You Never Mentioned Me To The Client

I work for a company that partners with numerous vendors. That’s a big part of why I took the job with them. I wanted to work with a bunch of different platforms. It was important that I wasn’t just an extension of one or two vendors as can often happen in the VAR world.

Having been in the reseller or VAR space for half a year now, I am still struggling to understand the relationship that vendors have with their resellers. If a particular reseller only deals with one particular vendor, then what I am about to say might not be particularly valid. Since I work with a variety of different vendors with my current employer, I typically have 2 or more options available when a client needs new hardware or software.

Once we have established that a client actually NEEDS new hardware or software(the answer isn’t always to sell them something), we have several different avenues of approach. Here’s a short list of the vendors we resell for:

Blue Coat
Palo Alto

There are others, but I think the point is made. I usually have a lot of choices from a solution standpoint. The big question now becomes which vendor to use.

Bear with me for a second while I sidetrack…….

One of my friends from church has been debating on whether or not he should buy a MacBook Pro for business use. He is in sales and works out of his home. He spends a fair amount of time at various locations throughout the local region so he is always on the go. He needs a reliable laptop and just wants it to work with minimal administration on his part. He’s had an iPad for some time and enjoys that. He also switched recently from an Android based phone to an iPhone and loves the simplicity of the iOS based phone.

I kept telling him to just go out and get the MacBook, but he had a working Windows 7 laptop from Gateway and didn’t really want to spend the extra money for the MacBook Pro. Last week his Gateway laptop crashed. He immediately went out and bought the 15″ MacBook Pro. Since he was a lifetime Windows user, he called me up and asked me if I had some time to walk him through some of the basics. I told him to come by my house and we spent a few hours just going over some things. He LOVES his MacBook. Loves it. He can’t stop talking about how much he enjoys the user experience of it from the display to the little hardware extras. He considers it to be a quality product and is glad he made the switch.

I say all of that not to promote the Apple product line. We each make our choices based on a number of factors, so I realize the Apple cult isn’t for everyone. However, I told that story to illustrate the point that sometimes it takes some hands on experience with a product before someone becomes fully converted. Until he sat down and spent a few hours with the product, he wasn’t completely sold. Once he did, he was like a kid in a candy store. He will go out and evangelize for Apple and never see a dime from Apple for that. He’ll do it because he loves the product.

Comfort Selling

I consider myself to be a fairly independent person when it comes to IT vendors. I like products from a  variety of different vendors. As independent as I try to be, I have to be honest. I like certain products more than others because I am intimately familiar with them. I can answer all sorts of questions about certain products because I have used them time and time again. I might even speak passionately about a particular vendor based on positive experiences I have had with one or more of their products. If you don’t think that affects the solutions I am pitching to clients, then you’re crazy. I’m not saying it isn’t possible to sell something with just an “academic” understanding of what the product does. I’m just saying that it makes it that much harder if you haven’t used the product more than a handful of times.

The Problem As I See It

Tell me if this makes sense. Vendor X wants me to sell their product instead of their competitor’s product which I am already familiar with. However, I have no access to vendor X’s product until I sell it to a client and install it in their network. I have a few technical documents available to read instead. Sound familiar for any of you in the VAR space? 🙂 Isn’t that like giving me the driver’s manual for a car but not letting me drive it before making a purchasing decision?

Wait a second, the vendor will say. You can buy your own gear for lab use from us at a deeply discounted rate. Hmmmm….. I need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in order to get your product so that I can get familiar with it? In all fairness, there are some vendors out there(Cisco, Juniper) who offer remote lab use of their equipment for partners. Cisco will even go so far as to let me come over to the local office and run proof of concepts on various hardware that I may not normally carry in my company lab(i.e. Nexus 7000 switches).

I also know that some vendors can temporarily provide you select equipment for demo/lab/proof of concept use. However, that isn’t always an easy process. Distributors sometimes have remote labs as well. Ease of gaining access will vary with the distributor.

And then there’s the communication……

Some vendors are very good about keeping you in the loop on the new products or any noteworthy news in general. Others, not so much.

Perhaps you are asking yourself “Why don’t you as the VAR take the initiative and equip yourself with all the tools needed to sell more of vendor X’s product?” My answer would be that it takes time and money. In my company’s case, we would have to do that 10 times over based on the number of vendors we are partnered with. The easy answer is to only sell for one or two vendors. The problem with that is if I really want to provide a valuable service for a client, I need to give them options. I can’t exactly do that with one or two vendors. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

There are other issues, but those are the big ones.

The Solution

This is a tough one because I struggle with how much of the problem should be solved by the reseller and how much of it should be solved by the vendor. Let me try and approach this from the easiest to the hardest. Also keep in mind that some companies don’t have these problems. Or, if they happen to be a larger vendor, they may only have these issues with a few of their products. I don’t want to sound like I am indicting every IT vendor, because I am not.

