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

Strong reseller relationships can make a big difference in driving cost efficiencies and meeting strategic goals. Here are 10 commandments to follow.

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.

V. Thou Shalt Expect Responsiveness and Flexibility 
A reseller should be able to provide service and equipment to its customers quickly and efficiently. That includes everything from quick shipments of in-stock inventory to being able to plan and move a data center in as little time as possible. "I don't ask resellers for their lowest price; I tell them to set a fair price. But in the event of an emergency, we expect immediate response" without paying a premium, says CIO Frantz.

Ideally, resellers should think and behave as if they are managing the projects they work on and be ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done on time, says Brian Le Suer, partner at Star Quality, a Hopkinton, Mass.-based, eight-person consulting firm that focuses on assisting clients with quality assurance, testing and training. That might mean long days and weekend work when faced with a large project on tight deadlines.

VI. Thou Shalt Hold Thy Reseller's Feet to the Fire 
IT resellers must back up what they say with action. They must be able to deliver the products and services as promised, on time and equipped to fit the customer's needs. "An ethical IT reseller will be able to produce exactly what they promised, and if a complication occurs they will be able to get the right people involved and take care of it for the customer with no hassle," says James Davie, vice president and co-founder of Canvas Systems, a $150 million reseller of pre-owned IT and networking equipment in Norcross, Ga.

To minimize risk and keep everybody on track, customers should implement project management milestones, recommends Mark Metz, CEO of Optimus Solutions, a $70 million reseller of systems management, storage and networking products in Norcross, Ga.

VII. Thou Shalt Communicate
Just as important as walking the walk is talking the talk -- and doing it regularly. "Companies are constantly changing, so make sure your vendors know where you are going and what you are doing," says reseller Metz. "Watch for potential synergies in your goals, technologies and target markets. These can provide additional value for the relationship."

Intellinet's Dimock recommends that resellers set up some type of secure, Web-based project collaboration and communication site that records, stores and shares all information pertinent to a project. Dimock says the system keeps IT organizations apprised of how their projects are coming along, what problems/issues are occurring, and whether they will be delivered on time and within budget.

Similarly, Metz recommends that customers implement and track project management milestones. Start with a kickoff meeting that brings all the key stakeholders into one room. "Make the strategic decision to partner at the highest executive level, and secure buy-in from all levels of employees," he says.

VIII. Thou Shalt Own Thine Own Actions
Accountability is a two-way street. You must offer direction and communicate with your partner in a clear and timely manner. And, if things go wrong because of something on your end, take the heat.

CIO Frantz has high expectations for his resellers but says he's fair, too. In one case, his staff ordered the wrong product through the reseller's online system, without involving its staff. "If one of their people had seen the order, they probably would have caught the mistake," he recalls. "We make sure to take responsibility for [errors like] that, so that they don't suffer because of our mistake."

IX. Thou Shalt Not Nickel-and-Dime Thy Partner
Like Commandment II, this involves recognizing that your reseller has to make money. And while resellers should be willing to deliver "extra" help in a pinch, don't abuse the privilege. Trying to drive vendors down to the lowest nickel every time and trying to squeeze more "freebies" out of them will eventually cause them to lose interest. "You can do $10 million in business with them, but if they are only making $50 on that volume, they won't care about you," CIO Frantz warns.

A reseller who seeks to realize the benefits of a long-term customer relationship will "be passionate about providing a consistent and positive product experience every time the customer makes a purchase," thus expending extra effort for technical assistance and the creative application of product knowledge, says reseller Meers. So, its efforts should not be met with haggling over every aspect of price.

Similarly, be cautious of resellers whose sole priority is getting you the lowest price. "All resellers are competing to give you the best value for your money on products, but your reseller's sales team should be most concerned about selling you a business solution and not getting you the cheapest price on a product," Adams says.

X. Thou Shalt Review Thy Contract Carefully
No matter how good your reseller looks, don't rush to sign an agreement until you've read the fine print -- especially regarding the duration of the contract. At Deseret Mutual, for example, Lewis says he is still living with a contract signed by a predecessor a dozen years ago. Its onerous terms included the right to provide all the servers used with a specific application package. Fortunately, he says, "I was able to renegotiate a few years ago and get rid of that clause."

He also takes a pragmatic view of it all: "We have a good relationship, but they are looking to line their pocket just like anyone else."

Frantz says his organization won't enter into any contract that lasts longer than a year. "Even that can be too long in this industry," he adds. "Our vendors must perform on an annual basis. About the only concession we will provide is an automatic renewal clause that provides for 30 days' notice of termination." Frantz is also adamant about making the fine print work for him. "We spell out specific expectations like delivery times, stocking levels and so on -- things that clearly require investment and faith on their part," he says.

But making the final decision will always include an element of intuition. "You need to know the industry and what is fair and reasonable," says Frantz.

Alan R. Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, Mass.

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