Ask any vendor whether they think their resellers should be accredited and the answer is likely to be a resounding "yes, of course".
This is not surprising, because many vendors believe that accreditation schemes are an ideal way to control and manage the channel.
In many cases, the reseller is a representative of the vendor, the one who comes face to face with the customer, and the vendor will want to protect its reputation by ensuring that resellers are properly authorised to sell products and project the right sort of image. This is especially true when the products involved are highly technical and where mis-selling or overselling is all too easy.
But becoming an accredited reseller is often a very expensive and time-consuming option. Depending on the type of accreditation scheme in operation, resellers could be asked to spend thousands of pounds simply for the privilege of selling a vendor's products. In addition, some vendor-accreditation schemes impose annual renewal fees or require resellers to undergo further accreditation processes such as training whenever products are launched.
Even if the accreditation scheme costs nothing in terms of hard cash, a reseller will usually have to spend time and effort sending staff on training courses to achieve some form of authorised dealer status. Therefore, the questions that vendors must ask themselves is whether such an investment is worthwhile and what the real benefits of being accredited are.
Why seek accreditation?
From the vendor viewpoint, accreditation is frequently promoted as mutually beneficial, and a host of reasons are cited as to why resellers should seek it.
At the very least, vendor-accreditation programmes are seen as a way of establishing strong business relationships between the vendor and the reseller. Effectively they are used to build business relationships by invoking an element of mutual trust and co-operation.
Access to sales leads, and the potential of improved purchasing terms and conditions are often touted as the main benefits of accreditation. Similarly, some manufacturers will often promise accredited resellers help towards the costs of product marketing.
One of the main benefits of being accredited is the credibility it confers within the industry. However, much depends on the value customers place on accreditation, and how well a vendor promotes the importance of maintaining quality and dependability by dealing with accredited resellers.
Accreditation schemes can also be an excellent way to recruit and retain staff. Working for an accredited reseller in the channel can elevate one's status and many resellers that offer continuous accreditation training programmes often have a high rate of staff retention. The only pitfall is that accredited staff are ripe for poaching by competitors.
Counting the cost
With all these carrots dangling in front of resellers, it is no wonder that accreditation schemes are so popular, but it should be remembered that there is no such thing as a free lunch; there is always some form of cost associated with seeking accreditation.
While vendors and manufacturers continue to trumpet the value of accreditation schemes in the real world, many resellers believe they are a necessary evil, something that they simply have to put up with.
David Redden, general manager at Internetwork Management Systems, for example, believes some accreditation programmes are not all that they are cracked up to be. "Accreditation is an area fraught with problems. The biggest problem for us resellers is the perceived value that customers place on accreditation," he says.
"More often than not, the perceived value to the customer is lost by the cost-undercutting antics of lesser resellers. With existing customers, they'll tend to ask us about a particular accreditation programme, but because of our long-term relationship it is unlikely to cause them a problem if we do not have a particular tick in that box."
Redden is also sceptical about the focus of some accreditation schemes. "The costs of training courses with accreditation at the end tend to be high, and it is sometimes difficult to justify those costs when - and this happens quite often - the training is not as 'practical' as we would like. It's all very well having theory-filled engineers, but we need the guys that work with us to be out there solving real-world networking problems, not just staring at the 'seven-layer model' and being able to explain its intricacies," he says.
"We have tended to mix company accreditation schemes with those aimed at individuals. In addition, we have in-house educational programmes at Internetwork that equip our engineers to work with customers in our particular style, which is far better than any external training provided by some manufacturers."
Failing to meet expectations
The failure of most vendor-accreditation programmes to deliver precisely what resellers need is all too common, and they tend to be wary when seeking new accreditations.
"You have to look very carefully at the conditions imposed on dealers that wish to become accredited," says Redden. "For example, some companies demand that a certain number of staff attend a set number of courses over a specific period of time. This can be a sticking point in signing new partner agreements, and in the future, we will stay away from vendors that propose such terms. We may lose out on occasion by doing this, but we don't want to be in a position where we are being dictated to by our suppliers. And sometimes accreditation amounts to just that."
