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Netting Clients for the Long Term

Habanero thrives in an economy where others have stumbled

By Peter Wilson

Teldon.com. Bentall5.com. PHN.com. Three Vancouver companies. Three Web sites. And little in common, or so it would seem.

Let's start first with the newest online presence, that of Teldon International Inc., a company that wants, basically, to sell calendars — of all sizes and styles — online.

One the first page there's no mistaking the intent. It's simple, brightly coloured and the eye goes immediately to the store area. Want to get some calendars to help promote your business? You know you're in the right place.

Next we click over to Bentall5.com, the promotional site for an under-construction downtown office tower. As your cursor drifts over the opening page, type lifts up and becomes magnified, luring you deeper into the site.

You can take a tour of the building, look at a current Webcam shot of the building's progress skyward. Alive and lively. All intended to sell you on the idea of taking space in Bentall 5.

Over at the site of the respected mutual fund company Phillips Hager & North Investment Management, the look is clean and conservative. No store here and no fancy graphics, just a solid, friendly interface for visiting clients.

So, what's the common thread? Well, first, each site is designed to fit the business needs — both on the Web and behind the scenes — and the image of the company it serves.

And the second is that everything here is the work of Vancouver's Habanero Consulting Group, a six-year-old, 25-employee Gastown firm that's thriving in an industry and economy that has been suffering what, at best, could be called a downturn.

Not that Habanero is a dotcom. Just ask the two founders — Neil Jensen and Steven Fitzgerald, both registered engineers — who got into the business, at first, because they had a passion for the technology that soon broadened into an appreciation for working with their largely corporate clients and affection how their businesses work.

"We're basically a consulting services company," says Fitzgerald, Habanero's president. "Other services companies had a lot in the way of dot-com clients, and we didn't. So the big break-up in the industry didn't really have that much of an impact."

Although Habanero is privately held and doesn't publish its financial statements, Fitzgerald says the firm has been profitable every year and has never had debt.

"We've always been funded through operations and we're very focused on being profitable on a month-to-month basis, and not taking chances in that regard."

A major reason for Habanero's success, CEO Jensen says, is the recommendations it gets from longtime customers such as the BC Automobile Association, BC Gas, Insurance Corp. of BC, Stockwatch, and Wajax Industries.

"We get clients through word of mouth and referral. Because we've had long-term relationships they have a vested interest in us being around and ensuring that we're stable and thriving."

And there's the plus that Habanero is taking techniques learned with one client and applying them to the needs of the others.

"I don't think there's a standard site for us, Jensen says. It all depends on the business objectives of the client.

"The sites that juice us and the sites we get excited about are those that do something. They're not just brochures."

Adds Fitzgerald: "At the beginning we were really attracted to the technology, but what we found that gets our motors running is the fact that we can come into a client and engage them at a lot of levels within the organization and really make an impact."

That means that Habanero is doing much more than just throwing up an attractive Website. Behind the scenes technology can be just as, or more, important than what's up front.

Customers at the Teldon site, for example, can design their own corporate calendars online — including art work, logo, address, and contact information — then put the completed product in a shopping cart and pay for it.

"Our focus isn't purely on developing Web sites," Fitzgerald says. "Our focus is on delivering Web-related technologies. Over half the time the work we do is developing internal systems."

These include document management and content management on intranets.

We link these systems and try to improve the way people within companies do their jobs.

For PH&N, Habanero built a suite of tools that allows advisers at the firm to call up on their computer screens a consolidated view of a client's assets — allowing them to do a rebalancing and performance calculations.

Often, however, Fitzgerald says what clients want initially is not what will work the best for them.

"They'll come in with a specific need. And they'll generally come in with an idea of what they want, which may or may not be actually what they need in the end. A lot of our process deals with stepping back and looking at what the real business needs are."

Over time Habanero often feels it has become a part of the client's own operations.

"We tend to have long-term relationships, some of them extend back over five years, and in a lot of cases we're really closely coupled, "Fitzgerald says. "Were like a department for them, and we fill that role all the way from senior-level strategic advice right down to support."

Much of the work that Habanero does involves making sure that the user experience — both for those who come to the sites and those who work for the companies that operate them — is as enjoyable as possible and, at least, not frustrating.

This sometimes involves doing less than the client initially wants, simply because to satisfy all the client's internal business needs would make the Web site experience too daunting for customers.

"Our sites have a certain hallmark of cleanliness and we believed in that long before it was trendy," Jensen says.

"There have been so many stories about people spending a lot of money on Web sites only to have them abandoned."

At Teldon, for example, the software that allows personalization of the calendars was highly complex. After initial testing, Habanero found it was making the online experience too difficult.

"So we had to try to dumb it down as much as possible, without dumbing it down so much that there was no functionality," says Jensen. "And that's a real challenge."

As well, Habanero is careful to choose technology that's appropriate for the client and the site. Bentall5.com, for example, uses more elaborated visual elements that might be distracting and even irritating on a site like that for Phillips, Hager & North.

"There are some cases where rich media and Flash and all that stuff is absolutely wonderful and it adds value," says Carol Villeneuve, a project manager and business analyst at Habanero. "Bentall5.com is a sales site. It's meant to promote a product."

At the end of the process, Habanero has to be able to show clients they're getting their money's worth out of their investment.

"It really comes down to the beginning of the project, "Jensen says.

"What are the objectives? What are you trying to achieve and what are the methods you're going to use to measure those? As long as you have a clear idea at the beginning then it's fairly easy at the end, after the site's launched, to go back and check what you're trying to measure."

Perhaps the easiest to measure is a site like that of Teldon, which, without any advertising, generated more than $30,000 worth of sales for the company in the first month.

For PH&N there has been direct feed-back from clients on the site as well as a correlation of increased Web site visits and decreased number of incoming phone calls to the firm's support centre.

For a site like that of Bentall5 the success can be measured by the number of customer leads that it generates.

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