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Rule No. 7: Communicate, Communicate
An open-door policy between solution providers and vendors helps both parties set their long-term road map and develop the right strategies for their customers. Solution providers said most vendors offer strong lines of communication, but they could be a little more forthcoming in some areas.
"I think it's very important. It's all about the deal these says," said Busam. "Everybody is price-sensitive, but when you make a decision at the executive level, you're not just spending on price. A customer is not going to spend anything if it doesn't solve a business problem. What's the differentiator that makes your solution solve my problem? If you can convince me, I'll find the money," he said.
Microsoft and Symantec are especially strong in their communications skills with partners, Busam said.
"Symantec is doing a really good job right now. They have a blitz going on for sales and technical training for their whole Backup Exec solution set. On the same day, you can get sales training and get your tech certified. And you get a good road map on the product and understanding the whole solution," Busam said.
Clear communication can be the difference between having a relationship with a vendor or an arrangement, said Intersect IT's Rine.
"It really boils down to whether we have a partnership or sell somebody's stuff. We obviously don't think you can make it without a lot of collaboration," Rine said. He cited a document IBM published a year or two ago that explicitly details how the company plans to go to market. "It said who was fair game, who wasn't. That's pretty solid. I like that. There are no misunderstandings."
Rule No. 8: Effective Lead Generation
Solution providers have long complained that leads they get from vendors are poor and rarely result in a successful deal. But those days should be long over thanks to innovations in CRM and sales applications. Today's VARs should be receiving qualified leads that can be turned more quickly into revenue-generating solutions for customers. Sadly, that's still not always the case, said solution providers.
In some cases, the leads are stale as customers may have already implemented a competing solution.
"Kaspersky will give you a lead within two days. I've seen other vendors take anywhere from four to six months," said Jay Tipton, CEO of Technology specialists, a Fort Wayne, Ind.-based solution provider. "I got one lead and when I called they said they talked to the vendor four or five months ago went and bought another vendor. Oh, great. Gee, thanks."
Again, smaller companies seem to have an advantage here, with the ability to process leads and pass them along more quickly than larger companies.
"If we go into the larger companies, I think the only decent leads we got were one from HP on the ProCurve side and Cisco," Tipton said.
Automated Office Solutions' Parsons had to think hard about the last good lead he got from a manufacturer.
"We recently went in on a big Novell opportunity. They might have come to us first. But the account might have told them to bring us in," Parsons said.
Some software vendors such as CA are better at providing VARs with renewal opportunities if not new customer leads, Parsons said. In general, any field salespeople that engage in an active dialogue with a partner have the upper hand over competitors. And, he said, some of the onus is on the VAR to grow the relationship.
"Even if it's just a phone call saying, 'We're thinking if you, what have you got for us?' and vice versa," he said. "It shouldn't all be about them sending us stuff. I should be bringing them opportunities and saying, 'I need your expertise.' We're feet on the street for them, but it should be a two-way street."
Rule No. 9: Avoid Training Overload
It's inevitable that vendors will want to focus their training and education initiatives on their respective products, but smart vendors have evolved their messaging to meet a solution provider's need—how does the product fit into a solution to solve a customer's business problem?
"More are coming around selling the 'why,'" said Geier. "Another thing that vendors have done well is put more training online so you can get involved without having to travel."
Geier credited the industry's bellwethers for helping to evolve the channel's education efforts. "We've seen more bigger vendors try to teach us 'why' and more about how we whiteboard solutions."
He cited Cisco as an example of a vendor that has invested heavily in solution provider education, resulting in success for the vendor and the channel.
"Their solution isn't just point products, especially if you look at their higher-end stuff, the Nexus products, for example," he said. "They're very involved in what touches many parts of the data center. A solution for them touches enterprise storage, security, infrastructure. The solution now becomes a broader understanding of how all those processes work with multiple vendors. Nobody is going to go all-HP or all-Cisco. You need a broader understanding of that. Training has to evolve down those roads."
Technology Specialists' Tipton believes that vendors' training requirements have taken a step backward in recent years. Once, the trend was for vendors to assume a baseline knowledge of common PC or other skills, but that trend has reversed, he said.
"It's getting to [where] a vendor wants us to have five or six different tests passed, and a couple to have multiple people pass them. To keep our IBM, Cisco, HP and Microsoft certifications, we're looking at 20 or 40 tests a year," Tipton said. "Guys, we're 12 people. I can't afford to keep rotating the door to send people out for a class or a test every week. That's almost what we're up to." If training requirements continue to increase, small VARs will be at a distinct disadvantage, Tipton said.
"Some vendors have tiered it—to be Platinum you need X number of tests—but it's getting to even the very basics are five, six, seven tests," he said. "If it's 20 to 40 tests at about $150 apiece, you're starting to talk about a good piece of cash. That doesn't include lost billable hours or time to study."
Rule No. 10: Listen To VARs' Feedback
While you'd think it's a given that vendors listen to their customers, it's not always the case. And when manufacturers do add functionality based on customer or partner feedback, it might be a couple of years later when the competition has widened the innovation delta.
"I'm getting old enough in this industry that if they're not listening, then I'm not working with them. The channel needs to be a partnership. A lot of the manufacturers forget this. They've got all this research data about what they think they need to do, but then we have to struggle to make it work or implement it," said Tipton.
One vendor bucking that trend is Kaspersky, he said. The security vendor routinely meets with partners and seeks input for future improvements, he said. This month, Tipton was invited to meet with Kasperky programmers to hammer out some ideas, he said.
"You can call them up with a question. Normally you get 'I don't know' as a response. But they say, 'I'll get so-and-so to give you a call.' That's all you really want. You don't expect a person to have every answer, but someone has the answer."
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