Are you still using paper forms in your business, particularly for your staff who are not desk-bound? Long ago you probably accepted the benefits of using computers rather than performing tasks manually. Somehow in an estimated 80%+ of businesses simple forms remain on paper. Previously the challenge was to make it possible to create such forms on a mobile device, at an acceptable price – but no longer. Now it’s cheaper and more beneficial to have your documents in most cases written as apps.
The true cost of paper forms
Have you considered how much it is really costing your business to fill out manual forms? The cost of the paper itself, and the filing cabinets for storage, are very much the thin end of the wedge. Consider:
- the office rent to house the filing cabinets, usually running to thousands of dollars
- the labor to complete the form. In many cases digital apps can offer dramatic savings, freeing up your precious technical staff for productive work
- the labor to file the form. Some estimates suggest it costs $32 to file each document1. You can, of course, estimate this yourselves, by taking the average time to file a document and multiplying out the true cost of the employee for that length of time
- the labor to retrieve the form. Here’s where it starts to get ugly, with the same study suggesting an estimated $192 per document1. Again focus on the quantum, not the exact number – or indeed estimate it for yourselves
- one study went so far as to suggest it costs a business an average $14k per worker per year in lost productivity from not having data at their fingertips2.
Also consider the risks associated with paper-based workflow. What happens to your business if there is a fire or flood? The internet is awash with quotes that 80% of businesses close within two years of a “catastrophic data event”. Although it is hard to find real evidence to support any number in this area, it is clearly true that your business is significantly at risk in this area – a risk that can be wholly addressed by digitizing your business and use of the cloud or even simply good backup routines.
The cost of digitizing your form
Forms vary, so inevitably their costs vary too. However, most forms are relatively simple questionnaires, listing numerous questions and allowing you to provide the answers. Typical questions could be anything from what is the work order/job number, through is there a green light showing on the device that is being repaired, to who has signed off on a given piece of work. Simple apps that reflect lists of questions and answers take about an hour per page to build – IF you choose not to change the logic of how they work, noting that significant benefits usually flow from redesign. The software itself for such data capture applications tends to be around $25 per user per month. For many users, there is no hardware cost as they already have the phone for running such apps – but otherwise you need to factor in the cost of a smartphone or tablet.
Benefits of digitizing forms
We’ve seen, from the numbers above, that in most cases it is cheaper to digitize your forms than to continue with paper. That said, in my opinion the real benefits of “mobilizing” stem more from the opportunities offered by the new platform. For example:
- you can readily store “rich” media as answers to your questions, such as photographs to back up problems found, customer/supervisor signatures to evidence completion of the work, and even videos and audio clips
- save time with data entry by having the app automatically populate answers. Simple examples require the app to “know your data”, for example bringing in customer details from a work order number. More complex examples result from the app’s ability to communicate with the outside world, getting real-time feeds from external websites where necessary – so you can program the app to fetch the altitude at your current location, or real-time weather attributes
- improve the quality of data by validation – the app can store acceptable answers to any question, and notify the user if they are mistakenly trying to enter the wrong answer. Also no answer is illegible!
- data and the device can interact, for example on completing the form automatically sending a text message to a phone number captured at the start of the form to notify the customer that the work is complete, or getting GPS driving directions to go to the next call-out
- you can map pretty much anything, if you need visual feedback on where work is taking place or location of assets.
Most importantly of all, the app data is instantly fully usable and searchable. When using the right tools, all data is available in a centralized database once synchronized. Reporting suites can be built on top of the data. Also the data can be linked to other applications, most particularly your core Enterprise Resource Planning and Customer Relationship Management suites. Hence you can create work orders in your ERP system, allocate them to staff members, and then pass the relevant questionnaires through to the correct individual out in the field. Also you can automate the actions or notifications required as a result of particular answers given, such as notifying operations to schedule another technician to perform follow up work.
All of the above gives two very important, further benefits. Your customer service will improve, as a result of faster and better answers to what has happened in the past – as you can instantly find the form filled in for any customer on any day. And your employees’ job satisfaction goes up, as it’s much more fun rattling through a form on a smartphone than on a clipboard!
1 Coopers & Lybrand study from the mid-1990s, inflation-adjusted. I haven’t found the source study (it’s been quoted many times), so place reliance more on the general principle that it is surprisingly expensive to stay manual, rather than exact numbers. How long does it take your staff to file each document? What about finding documents once filed? How often do you search, how often do you fail to find what you’re looking for?