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Consultants and Channel Partners: Best Practices for Client Satisfaction

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A young financial services firm is opening a new branch every three months. The company needs a sophisticated yet flexible communications solution, but no one on staff has the time or experience to consider current options, much less try to roadmap future needs.

A multinational direct sales company has an abandoned call rate of 80 percent, wants to see sales per hour increase by 125 percent, and has budgeted a headcount reduction of 12 percent. They have call centers scattered all over the world, the communications expense load is through the roof, and the CEO is impatient.

An established health care provider with 18,000 employees has been receiving "end of life" notices from telecommunications manufacturers who will no longer stock parts for 35 percent of the company's deployed telephony hardware. Within six months, any telecom equipment outage could have catastrophic results.

Communications challenges can make or break a company. But not every enterprise has the internal resources available to scope, vet, negotiate and implement a new solution, especially in a rapidly innovating field like unified communications.

Consequently, many companies turn to telecommunications consultants to manage the process. But consultants don't work in a vacuum. Indeed, one of their primary roles is to guide the selection process to determine the rest of their deployment team - the channel partners (CPs), VARs or system integrators whose product knowledge and implementation expertise will get the job done. The consultant is an extension of the client.  The channel partner is an extension of the OEM.

While a consultant is the project's resident expert about the client's business need, a channel partner or VAR is the resident expert about a manufacturer's specific unified communications solution. Together, they create a marriage of client and solution that turns a communications challenge into a business opportunity.

"Both the consultant and the partner have a role to play," says Chris Thalassinos of Toronto's Communications Intelligence Group, "and the relationship should always be collaborative."  To learn more, we asked four of ShoreTel's Consultant Liaison Program Advisory Board members, who shared their perspectives about the best practices that support this critical relationship.

Best Practices for Consultants:

  • Be clear about the rules of engagement for each particular project.  Some clients don't mind being contacted by individual vendors and channel partners, but as InTech's Ernie Holling says, "It is situational.  Some clients don't mind, but others want the consultant to be the sole contact." For a number of clients, restricting direct communication with resellers is a primary reason why they want to work with a consultant. If this is the case, the consultant must ensure that everyone is on board or risk misunderstandings, misinterpretations or accusations of bias.
  • Be unbiased in your approach to solutions. A good consultant considers the unique needs of each business case and weighs the merits of each solution's ability to achieve the client's goals. "Best practice is to put the specific needs of the business driver, the business requirements, first," says Thalassinos. Good consultants demonstrate their commitment to fairness by their membership in the Society of Telecommunications Consultants, whose rigorous code of ethics has been a guiding principle since 1976, and in the Canadian Telecommunications Consultants Association.
  • Create a level playing field for potential channel partners. The commitment to remain unbiased extends to dealing with the "short list" of potential partners. Consultants should not favor individual firms by providing preferential time or information. All RFPs should be identical, comprehensive, and precise.  As VARs' questions surface, some consultants will distribute the questions and their answers to all partners who have been invited to respond to the RFP.  But not all: Melissa Swartz, of Swartz Consulting,  sometimes measures the strategic value of a CP in the quality of the questions asked. "A partner might call me and say, 'We have two ways we could go - and here are the implications. What do you think is the better choice?'  I will not share that conversation or information with the other CPs.  I won't give away the strategy of one vendor to another."
  • Know the channel partner's value proposition. It is possible for a particular unified communication solution to be represented by more than one VAR, especially when a project spans geographic regions. "Sometimes we've had multiple partners for a single product," says Holling. "It's important for the consultant to know the 'value add' of each, their company's particular niche and benefits."
  • Never make a decision based on price alone. As an extension of the client, a consultant should always work to get the best price. But "the lowest price does not always demonstrate the depth of expertise that the client needs," explains Swartz. "In the long run, a client will be unhappy if the decision is just about price."

