Telecommunications delivery can seem like a frontier of the IT industry, dotted with prickly partner relationships and cowboy communicators.
Lacking a true sense of the road ahead, industry players go it alone, carving out their own processes and practices in hopes of riding off into the sunset in a more satisfactory way.
Those who succeed usually tend to be rugged individuals, with a clearer view of their route that enables them to take in and negotiate the more treacherous features of the landscape.
Sure, everyone knows it's all about satisfying customers' needs and desires, but how many realise that the end-user perspective on any given implementation might not correspond with their own?
Whoa there, pardner. It might be necessary to find a higher vantage point to assess the situation, step back a bit and consider the big picture.
With that in mind, TalkTalk Business commissioned a survey from market research firm Ovum in July to look into the issue - and find out if the desire to drive increased customer satisfaction is translating into reality.
The online survey conducted by Ovum in July 2013 comprised technical and procurement decision makers from 200 public and private sector organisations with between 250 and 1,000-plus employees.
Some 77 per cent understood the word "value" to refer to either total cost of ownership or the best offering commercially, while 94 per cent of internal commercial and technical buyers surveyed cited project cost and scope concerns as factors that must be defined before selecting an IT partner.
Good cost management and value delivery were top priorities for 80 per cent of respondents.
Yet 52 per cent of enterprise buyers surveyed indicated they were frustrated by what they described as a "lack of transparency" in the channel, when it comes to pricing, delivery, or vendors.
About 80 per cent of the 200 organisations questioned said they wanted a clear view of which technology vendors or service agents are supporting their project and its delivery.
Fifty-eight per cent of buyers surveyed said they felt restricted by their partners' choice of supplier.
Some 57 per cent of CIOs polled said the thing they find most frustrating is the lack of "business awareness" among SIs and VARs. This might be related to a lack of business nous and acumen generally - but it also refers to the perception that resellers do not adequately understand their customers' businesses, and therefore what their customers really need.
"If you're ridin' ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it's still there." - Quote from a cowboy
So what do customers really, truly want? According to the survey, CIOs may be far more concerned than their counterparts in the procurement part of customers' businesses about end-to-end capabilities and return on investment.
Procurement places far more emphasis on service-level agreements (SLAs), citing criteria definition as second only to cost management and value delivery. CIOs cited however that project management skills should be key for SIs and VARs.
Some 58 per cent of buyers surveyed said they would eventually like to have IT services provisioned on a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) basis. Eighty per cent wanted better management features and control of the network, and 60 per cent wanted more flexible offerings as well as a chance to benchmark existing providers.
CIOs and procurement diverged quite a lot on which services they think SI and VAR partners need to improve. They seemed to agree that reducing costs for customers was important - but 39 per cent of procurement managers thought much more attention should be paid to boosting technology choice, while CIOs thought better partnering was key.
Only three per cent of procurement managers thought partners do not need to pay more attention to improving customer services, for example through automation, compared to 12 per cent of CIOs who responded to the online survey.
Overall, respondents appeared to be less concerned about who is delivering the network and more about what the network achieves. Network connectivity and datacentre management were the two areas where end users would be most inclined to specify particular vendors or suppliers.
Nearly 70 per cent of enterprises surveyed said they are moving steadily towards a consumption payment model from the traditional pay-by-user or volume arrangement - with risk-sharing and utility models most popular.
At home on the wide range
With all this in mind, TalkTalk Business decided to take the bull by the horns and convene a pow-wow of providers and partners at CRN, a get-together to divine a direction for improved customer satisfaction, and profitable business, in future.
Interestingly, the word pow-wow is said to derive from the Narragansett "powwaw", which means spiritual leader.
TalkTalk Business is certainly beating the drum for action from the channel on these issues - and it is actually keen for all players on the diverse and colourful landscape to be heard, with a view to developing joint strategies and ideas that are sustainable in the long term. This town, suggests TalkTalk Business, can and should be big enough for a wide range of partners.
Key questions on which the channel must work together include:
■ How do you tailor your offer to the enterprise when technical and procurement buyers are working to different agendas? Can you appeal to both audiences at the same time?
■ How can the channel satisfy enterprise demand for greater choice and flexibility from a technology standpoint? Is it possible to remain "expert" while offering greater breadth? And how prepared should suppliers be to disclose and expose the support systems?
■ How should the channel be selling its wares to a forever budget-conscious enterprise? Will the predictability of long-term fixed contracts win in the real world over the PAYG horizon?
Alex Tempest, director of partners at TalkTalk Business (pictured, above left) , says the firm is looking at developing an industry advisory board involving partners, talking about everything from the markets to business issues, product and the environment in which companies are operating.
