Paperless office: myth or reality?
We’ve all seen the ads of a carefree independent agent sitting on a beach somewhere – laptop perched upon bare legs soaking up the sun, sipping a cool beverage, on the cell phone with a client booking their World Cruise group.
While that all sounds wonderful in theory, sometimes the reality can be a tad more problematic. What happens when the agent realizes that they don’t quite have all the tools or information necessary, like client credit card or passport numbers, to complete the booking process? Or the client is returning your call and wants to talk to you about the trip details you quoted the week before while you were still in the office. Or they’d like to see a brochure – but you won’t be back for a week. And don’t get me started on how frustrating it can be to deal with the excruciatingly slow Internet connection aboard a cruise ship when you’re trying to access crucial information.
These were all things I struggled with as I began to navigate between having a home office and being on the go. I am cautious by nature and didn’t want my entire business to live on an easily stolen or damaged laptop. So I had a robust desktop built as my main computer and bought a smaller laptop for portability. This presented a quandary – how to make sure I had completely up to date information when I met remotely with a client or traveled with my laptop? Over several years I have tried many things and now I have settled on a process that I have found really works for me. This helps me not only be totally mobile, but also I can pride myself on running a “paperless”, more environmentally friendly office.
The first thing everyone will try to beat into your head is to use a good customer relationship management, or CRM program such as ClientBase, ClientEase or CruisePak. They each have their pros and cons – some require an investment of time to learn and some are only accessible via the internet – but I am here to tell you they are well worth the small expense and effort. Find which one works for you and use it religiously to record your client information and interactions. When you are working on three honeymoons simultaneously, it’s helpful to remember which couple wants to go to DisneyWorld, which one to Hawaii and which one to Bora Bora. Having that information organized, detailed and at your fingertips increases your credibility with the client ten fold. Make sure you back-up often – weekly or even daily if you are busy.
Print to PDF
One of my personal idiosyncrasies is that I like to print copies of everything I am working on for a client so I can compare everything concretely side by side. Unfortunately, I quickly found myself drowning in a sea of paper and misspent ink that I then sheepishly loaded into the recycling bin when I was done. So my favorite component in my personal arsenal has become Adobe Acrobat Pro. With this program I now “print” everything as a PDF file – and in fact Acrobat is set as the default printer on both my desktop and my laptop so that everything is saved electronically—actually printing on paper now requires an additional step. I can add electronic sticky notes to the PDF document recording pricing details, promo effective dates and other notations so that I can compare and track changes as the transaction progresses. Additionally, I also have created several forms using Acrobat Pro, which are fillable by computer. I can email a form to the client who can then fill it out using the computer and email it or fax it back. This has cut down on the lovely job of deciphering their handwriting considerably.
Electronic Filing Cabinet
By far, the central core of my paperless office is my electronic “filing cabinet” and it is much more efficient than the 5 drawer lateral file taking up space in my very small home office. I have main folders in my “My Documents” folder designated as Clients, Cruise Lines, Tour Ops, Resorts and Destinations, among others.
Client Folders – I have a folder for every client and within it is a Quote folder – where I can save all the working documents, itineraries and web links to my heart’s content; an Email Archive folder for all emails either to or from them; and their Booked Trips folder by name with confirmations, invoice copies, insurance documentation and various other backup records. This is also where I store their client booking information form that they filled out and passport copies if available – just in case for whatever reason I can’t access my CRM program. Admittedly I am a little OCD by nature and keep backups of everything, but better safe than sorry is my motto and it has more than once saved my sanity!
Supplier Folders – Having copies of a supplier’s full brochure is useful and I have many that I have either downloaded or scanned and turned into PDFs. Thankfully more and more suppliers are catching onto the benefit of this – and my office and storage area thank them as they are not overflowing with printed brochures destined for the recycling bin. To organize the information, I begin with a main category folder – ie Cruise – which then contains subfolders for each individual cruise line. Within the various cruise line folders I have sub-folders containing the individual ship deck plans, cabin configuration illustrations, group policies, etc. Basically I have created a self sufficient database containing all the information I might need about any ship or cruise line. The real benefit of this system is that it allows me to provide instant gratification to my clients. Trying to decide between two ships with similar itineraries? In a heartbeat I can email the itinerary breakdown, prices, deck plans and cabin layouts for the two ships to them to compare. Even better, I kept the client all to myself and did not send them to a supplier site where I might lose them!
Staying in Sync
Once you have your system down, you need to keep your desktop and the laptop “in sync” without constantly jumping through hoops. This was by far the biggest struggle of all. In order to have the most up to date information, I needed to remember to do the required backup and restore before heading out to see a client. And then the opposite back up and restore when I returned.
But that hassle was recently mitigated. Windows Live Sync has been re-launched and is a free service that works with both Windows and Firefox that allows you to keep both your desktop and laptop totally in sync in real time as long as both machines are on and connected to the Internet. Quite simply, you designate folders on your desktop computer which you want to sync up with your folders on your laptop and when you make a change to one, it is transmitted automatically to the other. The program also allows the synchronizing of your favorites or bookmarks from Internet Explorer, so I always have my most up to date bookmarks wherever I am. You can only choose 20 main folders to sync though – so put some thought into your folder organization and do some maintenance before you set this up.
All this being said, I would love to report that I have successfully banished my steno pad and those Post Its from my office; but they are in fact a hard habit to break. All it takes though is finding when you are on the road that a critical piece of information that you need is taped to your monitor back on your desk, to vow to make big changes to the way you do things. So how do you get started? Just do it. Make a commitment and take it one step at a time. I will give you all six months and then we can meet on that beautiful stretch of beach – each with a cell phone in one hand and a frothy beverage in the other and we will plan wonderful trips for all of our clients. I’m buying!
Barbara Oliver CTA, MCC is the owner of All Together Now Travel based in Valencia, CA and specializes in Family and Family Reunion/Group Travel. Our tag line “A Journey Shared…is a Memory Forever” voices our commitment to strengthen family relationships, one adventure at a time. She can be reached at (661)255-9656 or email@example.com