Distributors: Relevant in a Digital World?

Is distribution still relevant in a digital world? Comms Business Magazine looks at the key issues for channel distributors as they too face up to the possibility of disruption and challenges coming at them from all directions.

Staying relevant in a digital world is challenging for many. A good example right now would be the retail sector where on-line sales by slick logistics and still slicker marketing operators such as AO and Amazon are taking bigger and bigger slices out of their traditional, bricks and mortar footfall-based outlets.

We recently had arguably the biggest weekend of the retail sales year in the form of Black Friday. So often a retail outlet dominated event, footfall in the high street and retail parks fell for the whole of November by 3.2% year on year as Black Friday increasingly becomes an online event.

This was not a blip; it was the 12th month of consecutive decline in footfall, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Springboard’s Footfall Monitor shows and in the week of Black Friday itself, footfall actually declined by 5.5%, more than in any week of the month.

Clearly retail outlets have an enormous problem to address if they are merely to survive, let alone thrive.

Challenges facing distributors are different but none the less symptomatic of digital disruption such as from online vendor portals where customers and resellers can order directly. This is more prevalent of course for items that literally are plug and go.

So, is distribution still relevant in a digital world? Comms Business Magazine looks at the key issues for channel distributors such as;

How are distributors helping resellers with their drive to improve client customer service excellence and business productivity enhancement?

John Nolan, UK&I Sales Director at Westcon, says that the much talked about ‘trusted adviser’ status of resellers means partners must deliver value that goes right to the heart of a customer’s business.

“This demands intelligence and the appropriate tools to ensure an intimate understanding of a customer’s estate and future needs translates into long-term mutually beneficial business.

Such services liberate customers to focus more on what drives value into their business and less on cost-absorbing administration and avoidance of potentially damaging downtime. It is now increasingly common for partners to use distributors to deliver white label services, POCs, demonstrations and adoption training. This comes from trust, something that is earned by having account managers that understand where a partner is going and how to work together for mutual benefit.”

Darren Garland Managing Director of ProVu

ProVu strives to be the Channel’s one-stop shop for all VoIP hardware. By simplifying the delivery of customer premise equipment, we empower our partners to focus on their core business, therefore giving them the time to improve their customer excellence.

Whilst the products we supply are the foundation of our company, it’s the services we provide which really enhance our resellers’ productivity and customer service excellence.

One service we offer which we are beginning to see an upsurge in demand for is our personalised shipping and packaging. This could include inserting marketing items such as flyers and promotional goodies into packages or using unique packaging which has been designed and printed specifically for one of our partners. By packaging orders exactly how our partners request with their own personalised inserts or box wrapping, we help them to build their brand and maintain their customer experience through every step of the customers’ journey, all while significantly reducing their order turnaround time. Not only do our services help resellers to provide an excellent level of customer service, they also enhance business productivity by significantly lowering the total cost of deployment.”

Jason Beeson, Sales Director for Enterprise at Exertis, “Distributors have long since moved from simply delivering product to a more value-add approach which provides resellers with the opportunities to provide business solutions and add complementary services. That reflects how the channel continues to evolve.

At Exertis, we have a professional services team that an increasing number of our resellers use either in full as their outsourced partner or as a means to complement and strengthen their own service, providing knowledge, skills and support according to their needs and without the need for expensive investment. Often deployment of new technology can reveal gaps in in-house skills and resources.

Exertis can plug that gap until the reseller has had the time to gain that expertise internally but not delay the deployment of their solution. Of course, they can also decide to defer that investment altogether, in which case Exertis can continue to help them to maintain the technology.”

Do distributors have the skill sets themselves to help channel partners put solutions together for users?

John Nolan at Westcon’s answer is ‘undoubtedly yes!’

“Without these skills, distributors would be offering basic fulfilment and no value – a race to the bottom. Our investments in skills, knowledge and experience has long proven essential in forging solution-led partnerships and retaining business. Partners look for an incredible depth and breadth of consultative services to get them beyond the RFP.

Westcon’s investment in over twenty solutions architects, all highly qualified in expanding any UC project to include complementary infrastructure, security, finance, training and post-sale professional services, are heavily utilised by our partners. Our TechXpert community and Westcon Academy are our vehicles for sharing of knowledge, expertise and best-practice for vendor-integrated solutions and specific vendor technologies.”

Equally enthusiastically affirmative is Richard Carter, Director of Channel Sales, Nimans.
“Absolutely, distributors have the skill sets to help channel partners put solutions together. For example, we have a dedicated Solutions Sales team as well as a team of UC Device Business Managers. Our expertise encompasses all areas of the customer journey, from connectivity, to cloud and on-premise systems to end points. We have field-based experts who support resellers face-to-face helping them put complex solutions together based on best-advice in an agnostic way.”

ProVu’s Darren Garland says that to truly add value, distributors must be able to help Channel partners to build solutions.

