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Sun 3 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Video stars

Unlike IT products that have been circulating regional markets for almost two decades, video conferencing solutions are, in the grand scheme of things, a fledgling market. As it begins to exhibit flushes of maturity, Channel Middle East looks at how partners can play a starring role.

Unlike IT products that have been circulating regional markets for almost two decades, video conferencing solutions are, in the grand scheme of things, a fledgling market. As it begins to exhibit flushes of maturity, Channel Middle East looks at how partners can play a starring role.

As with many youthful markets in the IT business, prices are still quite elevated meaning video conferencing is, on the whole, the preserve of the large multi-national corporations.

Partners must have commercial strength, be willing to invest in our technologies and hire staff who are able to comprehensively translate the needs of the customer into a bill of quantity.

That is not to say the products are not taking off in this region. In fact vendors and channel players alike are keen to crow of a wide variety of projects - from Saudi male lecturers remotely teaching female-only classes to large oil and gas conglomerates contacting their teams in all corners of the Earth - fuelling this blossoming market.

KS Parag, managing director at FVC, regional distributor for Polycom, feels that previously video conferencing in the Middle East was more of a luxury business item but companies are now seeing it as a time and money saving investment.

In the past we saw the trend that video conferencing was more of a nice thing to have and companies were still contemplating whether they should have the technology. We used to see the adoption of the technology more from international companies who would be looking at connecting with their head office," said Parag.

That has changed dramatically over the past few years. Companies have seen the key benefits of not only having video conferencing locally, but as a means of contacting their regional offices."

According to those who work inside the market, the largest end-users are customers from the oil and gas, education, banking and government sectors. It also seems that, despite the expense accompanying the new wave of video conferencing technology, it is not out of the reach of the Middle East's SMB segment.

Parag recalls that a recent customer, a Dubai-based medium sized manufacturer, employed the technology to prevent its operations manager having to make the trip from neighbouring Emirate Sharjah, a well known commuter route.

Guido Romagnoli, director of sales and business development of channels at Cisco Systems Gulf, feels that video conferencing in the smaller and emerging markets in the region will eventually have more of an impact than it currently enjoys in the larger regional countries.

He also suggests that vendors and channel partners alike should be proud of the efforts they have put in to catch up to the European and North American markets. "Today the Middle East and Africa has nothing to be shy of when in comparison with the US and European theatres. We have good penetration, especially in the high-end markets, big enterprise and big international companies. Slowly and surely we are almost getting there," he affirmed.

Magesh Srinivasan, marketing manager at Sony Professional Solutions Middle East is enthusiastic about the possibilities presented in the region for video conferencing utilisation: "It could at end-user level translate into a corporate board room, into a simple audio-conferencing solution, it could be broadcast in lectures or used to webcast those lectures, it could even be used in a medical setting where surgery is broadcast."

It must also be noted that the development of this technology in the Middle East has at times been restricted by the controlled use of internet bandwidth, particularly in the UAE, forcing video conference users to fork out large sums of money to connect over ISDN lines. This is a problem that has not been met by systems integrators and distributors in other traditionally more profitable markets such as Europe or North America.

It is safe to say that video conferencing is still in the early stages of development in the Middle East, but some vendors take exception to the claim that it is still a rather niche market.

The go-to-market journey of the product is one aspect that certainly support this point of view. Across the board there does not seem to be a hard and fast channel strategy for video conferencing in the Middle East.

What is clear though, is that the channel does a huge amount of legwork in finding leads and the implementation and servicing of these products.

With such cutting edge technology the vendor is often present but it is the channel, normally the distributor working in a multifaceted-role as a systems integrator and a reseller, which makes sure video conferencing solutions see the light of day or at least the light of the board room.

The channel make-up for video conferencing also often includes smaller outsourced contracts as part of the process, such as the employment of video technology specialists, room integrators or managed network providers.

This is also a product area where the smart channel player can look to ensure significant revenue from services over and above the call of installation. The products are supposedly simple to use, but the whole system often needs very careful integration with the company's infrastructure and of course this has to happen not just in one office but normally in at least one other.

Gone are the days of small flickering CRT screens or even LCD screens where the person on the other end of the line would often be seen calling out and gesticulating into the ether; ‘can you see me now?' Video conferencing technology has moved on and is now life-size, with huge plasma screens taking up the majority of one wall of the conference room.

The caller can be talking to not just one, two or three people, but they can be facing a small lecture theatre of colleagues.
This means the channel partner may also double as an interior designer and kit the room out with not only state of the art conferencing equipment but furniture and room specifications that, if implemented correctly, should mirror the room at the other end of the call and make the user feel their boss is sitting next to them.

The distributor must also promote awareness of the product to show potential clients why having a video conferencing solution will increase the efficiency of their business and promote the extra features such as in-call data sharing, that are available.

The channel partner may also double as an interior designer and kit the room out with not only state of the art conferencing equipment but furniture and all of the room specifications.

But perhaps the most important job that befalls the partner in this arena is to ensure that the product lives up to the client's high-expectations.

People have a preconception of how these products should work and it is the task of the partner to make sure the end-user gets what they pay for. So when a vendor is looking for a channel partner to help them deliver their solutions to the market it is important they choose a partner with the right skill-base and background to be able to provide all of these services.

Sony's Srinivasan says this is a market where channel partners must have a very specific knowledge base. "We broadly engage in business with AVIT systems integrators and technology providers, essentially people who have been in the business of designing and implementing audio-visual solutions," asserted Srinivasan.

In a market in which the few key vendors can afford to be choosy over partners it not just background knowledge that can seal a partnership deal. To work with Sony, Srinivasan also demand that partners have a keen commercial grasp of the video conferencing market itself.

