The key challenge resellers face when talking to smaller businesses about more advanced networking solutions is convincing them that they really do need these new generations of smart products.
“Dealing with SMEs, we find that we are actually telling the customer what their requirements are, hence our only real sales challenge is convincing the customer that they require a better core network infrastructure,” said Mark Allbutt, technical manager at Birmingham-based integrator, Icomm Technologies.
This is a familiar barrier to selling with SMEs, but not an impassable one. Small business users are always careful about capital expenditure and many remain sceptical about the real benefits of IT, especially when the subject matter is highly technical.
Rather than the more advanced features available on many smart switches, such as support for virtual LANs, port trunking and even the provision of gigabit ports, resellers need to keep it simple says VAR
business development manager at Netgear, Peter Airs.
If the customer can see a need to exercise some form of control over their networking, selling a simple smart switch is relatively easy.
“It is almost a just-in-case sale. For example, if the customer thinks they might want to use voice over IP or install IP cameras at some stage, they will want to prioritise that traffic. Or if they think they might want to segregate the network, they will require basic management capabilities,” he says.
And this additional functionality is cheap. The differential between completely unmanaged and simple smart switches is now only about 15 per cent, a 24-port version of the former selling for about £100 and a similarly specified smart switch for perhaps just £110 to £120.
Another point that almost always appeals to small businesses, Airs notes, is that these simple managed switches can be secured, ensuring that no one can plug in an unauthorised device and use the network.
“The ability to lock down ports to an individual MAC address, or to disable ports, resonates with quite a lot of small firms,” he adds.
Businesses that want more advanced features tend to have made up their own minds before looking to make a purchase, says Airs.
In these cases, the reseller can look to up-sell the customer to more sophisticated models. The chances are that VARs will have a pretty early indication as to whether or not they will be successful with this approach as it is quite a leap to the next level of product functionality. These customers fall into the need-to or must-have camps, but these users are also easy to convince.
More advanced smart switches are now being seen as simple alternatives to fully manageable Layer 2 devices especially for SMEs.
The only feature that is not found on most of these switches is the command-line interface (CLI) and hyper-terminal session capability.
Instead, they come with graphical-based tools that can be used over the web, thus providing a remote management capability.
As Airs points out, there are few SMEs that would want the higher-level technical capabilities such as CLI anyway. “Those features are complex and not needed by SMEs. By removing them we can save a lot of money and make the switch very easy to use, which makes them very good value and much less intimidating for the customer,” he says.
Switches without the CLI or hyper-terminal features will cost perhaps 20 to 30 per cent less than a fully featured Layer 2 switch but only about 15 to 20 per cent more than the basic smart switch, so they also represent good value for the customer.
While many enterprise sceptics might turn their noses up at these more sophisticated smart devices, networking engineers in the channel are getting used to them already says Nigel Cowie, solutions infrastructure consultant at networking systems integrator, XMA.
There are some other key advantages that help when selling these products, he notes.
“Technical engineers have become happier about using a smart managed switch interface over the web to configure a switch, instead of a console application and the command line,” he adds.
“The advantages of including a switch that is Layer 2, but has some smart managed Layer 3 capability into a proposal is that it allows me as a pre-sales consultant to deliver a more complex solution at a more competitive price.”
This new generation of switches has effectively opened up a whole new set of possibilities for many customers, according to Cowie. In situations where the budget is tight, such as in a school, resellers can provide a mix of higher performance switches at the core, combined with more functional products serving areas where network access and redundancy are less critical.
There are plenty of products on the market with different capabilities, he notes, so resellers that do their homework can put together some very attractive propositions using a mix of smart switches.
Indeed, the more advanced devices are already becoming popular with SMEs, says Airs, and stackable versions allow resellers to meet the requirements of customers looking for scalability.
A similar approach can be taken to selling the new generation of smart wireless switches that is emerging, although the main benefit here is improved management and the subsequent lower cost of ownership.
The new devices can be managed centrally, which brings down the cost significantly where several access points are in use.
“Installation is quicker and easier and more importantly it will adapt to changing environments without an engineer re-visiting and re-configuring,” says Cowie. “The result is a more secure network that can repel attacks and provide better and flexible access for more clients.”
Advances in storage and security appliances have also made them much more appealing to SMEs, and it is important to understand how the new functions will benefit the customer and communicate those messages clearly.
The most recent versions of these devices have become far more sophisticated and capable and now represent incredibly good value for the SME, adds Cowie. Resellers that have not looked at them for some time may be surprised at how much they have advanced.
“Early devices had limited processing power and a very limited Raid capability, which meant that only 50 per cent of the hard disk space was usable.
“With the set of products, device capability has increased to include media streaming, file serving and Raid 5. The new devices are incredibly versatile and great value. The customer can pay less than £1,200 for a desktop 3TB storage solution the size of a shoebox, which includes a five-year warranty on the device and drives.”
Netgear’s ReadyNAS product line provides a great example of how far NAS has come in terms of its capability and value, Cowie notes. These devices provide comprehensive and automated Raid features, making them easy to set up, manage and support, and come in desktop or rack-mount form factors.
However, the best way of compelling SME buyers to look at smart switching, NAS and other new-generation devices is to get them to take a step back and look at their whole network and its capabilities, says Bob Tarzey, services director at analyst firm Quocirca. Selling smart devices this way will also open up additional opportunities.
“The new generation of switches bring enterprise networking capabilities to the smaller businesses. But why would SMEs want this level of network support? That is the question that resellers have to get customers to ask.”
By doing this, Tarzey argues, the customer may start to see the limitations of their existing infrastructure.
“The SME may have run out of steam and may be failing to embrace new applications, such as unified messaging and VoIP because the network is not up to it. They may be incapable of sharing business processes and using online services such as SaaS and off-site backup that can only be embraced if the network platform supports them.”
Persuading the customer to take an all-encompassing view of the network might also create additional opportunities to sell a general network upgrade and new applications and services, Tarzey notes.
Duty to security
With security appliances, resellers need to make customers aware of their wider responsibilities in a world where there is an increasing number of threats to networks and where higher levels of compliancy and control are needed. A simple, affordable solution that has a higher level of functionality and automation will have a strong appeal when customers are sensitive to the issues.
“Ignorance is most certainly not bliss any more and it cannot be used as an excuse,” said Keith Bird, vice president of EMEA at SonicWall. “Organisations have to take more responsibility for their IT. If something goes wrong, being able to understand why and what the next steps are is critical. It is better to buy in a smaller product that is installed well, rather than over-specify the box and scrimp on other areas.”
At the same time, it is important not to scare the customer into buying, over-complicate the sale, or make assumptions on the level of understanding an SME customer has of the technology. In doing any of these, resellers risk putting small business buyers off the concept of smart devices altogether.
“Although a prospective customer may appear to understand the basics of a product, do not assume they understand the actual technology,” warns Tony Rawlins, channel manager at Radware.
“One should not use scare tactics to convince a prospective customer of the requirement for security
features. They are most likely already aware of their own vulnerabilities. Keep in mind the sensitivity of the customer.”
Providing case studies, reference sites and other points of reassurance can help with nervous customers, he adds. So if vendors can provide resellers with these, as well as the usual array of marketing materials, they should make good use of them.
As ever, selling the benefits rather than simply regurgitating the hyperbole of these new concepts is key to success in this field.
Benefits that will strike a chord with SMEs include lower risk through better data security, reduced cost as a result of lower communications bills, and increased value and service delivery from improved automation of business processes.
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