by John M. Covaleski

Charleston, S.C. - The soft economy is forcing technology consultants who serve small and midsized businesses to work harder and smarter at selling their software solutions and services.

"There’s still a lot of opportunity out there if consultants look outside the box a little to show how they can add value," said Manny Buigas, vice president of sales and marketing for NextLevel Information Solutions of Coral Gables, Fla., which has more than 600 SMB clients.

Buigas, whose firm specializes in accounting and business management software from Accpac International, was among four consulting and software reselling firm executives who discussed key issues in reselling and consulting services at the recent Information Technology Alliance’s Fall Collaborative meeting here. The group identified the following key trends in selling and marketing technology services:

  • Team-selling approaches that include consultants;
  • Increased use of customer relationship management software systems;
  • Formal training of staff on sales practices; and,
  • Steady contact with customers.

The panelists also cited continued difficulty in attracting and retaining staff, and stressed the importance of working with their software products’ vendors to weather the economic storm."We [consultants] are all resource-constrained and so are our vendors," said Dan Duffy, chief operating officer for ePartners of Dallas, whose more than 20 vendor partners include accounting software developers Best Software and Microsoft Business Solutions. "Since we are in this together, we have to look to the vendors to help us with programs for managing our businesses and our people."
David Beck, president of SystemLink, an Accpac reseller in Herndon, Va., noted that his company has been effectively using case study reports prepared by Accpac in its client presentations, and has been relying on the vendor to train its staff in selling.

Involving consultants in the sales process commanded most of the commentary by the panelists. Buigas said that his firm’s internal sales training now stresses "selling value and looking for opportunity," which includes using consultations with clients to uncover client issues that could be resolved by a specific product or service provided by his firm.

"For us to be successful, our consultants really have to sell," Buigas said.

According to Beck, involving consultants in the sales process "smoothes over some of the basic difficulties" in many engagements. He noted that his company’s four owners all sell, so "they have incentives both to sell and to look for additional revenue opportunity."

Beck also cited the most significant inherent difference between the two professional groups: "Salespeople want to generate the highest estimate possible for the client, while consultants want to be conservative." Duffy added, "Sales and consulting people have different preferences, but they always find common ground."

Eric Frank, president of Nextec Group, a Best and Microsoft Business Solutions reseller in Los Angeles, said that involving consultants early in the sales process helps to "make sure that we have the resources needed to make the deal." Frank also noted that his firm, which reported $5.9 million in 2002 revenue in Accounting Today’s 2002 Technology Pacesetters report, focuses on "more complex deals," which typically require sales team approaches.

ePartners is moving to focus on larger, more complex deals, too. Duffy noted that the firm is "taking the smaller deals and pushing them back to the vendors so we can have more higher profit deals."

ePartners, which reported $87 million in 2002 revenue in the Pacesetters report, first disclosed plans to move to larger deals last summer upon hiring a new chief executive, David Dunnigan.

The slow economy and resulting longer periods to close sales has thrust new importance on customer relationship management systems, which track all the contacts made with clients and prospects.

"CRM software is really helping monitor the selling cycles to determine who the best clients are and to figure out the best areas for us to sell into," said Buigas.

Beck said that, since implementing a CRM system developed by its vendor-partner Accpac, SystemLink "has a much better system for identifying annuity [recurring business] opportunities and following up with them." He further said that the firm "was dragging our feet" on implementing CRM, and had favored relying on sales people in the field to identify opportunities.

Frank, whose firm has four offices, said that weekly meetings in which sales professionals "have to get up and speak" are still "an effective sales tool for us."

The panelists all agreed on the importance of keeping in contact with clients, but they differed on methodologies. Buigas said that newsletters continue to be valuable because "we know our customers and can identify the areas of interest to them."

Beck said that SystemLink is moving away from newsletters and toward "putting more information on our Web site and using e-mail to attract customers to the Web site."

With the exception of ePartners, the consulting executives agreed that it is impractical to try to handle more than one core accounting software product. "We feel that it’s best to stayed focused, so we’re not adding extra products," said Beck.

Frank added, "You need a certain size in order to represent multiple products."

With a total of 350 staff members in offices spread throughout the country, ePartners has the size to accommodate its multiple-product strategy. "It’s more challenging, but it positions us uniquely in the market," Duffy said.

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