Monday, December 27, 2010

Vendors Matter

This is the seventh blog post regarding the 10 Things I Accidentally Learned on the Path to Growth. There is little question that many folks in our industry seem to feel that the vendors are the enemy. Why - I am not exactly sure. But I can tell you without question that an attitude like that is 180 degrees the wrong way. Not only are vendors necessary and important - if you really want to grow - they are one of the most important factors I have seen and experienced.

So before you tune me out - listen a bit. Unless you are some super giant company - you do not have everything you need in order to serve your clients. Even Microsoft and HP use vendors - lots of them - to bring together things needed to serve their end clients. So what makes us as IT owners believe we are self sufficient and can run our business without any vendor relationships? I know the answer and it is in one word - stupidity! I know because I used to think that way a long time ago. I thought my job for the day was to beat vendors and distributors up on pricing and accuse them of trying to take my customers or take advantage of me through one of their programs somehow. Is that how you see your vendor relationships? Wrong approach - way wrong. Here are the facts as I have seen them over the years:

Vendors and Distributors exist to sell stuff

At the core of our attitude toward vendors is the failure to understand what they are in business for. Just like us - they exist to make a profit - and serve their customers. We tend to want to cut that first part out. If you want to succeed in this area - you have to understand that they are in business to sell things. And the way you embrace that is pretty obvious - you buy them. But not based on where you can find the lowest deal of the day or beat down the last penny of profit. You consolidate your purchasing and become a loyal buyer. Nothing says relationship like those two words. Get over finding the cheapest place to source products. Pick a distributor and a few key vendors and buy their products the same way from the same companies every day. I am often amazed at discussions where someone saved $10 a product by shopping. They wasted two hours of valuable time that could be used on productive work - but they got the best deal. Until they look a little more and find out that had they spend the whole day they could have saved $12. How ludicrous. We are in the value business. We sell our solutions and services based on value - not cost. We should buy the same way and quit worrying about getting every last dime out of someone. You will never grow or succeed as long as you are focused on spending your time here rather than building value for the customer.

Learn who your reps are and how they get paid

Relationships happen between two people. Every vendor has people resources that we can leverage to help drive our collective business. Your assignment is to find out who they are and build a relationship with them. It starts by buying as described in the previous paragraph. Most vendor reps are not crazy about working with companies that don't buy anything. But assuming you figure that one out and become a loyal partner - then it is time to begin the treasure hunt to find out where the people resources are. This takes determination and hard work - but is very much worth the effort. Once you build a relationship by consistently executing - you will find that these folks offer to bring resources to the table to help you grow. After all - they are paid on selling stuff. You need to ask that question and understand their compensation model - but inevitably it will have some component of sales in the mix. So find them and help them succeed. No one in their right mind won't partner with you to sell more if you are helping them earn more. This is key - building a win - win relationship. It is so powerful and I have seen significant results from learning to partner closely with vendor reps.

Participate in their programs

Vendors spend millions and millions of dollars on our behalf. The sad reality is that most of us don't take advantage of those investments. We don't like what they are offering for this reason or that - so we just ignore them. Bad decision. We need to not only understand what our key vendors are doing to support the channel - we need to participate in every possible way whether it is exactly how we would like it or not. It is their money after all. They are spending it on our behalf. We don't get to decide how. But they do care about our participation. They very much care about how involved we are in taking advantage of their investments. And they do keep score. Not getting much attention from your vendors? Begin by looking at your support and participation in their programs. More often than not you are getting what you deserve based on your committment.

Provide customer evidence

Vendors really love customer success stories. And in our IT channel two tier distribution model they have a difficult time getting those because we are in the middle. If you want to win some big points with both field reps and folks at corporate offices of your key vendors - capture and write success stories on how their technology delivered by you made a difference. That is like gold to reps and gives them some great evidence to bring back to their company. You can use it with your customers too - so it is something we should all be doing anyway. Just be sure to include your vendor reps and help them look good with their managers.

Get your team trained

It amazes me at how many partners complain about having to invest in training to get attention from vendors. Is it really that difficult to understand. It not only prepares us to actually sell their products as designed, to install them the best possible way, to succeed with their programs and use their references - but it also shows loyalty and our willingness to put skin in the game. Do I ever think some of the training is a little worthless? Yep. Do I think most training could be done better? Yep. Do we participate and get our people trained? Absolutely. Why? Because it shows that we are committed to the technology and company we are representing. It is part of learning how they intend to help us succeed. We need to bite the bullet and get our people trained, and then use what we learned to sell and implement more solutions.

Plan and be accountable to them

One of the most important things you can do to take vendor relationships to a whole different level is to truly plan together. Each year in the last quarter we hold our annual vendor planning session. We invite our top 4 or 5 vendor partners and our disty partner to the table - all at the same time - with our management team to strategize for the coming year. This has turned into one of the most important things we do to drive relationship with our vendors. It is a day and a half to two days focused on how we collectively grow each others business. There are competitors in the room - but we are clear that our approach to the market is solution selling and we sell products from a few vendors to build our solutions so they have to learn to play together in the sandbox. It opened some eyes the first time we did it. Some were pretty quiet and careful - but over the years it has become a true collaborative time and vendors leave knowing our collective approach. We also make committments to them, and they to us, that both sides are accountable for. We do quarterly reviews to make sure we are on track through the year. You have to be transparent and accountable if you truly want to make vendor relationships work.

There are lots of ways to engage vendors. Here are a few ideas we have utilized:

•Marketing Development Funds (MDF) - come in a variety of shapes and sizes
•Technology adoption programs
•Rapid deployment programs
•Beta programs
•Case studies – video and print
•Advisory councils
•Technical and sales training
•On site visits where we have corporate folks in our office to see what really happens

The bottom line

If you want to truly grow your company - you have to get this area right. I have seen NO company of any size do it alone. There always is a very strong and deep strategy to leverage vendors as part of the growth. You just aren't going to get there if you don't embrace them. They truly are a great resource and ally if you build deep relationships. It is work. It takes time. But it is very much worth it. Get after it and don't listen to the majority who will never figure this out. Go deep and find out just how far great vendor relationships can take you on your path of growth!

No comments: