Educating customers is pretty basic from a go-to-market perspective for VARs working in a technical industry. A big part of your value-add is helping customers sift through the “marketecture” and help them really understand the technology, to the level that they need to or want to. Cloud computing and cloud storage solutions are essentially delivery mechanisms for IT services and resources, not products themselves. Lazy marketers have tried to make the cloud seem like a product, partly because customers respond better to that approach. People understand things better than concepts, and technical customers always seem ready to talk about products.
As part of the cloud computing education you provide to customers, you should differentiate between delivering applications over the Internet (which is Software as a Service, or SaaS), versus the entire hardware and software stack (Platform as a Service, or PaaS) or just the hardware (Infrastructure as a Service, or IaaS). Cloud storage falls into the infrastructure category.
You also may want to bring up a little history as part of the education. In the dot-com era a decade ago, many technology products (or perhaps mostly product ideas) sprang forth to enable companies to conduct business online. Those technologies themselves didn’t constitute the dot-com era but rather were the building blocks of it. Likewise, the cloud is a set of technologies that can make a lot of different business models attractive. But, unlike the environment in which the first wave of dot-com companies tried to survive, the infrastructure is available today to make online delivery of these resources and services really work. We’ve got nearly ubiquitous broadband, cheap (virtualized) compute hardware, mobile devices and, most importantly, a user base that’s ready to do everything they can online.
Identify their needs
Like the education step, the second step, which focuses on identifying customer needs, is also pretty much “VAR Sales 101.” What’s important is for VARs to leverage the breadth of products they have to choose from and keep the discussion consultative. Again, customers love to jump to the solution, and it often takes persistence to keep them focused on what they need accomplished, not how to make that happen. This is even more true with cloud solutions since many customers are unclear about what the cloud really is, as discussed above.
When I was working in the VAR space, I had a salesperson on my team who described this situation in a unique way. She said that people don’t like to talk about feelings, but were more comfortable talking about things. That was the reason most prospective customers would rush through the needs part of the discussion and focus on the solutions part. Regardless of the reason, I think it’s an accurate portrayal of what happens.
One way to get customers to stop thinking in terms of solutions is to ask them to simply express their problems in terms of what they would like to fix, since IT people love to fix things. An example of the kind of answer you want from them is “I want to reduce the costs associated with protecting my critical applications’ data,” rather than “I want a cloud backup appliance that has dedupe.” The key is to focus on what they want accomplished and not what product they want to do that.
Again, the market in general can obscure this process as everyone is touting the cloud part of their solution and ignoring what service they’re really delivering.
Present cloud options, if appropriate
Within the framework of what needs to get fixed, cloud-delivered solutions can be part of the mix. Here, VARs can show their value by presenting some non-cloud solutions as well. It may help to remind customers that most everything they can get via the cloud can be implemented in their data center as well. Some vendors are also taking this approach by offering their products as software that users can install locally or as a cloud-based service. Again, the cloud isn’t the product; it’s the vehicle to get that product to the user.
Education for a customer’s management
If a customer is asking you to help them “get into the cloud,” it’s a pretty safe bet they’re being hit with the same questions and demands, often veiled, by their bosses all the way up the org chart. These people all read the hype too and are asking, "Why aren't we doing something with the cloud?" The education customers get from the points listed above can be used to have their own cloud talk with their bosses. And, helping them to educate their management can be a huge benefit to them as well. This process of preparing customers for meetings within their own organizations, whether it’s with management or peer groups they have to work with on projects, can be an important part of a VAR's total value.
The real, long-term opportunity for VARs in the cloud is to provide the consultative services that define their value in the first place. Projects and the gross product VARs get paid on will fall out of these cloud talks sooner or later. Educating and providing advice is the thing that maintains their “trusted advisor” status and puts them in position to get the projects that come up.
Eric Slack is a senior analyst with Storage Switzerland.
This was first published in October 2011