Virtual Trade Show Advice: Avoid Product Pitches, Keep Staff Trained

One mistake that some VARs make is not constantly looking to improve and upgrade the skills of their sales and technical staff, said Kevin Hooper, vice president of small and medium enterprise business sales at Hewlett-Packard. The more educated a sales person or engineer is, the better they can serve customers, he said.

"The new normal has created a pent-up demand for software as a service, cloud computing," Hooper said. "It's giving people who a year and half ago wouldn't consider outsourcing, say e-mail, the ability to look at different ways to provide infrastructure."

Andrew Sage, vice president of worldwide small business sales at Cisco, added that many VARs make a common mistake in spending too much time focusing on one big deal. It's better to concentrate on winning multiple deals with multiple clients to offset risks of putting all your eggs in one basket. "You can't sustain a business like that [focusing on a single deal]," he said.

For Richard Hutton, senior channel marketing manager for Samsung Electronics America, a big mistake VARs make is making a sales pitch based on a product or technology.

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"I hate sales pitches. If I have someone ask me questions about what keeps me awake at night, and where are you heading six to 12 months down the road, that's where you should be," Hutton said.

Carl Taylor, director of marketing at Oki Data Americas, noted that his company recently conducted a CIO survey that found the last thing they want to hear from solution providers is about products.

"They could care less. They want you to have some kind of industry-relevant point and to understand their business. The other thing is to stay with them. Don't walk away. Stay in touch with them. Don't make the sale and move on," Taylor said.

Solution providers heeding that advice stand to be more successful next year as the vendor executives expect IT spending to increase at the SMB level, executives said during the panel discussion, hosted by Robert DeMarzo, senior vice president of Everything Channel.

"The fundamental rules in how you have to sell to SMB has changed," said HP's Hooper. The approval process has changed dramatically. A year and a half ago, you could get approvals at the IT director or CIO level. Now it's the CFO and CEO, which changes the landscape of how you have to have a conversation with the small-to-medium enterprise customer."

Conversations that focus on speeds and feeds will be short ones, Hooper said. The conversations will last longer if you prove to customers that you can create some predictability around the expense of IT.

"People are asking the question how will this affect TCO, about the relative amounts of money I spend keeping the lights on vs. doing something to grow my business," Hooper said.

Indeed, there is more onus on solution providers to prove that technology can help a customer be more cost effective and productive, said Samsung's Hutton.

"In the '90s and early 2000s, you didn't have to prove it too much. Business expanded so you just hired more bodies. Now if you can't prove it, you're not there [winning the customer]," Hutton said.

Cisco's Sage said he counsels resellers to approach customers with the broad subject of collaboration.

"There are so many great technologies out there dying for applications in collaboration space. In terms of small business customers, it could be using Web-Ex to create an enhanced sales experience. There's lots of value in having a more intimate conversation," Sage said.

Solution providers should continue to stay involved with customers, even if the customers are not buying right now, said Oki Data's Taylor.

"The partners that we have finding success know their customers' business very well. They understand what makes that customer money," Taylor said. "There's something [in] helping customers react quicker to competitive moves."

One way to communicate better to customers is to utilize social media tools such as Facebook or LinkedIn, said Sage.

"I think the biggest immediate application for social networking for resellers and small business customers is to apply the age-old idea that it's cheaper to keep current customers than to get new ones," Sage said. "Use social networking to keep in touch with customers. That's an easy entre into the space. Put updates on Twitter. Get customers to sign up to Facebook. They're really powerful and expensive. Start there and you'll run into a whole bunch of new opportunities."