When companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Compaq tell their dealers to get accredited, their words rarely fall on deaf ears. Gangs of dealers march down to their local training centres knowing that if they don't get accredited, they won't be allowed to sell the products. It is a standard response to the increasing demands of vendors for dealers to get the sale and installation of their products right on the first attempt. The demand for vendor accreditation has fuelled a boom in the technical training market and has helped vendors to weed out unwanted small dealers.
The consolidation of the technical training market over the past two years has seen much activity. QA Training was bought by P&P last year and SHL Learning Technologies and Skytech Training merged soon afterwards. Nor were distributors slow to respond. Even traditional volume houses such as Frontline and Merisel became involved, extending their dealer training resources to user training.
Technical training has been sliding into profit heaven, with distributors and trainers in hot pursuit. The slide has been lubricated by the increasingly technical demands of product suites like Microsoft's Back Office and the rapid expansion demands on hardware, such as memory upgrades and added processing power.
Michael Longy, an analyst at Dataquest, says: 'In general, channel training is expanding. We have gone through a powerful phase of development which has led to the formalisation of certifying engineers for several vendors, such as Cisco.' This is something that Novell dealers are familiar with. Certified Novell Engineers (CNE) have been around for some time and have played their part in helping the company secure quality coverage in the channel and corporate user sector, if not necessarily the volume.
Longy agrees that certification programmes are aimed at improving quality, sometimes at the expense of quantity. 'Cabletron has recently led the way in certified engineer training in associating its courses with universities, such as Loughborough, so that people can eventually reach degree standard,' he says. 'Cabletron has been trying to do a lot of sales and accreditation itself, keeping a relatively quiet, blue chip customer base and leaving other firms to run away with market share. Whether this strategy is a wise one in the long term remains to be seen.'
For manufacturers which are still after major volume, there is a need in certain markets to tighten up their dealers' skills. 'Manufacturer requirements have been stiffened purposefully, to get smaller channel partners to fall away. It is a way of controlling the channel,' says Longy. The idea that a small dealer cannot keep up because of the costs and the personnel resources needed for long-haul accreditation makes a mockery of the idea that dealers should get niche or get big.
These tactics will no doubt hurt dealers which are unable to raise the resources needed to maintain a certain rate of training. But they do have benefits, especially to dealers which have jumped through all the hoops. 'It should stop every garage blag artist wading into our territory,' says Lapland marketing director Martin Clark. 'It puts us back into a quality market situation.'
There is of course a price to pay. Dealers need to weigh up whether being accredited and well trained will win sufficient business to cover the costs. For some dealers, there may not be a choice, but Clark is adamant that training and accreditation pays. 'It depends what level of accreditation you're going for,' he says. 'If a relatively small dealer is going for a system centre accreditation for Toshiba, for example, then it is going to knock itself out. We are accredited for all our products, but at different levels.'
The reasons for accreditation are simple. 'If you want to make some cash from a vendor's product, you have to do what that manufacturer says,' says Clark. 'It is risk and reward. You need to maintain a level of training and hope to get the reward from it on the sales floor.' He adds that dealers need a high level of technical skill in the mobile computing market because it is still not plug-and-play. 'There are still a lot of pregnant pauses in the channel when there are card clashes. Wait until there is multifunctionality. It takes a long time to suss it out, yet a dealer could still buy a Thinkpad from Merisel without accreditation.'
The holes in these existing accreditation schemes infuriate those dealers which have made the investment to get trained and accredited. Contrary to widespread belief, accreditation schemes are not increasing in number, believes Clark. In fact, there are fewer of them because more vendors are opting for a dual-channel policy. This, he says, makes the channel difficult to police. And he is not happy about it. 'We are constantly being price-checked against one man and his dog and his garage,' he says. 'It's a nightmare. Without plug-and-play, a level playing field is not suitable in this market.' Clark makes a reasonable point, but perhaps the customers are driving this demand rather than the vendors. An untrained dealer which has managed to get the product on the cheap could dismiss customer requests for support, citing the low price as reason not to complain.
It is a difficult situation, but the fact remains that well-trained and accredited dealers are more likely to stay in business longer and have a more stable customer base. But in network integration, the picture is slightly different. This is due to the nature of the products rather than the approach of the vendors. Longy suggests that the dealer channel should watch out for the fast learners in the user base, who could get ahead of the channel in terms of product understanding. For the time being, vendor accreditation and training is keeping dealers one step ahead. But Longy has noticed that more vendors are looking to extend their scope and demanding that dealers receive network and product training.
With open systems in mind, this is perhaps no bad thing. As companies like Cisco seek to broaden themselves to cover the low-end market and companies like 3Com look to high-end technologies, there does seem to be a genuine need for generic knowledge. This places huge demands on dealers' staff resources as well as their pockets. According to Longy, more companies have started offering dealers packages that include funding for training.
PC card and component manufacturer TDK ensures its distributors are fully geared up to support its products by training them for free at its centre in Surrey. According to European distribution manager Joe Amodio, it is the only way to guarantee that its products are supported thoroughly by everyone that deals with them. 'This is an ongoing, substantial cost for us,' he says. 'Not only do distributors change, but people come and go from one company to another. We sometimes find that an entire support department can migrate within a three-month period.'
Dealers which have paid for training have even more to fear from migrations. With Microsoft, Novell and Compaq among those demanding that dealers have a certain number of trained engineers, there is often little choice - train or be damned. 'Clearly, in these areas, dealers have no option,' says QA Training marketing manager Barry Charles. 'We train a lot of dealers and our biggest area is certification.'
Despite Longy's suggestion that vendors in the network integration market are starting to fork out for dealer training, Charles says it is the dealers which generally pay for the course. 'You sometimes feel sorry for dealers because they are the ones which have to make a significant investment.' Charles admits that the training market is doing well at the moment, which is hardly surprising considering all the demands that are being made by vendors. QA Training offers 140 different courses, but the Microsoft and Novell courses are the most demanding. 'Microsoft has come on in leaps and bounds,' he says. 'It is getting much stricter in its training demands for dealer accreditation.' Compaq too, has developed a systems engineer-type programme alongside QA Training. A two-day technical course for desktops and laptops costs #500, a three-day technical course for desktops and servers costs #750 and a two-day system architecture course costs #500. All three courses include exams. In comparison, QA Training offers a skills card for a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, which includes all course materials and exams at a cost of #4,750.
It is an expensive business and for many dealers, it is a necessary investment which, in theory, improves the quality of service. But unless vendors strive to introduce accreditation programmes, there will never be a level playing field in the dealer channel. Despite this, investment at any level of the accreditation scale should secure at least some business. Although the small dealer may be forced back into box-shifting PCs, it may save the user from buying networks from hell from those dealers which are better suited to installing Scaletrix sets.
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