Show of support

For a reseller - and the brands they represent - the availability and quality of pre-sales support can mean the difference between winning a lucrative deal and being edged out by a competitor. It is the responsibility of vendors to provide local partners with the technical and non-technical pre-sales resources they need to enhance their chances of success when submitting a bid or proposal. Channel Middle East asks the region's leading vendors to outline the level of pre-sales support they offer to partners and explain the role they have to play at this vital stage of the sales process.
Show of support
By Dawinderpal Sahota
Thu 09 Aug 2007 12:00 AM

For a reseller - and the brands they represent - the availability and quality of pre-sales support can mean the difference between winning a lucrative deal and being edged out by a competitor. It is the responsibility of vendors to provide local partners with the technical and non-technical pre-sales resources they need to enhance their chances of success when submitting a bid or proposal. Channel Middle East asks the region's leading vendors to outline the level of pre-sales support they offer to partners and explain the role they have to play at this vital stage of the sales process.

What is your definition of pre-sales support and what role does it have to play in the overall sales process?

Don’t be afraid to break it down into basics, and try to keep it as simple as possible — don’t let the technology drive the solution, let the customer’s business requirements drive the solution.

Chris Moore:What pre-sales means to us is supporting both the end user and the channel partners in the process of helping the end-user get what they need. That can be a process of education, training them on latest technologies, helping them understand how to make best use of their existing technology - and the same applies with the channel partner. We work with the partner to teach them about the latest technology, clearly in the knowledge that they will work with the end-user to teach them. For us, that's the most valuable time we spend together in terms of pre-sales support; we deliver skills, knowledge and information to help people define what they need.

Johan Degroote:A pre-sales person would be able to go into technical detail and explain key differentiators of a solution. It is a person who can understand the needs that a customer might have, beyond the scope of NEC, and place that solution into the customer's requirements.

Mark Prosser:Pre-sales support is assistance and information at all levels that ensures the customer gets the right solution for their needs. This is probably the most important aspect of any sales activity, and is critical not only for the customer, but all the players involved in setting up the solution.

Neville Perry:We define pre-sales as the role of understanding the customers' requirements. We go through a series of interviews and meetings, adding that to a technically-sound solution. This is the key component of the overall sales cycle for us because it really determines the roadmap for the way forward for the customer.

Bashar Bashaireh:A pre-sales person takes the role of supporting the sales force through understanding and analysing the customer's current and future requirements. It involves presenting, proposing and demonstrating the technical solutions through various means such as proof of concept exercises, ensuring acceptable and compliant product installations, suggesting any necessary end-user training, providing initial technical support and finally doing a proper solution documentation and handover to post-sales support personnel. The technical role of the pre-sales support alongside the proper account management from sales will ensure the ultimate success of the sales cycle of any project.

Dave Brooke:It's very difficult to compartmentalise pre-sales as a specific activity, it really encompasses the overall relationship that we as a vendor have with our channel. At the end of the day the success of this relationship is measured by sales and the satisfaction of customers. In the short term you could probably separate the two, but looking at the long-term health of the channel, sales follow the satisfaction of customers; there is an absolute direct relationship, and the presales ‘world' encompasses all of that.

Bruno Haubertin:Pre-sales support in the business we are in is a key part of the selling process. Complexity of architectures and the high level of customer demand dictates very serious pre-sales investigation on projects. This concerns sizing with major ISVs, performance assessment and benchmarks, as well as reference sites and architecture design for environments like disaster recovery projects.

How would you assess the level of in-house pre-sales skills that resellers have in the Middle East region?

DB:It varies, and to some degree it's going to be dictated by what the channel partner is actually focused on. If you look at large system integrators and VARs, the capabilities and capacity of those partners is significantly enhanced over the SMB traders that are typically trading at a hardware infrastructure level. Having said that, you wouldn't really expect these resellers to necessarily have full integration skills and capabilities.

