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In the "new normal," it's more important than ever for vendors to be on the same page as their solution provider partners when it comes to messaging, partnering and closing deals with budget-strapped CIOs. For solution providers, there's no instant replay: Any bickering, discord or other sign of conflict between a solution provider and vendor might be enough to turn the customer away -- meaning a lost deal and the potential for a long-term relationship dashed.
It doesn't help that the game's always changing, either. But in the end, there are 10 best practices that have stood the test of time and should be included in all vendors' playbooks. In interviews with a number of solution providers, high-fives went out to several companies for doing just that. Other vendors, however, still have some work to do. For them, it's time to get their game face on.
Rule No. 1: Support From The CEO
If it all starts at the top, it will trickle to the bottom. The more confidence a CEO has in his or her channel organization, the more confidence partners will have in that company. That has perhaps been best illustrated over the past couple of years by Hewlett-Packard Chairman and CEO Mark Hurd, who has accompanied solution providers to several big sales calls and customer roundtables. In 2009, Hurd held 38 meetings with solution providers and their customers, and met with a total of 148 different partners and 250 of those VARs' customers, according to HP.
"It's a major commitment, but it's a major competitive weapon in showing support to customers in getting someone like a Mark Hurd or a CEO to step out in front of that," said John Convery, executive vice president of vendor relations and marketing at Denali Advanced Integration, a Redmond, Wash.-based HP solution provider.
If CEOs listen to partners and customers, they'll get a better feel for how their own company is doing, Convery said. This also encourages partners to want to invest more in a vendor's programs, he said.
"If they listen well, they will understand what is working but, most importantly, what's not working," Convery said. Mont Phelps, president and CEO of NWN Corp., a Waltham, Mass.-based solution provider, said CEO support is the best way to ensure that a vendor's entire organization has the channel embedded in its DNA.
"Everybody wants to do it. Everybody says they're going to do it," Phelps said. "The issue is what happens when you get into a situation where you have to make tough decisions. Will a CEO stand up and be counted then?"
Citrix Systems and Cisco Systems have been beacons in that regard, he added.
"Citrix understands driving business and creating opportunities and not just taking the order down. They've done that," Phelps said. "And you have to admire what Cisco has done. A lot of VARs have made a lot of money off Cisco."
Rule No. 2: Field Sales Staff Buy-In
While it's important for a CEO to understand and support the channel, it's just as important if not more so for the so-called ranks, the field sales and technical staff, to support the channel as well. After all, that's where any potential conflict will first rear its ugly head. Many VARs said their relationships with vendors depend greatly on their local relationships. If those flourish, it's a win-win for both parties. But a disconnect can lead to an unhappy, and eventually, an ex-partner.
For example, many field reps have a tendency to embrace one local partner, doing so at the expense of other solution providers that could be driving more business, said Bob Parsons, president of Automated Office Solutions, Evansville, Ind.
"It happens to the extent that they ignore the other 12 partners in town. In one instance, we took a manufacturer rep into a customer and he left and immediately called my competitor to undercut our offer," Parsons said.
Vendors should train their field reps to keep all partners happy. "What might be a small partner today could be a big partner in the future," Parsons said.
Pete Busam, a former VAR executive who is now "chief balancer" at Equilibrium Consulting, his own firm based in Marlton, N.J., said it's difficult for vendors to maintain a consistent channel message across multiple geographies and product lines.
"How deep can you go in your staff, especially with small [VARs] that have one or two sales guys?" Busam asked.
Successful vendors also will teach their field sales reps how a company's products fit into an overall solution, he said.
HP, Dell/EqualLogic, Watchguard, APC and Liebert are strong in that regard, Busam said.
"Watchguard has a field sales rep and a field engineer who will randomly call VARs to work deals to help build a more competitive posture. They'll get on a conference call with a customer and back up their VAR to help remove any objections. The engineer is more in tune with the product, and that can be very valuable to a VAR," Busam said.
Rule No. 3: Solution-Savvy Sales Forces
The premise is easy, said Larry Rine, CEO of Intersect IT Solutions, a Chicago-based solution provider. Vendors with a sales force that gets the channel are less likely to have conflict with partners.
But not every vendor has made that connection, Rine said. Vendors too often make the mistake of training salespeople to understand the technical aspects of the company's products, but not how the products fit into a bigger solution.
"That's hugely critical. If they don't have that, ultimately the whole thing is not going very far," Rine said. "I [don't] think it's possible to have a relationship with somebody that doesn't have a good, sound understanding of what you're trying to do and is willing to help you get there."
If vendors' sales organizations had more of a solution-oriented approach, they'd have more success with partners in the field, he said.
"That's a little bit of an issue, particularly in a space like health care. Physicians don't want products; they want solutions. If I have some vendor pushing me for activities that don't fit into what we're trying to do, we probably won't have a relationship," said Rine.
NEXT: Rule No. 4: Cut The Conflict