Capture Customers With A Clear Image
As an integrator, you might think your business is all about technology, but Fairfax Imaging has learned it takes sales and marketing expertise to soar beyond a revenue plateau.
The basic message of the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is that men and women approach life differently, but there are advantages to be gained by learning to understand the opposite sex. In the IT industry, the same is often said of sales and technical staffs. Sometimes sales and marketing people understand concepts like generating leads and messaging, but they may not really understand the exhilaration of writing the perfect line of code that solves a problem the engineering team has been working on for months. Steve Chahal and Tony Cristofano, vice presidents of Fairfax Imaging, Inc. (Chantilly, VA), are both technicians. In 1994, the pair decided to form a private company that would build, from the ground up, a core software product for imaging, forms processing, and data capture. As a small company, Chahal and Cristofano held multiple roles, including sales. "If you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail," says Cristofano. "For us, that meant every problem looked like a technical problem. As a young company, we got into contracts just because they looked exciting, but they didn't help us move forward. Taking on a new sales perspective two years ago gave us a better view of where we wanted to be and helped us focus."
In the early years of the business, revenue grew exponentially year after year. Just over two years ago, Chahal and Cristofano noticed growth was slowing and feared they were hitting a wall. "There are only so many contracts and customers you can get if you're a technician," says Cristofano. "Word of mouth will take you to a certain point. Early on, it's easy to realize 100% or even 150% sales growth, but as time goes on, growing sales gets more difficult. The contracts get larger, and people want to talk to a salesman. Even though Steve and I are qualified to do the sales pitch, we don't really enjoy it."
Fairfax Imaging's goal has always been that the product line should be as open and horizontal as possible, allowing it to be configured for specific applications. Ironically, it was the flexible product that made it hard to build a specific identity in the marketplace. After all, if your product can work in a variety of applications, how do you promote it in a unified way?
Recruiting Imaging And Marketing Expertise On A Limited Budget
Fairfax Imaging's initial attempt to address sales and marketing taught them the value of experience. They hired a junior sales executive to oversee the marketing initiative, but enthusiasm and sales experience didn't provide the kind of oversight capability that could guide the direction of the company. Consequently, Chahal and Cristofano began a campaign to recruit Jim Everett. An industry veteran with more than 30 years experience, Everett had worked for well-known vendors including Scan-Optics and Recognition Equipment and as a consultant. He understood the imaging industry and the technologies that comprise it. Combine those attributes with knowledge of key verticals such as government and a proven sales record, and Everett had all the qualities Fairfax Imaging was looking for in a marketing leader. The trick was wooing a senior exec away from his current job to accept a position as VP of sales and marketing at a $6 million company.
Cristofano estimates it took about two years to convince Everett to join the team, and, he admits, Fairfax Imaging couldn't offer fancy offices or huge cash bonuses. In addition to Chahal's and Cristofano's persistence, Everett says what won him over was the opportunity to play an active role in the development of a promising company. "I was drawn to the excitement of a small organization," says Everett. "After a while, it seemed like the large companies were asking for all kinds of reports and structure that just seemed like eyewash for upper management. When an organization is repeating errors I have previously encountered, it's frustrating when my advice isn't heeded. At Fairfax, I am trying to make sure they don't hit those pitfalls, and we have logical discussions about the whys and wherefores of all major business decisions."
Choose Contracts That Promote Long-Term Goals
In trying to avoid falling into contracts that might not be in Fairfax Imaging's best interest, Everett has focused the sales team on pursuing contracts that build on the company's existing strengths. As Cristofano points out, being lured into "exciting" projects had cost them in the past. Expensive engineering resources that could have been used to improve the overall product had been committed to complex onetime deals that brought only short-term cash flow.
For instance, one area Fairfax Imaging is focusing on is government tax processing because it allows the integrator to build on past success, both from a marketing perspective and an integration/technology standpoint. The need to put those jobs to bid helps Fairfax expand geographically because it is possible to monitor proposals across the United States and Canada.
In addition, as they know more about the vertical niche, they also know more about the possible competitors, either because they have run up against them before or because the company's previous bids can be researched under the Freedom of Information Act. "Sometimes cost is the only discriminator in winning a bid," says Everett. "If we can predict how our competition is going to react and closely monitor the logistics of an account, we can be more aggressive with our own pricing. For example, when the market is slow, some companies have a tendency to cut prices to win deals while others are more cautious." With that knowledge and logistical information such as how expensive it will be for employees to travel to a site or how much it will cost to ship the hardware, Fairfax can calculate its most competitive bid.
Make Vendors Part Of Your Marketing Team
Smaller companies benefit from partnerships that increase their visibility. Everett says Fairfax already had some excellent partner relationships with giants like Oracle, Unisys, and NCR when he came on board. "These partnerships were built on marketing opportunities," notes Everett. A Fairfax Imaging customer site would attract attention on its own merits, but the company had no specific plan for drawing attention to itself or determining which vendors it sought to appeal to. Everett has formalized many of these marketing opportunities by letting vendors know what Fairfax is doing at key customer sites and taking advantage of joint marketing initiatives.
"We could get our own booth at AIIM, but who would know us?" asks Everett. "We might get some results if someone stumbles onto our booth, but it's a big show with big name vendors, and it would be easy to get lost." What has been more successful is participating in the vendor booths at shows like AIIM and retaining individual booths only at vertical or other targeted shows.
By participating in a vendor's booth, the integrator gets to tout his technical and application expertise and talk to end users. The vendor gets to highlight how its technology is used in practical applications. To secure an opportunity like this, knowledge of the hot buttons for both the imaging market and the vendor are important. "In the case of some vendors, there is a stated policy for how partners are chosen. Often, whoever installs the application with a top-notch customer and has a story using the vendor's products usually gets the nod before pure technical elegance."
Introduce Yourself To The Big Five
In addition to formalizing relationships with vendors, Fairfax Imaging is realizing an increasing amount of revenue from dealing with Accenture. Fairfax Imaging's first engagement with the $11 billion integration giant was with the Washington, D.C. Tax Department. Fairfax already had a small portion of the client site with remittance processing. When Accenture was hired for a larger engagement at the site, its plan was to outsource the front end processing (scanning and data capture). Since the customer was happy with Fairfax Imaging's existing solution, it was recommended for the new one as well. Since that time, Accenture has brought Fairfax Imaging into other tax processing opportunities, and Everett plans to make sure Accenture is aware of its other imaging experience. "Big Five integrators seem to have more expertise in the areas of data processing and massaging content. Generally, larger integrators are looking for someone to handle the front end. For them, there's more profitability once the capture process is over and they begin projects like data mining." What a Big Five integrator considers unprofitable can be the biggest opportunity in a VAR's career - an opportunity to get a job it could neither land nor implement by itself.
The Media Is Your Friend
Fairfax Imaging is also learning the value of press coverage. Vendors, professional organizations, and an industry analyst/consultant have all put Fairfax in touch with the media to promote successful installations. Everett points out that providing frequent updates to these sources is important, as is having a pool of accounts that are willing to act as references. "Attempt to convince all your accounts to agree to be referenced," advises Everett. "I know it's a tough position to be in, especially in commercial enterprises where there's competition, and they don't want competitors to know what they are doing. But it's necessary to maximize your current reputation and customer base."
Fairfax Imaging's marketing initiative kept the integrator from hitting a revenue plateau, and increased the company's geographical range. Not only does Fairfax Imaging have installations from coast to coast, it is also establishing a presence in Canada. As the technicians continue to develop and expand the functionality of the product suite, the sales and marketing team will work on identifying opportunities that advance Fairfax Imaging's goals.