“Without the correct skill set they will be limited to the amount of value that they can actually add. ProVu is extremely strong technically and we frequently work with our partners to assist them with the creation of bespoke solutions – these projects usually include an array of products from a variety of our vendor partners. Without an extensive knowledge of the products we sell, it would not be possible for us to design or support such solutions. The key is to not expect partners to know everything and be there to advise and educate them on the extensive product range that is now available.

By educating the Channel about what is possible, distributors can make it easier for their solutions to be sold downstream.”

Jason Beeson at Exertis, explains that his company has pre-sales teams across all of their business and enterprise categories that help resellers to scope requirements, deliver proof of concept and provide solutions that meet their customers’ needs.

“Our expertise and specialist focus are key to helping resellers put together solutions. For instance, our datacentre enterprise team alone has 45 highly skilled and experienced individuals holding more than 182 accreditations. We have, for example, dedicated teams in UC, security, wireless, networking and AV. Indeed, our Exertis Pro AV division is a great example of where we provide a complete end-to-end solution. Audio and video components, whether in the home or in a commercial environment, are no longer just standalone devices. They are invariably connected to one another, to the internet and reside on a network.”

How are distributor portfolios changing to reflect current market trends?

John Nolan at Westcon believes that by being responsive and adapting a distribution portfolio to include emerging technologies that fuel new business conversations with end users is imperative.

“Whether the customer is ready or just researching, the distributor being able to qualify the need and provide a roadmap or proof of concept on behalf of the partner will then retain the end user for the long term as the technology evolves.

Meanwhile, the vendor solutions we see increasingly shifting to an OpEx and licence models affect a traditional partners’ ability to enjoy advance revenues, so we have to continually refresh our value offering. We invest heavily in creating more advanced web-tools that allow partners to manage their own clients’ services, spotting new opportunities for services sales, consultancy, financing and cross-selling.”

Richard Carter at Nimans, “Traditional PBX sales remain strong at Nimans but our overall portfolio continues to evolve and is much more cloud-based in line with current market trends, such as SIP end points and a dedicated Network Services division. Nimans is a trusted source with an industry pedigree stretching back almost 40 years as part of a continually evolving ethos.”

Darren Garland at ProVu, says that desk phones still remain at the core of his business.
“However, over the past couple of years we have adopted some newer, less traditional products such as softphones, routers and cloud-based products which we have seen a tremendous uptake for.

The market is ever changing which means distributors cannot stand still, it is our job to lead the curve and ensure our portfolio meets the market demand. In 2019, we plan to bring even more revolutionary products to the Channel, some of which will explore new territories.”

Jason Beeson at Exertis sagely notes that distribution portfolios are always evolving to reflect market trends.

“Emerging technologies are either taken up by existing vendors or in some cases new vendors emerge. It’s our role to ensure that we have the right products and solutions that our resellers need to meet their customers’ requirements. Where we see new market opportunities, such as in Smart Tech, we build a portfolio that can satisfy our customers. Here, we have significantly extended our vendor range.”

How do distributors position themselves to retain their partners and gain new ones?

Westcon’s John Nolan advocates that distribution must continuously innovate its vendor and services portfolio to put partners in the best possible position to add-value to customers.

“However, aside from great pricing, backing the disruptive vendors of tomorrow and evolving our support offering, what is crucial in earning a partner’s loyalty is the quality of service delivery. A reliable, personal and knowledgeable touch that’s in-step with the partner and can orchestrate the right support and service keeps partners more customer-facing.

Our recent Partner Survey 2018 showed around 80% of partners rated Westcon as 4 or 5 stars out of 5 for having a thorough understanding of their business and services (particularly pre-sales, installation and support and finance) that give them a competitive advantage. It’s this relevance that ensures we earn a partner’s loyalty and benefit new ones.”

Richard Carter at Nimans, says his company is a value-added distributor, not just a supply specialist.

“Service and support combined with a huge product portfolio are the hallmarks of our success. Ultimately, we grow by helping our resellers grow too. That could be training or technical support or pre-sales and after-sales assistance, much more than just next day delivery.”

Darren Garland at ProVu says it’s all about providing the right level of support to back the growth of their partners’ business.

“We understand that each and every one of our partners’ needs are different and are reactive to their individual requirements. For some partners, it could be as simple as offering a good level of technical support, whereas, for others, it may be far more complex, by creating bespoke API features to enable their systems to work exactly as they want them to.

The key to retaining and gaining new partners is to move away from the one-size fits all approach. By taking the time to really understand what our partners need from their Channel supplier, we are much better positioned to make further developments which support both our and our partners’ businesses.”

Jason Beeson at Exertis, “We position ourselves as a technology distributor that has specialist expertise across different categories and provide services that add value to a diverse range of customers. Key to retaining customers is to understand their needs, provide a great service, remain relevant, keep your finger on the pulse and build lasting relationships. Distribution is still very much a people business. Attracting new business is all about showcasing a compelling service that is better than your competition.”

Ed Says…

Keeping portfolios current is one of the ongoing key challenges for distributors. Reliance on existing vendors for such currency is often an egg too many in their basket so awareness of other vendor responses to trends as well as new vendor application initiatives is paramount. On-boarding new products for resellers can’t be done overnight.

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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine