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IT channel partners: Storage vendor selection process

Find out what criteria one VAR uses in the storage vendor selection process, including assessments of domain expertise, partner program requirements and deal registration rules.

Every week it seems another innovative storage company appears, ready to jump into the market with a device that will revolutionize enterprise storage. These vendors have products for NAS, SAN, iSCSI, thin provisioning, MAID, virtualization, scalable I/O, scalable IOPS, tiering, QoS, encryption, replication, mirroring, snapshots, SSD, dual controllers, mirrored caches, ASIC design, nonproprietary hardware -- the list of "amazing and unique" features goes on and on.

I can describe this phenomenon with a word I’ve coined: YASA, or Yet Another Storage Appliance.

With so many products in the storage space, how can we differentiate them for customers? Which product do we lead with? Which storage vendor do we spend precious non-selling time getting trained with?

The vendor selection process involves an assessment of the technology itself, the product’s value and the vendor’s market strategy. Value is a topic unto itself, with acquisition, integration, support, service, management, operating and residuals costs to consider. There are also plenty of experts to discuss storage technology, so allow me to focus here on market strategy.

By “market strategy,” I mean the investments that a manufacturer makes in selling its products to a set of customers. Who we work with and, more importantly, who our reps engage our customers with – relies to a significant degree on a manufacturer's go-to-market strategy.

For many VARs -- especially those that are focused in one or just a few vertical markets -- a vendor’s suitability as a partner has a great deal to do with how it performs in a particular vertical. Not all vertical industries are easy to enter, and sometimes the tougher vertical markets take the most investment -- but they often offer the greatest rewards.

My company, TVAR Solutions, focuses on the U.S. federal government, organizations that have high standards and require significant relationship management but offer huge opportunities for those manufacturers that commit to it. Long sales cycles are complicated by local and national politics (deals are won and lost based on elections), but with huge budgets and projects, the U.S. federal government has some of the world’s largest storage deployments.

Likewise, the entertainment, financial, medical, oil and gas, and education sectors are all separate and distinct markets that have their own complications and require a focused commitment to serve.

With that in mind, here are the factors to consider when evaluating potential new storage vendor partners (“new” to us generally means storage startups).

Domain/local expertise. New storage vendors typically have no presence in the market. The best way for them to get established is to recruit and hire a market veteran to lead sales efforts. For the federal sector, we want a local leader from the Washington, D.C., area. For financial markets, New York makes sense. For oil and gas, Houston. Hiring a team made up of a sales representative and a presales engineer is the first step.

Our team wants to work with a local resource to learn the ins and outs of a vendor’s value proposition. Our senior sales reps have little time or patience to learn a product from PowerPoint slides or a webinar from headquarters. We learn new products through four-legged sales calls or shoulder-to-shoulder at a trade show. It doesn’t take many opportunities for us to learn the pitch. Look to partner with those companies that are willing to invest in your market by hiring from your community.

Reasonable partner program requirements. Of course, manufacturers want qualified partners. But beware of those companies that define requirements purely based on technical qualifications. As a case in point, a manufacturer recently sent us its reseller agreement, which stipulated that we would have to purchase a demo system to use as a customer loaner. We focus on customers that rarely evaluate products because their networks are closed or classified, so a demo system is of little use to us. Forcing us to spend up front for one is an example of a partner requirement that doesn't work for us. Beware of manufacturers that dictate partner requirements that don’t apply to your market.

Effective deal registration. Manufacturers should also protect their partners through opportunity-based deal registration. There’s nothing worse than introducing your customer to a new product and losing the deal when some other reseller “steals” your deal because you both have the same cost. But even when a vendor has a deal registration program, sometimes you need to sell your relationships to channel and sales management at the vendor to ensure you get the deal registered. So, before entering into a partnership with a vendor, understand who needs to approve the deal registration, how long the deal is registered for, whether the registration can be renewed and whether the registration is exclusive.

If, when going through the storage vendor selection process (assuming a particular vendor has, of course, a great product and a favorable value proposition for you), you give the vendor high marks in all three of these categories – domain expertise, reasonable partner program requirements and effective deal registration – you can sign on the dotted line with confidence that you’ll be entering into a productive and profitable partnership.

Toby Zellers is vice president of strategy and solutions for TVAR Solutions, a federally focused VAR in McLean, Va.

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