It's construction time again in the channel as communications infrastructure becomes ever more critical to the foundation of strong and agile businesses.
Building business partner relationships that benefit all sides has always been tricky, but it is even more fraught in a world of converging and diversifying, increasingly mobile IT and communications.
A CRN roundtable, sponsored by TalkTalk Business, brought nine leading channel companies together recently to investigate the issue - and it seems that change could prove beneficial to all parties.
Tim Wadey, managed services director at Logicalis UK, notes that the biggest consideration for its clients at the moment is often cost. One issue, though, particularly relating to telecommunications, is time to delivery - which tends then to create a bottleneck when it comes to delivery of other solutions and water down the potential for customer satisfaction.
"This is the only part of the IT sector where you get 90 days to deliver a solution," Wadey says. "Also, the fact that they can get 100Mbps at home [means] they say ‘why can't I have it at the office?' And ‘why does it cost ￡20,000 in the office and only £10 at home?'."
Wadey concedes that business telecoms is a different product to the home offering in many ways, but customers still develop these expectations and the service provider and reseller community needs to address them, one way or another.
Steve Palmer, senior product manager and head of strategy at Azzurri Communications, agrees that speed of delivery, alongside quality and price, can be critical to business customers -- especially when they rely on those backbone services to support an update to business-critical functions, and thus their ultimate agility as an organisation.
"Sometimes there is quite an unrealistic expectation on the part of customers. And sometimes they can give us all sorts of trouble about it - and if I were a customer, I would as well," confirms Palmer.
Today, with applications being transmitted and hosted in the cloud, the stakes for telecoms services have only got higher.
While some of the complexities can be dealt with via the right SLAs, improving the overall capability and delivery supply-side to meet these higher customer expectations -- if possible -- is also important, he suggests, and this may include sourcing and transmitting customer feedback in a timely manner to all parties.
Becky Farrell, strategic partner manager at Outsourcery, notes that the company has been enhancing its approach to education of the market and of the supplier chain, including different types of business partners, as a result.
Today, there is an increasing crossover between the traditional telecoms resellers and the IT resellers who once upon a time stuck to the PC/server side of the equation.
Today, speaking early and often with customers about their needs, and actually listening to what they say, is so important, she says.
"It can also take longer to make a decision, especially around that 90-day rollout," she says. "We have learned that it is all about education - even though the reality is that you really need to close the sale. That is why we have a set process for getting people to that stage [of the sale]."
And how is that focus on customer education playing out? Farrell says that Outsourcery's first educational workshops for prospects have seen 65 per cent go through to the next stage.
Richard Cook (pictured, right), founder and managing director of Blue Chip, agrees that now users are needing to suck more and more down that pipe, service levels and provision have become critical. That means having a strong, ground-up relationship between partners and strong project management as well.
He confirms what has been said about slow delivery, and on occasions when it has been achieved faster, it has often been safe to assume that is because the lines concerned have already provisioned.
It is difficult, furthermore, to be flexible about which business partners to work with when your firm has spent a lot of time and resources in developing, cementing and growing its partnership with someone else.
"If you have a large investment with BT, warts and all, why are you going to trash that investment? Resellers are generally pretty self-sufficient and have their own take on how to use the technology," he says.
"Because we do take responsibility, we are the one throat to choke. And it's not just about being called at 3am; all our customers are 24/7, we're an IT reseller but we do rely on our vendors."
Simon Bearne, sales director at Claranet, says things have definitely improved when it comes to a customer understanding of communications services and cloud, but there is "an awful long way to go" yet.
"How often I hear, ‘the answer is cloud'. But what is cloud? Cloud is our product," he says. "Customers need good advice. There is a lot of stuff that should not go into cloud [that does], and the thing that people lust after is that standard of advice. So that's an ongoing challenge in education."
There is a massive premium for technology providers in not telling customers simply what you think they want to hear, and developing a line in genuine, unbiased, technology-agnostic advice, and that is only more true when it comes to information about online services, suggests Bearne.
What that means is more work in ensuring the sales function is improved.
Currently, many salespeople are simply focused on sales -- which sounds fine until the customer realises they are being sold to and not necessarily presented with the solution that is right for their situation -- generally because of the way incentives for salespeople are traditionally structured.
There is a "huge premium" for vendors in helping get that element right too, notes Bearne.
Sales professionals cannot necessarily be all things in all situations -- but the process and practices could be shaped to ensure that the right professional and technical information gets to the customer, rather than having them exposed only to the information and techniques that the sales team feels are most likely to close the deal.