Communication – This goes beyond sending out a dozen e-mails every month to various partners. It involves face to face communication with your various partners from the vendor’s channel sales and engineering staff. Even if it is just an hour here or there to strategize and figure out how to better equip the partner to sell more of your product. Sometimes you just have to sit down and talk. That doesn’t mean someone has to buy the other lunch or spend any money at all. Perhaps just swinging by each other’s office on a semi-regular basis to have a chat will suffice. Phone calls work too.

Product Information – More is always better when it comes to product/technology information. Don’t tell me you don’t have this information. Any vendor worth their weight has loads of documentation on their products. There’s always proprietary stuff that the partner will never see. I understand that. I realize there is a need to protect that information. However, there’s a lot of other information that could be provided that will help in the pre-sales capacity.

Competitive Information – This one can be tricky. Some people think the competitive information is a bunch of marketing junk. I tend to look at it as another tool I can use to better understand competing products. There is always something in the competitor information that I overlooked. When vendors are forthright about their weaknesses and their strengths when comparing themselves to their competition, it makes the sale that much easier. Unless of course your product really is inferior junk.

You wouldn’t sell junk though would you? 😉 Of course not. Let’s take the competitive information to the next level. Show me a real tangible application of this. If you say your product is ten times easier to deploy, let me see it. If your product has a bunch of different features that the competition doesn’t have, then show me. Don’t leave it up to a slide deck or “battle card” to show me how much better you are. Demonstrate it to me. That doesn’t mean I need to always have your physical product in front of me to make the comparison, although that DOES help. You can do what other vendors have done and produce some decent quality videos walking through whatever features or differences you want to illustrate. The videos need to have substance though. Sometimes a whiteboard isn’t enough.

Hands On Time – Finally, and most importantly, engineers need to get hands on your equipment if you expect them to pitch it to customers. I am not sure it is realistic to expect vendors to ship their entire product line to resellers so they can build their own on site lab. I also don’t think it is realistic to expect resellers to always buy “discounted” products from vendors either. You want me to sell your product right? Make me a believer. I can get fairly passionate about products I have not used yet as long as the marketing information is good and detailed. I tend to get even more passionate about those products once I have touched them and seen them work as intended. Why do car dealerships want you to take a test drive? Same concept here.

Perhaps the best answer might be to offer remote access to equipment in a lab environment. Cisco and Juniper already do this. Other vendors do this as well. Even some of the distributors can give you remote lab access. Additionally, some vendors will let you come over to their local office and spend time in their on site lab testing things out. This is especially helpful when the device you need access to costs as much or more than a house.

Closing Thoughts

My job as an engineer working for a VAR is to provide solutions for clients. When those solutions require new hardware or software, I am going to suggest the solutions that my company believes in.  It’s easy to sell for market leaders. For the challengers, it takes a little more on the preparation side. If you are going to leverage the partner network to move your products, what lengths are you willing to go to in order to ensure they can make the sale? For some vendors, it doesn’t appear they are willing to do much. For others, they are willing to do a lot.

How bad do you want people to sell your product? If you put all of the load on the partner or distributor, with minimal contribution from the vendor side, don’t expect to get mentioned to clients. That’s not a partnership. It’s a pyramid scheme.

This is the part where you tell me I am wrong, naive, etc. I fully admit that I see things from my  engineer level and don’t always get the benefit of the big picture. Feel free to educate me in the comments below.

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5 Responses to You Never Mentioned Me To The Client

  1. Jason Myers says:

    I could not agree more with this posting! During my stint at two different IT consulting companies, it became painfully apparent to me that every vendor wants you to push their product, but they can only make a true investment in a hand full of consulting firms. So the ones that sell the most, get the most so to speak. I’ve had great helpful hands from a few of the companies you mentioned to get what I needed. In general it is the competitors that want to nit pick one small part of a solution out for themselves. In the end, it’s completely frustrating to us perfection seeking engineers and architects. So preach on Brother Matt.

  2. Maish says:

    Matthew – Thank you again from a great and informative post. I do thoroughly enjoy your posts.

    Keep them coming!

  3. Rowell says:

    Well said! I hope those vendors read your blog. This will really take competition to the next level.

  4. Josh Atwell says:

    Good post Matthew.
    I’ve not been in the VAR space but as a large customer in different organizations it always amazed me who would and would not provide the resources to allow you to get your hands on the product.
    I think this also really outlines a problem I’m passionate about, VMware’s need to bring back the VMTN subscription. Microsoft is a great example of a company making it very easy to get your hands on their product catalog with the TechNet subscription. I’m really hoping to see something similar restored to VMware so that I can actually get my hands on many of the products that are supposed to be my next career skill. This in turn should make me more comfortable with those products and less likely to turn to Citrix or Microsoft for my needs. You go with what you know. In some cases it’s merely path of least resistance.

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