Formula for Rapid Growth

ePartners' fast-track plan consists of empowering project managers while keeping close tabs on customer satisfaction.

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
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.

ePartners Inc.

Headquarters: Seattle

Web Site: www.epartnersolutions.com

Top Executive: Howard Diamond, Chairman and CEO

Founded: 1992

Line of Business: Microsoft Business Solutions consulting and services

Microsoft Partner Level: Gold Certified

Microsoft Competencies: Microsoft Business Solutions, Networking Infrastructure Solutions, Learning Solutions

Annual Revenue: About $74 million; with double-digit growth each of last three years

Employees: About 360 worldwide, including 190 consultants

Target Markets: Midmarket companies, typically with annual revenues between $100 million and $1 billion

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.

ePartners' David Dickey
"Peer 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."

QuickTip

Reaping Rewards with Regional Relationships

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 happens there."

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.

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