How do you use technology to your advantage, particularly if you’re not a technophile or have much experience with technology? First, some general wisdom:
Get clear about your business and your niche first.
All the good technology in the world won’t help build a practice that doesn’t have a solid foundation. The technologies described below assume you know your market niche, know why that niche would want to buy your services, and have a solid business development plan from which to build.
Don’t let technology become a black hole.
Researching, pricing and learning new technology can consume a significant amount of time. So much for leverage! Instead, find websites and blogs that track new and useful technology for small business owners and read these sites regularly. Or, subscribe to computer or other magazines that are geared toward the small or micro-business owner. The time spent with these resources will help you locate, buy and use technology much more efficiently.
Don’t try to technologize all aspects of your practice at once. Pick one area, focus on it, and get it going well before adding another. Start with building a website. Or set up an effective and professional phone system. Or create administrative systems that will help you manage your prospective and current clients and projects.
Get clear on your goal.
Be sure you know exactly what you want to achieve, with or without technology, before you look for methods that will help you leverage your time to accomplish it. Technology won’t always offer the best solution.
Leveraging Technology to Promote Your ADR Practice.
Technology can make the work of marketing, promotion and educating the public more efficient and help reduce the pain of self-promotion for those who don’t relish the idea. Here are ways that technology can particularly benefit ADR professionals in small, private practices:
Build an online presence:
Websites are the new standard, expected as part of your professional package in the way good stationery and a brochure were 10 years ago. But should you have a website or blog? Websites tend to be static, brochure-like, periodically updated, and may include educational components. Blogs, or weblogs, began as online journals and vanity projects for individuals. Today, blogs supplement and even replace traditional websites, and they’re making clear inroads in the business world. They’re usually updated regularly (at least weekly, though not necessarily so) with posts on a topic of interest to that site’s niche. Blogging software can be free or low-cost and very easy to use; a new blogger can have a basic site registered and up in an afternoon, without paying a web hosting service.
Tap into social networks:
Social networks are the big technology buzz for 2006. While the jury’s still out as to whether the more than 200 social networking sites have anything to offer beyond buzz, they do seem to have potential for business networking and referrals. SNAs (social networking applications) can help you connect with people who share an interest, have a business need, or have some other purpose that links you. It’s the six degrees of separation idea, online.
Increase visibility of and access to your services and products :
Technology can also help you promote your services by allowing potential clients to sample what you have to offer. Consider posting downloadable articles on your website, or record a short audio or video file that viewers can stream or download to their digital player. Offer a tele-orientation to mediation. If you like to write, package a series of articles for free download or online purchase. There are no- and low-cost services that can help do all of these tasks.
Leveraging Technology to Manage Your ADR Practice.
If you’re newly in business and still have a small client base, you can use this early phase of your business start-up to put good systems in place. If you’re an experienced professional with a larger client base, you can tap technology to manage administrative details more efficiently.
Get administrative help without hiring staff:
Virtual assistants are highly skilled administrative and executive assistants who provide their support via telephone, computer and fax. Like many ADR professionals, VAs are micro-business owners with their own home or private office. For new or seasoned mediators who don’t wish to hire staff, don’t yet have the income to support staff or don’t have the space available, a VA can be a very cost-effective way to save valuable time for what mediators usually do best---mediate.
Manage files and client records efficiently:
There are numerous software programs and online services that help micro-business owners and sole proprietors manage tasks, coordinate large projects, keep track of prospects and clients, share and edit documents online, receive faxes directly to an email inbox, download bank and other financial statements, and backup files automatically. While initial purchase and setup of these programs can take a bit of effort and time, they usually pay for themselves in terms of time saved later.
Distribute promotional materials automatically:
Many ADR professionals use newsletters to educate about and promote services. Online newsletter services automate the sign-up and distribution of electronic newsletters, saving postal costs and broadening mediators’ geographic reach. Some of the better services are also free as long as e-mailing lists are under a certain size, usually 100-200 subscribers, and they offer free templates that make setting up and sending the e-newsletter a simple and efficient process.
Help callers find you easily:
While the benefits of 24/7 availability to prospective and current clients is questionable, there are low-cost phone services that can help callers reach you without you sitting at your desk waiting for the calls to come in. Find-me and follow-me features are often attached to 800-number services, allowing you to designate, by Internet or phone, a forwarding number or set of numbers for any given day.
These ideas are a small portion of the ways that ADR professionals can revolutionize their new or seasoned practices and get the word out, both about mediation and about themselves. While it can feel daunting to keep up with all the ways that technology can help build business, the time can make the difference between a practice that never gets off the ground and one that blossoms.