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Lak Gill, a managing partner at Interware Systems (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Lak Gill, a managing partner at Interware Systems (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE CHALLENGE

How to ease client fears of playing second fiddle Add to ...

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue.

Back in April, Interware Systems Inc. landed the biggest contract in the company’s 28-year history – a $2.1-million deal from the Ontario government.

It’s not just bringing in a lot of money but has also opened doors to new clients and contracts, says Lak Gill, one of two managing partners of the Toronto-based information technology firm.

But while that’s all good news for the company, it has raised worries, too: After the contract was announced, other Interware clients started to call with concerns about whether the company would still be able to deliver the type of service they’ve become accustomed to.

And Mr. Gill doesn’t want any clients to feel like they are playing second fiddle.

For nearly three decades, the 14-employee company, which brought in revenues of about $3-million last year, has prided itself on being small and offering intimate, personal service to clients. Each client has a dedicated account manager to help with technical issues and support, and a “virtual chief information officer” to help clients control their IT spending, among other things. Mr. Gill also personally talks to clients on an almost-daily basis.

That personal touch is a big reason that clients have come to the firm, he says.

Now that it’s landed the big contract, however, clients worry about taking second place. Mr. Gill is not worried that quality will deteriorate – and he’s told them that. He’s also making four new hires to work exclusively on the government contract.

However, he’s still concerned about how to allay the concerns of both current and potential clients who think he can’t handle their business any more.

“It’s about perception,” he says. “How do we make customers realize that they’re not No. 2 as we continue to grow our company?”

The Challenge: How can Interware reassure clients their level of service will not be compromised by a big new contract?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Lisa Shepherd, president of Toroto-based The Mezzanine Group

It’s good that he’s hiring more staff, but he needs to bring in a really strong operator, or manager, who can handle the new contract or the existing clients; someone he can bring to the clients and say, this person – talk up his [or her] background – is going to be handling these accounts and we’re happy to have him [or her] on the team. Business-to-business clients are savvy about the service they’re getting, so he can’t just say not to worry. He’s going to have to put his money where his mouth is. That means adding more resources.

He also needs to think about what kind of service he wants to offer as he continues to grow. You can’t have it both ways. At some point, he won’t be able to serve as many customers as well as he does now. He needs to reframe how he thinks about his business and how he serves his customers.

Colleen McMorrow, Toronto-based entrepreneurial services leader for Ernst & Young.

He needs to make sure he’s communicating. Show them that he's not distracted with the big elephant. You don’t want to be defensive about the opportunity for growth, but keep talking to them on that personal level. Reinforce that you have the infrastructure in place and then make sure you execute successfully.

Also demonstrate that there will opportunities for the clients because of that group. If you can bring new networks and relationships to your existing customers, that will be an added benefit. So provide clients with additional values, benefits and features that didn’t exist before.

Maggie Fox, chief executive officer of Toronto-based Social Media Group

I had the same problem. People came to my company because of me. But when we started to expand, I couldn’t give that same personal attention as I did before.

It’s all about managing client expectations. The reality is that things are going to change, so don’t tell the client it’s not. But clients understand that things change.

He needs to talk to the client, but be very solutions-oriented. Say thanks for supporting us and here’s a new structure and model. Now I deal with only the most senior people on our accounts. I’m still in regular personal contact with every one of them – probably once or twice a month – and, if they have any concerns, they come to me. Realistically, why would the top executive of a company want to be focused on executions when there’s more value to add elsewhere? Clients will respect that.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY CAN DO NOW

Hire a new manager

Bring on someone with a strong background who can be the new point person on other client accounts. Explain who the person is and how he or she can help.

Stay in touch

Even with a new point person, keep talking to clients about their issues and concerns. It doesn’t have to be every day, but a call or lunch once a month still offers that personal connection.

Be honest

Tell clients that the company is growing and that’s a good thing. Be upfront and spell out how you’ll be able to continue providing that personal service going forward.

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