Posted by Ed Marshall, SVP, General Manager, Services Vertical, NetSuite

Jodi Cicci was at a client site in Atlanta on the morning of June 1, 2008, just a year after she founded TOP Step Consulting, when she received a phone call. It was Morris Panner, the CEO of OpenAir, provider of a professional services automation (PSA) solution that was the sole focus of Cicci’s fledging consultancy.

Also on the line was Zach Nelson, the CEO of NetSuite. The news: NetSuite had just purchased OpenAir, a relatively small software vendor based in Boston. Anxious thoughts raced through Cicci’s mind.

“Zach said, ‘Jodi, I think this is going to be really good for your company because we’ll have so many more resources behind OpenAir and will be able to reach out to more customers,’” Cicci recalled. “I remember saying, ‘But I’m going to be a little fish in big ocean and I might get swallowed up.’”

In fact, just the opposite has happened. The first consultancy dedicated to OpenAir, TOP Step Consulting has become a recognized leader in OpenAir implementation and optimization. In early 2015, TOP Step was cited for the sixth year as among the 10 “best of the best” professional services firms in North America by SPI Research, the leading research firm in the professional services industry.

Secrets to Success

Based in South Riding, Va., with an office in the U.K., TOP Step has grown from a one-person shop to a thriving practice of 13 professionals. TOP Step serves other project-based companies—pure play consultancies, the services divisions of high-tech companies, and firms in marketing, advertising and media—with its expertise in OpenAir.

Cicci cites three key reasons for TOP Step’s success:

Customer enablement and empowerment. TOP Step strives to help customers set objectives and align OpenAir to meet and exceed those goals. Its collaborative approach to consulting and training empowers clients to make the most of their OpenAir investment, with customer satisfaction as the No. 1 goal.

Practice what we preach. TOP Step runs OpenAir for project management and accounting, resource management, invoicing and more for its own business. As hands-on daily users of the solution, TOP Step brings proven expertise and knowledge of the latest features to client engagements.

Services industry experience. As a consultancy itself, TOP Step brings an appreciation of industry challenges and solutions to its consulting clients. The company strives to hire seasoned professionals with significant industry experience, rather than fresh college graduates or those from other industries.

“We have a simple philosophy focused on delivering exceptional service,” Cicci said. “Our customers are other professional services organizations who are looking to improve their business efficiency and profitability, so it’s vital that we’re seen as an expert and leader in our field.”

The formula works. TOP Step has served 252 clients since its 2007 launch with steady double-digit revenue increases each year, most recently a 20 percent gain in 2014—double the 10 percent average revenue growth among the 220 services firms surveyed for the SPI Research 2015 Professional Services Benchmark report.

Other TOP Step metrics for 2014, compared to the average in SPI’s Benchmark report, include:

  • Bid-to-win ratio (per 10 bids): 8.6 vs. 4.9
  • On-time delivery: 93 percent vs. 77.8 percent
  • Billable utilization: 73 percent vs. 70.6 percent

Notably, employee attrition rose to a five-year high of 8.9 percent in SPI’s report, with respondents ranking employee retention as their No. 1 challenge. Yet TOP Step has lost just two employees to voluntary departure in its eight-year history­—one for family reasons, another to join a company for which TOP Step did a consulting engagement.

“I think that sort of attrition rate says a lot about the happiness of the team, the satisfaction of working with customers and working with great technology,” Cicci said.

OpenAir has been instrumental in enabling TOP Step to perform at top levels. “OpenAir helps us keep projects on track and on time,” she said. “OpenAir gives us great transparency into resource availability and staffing needs, and it’s very easy to run profitability reports at the project level.”

Business Vision and Execution

Cicci was first introduced to OpenAir while working as a project manager at Software AG, a Germany-based vendor. She and colleagues implemented OpenAir for Software AG’s U.S. services operations after evaluating the leading PSA software available and determining that OpenAir was easily the best fit. Management noticed a marked improvement in profitability for American services, and directed that OpenAir be deployed on a global scale.

Cicci worked on the global deployment as well, with OpenAir going live in 2006 at Software AG across 27 countries. “It was a very good if hectic experience, and we ended up with great results,” she said. At the time, no independent consultancies with expertise in OpenAir existed. Cicci saw an opportunity to launch her own company, and an offer from a consulting firm to head up an OpenAir implementation sealed the deal.

“It’s been growing from there,” she said. “Being partners with OpenAir and NetSuite and following our own best practices have helped us be ‘best of the best’ since SPI Research started the benchmark. We stand behind the OpenAir product and really enjoy using it ourselves. We’re not only a customer-enabler—we practice what we preach.”