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Businesses get work done with fewer staffers

By Joyce M. Rosenberg

AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Using technology to run her practice lets defense attorney Susan Williams give clients the time and attention they need.

Williams decided years ago she didn’t want a large staff that would require her to increase her caseload simply to have the money to pay her employees. She has one part-time assistant and uses software for tasks like scheduling and sharing documents with clients.

“I never want to have a practice where people feel like their lawyer is being spread too thin,” says Williams, who is based in Charleston, South Carolina.

Small business owners who want or need to limit hiring have developed strategies that allow them to work more cheaply. Many have embraced software and apps that do administrative tasks, make manufacturing more efficient or provide quick customer service. Many owners use freelancers or independent contractors rather than employees; companies save money on employment costs, and also have more flexibility when they need specific talents or expertise for a project.

These trends have contributed to the often erratic pace of small business hiring since the Great Recession. Last week, payroll company ADP said its small business customers created 66,000 jobs in August. That was after adding just 1,000 in July and cutting 11,000 in June and 34,000 in May.

Williams uses technology to keep her overhead down, but her practice management software also makes communication with clients easier; it sends messages, shares documents and has a calendar that lets clients, witnesses and other attorneys know about court dates, meetings and other events.

Taking on more clients to pay for more staffers would detract from Williams’ ability to give each case the attention it needs.

“Clients are facing difficult, possibly life-altering scenarios with their case outcomes,” she says. “Quality is far more important than quantity when the stakes are this high.”

Expect small businesses to keep automating. A report from the Brookings Institution released in January said that approximately 36 million people, or a quarter of the current U.S. workforce, could see the majority of their work done by machines that use current technology.

The savings at any company depends on how much it pays staffers. Office workers, for example, earned a median salary of $32,730 last year, according to the Labor Department. Add in expenses including benefits, payroll taxes and state-mandated costs like workers compensation insurance, and it’s a considerable expense for a small business.

Money and efficiency aren’t the only factors when owners rely on technology rather than humans. Not all business owners have the time or inclination to be managers. Moreover, some find that with a larger staff they have less flexibility when it comes to saying yes or no to new business; they must bring in revenue so they can pay employees.

At some companies, the transition has occurred as technology has changed how society works. Tom Nardone’s company used to have two or three customer service people to answer the phones, take orders and field questions. But most customers now prefer to buy online and use email for questions and requests. Nardone, president of BulletSafe Bulletproof Vests, needs just one customer service staffer, and because technology has freed up his time, he can focus more on prospecting for new business.

“We do more trade shows. We went from six a year to now 13 or 14 a year,” says Nardone.

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