Saturday, September 12, 2009

How We Engage Vendors

This is the fifth post based on the keynote I delivered at the Ingram SMBA in Charlotte in late August. The topic revolves around the specifics of how to leverage the vendor resources available to the channel. Many partners don’t take advantage of these tools and miss the opportunity to get their fair share of the vendor investment. Don’t be one of them – take advantage and get more than your fair share. Vendors can help you in many ways, so consider these thoughts:

Marketing Funds (MDF/Distributor/Performance)

Most vendors set aside a significant amount of funding to hand out in a number of ways to their channel partners. Some of it normally comes through MDF (market development funds) that are earned based on sales of the vendor’s products. Distribution funds are provided through distribution and are normally handed out based on a proposal – more of a one off system of funding. Each vendor and distributor has their own system of handling these types of funds. Many vendors also offer funds that are proposal based and funding is based on performance. These funds require a written plan, execution and proof of performance with ROI. Based on that ROI – funding is provided after the fact. In every case literally millions of dollars – many millions – go unused by the channel because partners do not apply for and execute marketing properly.

Technology adoption programs

Vendors call this different things but this refers to the broad bucket of programs where products are placed in live customer environments during development and testing. Some of these programs are funded by the vendor, some are not. They give partners the opportunity to learn technologies early and get a head start on their competitors. These programs can be software or hardware, but always include the possibility of some customer or partner pain as the technology is tested. At HTS we have participated in dozens of these programs and find it is a valuable tool for our engineering team as well as our customers.

Rapid deployment programs

Many vendors also offer programs to drive adoption of new technologies in the marketplace. These can be funded or may just be based on reduced costs to the customer. But these again give a partner a competitive advantage in getting their company up to speed on new technologies and helps customers implement these cutting edge technologies in their environment. Microsoft is particularly fond of these types of programs and HTS has again participated in many of these for the benefit of our team and customers.

Beta programs

Beta programs are a bit more difficult to get involved in. These require a deep relationship with engineering and product teams and a history of performance in providing strong feedback and design specifications. They can be extremely valuable in keeping your engineers engaged and challenged, and the right customers are also excited to be able to help in the development process. It is not for every partner or customer, is seldom funded, and can be something that causes everyone to pull their hair out. But it has been a great way to keep the HTS engineering team challenged and growing.

Case studies – video and print

One of the areas that can be extremely effective in many ways is the creation of case studies on your customers. Vendors love these as it gives them customer evidence that can be used to validate their products and services. But as partners, not only do these help build a relationship with vendors, but they also provide fantastic marketing tools that can be used on websites, print materials and blogs. These are easier than ever to produce with the advent of inexpensive video cameras and quality color print devices, yet so many partners have no case studies in their marketing bag of tricks.

Advisory councils

Many vendors have advisory councils made of active partners in their partner base. These programs vary widely from vendor to vendor, but they are always effective in helping take the relationship much deeper. One does not get selected to serve just by sitting back and waiting for an invite. You have to proactively participate in the vendors programs, get acquainted with the vendor representatives, and show how you will add value to the company if you are invited to serve. These councils are very limited in size so it is not something that all can achieve, but more often than not, if a partner is deeply engaged with selling a vendor solution and works to add value to their partner programs, they can work their way on to an advisory council over time.

Technical and sales training

Vendors spend millions of dollars of field resources designed to help drive sales. These resources are both sales and technical in nature, and are paid to help partners grow their business with the vendor. Too many times partners are unwilling to make their team available for training. This sends a bad signal to the vendor and is not a solid way to build relationships with that vendor. Not only should a partner make their team available for vendor training, but they should be proactive in seeking that training and creating valuable ways to drive that relationship with the field deeper.

On site visits

One of the most important ways to build a strong vendor relationship is to invite them to your office. Take them on customer visits. Help them get the kinds of experiences that will help them grow and bring back value to their company. It is powerful to help vendor reps continue their path to promotion and often some field experience with a partner goes a long way to that end. At HTS we have had literally hundreds of vendor staff – from field sales and technical resources to product development and HR folks – spend time in our offices with our team. We have taken them on customer visits, spent time in roundtable and brainstorming sessions, and provided them the kinds of experiences that help make them better at their jobs. While we don’t get paid for that time, it is an investment in the relationships that takes us up a notch in terms of our engagement and it always comes back to us in many ways.

Sell their stuff

So the real way to take advantage of a vendor relationship really comes down to selling their products and services. The more exclusive or focused you are on them, the more they are willing to invest in you. There is NO substitute to selling their stuff. If you really want to go deep with a vendor – get serious about selling their products. Market it, get trained in it, learn how to support it, but most of all sell it. The more you do the deeper your relationship and the deeper the investment will be in your company.

Vendor relationships are not rocket science. They do involve us getting active and off our fannies and participating and working at it. Vendor relationships are not just holding your hand out and asking them to give you stuff. It doesn’t work like that. It is about understanding their programs, diving in completely and working to help make sure they are successful. There are many other things that vendors offer that we have not covered in this post. But a relationship with a vendor is really just like any relationship – it has to be about giving and realizing that as you give, the receiving takes care of itself. We have found that to be true every time.

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