"A sales guy can do that first visit to the customer, and often tends to just go on about the product. He often cannot understand what the customer's risks are," Bearne (pictured, left) says.
Tony Jones, IT director at Taalus, hails from the more technical side of the industry and fully concurs with Bearne on the issue of sales capabilities.
"People come in and start with a bit of the old flannel, and it sticks out a mile. Yet the technical guy, he might not have the communication skills needed, so that's why the sales guy is there," Jones points out. "And it's not just about price."
Incentives and programmes need to be developed -- perhaps in conjunction with vendors and services providers -- for resellers and integrators that enable salespeople to focus more on learning about the customer's pain points, and then develop solutions to address them in a collaborative way that perhaps involves the technical end of the business at an earlier stage.
The reseller or integrator needs to be able to react more quickly to customers' experiences at this stage, and work with the ultimate vendor of the product or service to tailor an offering that really does do what the customer wants.
Honesty is the best policy
Jones says certain major telecommunications carriers have only made life more difficult for the channel in the past. "I don't want to get into a BT-bashing mode, but the service I want [would] take the pain away from me," he says.
"Costs are critical, but when you try to talk to people, they aren't upfront - and I've had this time and time again, so stop with all the bullshit. Tell me how reliable you are, and how much value you are going to give to me as a business. And innovation comes on top of that."
Pete Murphy, senior sales manager at Comms-care, says he does not speak to end users too often since, as Comms-care is a channel-only support services provider, its primary customers are VARs and other third parties.
However, he affirms that the key element is a strong customer relationship based on trust, and that is true whether you're dealing with end-user customers or channel partners -- or vendors, for that matter.
"Being a sales manager, I understand the sales issues and problems that people have. And people selling a product are targeting a sale. So we work closely with our internal pre-sales team and try to deliver on that," Murphy says.
Richard Reggel, director of managed and support services at Northdoor, notes that it sometimes does not seem to matter how hard an infrastructure services provider is pushed, there simply is no room to adjust the schedule or make changes to suit a customer.
That seems to be even more the case for SMB customers. The trouble is, he agrees, that end users at their workplace do expect to get the same quality of communications delivery they have at home, leaving aside the vastly different conditions of the home network from one managed via a datacentre or large server room.
And if you as a reseller only have cloud to offer, that can be an obstacle to offering a solution that ultimately is the best one for the client's needs either at that time or down the track.
"We are really reliant on telecoms companies to make the cloud work," Reggel says. "We have one very large client, a veterinary practice, and they have to update information on the road. So they have an innovative IT solution around that, replicating data continuously between sites, and they need to have the right history of that individual at the right time."
If the data link goes down, the wrong treatments and diagnoses can be made -- costing both the vet, as Northdoor's customer, and the ultimate end user.
As Reggel underlines, these specific customer requirements are what needs to be ascertained and understood from the moment an organisation becomes a prospective customer as they are critical to the ultimate solution provided.
Communications infrastructure in an increasingly mobile world is essential, and knowing how far it can be relied on, enabling backups to be developed and in place before they are needed, is critical.
"The salesperson's role should be to understand the business and its business requirements, not to be pushing the technology. Then they can take that information away and feed back," says Reggel.
"So for partners, we expect them to be as responsive to us as we are to our customers. We need to be armed with the right information."
Trust is a must
Alex Tempest, director of partners at TalkTalk Business, says it is clear that vendors and VARs, including integrators, could reap the benefits if they worked more closely together.
Trust and open collaboration are key - and must not be treated as buzzwords but applied to build a solid foundation for mutual profit.
"We must work together to understand and address the business problem with the right solutions," Tempest (pictured, right) concludes. "Customers are looking for advice they can trust - so they do not change their vendor line-up very often."
This is ever more necessary when both the vendor environment and the whole supply chain itself can be very complex. Each link in the chain - pre-sales, sales, marketing, technical, operations, and the rest - must be tackled alone as well for maximum success.
However, one main thing is for all parties to communicate more with each other and have clear lines of responsibility that all understand.
Infrastructure services providers and communications services providers should ensure they understand each others' needs and limitations; that will be the route to better customer service and increased longer-term reward.
"Some very clear messaging is coming through in terms of what kind of support [the channel] traditionally looks for from its vendor partners," Tempest says.
Interested in the second roundtable, coming up in September, which will reveal exclusive research? Contact CRN or TalkTalk Business direct.
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