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CHICAGO -- At CompTIA's Annual Members Meeting 2016, CompTIA members of the Managed Services Community gathered to discuss the two-way street of vendor-partner relationships, with many of the meeting's attendees airing both frustration and satisfaction with relationship strategies they see in the IT industry today.
Moderated by Vince Tinnirello, CEO of managed service provider (MSP) Anchor Network Solutions Inc., based in Lone Tree, Colo., and chair of CompTIA's Managed Services Community, the meeting explored topics that ranged from vendor-partner communications and onboarding best practices to company behaviors that make for successful partnerships.
The meeting's panel included two vendor and two MSP executives. On the vendor side, the panelists were John Tippett, vice president and general manager of Aisle8, a manufacturer and distributor of products for IT integrators in Charlotte, N.C.; and Christine Gassman, manager of partner development at cloud backup company Datto, based in Norwalk, Conn. MSP panelists were Kenneth May, CEO of Swift Chip Inc., based in Santa Monica, Calif.; and Jason Brunt, CEO of e3 Technical Solutions LLC in Lansdale, Pa. CompTIA's Managed Services Community has about 900 members, according to a CompTIA spokesperson.
Methods of communication
Communication practices between vendors and partners stood out as one of the most contentious topics at the meeting. Speaking about vendors in general, MSP executives revealed that many communication efforts -- particularly email -- aren't working for them. "Partners often struggle with getting tons of emails. They've got 15 different vendors [and] distributors that they work with, and it's hard to figure out what's the important email and what's not," Tinnirello said.
Brunt noted that a lot of vendor emails are lost in the daily grind of running an MSP business, with e3 generally receiving high volumes of emails every day from vendors it works with, as well as many it doesn't.
May, who also sifts through hundreds of emails a day, said vendors need to streamline the information they send out, so it's easier to identify the takeaways. Brunt added that vendors could do more to identify their emails' content, such as if the content is technical or sales-related. That way, MSPs could quickly decide if the email is relevant to them, he said.
Aisle8's Tippett said it's important for partners to give feedback on their vendors' communications efforts, especially on why they decide to delete or unsubscribe from certain emails. "Some of that feedback has led us to standardize our emails, so they look a certain way ... so you can visually recognize this is not going to have sales stuff in it. It's important," he said. He added that Aisle8 has added granular subscription options, so partners can choose the types of emails they receive, such as technical bulletins or alerts on special deals.
According to Gassman, Datto has been trying to vary its partner communications to include more than merely email. In addition to publishing a blog and weekly podcasts for partners, Datto has started to do a quarterly webinar. "From our perspective, what we're doing is ... we're trying to make the information readily available to [partners] in any capacity [they] want to receive it in," Gassman said. She added that Datto regularly does regional roadshows for its partners and recently launched a community forum in its partner portal for partners to communicate with each other.
Although vendors could do much to improve their communications, Brunt and May agreed that the onus is on partners to reach out to their vendors. One tactic would be to have a person on their staff dedicated to maintaining the relationships with key vendors.
Nothing is more frustrating for partners than vendors that are sluggish in responding, especially when a customer is ready to close a deal. "It's interesting, because I've seen this with large, multinational vendors, and I've seen it with small vendors. ... I've had multiple situations where, sometimes, you've got to jump quickly on an opportunity, and the vendor's sales team or salesperson is very slow to get back to you," May said.
Partners, however, are guilty of poor responsiveness, as well. "That frustration exists ... with our sales team," Gassman said. "The managed services providers will rush to get in this information [about an opportunity], and then they will disappear and go dark. And our sales reps will do their due diligence in following up. It is frustrating, but it does happen."
"I'm definitely guilty of going dark," Brunt admitted.
If partners find themselves too busy to respond to their vendors' requests, Tippett and Brunt suggested a simple gesture: Ask the vendor to reach out again later. Don't disappear.
CompTIA members also discussed onboarding processes, which Tinnirello acknowledged was a touchy and challenging subject in the channel. "Some vendors want us to buy an NFR [not-for-resale] kit and spend $8,000 before we even sell one of their units. It's just insanity if you're a partner ... But vendors need us to understand the [onboarding] process ... If you don't have a proper onboarding, then it can be disastrous the first time you go to sell something and it goes awry."
Jason BruntCEO, e3 Technical Solutions
Tippett agreed with Tinnirello's point. It's problematic for vendors to require significant upfront investments from their partners, he said. Instead, vendor should take a leap of faith with their partners and remove the barriers for adopting products.
May summed up the viewpoint of several MSPs in the room: "Give me a few hours, walk me through some stuff, make sure that I know at least the basics for how to start working with you as a vendor, and then also provide [the option of] some 200-level or 300-level educational [courses] with it," he said.
However, as vendors overhaul or tweak their onboarding processes for their partners' benefit, partners should acknowledge that they can't expect to get all their preferences met. "We have to remember as partners that the vendor is a business, as well, and we have to make sure that they can make their own company profitable," Brunt said. "They can't offer every single option we want ... They do have to target the majority [of their channel] for everything -- training, communications [and] sales. That's just reality."
What vendors look for in partners
CompTIA members spent the last part of the meeting exploring what partners owe their vendors and how small partners can register on their vendors' radars.
Tippett said Aisle8 generally looks for communicative partners, regardless of their company size, that will provide feedback and ask for help when they need it. "The confusion about the size of the company is when you're talking about your company to a vendor and you're in this gridlock of 'I'm too small.' You need to shift the conversation to potential."
Datto is careful about not partnering with the wrong MSPs. "The way that our organization is set up is we rely on our partners to do all of the management [and] maintenance. We don't communicate with end users at all ... We're relying on [partners] to promote the Datto brand name," Gassman said. "There have been a number of times where we've had end users contact us directly, because they weren't happy with the IT provider. We took on somebody that we shouldn't have."
Brunt said positive partnerships encourage vendors to use the channel as a means for going to market. "Let's do [vendors] a favor and be good partners. We want to motivate them to stay in the channel. We all know the large vendors that have gone out of the channel and gone direct. ... It hurts our business," he said.
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