NP:I would say resellers are quite competent in general. The technology that we're involved with is forever evolving and adapting to the market needs. There are always lots of changes so it's quite difficult to keep up at the best of times, but where we're focusing - and we encourage our resellers to focus on more - is in the advanced applications field. Things are becoming a lot more software-orientated and much more application-focused, so a lot more consulting and understanding of the customer needs is required.

MP:This really differs from partner to partner. Some are very good at pre-sales, and this makes the entire sale and the solution building so much easier for all involved. Quite often we find that the salespersons do not have the necessary skills or in-house support on pre-sales, and this does affect the speed at which efficient solutions can be drafted.

BB:Usually enterprise resellers and system integrators have the necessary trained and certified pre-sales resources onboard, especially when you are talking about enterprise resellers and integrators of unified threat management solutions that cope with blended security threats. I see the challenge on the SMB side of the business, where again the security threats are similar but the resellers either don't have adequate necessary resources or have difficulty retaining them.

To what extent do resellers call on you for pre-sales support and assistance?

BH:Obviously, for vendors, the goal is to have independent partners able to recover and draft proposals in all situations. In practice, our pre-sales and engagement teams drive a lot of the technical choices for the most complex solutions with the partners. This is also true when service requirements are high, even if the partner will ultimately deliver the support.

DB:Typically as you move up the integration scale with your partners, your pre-sales engagement at a ‘deal-level' increases. When you talk about hardware infrastructure or consumer products, that's really about product understanding and how the consumer can generate the maximum benefit out of a particular product. As we move up the integration scale, our involvement with the partner increases on a deal-by-deal basis. With our large integrators and VARs, although they have a very high level of skill, our engagement is significant, particularly when you move into enterprise storage, datacentres and the big mission critical deployments.

MP:Resellers in the Middle East do depend on vendors for updated and on-going pre-sales support. As the market matures I believe we will see better quality pre-sales support, but I don't see the need for a vendor to provide updated information and assistance changing.

CM:The good partners which have become reasonably self sufficient have taken certified training courses with Extreme. We do unofficial ad-hoc training but also certified training for their sales, pre-sales and support staff; all three are certified. When we have a channel partner who has achieved that level, and when it comes to responding to an RFP, they'll typically do 95% of it themselves. What they'll need assistance with is features on functionality they just haven't dealt with before because the customer has an unusual requirement, or features on functionality of new products that they haven't yet dealt with.

Talk us through the most important aspects of the pre-sales support you provide to partners in the region.

MP:We are definitely not in an environment where one solution fits all, and so for us it is important that we get the information on the requirement of a customer, where it is clear what the solution will be. It is important that we get the product right, and are aware of all needs and implications of the specification. We focus on the support required and ensure that our partners are clear on the requirement of the customer. For us it is also important that our partners take into account logistics and value adds when getting information.
NP:Consultancy is probably the aspect where we spend a lot of time with our business partners in the region. With their customers, we sit down, listen and understand their requirements and then map that to a specific solution. We carry out consultancy with our customers directly with our resellers. That's probably the most important aspect for us. We prefer not to proxy the information and have a case of ‘chinese whispers'; we really try to have a first-hand feel.

BH:We provide pre-sales workshops, configuration validation, sizing on major environments like Oracle, customer presentations when needed and proof of concept activities, either in Dubai or in remote locations in Europe. Also, we regularly invite our customers and partners to Sun's executive briefing centre in the US where they can meet our chief architect and product designers as well as the top management of the company.

Looking at the long-term health of the channel, sales follow the satisfaction of customers; there is an absolute direct relationship, and the presales ‘world’ encompasses all of that.

JD:Resellers are interested in the technical competence that we have so that they can implement it for a specific solution or a project in order to enhance it. Separately, we also have regular trainings. We don't believe in having a model where we train a partner on pre-sales, give them a certificate and then wait for a year. Solutions are evolving so much that you have to be constantly close to the market.

What kind of pre-sales support are resellers requesting the most and does this differ depending on the type of end-customer the reseller is addressing?

