Aggressive sales techniques are no substitute for building up strong relationships and lasting trust, says Excitech
The phrase 'IT solutions provider' is bandied about with alarming regularity in these supposedly techno-literate days. Companies selling everything from consultancy services to off-the-shelf software seem to believe the tag will lend them kudos in the competitive world of IT sales.
For Excitech, however, the term is perfect: the company genuinely does provide ITbased solutions for all business situations in design and construction.
Excitech is probably best known among architects as the UK's leading AutoCAD reseller - a status its managing director claims was achieved 'by accident' - but it also has clients throughout the design community, buying its consultancy, documentmanagement and project-hosting services.
The past 17 years have seen the company develop from a straightforward CAD reseller to the IT partner of choice for many leading architects, engineers and property developers.
The firm's longevity is unusual in a sector notorious for takeovers, mergers and fluctuating financial fortunes. Excitech has survived and flourished in the volatile AEC market by remaining independent of bank or venture funding and growing organically - and by responding continually to the changing needs of its customer base.
Excitech was founded in 1985 by two colleagues, Adrian Atkinson and Tony Newman, who left Olivetti's scientific division Sci-tech to set up their own firm - hence the name Excitech. With backgrounds in biochemistry and production engineering respectively, they did not intentionally set out to corner the AEC market, but launched the company just as CAD software was increasing in popularity with architects and designers.
'At that time, the company was very much CAD-orientated and primarily about supplying point solutions, ' explains Excitech's business development manager Rob Lion.
'But Adrian and Tony were always looking to supply something else over and above that in terms of support to the customers. They had a very strong mentality of working with people and solving problems which, in business terms, meant listening to their customers to really understand what other services were needed.'
As the CAD market grew, Excitech expanded into supplying hardware and building its own workstations, as well as supplying third-party PCs. 'CAD users need specific features, like good graphics cards and well set up machines, ' explains Lion.
But as PCs improved, the company moved quickly. 'Some of today's machines - from companies such as RM Computers, Compaq and HP - are very good as they stand, ' says Lion. 'You do not need, for most applications, specialist workstations any more; the highend PCs can do everything you need.We still handle hardware for people, but usually it is buying in PCs and making modifications if they are needed. We are very close to the suppliers, and we can get changes done at the manufacturer.'
As little as seven years ago, Excitech's main business was supplying CAD software - both AutoCAD and, more recently, MicroStation - as well as computers, printers and plotters. Now customers are just as likely to ask for networked solutions: firewalled local area networks (LANs) to other offices and wide area networks (WANs) to remote locations; virus protection; Internet access;
document management; project hosting;
and single-project models. 'That is really the business we're in now, ' says Lion, 'looking at how people can best communicate with each other and manage their design data.'
Joint managing director Adrian Atkinson goes one step further, predicting software sales will soon decline. 'Over the next two years the profits and margins in supplying AutoCAD or Microstation are going to be further and further reduced to the point where people will be able to download from the Web, ' he says. 'If you haven't got the skills, the people and the knowledge in other areas then you have got nothing else to offer.' He adds: 'You have got to be flexible.We have seen the whole market for CAD dealers change considerably.Our clients are being forced into investing in increasingly more complex technologies and our job is to help them apply these technologies to their businesses.'
Many of Excitech's clients have been with the firm since the early days - something the company values. 'Some of them have been with us through the good times and the bad times, ' says Atkinson. 'In the 1980s there was such incredible expansion that architects could hardly find the funding quickly enough to get the IT they needed. Then, almost overnight, project after project was put on hold, and our traditional market dried up.
But, because we had a relationship with our existing client base, we were able to tread water through the recession by continuing to offer support, upgrades and training.'
He admits that the company has 'made mistakes', but never borrowed speculatively to grow. Through organic growth, the company now has a staff of 80, a client base of 2,500 and had a turnover of £9.5 million for the year 2000-01.
Wide range of products The AEC market is Excitech's largest by far - accounting for 67 per cent of turnover and 80 per cent of profit. Of that market, 10 per cent of customers are architects, ranging from single users to large national and international practices. SOM's London office, for example, uses Excitech to supply and support all its AutoCAD and 3D visualisation software.
'CAD is an essential part of our business, ' explains SOM's IT applications manager Richard Cartwright. 'We have to ensure that it is working perfectly - or as near perfectly as it can - all the time. Much hinges on that. We exist by generating drawings to show people what to build and, before that, for people to see what the building is going to look like.'
