Ask most small resellers what they think of their supplier and youdevise a plan to build supplier relationships that will give them want they want? will generally hear a torrent of complaints. 'We've found that the bigger the supplier the more it doesn't give a damn,' claims one reseller. 'We now use local, smaller companies - a bit like ourselves - that tend to be only marginally more expensive.'
Another says: 'The big boys only want to deal with high-volume accounts and never mind the little guy. We are happy to pay extra to get the quality of service'.
It's a familiar story to Paul Jordan, sales and marketing director at networking specialist P&P. 'We have changed our strategy. We used to shop around but the problem we had was that the big distribution people do not understand the products. What's more, as soon as you get a relationship with an account manager, they are changed. All we were and are asking for is for people to come back to us and for those people to have some knowledge of what we are doing.'
It is apparent that there is an opportunity for smaller resellers to develop excellent relationships with smaller, more innovative distributors and manufacturers. That is exactly what P&P has tried to do, says Jordan.
It tries to work with only three specialist network distributors - Equinox, Mayflex, and Wadsworth Electronics.
Graham James, sales and marketing director of Rochester Information Systems, a Manchester reseller specialising in data warehousing products and decision support tools, agrees. 'We chose our markets carefully when we set up the company. If you know a sector, you can become a big fish in a niche pond. Our market will always be a minority area for the big suppliers that will want to focus their activities on more lucrative fields.'
It is hard not to focus on the bigger deals, admits David Thorpe, partner marketing manager at Lotus Development. 'It is a challenge when you have hundreds, if not thousands of resellers. A lot of the relationship is programmatic - all processes are covered so each relationship is treated equitably.'
Vendors can justify putting a lot of focus on resellers doing big deals in the corporate or mid-size market, and may also be able to give good support to those that focus on well-defined niche areas, like Rochester.
James says Rochester's closest partners almost selected themselves because of their prominence in the markets the company targets - local government, education and pharmaceuticals.
Robin Mitchell, sales and marketing director for business intelligence software vendor Orenburg, says resellers need to select their closest partners with the utmost care, but that all of them should be treated as equals.
'Most vendors expect resellers to throw their toys from the pram when things aren't going right, but it's all about developing the partnership, where the dealer should expect to have the support he needs to get business for both parties,' says Mitchell. 'Size should never matter. Suppliers should respect the value of the smaller deal as much as the bigger deal.'
Careful supplier selection worked for Rochester. James says the firm gets a lot of support from Business Objects because of the vendor's interest in the reseller's area and because of the good relationship that has been built up.
'We can use the Business Objects name to leverage ourselves into accounts,' he adds. 'Being small, we look to our supplier to give us a lot of business development and marketing clout. Business Objects' marketing activities generate a lot of leads.'
The reseller had to put a lot of work in to receive this level of attention and to develop good one-to-one relationships with the supplier. 'To get the contract in the first place you've got to come across as a person,' James says. 'Then, you have to deliver the numbers to keep the relationship going and the supplier happy so they will pass good leads on to you.'
Nevertheless, scale remains a problem for many vendors, and developing a good business relationship with a supplier that is much larger than you can be very difficult, says Thorpe. The vendor needs to be able to justify giving a reseller attention in the first place. 'There are some situations where, frankly, we struggle to have a close relationship. A successful relationship has a lot to do with the reseller having a clear business plan and a clear understanding of where they have particular skills. Partners that are generalists will find it harder to have a specific relationship.'
It is also important to be constructive and forward looking, he adds.
'Where the reseller recognises that we are a business and can say, "there are things that frustrate us, but here's a plan of how we can go forward", that's when we can start to get somewhere.'
Unfortunately, that doesn't happen a great deal. Instead, what vendors tend to get is a tirade of complaints. 'Often, resellers will have a valid complaint or frustration, but some only come to us whinging and it doesn't help,' Thorpe says. 'Resellers have to be mature and approach us at a constructive business level.'
