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Should A VAR Be A Jack Of All Trades Or Master Of One?

Solution providers that bring storage to customers in specific vertical markets have found that the amount of industry-specific knowledge they must have varies widely.

For Hunt Russell, sales manager at Evolving Solutions, an IBM solution provider in Hamel, Minn., detailed knowledge of a market and a customer's role in it are essential. "It doesn't matter if you're working with government, health care or whatever," he said. "You have to understand customers' pains and their needs in order to serve them."

In addition to helping VARs design better solutions, being conversant in a customer's specific business needs also helps plant the seeds of a relationship.

"If you don't care about the business you are trying to approach, customers can sense it and assume you are just carrying product," said Michael Fanelli, western regional manager of SSI hubcity, a Metuchen, N.J.-based solution provider. "Knowledge brings the value to value-add."

For instance, Fanelli said, a storage VAR in the medical vertical that does not understand what DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine) or PACS (Picture Archiving and Communications System) mean, loses credibility. "If you are talking to an IT guy looking for ways to handle all his images, you don't want to just start talking about your storage array," he said.

Knowledge of a customer's vertical also creates trust, said Pat Parrish, account manager at American Digital, an Arlington Heights, Ill.-based solution provider. "They know you're not just schlepping storage."

The value of industry-specific knowledge usually depends on how integral storage is to an application, said Brad Wenzel, president and CEO of StorageElements, a storage solution provider in Minneapolis. For instance, while a sales rep trying to sell a storage solution to a pre-press customer needs to understand the printing industry, another rep trying to attach a NAS appliance onto a banking network can be more of a generalist, Wenzel said.

While knowledge about vertical-specific issues such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is important, a solution provider can do quite well in specific verticals without it, depending on the nature of the task, said Don McNaughton, sales manager of HorizonTek, a VAR in Huntington, N.Y. "If a customer is looking for primary storage for a database, it doesn't make much difference which vertical the customer is in," he said.

Solution providers looking to educate their sales reps about potential customers' vertical industries have a number of sources to which to turn.

Experience is still the best teacher, said Dave Hiechel, president and CEO of Eagle Software, a Salina, Kan.-based VAR. "If the salesperson gets shot down, he asks how he lost and hopefully applies the experience next time," he said.

One of the best ways for new sales reps to learn industry-specific knowledge is to exchange their storage knowledge with customers for information about industry requirements, Russell said. "This works as long as there are no egos getting in the way," he said.

However, Russell said, sales reps who act like they are experts can turn a customer off. "We emphasize to our salespeople, if you don't understand, ask the customer," he said. "Customers are happy to explain because it gives them a chance to explain their needs. Or tell the customer, 'Let me do more research.' "

Fanelli agreed there is no shame in asking the customer for help. "But you can't expect the customer to teach you about the industry overnight. Customers will know if you don't have their best interests at heart."

A number of storage vendors also are trying to bring specific vertical information to the channel, with varying degrees of success. Xiotech and EMC are two companies with deep industry knowledge that they impart to partners.

"EMC is very well conversed in compliance requirements in projects we work with them on," McNaughton said. "And since EMC has very specific solutions, they know very well which regulations fit their solution sets."

In the pre-press space, third-party vendors such as Apple and Creo, which last month was acquired by Kodak, will work with solution providers to make sure they know how storage integrates with their applications, said Wenzel.

But Parrish said many storage vendors are more focused on territories and customer size than markets, and therefore don't provide sufficient assistance to help partners enter new verticals.

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