In a time when economic uncertainty still hangs over much of the world, technology resellers are struggling with declining margins on both the software and hardware fronts. From losing marketing support from vendors to being out-priced by higher-level partners – or the vendors themselves – there are plenty of reasons why margins have been difficult to maintain over the past few years. And this has meant that channel players are now looking to new techniques in order to woo customers.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy developments over the past year has become the desire among resellers to sell complete solutions, rather than standalone products. The benefits are clear to see: if a customer has a specific IT need, the reseller can meet it with a complete solution, resulting in a satisfied customer, and ultimately increasing sales.
“Sales in technology is moving away from the sales of the product and its features to how the customer requirements may be met by the features of the product in conjunction with an existing technology environment or a proposed technology blueprint. Solution selling not only focuses on the customer’s needs but will also be a sound business case for technology deployment for partners,” says Meera Kaul, Managing Director, Optimus Technology and Telecommunications.
Mohammed Mobasseri, Senior Vice President, Comguard, agrees that there are benefits to selling complete solutions, explaining, “Since it comes as a whole package, there will be a huge amount of energy and time saved, since customers would face far less difficulties and confusion and hence put fewer burdens on resellers.”
Customers do not want to have to curate entire IT systems by themselves anymore, then; they instead want to be able purchase ready-to-go solutions that are tailor-made for their needs. Certainly, it’s in the partners’ interests to provide what the customers demand – Mobasseri describes the need for partners to be able to serve this demand as “crucial” – but there are, according to Kaul, going to be a number of problems with that.
“Selling solutions requires a trained sales force and supporting resources and services,” she points out. “From understanding the customer’s requirements to mapping the solution to meet those requirements, and from deploying the partner’s solution into a diverse environment to supporting the customer’s critical applications, solution selling has its challenges and rewards beyond selling products.
“To sell products, a partner requires a competent sales person with good knowledge of the product as well as the market. However, selling a solution is not so simple. The partner has to build a solutions-focused sales force, which is a team effort involving sales, pre-sales, technology experts, consultants to name some.”
Indeed, there are a number of criteria to be filled before a partner can begin to successfully sell solutions, the experts say. And one of the biggest hurdles is being able to align with clients’ needs, rather than the need to meet sales targets set by distributors and vendors. In short, resellers need to think more like customers than resellers.
“It is vital for resellers to make customers feel comfortable with this new trend. They should be taught how much offered solutions will help them,” says Mobasseri.
Kaul agrees: “A solutions-focused sales team has to focus more on the customer’s requirements than pushing the vendors’ products. The team needs to have an in-depth knowledge of the customer’s business and processes to help them adopt technology or solutions that will drive results. It is pertinent to understand that no sales person will ever have the knowledge and capability to come up with a solution that would meet all the technological challenges in a customer account. Solution selling is about understanding and comprehending enough options, configurations and applications available to be able to have the situational fluency to give the confidence to the customer that your solution may work to suit his purpose with less risk of failure.”
To embark on such a challenge, whereby resellers must re-train and re-skill their staff just to be able to make a few extra sales, might seem too much like hard work. However, distributors – and some vendors – are beginning to see the advantages of aligning themselves with solution selling. And this boils down to added support for their partners.
“In today`s market, customers are not keen to order only a box, software or hardware, since it is not exactly what they need, so we at Comguard encourage our channel partners to offer a complete solution which means a package or a bundle of product , training and services,” says Mobasseri.
“In many cases, we help our customers to revise their requests for proposals to get better results, so this free consultancy service from Comguard helps partners to have effective sales and, finally, the customer to have best solutions. Having said that, we can only solve these issues with proper training and workshops, which enable resellers to sell complex solutions. It will not be regular training – pre-designed – but we try to design something specific as per requirements.”
Vendors, too, are beginning to offer their support to resellers looking to sell complete solutions, particularly the ones that are completely reliant on the channel. Symantec is one of these vendors, with a business that it is 100 per cent channel-driven. And it has quickly wised up to the fact that it is better to have its products sold as part of a broad solution, rather than to attempt to sell its products separately.
“We have introduced what we call specialisation for partners to empower them from a skills perspective, so that they can offer more solutions, rather than just products, to the customers,” says Ramzi Itani, Regional Channel Director for the Middle East and Africa, Symantec. “Our partners are seeing a lot of benefits from that, specifically because of the complexity of the customers’ landscape or requirements, where one product doesn’t fit and they need a solution. And our partners are moving in that direction.”
That said, while vendors such as Symantec will offer excellent support to its channel partners – whether they’re selling solutions or otherwise – some do not favour solution-selling resellers. Kaul points out that while vendor strategies are clearly laid out in this area, many are simply “happy with performance criteria based on numbers rather than a solution alignment process”. Mobasseri, meanwhile, says that partners who sell with a solutions approach are “not necessarily” going to receive better pricing support.
It would seem, then, that with some vendors, resellers must play a careful balancing act in which they must ensure good sales numbers for continued vendor support, while also looking out for the customers’ best interests.
But perhaps more vendors will eventually wake up as new technologies begin to take hold in the Middle East. Cloud-based technologies, in particular, are touted as a big reason for IT managers to look for complete solutions, across a range of vendors, from resellers. And as cloud spending grows, the vendors should realise that it would be better to come as part of a package, rather than be left out at all.
“Solution selling makes the partner much closer to us,” says Itani. “We build more trust and we get very close to the partners who are selling solutions. They’re involved with us at every stage, in every aspect. For example, a data centre is seeing a risk and the customer wants to acquire intrusion prevention and stuff like that. But it doesn’t stop here; it stops with the data itself. The security is actually a very small part – what about the data? – so this is where we work very closely with the partner who wants to sell across.”
Kaul agrees that vendors should work hard to support solution sellers: “I am looking at a scenario, where, in the near future, the customer will start moving away from a vendor/product-based sales cycle to look at creating and buying platform services where one vendor’s product can effectively integrate with another vendor’s offering in creating a solution for the end customer. Products that can effectively create solutions with other products will see a lot of buyers.”
Of course, it will be up to the resellers to be able to effectively pair up these products. And this will take knowledge on the part of the sales team. But then again, to adopt a more consultative approach to selling – acting on the customer’s needs and sympathising with his problems – is becoming essential. Whichever way you look at it, education on currently available technologies is the key.
“The smarter the product portfolios available in the technology channel become, the smarter the sales person needs to be to sell them,” says Kaul. “What’s more, the smarter the sales person comes through, the smarter the buyer becomes. Moving to solution sales is in essence moving to a tactical marketing and sales process. To be adept at solution sales, the technology channel needs to ensure such a process will differentiate them from their competition.”
Mobasseri agrees, saying simply that consultancy services are among the essential features of solution selling. He adds, “It is necessary to go through real environment to understand which are the best solutions to offer.”