High-Touch Industry Turns to High Tech

Professional services firms, perhaps more than other types of companies, need to be accessible to their clients. Regardless of the services rendered—consulting, legal or financial, to name a few—customers expect to be able to reach someone when necessary and to receive a highly customized level of service.

At the same time, professional services companies are looking for ways to cut costs and increase agility. Three technologies stand out as being especially critical to professional services firms as they try to achieve these goals: virtualization, mobility and social networking.

Virtualization is a hot technology in many industries. Businesses are looking for opportunities to reduce costs and decrease power consumption in their data centers, and server virtualization can deliver that by enabling companies to reduce their reliance on physical servers.

Research shows that the percentage of virtual servers running in production is rising. Desktop virtualization is also becoming more common, as firms seek to enhance their ability to manage desktops from a central location and deploy thin clients to replace traditional PCs.

“We’re now seeing cheaper devices that are hard-wired to be nothing but a virtual desktop,” says John-David Lovelock, research vice president at Gartner. “When you tailor that with [mobile technology], you can use any device and get access to your desktop as though you were in your workplace.”

Mobility—for both computing and communications—is another popular technology. Many firms are installing wireless networks, enabling employees and customers to use a variety of devices to access corporate networks and applications. Some are also issuing devices such as PDAs and smartphones to give their workers access to some of the latest mobile applications.

In addition, mobile technology presents companies with new business opportunities. Lovelock cites an example of a cell phone application used by real estate firms in Europe that allows house hunters who are driving to be notified automatically when they are approaching an open house in a particular area.

“There are a few countries in Europe where cell phone penetration is 100 percent,” Lovelock says. “The ubiquity of cell phones is going to be a reality that we can count on—not just for use by employees, but for staying in contact with clients.”

Another popular way of stay-ing in touch is through social networking, and technologies that enable various types of online collaboration are gaining ground quickly.

Social networking is both an opportunity and a threat “for pretty much anyone who sells by reputation into the market,” Lovelock says. “Any of these firms that don’t take control of their brand in the social networking arena will find that they’ve given up control of their brand to the marketplace.”

In the short term, many firms are ignoring social networking because they assume its impact on the business is minimal. “But its impact will grow, as it is a brand-new channel to market,” Lovelock says. “It’s a communications channel with clients and potential clients.”

Here’s how some professional services firms are successfully using these technologies.