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Aug 27, 2008

The down-side of the big new client

Let's say you have a new customer that you're about to bring on board that will grow your business significantly, say by forty to sixty percent. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? From some perspectives of course it's good, especially if your company needs the money to keep its head above water. Even if that's not the case, additional profits are always welcome.

Something to think about though... how will your current system hold up under the load? How maintainable is it? How scalable is it? What will happen when those nightly jobs that normally run into the wee hours of the morning come under double load and now don't finish before users log-in in the morning? What impact will those reports that are directly hitting against production data have when they pull twice as much data?

Perhaps those aren't you your problems, perhaps you run a good clean shop and there are no skeletons in your closet. Still, trust me, there will be problems. Given this much growth it's just entirely too likely that there will be things that do not scale under the additional load (even if you don't and probably can't know what they are yet).

Of course the work that these problems require is in addition to the other work that the client will generate. What new features and reports has the sales team promised? For a client this big I can almost guarantee there were some. If you're lucky sales has had conversations with I.T. to verify that they can meet the demands. Still, what is I.T. going to say? "No we can't do it; you'll just have to turn down the really big client." Not likely.

Sadly though, these probably won't be the last of the new customers demands. The customer knows how valuable they are to you and they'll likely use this to their advantage. They're in the position of power. What happens if they continue making demands? What happens if they get frustrated and leave?

Worse yet what happens if they stay? Will you burn out your IT staff? Your development team was likely at or just above capacity. If you have a small team it will take at least 2 to 3 months to staff up if you want competent people and then it'll take another 2 to 3 months for them to become really productive. And this is if you're lucky; sometimes it can take a really long time to fill just one position. Sometimes, after a long search, you hire someone really good and you're feeling great... and then they leave after a week and you have to start all over.

Have you started looking yet? Don't wait too long or your development team may start to buckle under the demands and then you'll have turnover to worry about. Let's say that your team manages to stay on top of things. Did they do it by cobbling together brittle, unmaintainable code under the pressure of unrealistic time lines?

What about the plans the business had for innovation and revolution... the types of things you were doing that brought in this big new client. How long are you delaying them? Will they ever be revived. What about the really talented developers that you had working on these cool new projects? If you reallocate them to the new client work will they get bored or frustrated and jump ship.

Slow, steady growth is best, but it may not be possible to turn down a big new client, even if you know you're not ready for them. So what do you do? If you go forward you'll need to mitigate the risks as quickly as possible.

I think the main the problem is often just poor planning and communications. You can't blame the sales staff for aggressively pursuing new clients; that's their job. But someone has to be coordinating their efforts with preparation on the I.T. side well in advance of anything actually happening. Someone has to be looking at the big picture.

Some one has to say, "We're planning to double our business, what do we need to do to support that?". In general, big clients do not come on board quickly; there should be adequate time for preparation if only you're careful to plan for it. Just don't be blinded by the profits and don't rush things.