BH:Resellers often ask for support on storage architecture, configuration validation and software projects, where detailed product expertise is required. Also, reference site visits and proofs of concept are extremely popular among the largest customers.

CM:Quite often they want to understand more about our competitors' offerings. If we're offering Extreme for a project, they want to know if it's really the best fit, and how our competitors compare. So they're looking to us for any test results we might have or about the performance of competitors' equipment and any case studies we may have from other companies who have implemented it.

BB:The more mission critical the customer environment is and the more their business model is reliant on services delivery to consumers via the internet, be it financial, telecommunication or government, the more we are called upon to ensure that the proposed solution is bulletproof.

What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a reseller during the pre-sales engagement phase with a prospective customer?

NP:Don't be afraid to break it down into basics, and try to keep it as simple as possible - don't let the technology drive the solution, let the customer's business requirements drive the solution. Most of our resellers are trying to take that approach but it's not easy when most of the RFPs in the region are technology-driven, rather than business requirements driven. We always try to keep it as business-focused as possible.

DB:I'd tell them to focus on what they do best. Establish what their differentiated value proposition is in the market, ensure they have the necessary skill set and utilise the capabilities of their vendor to ensure that they are able to win, implement and satisfy customers in the market, because that's ultimately the measure of success.

BB:I'd advise them to truly be a trusted advisor to the customer through the delivery of a professional level of pre-sales support which would start by a thorough understanding of the customer's needs, expectations and requirements. Then map those needs to the right solution coupled with a proper implementation and support plan.

JD:A pre-sales engineer really needs to be able to listen - that's the most important thing, and then address the customer's needs accordingly. Sometimes pre-sales staff have a tendency to prove that they know everything about their job and that is not needed. They would not be at that level of pre-sales if we did not trust that they have that competence. But that's human nature, I think.

CM:The key to their success is not about Extreme, it's about them as an integrator. Understanding and fulfilling their customers' needs defines the key to their success. If Extreme is part of that so be it. If you compare the trading mentality to the solutions provider mentality, for Extreme to succeed we need to be working with a solutions provider. We won't succeed through a trading company.

What is the biggest challenge you face in providing pre-sales support and resources to partners in the Middle East?

NP:Avaya faces a geographical complexity to disseminate information. We have technology that is always evolving and adapting, we always have updates and new products and information to share with our resellers. It's not always easy to do this via electronic media, so a lot of travelling and face-to-face interaction is required. A permanent flow of information is needed through our channel to keep them up-to-date.

CM:Helping channel partners make the decision to invest in formal training before they actually win any business, because that's a business risk. It's not a big one, but it's still a risk they have to take. They have to spend their money to become certified on Extreme even before they've won any business. To do this, we demonstrate to them - through historical cases - the return on investment they're going to get.

BB:Planning and scheduling of resources, since requests we receive for pre-sales support activities are sometimes on a short notice basis. However, we are continuously growing our resources to cope with the market demand, and maintain an adequate pool of demo units sufficient for our pre-sales activities. The more that partners develop their pre-sales resources, the greater chance we have to prioritise our engagements.

BH:Some pre-sales programmes, like loaning units to try before you buy, are difficult to implement efficiently in a geography of around 20 countries with borders and customs. Availability of testing sites and executive visits require long travels and are expensive, while the availability of Sun's own pre-sales specialists is not homogeneous in every country. Add to this that a portion of our territory is French-speaking makes it quite a challenge to keep the same level of engagement quality everywhere.

MP:Pricing is an important aspect of any project, but too often that is the focus of a pre-sales call, and we get incomplete information on the solution required. For me the rule is do not talk price at any pre-sales meeting, but rather be sure that when you leave the meeting, you understand the customer's needs and they understand what you can and cannot deliver.

JD:Having our task force flying out to offer pre-sales support does pose a timing and organisational challenge. But although resources are not there in the Middle East, in today's world, it's quite irrelevant where people are. A lot of companies are operating from remote locations so you do see a trend towards ‘virtual offices'.

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