"My initial feeling was that there was not anything that really surprised us in this research. We all know these things; I think there is misunderstanding of where we are positioning our products and solutions, and I think that enterprises want to get more involved in the supply chain. We have all made the mistake of thinking that is something they want to step away from."
The industry can always be better at what it does, Tempest suggests, and partnering is key.
"If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging."
- Quote from a cowboy
The best way out of any difficulty is through it. At TalkTalk's recent roundtable, Blue Chip managing director Richard Cook noted that some CIOs are certainly more understanding and savvy about the need for the business case to be front and centre than others. Nevertheless, many continue to square up against procurement officers, and fail to see the whole panorama.
For partners, they need to be more business-focused and less about selling IT upfront.
"Yet for us, we have a very narrow product range within a particular genre of technology. For us, the buck stops with us and we will support that until the bitter end," Cook (pictured, right) said. "We are not large enough to support everything; we focus on particular areas."
Jo Feldman, regional director at ANS Group, says the business issues will be solved if the partner knows what they are, so closer communication may definitely be of assistance.
"But everything we do is based on RoI - so it's no surprise to see the size of the budget and the cost of project delivery and value at the top," he said.
"And it's something we struggle with ourselves - finding a way to express value for some of those soft costs."
Clare Newman, partner account manager at Networks First, agreed broadly with the basic issues hinted at by the research, with transparency and understanding of the customer situation being standout factors.
"We have certainly seen a large shift in the past nine to 12 months where our partners are now asking us to sit in front of their customers and work with them. Eighteen months ago, it was very much hands-off," Newman said.
Simon Bearne, sales director for Claranet, said the survey was "very interesting" and wearing his various hats - channel manager, customer, supplier - prompted points of agreement at various places.
If people get full control of their IT - something they often indicate they want - the procurement wheel can go full circle, with three different departments buying three different services three times, as part of essentially the same function. Surely nobody wants that either.
"You can often save them £100,000 a year just by consolidating things. So, yes, there will be a BYO services model, but when people realise what is going on, it will come full circle," noted Bearne.
Steve Palmer, product manager at Azzurri, pointed out that cost is not always the most important thing, and that some customers are quite aware of this and take that fact into account.
"Eighteen months ago we offered a customer of ours in London a £250,000 saving on his network and he turned it down. He said it wasn't worth the hassle of changing it, and he was happy because he had already budgeted for that cost," he said.
It is perhaps needless to add that other guests immediately wanted to know this customer's name.
However, Palmer said that convenience can sometimes be balanced against cost, despite a seeming cost obsession. The most important thing to aim for, he asserted, is to figure out what the customers really need (which might be different from what they think they want) and then do what it takes to deliver that.
Get the wagons rolling
Becky Farrell, strategic partner manager at Outsourcery, said one thing she has noticed is that telecoms partners tend to hold a relationship with procurement, while IT tends to hold a relationship with IT decision makers.
Such silo creation may not just take the decision away from procurement, due to SaaS, but erect barriers to efficiency and productivity.
"It can really mix things up, and we do not have 100 per cent transparency, and in order to sell confidently to customers, you have to be completely out in the open," said Farrell.
If customers want 30-day contracts, you might need to give that to them, she said. Companies needed to protect themselves from unspecified future changes beyond their control, and sometimes the only or best way might be a short-term or rolling contract - no matter what the customer's size. "Although we don't encourage the 30-day contract," Farrell said.
Tim Wadey, managed services director at Logicalis, noted that traditional ways of looking at an IT stack or vendor-partner relationship are threatened from several directions - not least because the customer is no longer prepared to accept one vendor's solution from top to bottom.
More work must be done on becoming truly trusted advisers to customers, prepared to sit down even when a sale is not necessarily on the cards and discuss market trends and future organisational needs. That might help lift the VAR or SI from the bottom of the supplier heap, where many feel they currently sit.
That is one area where customers really need more help. "The relationship we fuel in the value chain, that's got to add more value," suggested Wadey.
What should a genuine end-to-end service offering look like? Is anyone truly capable of delivering end-user expectations around full service? And if no one can, how then should customer expectations be managed? These questions, and more, have yet to be fully answered by the industry.
And TalkTalk Business's Tempest concludes: "We'd love to hear your thoughts too.
"We'd encourage you to download the Integrate Britain Report: What lies beneath enterprises' relationship with the channel at www.talktalkbusiness.co.uk/systems-integrator and contemplate how the findings could and should help shape the communications landscape of the future."
[asset_library_tag 7068,Download the full special report here in PDF]
[asset_library_tag 6861,Download the July TalkTalk Business Special Report here]
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