The Search For A Studio Management System
The back office work required to run a photography business can be quite taxing. From tracking leads to creating contracts to sending invoices, the list of tasks goes on and on…I was in the same boat as many of you find yourself in now or may find yourself in, in the future. I was using multiple systems (Google docs, spreadsheets, third party apps) to track our inquiries, contracts, invoices, dates available, etc. I wanted to find a studio management system that would do the majority of this work. I began the journey to find a solution in a naive way. I had a loose set of requirements in my head that I planned to make sure the solution I chose would satisfy. It quickly became obvious that to accomplish the task at hand, I was going to need to solidify and write down what it was exactly that I required in a solution. The key word being required. Sure, bells and whistles are nice, but at the end of the day, they don’t necessarily contribute to the end goal, reducing time spent on back office tasks.
Here are the requirements I set. Your mileage may vary…
- Stable platform (uptime, implementation stack, etc)
- Lead generation (able to embed contact form in my current website, MUST be able to customize form for brand consistency)
- Contact management (fed by lead generation or manual entry)
- Quotes and Contracts (ability to create contracts, send them, require signatures and initials where needed, populated as much as possible from the lead generation/contact portion of the system)
- Invoicing and Payment schedules (must be able to pull from the rest of the system to populate, schedule, etc)
- Questionnaires (create my own re-usable questionnaires)
- Client portal (should be user friendly, contain questionnaires, contracts, invoices, etc)
- Email integration (should integrate to some degree with my current email system)
- Calendar (must play nice with Google Calendar)
- Customer support (getting started, how to guides, Facebook group, email and online support)
I tested a number of workflow management systems. As long as they had a free trial and from an outward appearance looked like they might be a possible solution, I gave them a try. I even PAID to test one workflow management system (lesson learned). Testing was a daunting, time consuming task. I knew each time that I tested a workflow management system that I would most likely be doing a setup process that ultimately would be thrown away if I did not use that system. During my testing, I found a common theme on a number of the platforms I tried. They seemed to have issues doing the simple, basic required tasks. The development that was going on was focusing on new bells and whistles. If you do not have a solid foundation in the basic tasks, you can have all the bells and whistles in the world and they don’t mean squat! On my journey, I tested 17hats, Pixifi, Sprout Studio, and Táve. I ended up choosing Táve, even after paying for a 2 year subscription to another solution! Why? Let me explain how Táve fulfilled each of my requirements.
Some might think this is a minor issue but as a business, I want to offer a consistent customer experience. I didn’t spend good money working with a graphic designer to come up with our brand to not be able to use that in everything we do. Our brand should translate over to our lead generation forms, client portal, contracts, etc. Táve allows for this customization throughout the application. You are able to setup Táve in such a way that the client does not know they left your website. You are able to use a custom domain, allowing you to setup something like “clients.yourdomain.com”. It may seem simple, but I feel it goes along way in keeping your clients trust.
2. Stable platform (uptime, implementation stack, etc)
Having an extensive IT background, I wanted a product that was implemented in the cloud, offering high availability and great performance. That is exactly what Táve offers. Táve utilizes Amazon’s AWS cloud infrastructure, ensuring a stable backend system. They have hot standby implemented in Oregon which you can access at any time, should the unthinkable happen to the primary servers (hosted in AWS located in Virginia). The standby hosts provide a read-only version of the data and can be reached at standby.tave.com. You can check the system uptime status by going to status.tave.com. Táve has been around for 8 years and is a stable, solid platform.
3. Lead generation
Táve provides the ability to embed a custom contact form on your website that feeds directly into the system. You can also utilize some third party contact form plugins to accomplish this as well. For those who are more skilled with web technologies, Táve provides the ability to supply your own custom CSS to manipulate the look and feel of the contact form(s). If you are not familiar with this, you can search the Táve Facebook user group or the internet for some examples of what other folks have done to modify their forms. I was able to use our font and colors to keep a consistent look with our branding.
4. Contact management (fed by lead generation or manual entry)
Táve provides standard contact management capabilities as well as the ability to add custom fields that are meaningful to you. Some of these fields can be populated by the lead generation form(s). For our initial email response back to a perspective client I like to have the finance’s name. I added this as a custom field even though there is a separate section to fill in their information. I set up a custom field on Táve to capture this and I added that field to our contact form. Then, from the start, I can begin referring to couple by name in all correspondence.
5. Quotes and Contracts
Táve provides the capability to create a seamless quote, contract, invoice, and payment schedule process. You can create a quote with multiple options based on the products and packages you offer, and allow the client to choose what they want. That information can then be populated over in the contract dynamically. Once the quote is accepted and contract signed, invoice(s) can be generated based on the selected information, allowing the whole process to be fluid and require the least amount of work for you on the backend.
