Dan Haurey is standing on stage before an audience of his peers, proudly recounting the tale of how persistent cold calling from a member of his sales staff ultimately landed his company, Exigent Technologies (exigent.net), the marquis client he’s about to introduce: Buddy Valastro, better known as reality star The Cake Boss (carlosbakery.com). In addition to this guest appearance at Ingram Micro’s VentureTech Network International (im-vtn.com) in Colorado Springs last May, Valastro accepted a deal that has him participating in a video for Exigent, consenting to a number of IT publication interviews and posting Tweets such as the following to his million-plus followers: “We had to find a partner that was going to deliver, and Exigent Technologies, they’re the right people.”
It’s a sweet spot to be in, pun intended. But before the spotlight, before prospects saw the Cake Boss coverage and started pursuing Exigent, before the query turned into a sales call and finally a win, came the hard part: creating a business worthy of all that attention. How do you get the right business model, the right staff, the right processes, the right culture in place so that when that big opportunity comes along, you not only win it, but deliver so well that the high-profile client sings your praises in front of clients, prospects and your peers?
The Pursuit of Exigence
On paper, Exigent Technologies doesn’t look much different from many other solution providers. As a regionally focused managed service provider, Exigent maintains its headquarters in Mt. Arlington, NJ, to cover northern and central New Jersey, and operates a satellite office to serve Manhattan. It offers consulting, managed services, software development and cloud services to an array of small and mid-sized businesses, with clusters of customers in the healthcare sector. Its staff of 21 boasts a range of IT certifications, including a recently received gold level competency in the Microsoft Partner Network and an Enterprise level competency in VMware Infrastructure Virtualization. Exigent is growing at a 20 percent annual pace and expects revenues of $4 million in fiscal 2012.
But those who do business with Exigent say the difference comes in the attitude they bring to every encounter.
“Their approach with us is very much like their approach with customers,” says John Fago, senior director of product marketing, North America, for Ingram Micro (ingrammicro.com). “It’s open, trusting, and all about how we can work together in a way that’s a win for all.”
Mix Thoroughly, Allow to Rise
That praise stems from the company’s unique combination of well-honed, enterprise-like business processes combined with a personal touch.
“The biggest thing for us is to have the customer be more than just satisfied,” says Gerald Busardo, service delivery manager for Exigent. “Our goal is to make them become raving fans.”
Exigent got its start in 1997 when Haurey was working as a consultant for Lucent Technologies under a contract with IBM Global Services. He noted the pervasive, unmet need for computer networking among small and mid-size businesses, and started Exigent (definition: requiring immediate action or aid) with a partner, whom he later bought out. The company originally adopted a time-and-materials business model, but in late 2007 moved to managed services. In addition to the benefits of recurring revenue, “we figured out that when things are down the customer is not happy, and when we sent the bill, it was like adding salt to the wound,” says Haurey. Managed services casts the IT solution in an entirely more positive light, supporting rather than detracting from Exigent’s customer-focused approach.
It can be tough to both go the extra mile for the customer and maintain cost-efficient support processes at the same time—many IT consultants sacrifice their time and their profitability in the name of customer satisfaction. Exigent walks this delicate line by taking a page from the enterprise world Haurey once inhabited. “Our methodology is our secret sauce,” he says.
“We’re very process and efficiency driven,” he explains. “We try to keep refining what we do to not only deliver a better support experience to the customer with more value, but to keep efficiency on our side.” There are documented processes for hiring, for support, for sales, for marketing—and a manager, Busardo, whose job is focused exclusively on maintaining and enhancing internal operations.
Haurey and Busardo credit a few key business books as inspiration for their approach: The E Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do about It, by Michael Gerber, and Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach To Customer Service, by Ken Blanchard, Sheldon Bowles and Harvey Mackay. Another is New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use News Releases, Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing and Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly, by David Meerman Scott.
Recipe for Success
Solution providers seeking to replicate this level of success can take some cues from Exigent’s well-rounded approach.
1. Put the customer first
The secret to being able to delight customers lies in taking on only those customers you’re equipped to delight. “The economic conditions of the last five years have taught solution providers a lot of important lessons,” says Haurey. It’s not cost-effective to stretch your services too far to accommodate a single customer, such as one clinging to a backup solution you don’t trust.
