Collaboration

Successful consultancy builds on client partnerships

Larry Tanning, president and CEO of Tanning Technology Corporation, has cornered the market on engaging with clients. Columnist Rick Freedman talked to Tanning about his firm's philosophy for delivering technical solutions with personal attention.


Larry Tanning says the networked economy is about “speed, change, and collaboration.”

As president and CEO of Tanning Technology Corporation—a Denver-based IT services provider—he helps his Global 1000 clients transform their infrastructures to become open, collaborative enabling points of connection to their suppliers, partners, and customers.

In this second installment of our interview with Tanning, we’ll talk a bit about the genesis of Tanning Technology as well as the engagement methodologies and culture of Tanning, one of the leaders in the Internet consulting marketplace.
In the first installment of Freedman’s conversation with Larry Tanning, CEO of Tanning Technology, they discussed Larry’s take on the state of the Internet economy, and his reflections on the success factors for businesses on the Internet. Tomorrow’s discussion will focus on the company’s plans for growth, the makings of a great technical advisor, and the factors that determine success in the IT consulting industry.
Growing a successful consultancy
TechRepublic: Our readers are interested in some guidance on questions like: How can I grow this practice? How do I get clients? How do I engage with the clients I have?
Tanning: First off, know that we’re an organically grown company. I started Tanning—probably like many of your readers—just by myself with no money, realizing that I didn’t want to work for somebody else. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a good sense of where the next big wave or opportunity to leverage would be. I came out of client/server, and moved through data warehousing and the various phases of the Web, and I’ve been fortunate enough to attract good people to do this with me. Our business model has largely been by reference. We did good work, and I’ve always found that if you do good work and deliver business value, they’ll ask you to do more work or recommend you to other companies. That’s literally how we built this company over the last seven years. Our growth rate has taken us into the mid $90 million revenue mark, so it’s been seven years of word of mouth with no real marketing or outreach, and that speaks for itself.

TechRepublic: Tell me a bit more about how you uncover and engage with clients or prospects in the sales cycle.
Tanning: As we’re moving forward, it’s difficult to decipher fact from fiction in terms of the offerings from various consultancies and IT service firms, so we’re moving to a more proactive sales and solution focus. We want to raise the bar to be sure companies understand what we’re all about. Our Net Marketplace Integration solution is one of our first solution frameworks geared specifically to this emerging challenge, that integration wall. How do companies do these e-business offerings when they have to connect across disparate systems or consolidated and merged businesses that don’t have common customer IDs, let alone common back-end systems?
We’ve been very fortunate in that our customers are sophisticated users of IT. We haven’t done much with startup dot coms, where it’s more a time-to-market issue, and they’ll pay anything to get their concept up and running. We work with established Fortune 500 companies that have real problems—large-scale transactions or data or numbers of users. So, our value proposition has always been one of emphasizing experience, practices, and methodologies. [Clients] understand that we aren’t some Web design company that all of a sudden has the greatest technology delivery capability, even though their technology experience was working with HTML that led into a Broadvision or a Vignette installation. We take an approach with our sales organization of focusing on discerning users of IT, and once we find an opportunity, then we get a client partner involved and form a pursuit team.

The role of the client partner
TechRepublic: Is the client partner a technologist, a salesperson, or a business development person?
Tanning: The client partner is a relationship person, and is really at the core of our business. We get a high degree of repeat business from our customers, people we’ve been working with for years. Rather than have a salesperson, we quickly transition to a relationship person. The client partner is responsible for ensuring customer satisfaction, has P&L responsibility for what we’re doing with that client, is tasked to grow the account team, and must understand the customer’s company.

TechRepublic: Do you expect the client partner to really understand the customer’s company and industry?
Tanning: Absolutely. When we work with an online trading company, for instance, our client partner is going to be an expert in all aspects of online trading. The same thing goes for an exchange, or an insurance environment. At the core of our company is the client partner. This individual essentially runs a business unit. Reporting to that client partner are the project managers, the technical resources that form the delivery team from our matrixed technical services organization or our solutions organization.

Successful project management
TechRepublic: If I’m a project manager working for Tanning, what methodology is applied to ensure that we’re all seeing the same vision for the end deliverable?
Tanning: That gets right to our core way of dealing with people. We’ve gone to market from the beginning with the statement that we’re architecture driven and deployment focused. Architecture has different meanings to different people, whether it’s a business architecture, technical architecture, or hardware or software architecture. Our architecture process is all tied around alignment with the business strategy, so we have evolved a rather rigorous process that is always focused on what the client company is trying to do, the business strategy, and the critical success factors. In our industry, I see too many companies that think architecture is a package. At some very large Fortune 500 companies, we go in and assess their architecture and it’s a package, one of those well-known packages in the Internet space, and everything is built around that package because their IT service provider specialized in that package. Every problem is a nail for that hammer.

TechRepublic: You read my mind. I was just going to use that analogy.
Tanning: At Tanning, we have a practice that goes against that model. We say to the client, “You need an architecture, because if you go back to my original comments about speed, collaboration, and change, things will change. How you make your money today, Mr. Client, may not be how you make your money tomorrow, especially in this economy. And what works for a small number of users may not work for you.”
It’s the threat of success. One of our customers, an online brokerage, was doing 40,000 trades a day. One architecture was fine, but when they went to 400,000 trades a day, it was a different planet of challenge in terms of having a scalable architecture to meet the service level requirements of response time and availability, as well as the economic justification of handling those transaction levels. You can’t just pour hardware against a scaling problem; you need to get some leverage. So our practice is all about aligning the technical architecture with the business strategy, and our project managers have this in their DNA because it’s part and parcel of everything we do. As we get into the project, we have our internal project support monitor not only the status of the project, but also the alignment of the project with the company’s strategy on an ongoing basis. We also look at the dynamics of the project teams and how they’re getting along in their relationship with the client, so we do have a formal audit and support function.

Rick Freedman is the author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship and the upcoming The Internet Consultant, both published by Jossey Bass. He is the founder of Consulting Strategies Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills.

As a supplement to his Consultant Master Class column, Freedman periodically interviews a leading executive, practice manager, or consultant from the top IT professional service firms. According to Freedman, the practicing consultants out there every day, selling, planning, and delivering projects for clients are the real masters. By giving them a chance to share their concepts, techniques, and lessons learned, he hopes to build consensus among consultants on the industry’s best practices and methodologies. If you have a question for Rick, e-mail us.

About Rick Freedman

Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile...

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