Internetwork prefers to make sure that its engineers are always best equipped to deal with its customers' needs. Sometimes accreditation is the answer, but more often than not growing its own expertise is the better bet, says Redden.
Tim Rowe, managing director of Rowe Structured Cabling Systems, believes the problem with some accreditation schemes is the fact that certain manufacturers will simply break the rules to suit themselves. "Over the years we have accumulated a number of accreditations and generally these have proved a useful marketing tool. But on more than one occasion we have found that being an authorised installer for a manufacturer has proved to be meaningless," Rowe says.
"We negotiated a large contract with a major UK bank to install new cabling in all its branches using Ortronics structured cabling products. As accredited Ortronics resellers and installers, we did not anticipate any problems with this deal. But then the bank approached Ortronics - behind our backs - and cut a deal so that its own electricians became authorised installers for Ortronics and we were left out in the cold. This, despite the fact that we were instrumental in promoting Ortronics to the bank in the first place, and without our efforts, Ortronics would not have had a chance of winning the bank's business."
On the plus side
Not all resellers have doubts about the value of vendor-accreditation, however. Geoff Willett, business manager at Lynx Technology, is in favour of such schemes, but warns that the main driver for achieving vendor accreditation should not be to get sales leads. Resellers should concentrate on generating their own leads and use the accreditation only to raise credibility to enhance the sales situation, he says.
"The reseller that manages to develop relationships with the vendor's sales force is more likely to get a good-quality introduction than the reseller that rests on its laurels and waits for the accreditation to do the job. The true benefit of a good accreditation scheme is the credibility it gives the holder in the customer's eyes," says Willett.
As far as the costs of getting accredited are concerned, Willett sees no problem. "In a way, I think it is good that accreditations are expensive and difficult to attain. It makes the reseller think about whether they are serious about a new product. Similarly, it should be difficult to retain an accreditation. It has become far too easy for some to trade on past glories and lapsed accredited status," he says.
"At Lynx Technology, our most stringent accreditation is the Compaq System Service Provider status. The grilling that we get each year beggars belief, but it highlights the real value that is associated with that particular accreditation."
Feel the quality
Most importantly, Willett feels accreditation is vital as a way to maintain the quality and integrity of the channel. "I really do think most vendors are genuine in wanting accreditation schemes to protect the market from poor-quality resellers that would tarnish the reputation of the vendors' products. To ensure a level playing field, all small resellers should be forced to have an accreditation, even if they buy from distributors."
Willett believes accreditations are essential to maintaining quality in the market. "Everybody knows that the IT industry is prone to cowboys," he says. "It is a very easy industry to enter into, very few formal professional qualifications are required and there is little or no regulation. At least vendor-accreditations give the prudent customer a fighting chance of choosing a reseller that knows what it is doing."
There are advantages as well as disadvantages to many accreditation schemes. Some observers would argue that vendor accreditation is simply a way for vendors to 'lock in' resellers, and as a result it tends to stifle competition.
However, there is widespread recognition within the industry that becoming an accredited reseller enhances a company's reputation and increases its prominence in the market. Therefore, provided that the costs are not too onerous, there is no reason why a company should not pursue accredited status with its suppliers.
- Almost all the major hardware and software vendors actively promote their accreditation schemes to their resellers as invaluable opportunities
- The costs of accreditation schemes can vary enormously. Some involve no capital outlay, while others have a very hefty price tag
- Resellers should understand exactly what the commitment will be if accreditation is attained, and if necessary, they should haggle and negotiate a better deal
- Predicting a suitable return on investment in accreditation is practically impossible. Resellers should treat it as a normal business overhead
- Some accreditation schemes will try to 'lock-in' a company and attempt to prevent it from selling competing products from other vendors and manufacturers. These types of vendor programmes are best avoided
- A decent accreditation programme from a reputable vendor can raise a reseller's profile in the market, but the reseller will then have to actively promote its merits.
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