Invoking the Channel: 10 Tips for Working With Your Technology Partner

Let it be known and preached from the mountaintops: Know your business. Communicate. Don't be too stingy.

These are but a few of the 10 canons that CIOs, resellers and other experts cited when asked their secrets to success in that most sacrosanct of relationships -- user and technology supplier.

Eric Goldfarb, CIO of Atlanta-based PRG Schultz-International Inc., a $375 million cost recovery and auditing firm, has used resellers -- the infamous middlemen who are supposed to add value but sometimes just add cost to IT purchases -- in nearly every niche over the years. One advantage, he says, is that they are unbiased and can help you choose the best overall solution from the vendors they represent. Many also have experience working with the midmarket and may understand your needs better than a large manufacturer. "Resellers tend to be midmarket businesses themselves," he notes, so every customer is important. "You'll likely have one point of contact [and] when you need help, you'll know where to turn."

The process begins with your own clarity of vision: Do you need components or a larger system with different pieces? That alone can affect the reseller you choose: Some provide a wide range of services, from installing components a la carte to engineering and assembling a complete solution, while others focus on moving commodity products.

In the end, services offered, reference checks and gut feel contribute to reseller selection, while working as partners -- with all the communication, respect and flexibility that implies -- sustain success.

I. Thou Shalt Know Thyself
To effectively choose a technology partner, you first must know your own business, and align your technological directions with your business road map. "You've got to know what you are looking for and what your needs and capabilities are," says Mike Kahn, chairman of The Clipper Group Inc., a small consultancy based in Wellesley, Mass. Put more plainly: Know what kind of added value you want or can afford, or you'll end up dissatisfied.

Kahn says midsized businesses usually fall into two categories: those that are self-sufficient and those that need help -- sometimes, lots of help. The former "know what they want and are ready to put the pieces together," and can afford to price shop aggressively, he says. The latter group needs guidance, consulting and probably integration help, as well. "Those are the ones that need a full service partnership," he notes.

II. Thou Shalt Offer Enough Business 
The more business you have to offer a reseller, the more interested a reseller will be in winning your business. "Simple order fulfillment buys no loyalty or opportunity and degrades the image of resellers as partners," says IT reseller Tom Meers, president of Result Data Consulting Ltd., a $2 million value-added reseller in Columbus, Ohio. "While price is a constant concern, long-term relationships between IT departments and resellers are almost always based on integrity, trust and the value the reseller can provide beyond that which is found in the products."

In CIO Goldfarb's view, if both partners cannot get value from the investment, no matter its scale, then it's the wrong investment or partner. For example, Goldfarb says he may ask a reseller to participate in his payback. "Instead of paying the reseller up front, I have metrics of my ROI, which I share with them. They get paid when certain targets are met," he explains.

III. Thou Shalt Build a Relationship
A good relationship is more than a smile and a handshake; it is based on mutual understanding, trust and shared goals. That's how Dale Frantz, CIO at 1,500-employee Auto Warehousing Co. in Tacoma, Wash., defines it. A key factor, he says, is face time. "It is extremely important to have a face-to-face relationship with a vendor. In fact, if a vendor is not in a position to do that or won't commit the people, we will exclude them from the business," he says.

David Lewis, CIO at $200 million Deseret Mutual Benefit, an employee benefits administrator in Salt Lake City, has a long-term relationship with a key application vendor that also resells a wide range of hardware and related software. He relies on a close relationship with his client account manager, but he doesn't stop there. "Some things have to be approved by the reseller's higher-ups, and if I don't like the original offer, they know me well and I usually am able to negotiate what I need," he says. However, Lewis notes that a low price is never the only goal. "We don't want a low-ball price if it is going to cause problems. We want what is best for the organization," he adds.

Frantz takes the time to complete a feedback loop, checking with IT and even business-side staff members to learn about their experiences with the reseller. He also gives the reseller a chance to weigh in. And every six months or so, he likes to review the status of all the projects with a face-to-face meeting or a conference call. "That way if there are action items to correct, we can work on them," he says.

IV. Thou Shalt Be Loyal
A key maxim to working well together: Don't jump ship for the first cheaper offer you find elsewhere without consulting your partner. "If you remove your reseller from the buying process, you lose their other services as well," says Tom Adams, executive vice president of Calence Inc., a privately held, 150-person firm in Tempe, Ariz., that builds and manages networks. "But if you work with your reseller from the beginning, each aspect of the process is their responsibility, and you will be able to direct all of your questions and concerns to one qualified person."

Similarly, Jeff Dimock, infrastructure practice leader at Atlanta-based Intellinet Corp., a $12 million IT strategy and consulting services firm, says he tries to find a single provider for each client engagement. "We balance project management with technological expertise and work with our own customer to develop a clear scope of expectations," he says.

But there should be limits to loyalty, CIO Lewis points out. "For instance, if I am buying a commodity, I don't have a lot of patience for back and forth haggling, and I have no patience for being told something that's not true," he says.

This was first published in April 2005

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