It's amazing how many resellers claim to be systems integrators in an attempt to win more business when, in reality, all they are doing is pre-installing software on the systems that they supply or source products from different manufacturers.
While this is not exactly false representation, it is stretching things a little when you consider the actual role of the systems integrator today.
Although there is no formal definition of what a systems integrator is precisely, there are widely accepted concepts of what the role implies.
In broad terms, a systems integrator is a reseller that is able to supply a value-added solution, tailored precisely to its clients' needs and incorporating a wide range of systems disciplines.
Often, the key role of the systems integrator is to provide solutions which embrace or dovetail into existing client systems to preserve previous investments in technology. Generally, such integration with legacy systems is the most difficult aspect of the job.
So what steps are necessary to evolve into a true systems integrator and how can a reseller position itself as such in the market?
Building with best of breeds
Andy Rolfe, marketing director at Logical UK, says a systems integrator is essentially an IT construction company. "The best systems integrators are those that build strategies and systems using best-of-breed technologies from multiple vendors. The necessary qualities to succeed are vendor-independence, and the skills and expertise in specific technologies to be able to add real value to clients' systems rollouts," he says.
"You're offering a complete design, build and maintenance outsourcing solution to customers. You must be able to demonstrate your competence in specific areas to build customer confidence. The benefits of offering integration services are that by building client trust through the successful delivery of systems you become a valued, long-term business partner."
Keeping up the pace
Where many resellers falter is by failing to keep pace with the latest developments. "You have to be one step ahead of the market. You cannot afford to recommend and integrate products or technologies for clients unless you are fully confident that they represent the right solution," says Rolfe.
"Every step of the way, your expertise is challenged and your skills are put to the test. As a result, you have to constantly keep on top of things. It's so easy to get left behind due to the speed of current development."
Ian Shepherd, Lan product manager at Telindus K-NET, says this need to keep pace with technological developments is essential to becoming a successful systems integrator. "Value adding involves engineering. If you are going to offer value-added services such as system design, implementation, training and support, then you must have the engineering expertise to deliver them. An integrator must know the products and services that are in its portfolio inside out and must be able to offer extremely high levels of support," he says.
"Naturally, this implies a good working relationship with suppliers and it means committing yourself to building on the skills within your organisation required to implement the latest solutions."
Some believe that becoming a successful systems integrator involves more than just being technically competent. Systems integration can be extremely time-consuming and many integration projects span months if not years. As a result, systems integration often has to be viewed as establishing a long-term relationship with customers.
Dave O'Brien, sales manager at Syncra, says it is important to build a strong relationship with customers. "A true systems integrator will approach the project with a consultative view, establishing the exact need and providing a tailored solution to meet it.
"With the ability to provide the complete range of infrastructure products and services, the systems integrator can take full ownership of the project, providing a seamless implementation to the client, who will have one point of contact throughout. Dialogue must be maintained with the client at all times, including clear explanation and justification of the services, and solutions to be provided which results from a consultative approach and a true understanding of what the customer wants."
This view is shared by Simon Crumplin, managing director at the Data Integration Group, who says that building a long-term relationship can benefit both parties. "The main benefit for the customer is that systems integrators remove the pain from the client. Frequently, a good integrator will take on the responsibility for a significant proportion of the IT within an organisation and become a virtual in-house IT department," he says.
"After establishing such a close working relationship with a client, the systems integrator is much more likely to be able to develop future business based on a degree of mutual trust."
But according to Shepherd, systems integrators should never underestimate the importance of establishing mutual trust as a means of increasing business. "The biggest single advantage of being an integrator rather than a supplier or dealer is the closeness of the relationship with the customer," he says. "A good integrator is seen as a partner and an ally in delivering the system which solves the problem or enables the opportunity.
"From the integrator's point of view, the consultative sell is very much to be preferred from the box shifter type of sell if it fits the integrator's business model because it makes it much easier to fight off opposition. From the customer's view, the close relationship emphasises the notion of a common aim between supplier and customer rather than the simple buyer/seller relationship."
However, building relationships with customers is really only one half of the equation. Systems integrators also need to develop good relationships with their suppliers - and maintain them as well.
Alan McGibbon, managing director of Scalable Networks, says: "We have restricted our product portfolio to a manageable number of vendors so that we can maintain an in-depth knowledge and expertise on our selected technology and product areas.
"This also means that our suppliers will support us as fully as possible because they recognise precisely what we are trying to achieve with our customers. By contrast, many so-called integrators have a product list as long as your arm, and can therefore only be generalists, rather than specialists or experts in a particular field."