The company's US base has developed a close relationship with Autodesk, and Cartwright himself develops specialist addons to AutoCAD products, but he still believes the relationship with Excitech is important. 'They have years of experience in supplying architectural software and are very good in that field, ' he says. 'They are quick to respond and look after us very well.'
While Excitech prides itself on being far more than a simple 'box-shifter', it can supply all the leading design software from both Autodesk and Bentley, as well as a wide range of specialist applications (see box for complete list).
Unlike many other resellers, however, Excitech sees selling software as merely a by-product of its main activity - supporting customers in developing their business and communications capabilities. Managing director Adrian Atkinson is notorious among head-office sales staff for telling them to inform potential customers, 'we are not after your AutoCAD business'.
In the competitive world of supplying software, Excitech prefers not to compete - certainly not on price alone. 'We would much rather add value, because we get loyalty, ' explains Lion. 'If people are buying on price, we have got no loyalty at all.'
One technical firm that has remained loyal to Excitech is Design 5 - a small Londonbased practice specialising in high-quality refurbishment and fit-out in the City and West End.Managing director Richard Kidson has built up a solid client-base of banks, law firms and actuaries since starting the company 15 years ago. 'We get a lot of repeat business, ' he explains. 'My philosophy is: if the relationship is working, why change it? That is the way my clients work, and I like to work that way too.'
Design 5's relationship with Excitech began as the two companies were starting up - Kidson had just left a large architectural practice to set up on his own. 'They supplied me with CAD software on one workstation, plus a plotter, ' he recalls. 'And they've continued supplying us as we have grown and they have grown.'
The firm, which employs eight people, now has four CAD stations on a networked system based around a server, all linked to a state-of-the-art A0 laser plotter.
Kidson admits to 'keeping an eye' on deals other suppliers are offering, and having contact with competitors, but appreciates the personal contact he has with Excitech. 'We have got a relationship, ' he says. 'If something does go wrong they leap down here to sort it out.'
An account manager assigned to Design 5 provides Kidson with a single point of contact if there are problems, and also lets him know if there are any new developments he believes would benefit the practice. 'He is always ringing me up and telling me about new software and upgrades, ' says Kidson.
'But he is not chasing me all the time. He knows that I will spend money, but not until it is right and I am ready to spend it.'
The account manager recently informed him about a good deal on flat screens - which Kidson took up - and advised on new CAD stations. 'He said he did not think I needed full AutoCAD for them, and that AutoCAD LT would be better, ' explains Kidson. 'All respect to him for saying that.'
Excitech prides itself on understanding the way its customers do business and tailoring its service accordingly. 'We very much hope people will talk to us without thinking we are automatically going to sell them something, ' explains Lion. 'Fifty per cent of the time we do not sell them anything - it is the wrong time or the wrong product. But if they trust us, then they will come back to us when they do need something.'
Individual relationships are maintained through a tiered system of sales and account management. At the lowest end are simple Web-based sales for occasional customers not looking for additional support. On the next tier are account managers, based at head office, who look after a range of customers and keep them supplied with consumables, such as ink and printer cartridges - calling up the clients when they think supplies might be running low.
Regular clients - those using Excitech as their nominated IT supplier - are known as management accounts. They get an account manager, who spends time with them, gets to know the way the practice works and understands their business and IT needs. 'We like to work with people on a partnership basis, ' explains Lion. 'That is the majority of our business and that is the business we like, because it is based on trust and added value - not just price.'
The largest customers - including architects SOM and Benoy, property developer Birmingham Alliance and airport operator BAA - are corporate accounts. They each have a dedicated account manager who may spend considerable time working on site, supporting IT installation, providing training and managing culture-change associated with new technology and working methods.
London-based architecture and interior design practice TTSP has a management account with Excitech, and its computersystems manager Ian George is happy with that relationship. 'The support is at the right level, ' he says. 'The account manager understands how we work here and knows what we need, but he is never pushy. He has been in here and he knows our set-up, and because we deal with the same person all the time, we have been able to build up a relationship. He has very proactive and will inform us whenever there is a new product or an upgrade coming up that he thinks will be useful.'
The 90-strong company recently wanted to upgrade a few of its AutoCAD. Excitech's account manager pointed out that a new deal in the pipeline from Autodesk would enable the company to upgrade the whole lot for the same price.
Lion says Excitech's philosophy is to supply only what the customer really needs, and the firm applies a system of 'needs analysis' for key applications such as electronic document management, CAD and networked solutions. 'Needs analysis just means having a set of key questions, and intelligence in the right people to ascertain what it is the customer needs, ' explains Lion. 'The questions are all about the customers' issues and about finding out what is really needed. I think we would shoot someone in our sales team if they did not give the customer what they needed - even if they got what they asked for.'
