How can a loose coalition of independent consultants communicate with one another and with clients?

By Phaedra Hise

Problem: Presenting a unified image to clients

Solution: Let clients choose the preferred method of communication

Payoff: High-quality service at a reasonable cost

Deborah Watring wanted to be able to recruit expert support staff from anywhere in the country. The $1.5-million Atlanta marketing firm today works with 40 independent contractors in 10 states. Here's how Watring & Associates maintains a corporate atmosphere for its far-flung contractors.

Once the company wins a contract, a project team is assembled and meets at the client's location for a project "kickoff." At that meeting the client selects the preferred method of communication during the project -- courier, E-mail, teleconferencing, fax, or some other method. Watring gathers the consultants for quarterly meetings but in between relies on technology to "keep us feeling like we all work for the same company."

The company is mainly Macintosh-based, but it also uses PCs. There are 15 desktop and 10 laptop computers distributed among the four partners and a support staff of six. A Macintosh se30 server in Atlanta is dedicated to running a standard AppleTalk cabled network. Most of Watring's contractors use PowerBooks that they've paid for themselves. The system also supports Windows software, with two PCs in the home office.

In 1991 it cost Watring about $13,000 for the server and for Quickmail E-mail software (from CE Software, 800-523-7638) and training. She requires contractors to buy their own copies of Word (from Microsoft, 800-426-9400; $339), Microsoft Excel ($339), and Microsoft Powerpoint ($339). She gives contractors copies of Quickmail's workstation software and a password for gaining access to the home office's E-mail server so they can check for messages. "We selected Quickmail because it could do electronic messaging and transfer files in their native format," says Watring. "We're sending lots of graphics files and page-layout files and crossing platforms with them."

Watring figures her investment was a boon to her small business. "This way, we can provide high-quality service at a reasonable cost. That's a competitive advantage."

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