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Buying and selling: this time, it’s personal
People buy from people, so the saying goes, and the coronavirus pandemic has tested the channel’s ability to do just that
If there’s one thing that vendors, distributors and resellers can all agree on – spoiler: there are obviously more things they can agree on – it’s that “people buy from people”. Clearly, if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a channel model.
“It’s an adage that ‘people buy from people’, and this translates simply to ‘trust’ being the deciding factor,” says Kevin Bland, head of partners and alliances at Red Hat. “Trust is born of doing what you say you are going to do and being consistent. It’s a simple formula, but a vital one.”
Johan Pellicaan, vice-president and managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Scale Computing, makes a similar point. “People buy from people, and the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t changed that. Of course, the product or solution plays an important part, but in the end, the personal relationships with sales and pre-sales departments, and any other people in the organisation, are what build the platform for success.”
Why is there such a strong emphasis on the personal? Perhaps because it really is so important for channel partners.
In a recent survey by Kaspersky, 77% of resellers and distributors agreed that a personal relationship with vendors was important to them, and many saw a correlation between better relationships and improved sales and performance. It was disheartening, then, to discover that 65% of resellers and distributors wanted a better relationship with vendors and many were finding it increasingly difficult to build them with vendors. As many as 71% felt the onus was on them to establish those relationships and 69% were looking for more personal contact with their dedicated account manager.
That indicates that, to some degree, the current model isn’t working anywhere near as well as it could for many distributors and resellers. Vendors are quick to tell you what they can do to help improve their relationships with channel partners – and judging by the near unanimity of their responses, it’s not particularly radical – but the evidence suggests they’re not doing it well enough.
Communication, but not as we know it
Marianne Nickenig, vice-president collaboration and networking EMEA at Westcon, puts it succinctly: “A partnership should be based not only on financial transactions, but also on mutual trust and loyalty. Partners are an extension of distribution and the vendor. Transparency and open dialogue are key factors to driving successful business outcomes – listen to their concerns and develop strategies to support them.”
Many vendors, distributors and resellers cite communication as one of the most important factors in building a strong relationship. It’s nothing new, but the impact of Covid-19 is bringing new challenges – and opportunities, it has to be said – to the relationships between vendors, distributors and resellers. The curtailment of normal social interaction in a physical environment, or what we might describe as the “human touch” or “personal contact”, has the potential to make it more difficult to maintain strong links between channel parties.
Johan Pellicaan, Scale Computing
With the cessation of face-to-face meetings, seminars and conferences, the focus has shifted to video conferencing and virtual meetings to maintain contact. As everyone agrees, it’s not the same. “No matter how good the technology, digital instruments cannot replace personal contact, or the trusting conversation between buyer and seller,” says Nickenig. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be an effective replacement.
“Although face-to-face communication is important, the Covid-19 pandemic has really shown organisations everywhere that remote working can be effective; you just need to make it work for your business,” says Pellicaan. “When vendors and channel partners remember that a strong, healthy partnership relies on commitment from both sides of the relationship, you can build and maintain relationships perfectly as well virtually, as you can physically.”
In the absence of the option to travel to meet with partners, Chad Bacher, senior vice-president and general manager of Global Channels at Alert Logic, says video conferencing has become a critical tool to continue to provide those kinds of interactions and not miss a beat in terms of meeting, interacting and addressing the needs of partners.
It’s surprising how many vendors and distributors are able to put a positive gloss on the enforced shift to more video-based relationships. Perhaps they have no choice, or perhaps they can see it starting to deliver tangible benefits.
Neil Murphy, global vice-president of business development at ABBYY, admits that building strong relationships has been hard during the pandemic, without face-to-face meetings, but the move towards virtual relationship-building has been good for the industry. “Maintaining that human touch virtually, with face-to-face meetings only when necessary, will be more sustainable for the future,” he says.
Jason Spring, sales director at Agilitas, wonders if the industry may have been too reliant on physical face-to-face engagement in the past. “Even though we’ve never been so remote, we’ve also never been so connected at the same time, thanks to the technology we have access to,” he says. “For years, the channel has been telling the customer they need this type of technology to work remotely and successfully. However, in all honesty, we weren’t doing it ourselves. Covid-19 has been the catalyst for that decision-making and accelerated that transformation to a more remote, agile and connected workplace.”
David Watts, UK and Ireland managing director at Tech Data, agrees. “The past few months have shown us that we don’t need to rely principally on meetings and events at which both parties are physically present to build and develop those relationships,” he says.
Jason Spring, Agilitas
The distributor has been running a number of regular check-ins and virtual communities during the lockdown, which Watts says have been really successful, to the extent that it intends to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. “That’s certainly been helping us and our resellers to still have that ‘human touch’ and interaction. We’ve actually forged even closer relationships with our resellers and our vendor partners,” he claims.
Virtual contact has become vital
In the current environment, the onus is on making virtual communication work well because there are few other options available. A point made by Russell Blackburn, EMEA vice-president at Comstor.
“In the current environment, the discipline of communication is actually a lot better. This is because there’s only one choice and that’s to communicate virtually,” he says. “If anything, at Comstor we are having more contact with Cisco than we did before the pandemic, with more regular Webex sessions to ensure we’re keeping that communication open.”
