Technology-Enabled Services: The Next Generation of SaaS
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is a hot topic of conversation right now, as thought leaders in various industries debate the risks and benefits of moving computing into the cloud, but the arguments are largely academic. SaaS is here to stay. In fact, by the time the buzz over cloud computing really got rolling, most of us were already using it in some form or another, usually without having given much thought to the larger issues. One obvious example is the range of services offered by Google. While it may still be search that springs to mind at the mention of Google, tens of millions of Gmail accounts operate in the cloud. Yahoo!mail, Hotmail, and others operate similarly.
Early Gmail users were motivated, to a great degree, by the large amount of free storage space, but that was only the beginning. Google also offered messaging, live document sharing, and other services—all operating from, and storing data on, common servers that the end user never had to think about. Those services didn’t appear to present a serious challenge to traditional software providers in the early days, but Google’s recent push marketing its apps as an alternative to Microsoft products shows just how dramatically the industry has shifted in a few short years. Cloud computing is everywhere. Over the next few years, “SaaS” is likely to drop out of our vocabulary altogether, not because it’s obsolete but because it’s become the standard for software delivery and no longer requires distinction.
Where SaaS Ends and TES Begins
But SaaS is more of a launch point than an end result. SaaS standing alone is self-limiting. An SaaS provider generally offers the software, storage, and security, and the end user does the rest. SaaS platforms recently introduced for law firms tend to use a per-license pricing model, limiting the provider’s revenue. That in turn limits available resources, and thus SaaS providers may face significant challenges in scaling support services to keep up with demand and enhancing functionality at the pace required to keep up with customers’ feature requests. Those limitations may also create obstacles to integration with third-party service providers. Thus, end users need multiple interfaces or portals, forcing siloing of different activities in law firms and reducing efficiency. Even when the SaaS provider has the inclination and the resources to pursue integration, after-the-fact integration can be difficult and lead to compatibility problems.
Technology-enabled service (TES) picks up where SaaS leaves off, allowing service providers to leverage the benefits of cloud computing and build on them to offer more efficient, more cost-effective services. With TES, the technology is built to deliver the software and the service. The software is built around the most efficient delivery of services rather than introducing those services as an afterthought to an SaaS.
Law firm administrators may not immediately recognize the significance of TES when choosing a service provider. After all, the firm is interested in the services delivered and the cost of those services, not what goes on behind the scenes. One key benefit to purchasing those services is precisely that the firm doesn’t have to concern itself with the operational details. But TES does matter to the end user, for a variety of emerging reasons and probably some that have not yet emerged.
The TES Difference
The most obvious advantages include the basic benefits of SaaS—a TES provider takes advantage of shared resources and technological efficiencies to provide services more smoothly and at a lower cost. More significantly, though, TES providers can deliver services and information in a way that most of us wouldn’t even have imagined just a few years ago. Consider, for example, the traditional model of a law firm answering service as compared with a TES.
With a traditional answering service, the firm typically manually transfers calls to the service, perhaps calling in to let the service know that calls are being transferred. The service takes messages and responds to calls according to the law firm’s instructions. After lunch or the next morning, the law firm employee contacts the service to “pick up” messages and take back the calls.
A technology-enabled answering service, on the other hand, allows for much greater customization, real-time message delivery, and seamless handoff of calls, often at a lower price than traditional services can offer. Such a system may, for instance, update a message-retrieval center and forward messages by email in real time, eliminating the need to call in for messages and allowing for instantaneous notification. Using integrated VOIP technologies, a technology-enabled answering service can transfer calls with a click, routing them to prepopulated telephone numbers based on time of day and automated workflows. That means not only quicker access to messages and calls but also lower employee costs on both ends through more efficient delivery and handoff. At the same time, digital phone recordings allow the end user greater monitoring abilities. The creation of a durable, accessible record of all messages permits multiple people in the firm to check messages, eliminating the time and risk involved in having to pass messages along.
Putting People in the Cloud
Similar efficiencies and safeguards may arise out of the use of technology in the delivery of nearly any service, and the greatest efficiencies and cost savings come about with the integration of people into the cloud. The very nature of operating within the cloud means that the options are wide open, and systems can be adapted to serve the needs of a particular industry.
For example, LiveOps takes advantage of thousands of work-from-home independent contractors to provide call center services for various companies. Because the LiveOps platform tracks performance and routes calls preferentially, the best-performing operators get the most work and the highest wages. Companies using the service don’t have to concern themselves with hiring, training, or adjusting staff to fluctuating demand. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, on the other hand, allows users to post tasks, and those tasks can be completed by anyone in the world who is willing to work at the posted rate and can get the job done. There’s no staff on hand at all, and yet there are potentially millions of workers available around the world.
The merging of people and technology in the cloud allows for a new level of adaptability at a lower cost than has ever been possible before. TES makes it possible for service providers to deliver an integrated, real-time experience in a variety of areas: answering services, virtual assistants, legal process outsourcing, website creation and hosting, Internet marketing, and others.
TES for the Law Firm Client
Dallas bankruptcy attorney Rustin Polk uses a technology-enabled bankruptcy case support service, which integrates bankruptcy petition preparation with the assembly of required products such as prebankruptcy credit counseling and client credit reports. One key benefit Polk points to is the ability to log in to the system and see everything that’s happening in real time. “It’s great, because I can literally watch as the work is being done,” Polk said. “It’s like looking over someone’s shoulder.”
That kind of access and ability to monitor in real time isn’t just new to the virtual or outsourcing world—it’s far more efficient than traditional internal oversight. Polk notes that the external technology-enabled service actually provides easier and more efficient access to the files he’s monitoring. He can access all pending files in one place, rather than having to pull numerous separate paper files to track progress in his cases. Through this TES, Polk says, he has “been able to increase capacity by 50 percent while increasing profit by 25 percent,” and rid himself and his staff of many of the headaches associated with scaling his practice.
Identifying the Right Provider for Your Firm
Identifying the right provider for your firm means asking the right questions of yourself and of prospective providers. First, determine what services are most critical to you and which you expect to integrate in the relatively short-term. When you know what you want, do your homework on possible providers. Some questions you should ask include:
- If you are using an SaaS, does it have an open API that will facilitate integration of third-party services?
- Does the provider currently have plans for services to be plugged in to the platform?
- What are the planned services, and in what time frame?
- How will the platform or services help your law firm streamline or improve its processes?
- Is the platform or service (SaaS or TES) provided at a price point that makes sense for your firm?
You’ll also want to ask TES providers offering multiple services whether you can turn them on and off, or whether you’ll be locked in to paying for services you may not use. A carefully selected SaaS platform or TES can fulfill the specific needs of your firm and increase your profits and efficiency without investment in hardware, increased staff, or other significant costs.
Kevin Chern is president of Total Attorneys, a leading provider of marketing and practice management services to small law firms, serving thousands of law firms nationwide. Previously he was managing partner of the country’s largest consumer bankruptcy law firm. Under his direction, a staff of 180 employees in 19 states served approximately 450 new clients each week. Kevin also serves as president of Total Practice Management Association, which he founded to help members of the legal profession achieve greater work/life balance. He is also an author and a contributing writer to several legal blogs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.