Much has been made these days of going paperless. As technology evolves, businesses are trying to find ways to reduce the clutter and costs associated with putting everything on paper, not to mention the environmental implications of continued paper use.
As IT consultants, we should be at the forefront of this movement. But how many of us have implemented such a system in our own business?
This is something I’ve tried to do myself. I’ve talked about how I use Freshbooks and Square to try to keep my invoicing all electronic. I also scan all my paper receipts and invoices so I can throw the paper in the recycling bin and save on clutter.
However I recently met a computer business owner who has taken the paperless office to the extreme!
Enter Jesse Powers, who, as of a few weeks ago, finished making his computer business, NightKingdoms, ENTIRELY paperless. He personally programmed a system that allows him to track repairs, accept drop-offs and mail ins, and get customer’s signatures….all electronically. When I heard this I was excited to talk to him about his system to see how it works. What I found was that the lack of paper was a by-product of a need to create a system that made managing customers and tracking repairs easier. And I think that’s something we are all looking for in our own businesses.
Here’s my interview with Jesse:
First of all, the name of your business, NightKingdoms, is very interesting. What’s the story there?
The name, NightKingdoms came from something I saw as a teenager reading things in German online. I was originally born in Germany to American parents (army brat) and lost the language quickly when I came to the States because no one at home spoke it anymore. I truly — to this day — don’t remember what I was looking for or what I was reading but it mentioned “vormund” (meaning guardian), “nacht” (meaning night) and “reiche” (meaning kingdoms).
I had to look up the words “vormund” and “reiche” because I didn’t know what they meant. I wasn’t too interested in “vorumund” but I thought it was pretty interesting when the last two words were used together which came out as nachtreiche, or “night kingdoms.” Started using it after trying to come up with a name for my first web design projects.
Give us a brief overview of your business, how long have you been running it, what sort of services do you provide, etc.?
My business offers a wide variety of services. At the start it was first used on my web design projects and pretty soon I was designing those web sites for money. That’s when the name NightKingdoms was first used which was November 1998 on a tiny little business I made a web site for then. Since then I added skills as I grew into them and added them to the business’ portfolio as well. First was online programming in Perl, followed by some computer programming, then back to online programming again when I started working in PHP.
Because I’ve done a lot of web design and online programming I have done several projects while doing computer repair as the main focus. Today my business does residential and business computer repair by on-site, drop-off, pick-up, remotely, and over the phone. We also now offer managed services plans (both residential and business as well), online backups, web design, web hosting servers, training, computer forensics consulting, custom Android and HTML mobile apps, and — of course — custom programming for online applications.
What was the first part of your business that you made paperless? Why did you start with this?
Technically-speaking the first thing that I made paperless was my client records. I started out with creating a Word file that made up my work order form. I didn’t have any way of actually saving the client information so I just left it on the physical forms themselves. I quickly realized that this wasn’t going to work out so well. When my clients started coming back weeks or months (even years) later, I barely remember what I did, where they lived, what their names or phone numbers were at all. I was searching through work orders like a madman trying to find their information. I ran into the same problem with keeping records of the payments coming in, what was deposited, what checks cleared, etc.
When I created my first system I wanted to make sure that I could search these records. Searching meant a database and I had never built one like this before. At the time there was nothing, not even close to what I needed, so I built it myself.
Later you started using a tablet to capture customer signatures for onsite work, can you walk us through how you transitioned from using paper forms?
I purchased the tablet in May 2012. Up until that point I had custom 2-part forms that were printed on the front and back. White copy was mine, yellow copy was separated and given directly to the client. Clients don’t like paperwork either so they usually tossed it. I, however, was running a business and needed it. I also wanted to make sure I didn’t lose them. After consulting with my lawyer I concluded that a PDF copy was good enough so I went back and scanned each and ever work order I ever did. From that point forward they were always scanned into a PDF after a job.
Naturally, this is backwards. I still don’t think a form needs to be used that I don’t think can be completely replaced with some kind of web interface so I stuck with the PDF files. When I purchased the tablet I needed to make sure it did two things: 1) had full headset capability for Square and 2) was able to capture signatures. The tablet I ended up getting was a Toshiba Thrive 10-inch Android tablet. It came with an app called SignNow which is actually available online and for iPhones and Androids alike.
My PDF work order has a blank copy on my DropBox. I open the PDF file from DropBox into SignNow. Before I go to the clients’ location I pre-fill the information I need on there like date/time, client information, ticket numbers, etc. Once on the site, my client signs the space provided before I work on any equipment. At the end of the job I fill in the line items for the charges and total it up, client signs it, and we charge their card or process a check right then and there using the tablet. The signed PDF gets saved on a backup USB drive and uploaded to the clients’ account where both they and I can view (but only I can delete). That’s it.
Over the last few months I’ve spent numerous hours with custom programming for several areas of my business including custom payment gateways for my clients to pay their invoices online in real time as well as an automated Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system using Twilio for my main business numbers.
I’m most impressed with your mail-in and drop-off process. It’s very well automated. Can you walk us through the process that a customer will experience when using this system?
This is something entirely new for my business. (Literally, just finished it in the last week or so.) Altogether it is a five step process as far as the client sees. When the client first clicks on the drop-off link, they get an introduction page that gives a brief synopsis of what they will do and get a Start button.
Step 1 - The client gets a standard “about you” page asking for their name, company, email, phone number, address, etc. as well as whether they will be dropping off their equipment at our drop-off location or mailing the equipment into us.
