by Art Nathan
Oh, for the good old days! The world and technology continue to change dramatically. To be a successful value-added reseller today requires a well-staffed, technically oriented highly motivated organization. Based on years of experience, I offer the following thoughts.
• Employees. Since no work will ever be done correctly the first time without professional, knowledgeable staff, selection of the right team is crucial; it is the single most important decision you must make. Turnover kills productivity, disrupts continuity, creates gaps in your internal knowledge base, undermines client confidence and, ultimately, perpetuates unhappiness among remaining staff. So, screen applicants very carefully.
• Knowledge. Our main focus is on product knowledge. Our consultants receive continuous certified training, as well as attending ongoing internal training sessions. We participate in beta testing the software we sell - you can’t teach or demo software if you don’t have your hands around it. We don’t accept "one-off" work. If we can’t take it to volume, it’s outsourced, since doing a one-time project doesn’t allow us to master the material.
Knowledge is shared through our practice management software we have developed for our practice. This requires recording every client interaction in detail, and allows us to answer 90 percent of all support calls within 15 minutes, having learned from each other’s experiences.
• Tools. Investing in the latest tools is mandatory. Replacing laptops and workstations every two years is costly, but it the price of doing business today. If you are going to support products like Microsoft SQL 2000, you must have that environment in your shop. We have multiple servers set up with different operating systems so we can mimic any client problem, as well as beta-test and develop software on different platforms. Desktopstreaming is a product we use for one-on-one training and support, that allows us to share both the client’s screen and our own.
• Best practices. Having started my professional career as an accountant, I quickly learned about audit programs and work papers. As a VAR, having comparable tools is equally important. No CPA would start an engagement without audit programs: Why should a VAR begin an implementation without the right roadmap?
Best practices is a phrase we hear all the time, and it covers two distinct areas. One is the covers the procedures that followed regarding the software (and hardware). The other is having a practice management tool for the internal processes to follow.
Years ago, frustrated with having to use a basic contact management package, a help desk tool, an accounting package for billing, etc., none of which spoke to one another, I decided to create my own solution; thus, we developed our own practice management system. It took 10 years to realize that working without some kind of integrated practice management tool was like running a three-legged race blindfolded and on crutches.
This became a critical issue as our staff expanded and knowledge sharing became mandatory. Every accounting firm has some kind of practice management package. Make sure that, as a VAR, you have something that can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about a client, handle all support through a central help desk (share knowledge) and create billing, among other things. In our profession, anyone operating without them is on a collision course with failure.
• Publisher/software. Selecting a software package is also about selecting the right publisher. Because of market conditions and competition, it is more critical, today, than ever. The publisher must have strong financials, be dedicated to constantly improving the product, and stand behind their VAR channel.
They should also offer programs covering all aspects of the business, not just the software, such as: marketing, sales, management, etc. How many publishers of accounting software from 1990 to 1995 no longer exist? Would you want to be the VAR that sold your clients on that publisher’s product?
• Clients. Select clients with caution. Accepting assignments from prospects that don’t understand technology, don’t appreciate your expertise, or can’t afford your services is a sure-fire way to lose staff, have write-offs and, in the end, cause sleepless nights. If a prospect is not an A or B type, walk away.
Also, if you are in a CPA firm, exercise judgment when taking on consulting assignments for existing clients. The consulting group must be profitable, so if you have a C or D type audit client, think about bringing in another VAR rather than take write-downs or risking the loss of the firm’s client. This type of partnering is often a win-win scenario for C and D clients.
• Client satisfaction. Satisfied clients pay their bills, request additional consulting services and are an excellent referral sources. Have someone (an account manager) follow up with clients after every consultant’s visit or support call. Call once every two months if you haven’t "touched" the client in any other way.
Send client satisfaction surveys on a regular basis to get immediate feedback. Constant communication is key to keeping clients satisfied. In addition, we publish newsletters, issue blast fax/e-mail messages and hold user-group meetings to keep clients informed.
• Marketing. Continuous marketing is vital. Although publishers offer programs to assist VARs, every VAR must take it further. Every employee is a marketing person. Every interaction with a client, a prospect and a business partner is a marketing opportunity.
Our office walls are decorated with collages of clients’ pictures to remind us why we come to work every day - a powerful statement when prospects and clients come to our office. Focus your marketing program and measure the results to insure that you are "investing" in the right marketing activities.
These are some of the things that we have done that have helped us. I can’t guarantee that if you do these things you will be successful, but I can tell you that if you don’t, the odds are not in your favor.
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