Changing to grow Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

Even with 330,000 customers, Christopher Faulkner doesn’t rely on an assistant to answer his e-mails — he still answers them himself. With the rapid growth of C I Host — revenue grew from nearly $78 million in 2005 to $92.5 million in 2006 — the founder, chairman, president and CEO of C I Host focuses on changing his business to keep up with his customers’ needs.

Smart Business spoke with Faulkner about how to keep the roller coaster that is your business from nose-diving straight to the bottom of the hill.

Q: How do you know when it’s time to make changes at a growing company?

Look for any flattened sales or any growth percentage that slows down or plateaus. It’s the roller-coaster effect — you get to the top of the hill and the car starts going down; that’s too late to start change. That’s already going straight to the bottom. Be able to forecast while you’re going up the hill, before you get to the top, what is that time frame looking like, and what else can we do.

Figure out in your plan where that hill continues to increase and where you think it’s going to plateau, so always be looking for complementary services that you can bring to your portfolio that make sense for your particular segment of customer.

Drill down into your base and find out what else they need and what else drives them. Most customers, if you have a provider already selling you goods or services, nine times out of 10, they would love to buy more from you because they already have an ongoing relationship.

Q: How do you embrace change?

Realize that what you did last year or five years ago isn’t necessarily what you’re going to do today or tomorrow. Every good business model has to change multiple times along the way if you’re going to be in business any length of time.

Some have a great idea and launch a product, and it takes people by storm for the first five years, but at some point that’s going to age and come to end of life. I would be hard-pressed to find any industry where a company has been successful for five to 10 years and hasn’t changed their model at all.

Q: How do you connect with customers?

My customers are the ones paying my salary and keeping the doors open. If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t be in business, so they’re it. They’re the ones I have to bow down to.

Every week, we have two things going on. One is my CEO chat. I log into a chat room and customers, press people, prospects can chat with me. The other is every day; every employee is required to make 10 calls to customers. Every day 2,500 [customers] get a call out of the blue to say, ‘Are you happy? We’re just calling to say thanks, and if you have feedback, we’d like to hear it,’ and they’re floored. That is the holy grail of the business.

As CEOs, there shouldn’t be an ivory tower behind a closed door. If customers call, take their call and speak with them. It’s the most frustrating thing a person can do to have an issue with your company and call, and you say, ‘Take a message’ and not return their call or e-mail. It’s a slap in the face.

That’s the biggest factor that a customer will leave a company over, if the executives are too busy to take care of them. It leaves you with such a bad taste in your mouth, and for months, that person is going to be mad and tell 100 people how bad you are versus telling one or two how great you are.

Q: How do you best serve customers?

Everything you do in the business, every idea that you’ve got and every decision that you make — you have to apply that thought pattern to, ‘Would the customer want this, and is this in the best interest of the customer?’ A lot of times you find yourself saying no.

A lot of times CEOs say, ‘Well, whatever,’ or, Too bad — I’ve got to cut costs,’ and you lose sight of what the customer wants. The customer either gets what he wants, or he goes down the road to someone else. You serve the customer, or someone else will.

For example, should I buy the $200,000 router or the $50,000 router that’s going to cause outages? Most would say the $50,000, but is the cheaper one in the best interest for the customer? No. That’s the litmus test that I use.

It’s a very easy application but not the easy decision to make. You might see short-term profit because you cut costs, but, at the end of the day, if service starts sliding and customers start leaving, that profit quickly turns into a loss. It’s big-picture mentality.

HOW TO REACH: C I Host, (817) 868-9931 or www.cihost.com