Step 2 - They choose the equipment they will be providing us. These are denoted by several check marks for different standard equipment like desktop systems, laptop systems, power cords, monitors, CDs/DVDs, etc. The client also has the option of providing serial numbers for any important equipment. Several checks are done after the page is submitted including requiring anything normally worth over $200 to have a serial number entered in.
Step 3 – Asks them what exactly they’re giving their equipment to us in the first place. It also asks what troubleshooting steps they’ve already taken such as restarting their computer or reseating any cables. On the right-hand side of that page it provides our policy regarding account passwords that are needed to get into the system and provides a space for clients to enter their account passwords. (If clients don’t provide us with their passwords, our policy is to remove them so that we can gain access to a system.) It finally asks for any special instructions the client wants us to know about.
Step 4 – This is for our client to accept our terms of service. The terms are written to allow electronic signatures and that writing their full, legal name constitutes acceptance of those terms. They simply enter their full, legal name to proceed.
Step 5 - This is our deposit page. The client enters their billing name and billing address which is pre-populated using the information from Step 1 to cut down time. The client enters-in their credit card information and are given notice that proceeding will charge their credit card for the deposit amount. The page does several rudimentary checks to ensure correct data is entered before submitting the form. Once it is submitted it does several more checks through the payment gateway and displays errors if there are any.
The very last page is the page they need to print and include with their equipment. The page will automatically bring up the print dialog for the client to print immediately. On the page — in a non-printable format — are any instructions the client may need. The printable page changes its instructions depending on their choice of drop-off or mail-in from Step 1.
The magic is what happens in the background. As soon as they hit the submit button on Step 5, several things happen in the background. First, the client’s credit is charged for the full deposit amount live. If that doesn’t go through, it re-displays the payment form with the proper error message. The system then makes a remote connection to my business system and adds them as a client in the system. It then adds their deposit amount as a credit balance on their new account. After that it creates an entry in my online repair tracker system so they can check their repair status online, by phone or text message. Finally it adds the entirety of the information as a support ticket in my business system, notifies me by email and sends a confirmation to the client. Everything happens upon hitting the submit button on the deposit page in just a few seconds.
It seems like a lot of work to set up a system like this, what made you decide to take on this task?
A lot of the backend was simply passing entered data from one form to the next form. The majority of the hard part was actually making the remote calls to my business system, payment gateway and repair status tracker and making it seamless and entirely in the backend.
The entire reason for doing it in the first place was because I recently revamped a couple of my payment gateway systems for my online business management system. That system has an Application Programmer Interface (API) which allows me to control various aspects of the system programmatically. After delving into the API further, I realized that I could actually bridge the gap between the various systems and tie them into a single mini-system to automate the process entirely.
Are you using an off the shelf product for your paperless system or is it completely custom developed?
The majority of my business is managed with a system called WHMCS which is developed and geared entirely for managing a web hosting business. It is a very, very well done system. The problem is that it is seriously geared for web hosting and not much else. I adapted it for my needs and adapted my processes for the other services I offered to it, kind of in a give and take situation.
Many of my business processes including client management, invoicing, estimates, payments, etc. are all handled in this management system. All my work orders are done using the PDF form which is just uploaded to that management system. My system for handling my remote support sessions ties into this system the same way but way less involved. My IVR ties into the announcements API of the system and for taking check and credit card payments for invoices over the phone. This new drop-off/mail-in system is the most-integrated process I’ve made to date that ties into that management system and it does it very well. With the exception of the actual management system, all portions and the gateways are custom programmed.
All of the coding is done by me. Depending on my workload, availability and coffee (lol) — as well as the complexity of the system — it has taken a few days to a few weeks for me to make the various systems. All systems are done in PHP with MySQL databases. Custom AES encryption functions are used to transfer data back and forth across an SSL connection as well.
What advice would you like to offer other current or prospective computer business owners?
Listen to your clients and speak with them… Like a person. The #1 issue you will face is not getting paid, how much you should charge or even taxes. The primary issue you will face is not communicating with your clients responsibly. Yes, you are a vast knowledgebase of information when it comes to your computer. When you speak with a client that has no knowledge of computers, their eyes are going to glaze over and they’ll tune out. Worse yet, they could be entirely involved in wanting to know more and you’re throwing things that are way over their head. You are the computer expert, they’re not, so speak with them like a human.
I’m am told that I am one of the most patient and knowledgeable people my clients know. I have clients that are web designers, programmers, network and system engineers. Why do they say that? I speak English. I may speak Geek, but I’m bilingual. RAM sticks are not random access memory that is addressable programmatically, they’re sticky notes. They’re something to jot down quickly, refer back to when needed (or to remind) and tossed out when they’ve done their job. Hard drive are not circular platters that electromagnetically store data as binary objects, they’re spiral notebooks so that it can put information down for a longer period than sticky notes. Another explanation is short term vs. long term memory but, alas, people like it when I say sticky notes so I usually go with that.
You’re not dumbing it down, so don’t be condescending or sarcastic when someone doesn’t get it. You took a lot of trial and error to get where you are. If I started explaining about how there’s pseudo stratified columnar epithelium in your pharynx or that the infraspinatus fascia is used to rotate and stabilize your shoulder your eyes would glaze over and brain turn into Jello, too. You’re comparing apples to oranges and until you get another bag of oranges you’re not going to get much of anywhere. I guarantee you that if you can master the communication part of the job, you will do very well.
Author’s Note: I was in such awe over Jesse’s system that I asked him if he had thought about developing it for other computer consultants to use. He said yes! The project is called Terminal 12 and it’s in the works as we speak! I’ll be sure to update you all when it comes out, or you can keep tabs on it yourself by visiting the Terminal 12 website.
Have you taken any steps to make your own process more automated? Please share in the comments!