Right now, the IT industry is marketing to the small business community like it never has before. Just about every IT vendor has a specialist small business unit with products tailored to suit those customers. And there's a good reason why small businesses are interested in IT technologies - they have an opportunity to present themselves on the internet to a much wider spectrum of potential customers than they ever have before.
Furthermore, larger businesses, both suppliers and customers, are demanding that the others in their supply chain fit in with their business models, and there are opportunities to save time and money by automating the supply chain. Technology has never been cheaper, the choice has never been wider. The workforce is becoming increasingly IT literate.
In short, the pressure on a small business to make the right decisions about its technology choices has never been greater. Paul Tollett, director of small business at Microsoft, said: "The dilemma for anyone buying technology for a small business is that they don't want to become an IT expert, but they are overwhelmed by choice."
Anyone faced with this bombardment needs an expert guiding hand. And it's here, of course, that the services of a reseller come in. To extend their reach and spread the cost of sale, IT manufacturers generally market their products through resellers - companies with local market knowledge and expertise.
But here again there's a huge and bewildering choice. There are generally thought to be over 6000 resellers in the UK, but they are companies of differing sizes and skill sets. Some will be directly managed by the vendors that they represent, and have the training and marketing collateral that goes with this, and others are further removed from the vendor and will buy through distribution.
It's fair to say that the well-known big name resellers at the top end of the scale - Computacenter, SCC, Compel and the like - focus on the needs of large enterprises to the exclusion of the small business customer, and that they would be unlikely to return a phone call from a small company. At the other end of the scale, small resellers are subject to the same stresses and pressures of any other small business, and their churn rate is probably about 30 per cent every two years.
So how do you pick a company you know you can trust, that will still be in business in five years time and with which you can develop a long-term partnership?
The starting points
There are a few things that you should be clear about before you start the search for a reseller. Don't expect not to have to do any work or make any decisions yourself. Make sure you do your homework and are clear in your own mind about what you consider to be the benefits of introducing more technology to your business. Think about budgets. Think about how much you want to pay for the advice. Write down where you want the business to be in two years' time.
To begin with, local business advisory services like Business Links and the Chambers of Commerce will be able to point you in the right direction. Other obvious routes include adverts in the local and national press, Yellow Pages and the internet and, of course, word of mouth. It's also worth remembering that if your enquiry goes to an IT vendor in the first instance then it will be passed on as a lead to one of the vendor's directly managed or tried and trusted resellers to follow up.
Qualifications and references
Look for a reseller which has the right mix of relationships with key vendors in hardware, software and services. The accreditation badges in the reception area have usually been earned in some way, either because staff have had the requisite technical training, or the company is doing enough regular business with the vendor. They are not just handed out arbitrarily.
For instance, Microsoft's Certified Professional and Certified Systems Engineer qualifications have become almost an industry standard for professionals who can analyse business requirements and implement a solution. So any reseller fielding consultants with these qualifications is sure to have the requisite skills.
These companies should also be able to provide case studies and references to prove they know what they're talking about. Talk to their reference sites, and ask if you can visit them - if they're happy with their solution, they'll be more than happy to show it off to you.
What to expect
At the pre-sales stage, expect the reseller to visit you and demonstrate a good understanding of the business problems you face. The representatives should present themselves appropriately and professionally.
You need more than a techie, too. No matter how good the reseller is at dealing with basic technical issues around the products he's using, if he's unable to translate your business problems into an IT solution, then supplier and client are never going to speak the same language.
Be as open as you feel commercially comfortable - the reseller won't be able to give you a solution that will grow with your business if you can't tell him or her what your plans are. If you have a sales team of six now, do you plan to double it in a couple of years?
Questions to ask
Can the reseller demonstrate a track record? How confident does this track record make you feel that the business will be around to support you in the years to come?
If a reseller is able to demonstrate it can provide an effective solution, it's then up to the business to negotiate terms. Remember that the reseller is making most of its margins through its time and expertise rather than the products on offer, and that you will only get what you pay for. So be clear about what you are getting for your money.
Should the solution be rolled out via a pilot scheme, hosted by the reseller or outsourced? What about financing options?
Above all, be careful to deal with support issues. It's critical that these are resolved and that a structured support programme is agreed on. If the application is a business-critical one, then an on-site speedy response is what is required. In contrast, non-critical applications can perhaps have a half-day or next-day response instead.
Make sure you've got service level agreements in place and that the reseller can demonstrate these agreements can be adhered to. Like all good business contracts, it's knowing the rights and obligations of both parties right from the beginning that makes for a better understanding as the relationship progresses.
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