Choosing the right value-added reseller or systems integrator is one of the most important aspects of a successful network upgrade. If you have a long-standing alliance with a channel partner that has been successful and cost-effective for you in the past, count yourself as one of the lucky ones.
But if you're embarking on this for the first time or are in the process of selecting a new integrator, keep these crucial guidelines in mind:
1. Seek a fair price, but beware of artificially low prices.
The concept of trying to get more for less is a time-honored tradition. On the other hand, the cliche "you get what you pay for" certainly enters into the equation. Channel partners obviously need to be profitable to survive. Given the strong competition among them in this challenging economy, there are many deals floating around that look extremely favorable to customers. But this doesn't change the fact that if a price looks too good to be true, it probably is.
It's wise to approach your selection of a VAR or integrator (and these days the two tend to be increasingly similar) as a long-term alliance. You hope the company will respond immediately to any type of service outage or technical glitch, and call on back-up support from the vendor, if necessary. While you obviously want to keep your costs in line, that incredible deal for which you've been patting yourself on the back just put you at the end of the line compared with other customers with whom the partner enjoys higher margins.
Similarly, you might one day find yourself in a situation in which one partner spends a lot of time designing your voice-over-IP (VoIP) rollout, for example. If you happen to show it to another provider before signing the contract, that competitor might be willing to offer the same project at a lower price because it doesn't have the same amount of time and energy invested with you. But in most cases, these VARs will be cut-rate bottom feeders that don't have the resources or expertise to handle the customization portion of the engagement and try to poach after someone else has done most of the heavy lifting.
2. Get references.
Asking the partner for references from satisfied customers is certainly one means of assessing a potential new integrator or VAR. The problem is if you don't ask the right questions, these interviews probably won't offer great value. After all, references are selected by the prospect based on their high probability of saying nice things. So softball questions like, "Were you happy with its overall performance?" will probably yield little more than a warm fuzzy feeling from thinking that you've actually done your due diligence.
Instead, try fishing for instances where things might not have gone so perfectly. It wouldn't be the first time something in the technology realm got a little messed up. Because perfect execution and 100 percent technical excellence might be a bit much to hope for, the underlying question is how well the prospective partner handled the situation when things didn't go quite so well. Oftentimes, a partner's response to a problem says a lot more about its capability and professionalism.
References frequently are reluctant to have such conversations -- especially if the individual might be a golf buddy of the channel partner who gave you the name. Sometimes telling an anecdote from your own experience can get the conversation going. The best thing you can hope for is to turn the interview into a conversation in which the respondent becomes less inhibited about sharing important information and stories.
But even your best efforts to get the reference to hand over the goods might prove unsuccessful. So keep in mind that your own experience with the prospect is probably your best barometer. People typically are attentive during the pre-sales phase, and that might or might not continue after you've signed on the dotted line. But a lack of attention during that pre-sales courtship phase should be viewed as a red flag.
3. Dig into areas of expertise and levels of support.
It's legitimate to ask prospective channel partners about their expertise, both in the form of personnel trained specifically for particular technologies such as VoIP, wireless, storage or security, and the number of times they have done similar projects in the field. They should be able to show you lists of vendor technical requirements, both at the individual and organizational levels, and how those requirements map to their actual employee rosters.
The channel partner also should be established with the leading vendors in this particular field, although many partners often specialize in the products and services of multiple vendors to meet certain niche requirements or offer lower-priced gear for the most straightforward network conditions.
As you choose a partner, the degree of temptation to cut costs at the channel partner's expense will be linked directly to availability, your volume and quality of internal IT expertise.
While this strategy might reduce upfront costs, it also ties your hands for long-term operational expense or causes even worse problems if your IT brain trust goes elsewhere.
Channel partners often know each other, and word gets around. They might not decide to completely reject your future project, but it certainly affects your negotiating leverage.
Many partners also offer a selection of support packages that dictate the speed of response and whether that response is limited to business hours or offered on a 24-7 basis. Conduct an honest assessment of your needs and budget to determine what choice is right for your company.
Presti is research director of IDC's network channels and alliances service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.