Formula for Rapid Growth
ePartners' fast-track plan consists of empowering project managers while keeping close tabs on customer satisfaction.
- By Paul Desmond
- March 01, 2006
To Howard Diamond, "rapid growth" is when you take a company from roughly $500 million in annual revenue to more than $1 billion in less than four years. That's what Diamond did a few years back as CEO of CorpSoft Inc., which was good enough to get the Norwood, Mass.-based company acquired by Level 3 Communications Inc. of Boulder, Colo., in 2002.
"We haven't seen that kind of growth in this market yet," he says. "This" refers to the Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) market, in which Diamond -- as CEO of ePartners Inc. -- is now selling products and services related to Microsoft CRM, Axapta, Great Plains and SharePoint, among others.
While ePartners hasn't yet hit CorpSoft's growth levels, the Seattle-based company is doing well for itself, achieving solid double-digit growth each of the last three years. Late in 2005, revenue was running at about $74 million per year, a figure Diamond expects to reach $85 million by mid-2006.
|ePartner Inc.'s Chairman
and CEO Howard Diamond
That's not exactly shabby, but Diamond believes he can do better.
With sound methodologies already in place for project management
and ensuring customer satisfaction, he's now banking on the establishment
of a new "client partner" position to help the company
earn more revenue out of its existing clients.
Communicate and Deliver
Diamond came to ePartners in 2004 when EYT (formerly Ernst & Young
Technologies of Chantilly, Va.), where he'd served as CEO after
leaving Level 3, merged with ePartners. EYT was likewise an MBS
partner that Diamond describes as having "a lot of cash, but not
significant market position." ePartners -- itself the product of
numerous acquisitions -- was in the opposite situation, he says,
making the merger a good fit. As of late 2005, the combined company
had about 360 employees, including 190 consultants, and 24 offices
in North America and London. Diamond expects to have 500 employees
by the end of 2007.
In a fast-growing company of that size, process becomes important to maintaining consistent quality. To that end, in the past two years, 27 ePartners project managers have undergone training and received Project Management Professional certification from Project Management Institute (PMI), a Newtown Square, Pa.-based education and standards association.
Web Site: www.epartnersolutions.com
Top Executive: Howard Diamond, Chairman and
Line of Business: Microsoft Business Solutions
consulting and services
Microsoft Partner Level: Gold Certified
Microsoft Competencies: Microsoft Business
Solutions, Networking Infrastructure Solutions,
Annual Revenue: About $74 million; with
double-digit growth each of last three years
Employees: About 360 worldwide, including
Target Markets: Midmarket companies, typically
with annual revenues between $100 million and
Microsoft Awards: 2005 MBS Technical Innovation
Award; 2004 MBS Global Partner of the Year; 2003
CRM Excellence Award; 2002 Customer Loyalty Award
Those managers are now expected to make sure that ePartners follows
the PMI project-management methodology, which relies heavily on
documentation to communicate virtually everything about a project,
says Dave Dickey, ePartners' vice president of professional services.
"Lots of people can talk a big game on methodology, but don't really follow it," Dickey says. To ensure that that's not the case at ePartners, the company routinely conducts "peer reviews" of projects, in which teams of project managers review each other's project documentation. "That's gone a long way in not only helping project managers learn from one another, but in enforcing the discipline to follow the methodology," Dickey says.
Following the methodology is all part of ePartners Client Service Delivery
Excellence (CSDE) approach, which the company credits for helping
it maintain a 96 percent customer-retention rate.
Another element of CSDE involves having customer-service representatives survey customers while their projects are in progress to determine whether they're satisfied with how things are going.
Twice during each project -- at about the midway point and at the end -- a customer-service rep who isn't otherwise involved with the job calls the customer to ask a standard set of questions designed to gauge satisfaction. "A lot of times the client may be frustrated, but won't tell the project manager," notes Laurie Tomasovky, director of the ePartners' project-management office. "But you'd be amazed what they tell other folks."
The company converts the survey results into a "barometer" that shows with simple green, yellow or red indicators whether a project needs attention. Green means all is well. Yellow indicates the project team must contact the client within a week. Red means it's time for upper management to get involved.
One key to making that process work is a simple one: Tomasovky reports directly to Diamond. That means when she calls a project manager or director to report customer feedback and offer suggestions, they know that "Laurie speaks for me," Diamond says.
reviews have gone a long way in not only helping project managers
learn from one another, but in enforcing the discipline to
follow the methodology." -- David Dickey, Senior
Vice President of Professional Services, ePartners Inc.
A New Sales Approach
The secret to growth, however, is not only getting customers to
buy from you, but persuading them to buy more. That's the idea behind
the new client partner position that Diamond instituted late in
2005. After examining ePartners' business, Diamond learned that,
while most customer projects were remarkably successful, the company
wasn't selling multiple projects to the same customers.
"It wasn't because we didn't have capabilities that those customers needed or wanted," he says. "It was because the people who ended up being closest to the customer and spent the most time with the customer had no sales responsibility."
Reaping Rewards with Regional
ePartners has a long history with Microsoft
and, as one of its biggest partners, has plenty
of contacts on a national basis. "It’s
pretty easy for me to meet with people in Redmond
and get through to people in order to influence
things," says Chairman and CEO Howard Diamond.
But he adds: "What really ends up paying
off for a company like ours are the relationships
our local regions are able to develop with Microsoft’s
local regions. The real go-to-market activity
Those people are the consultants and project managers who would
work closely with a customer for a period of time, then pack up
and go off to the next job. The idea behind the client partner position
is to give those same people sales responsibility, so that they
do more needs analysis with customers, then present additional offerings
that can address pain points.
Even with the client partner model, Diamond doesn't expect every customer to quickly sign on for a dozen more projects. "But what is happening, and what will happen, is that customers will get a better understanding of our capabilities and will buy additional services from us," he says.
They'd better, because it will be mighty expensive for ePartners
to have its highly paid consultants and project managers linger
longer at client sites. Diamond considers the expenditure an investment,
but acknowledges: "It's a very risky move."
Prepped for Growth
Such internally focused investments are one reason ePartners sought
-- and received -- $25 million in venture-capital money last year.
Another reason was to make sure the company has cash on hand for
acquisitions. But Diamond doesn't intend to go after companies offering
similar services. Instead, he wants to augment the company's existing
software development skills in such a way that the company can provide
more proprietary software as part of its projects.