Specialists, experts, or just middlemen – how will customers see you beyond 2021?

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When 'we've had enough of experts' and 'the customer is always right', how can the channel continue to convince users of its value? After all, people know more about IT today – there's more digital engagement and tech is everywhere.

Will Carver, alliances and partnerships director at SCC, agrees that while being a good salesperson has never been easy, it’s even more difficult now. An engagement may have to be progressed in minutes, which means doing more homework in advance.

"When sales finally speaks to customers they may need to be better prepared, even to the point of knowing more about customer interactions not only with your company but with others," Carver says.

Be up front and proactive

Long exploratory meetings don't serve busy, pressured customers well today, especially if they already have more idea of what they're after technology-wise. Smarter partners should do whatever it takes to research the customer and prepare insights ready for that first virtual or in-person conversation.

"There is nothing more irritating than rolling up to a CIO and going 'so tell me about your top five problems'," says Carver.

Instead, channel partners should be ready to offer more thoughts on potential problems in the first instance, even if these turn out to be wrong.

This kind of approach shows that the partner at least cares about the customer enough to have put thought into the meeting, opening the discussion up for any misapprehensions to be swiftly corrected, thereby setting up your next move.

"You need a really good trusted relationship, but you've only got a limited amount of time," emphasises Carver. "Use your data sources – who did they buy from a few years ago, or never did? What has happened to previous bids? Whatever it might be."

Also, demonstrate your own value up front concretely, with case studies or similar, ideally with quantified benefits. Be ready to discuss your abilities and the range of likely outcomes, as well as defences to any questions about your position.

"You've got to have very good social skills and be very good at rapidly analysing large quantities of data, pulling out salient points. And be very good at listening," says Carver.

Showcasing your specialist knowledge can also be useful – for example, knowing how to help customers cost-effectively through "painful" Microsoft renewals.

Going above and beyond the showcase

Certainly some individuals in any organisation will be more tech-savvy, going right back to the earliest days of tech, but IT has gone on becoming more complex and complicated, Carver notes.

Beyond an initial whittling down of potential solutions – itself supported by more effort and spend in 'pull' marketing, such as via partner content on a website – it can be harder for any IT buyer to understand requirements and make the best decisions.

This means channel partners could actually be more needed than ever.

"To really get into the guts of the technology and then make a decision, I think that's still very difficult to do," Carver says. "But I definitely see a reluctance to spend time with salespeople."

Simon Carter, director at schools-focused RM Education, agrees that specialising, rather than trying to be all things to all comers, can be key to doing well amid a more knowledgeable IT buyer community.

"Because we've worked in this sector for almost 50 years, we really appreciate how a school operates. That's our point of difference," Carter says.

For traditional resellers focused on price and commodity deals, life might become rather difficult in future, he suggests, as customers may increasingly favour partners that can demonstrate exactly why they're ahead of their competition in terms of what that particular buyer needs.

Meanwhile, the last two years of turmoil and accelerated digital transformation is continuing to play into channel partners' hands. Organisations have been looking to move swiftly into new areas while grappling with resource shortages, supply constraints and compliance.

"Now we're hopefully past the worst lockdowns, it's about making the most of technologies you have. That's where the channel can play its role in terms of training and best practice," says Carter.

He estimates that "maybe half" of schoolteachers aren't yet making the most of the technology available to them; the government has invested in school hardware, particularly for disadvantaged pupils, but new solutions often still require channel assistance.

"Simply turning up with a shiny new laptop is not actually going to transform your score," Carter says. "Helping with bite-size evidence – including case studies, videos or one-to-one training – allows customers to make the most of technology, working in ways they never have before."

Carter agrees, too, that pre-sales marketing now requires more budget, with more searchable information required online. This is as opposed to two or three years ago, when RM might have made "tens of thousands of approaches" via email, phone, social media and the like.

An Industrial Marketing Management paper published in July backs the relevance of online presence, finding that social media use, for example, not only boosts networking and services but can actually increase sales performance.

With Canalys forecasting a worse supply and logistics situation on top of Q3's slowing PC sales worldwide, correct targeting of sales efforts looks to be ever more crucial.

Fleur Doidge is a journalist with more than twenty years of experience, mainly writing features and news for B2B technology or business magazines and websites. She writes on a shifting assortment of topics, including the IT reseller channel, manufacturing, datacentre, cloud computing and communications. You can follow Fleur on Twitter.