Resellers aiming to supply high quality support to small businesses could be justified in feeling that they are shooting at a moving targetThe whole IT industry changes dramatically each year, and yet customers expect an increasingly high level of knowledge and skill from resellers. Resellers are urged, on the one hand, to specialise more, and on the other hand, to offer an increasingly wide general knowledge.
Customers are often the last to appreciate this dilemma of the reseller, but it is easy to understand why this is the case. Take for example the story of a local business who decided to hook up onto the Net. They'd gone off to their local computer store to buy a new computer (not knowing that they could use one of the computers they already had), made a second trip for a modem, and a third trip to purchase copies of Netscape and Eudora. They arranged for Telecom to install a new phone line, and arranged for a consultant to fix the modem compatibility problems. Then they were told that their computers should really be networked, so they called in a network engineer (with disastrous consequences), and lastly called in the local net guru to hook them up with a service provider. But six weeks and $4,500 later they still weren't up and running (with password bugs the latest problem). "What are we doing wrong?" they asked.
Resellers need to be aware that small-business people usually don't distinguish between hardware and software, networks and the Internet, between modems and fax lines; the whole array of technology is simply referred to as "the computer" and duly expected to work. This lack of understanding is frustrating for business people, but it is also very frustrating for resellers, who can find themselves cast in the role of "that salesperson who sold us the wrong equipment for the job".
Network, network, network . . .
More and more resellers are finding that one strategy to provide small business with the type of support that they expect is to create networks among themselves. Such networks benefit businesses in that they receive a more integrated solution to their IT needs, and the increased business generated by cross referrals benefits the resellers also.
Referral networks among computer specialists work best for independent businesses all positioned in a common geographic area. Each business has a unique area of specialisation, but the complementary skills combine to provide a complete service for small business. For example, such a network might include a PC retail outlet, a Mac dealer, a programmer, an accounting systems specialist, a word processing trainer, and a network engineer.
Every business has their own company name and client base, but they also share a common business name which they use for advertising purposes. Costs of advertising are shared, and each member agrees to refer their clients to other members for the different types of services required. When a client requires several different services, the members liaise with each other, taking responsibility for creating an integrated solution to the client's needs.
Squeezing juice from the margins
One everyday issue for retailers of computer hardware is the industry profit margins, or rather the lack of them. Quality customer service means higher staff costs, both in staff time and in staff training. Many retailers wonder how to maintain quality customer service while operating under such tight overhead constraints.
One possible strategy whereby IT retailers can sometimes achieve both competitive pricing and high levels of customer service is to form, or to join, a buying group. An example of such a buying group is the Rodin Group, a network of over 50 retail outlets spread across Australia who specialise in desktops, notebooks, printers and associated software. The Rodin Group are committed to premium brands, in particular Compaq, Toshiba, Epson and Microsoft, and these brands are available at highly competitive prices through the wholesaler Dicker Data, who originally conceived the whole idea of the Rodin Group.
The Rodin Group is an example of a marketing strategy that serves both resellers and business very well. Businesses benefit from having a single toll-free number to go directly through to the closest Rodin computer specialist; they can buy computers at competitive prices synonymous with a large department store; they can choose from a wide range of premium brand products, and yet they can still receive personal service from trained staff. Resellers benefit from increased purchased power, shared advertising costs, and the support of being part of a team. Each member's skills are documented in an on-line database, so that resellers can provide a high level of customer service by drawing on the skills of the whole group.
Maintenance contracts can be an excellent way for resellers to provide business with the level of support they require, with the result that both sides feel that a fair price is paid for the job. Software maintenance contracts can range from simple phone support subscriptions to more complex maintenance agreements based on the purchase price of the software.
However, if a maintenance contract is essential for the effective implementation of new software, then the reseller needs to communicate this carefully, so that the customer is clear that the maintenance is an extra cost which must be added to the purchase price.
For hardware, supporting products that come with good long warranties is the easiest way to ensure customers receive quality service. The majority of businesses are prepared to pay a premium for brand products with a reasonable warranty period, as they are aware of how much time and money faulty or unreliable equipment can cost them.
If a music store sells an aspiring player a top range saxophone, the player wouldn't then expect to be able to play it straight away, just because it cost a bit. But with computers, the tendency of many customers is to blame their learning problems on either the equipment, or the person who sold it to them. One way to avoid this problem is to try and assess the level of knowledge of customers at the point of purchase, and refer them at this point to appropriate training resources.
Start off with books (the Dummies range of books is a good entry point for many); and have handy the phone numbers for training courses, TAFE courses, and individual training consultants. Build up an index of useful Internet sites -just being able to refer clients to particular web pages provides the client access to a wealth of information. This type of information, given to the customer at the point of the purchase, helps clarify the point that if they are playing their computer (or saxophone!) out of tune, it might well be their problem, and not yours.