For many professional services firms, which live and die by the services they deliver to clients, there's no question technology is essential to staying in business today.

Digital channels and data are becoming vital tools for connecting with the always-connected customer, and they're also providing new product and services opportunities for those switched on enough to innovate.

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Here, we look at how several legal, accounting and real estate firms are embracing the digital world to better engage with their target markets.

Intelligent services through data

IT director of law firm Clayton Utz, Garry Clarke, says data is key to delivering against modern client expectations. That's why he is piloting data analysis tool, Cael, and working with partners in the US to tap into Clayton's rich database of legal matters in order to learn how to better project manage and provide accurate quotes.

"One of the issues our clients have is our ability to determine the exact length, cost and time it's going to take to run a matter, because there are particularly large transactions or large court matters," Clarke tells CIO.

"Estimating fees is a big issue at the moment, because clients want a good solid estimation, and they want to know what they are going to spend to do a matter."

The tool learns how to accurately quote and project manage particular types of matters by analysing past matters. Among the data analysed is how many lawyers worked on a matter, how many hours each lawyer spent, how many partner hours were involved, what year level each lawyer is at, the tasks involved, how long each task and phase took, and what are the specific project variables.

"It even helps us understand our profitability of matters -- we know how much time people spend on matters, so we are able to quote effectively," Clarke says.

"Clients want more accuracy for their quoting and different fee arrangements. Instead of time billing, they may want a fixed fee arrangement, for instance. If we understand exactly what's involved in the matter, we can work out our profitability and we can offer clients different billing options."

Thanks to the technology, lawyers are also alerted if a matter is going over time and budget.

"Partners will get updates on those projects and can report on the overall matter so they understand where potential for overruns exists," Clarke says. "They can then brief the client in an up-to-date way so they know exactly what's going on at that point in time."

At Ernst and Young Australia, telco, media and technology (TMT) partners, David McGregor and Tom Kennedy, are also tapping into the professional services firm's vast amount of data for client engagement.

EY professionals are using its 'Growing Beyond Borders' tool to harness country-specific data coming from numerous databases to have more in-depth discussions with clients about their overseas business strategies.

A professional enters a country and the fields they are interested in analysing such as country GDP, tax rate, mobile phone penetration and population. It then visualises that information through heat maps, for example.

"Then you can map or rate that country with others. So when the client is thinking about going to a new country, this tool enables us to leverage that data really quickly and have a conversation around some for the risks they need to consider and some of the opportunities," says McGregor.

Segmenting customers

EY's professional staff are also tapping into advanced data analytics to help digital clients better segment their customers and understand their behaviours. The capabilities were introduced into the Australian business in January following EY's acquisition of US-based analytics consulting group, Semphonic, in 2013.

Kennedy explains one area of investment is "inferred predictive". "If you have enough data, you can extrapolate an outcome that may represent 90 percentile towards where you are heading," he says.

"This area of artificial intelligence and predictive analysis on data is obviously expanding very rapidly with the use of big data sets.

"It's also the interpretation of social data, which is becoming a big part of this through Facebook and Twitter feeds. Just because two people like something and click the Like button, doesn't mean it's absolute. But they may be telling us other things in their comments and their tweets."

Digital documentation

With lawyers often working with piles of documents on an everyday basis, management systems are crucial to making life easier and ensuring the business runs smoothly. At Clayton, Clarke has implemented HP WorkSite to digitise documents that can be accessed through a tablet. He's also looking to add an electronics signatures function with DocuSign.

"That's going to certainly save a lot of time when large deals are happening and you need copies to be sent and signed," he says. "There's no paper that needs to be printed, no couriers and the expense of shifting paper around just for the sake of executing documents."

Deloitte's CIO, Tim Fleming, says many companies spend a lot of time checking numbers when it comes to bookkeeping and keying data into internal systems. He saw an opportunity to respond to this problem and helped develop Deloitte Private Connect, a cloud-based bookkeeping application that integrates with Xero, MYOB and Intuit. It also uses Salesforce's Force.com platform and the 9 Spokes admin dashboard that holds all the online applications.

"There have been online bookkeeping services around for a while and accounting providers like Xero, whereas we've gone that one step further with the piece of software in the middle, which we call 'Transact'," Fleming says. "The customer will see tasks that are awaiting them, such as approving a payment or a form to sign

"On our side, we can process invoices and payments on their behalf and we don't mind which cloud provider they use. So we are agnostic as to what platform the customer wants to run on.

"If both they [clients] and us are spending less time in producing their accounts, then we're able to spend more time advising them how to improve their business, and they are able to spend more time working on their business and not on the administration."

Next up: Community engagement

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Community engagement

In the real estate world, digital technology is helping facilitate engagement with clients and build value as the trusted expert. CEO of First National Real Estate, Ray Ellis, has been doing just that with automated Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts.

"It's automated so each one of our offices around Australia and New Zealand can upload local content, local information and national information on a regular basis with little involvement from staff at the local office," he says. "Local staff provide the content, but it's automated by the technology.

"We've built the technology ourselves with our partners in the United States; they provide the hardware and we provide the mechanism for making it happen."

While the technology saves staff a lot of time in keeping conversations happening on social media, it's the content that is most important, Ellis says. Every post must show the real estate group has a genuine interest in what's happening in the local community, as well as educating people on real estate matters.

Since First National began this social media strategy about a year-and-a-half ago, it has seen an almost 200 per cent increase in social media engagement with its clients, Ellis says.

"An email inbox has now become a cluttered space. There's a school of thought that email is becoming passé, and perhaps it is for under 25-year-olds as it's been replaced by Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare and so on," he says. "We have to engage in that format."

CIO of Ray White Group, Tony Carroll, is also looking to better engage with clients and is developing the real estate's 'Research Bar' iPad app. The iPad is embedded into a table so people can sit and play around with the app while waiting to see a real estate agent, for example.

The app uses Google Maps to search all the Ray White properties for sale in the local area. Users select a property and get an idea on what the average repayments per week would be over a certain period of time if they were to buy the property. The iPad offering has been deployed in select offices so far.

"We have a lot of people coming into the office to pay their rent, looking for rental properties and properties to buy. People might come in saying 'I'm paying say $500 per week in rent, but for $500 per week I could buy this property'. So it might help start a new conversation and get people thinking differently," Carroll says.

"Instead of saying 'give me your email address and I'll send you a market update every three months or inspections for houses', we want to look at how we can better engage with the community and provide information that may be able to help them in different ways."