This blog post was written by Casey Long, Delivery Operations Manager at Kicksaw, and last updated on 9/27/21.

What is Professional Services Automation?

If you're trying to scale a professional services business, at some point you need to consider implementing a Professional Services Automation (PSA) solution. As a term, PSA is as slippery as any in the technology space, such as CRM or ERP. You can understand what it means generally, but it inevitably prompts many questions such as: 

  • Is a PSA solution a single tool or is it a suite of tools?
  • Is a PSA solution the same thing as Project Management solution?
  • Should my PSA platform integrate with other tools in my business?
  • If I buy a PSA solution, should it consume systems such asQuickbooks?

And as you've likely already guessed, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding, "It depends!"

Frankly, you probably already know whether or not you need a PSA solution. If you are in the business of delivering client-billable work, then at a minimum you need to be at least thinking about the sorts of requirements that PSA solutions address. If you are interested in more in-depth articles explaining the finer points of PSA solutions, there are plenty out there, such as this one.

Rather than regurgitate those articles here, we thought we'd spend some time examining a few very important planning considerations that could help scaling businesses navigate the sometimes choppy PSA waters more confidently.

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Consider the end user in every department, and don't forget your clients

As we've established, "PSA" is a broad term with a broad definition. If you were to distill it down to its essence, you might say that a PSA solution is a tool, or suite of tools, that tracks client engagement from inception through invoicing and cash collection.

If you are structured like most services businesses, you can probably already see how this type of solution will affect multiple departments in your business. Sales will have a stake in it, in that their inputs into the deal cycle will inform your Delivery team's work. The Delivery team will likely be the most opinionated of your stakeholders, in that they are going to be working with these tools on a day-to-day basis.

Delivery is going to have all sorts of requests that center around collaboration with their colleagues and tracking engagement health metrics such as scope, schedule, budget, risks, etc. And they'll likely have no shortage of opinions around the user experience for whatever platforms you chose.

Your Finance and Accounting departments will have their own set of requirements as well. They need enough insight into the Delivery team's experience and data to contextualize the invoices they are sending out to clients, but the data they are interested in centers more around questions of profitability and revenue recognition than completion of project work or management of project scope.

And don't forget your clients! While they're arguably not part of your PSA solution, there is a growing appetite for transparency in services organizations. Customers want to be able to check in on their project's process and collaborate directly with your teams, and they want those juicy project metrics at their fingertips.

Ordered a pizza from Dominoes lately? If you have you know that you can watch as real-time updates on every stage of your pizza's construction and delivery roll in. Your customers want something similar from your services business. They want to be able to see if their engagement is on track in terms of budget and timeline, and they don't want to wait for an email from their Project Manager in order to receive that information.

Every PSA solution you research will likely have features that address the concerns of these various stakeholders in different ways. Ultimately, you and your team know what is most important to your business. The important thing is to look at your requirements holistically — many services organizations end up fielding a Project Management tool or an Accounting and Finance suite out of convenience or an attractive set of front-end features to drive workflow narrowly, only to find themselves having to spend unplanned budget and time building out additional tools for missed requirements, or engineering integrations to get existing tools to talk to one another.

Choosing a solution: features, scalability, and cost

You've talked to your team and you have a good handle on your requirements. Now comes the fun par — selecting a tool(s)!

As with any software purchase, there are a range of options that vary widely in terms of cost and associated features. There are full end-to-end PSA solutions such as Financial Force that some of the largest professional services companies in the world use to run their businesses. But as you can imagine, they're quite expensive. And for smaller businesses, the features might of something like a Financial Force could be overkill and would not justify the investment.

On the other end of the spectrum you have "freemium" tools such as Trello or Asana that often are more narrowly Project Management and Collaboration tools. While solutions like this are great for helping teams collaborate and get project work done, they often lack features such as time tracking or forecasting, and they struggle to interface with sales and finance functions without heavy customization or plugins. Many businesses will quickly grow out of these solutions once they scale beyond a certain point.

And of course, in between those extremes are a whole host of more robust solutions that are either explicitly PSA-focused or can be made to operate as a PSA suite with a little bit of investment and configuration know-how. These are tools such as Mavenlink, TaskRay, or Mission Control. Every tool has its noteworthy features as well as its limitations. Ultimately, building your suite of business applications is a series of tradeoffs. You as the customer will have to navigate these tradeoffs and ensure that they align with your key requirements.

That being said, there are a few key criteria you should always consider when evaluating solutions. Think of these as concepts that should be balanced against one another; they are more a set of variables rather than a binary checklist.

Alignment to existing platforms

Open APIs are becoming more commonplace every passing year, and most business applications can be integrated with other business applications with enough time, money, and effort. But if you find yourself invested in a particular platform for a more narrow business use case, perhaps it makes sense to start with tools that are either natively integrated or have a standard integration you can leverage.

For instance, if you are already heavily invested in Salesforce to drive your sales efforts, looking at Salesforce-based applications such as TaskRay or Mission Control is a great place to start. These applications will integrate well with your existing sales processes with likely little investment.

Scalability

So you've talked to your team and you have a good handle on your requirements? Well, that's probably true for today. But is it true for tomorrow, or five years from now? You are a fast-growing and dynamic business. You likely have pivots and process changes in your future that you cannot anticipate.

What happens when you decide to expand into different markets, and you determine that those engagements require a different delivery process with a different cost structure and unique work stages? For situations like these, you need to be using a tool that has the ability to be customized to meet your changing needs. Many PSA solutions allow for customization to certain degrees, but this is where Salesforce-based tools such as TaskRay really shine. While there will be some limitations, these tools can be customized to high degree by a savvy administrator using mostly drop-and-drag functionality rather than code.

Cost

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Obviously your unique financial situation will drive what tools you are able to invest in, and in a sense you are trying to maximize the two values above for a given price point. One thing to keep in mind when considering cost, though, is the degree to which you expect to grow and what this means in terms of license costs. Another consideration is what you might need to customize inside of a given tool, and what this might cost in terms of time or paid support from a partner.

Don't suffer in silence — work with a partner

The final thing you should consider when planning your approach to a PSA solution is whether or not to work with an implementation partner. And as Salesforce implementation partners and practitioners of professional services ourselves, we highly recommend that you do! Different tools come with a wide range of available implementation support, either included in your license cost or as an add-on service. But a trusted partner who is independent of any particular technology platform can often help cut through the noise of an implementation and make sure that you design a software suite that is truly right for you.

The truth is that no matter how well you think you know your requirements or technology, a fresh (and experienced) set of eyes can usually help you think through your requirements and efficiently customize your suite of tools in ways that would've never occurred to you. This unique perspective may mean the difference between success and further frustration for you and your company.

To learn more about how Kicksaw can help you create your ideal PSA solution, reach out to us using the form at the bottom of this page.

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