Business Essential: It's not what you know, it's who you know. So what if who you know goes?

A telecoms firm has won big assignments by networking. But how can it adjust when contacts move on?
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The Independent Online

It's individual relationships that make business relationships work, but what happens when your contacts in other organisations are no longer there?

Aurora Kendrick James specialises in telecommunications management and advisory services, with an emphasis on billing systems, and works with some very large clients. But individuals in these big businesses keep moving on, and as a result, the firm constantly finds itself investing time and money in making new contacts in its client companies. Managing director Matt Atkinson would like to know if there is a strategy for making this work less onerous or even avoidable.

"When the company was set up eight years ago, we predominantly tried to sell these services directly to the corporate market. We'd advise large organisations how to manage their communications and IT costs more efficiently," he explains.

But he soon realised that this wouldn't work. "If you're a small business trying to sell into very large businesses, it can take you up to 18 months just to get the door open. So we decided to work through other organisations that already had relationships with those big companies."

The strategy succeeded. The middle-man businesses - including BT, Cable & Wireless and accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers at the top end, and smaller consulting firms with an established client base at the lower end - gain added value for their customers through the partnership. Meanwhile, Aurora Kendrick James benefits from getting its opportunities more quickly and from the chance to work with end users such as Mencap and McDonald's.

"Typically, our end users are multi-site organisations from both the private and public sector with a significant expenditure on communications," explains Mr Atkinson.

"A good example is the NHS Greater Glasgow Trust, where we work in conjunction with Cable & Wireless to help the trust in areas such as reducing costs and call handling. It would have taken us years to set that up, but working in partnership with Cable & Wireless helped us get there quicker."

The challenge Aurora Ken-drick James now faces is that its partners keep going through restructurings. "For example, Energis has just been acquired by Cable & Wireless, and both are companies we work with. The result is that a lot of Cable & Wireless management are going and I guess a lot of Energis management will go too. All the good work we've done is at risk of going with them. Suddenly, you have a whole new team who may not be interested in us."

He believes the main problem is that Aurora Kendrick James is not a multi-billion-pound organisation and not everyone will have heard of it. "So a new finance director might look at their work with us as a small profit-and-loss item and get rid of it, while keeping all their work with Microsoft because of its name."

As a result, Mr Atkinson puts a lot of effort into building the profile of the firm. "For example, we run awareness days and we have gone to end users to compile collaborative case studies. Are those the kinds of things we should continue with, and if so, what else should we be doing?

"Or is there some other way that we should tackle being a small supplier in big business, so that we can maintain continuity rather than constantly battling to keep the awareness there?"

www.aurorakendrickjames.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Ben Williams, Chartered Psychologist

"I congratulate Mr Atkinson and his company: they are doing absolutely the right thing. Keep going - courage and persistence will win through.

"Business happens between people, not organisations, no matter how large or small. It's not what you know, or who you know, but who you really know and who really knows you.

"So get face-to-face with existing clients. Build trust and commitment levels so they willingly arrange for you to meet them, or at least pass on your name and reputation to their successors.

"Where this does not happen, make new contacts by keeping abreast of forthcoming changes, takeovers or new partnerships - and begin the courting process early on.

"Retain a very intelligent market investigator who will understand the sensitivity and complexity of the business - ideally someone with a track record in the industry, who will advise on who and how to approach. Sometimes specialists, while expensive, are worth multiples of their weight in gold."

Dr Jon Warner, Chief Executive, Worldwide Centre for Organizational Development, and author of 'The Networking Pocketbook'

"Aurora Kendrick James is no different to thousands of other companies that are struggling to achieve higher visibility in a cluttered market.

"However, successful networking and relationship-building has been at the heart of its success in finding 'middle-man' organisations, and this should be the key strategy again - even though the competitive scene is shifting.

"There are five levels of customer and they form a pyramid in the market. These are suspects, prospects, contacts, advocates and partners. Aurora Kendrick James should be using the strong advocates and partners it already has to help it identify new contacts, prospects and even suspects at the base of the pyramid. In this way it can keep the sales pipeline as short as possible.

"Research suggests that each one of a company's good customer contacts has at least three to four relevant people whom they are happy to identify when asked.

"Every advocate or partner individual should consequently be treated like gold-dust and nurtured carefully (or treated as a valuable investment and not as an 'onerous' or 'avoidable' part of business)."

Richard Gillard: Head of Medium Business Banking (Technology and Telecommunications) at Barclays Bank

"The most important thing is to remain alert and flexible in order to react quickly to changes in your market.

"Outsourcing continues to grow within large corporates and the public sector. Competing by differentiation is vital in ensuring that you can exploit the opportunities that are out there.

"You should aim to leave a lasting positive impression on the organisations that you currently work with by continually demonstrating that your business always delivers on time, to budget and to requirement. Your reputation will then go before you.

"Always ensure that your business is not tied to just one or two big players. Our research shows that business owners recognise they do not spend enough time trying to develop new opportunities, which means that focusing on continual marketing and attracting new customers is essential.

"The good news is that we continue to see small and medium-sized enterprises benefiting from this approach."

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