John Schweizer, vice-president channel sales at ConnectWise, says that while “video fatigue” is becoming an issue for some, “virtually connecting with your channel partners is important, especially in a time when the pandemic continues and remote working is more prevalent”.
Paul Jennings, head of channel at Dynabook Northern Europe, says vendors need to embrace the tools at their disposal and think of ways of re-using these. He cites the example of one of the company’s account managers who came up with the idea of creating a help group for each reseller he manages, providing quick and simple access for ongoing communication and support whenever it is needed.
Jennings believes it is essential that vendors maintain strong communication lines with their channel partners throughout this situation, and these tools are vital to achieving that.
Alison Hastings, regional channel leader at Avaya UK & Ireland, agrees that, irrespective of what form it takes, regular communication with partners is key. “Things have been moving so fast we’ve found that if we don’t have an interaction on this much more regular basis, we lose contact with what’s going on,” she says.
The vendor has virtual drinks for updates at the end of the day, and because it’s all on video, she says an additional level of human touch has developed. Hastings believes interactions have become more personal during lockdown, with everyone experiencing real care and empathy for each other as they’re all in the same situation. “In turn, this has created a more equal feeling between us and built a level of confidence in people,” she says. “It’s been great for people who wouldn’t normally speak to CEOs to be able to have this kind of interaction during video meetings.”
There have been other benefits, too. “Normally, we’d be having a quarterly review with a partner’s C-suite, but since being advised to work from home, we’ve been doing them monthly and weekly with our account teams,” says Hastings, which she says has completely changed its engagement model. “The contact has been much more regular. Instead of waiting for the next quarter to come around for a board meeting, which may not have happened due to travel or timing clashes, we’ve been having them every four weeks like clockwork. We wouldn’t want to lose this now,” she says.
Agilitas’s Spring agrees. “With people travelling less, and with fewer trade shows for vendors to interact with their partners, we now have more time than ever to embrace the advantages of video meetings,” he says. “This gives firms the opportunity to align much closer to the needs of customers.”
Personal exchanges should not be forgotten
But Keith Jackson, channel sales director at 8x8, warns that while video conferencing has played an important role in maintaining the transactional aspect of relationships, it’s important that the water cooler conversations, chance meetings and “on the way to the meeting room” exchanges also find their place online. “Building time at the start and end of meetings to talk about the happenings in each other’s homes, family and even compare lockdown haircuts, will help keep relationships feeling tangible, personal and open,” he says.
Keith Jackson, 8x8
This view is echoed by Stuart Taylor, channel director for Western Europe at Palo Alto Networks. “It has been a big learning curve for everyone working from home during Covid-19. Gone are the water cooler moments forged when bumping into someone you know – conversations are almost always scheduled. Getting fewer non-verbal cues via video call makes it harder to know how someone is thinking and feeling at any given moment,” he says, “but people can still read some of your body language, which is invaluable to letting them know you are engaged and actively listening to them – nodding, smiling and other non-verbal communication.”
Taylor suggests it can help to put up a virtual background. “Whether it’s a previous holiday destination or represents an activity you enjoy in your spare time, this can act as an ice breaker at the start of a call and create a positive first impression,” he says. “You could even order coffee and cake for your call invitees (get them delivered or send them a voucher), just as you would if you were hosting in your offices or a local cafe.”
Hitting the reset button
The more or less enforced shift to remote working has made many vendors and partners reassess how they spend their time, and how they can be most productive to achieve better sales and performance – whether having no commute has gifted them two hours a day, or they’re finding conference calls taking up too much time, says ABBYY’s Murphy.
“It’s made many people realise that travelling for hours to meet a partner or vendor face to face isn’t as necessary as we used to think. Now, we can be much more focused on what we’re trying to deliver with partners, figuring out how to solve problems from the very beginning, rather than just the niceties,” he says.
Neil Murphy, ABBYY
Murphy predicts there will be fewer initial meetings happening in person, and more of the early stages of partnerships taking place remotely, on video calls and at virtual events, enabling partners and vendors to keep momentum up without wasting time (and money) on travel. “This doesn’t mean face-to-face meetings are dead,” he insists. “Rather, when we do meet face to face, it will be a properly qualified opportunity where we can be wholly results-driven and focused on the value both parties can bring to the table.”
Fewer face-to-face meetings also means fewer superficial meetings that amount to nothing, and many more with partners who really want to work with vendors and are motivated to do so for mutual benefit. This period has been good for the channel – long may it continue.
Gareth Meyer, commercial and operations director at Ultima, identifies some areas where the move to video communication has caused difficulty, such as maintaining training levels.
“While the tech guys seem to find it easy to continue with their training online, the sales teams are finding it more difficult,” he reveals. “Where once they were in a physical room having a demo and asking questions, they are now doing this online, and some of the tech is getting lost in translation, so we are working on how to improve this.”
Nevertheless, he agrees with Murphy that it has brought some real benefits. “Overall, I’ve actually found it easier in most cases to keep up good communication with our vendors as they are ‘always available’ and not on trains or in meetings at the moment,” says Meyer. “Although it’s good to meet face to face, the latest collaboration technology has made keeping in touch so much simpler. But it does take a disciplined approach for constant contact to become embedded in your vendor relationships, just like elsewhere in life.”