Channel partners have to start focusing on serving instead of selling if they want to survive and stand out among the masses. With thousands of resellers and consultants competing for the same business, impeccable service could be one of the best ways for firms to differentiate themselves.   Customers rate service and support after the sale as the No. 1 reason for choosing one reseller over another, according to Gartner research. That is followed by ease of integration with existing systems, ease of doing business with the provider, provider knowledge of their industry and total cost of ownership.   During a session at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Denver last week titled, “Reading the Tea Leaves: Industry Trends and Building Your Competitive Edge,” Tiffani Bova, research director of IT channel sales, programs and alliances worldwide for Gartner, outlined ways for resellers to capitalize on this knowledge for future success.   The days of enjoying 50-point margins are over, she says. Now, if five people stood before a prospect and that person asked all of them what they were going to do to help him succeed, would all the answers sound the same?   Only about one-third of the audience said they measure customer satisfaction after every project. That could be dangerous if those VARs don’t know they need to improve. “When vendors start losing market share, before that happens you hear grumblings about poor service,” Bova points out.   It’s clear from speaking to various accounting software providers that many of them are changing the way they select—and keep—VARs in their channel programs. Tier-based programs concentrating on sales volume, which “killed the little guy,” are beginning to encompass value, according to Bova.   Customer satisfaction metrics, vertical expertise and value-add are high on their consideration lists. Philosophies are changing and vendors are beginning to do more with less partners, focusing on quality instead of quantity. They are moving from mass partner recruitment to targeted recruitment efforts, certifying specialists and encouraging partner collaboration.   “It’s a great way to date before you get married,” Bova says, referring to the growing number of mergers and acquisitions popping up in the reselling space. Partner to scale instead of hiring to scale.   Oftentimes, clients will approach their reselling partners with a situation they’ve never encountered. Don’t wait to start looking for help when faced with this type of challenge, like needing someone in a different region or country if the client is looking to expand. Do it before you need it. “If you’re going to enter a body-building contest, you go to the gym beforehand,” Bova says. “Don’t rely on your vendor to create a partner ecosystem. Determine goals and best ways to approach the situation.”   Other recommendations include:   Become a case study. “Use what you sell,” Bova says. “Prove out total cost of ownership and ROI calculations. Tell them how you’ve improved using the system.”   Specialize. Move away from a generalist who offers everything from soup to nuts to concentrating on a specific niche or niches.   Consult on business strategy, not technology. Consultants who started as technologists may be at a competitive disadvantage to those who have been strategists from the start, Bova says. Change the nature of the conversation so your clients perceive you as a strategic advisor and a gatekeeper of technology with whom they want to continue a long-term relationship.   Use what you’ve got.  Take advantage of vendor programs. Maximize use of enablement tools. Don’t leave money on the table.   Enhance marketing efforts. “Marketing competency is lacking,” Bova says, noting that only one in 10 partners has a full-time dedicated marketing person, which she believes is necessary for lead generation. Set up referral programs for your customers.   Invest in your business. Take classes to learn how to motivate and compensate employees.   There are 600,000 Microsoft partners out there. That’s a big pool for prospects to choose from. How do you differentiate yourself?  

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