Sunday, September 7, 2003

Listening to customers key at Systems InSight

IT consulting firm focuses on long term

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Christopher Fischer
(Glenn Hartong photo)
Five years ago, Chris Fischer started his IT consulting firm with one client, one person (himself) and a hunch.

That idea stemmed from Fischer's previous experience as a systems project leader for Fidelity Investments.

"My hunch was that I could provide services to clients and be different from many of the consulting companies I had dealt with at Fidelity," he said. "It seemed to me that often it was all about money; I felt that consulting should be more of a long-term relationship."

So even though he had no written business plan for Systems InSight, Fischer says he had a clear vision of how he wanted to operate.

"I started with no loan and no capital," he said. "I started working with Paycor, my client, charging an hourly rate. I started working out of my basement, and took all my profits and put them into the company. Then I got an office and started buying equipment."

In December 1998, after three months in business, Fischer hired a college student part time to help him. He added two more people in early 1999.

Although the demand for IT consulting was great, Fischer was determined that Systems InSight would base its services on what its clients wanted and needed, not on what it wanted to sell.

"Our relationship with Systems InSight started in 1999," recalled Kellee Mitchell, manager of systems development for Comair. "At that time, it was very challenging to find companies in IT consulting that were customer-focused. But Systems InSight would ask us, 'What is it that we can do for you?' That approach, I think, has kept them around."

The goal of most consulting firms, Fischer believes, is to grow their accounts, which means that consultants make or find extra work to do. That strategy doesn't build trust between consultant and client.

"I told Kellee Mitchell: 'I'm not going to bug you; when you need extra people, call me and I'll talk to you about it,' " he said.

The Covington company's client roster has grown to about 100, and its staff to 11 full-time and three part-time people. The company also uses three subcontractors. Its services include needs analysis and systems installation as well as providing temporary IT project staff when client companies need them.

Said Mitchell: "We keep management of all our projects internal. When we have more projects than our internal staff can handle, we bring on the consultants. Systems InSight provides those resources, using our methodology and approach. They are able to do that because they've taken the time to understand how we operate."

Listening to what their customers need has helped Systems InSight broaden its service portfolio. Early on, Fischer had a couple of requests from clients for Web site design. Dave Green, the company's first employee, obliged. A Web design for the city of Edgewood led to other municipal Web site contracts.

Fischer said his staff worked carefully with the municipalities to determine what they needed from such sites and how to make them useful. But design was only the beginning.

"We noticed that they were not being kept up to date, because the municipalities didn't want to call and pay us an hourly wage to have us update them," Fischer said. "So we developed a product where they could maintain their own Web site."

By hooking up with the Kentucky League of Cities, an association of many of the state's local governments, Systems InSight began marketing its design services and Edit Forward maintenance software more broadly.

"About 50 percent of our 375 member cities don't currently have a city Web site," said Joe Mefford, chief information officer for the Kentucky League of Cities (KLC) in Lexington. "Our organization thinks it's critical for their future for them to start embracing these technologies. It's more efficient and opens more channels of communication with their constituents, and can save them money.

"One of the things we really fleshed out when we were talking about a partnership with Systems InSight was that it takes hand-holding initially with people in these cities until they are comfortable with technology. To introduce them to Web technology is a monumental task. The bigger companies aren't willing to do that at the price we can pay. But Systems InSight was willing to go the extra mile to make sure that, at the end of the process, they would have satisfied customers."

With the KLC project under way, Systems InSight staffers are adapting their Edit Forward product to allow individual real estate brokers to create and maintain their own Web sites.

On the company's five-year anniversary, Fischer says its founding principles really haven't changed. Systems InSight remains a low-debt operation in which most profits are plowed back into the firm. He is proud of the quality of people he has hired and the company's high rate of retention. And trust, he said, is still the currency of its relationships with clients.


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