The three Outstanding Achievement accolades in last year's Channel Awards went to familiar names. Equanet was named as the Reseller of the Year, Computer 2000 (C2000) received the top distributor accolade and Hewlett-Packard (HP) took the vendor award.
Unlike the other categories, the winners of these awards have to collect the most votes from resellers.
These three companies will all expect to be in the running again this year. But, according to Abdul Terry, marketing manager at Equanet, there will certainly be strong competition in 2004.
"Every year we see growing competition from some worthy and capable businesses, and just making it onto the short list is a great achievement," he said.
"It will be even tougher this year; it has been a tough year for all resellers. All we can do is continue to focus on our customers' needs and endeavour to provide them with the best service possible in conjunction with our distribution partners."
C2000 has won the main distribution award for six years in succession now, and the current managing director of the company, Steve Lockie, sees no reason why it can't go one better. "I hope that we can win again this year. Our priority remains to deliver the very best distribution service in the industry," he said.
"Customer satisfaction stems from being able to provide the right product at the right time and making it as easy as possible for our customers to do business with us."
The fact that this award alone from the distribution category will be decided by votes from resellers is important, Lockie added.
"Resellers will cast their vote for the distributor that they know has done the best job for them over the past year.
"As well as ensuring that we get the basics right, we've also innovated and added more to our value proposition; our online web tools and services have been improved and we've carried out some tremendous work in software licensing, particularly around the Microsoft Software Assurance renewals.
"Our focused business units have ensured that we have been able to compete successfully in all areas of IT, from networking, peripherals, systems and software to components and supplies," he said.
The fact that C2000 has claimed the award for six years on the trot is an indication of the company's consistency, Lockie claimed.
"If we had exchanged the award with our competitors each year, there might be a case for saying that luck was playing a part, but winning the main award for six years in a row is no accident," he said.
"However, I am sure the competition will be keener than ever this year, and personally, there is added pressure on me to ensure the sequence continues, having only been here for one quarter!"
Two other major distributors - Ingram Micro and Ideal Hardware - will feel they also have a chance this year, however, and will doubtless be working hard to encourage their most loyal customers to put their name forward.
Andy Vickers, UK and Ireland director of HP's solutions partner organisation, thought it was fantastic that the company won the main vendor award just 18 months after its merger with Compaq. "It was wonderful news - the channel still loved us," he told CRN.
But are they still in love with HP in 2004?
"It's interesting because the market for everyone in the UK has been extremely difficult for the past two years. There is now a glimmer of recovery, but I think customers are just as tough on purchasing criteria as they have ever been.
"They might be buying more but it is still just as difficult to sell to them," Vickers said.
In other words, the good old days are well and truly behind us. Winning the award this year won't be easy for HP.
Vickers added: "We have the largest channel in the UK and Ireland, so anything we do has an effect on the channel. Ultimately, the channel has to be profitable and HP has to be profitable. Those two are intrinsically linked - you can't have one without the other."
Vickers said some resellers are definitely finding it tough.
"Some partners are doing extremely well because they have focused on new and emerging areas - one partner I know of is focused on biometrics, for example, and there is lots of opportunity there. On the back of that there is the tin, but they are leading with different ways of saving customers money, or providing security.
"There is a whole raft of stuff. I'm finding that more and more partners are becoming not pure specialists in one area but are focusing on an area that drags through products and services. There will be more and more of that," he said.
This year's awards categories reflect the move towards specialisation, Vickers noted. This might make it more difficult for HP to win anything.
"It will be harder for us this year, but generally our channel wants HP to be successful. They might get upset with us at times; it's like that in any relationship. They will not like some of the things we do from time to time but they understand it.
"As long as we communicate with the channel so they understand what we do, then it's about working together to sell more, because it is all about revenue and gross margin," he said.
That said, aside from Microsoft, HP is the biggest vendor in the business and must be one of the favourites to win the main award again this year.
As these awards are decided strictly on a count of votes - and resellers must go to the web site and actually key in the name of the vendor they want to vote for, not just tick a box - the eventual winners will need to do well enough to motivate their partners to do this when the voting starts in September.
Every single vote really makes a difference. If you feel strongly about who should win this year, taking the time to make your opinion felt is well worth the effort.
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