so many question which I think is the only way to understand what we really want. Others have come up with estimates without asking a fraction of the questions which you have asked.”

You see, I can’t do my job properly (or perhaps at all) if I don’t know enough about the things I’m working on. Also, there are times when what the client thinks they want isn’t really what they need, or more importantly, what their customers need. And then there’s the unintentional omissions, the lack of technical clout on their part, the legal implications, and finally, the gotchas.

Being like Colombo

Not everyone appreciates the endless barrage of questions. I suppose some people find being asked questions like some kind of pestering, or that you’re questioning their abilities in some way, as if they haven’t or can’t articulate their needs properly.

Let’s face it, who doesn’t think Lieutenant Colombo a laughable irritation with his trademark “Err, excuse me, sir. Just one last question…” he asks, head bowed, with an upturned hand to his head, waving his cigar aloft as he scratches a furrow in his brow with a stubby thumb. But you know what? Colombo always figured things out in the end.

He would often ask obvious questions. Now, they are the most irritating questions, but sometimes, you need to make absolutely sure you understand things, or woe betide the fool who goes to work on X when the project required Y.

One lead in particular kept insisting that what she wanted was simple because she’d seen a friend doing the same thing, whatever that meant. Once I’d managed to disentangle what she needed from what she thought she wanted, the whole complexion of the project changed dramatically. Rather than something simple, what was asking for would have been a £3,000-5,000 project, while not earth shattering, is still much more than she’d anticipated. I replied with an email containing a huge list of questions I’d managed to lift from difference sources, to save time, and I never heard from her again!

Fire away!

I freely admit that I’m not the diplomat I imagine myself to be, and so a machine gun style assault of questions might not have been the best tactic, in that one instance.

The problem for yourself is knowing how far to go, and how much effort to pour into that earliest of phases, when they could just take your questions, your initial thoughts and vanish into the night. I’m in a similar position, whereby the aforementioned lead could easily take the draft brief and schedule for the web application project I’ve supplied them with a move onto someone else.

I’m able to mitigate against some of these problems by giving them only the most superficial explanation of what I have in, leaving out key details which would allow them to take my ideas make them happen. So for them to get at my ideas, they need me to follow them through. However, if you’re just selling red, green and blue widgets, you have to find other ways of keeping that lead warm.

So, what am I asking you to do? Why ask questions, of course! Honestly, don’t be afraid to look silly asking those obvious questions, because that one moment of silliness might look like a good deal more appealing than seeing a project stall or even fail, all for the want of being obvious.

Is it possible to run a paperless business?

Ten years ago, going paperless would have been desirable but almost impossible. Now, the idea of running a paperless office is just about doable. I should know, I’ve been trying for long enough. Here’s my experiences and some handy tips to help you make your business paperless, too.

I hate filling out forms. I may have an allergy to paperwork. So much so, I often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paperwork myself.

I rarely work hard. I work smart instead. You may find me toiling over something for a while, only to discover that over time, I’ve made a saving in some way. So I’m always on the look-out for novel ways of doing boring things faster and more efficiently. Going paperless falls slap bang into this area, but it’s not been easy.

Why go paperless?

But that’s not the only reason I wish to go paperless; email is much quicker and simpler alternative to sending a letter. And then there’s the green argument, which is entirely justified, too. Even though I’ve been working towards going paperless for years, the reality is much different to the imagined.

While I very rarely send a letter to anyone these days, I still get lots of written correspondence, especially from government agencies, like Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, as well as Customs & Excise. Then there’s the junk mail, which is annoying to say the least.

3 reasons to go paperless in the office

To a greater and lesser extent, I have to make concessions, sacrifices and some extra effort to keep the paperwork to a minimum. And here’s three reasons why you should try running a paperless office:

  1. In your own small way, you’ll be helping the environment. So if you’re a big company and you manage to make the transition to electronic communications and document management, you’ll be making an even greater impact.
  2. Save valuable storage space. I have clients who dedicate entire rooms to filing cabinets and storage boxes. Imagine being able to recover all that space and use it for something more worthwhile.
  3. Going paperless also means going electronic, which means things should be much easier to store and find. I emphasize the word “should” because unless you have a good idea of how you want to store your company data, you’re just as likely to lose a file on your computer as you are a letter on your desk! So unless you have the right processes in place, you won’t feel the full force of the savings a paperless office can offer.

What kind of things can you do electronically?

There’s no point going paperless if you’re not aware of the very things where going paperless will have the greatest impact on your business. So here’s a few places where going electronic will pay dividends over time.

So here’s some ideas, with suggestions for alternative ways of doing things, depending on what the idea is and what it involves.