They must have commercial strength, be willing to invest in and engage in Sony technologies and hire trained staff and pre-sales personnel who are able to comprehensively translate the needs of the customer into a bill of quantity in terms of what products, hardware and software solutions," he explained.

Vendor Polycom nurtures a partnership with FVC that is paramount to its video conferencing success in the region.

Although the possibility is being contemplated, the vendor currently has no regional office in the Middle East so it relies heavily on FVC and its other partners to represent it in the market. "Our go-to-market strategy is very indirect," revealed Alain Civel, regional manager for Polycom.

That is our two-tier model with our distributor very present in front of the customer. So the distributor is responsible for not just the logistics and the warehouse. They have many different roles. Logistically they have to make sure that the products are readily available but they also fulfill a support and a marketing function."

Tandberg, which opts for a single-tier channel strategy, say that the choice of partner is crucial to its success in this field. "Our objective is not to hire too many partners, we have a very selective channel strategy. For instance in the UAE we only have three partners," revealed Beau Wardark, managing director at Tandberg Middle East.

It is with this selective positioning of channel allies that Tandberg claims it protects partners. "If you are out there as a partner, when you go to a large customer, like a bank or any other customer, you can be 100% certain that you are the only partner coming in.

You can be assured that there is not going to be another channel partner fighting for your share," asserted Wardark. He also explained that Tandberg have achieved this through the vertical alignment of its markets.

In such a specialised market, the vertical deployment of partners seems like common sense to prevent them from stepping ono tone another's toes. But the responsibility of the vendor should not stop there, especially with products that, from the end-user's perspective, are such a huge investment.

Many end-users desire a close relationship with the vendor of the solutions that they are purchasing. This is of course not specific the video conferencing market, but it is certainly a very significant part of it. It means that the vendor and its channel has to be intricately involved and above all the end-user must be assured that the partner has the full support of the principle.

One of Tandberg's ‘select' partners is Atlas Telecommunications, which concentrates on a single business vertical: high-level projects such as command centres and solutions that encompass satellite video conferencing.

Ala Chayah, regional sales manager at Atlas, says that despite the lack of competition in the upper echelon of the market, vendors still have to consider the challenges that selling such a unique product presents. "Price is an important factor. We are the type of company that looks for quality and if you look at our portfolio it is evident," explained Chayah. "All the manufacturers have to do something about the prices," he added.

Cisco, as a manufacturer of its high-end Telepresence range, appreciates that the pricing of video conferencing products and indeed global connection is a concern for the channel. "Pricing is a challenge.
Sometimes these products are available but if channel partners want to install a link from Dubai to the UK it would be at a high premium," said Cisco's Romagnoli. But he also claims that the use of a Cisco system will have the overall effect of reducing a corporation's travel budget by at least 20% which makes the initial outlay worthwhile.

The overall IT channel in the Middle East, has been reverberating with the call for increased development of value-added services but according to Atlas' Chayah value-add, in the video conferencing channel, must also be accompanied with the character trait of flexibility.

Our objective is not to hire too many partners; we have a very selective channel strategy. If you are out there as a partner, you can be 100% certain that you are the only partner coming in.

You must have flexibility in the way you are dealing with your clients and the way you try and understand their requirements as best as possible and most importantly in the way you that put together and bundle your solution," he said.

Atlas, like many of the distributors and resellers in this field, offers video conferencing solutions as part of a bundle that may include other forms of communications hardware.

This means that the amount of installation and integration each bundle of goods requires is significantly more than if they were installing just the video conferencing unit. It also means that they can maximise their involvement with the customer through the positioning of a whole host of value-added services that will be required at installation and over the long term.

Even though vendor Tandberg say its channel strategy is to incubate a few select relationships with partners over specific verticals it also raises the issue that its current channel is not sufficient enough to cover the entire market.

If we look at the veriticalisation of the market in the region we are looking at about seven vertical markets and I would say at the moment we are probably penetrating about three of them," claims Tandberg's Wardark. He admits that Tandberg is looking to increase its number of partners to serve the verticals currently eluding the vendor's reach.

It is not just the vendors that complain about coverage within the video conferencing sector. Channel members such as systems integrator and distributor Alpha Data say there is still a long way to go before the video conferencing market reaches its full potential in this region.

Penetration and coverage has been the biggest challenge faced by every company," proclaimed Abdul Ghani, design and engineering manager at Alpha Data.

Media is the best investment to create awareness. Seminars and trade exhibitions accompanied by a serious marketing campaign would be the most effective methodology to increase awareness for the usage of video conferencing solutions," he added.

The video conferencing market in the region remains a very interesting sector to observed because it seems that nobody has yet defined the most efficient go-to-market strategy.

There are those vendors who go hand-in-hand with their distributor and systems integrator to present the end-user with a unified front. There are also those who find the best way to protect their channel is to make sure each partner serves their own vertical which would seem to allow that partner a great opportunity to become the voice of that vertical by increasing expertise and appreciating customer needs.

And then there are also those vendors that have enough confidence in their channel to allow them to entirely represent them in the Middle East.

What is certain, video conferencing is an arena where the channel is so pivotal to the success and the growth of the market.

Despite the fact that many vendors claim these products are push-click simple to use, the channel is the first point of installation, they have to be fully equipped with an overflowing integration toolbox and they have to have the selling nous to answer the customer's needs and maintain healthy margins through a product range that often has an intimidating price-tag.

The product is still at a relatively young stage of eveolution in this region and if the incredible growth that all in the market are prophesising is to materialise then the channel is going to have to be on the top of its game when it comes to sales and services.

Vendors, just as importantly, will have to continue to give them the resources and support to help them stay there.

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