As an example, Lion cites the case of a design practice that took on a large project and asked Excitech to supply an additional CAD operator, workstation and AutoCAD software. By going through the needs analysis process, he was able to establish that the company's need could be met by giving additional training to the existing team of nine designers to help them work more efficiently - a cheaper option than getting an extra CAD seat. Another customer came to Excitech saying it wanted to be able to produce a video to show the client their designs.
Software is readily available to convert CAD files to video, but Excitech took the customer through the needs analysis process to find out exactly what the architect wanted the video for, and pointed out its shortcomings - such as video being very static and difficult to update.
'We moved them away from what they asked for, towards what they really needed, ' explains Lion. The result was a deal to supply NavisWorks modelling software, which gives more flexibility while still conveying the essence of the designs.
'It is important that we make sure they understand exactly what it is they need, ' says Lion. 'Most architects do not, because they are in the business of designing buildings, not IT. That is why it is important to have a relationship with them, so that they will listen when we talk about what they should be concerned with and interested in.We have to focus their minds, and to do that we have to know what is driving them, and give them a realistic idea of what a solution will deliver.'
Supporting the solutions One advantage of buying software and IT solutions from Excitech is the support options that go with it. As Ian George, computer-systems manager of design practice TTSP, points out: 'You can buy AutoCAD off the shelf at PC World if you want to, but once you get it home there is no one to help you if you have a problem.'
Buying from Excitech ensures help is at hand if anything goes wrong or advice on the best way to use it - as well as training, seminars and workshops, advance notice of upgrades and realistic evaluations of new releases. 'Most people really just want to sell you the box, but once they have sold you the product you are left on your own, ' says George. 'Our relationship with Excitech may cost a few extra pounds, but it is definitely worth it.'
Standard support packages range from a telephone help desk with a guaranteed response time of one hour, right up to a permanent presence in a customer's office, or on site, managing all the technical and culturechange issues associated with introducing new technology. On Excitech's largest project - managing the implementation of a singleproject model for a £1.8 billion infrastructure project - the company has five full-time staff based permanently on site. Another employee is based permanently at Stansted airport for the duration of a major project, while another is at the BullRing redevelopment in Birmingham, where Excitech has introduced a bespoke Web-based document-management system.
Like all IT suppliers, Excitech complains that customers do not put enough emphasis on IT training - and architects are no exception. 'They all like to scrimp and save on training, ' says Lion. 'Spending £500 on training is worth every penny if it helps you to use your systems more effectively.'
He also believes training is essential to reinforce the 'business process re-engineering' that frequently accompanies the introduction on IT. 'Training is very important because it is change management, ' he explains. 'By giving people the right training you can help them look at the way they share information and understand the benefits of communicating design information in a more effective way.'
The company carries out both bespoke and off-the-shelf training - or 'change management', as Lion prefers to call it. Six training suites at Excitech's Enfield headquarters cater for groups of between four and 10, and the company's dedicated trainers also run courses on customers' premises.
Packages vary from timetabled courses, teaching the essentials of each key software package, to bespoke programmes tailored for individual customers. All the trainers have a background in the AEC industry, and work very closely with support engineers to stay ahead of the game on new developments and specific client needs.
Aware of architects' budgetary constraints - and reluctance to release designers for training - Excitech takes a pragmatic view to providing CAD training. 'Both AutoCAD and MicroStation have got a lot of bells and whistles that most people do not need, ' says Lion. 'We tend to give them a twoday course at the start, not the full four days, and then send them out in the market to start using it. They can always come back in later if they need to find out more.
'We also put mini training packages together - like an introduction to CAD, tailored for managers. They do not need to know how to do everything, but it is useful if they know what their staff should be able to produce by using the system.'
Lion believes Excitech has a vital role in helping companies to make their business processes more efficient, and embrace the benefits IT can offer.
'We have changed from a company supplying two major CAD products to one providing solutions and business support, ' he explains. 'The solutions we provide now - like networked infrastructure, the Internet, email solutions, firewalls and virus scanning - all affect the way people do business. That is a mainstay of our work these days - looking at how they can do things differently.'
He says there is a three-stage approach to business process re-engineering, beginning with identifying what a company is doing now and what it should be doing in the future. 'Only then do we look at the IT, ' he explains. 'Having identified how the process needs to be changed, we can see if there is any IT to help us do that.'
The final stage is change management - training people in the new business processes and technologies. 'People might like the way they do things, ' says Lion. 'But training can teach them that if you always do what you have always done, then you will always get what you have always got. It is about people-culture - how people share information.