Nigel Thomas, channel marketing manager at Oracle, says it is a matter of being realistic. 'Vendors will apply their resources based on return on investment. Does this mean we ignore the smaller guys? Absolutely not. We will be more programmatic in our approach to the small guy, but if the small guy wants to - and he may not - we would like to make him into a big guy. He needs to approach vendors with realistic proposals based on a sensible business proposition.'
This attitude may irk some smaller resellers that have tried to develop relationships with vendors for years and have repeatedly hit what feels like a brick wall. But some do manage to break through. Chris Roper, managing director of connectivity vendor Hummingbird Communications, says some resellers are always going to be better at building relationships with manufacturers and distributors than others. He also emphasises the need for smaller resellers to demonstrate commitment.
'Relationships will develop based on the knowledge base and commitment of the reseller teams. Resellers who understand the implications of "who, what, when, where and how" should be positioned and supported and will be in a strong position when looking to maximise manufacturer and distributor relationships.
'Large or corporate resellers may operate in a different way to smaller volume-based partners, but all are valuable for companies managing on a two-tier distribution model,' Roper adds.
'The building of relationships is a two-way process. It is not all one sided. Manufacturers and distributors need to look at niche sectors with the aim of identifying appropriate resellers and gearing them towards providing an appropriate level of commitment, not only to the manufacturer and distributor but also to the customer.'
Vendors have to focus their efforts on the methods they see delivering the best return on investment. Smaller resellers that address the general needs of smaller businesses are bound to have problems getting attention from vendors. Their needs must also be recognised, says Richard Fisher, channel director at Sage, but they might have to modify their approach.
'The role of the supplier is to recognise all types and sizes of reseller.
An easy statement to make but not so easy to implement, especially with the channel changing all the time. Smaller resellers now have to compete with the retail sector and the internet. The straight mainstream sale is moving away from smaller resellers and they need to differentiate themselves and add value.'
Mitchell thinks many vendors could do a better job by drawing on the experience of resellers and getting them more involved. 'Many suppliers have teams made up from people who have been on the other side of the equation, and they should encourage staff to tailor the partnership with resellers based on the good and bad times they've had. Learn from experience and put first-hand knowledge into practice. Paying close attention to smaller players is important because they could be the big fish of tomorrow.'
Nigel Lambert, marketing manager at RBR, says even the smallest resellers will get the help they need if they demonstrate commitment. 'Smaller resellers need to develop and we'll invest in training and market development with them to help build a sustainable business. But not necessarily for free, because if you start to give resellers something for nothing, they take it for granted.'
Focus is important, says Robert Nash, sales and marketing manager at Unipalm. 'Smaller businesses are often able to react faster to developments or trends, allowing them to be innovators and to occupy a niche before the bigger guys arrive. They survive and thrive through specialisation.
We are keen to work with both big and small businesses. The smaller folk can do good business and some will be the big boys of the future.'
Big boys of the future are what many small resellers would like to become.
But will those that grow into much bigger entities expect less or more attention from the distributors and vendors when they are spending more money and doing more deals? Herein lies the perpetual problem - big fish are able to make bigger waves and are bound to get more attention than the smaller businesses.
Yet attention is what smaller resellers crave most of all. 'We just want common courtesy, for people to return our calls when we ask them to,' says Jordan. Relationships are what it is all about but developing them is difficult. Not only do account managers have bigger resellers to look after, they are perpetually either moved on or snapped up by a rival.
Dealers such as Rochester and P&P can work closely with a small number of partners, but sometimes they need to play in a wider field. 'The problems arise when we start to go outside our three or four main suppliers and then we probably don't help because we tend to buy on price,' Jordan explains.
From the supplier's standpoint, the message is that smaller dealers must stop whinging about how badly they are treated, make sure they have a clear focus and take a constructive approach to developing long-term relationships with suppliers. They must also avoid falling into the trap of expecting the supplier to take care of everything for them, says Lambert. 'It is easy to rely on the machine to build the business for you. Provided the reseller invests in training and everyone agrees they are serious and credible, then they'll get the attention they ask from us.'
But what if a reseller feels it is doing all that but still not getting an appropriate level of support and service? 'They need to address their main contacts,' advises Lambert. 'They need development and support and the only way they are going to receive that is by building relationships.'
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