Sonoma Partners Microsoft CRM and Salesforce Blog

Inside Edition: How Sonoma Partners Uses CRM to Track Time

Today's post is written by Matt Weiler, a Principal Architect at Sonoma Partners.

As a consulting company, tracking time spent on projects is critical to billing our customers correctly, making sure people are busy, and making sure we're estimating accurately. In Grapevine (our internal name for CRM), Time has relationships to:

  • Projects (which is the level the time is billed at)
  • Items (which is the unit of development or customization work that has to be done)
  • Project Task (which bundles related time together so we can see how much time was spent developing vs. testing vs. designing, etc.)
  • Cases, in addition to the actual amount of time and assorted other fields.

We've covered Time entry on our blog in the past where you can see some screenshots of how this process worked in our CRM 4.0 environment.

As you can see, for something that is a relatively simple idea (what did I do during these 15 minutes?), becomes a much more complicated process because of the way we want to use the data.

One of our first cracks at making this process easier was adding time-related fields to the Item entity. Most Time records are related to an Item in some way  (development, testing, defects, design, etc.), so this was a way to easily enter the amount of time and the Task being performed, and a plugin behind the scenes would fill in fields like the Item and Project. While this worked well for some scenarios, others still required entering in the full Time form. This includes any time not related to an item (internal meetings, time spent writing specifications, etc.). In addition, at the time, most of us kept track of our time either on Excel spreadsheets or (GASP!) on pen and paper. It was kind of a laborious task to enter in time every week, especially if you waited till the beginning of the next week when time must be entered and finalized.

So, as an intern project, our developer Mike Dearing created what is now known as Time Buddy. Time Buddy was designed to make the process of tracking, entering, and reviewing time much easier and faster. Here's a quick look:

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It's a Windows desktop app, so it only works on Windows PCs, and it has be installed everywhere, so there's a bit of a maintenance downside over a centralized web site. However, it has built-in timers, connects directly to Grapevine to pull back active Projects, Items, and Project Tasks, has a bunch of great time savers like the ability to split or join multiple records, and the ability to import your weekly calendar from Outlook, thus saving the entry time for non-item based Time entries. And it caches data offline, so as long as you connect occasionally, you can track time while not connected to the Internet.

As Sonoma Partners continued to grow, we had more and more non-.NET developers using Macintosh instead of Windows PCs, so our next step was to add an editable grid inside CRM. This not only gave our non-Windows users a quick entry ability, but also we incorporated the grid into a larger CRM dashboard that broke down time entries by day and by project, making it easier to review the entered time and validate simple mistakes haven't been made before submitting the time for final approval.

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Our latest updates have been in response to a more diverse set of users utilizing Time Buddy. As we’ve added an iOS practice and graphic and UX designers, those people are utilizing Macs day to day, and have had to log time the old fashioned way. When we thought about how to give them an easier way to enter time, we took a step back and thought it also might be cool if we had an iOS app to allow time entry as well. So, we created a set of web services to abstract the time entry process from CRM and utilized those services to build our new clients. We’ll also be looking to update the Windows version of Time Buddy to utilize the same services. Thus we're shielded a little bit from CRM upgrades and we can more aggressively use new features or APIs in CRM without having to update a bunch of apps, and the external time entry is all routed through the same place.

The history of Time entry at Sonoma is, I think, a classic example of the crawl, walk, run CRM strategy that makes sense:

  1. Identify the data you'd like to start tracking
  2. Build out a basic implementation of a way to track and report on that data
  3. Identify inefficiencies through talking to employees or looking at the data you've already collected
  4. Develop targeted apps and websites to make the process easier, more efficient, and increase data reliability
  5. Repeat steps 3 & 4 as your business, process, and/or people change
Topics: Microsoft Dynamics CRM