On the other hand, excellent customer service also means embracing what they want as well as what they need. Many Exigent customers have a rapidly growing need for storage and virtualization, a no-brainer place to pour additional resources. But many also love Apple products. So Exigent became Apple certified and a member of its Consultant’s Network (consultants.apple.com). “It allows us embrace it rather than frown on it,” says Haurey. “The last thing an ardent Mac fan wants is some computer geek telling him that Apple is bad.” Exigent also supports mobile devices and Microsoft Office apps, which some solution providers avoid.
Exigent maintains a fully staffed help desk and encourages staff to develop relationships with customers. Staffers are empowered to do what it takes to satisfy the customer, and they habitually follow up a week or two after an incident just to be sure everything is still running okay.
2. Hire slowly
Exigent takes its time in hiring, seeking candidates that fit well into the culture. They’ve defined model personal characteristics that make an employee successful in each position in the company, and then use a personality test and a technical assessment to guide a series of interviews, match candidates to the right jobs and shape their career path after hire. “We try to talk someone out of joining us as much as we can,” says Busardo. “We want people who want to be here, who have a demonstrated passion.”
The zealous attention to employee development doesn’t stop with the hire. Exigent spends three hours per employee twice a year in order to prepare for a two-hour long performance review, using clear-cut performance measurements and a roadmap so employees know exactly what they need to do to stay and to move up. An incentive program also drives workers to point out each other’s positive performance.
3 Focus on process
All of Exigent’s operations are enabled by an evolving, meticulously documented set of processes to which everyone in the company contributes. The company’s 50-plus processes are intended to minimize hand-offs and unnecessary steps.
The company has also made a substantial investment in software to enable its business processes, including:
4. Don’t make marketing an afterthought
- Continuum RMM
- An internally developed .net-based customer documentation portal.
“Dan is a marketer trapped in an IT professional’s body,” says Dennis Crupi, director of creative services in Ingram Micro’s marketing services agency. But while non-PR types can hire for these skills, it’s the passion Exigent staff has for its work that makes the story easy to tell. “Because they know who they are and what they stand for, they can go out to market. This market is 100 percent service-oriented, so if you cannot differentiate yourselves you will not last,” Crupi says.
Exigent has become skilled at leveraging social media, but when they negotiated to be named the official IT service provider for Carlos Bakery, they turned to Ingram Micro to make the most of the marketing opportunity. Ingram Micro produced a case study and a video on the Cake Boss installation. A well-produced video in particular helps in search engine optimization, Crupi says.
Exigent also reinforces its value by putting its own branding on products and services it resells.
5. Make time to lead
Many IT companies are helmed by engineers with technical know-how, but not always marketing and business training. Fighting the instinct to roll up the sleeves and dive into day-to-day technology challenges can be difficult, but Haurey trained himself to do it.
As president, “I have not worked directly at the tech level for ten years,” says Haurey. “But it’s taken me a while to divorce myself from an engineer mentality. It took a lot of book reading and soul searching.” That step enables Haurey to address big picture issues.
One resource in that effort is membership in Ingram Micro’s VentureTech Network, meeting with other solution providers once or twice a month. “It lets me see how others are doing it,” says Haurey.
Internally, the company organization is fairly flat, with every staff member participating in weekly meetings to collaborate on key decisions. “In Q1 2013 one of our goals is to create a dashboard so our employees know the state of our business in real time—how profitable, how utilized, our customer satisfaction levels,” says Busardo.
Leadership also extends to clients. While some solution providers see it as a threat, for example, “our position is to introduce cloud and be a strong prophet and advocate for the customer,” says Haurey. “SMBs still need a trusted advisor. The only thing you’re changing is the delivery model.”
Winning a fan in a celebrity client is great for the business—and the ego. But earning that trust starts with well-thought-out operations, leadership and a clearly communicated vision. “Not all the clients you deal with are a Carlos Bakery, but the approach to all clients is the same for Dan and his team,” says Ingram’s Fago. “That’s a differentiator.”