I am a firm believer in getting involved with peer groups. I am also a firm believer in working collaboratively with vendor partners. And when I participate in the HTG5 peer group and facilitate HTG11 in the United Kingdom, I do both. Part of my role in HTG is to coordinate the group's vendor advisory board, so I help ensure that vendors get the value they expect from working with us, and that as many group members are connected to as many of the right vendors as possible. It's an area of specialization for me, and it's also a lot of fun.
Some partners think it's difficult to build relationships with their vendors, but it doesn't have to be, especially if you start out knowing what not to do: Simply, if you begin a conversation with a vendor by complaining about what they haven't done for you, you're no longer useful to that vendor. Often, when speaking with vendors like Microsoft, small solution providers will say, "You never pay attention to me. You don't give me any sales leads." Or it may be about marketing money, or doing events in the partner's area. The list could go on and on. From the vendor's perspective, the people who are easiest to work with are the ones they're going to engage with first.
A CONVERSATION STARTER
To develop a good vendor relationship, start your conversation by saying what you're going to do for them. For example, there were three companies in the U.K. that I thought might be interested in managed print services. So I reached out to Xerox, my partner in the United States, and said, "Hey, I have three more people in the U.K. that I think are interested in working with you. Can you help me make a connection?" I offered value before anything else.
Another way to approach it might be to say, "How can we work together to build a program that will result in more sales for you and for me?" Clearly, that's a different approach than what normally happens in vendor-partner exchanges.
If you want to take it to the next level, devote some time and effort into determining what the vendor's ROI will be. For example, "I'd like to put together an event for you and invite 30 potential customers. My target is to get five appointments and talk about your solution. How can we work on that together?" You're delivering something concrete that a rep can take back to management to show how their time and energy was spent. Changing the approach to "what we can do together" is key to making the relationship successful.
BACK TO BASICS
Think about how you reach out to your customers now and capitalize on that. Take one or two customers out to lunch and talk about a vendor's solution. Or turn it around and ask the vendor about the end-user customer. Perhaps you ask, "Can you help me understand who the perfect customers are for your solution, so I can easily identify them?"
Also, the more you can measure, the more successful you'll be. Say how many customers you plan to speak with or how many appointments you have already set up. These metrics are vital for your own marketing efforts, and they are vital to the vendor as well--the more specific we can be and the better we get at helping vendors do their jobs, the more they will support us. Some partners are fearful of sharing too much. Do it anyway. If the vendor betrays your trust, change vendors. I'm very clear about this up front with our vendors. Someone can't earn your trust if you don't give them a chance to do so.
Finally, treat everyone, including your vendor partners, like people. The number of times partners are disrespectful to vendors is surprising. I would add to that by suggesting you spend time getting to know your reps. Find out who they are and what motivates them in their role at the company. I always ask about their sales goals too--what they are responsible for--so I'm sure I'm talking to the right people, and they are motivated to help me.
Profile: Dave Sobel
CEO, Evolve Technologies
Location: Fairfax, Va.
Established: 1996; 2002 developed current offerings
Number of employees: 14
Company focus: Remote monitoring and management as well as on-site service for SMB customers
Favorite part of my job: Working with our vendors and other solution providers. I really love it.
Least favorite part: The mundane part of business: financials, taxes, and tax laws—everything I need to be a good business owner. So I have surrounded myself with people who are really good at it.
Pet project: I am heavily involved with peer groups, partnering, and networking. In fact, I am building an HTG peer group in the U.K.
Who's running the store: I have a fantastic management team that's communications-connected. I always emphasize virtual communications, so I can manage a significant portion of the business even when I'm in London.