In the past few years the channel has been told by various sources that the SME field is a goldmine just waiting to be exploited. The main problem has been how to break into the market.
Now the government has launched its Technology Means Business (TMB) scheme, a programme that could help VARs trying to reach the SME market.
TMB was conceived late in 1998 when studies by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) discovered that SMEs weren't being given consistent and relevant advice on how technology can improve their business competitiveness and profitability.
As a result of the findings, the DTI and the Institute of Management began plans to establish centres of excellence, where individuals from various organisations could gain a TMB-accredited adviser logo and SMEs could be guaranteed a certain level of expert advice.
TMB has been in pilot phase since April 1999 and the Institute of Management, which runs the scheme with help from sponsors BT, Intel, Compaq and Microsoft, has in the past year pushed the idea among resellers, vendors, distributors, independent consultants and the financial sector.
Nine TMB centres were created in the first year and 500 candidates registered for the accreditation exams. More than 10 per cent of individuals registered have now passed the accreditation. Between now and April 2001, the Institute of Management aims to have a further 1,000 registered or accredited advisers and 25 training centres. Up to 3,500 individuals are expected to be TMB-accredited within the next four years.
Last month, when Patricia Hewitt, minister for technology, officially rolled out the TMB programme nationwide, she said that SMEs are the "lifeblood of the UK economy".
She said: "For small businesses, not knowing where to go for advice is one of the biggest barriers they face. It is vital that SMEs receive the very best advice on harnessing information and communication technology. TMB is a professional standard for quality and consistency."
Pool of trained professionals
Now that the Institute of Management will begin advertising the scheme nationally, the vast network of SMEs across the UK will have access to a pool of IT professionals who will have attended a strict training regime that can last up to six months and costs between £800 and £1,000.
TMB advisers will take part in a two-part assessment process that includes looking at the adviser's role within the SME, demonstrable knowledge of how technology can help an SME, and the ability to implement and evaluate the use of technology within an SME. A test follows completion of part one of the assessment.
Glyn Macken, director of management development at the Institute of Management, said: "We needed to give the SME not simply someone who sells technology, but someone who speaks their language. TMB equips an individual with the knowledge of an SME's business needs and constraints, and they get to know the SME market better than anything."
Recommendations from distributors
Resellers are being urged to register for the scheme by participating distributors including Computer 2000 and Datrontech.
Nigel Judd, marketing and communications manager at C2000, said the distributor wants all of the VARs in its SME-centric Business Class scheme to have at least one TMB-accredited individual.
At least 60 VARs have applied for TMB accreditation directly through C2000, Judd said.
He suggested the main benefit to the channel was the potential sales leads generated by the initiative. "It's important to set standards, and government backing gives TMB unique credibility. The SME will use the TMB programme to find a VAR and to distinguish between resellers," he said. C2000 is also considering joining with a third party to offer the TMB certification, he added.
Charlie Shaw, managing director at VAR Advantage Business Systems, applauded the government's injection into the IT sector, but he questioned the DTI's understanding of the needs of a business.
"We want to look at the scheme more closely before joining because we believe a company should show a satisfied customer base with a proven track record rather than an exam."
Paul Spencer, managing director at VAR Axial Systems, agreed. "Accreditation has value only if it means something. If the entry requirement is too simple, it becomes meaningless. But if those ahead of the rest qualify and achieve industry-wide recognition, then it's worthwhile," he said.
Macken insisted that advisers will have to pass the equivalent of a vehicle 'MOT' every year to demonstrate successful case studies and knowledge of technology.
Graham Lind, technical sales director at Computer and Network Consultants, said the company's sales were from word of mouth and accreditation schemes were no longer essential. "Even with a logo, you can offer poor service. Once we've got the customer, it's up to us to keep them," he said.
But if TMB is what the SME market has been waiting for, it shouldn't be long before VARs strike SME gold.
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