A few years ago I was at a country show where vendors sold everything from cutlery to heavy machinery. There I overheard one of the older farmers talking about a past event. Trying to place it in time, he said: "That was the year that the grasshoppers were bad." Later in the same conversation, he said: "That was the year that we had torrential rain during harvest." The measurement of time has many scales, but there are some common events that affect people in both the country and the city. For instance, everyone remembers the stock market crash of 1987 and the Y2K issues.
Channels need to change with the times. Some changes are sudden and some changes are a natural progression corresponding to technology changes. The introduction of personal computers in the 80s created new enterprises and new distribution channels. The 80s was also the decade of the long lunch - or maybe the last decade of the long lunch. It seemed acceptable for people to spend several hours eating and drinking for business purposes. Rationality and the introduction of Fringe Benefits Tax in Australia created the excuse to curtail previous excesses. Times were tough, but business continued.
The 90s was the decade of the sandwich lunch or, as some people would say, "no lunch". It was a decade of significant change. The CPU speed, memory and storage increased dramatically. There were times when the channels struggled to keep up with demand. The economy was coming out of recession and into a long period of positive performance. Business was literally booming and the typical day, including lunch, changed for many people. Y2K issues and the Internet provided even greater demands on vendors, resellers and service providers. Many in the IT industry, especially new recruits, thought that the 90s was a typical decade. They were wrong. It came to a relatively quick end. City folk now speak about the year 2000 as "The year that the dot-com bubble burst".
This decade is tougher for the IT industry. As a recent article reported, we have moved to a demand-driven environment where the customer has an advantage. Channel partners need to build stronger relationships. Price remains important, but customers need to ensure that suppliers have resources to provide adequate levels of service and support in the longer term. This will prove more important than any short-term benefit of lower prices. Hence, this decade is becoming the decade of the quality lunch. This is quite different to the long lunches of the 80s. Thirty minutes for lunch and ninety minutes for a meeting can be combined into two hours of productive discussions - over lunch.
Don't get me wrong. The quality lunch is not simply an opportunity to socialise. It is a serious process of negotiation for both parties. Prepare for lunch as you would prepare for a well-focused meeting. You should plan to explain the underlying interests that will support your bid for the customer's business. This is an opportunity to give more information about your company's background and previous success. You should also plan questions that will give you a better understanding of the customer's expectations and the basis for future selection. An astute customer should make similar preparations for the lunchtime meeting and take away additional information about the channel partner. A meeting such as this more easily enables the issues to be separated from the people, so that the underlying interests can be explored. This process comes easily to some people, but others simply enjoy the practice.
David Hood is business development manager at mPower Systems.