A healthy working relationship
A good working relationship with suppliers should be a goal for any reseller, but with a systems integrator it is practically mandatory. You cannot hope to build a good relationship if you are fickle and prepared to switch suppliers at the drop of a hat, often for the sake of an extra one per cent margin.
As with any form of trading, one of the main factors of success is customer satisfaction, and in the systems integrator's case, this generally means fulfilling a customer's specific needs.
"The essential quality to succeed in the market is not to focus on what technology you are going to be integrating, but the real business needs of the client. It doesn't matter how elegant or sophisticated a particular solution is. If it doesn't address the needs of the customer, then it's basically worthless," says Crumplin.
Developing a thorough understanding of a customer's needs is not easy, but it is worth the effort in the long run, says McGibbon. "Over a period of time we gain a deep understanding of a customer's entire network infrastructure. It is critical to their business and their business strategy with regard to deploying networking technology," he says.
"In most cases, our engineering team has a more detailed understanding of what is going on under the covers of a customer's network than the customer does. We can therefore contribute by ensuring that customers' investment in networking technology continues to meet their specific business needs. This is where long-term effort really pays off and the customer benefits from your understanding of their business."
Meeting customer needs
Meeting a customer's needs can be a major challenge, but it is also one of the main benefits of becoming a systems integrator. Once you have gained sufficient knowledge of how a customer operates, you are much more likely to be able to offer new solutions to their business problems.
The overall supply market is constantly changing. As a result, dealers are having to adapt to meet the new challenges. In the small and medium-sized enterprise sector, for example, network resellers are becoming network installers, network installers are becoming network integrators, and network integrators are becoming system integrators. This is a natural progression and many resellers are beginning to aspire to the role of the systems integrator.
Without doubt the greatest potential for system integration services has come from the industry's love affair with all things related to the internet. The general buzz surrounding ecommerce is creating a lot of demand for highly skilled system integrators that can successfully deploy the appropriate technologies required to support ecommerce.
Rolfe views the internet as the greatest single opportunity for would-be systems integrators, and expects more dealers to jump on the bandwagon. "Many larger integrators are moving up the value chain, a trend driven largely by the pervasive adoption of internet-based systems by business users," he says. "This leaves gaps lower down for resellers wanting to move into the market, although the skills now required to compete at this level means it is likely their opportunities will be restricted to niche technologies."
To embrace the ecommerce revolution, most traditional businesses need solutions that are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Few have the luxury of state-of-the-art upgrades, the majority must build on their existing infrastructures and applications, and this is where the systems integrator can really begin to show its true worth.
The idea of becoming a systems integrator is appealing, but there are numerous potential pitfalls for the unwary and, unless you are careful, you are likely to come unstuck. The biggest danger is overstretching yourself and failing to deliver on a promise.
"One of the key issues is that the customer may not understand the benefits in dealing with a professional systems integration company and expects integration levels of service at commodity levels of pricing," says McGibbon.
"To maintain a highly-trained and equipped engineering team is very expensive, and you will need to retain higher margins than a company that is selling high-volume commodity products such as PCs, network interface cards, hubs and so on."
But not all organisations which aspire to be system integrators are proficient in supplying the total solution, and O'Brien suggests that this often leads to their downfall. "Integrators often supply aspects of their service extremely well, but lack quality in other areas. For example, a supplier may provide excellent consultancy and systems design, but poor installation and management of the solution, thus limiting the quality of its service," he says.
"The lack of a total skillset may result simply from an incorrect focus or bias within the organisation, or where an organisation has evolved from providing one aspect of the service to the total service, the areas in which it is less experienced may let it down.
"The systems integrator needs to be fully conversant with all aspects of the total solution package, as well as having the skills available to provide consultancy, management, installation and support services throughout the relationship with the customer, even if this means investing heavily to bring in expertise from outside."
- a systems integrator is essentially an IT construction company, offering a design, build-and-maintenance solution to customers
- integration services can help build client trust, in the long-term making resellers valued business partners
- providing full consultancy, management, installation and support solutions are key services, even if this means bringing in expensive expertise from outside
- a good working relationship with suppliers should be a goal for any reseller, but it is a must with a systems integrator
- the web is a great opportunity for systems integrators, a trend driven by the adoption of internet-based systems by business users. This is where the integrator can really begin to show its true worth
- it is not too difficult for an integrator to find itself overstretching. This could result in a failure to deliver on a promise.
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