Operational Efficiency, Part Two

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Operational Efficiency, Part 2The Small Business Operational Efficiency article from April 2015 was popular enough to warrant a follow-up given that three new systems have entered the behind-the-scenes environment at ElectionsOnline since then: SignNow, Insightly and Xero.

SignNow for signing agreements

The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, which went into law June 30, 2000, permits the parties entering into agreements to do so electronically and have the signature carry just as much legal validity as if signed on paper. That means it’s possible for ElectionsOnline clients to enter into multi-year agreements, and enjoy the price reductions that come with that, by filling out and signing an agreement online. While this makes the process much simpler for the client as opposed to using paper, it tremendously streamlines the process for ElectionsOnline. Here’s how it works behind the scenes when a client is presented a multi-year agreement.

  1. Login to SignNow.
  2. Click Templates.
  3. Click the Invite Signers link associated with the multi-year agreement template. This creates a new copy of the agreement.
  4. Provide the email address of the person, or persons, whose signature is being requested and click Send Now.
  5. I’ll be the first party invited to sign, so I can do that right there on the spot. As part of signing the document, I’ll also need to specify the name of the client organization; the start and end dates of the agreement; and the percentage of discount. Once I’m done signing, the client is notified by email that the document awaits their signature, which they may provide online.
  6. Once the client has signed the document, I’ll move it to the archive to keep it separated from those documents still awaiting signature.

The whole process takes less than two minutes, and the advantages of this approach versus paper include:

  • There is no paper to fool with. No printing, no postage, none of it.
  • By not relying on the postal service for delivery of the agreement to and from the client, the turnaround time from the moment a client requests an agreement to having a signed copy on record at ElectionsOnline could literally be just a few minutes!
  • The documents almost file themselves. I prefer to move signed documents into an archive folder just to keep them separate from those awaiting signature, but all filing is done in SignNow. Nothing is ever printed and stored in a filing cabinet.
  • SignNow’s interface guarantees no field is left unsigned and that it’s impossible to enter invalid data. In other words, when a field should accept an email, SignNow verifies the data entered and ensures it’s a well-formed email. The same is true for phone number, dates and other types of information.

The tremendous time savings do require some initial setup. The template referenced in step three above was originally created as a Google Doc, then saved as a PDF. The PDF was loaded into SignNow, then saved as a template after which fields were added to accept the variable values. Those variables are the parts that vary from one agreement to the next, such as client name, start and end dates, date on which the document was signed, and of course a special field for the client’s signature. There was some trial and error initially to discover how best to format the layout of the source document created in Google Docs so that it may accept the fields that hold variable values. This setup is a one-time operation and well worth some extra effort because it will save considerable time going forward.

SignNow has competitors, but is affordable and has an exceptionally simple user interface. If your organization relies on agreements of any sort, give it a look.

Insightly for customer relationship management

Customer Relationship Management systems, or CRMs, are used by companies and associations to track the many different types of interactions with customers. The behemoth of all CRMs is SalesForce, but I don’t find their service as appealing for a really small business as it is designed for the medium and larger companies with teams of salespeople who need extensive collaboration capabilities.

For ElectionsOnline, something simpler, like Zoho or Insightly, is a better fit. I chose Insightly because of its modern, very easy-to-use interface. In all honesty, while Zoho offers a suite of very capable business management tools, the design could use some modernization. Insightly comes out the winner in that faceoff. Other strong features of Insightly are lead management, task management, contact and organization management, and opportunity management. While it has a project module, Insightly should not be mistaken for a full-fledged project management solution. The project module still has value, and I do take advantage of it, but if you’re looking for a really mature project management solution, one of the services solely dedicated to just that will probably work better. As was stated in the original article on operational efficiency, Teamwork is still my favorite tool for project management.

Insightly also has a beautifully elegant, modern and RESTful API. Given that much of the interaction with the CRM is done by the website itself across the API, having a simple-to-use and well documented one is very important. Admittedly, this may be less important for other companies, but ElectionsOnline makes extensive use of the API.

There is one area where Insightly fails miserably. I have found bugs in the product and reported them to Insightly. That’s not the end of the world as it is not uncommon for a large-scale piece of software to have a bug or two that needs to be patched. What is a big deal is that Insightly does not make any real effort to fix them! While they acknowledge existence of the bugs, they simply do not treat fixing them as a priority. Instead, they treat bug fixes as feature requests where they choose what to fix based on the number of people impacted by it. That is not how bug fixes are ever to be regarded. Obviously if they made the determination that some feature was worth building in the first place, it ought to then be worth building as intended. The software is not full of bugs, but they do exist and Insightly needs to make some improvements in how they are addressed.

Xero for accounting

All businesses need to keep track of bookkeeping and there is a very broad collection of tools for doing that. They are not all the same, however, and I caution that many systems will call themselves an accounting system when they really are just a bare bones invoice management system. That’s not bad as there are plenty of businesses who really do need a very trimmed down tool with which to create invoices, make them available for online payment, then track the money as it comes in. But for many other businesses, accounting entails much more than just invoice management.

Xero can act as both a robust invoice creation and management solution, as well as a full-featured, bona fide accounting system plus manage payroll. At the time of this writing, the payroll functionality is not available everywhere. Fortunately it is available in Virginia, where ElectionsOnline is based. The ability of a single system to handle invoicing, payroll and accounting is an especially attractive property.

Xero is a cloud-based service, which means:

  • You’ll be able to access your account from anywhere, at any time.
  • You’ll be able to provide access to data entry clerks, bookkeepers and accountants, even when those people are located remotely.
  • You may generate and share reports with others online without having to email—or snail mail—those reports.
  • It permits integration with numerous other systems. Xero comes with a very comprehensive RESTful API, and other systems used that API to build integrations into it. You may also use the API yourself to integrate your own company website with Xero.

The very vibrant community of Xero users is one thing that sets it apart. The couple of times I’ve personally started conversations in the community, I’ve been very pleased that someone knowledgeable provided a helpful reply within 24 hours.

Perhaps my absolute favorite feature of Xero is the bank feed and how it plays into handling the task of reconciliation. Essentially, you may connect Xero to your bank account so that a live feed of all transactions is fed from your bank into Xero. You may then reconcile your general ledger against that bank feed, and when something doesn’t reconcile just right, Xero is very good at identifying the likely transaction(s) which should reconcile and permit on-the-fly adjustments, if necessary, to account for things like rounding or credit card processing fees. This means reconciliation is no longer a monthly task and you may keep your general ledger constantly reconciled against the bank balance. (Though you could, of course, still make it a monthly task if you prefer.)

As with most any large software package, it is not without the occasional bug or quirky behavior, and unfortunately, from what I understand, Xero can be a little slow to address these issues. At the time of this writing, Xero is only 10 years old, so hopefully as it matures, these issues will become fewer and fewer.


As stated in the original operation efficiency article, no one tool will be right for every organization in every situation. These are the tools that were a good match for ElectionsOnline, but if you’re in the market, give them a look. Even if you’re not in the market, as would be the case for any organization still handling agreements on paper, perhaps you should get in the market and take a look at modernizing that part of your operations with a tool like SignNow!