Traditionally, information is power, and our challenge is to get people to unlock information - not just in their own company, but to share it with other companies as well.'
Excitech practises what it preaches, sharing information with 22 of its key customers through the AEC Technical Forum. The group meets twice a year, and members are treated to previews of forthcoming technologies. At the most recent meeting, Excitech demonstrated enhancements to AutoCAD and MicroStation and gave 'warts-and-all' opinions on the changes, then chaired a discussion on project-hosting. It also demonstrated a new product that enables electronic signatures to be incorporated into AutoCAD files, using fingerprint recognition for security.
SOM's IT applications manager Richard Cartwright has recently joined the technical forum. 'It is a good way of finding out what is in the pipeline, ' he says. 'It is very useful to get a preview so we can plan for the future.'
Excitech's Adrian Atkinson says input from forum members is also vital: 'We will show them the new technology, but one of the most important functions of the forum is to give them the chance to talk and to understand how other people have managed and solved problems.We can learn from that as well, and share it with our smaller clients.'
The technical forum is an example of Excitech's low-key (but well planned) approach to business development. The 'inyour-face' sales pitch and hard sell are shunned in favour of long-term relationship building and careful cultivation of niche markets. Atkinson says: 'When I worked for Olivetti, I saw them lose so much money and make so many mistakes by not listening and working in partnership with their clients.
The most fundamental thing to us is our customers and our relationship with them.
Without them we have nothing, and if the trust is not there, you are never going to ride the peaks and troughs.'
The company has plenty of evidence that this policy works. Its appointment to provide document management on the £400 million Birmingham BullRing project came through a recommendation by architect Benoy - a long time Excitech customer which had itself developed a close relationship with one of the three companies in the development consortium. And the £1.8 billion infrastructure project came about after months of behind-the-scenes development work.
'We got involved in the CICA [Construction Industry Computer Association] Site 2000 project, and spent four months putting together a demonstrator for project collaboration, ' explains Lion. 'That was five years ago.
Because we put that time and effort in at the beginning, we were able to understand the problems on a project of this size and complexity. It was this understanding of the problems and the quality of the solution that sealed this project for Excitech.'
Another important business development tool is the magazine Design Productivity Journal, which goes out to 27,500 subscribers every two months. It contains articles on key design issues - and only the softest of sells for Excitech's services. An important feature of the magazine - and one that is well received by readers - is the section containing reviews of software and upgrades, written by the company's experts and giving a true picture of the products.
Enbracing the future The past 17 years have seen architects' use of IT change beyond all recognition. When Excitech started out, the CAD market was still in its infancy, and designers were just starting to find their feet in the use of technology. Now, even the most technophobic practices use CAD, and many are beginning to adopt IT solutions in other key activities.
Excitech's success has been built on adapting to meet its customers' needs, building strong relationships with its clients and maintaining an awareness of forthcoming technologies and products. And that is the way the company intends to continue progressing in the volatile IT solutions market.
Atkinson says: 'Many architects have been dragged into using IT, and their systems are held together with sticky tape and glue. That means there is still a big market in providing core IT, Internet and good business-process skills to those clients.'
He predicts that small- and mediumsized companies will need help in taking their first big steps into some of these technologies, while larger companies will get involved in the more sophisticated systems such as design review, electronic document management and project hosting.
Excitech is already extremely successful in these areas. It supplies and supports all the leading design review packages, provides off-the-shelf document management solutions - as well as writing its own bespoke software - and has developed a Web-based project-hosting system to rival some of the new entrants in this overcrowded market.
'We looked at those other systems, but we do not think they offer the right thing, ' says Lion. 'All the others seem to think they have to put more functionality into their systems, but we have opted for a very, very modest solution. We do not think a project-hosting system needs to have red-lining and online procurement. It might be that online bidding and tendering becomes essential, but it is not at the moment. You are only as strong as the weakest person on something like this, so the system needs to be one everyone will use.'
Excitech's management clearly enjoys working in the AEC sector in general - and with architects in particular - and Lion sees no reason why they will not continue to benefit from embracing IT. 'The construction industry is willing to learn - but usually at the expense of someone else. They either wait for a client to tell them they must use something, or have a look at what their competitors are doing. Those are both perfectly valid drivers, ' he says.
'Our biggest challenge with architects is their individuality in themselves and their designs. That is not surprising, because they are clever people and they are creative people. We want to help them realise that they can be creative in terms of IT as well.'
To contact Excitech call 020 8804 9942, or e-mail sales. support@excitech. co. uk