Internet banking

My internet banking offers a wealth of options for managing my business finances. I can view my account, see next day payments, settle invoices, transfer money between my various accounts, as well as view all of my previous bank statements and much more besides.

I’m in the process of adding my accountants to my internet banking account so they can handle all of my finances, keeping my involvement to a minimum. There are also other savings to be had here, such as less time spent traveling to and from their offices, as well is the calls between the two of us as we try to track down that one lost bank statement.

Submitting your VAT and filing your company accounts

You can now file your VAT on-line. I’ve now authorized my accountants so now I don’t even have to sign anything. And once they get access to my internet banking, I doubt I’ll have any involvement at all.

It’s been possible to file company accounts to Companies House for some years. Slowly but surely, the various government agencies are getting their act together and moving onto the internet.

Manage your projects and time sheets

I wrote my own software some time ago to help me manage my projects and to keep track of my work time. But in the end, I ran out of time to add the kind of features that I needed. In the end, it was cheaper to buy a 3rd party application than spend my time updating my own.

So I bought Daylite and Billings. I’m a Mac, not a PC. So unless you own a Mac, Daylite and Billings are no good for you. However, there are tons of alternatives out there.

Daylite is CRM (Customer Relationship Management) package with some solid project management tools thrown in. I use Daylite to manage all of my client projects, emails and events, and more. Billings in a time tracking and invoicing tool.

They’re both from the same company, which means they work quite closely together, so I can shunt tasks or entire projects into Billings from Daylite.

Here are alternatives to Daylite and Billings for PCs, and here’s some earlier thoughts of mine on project management.

Make notes of meetings and telephone conversations

When I make calls, I often make notes of what was discussed, especially if it’s a lengthy call to (or from) a client. Daylite is great here because it has a calendar built right in. So all I do is double-click on the approximate time in the day cell of the calendar and up pops an event window. All I need to do is add in what was said, by whom, when and for how long for. I bypass paper all together.

Send and receive emails with PDFs, not letters or faxes

So once I’ve completed a project and the client is happy, I send an email containing a copy of the invoice as a PDF file. Billings gives me the option to print the invoice, or save it as a PDF. As a backup, I save all of the PDFs to a special folder, so I have copies available.

This is applicable to anything, really. If you use a Mac, you can “print” any document as a PDF from the print window, which is a huge bonus. Again, make sure you have a good storage policy in place so you know precisely where your documents are.

You can even send and receive electronic faxes. I’ve been using You’re Always Connected for years. You get a number to use for either voicemail or faxes. Now, all of my faxes come through as emails with the fax attached as a PDF. So if the fax is from a client, I just move it to the client folder in my mail client. Simple.

Buy ebooks rather than a printed books

Thinking of buying a book to learn something new? Many publishers are now offering electronic alternatives which you can buy on-line and download right there. In many cases, not only are they cheaper, they often include bonus tools and other extras. If you really, really must, you can make a hard copy — and if you really, really, really must print a copy:

  1. make the type size as small as possible, without it being unreadable;
  2. make the margins as wide as possible, without loosing anything;
  3. if your printer supports it, do a duplex and print both sides, and if not, do it by hand.

Use your iPhone as an ad hoc route planner / alternative to maps

Going to a meeting for the first time? Planning on using Google Maps to plot your route and then print it out? If you have an iPhone, use the Maps app’ and then use it just like a GPS for your car.

You get all of the benefits of Google Maps, such as a turn-by-turn route planning, and it even shows you when you’re in motion, moving along the road.

A better workflow

Sadly, there isn’t one application that will scoop everything up and make all of your paperwork suddenly vanish. You need to commit to a slightly different way of doing things. I’m not going to fool you into thinking this is simple because it isn’t. You need to sit down and workout your workflow and make it more efficient. If you have a team, then it’s a team effort.

As an example, I wrote a web application for a client, which took their system of pen, paper and Excel and transformed it into an app’ called To Book which automates and manages almost all of the hotel room booking process, from initial request to confirmation of reservation. Here’s some ideas for making your company workflow paperless:

  • There’s no getting away from the fact that at some point, you’ll still be using paper. So when you do (be it a print out, or a doodle), use the clean side for making quick notes, and then when you’re done, recycle it.
  • Having the right software is paramount, especially when it comes to notation. You need to be able to launch that app’ fast and make notes quickly, especially when someone calls you on the phone. So make shortcuts to those applications and ensure you can export your notes into something else, like your CRM software.
  • When it comes to software designed to deal with customer data, for example, try to standardize across the business, so everyone is using the same tools for things like notation, calendars, office productivity etc. This way, it’s much easier to synchronize and share your data.

Here’s an article of mine (as a PDF, funnily enough) discussing ways of making your workflow more efficient.

