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the challenge

Warren Houston, the president and CEO of NetConneXion, at his office in Barrie, Ont. Tuesday Oct. 30, 2012TIM FRASER/The Globe and Mail

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

Warren Houston built the company he founded as a one-man operation in 2008 by offering clients the personal touch.

"I've handled all sales, and all client-relationship management. I still deliver all the reports each month, and I'm the primary contact for any issues," says the president and chief executive officer of NetConneXion, a Barrie, Ont.-based Internet marketing firm that specializes in search-engine optimization.

With the company grown to 10 employees, generating $650,000 in revenue in 2012, up from $500,000 the year before, Mr. Houston now feels that this approach is no longer sustainable.

"There's just not enough hours in the day to continue to handle all those relationships and still do an effective job," he says.

Working one-on-one with clients has kept him from being able to focus on other aspects of growing the business, such as developing new processes and methodologies, and expanding his sales force outside of Ontario.

He now wants to pass on client-management responsibilities to someone else – likely a new hire who would focus exclusively on it. But he's not sure how best to prepare clients for such a change, especially when so many are used to dealing with him directly.

For NetConneXion, the stakes are especially high. The company doesn't lock clients into contracts, so a poorly executed handover could mean unsatisfied customers could leave immediately.

"I don't want the situation to come to the point where the client thinks, 'Well, because Warren isn't involved any more, the quality of the service isn't the same," he says.

"How do you bring it up? Is there a certain way to position it that's in the client's best interest? And how do you handle any [client] pushback?"

The Challenge: How can the company best prepare clients used to dealing directly with the founder for a handover to a new point person?


Shabana Ahmad, business coach and business development expert at Integrity Human Capital, Calgary

Customer allegiance to an organization is often based on many factors, from price or convenience to tradition or personal relationships. Does Mr. Houston know why his customers prefer him? I recommend asking. He may be surprised to find that they're his customers for reasons other than he assumed.

By openly communicating with his customers and making them a part of the process, he can determine what attributes of the service he provides that they have come to admire and count on the most. By being a part of the process, they will feel like the decision was something done for them instead of to them.

Business is built on relationships. By taking the time to get to know his customers, understand their needs and wants, and learn how best to communicate with them, he can make the transition a lot less painful for everyone, his new hire included. This will also allow him to establish procedures and protocols that duplicate the tasks he currently performs for his customers. By identifying, and duplicating his personal flavour into his companies processes, Mr. Houston and his customers can be assured that his business will operate as a living and breathing extension of himself, with or without his personal presence.

Ian Dainty, founder of B2B Business Coach, based in Toronto

I ran a professional-services company, which I started, and I had the same issue. Here is what I would do: Hire an account manager who has handled service accounts before and ensure he/she is well trained in B2B account management. Acquaint this individual fully with the account, including all of the services, but especially all of the people [Mr. Houston] now deals with in each account.

Set up a meeting with everyone within the account, and go with the new rep to introduce him/her. Practice the meeting to ensure he is comfortable with what he wants to say, and why the change. Mention that he doesn't do all of the work now for the account; that is why he has other people (I assume). After the full meeting is over, meet with the senior executive at the account alone, with him and the new account manager. Assure the executive that he can still call him at any time, and that [Mr. Houston] will check in with him once a month for the first six months, to see how everything is progressing. After that, contact the exec at least once a quarter.

After a year, [Mr. Houston] needs to meet with the executive at least two times per year. This should happen with all his major accounts, whether he started them or  not. All executives should have peer-to-peer meetings with the senior execs in their clients' firms. [Mr. Houston] should also have a yearly account review meeting with each of his major accounts. This will also help him sell more each year. This process will also indoctrinate the new account rep into the process [Mr. Houston] wants and needs for each major account.

Max Entin, president and CEO of Siren Advertising, Toronto

The way I handled this transition in my business was by doing it in three steps:

Step one is delegating only the new client relationships to the new hire. This way you are not risking your existing client relationships and, at the same time, new clients don't expect you to be involved any more since they were handled by your new account manager from the beginning.

Step two is delegating reporting and billing/payment collection for existing clients. These are not essential to the relationship you already established with your existing clients and they won't mind if someone else at your company handles this part, since they still feel that, if there are any problems, they can contact you to handle it. The person who handles this part should be an assistant or bookkeeper at your company (could be a part-time position). It should not be the person you delegate the client relationships to.

Step three is delegating the rest of the existing client relationships to the new account manager. By now, your new account manager already has some experience at your company since he/she has been working with your new clients for a bit now. Send an e-mail or make a phone call to each existing client and say something like: "Because you are a really important client to me, I want to make sure you have the attention you need. That's why you will now have two people on your account, myself and [name of your new account manager]. If you need anything. please contact either one of us." Now, slowly have your new account manager handle more and more of the interaction with these existing clients after this introduction has been made and, over time, they'll develop a relationship with the account manager as well and you'll be out of the picture completely.


Ask clients why they stay

Understanding why clients prefer your business can help you prioritize those attributes during a transition.

Transition gradually

Start by assigning new clients to the new hire, before handing over existing clients.

Stay in touch

Even after day-to-day responsibilities have been passed on, the founder should still make time to meet with clients on a regular basis.

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