Several small businesses that hired the services of Chicago-area consulting firm IPA have cried foul, accusing the company of overcharging for substandard advice and of making harassing phone calls to collect payments.

Inc. magazine broke the story after receiving complaints from clients of IPA, which the magazine had listed as the eighth fastest-growing company in the nation in 1996. Inc. senior editor Joseph Rosenbloom investigated the company and found a high-pressure sales culture in a company whose three founders all had criminal records.

The sales process begins with telemarketing. Eddie Cassanave of Cassanave Construction in Raleigh, N.C., answered a call from IPA and ended up having a bad experience. "If you call spending $33,000 for boilerplate stuff a bad experience, yeah," Cassanave says. IPA provided him with some useful tools for his business, he says, but he ended the project early because he wasn't getting his money's worth. He regrets succumbing to their sales tactics. "They come in and it's a whirlwind situation, high-pressure, not a lot of time to make the decision. So they suck people into their deals at $125 an hour."

Cassanave honored his final invoice from IPA, but others who refused allegedly got more than an earful from IPA in return. Inc. reported that one dissatisfied client, Robert Goldstone of Karnival Sports Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., found his company's six phone lines clogged with speed-dialed calls after refusing to pay his $19,700 balance. The caller, according Goldstone, would unleash a stream of "obscenities at anyone who answered," Inc. reported.

IPA head John Burgess told Inc. that the vast majority of IPA clients are satisfied with their results and that the company's aggressive sales tactics are a necessary element of success in the business.

Former IPA client Kelly Vogan of remodeling firm Vogan Associates in Silver Spring, Md., says he doesn't necessarily feel the company wronged him, but he still wouldn't recommend the consulting company to other remodelers. "I would tell other contractors not to do it," he says, recommending instead that remodelers find consultants with more industry-specific knowledge.