Best Practices for Channel Partners and VARs

  • Accept the roles of "consultant" and "partner" as defined by the client. The terms of engagement should be made clear upfront, and the client's say goes. Which may mean no vendor contact until after the project is awarded. "Both the consultant and the partner should strive to be trusted," says Thalassinos, "and that means we should both understand our roles and accept them."  "If the vendor goes around the consultant and contacts the client, they take a big risk," continues Swartz, "they will likely come off making a bad impression."
  • Read the RFP and follow its definitions.  Every consultant has multiple stories about finding a different client's name featured in a boilerplate response to a client RFP. As infuriating is the response that details a solution unrelated to the RFP's stated need; channel partners should make sure to "answer the question being asked, not the one they want to answer," says The Battles Group's Byron Battles, who continues, "and make sure the response uses the terms for features as defined by the client's definitions.  If the client calls something a 'tomato,' call it a tomato, not a 'to-mah-to.'"
  • Never misrepresent capabilities. Avoiding or obscuring information because it might jeopardize a sale is a sure way to never be recommended by a consultant again. "If there are assumptions, or exceptions that will clarify performance, don't be afraid to state them," says Battles, "this kind of honesty demonstrates your integrity and your confidence in your solution."
  • Bring in the manufacturer. The solution OEM can be the best source for product information during a solution demo, and channel partners should keep solid relationships with their product's developers. Even more importantly, "often the manufacturer can bridge multiple channel partners and become part of the process" during a geographically diverse or multinational deployment, says Holling.  For example, a program like ShoreTel's Consultant Liaison Program can recommend channel partners and systems integrators around the world based on a specific project's client requirements.
  • Keep the sales and implementation teams coordinated.  During the sales process there is much discovery, discussion and negotiation. "But then, when the project is handed from sales to implementation, this background information is not always transferred," says Swartz.  "This can make the whole project much harder on the implementation team" and cause unnecessary delays and review.
  • Develop relationships with consultants now.  Channel partners shouldn't wait until the moment a potential client appears before informing consultants about their solutions and expertise. Consultants want to keep the playing field level and won't want to spend extra time getting up to speed with one vendor during discovery. Instead CPs can introduce themselves beforehand. "It's to the partner's advantage to give the consultant as much information as soon as possible," says Holling. "Invite consultants to solution webinars and lunchinars; find a reason to stay in touch."

Best practices? After a successful deployment, the consultant will move on, but the channel partner is in a relationship with the client for the long term. Swartz sums it up: "I want to walk away from a happy marriage of the client, the unified communication solution, and systems integration team.  I don't want the partner to walk off the face of the earth." The CP would be "negligent if they didn't follow up with the client. They need to be upselling and maintaining the solution and the relationship."

 

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Our sources for this blog, members of ShoreTel's Consultant Liaison Program Advisory Board:

Byron Battles is Principal, The Battles Group, LLC and is a recognized expert in the field of Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) and a Past President (2006-2008) of The Society of Telecommunications Consultants a professional association of independent information technology and communications (ICT) consultants. He has 29 years of telecommunications consulting and industry experience in direct voice and data telecommunications evaluation, technical and project consulting, and applied market and subject research.

Ernie Holling is President and Chief Strategist of InTech, which he founded in 1986. He specializes in providing crisis intervention at the enterprise level and in developing technology strategy for complex, multi-site/vendor environments and contact centers. He is a member of the Project Manager Institute, the Telecommunications Industry Association, the Utilities Telecommunications Council, and is a past vice president of the board of directors for the Society of Telecommunications Consultants.

Melissa Swartz has been providing telecommunications consulting for her clients since 1991.  She is the founder of Kansas City-based Swartz Consulting,  a firm that assists clients in managing telecommunications technology and costs. The consultancy provides a range of services from analysis, planning, acquisition, design, and implementation to ongoing support. She is currently the President of the Society of Telecommunications Consultants.

Chris Thalassinos of Toronto's Communications Intelligence Group has over 20 years experience in working with companies to strategize and realize innovative business and technology solutions. As an advisor, he focuses on project leadership, solutions development and client relationship management and guides organizations to effective deployments of emerging and converging technologies.