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So, you’ve got the newest client database software available. Now what? Regardless of whether your firm is upgrading an off-the-shelf software system or making a large investment for the first time in a firmwide product, the hard part is just beginning. Fully leveraging the nifty features of your state-of-the-art database involves a few more steps beyond purchasing. Management has to provide ongoing internal communications support to the departments overseeing the database. The database has to be used by everyone in the firm. And the comprehensive databases require comprehensive training. These three components play a critical role in maintaining a finely tuned database, regardless of whether your system is a simple contact management program, like Microsoft Outlook, or a complex customer relationship management tool, like InterAction. Remember when firms were switching from WordPerfect to Word? Implementing a full-featured database is just as revolutionary. In most cases, everyone is asked to scrap his or her own methods of contact management in favor of an unproven behemoth. It’s hoped that the Rolodex files and unorganized stacks of business cards will give way without too much hesitation to powerful software operations. A sea change of this magnitude requires strong management support, particularly for those who installed the program and who will oversee related training. Supporting the overall integration effort, though, can be as simple as executing a communications plan timed to run in conjunction with installation, use and training phases. The plan should include e-mails sent from the managing partner to all employees that convey key points about the system, the rationale for change, why client information should be shared throughout the firm and how the new system makes tasks easier. One effective means of demonstrating the value of the system and sharing information is to mention actual situations in which the database has already played a role in developing new business. This assumes that the firm can identify one or more occasions when the database was used successfully, for example, in coordinated cross-selling efforts. Internal messaging should be crisp and written in non-technical terms that address all user skill levels. It should also answer the “what’s in it for me?” question. For attorneys, the new database means spending less time building ad hoc mailing lists for the purpose of sending out invitations and newsletters. For secretaries, it means less time lost doing redundant data entry, including the usual work needed for mailings. For administrators, it means less time lost addressing the problems that arise in the absence of a centralized database. Communications support from management helps build a strong foundation and helps generate the internal buzz needed to get nonbelievers to use the database and attend training, making integration of the new database more of an evolutionary than a revolutionary undertaking. After installation, many firms make the mistake of assigning the database’s ongoing maintenance to a handful of personnel. This approach may work for a small, single-office practice, but it will likely fail in a large, multi-branch firm. The database is everyone’s tool, so everyone should maintain it. Each attorney should be encouraged to download relevant details of his or her business-development efforts, including information gleaned during conversations with clients or prospects at functions or events. Attorneys are also in a position to learn of significant developments within a client company. As such, they should capture news in the system so that everyone is informed of key changes. Legal secretaries and paralegals also learn critical information that should be added to the database. Even updating titles or providing missing e-mail addresses can facilitate newsletter distributions or help the firm avoid embarrassment. Clients pay dearly for legal services, so they expect their service providers to know them well. Fortunately, many databases have advanced features, like relational links and special notes fields, which help users track the smallest details about clients. Databases are like children in that they need to be constantly monitored and fed information to fully mature. This analogy may seem somewhat crude but databases are only as good as the information they contain. When a single, centralized database is powered by all of its users, it yields impressive results. Firms should not tolerate renegade databases. This commonly occurs when a practice group decides to develop its own mailing list and creates it in a database that is not tied to the main database. Firm management should make every effort to coax the group into using the main database. Initially, those involved in a firm’s marketing and information systems can team up to tell the group’s leaders how the existing system can be used to perform the tasks needed. They should also convey the advantages of using the main system, which, depending on the program’s features, might include the ability to record activities so that the group can track projects and results. If a show-and-tell demonstration fails to impress the group, a note from the managing partner explaining the firm’s financial commitment to the system might be in order. Clearly, the database must be easily accessible. The information systems department should create a seamless environment within the firm’s existing structure. One solution is to create a desktop icon that launches the application. Another tactic is to create a link to the database through the firm’s intranet. People are more likely to adopt a new system if they have a strong feel for how it works and its capabilities. When the program is installed, everyone should learn how to search, edit and use the data. This is an ideal time to explain the “garbage in, garbage out” concept and why it is important to input information consistently. Some firms have style guides to help users determine how to enter information. Eventually, intermediate and advanced training workshops should be offered. If trainers are having difficulty getting everyone to attend training sessions, management should step in and communicate its support for the effort. Trainers could also offer incentives to attract attendance, such as giveaways (T-shirts or gift certificates). Others have offered software only to those who complete training and some have held drawings for major prizes, including airplane tickets or valuable merchandise. Costs associated with incentives may seem unnecessary but they will pale in comparison to the dollars lost if the new system is not used because employees are not trained. An effective training tactic is to use live data during demonstrations, especially if training is done during small sessions geared toward specific practice groups. Customizing classes for each practice area helps localize the information and gives teams tangible incentives to fully develop their piece of the database puzzle. One-on-one training, preferably at the user’s own computer station, is helpful. This is particularly important during the rollout stages when users may be ambivalent about using the database. It gives users an opportunity to pose questions that they may not feel comfortable asking in larger sessions. This also helps reach those who cannot find time to attend training. A substantial investment in a contact-management database warrants an equally significant investment from management to communicate support for the new system, encourage firmwide use and provide sufficient training. Yet only a handful of firms have successfully optimized databases. This means that, even for those organizations that have not yet installed a centralized system, there is ample time to catch up in the database race and learn from other firms’ mistakes. But the clock is ticking. Firms that are able to fully leverage the powerful databases that are available today will have a clear competitive advantage. Patrick Bustamante is a senior marketing manager at Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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