May 2011 Feature

What Your Channel Really Wants: Tips From a Managed Services Provider

 by Anna Johnson

You may think your channel program is among the industry’s best, but it may surprise you to know that most channel partners feel their vendors have completely missed the boat. The good news is that improving your channel relationships may be easier than you think.

Consider one of your SMB prospects. They may be a 100-person law firm in downtown U.S.A. Maybe they spend $100,000 a year in IT expenditures and have an IT staff of 1 or 1.5 people. They are interested in growing, adding clients, increasing billable hours, landing new and interesting cases. They are focused on the business at hand and perhaps with some ambition are competing against the law firm across town that’s ten times as big.

Enter IT Plus, their trusted local IT Managed Service Provider (MSP). They have a close and long-term relationship with the law firm and are considered their virtual CIO/CTO. IT Plus is contracted to manage all aspects of their infrastructure and their services including hosting, backup, support, training, and strategic IT planning for the law firm. IT Plus has over 500 clients in various industries and if you ask any one of their customers what WAN accelerator or data storage device they are using, their answer would be, “I don’t know. And I don’t want to know. Because I’m in the legal business NOT in the IT business, I rely on IT Plus to handle all that stuff so I don’t have to!”

While IT Plus is a fictional Managed Service Provider, one aspect of this story remains true, your SMB prospects like the law firm want to be savvy in the way they use technology to keep their businesses running smoothly and efficiently but don’t want the headache of being the experts to purchase and implement the technology. And in this circumstance, end-users don’t want to know your brand, products or how they work. All they know and want is a trusted relationship with a provider like IT Plus.

This is your moment of truth. Truth can be a bitter and hard pill to swallow for many high tech marketers to consider. But for those that grasp the realization that the Managed Service Provider’s brand is more important than their own, the nature of marketing to the MSP segment of the channel changes considerably. What’s more, Forrester Research recently reported that 77% of all VARs want to adapt to the MSP business model. So, while Managed Service Providers represent a relatively new segment in the modern era of channel marketing, as a reseller business model it will become the norm for the resellers in the SMB segment—if it hasn’t for your channel partners already.

In an effort to gain more insight from the minds of the Managed Service Provider principals, Channel Management Insights sat down with Steven Kellam, Vice President of Business Development at CCI, who was a thought leading IT Managed Service Provider before selling the business and joining CCI’s executive team.

We asked Steven for three tips that high tech channel marketers and sales people could use today to capture new SMB business through Managed Service Providers.

Tip #1

Treat Managed Service Providers more like customers than as typical resellers.

“More often than not, Managed Service Providers are treated as an extension of the high tech industry’s sales force rather than an organization with their own agenda and brand to manage and support,” says Steven. If you think about IT Plus as a customer, how as channel marketers and sales would you change to court their business? Would you lead with information about your partner program or would you consider a play from your direct sales playbook—find out what business problems they are having and develop a solution to address their problem? Try the latter and see how the nature of the relationship improves.

“When you consider Managed Service Providers as 75% customer and 25% partner, the whole dynamic of the relationship changes for the better,” says Steven. When you meet, ask about their business, what’s important to them, and what challenges they are facing. Once answered, you may find that the solution-based messages and materials are more relevant than the brochure you just created about the benefits of participating in your partner program. “It may seem to channel marketers that you’re taking ten steps backward but in fact, you’re laying the groundwork for a more rewarding partnership,” says Steven.

Tip #2

Create marketing programs that are simple, relevant, and flexible enough to promote your partner, and their brand, more than yours.

So you’ve won Managed Service Providers like IT Plus as a customer, now what? Chances are you gained new insights into what existing programs will work and what programs you clearly don’t have or have ever even considered. By now, you will have realized that in fact your brand may never come up in conversation between the Managed Service Provider and its clients. Not because the MSP doesn’t love you, but because they are more invested in promoting their brand. After all, it’s IT Plus on the line when technology fails at the client site or in their datacenter, not yours.

“You’re going to have to be willing to lose some of the branding control in order to see a measurable uptick in the pipeline,” advises Steven. “When you realize that helping your partner to grow their business means you growing your business, then all involved will reap the benefits,” says Steven. “Hold back on your desire to force feed your brand and marketing messages through the partner,” Steven continued. “Simply rebranding a partner’s materials won’t work. Instead, ask your partner what works for their audience and use their advice to craft something new.” Once you test it out with one partner, chances are the same messaging will work with other Managed Service Providers.

Tip #3

Follow through, be consistent and trustworthy.

As channel marketers and sales people we often treat partners as a subset of our direct sales force. As a subset of the sales team, you maybe inclined to treat them differently than you would your customers. Take Tip #1 to heart and treat your Managed Service Providers as customers first and partners second. Do what you say you’re going to do. Follow through and compensate quickly. Be responsive to requests just as you would when serving your customers. For those of you already doing this, way to go!

In conclusion, treating your partners that serve the SMB market as customers maybe a big philosophical change. You may argue too big! If this is the case, consider testing this approach before adopting it on a full scale. Always keep the SMB prospect in mind as motivation to change. Remember when the fictional law firm says they are loyal to IT Plus and have no idea who or what you do, it’s because they choose it to be that way and there’s little you can do to change that.