Our process is a little different than that used by others. I do not send out a quote with options for the client to choose from. We meet with our clients and from that meeting, we know what collection they would like to move forward with. Once we are given the go ahead, I create a quote with the options they chose, generate a contract with their specific information and choices, and send that to them electronically. Táve allows us to do this in a timely manner. While setting up Táve, I created contracts that include the details of each of the types of collections we offer. I can generate a unique one for each client and send it to them in a few minutes. You also have the ability to proofread/view it before it is sent.
Contracts capture an electronic signature of both the client and your business. I have it set up that once they sign it and pay their invoice, that we then sign it. In certain parts of our contracts, the client’s initials are required. Táve provides this capability as well.
6. Invoicing and Payment Schedules
Keeping the amount of time spent doing backend business processes to a minimum allows you to spend that time on areas that make your business more profitable (taking photographs). I wanted an invoicing system that fed off of the rest of the system. Where applicable, it should pull from as many places in the system as possible to keep my input to a minimum. Táve provides the ability to generate invoices based on the quote and payment schedule. There are pre-built payment schedules and you can also create your own custom schedules. While importing existing contracts into Táve, I had to create a few custom payment schedules to match the payment terms from those contracts. It was simple and intuitive to do!
7. Questionnaires (create my own re-usable questionnaires)
Prior to selecting Táve, I was using a free product to send out our questionnaires. This was in a separate application and did not have the same look and feel as the rest of our customer experience. Táve provides the ability to create very detailed questionnaires that are user friendly on the client side. Calendar pop-ups, sliders, drop downs, etc are just a few of the user input types offered. Creating or updating questionnaires is a simple drag and drop process. The questionnaires can be set to editable for a given time frame to allow the client enough time to fill them in or come back and update them. Clients have access to them via their client portal or via a direct link.
8. Client portal (should be user friendly, contain questionnaires, contracts, invoices, etc)
Putting myself in the clients shoes, I know I would want a single place to go for all of the information pertaining to the photographer I chose. The client portal is that solution. For each of your clients, you have the ability to enable/disable the client portal. By default, its set to disabled. Once enabled, you can email the portal link to your client and they will be able to set their password during the initial login. Afterwards, they can return as often as they like. The portal contains things such as contracts, invoices, questionnaires, etc. They can update their contact info as well.
9. Email integration (should integrate to some degree with my current email system)
Táve provides the ability to send emails from inside the system. They are sent out from Táve with your email address as the reply to. If you send emails from within Táve, then Táve provides tracking details, such as when the email was opened. You can also send an email from your own email client and have the same tracking details as long as you BCC your Táve tracking email address. Email replies sent to you can also be forwarded to this BCC address and then you can associate them with the correct job.
You have the ability to create a signature that is applied to each email. You can also create canned responses or as Táve calls them Quick Responses. These are awesome and make responding to clients a quick and painless process. You can even use tokens to substitute information on the fly that pertains to your client like name, dates, etc.
10. Calendar (must play nice with Google Calendar)
The calendar capability of Táve is quite impressive. Each job type can have a different color to make them standout and easily recognizable on the calendar. There are a number of calendar shortcuts listed under the calendar icon that help show you a small or larger path of items (day, week, month, 36 month, each user’s events, etc.)
Each calendar can be subscribed to by an external source. This is how you can show your Táve calendar items on your Google calendar. You can also have a Táve calendar subscribe to an external calendar as well. When a lead comes in, its automatically noted on the calendar you assigned for that job type as a pending item. If a lead comes in that conflicts with an existing job, its noted with a RED exclamation point.
11. Customer support
The first thing I noticed was the amount of online documentation available for new users to get setup and running. They provided a startup guide detailing an approach to setup that makes sense. Each piece builds off of the next and would enable you to get the basic items setup in the system so you could start using it right away. If you run into any issues, you can send a message to support. I found that my questions were always answered with in 24 hours, most of the time with in a few hours. This goes a long way. It was great to see that the folks behind the product actually used it themselves in their businesses. They provided practical examples and advice.
While attending WPPI 2016 in Las Vegas, I had the pleasure of meeting with Topher. It was great to get to talk in person and provide feedback on the product.
In conclusion, Táve met each of the items I set as criteria. The 30 day free trial (60 days if you use my referral link) provided an adequate amount of time for me to work through the setup guide and test things along the way. I created plenty of test leads and progressed through the system as if I was the client. This allowed me to see and test things from their point of view. I wanted to be certain what the client experience would be.
First time setup of a system like this can be overwhelming. If it seems like too much work, take baby steps. Good things take time and the pay off will be huge. Follow the setup guide (http://support.tave.com/documentation/getting-started/). Also, make sure you request to join the closed Facebook group, “Táve User Group”. Folks are quick to lend a helping hand and you can learn a lot about the capabilities of the system by reading through the posts.
Thanks for taking the time to read through this. I hope it was helpful and provided insight into why Táve was the right choice for us.
UPDATE: See how things are going after a year of use.