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Sun 26 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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One step ahead

Leading VARs in the region explain how they have been transitioning their sales teams to succeed in the market place and meet the changing needs of the end-user.

One step ahead
Vijayan Raman, Emtech.
One step ahead
Deepak Verma, Think Software Services.
One step ahead
SM Hussaini, Almoayyed Computers.

The downturn has forced resellers in the Middle East to take stock of their businesses - and most importantly the sales tactics they use to win new customers. Leading VARs in the region explain how they have been transitioning their sales teams to succeed in the market place and meet the changing needs of the end-user.

Times have changed so rapidly and almost uncontrollably that the Middle East IT channel has had to have its wits about it to merely to stand still in terms of revenue performance, let alone make progress.

The sight of customers retreating and budgets being slashed means resellers with strong and flexible sales team have quickly emerged as the favourites to bring in new clients and protect their positions.

Sales-savvy solutions providers have been revising and retuning their frontline project teams during the downturn - and contrary to popular belief that hasn't necessarily meant scaling back the workforce.

"Rather than downsizing, we're focusing on increasing the service delivery mechanism, especially with our post-sales team," explained SM Hussaini, general manager at Bahrain-based Almoayyed Computers, one of countless infrastructure solutions providers that has been exploring ways to scale up its higher-margin services business in recent months.

That is not to say salespeople at VARs such as Almoayyed aren't feeling the pressure. They continue to be measured on bottom line performance although Hussaini insists this approach is matched by the maturation and evolution of both the services it is offering and the customers it is targeting.

"Before the crisis, many of our clients were looking at addressing projects and were busy fulfilling the need of the hour, meaning that there was a solid pressure just to get new technology," he said. "They are now in a position to allow us to actually optimise what they already have. They are in a position to look into proof-of-concepts (POCs) and now our POCs have increased quite substantially on virtualisation and consolidation."

Vijayan Raman, managing director at UAE-based systems integrator Emtech Group, also claims his company has done everything in its power to avoid staff redundancies. In fact, sales resources appear to be the last thing it wants to cut back.

"I actually want to add more people," he revealed, pointing out that he has hired two sales representatives in recent months. "Earlier the customer was coming with a need and a budget. Now, our sales staff have to spend more quality time with them. Not only does it mean quality of delivery, it is quality of time. They have to create a rapport and understanding," insisted Raman.

Although the personal touch has always been a fundamental component of customer service in the Middle East, it is now paramount to survival for the channel. This has lead to VARs speaking effusively about the importance of ‘relationship managers' - sales staff that understand the need to give customers even greater levels of attention during the current climate.

Deepak Verma, managing director of solutions provider Think Software Services, sees value in employing relationship managers to ensure the customer receives comprehensive pre- and post-sales support.

"We've got six sales guys in the business who obviously manage a certain portfolio of clients - they operate like a relationship manager to the client as well as getting new clients and managing them," said Verma.Think Software has recruited one additional sales member since January and is on the look-out for another even though it admits that the difficulties of winning new business in the enterprise market have only being slightly buffered by a resurgence in the SMB sector.

For many resellers, the downturn has also encouraged them to return to basics. That has meant instructing sales teams to hit the phones and get out on the street in an effort to develop more leads.

Almoayyed's Hussaini sees rays of light in the Bahraini midmarket. "Many of the CIOs in the midmarket have to buy and this is currently our chief focus," he revealed. "Many new companies are being formed - firms who will have to have a small network in order to render operations."

The financial crisis has added further fuel to the age-old debate of product versus solution selling. There is naturally a concern among the services-led resellers that value might become a casualty as companies look to undercut each other in a bid to book sales.

Almoayyed claims its sales teams have actually benefited from coming up against rivals that are overly-aggressive on price. "Luckily for us, the competition is focusing on lowering the margins, whereas we're focusing on enhancing our value proposition and speed to market and this approach will eventually ensure better cost savings," insisted Hussaini.

Hyperlink, an Abu Dhabi-based outfit, has been adapting its sales department to cope with the increasingly overcrowded market place. "We have been seeing a lot more competition in Abu Dhabi and it is definitely affecting our success rate because more competition leads to more aggressive pricing in terms of proposals and so on," admitted Saleem Diab, director of sales and operations at Hyperlink. "It has impacted our pricing and we have had to find ways of being able to work around this and provide lower prices."

This is a challenge no doubt familiar to many systems integrators in the Middle East. Sales personnel now have to be a lot more persuasive than before to convince the customer that price isn't the only factor they need to bear in mind.

"IT people are not looking at the business strategy or the business health, they are just dumping at a throwaway price," complained Emtech's Raman. "It is like a marriage - once the marriage is in place you have to have services, support and all of those things so that they discover you are trustworthy. It is a nasty trend, but we will not throw away on price." Almoayyed suggests that although sales people should avoid trying to lead on price alone, they do have to illustrate the value of a technology or solution far more comprehensively than before. "Ours is clearly a value-based approach when it comes to sales - value that is tangible and suitable to the current market conditions," he insisted.

Hyperlink has been training sales staff to emphasise its strengths and differentiating qualities to potential clients."Sales staff have been focusing on the sectors and factors where they know Hyperlink can add value," explained Diab. "For instance, we have Arabic-speaking consultants and we are best suited to Abu Dhabi because our office is there. That is in addition to the other value that we offer from our sister companies, such as Emirates Computers."

The tendency for integrators to outsource their own staff to end-user customers looking to trim internal resources has also increased since the downturn.

"We have started talking to customers and showing them the extra services we can offer that will help them ride the tide," revealed Hussaini at Almoayyed. "This includes providing a person for a brief period to take care of their data. A lot of companies have a hiring freeze in place - we are in a position to help and have started taking certain responsibilities, on-site as well as off-site."

There is also a growing argument that the present market challenges make it an ideal time for VARs to invest in staff sales training, a move that could pay dividends when the green shoots of recovery begin to emerge.

"Most of the sales guys are techno-commercial, they understand technology and they are from a sales background. If you enhance their knowledge on the technical aspect it is comforting to the client because it will give them confidence in what you are offering as a solution," insisted Verma at Think Software Services.

One of the other major issues facing integrators that have seen business levels decline is whether to revise the commission and incentives they offer to sales staff. The days of paying out big bonuses could well be over for this year at least.

"It is very difficult when there are less opportunities than yesterday and things are a bit tighter," admitted Diab at Hyperlink. "You have to take two decisions - either you lower the quotas, which is very difficult to do, or you maintain the targets and quotas, but instead work on trying to lower your expenses. Lowering targets doesn't make sense, but neither does increasing the targets."

The Middle East IT landscape has changed irrevocably since the beginning of the year. Those with a services proposition have had to improve every aspect of their game, carving out new best practices to keep ahead of the competition. VARs that have transitioned their sales teams to the new environment they face will undoubtedly need to demonstrate the same versatility going forward as well.

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