Use web-based office productivity software

Here I’m thinking of Google Docs, but now Microsoft are getting in on the act with Microsoft Docs. You can create and share spreadsheets, presentations and text documents with clients and colleagues wherever and whenever. Also, you can sort and store your documents in colour-coded, named folders, which will help make managing you digital assets that bit easier.

And then there’s Google Wave, too. Wave is a word processor with some added smarts. Several people can type into the same document at the same time, which has some truly amazing side benefits, especially for brainstorming. Also, there’s a visual revision history tool, so you can skip backwards and forwards through the different changes that everyone has made, should you (or anyone else) make a mistake or wish to go off in a different direction.

Here’s some ideas of mine on how to make the most of Google Wave.

Use document management software

Chances are, you’ve got thousands of documents that you can’t just send of to be recycled. Besides, you may still need them. So what do you do? You need a document management system. Essentially, a document management system contains the scanned versions of all your printed materials.

This does depend on the kind of document management software you’d be using, but the process typically involves some kind of OCR, which stands for Optical Character Recognition. Which means? Once scanned, you can search your documents as if they were word processed files. In fact, that’s exactly what they become.

So that room filled with shoulder-high filing cabinets can be squeezed into a modestly sized external hard drive, with room left to spare.

Thoughts from the community

Fujitsu Scansnap scanner, industrial shredder, eFax, Instapaper on iPhone. Paperless office sorted.” — Sally Church of Icarus Consultants.

“I find using Evernote removes the hassle of paper notes. Plus, it also allows you to keep notes sync’d across devices.” — Simon Barker, owner of Zath, the tech & games blog.

“A good place to start going paperless is invoicing — much easier and cheaper to produce and send out PDFs instead of printed forms.” — Brian Heys, freelance software tester.

“Scan your signature, paste it into your documents and email back contracts. Sign up for electronic billing wherever possible. Tick the ‘don’t pass on my details to third parties’ box at all times. Always choose email / text / phone as preferred contact method and not postal mail. Sign up for something like EchoSign so that you can get e-signatures. think before you print, usually you just don’t need to. Cancel newspaper subscriptions, and read news on-line, or get a subscription to Factiva / Lexis Nexis for comprehensive electronic access to the news.” — Emily Cagle, communications consultant.

“Forget business cards connect using LinkedIn (simply typing in a public URL).” — Joe Edwards, designer and marketer for Hurricane Marketing.

“Make a list of all the crap publications you get and wipe them out [unsubscribe], all of them!” — Jon-Marc Creaney, architect and designer.


Hopefully, we’ve managed to fill your head with no end of new ideas. But if you’re already running a paperless office, we want to hear your ideas!

Making the most of Google Wave

Google Wave is a new web-based collaborative application that allows groups of people to work on the same document, known as “waves”. It’s free, it’s simple to use and can really open up your business communications in ways you hadn’t imagined.

Google Wave, the collaborative, web-enabled word processor

Back in November last year, I wrote an article for Marketing Donut about Google Wave, outlining various ways to improve business communication:

“We’ve all played email tennis, either with friends, family or business colleagues. That’s fine, if you have the time. If you’re working on a proposal document and you’re using Word, you can bounce revisions around forever and a day. That’s also fine, if you’ve got the time. Problem is, time is a premium asset these days and if you want to get the most out of your time, you need to save as much of it as possible. And what time you do use, you do so as efficiently as possible — that’s where Google’s new collaborative communication tool comes in.”

But I thought I’d offer another perspective; outlining how I Octane uses Google Wave to collaborate with Emily Cagle, my communications partner.

I saw the potential in Wave very early on and could see that it would be ideal for Emily (who handles my PR) and myself to use, and here’s how we use it:

  1. I write articles for my blog as well as business publications; I “ping” Emily when I’m into the first draft stage;
  2. then she goes through the wave and makes sure the theme and style are aligned with the house style of the publication in question;
  3. I revise, if required (expanding upon / trimming etc);
  4. finally, she checks for typos, grammar etc, sends the article to the publication and then we go live.

3 example scenarios for using Google Wave

In addition to using Wave for writing articles, you could use it use it for:

  • team brainstorming sessions, sharing visuals, photos etc;
  • project management, where you could conference call via Skype and divvy up task to team members;
  • internal communications, for listing key client / customers telephone numbers, email addresses etc, that everyone can update.

There are some things we’d like to see in Wave (such as more list type options, better undo support, for example), but we’re getting a lot of milage out of it already. So any new features would most likely just make things even better for us.

Google Wave is invite-only, and I have several to give away. If you’d like an invite, please leave a comment below, using your preferred email address (added into the email field, which only I will see) and I’ll send you an invite!