ARN's networking specialist Ian Yates recently spoke to Peter Alford, sales manager at Telesystems, about doing businessARN: Is it true that service and support are the key to sales success in networking?
Alford: The key is that everything we do revolves around networking for our customers. To achieve a presence in the market, service and support are integral. [It] has to be the major issue.
Whether it's the ability to provide a network design for a customer that suits their needs through to installing it and walking away knowing that it works and is stable.
ARN: Is it the case that you can only afford to have CNEs and MSCPs to the point where each is commercially viable in their own right? That is, Fred the CNE earns more than he costs. Or do you find that a lot of Fred's worth is hidden in that without him (and his mates) you wouldn't get the sales to begin with?
Alford: We do work on a cost centre basis, so yes we need our techs to earn their keep, but we also allow things such as billing time to R&D so that they can keep up-to-date with the latest technology.
We look at ROI and we give them average long-term targets which allows them to do paid work and keep up with trends. We also sell maintenance contracts which help to give us a budget base to work from.
ARN: in the past Network VARs had to design the network and send it in with the quote in order to get a sale. Do you now get paid for designs?
Alford: The market is maturing and we're finding that we are now going back into sites to put in second and third generation networksOne of the biggest challenges is specifying what you are going to do for the money. In many cases we find that customers can tell us their overall desired outcome but are no longer able to give us enough information for us to be able to even do an estimate on the work.
More and more in the last year or so, we've been charging to do network audits before we can answer the questions. And we've had to charge to prepare what amounts to a scope of works.
Many customers' nets have grown so large they no longer have a full inventory of equipment nor do they have a full inventory of applications across multiple sites. As such they have an idea that they might require a particular outcome, but they're not capable of fully scoping it.
We also find that with the trends towards outsourcing it's often better for the customer to define their needs and manage the process while they get someone else to design and scope the network.
ARN: Have you been asked to audit and scope and then absent yourself from the bid to do the work of installing?
Alford: Yes, it happens. Sometimes the audit and design are required for the preparation of next year's budgets. Some customers have separated the process of design and building such that it is okay for us to design and then bid to build it for them as they have a different team evaluating the responses.
We're finding that sort of role, consultancy only, scoping and designing but never building, quite often is done by specialists who never intend to build. In some cases customers feel that this gives a bit more independence to the design of the network.
The problem can be that those consultants may have a hard time being up on the latest trends and if they are not actually building, they don't discover the things that don't work as advertised with network products.
ARN: Can a network reseller really just stick to one brand or one kind of network nowadays?
Alford: The major network VARs have to be across a range of platforms and vendors otherwise they won't be able to provide a balanced approach, and offer the best potential solutions.
ARN: Telesystems in the past has been a major supplier to the education sector. Is that still the case?
Alford: Education still represents about 40 per cent of our business. There was a time when it was around 60 or 70 per cent of the business. It's still a major focus for us. Primarily in the schools sector, both primary and secondary, although the major users of networks are the secondary system right now.
ARN: It must be challenging trying to service a market with high expectations and low budgets.
Alford: The major vendors contribute greatly to the affordability of computing for schools.
I don't think that the customers always understand the size of discount they get from vendors like Novell and Microsoft. Hardware vendors at least give government pricing if they don't have a specific education price, and that applies to private as well as public schools. That's pretty good for the customers but not necessarily for the channel.
We all know about margin compression. It comes down to affordability. In the schools market it's often not about whether a thing is expensive or cheap, it's simply can they afford it.
ARN: Do you think governments, past and present, have failed to allow the education sector to apply ROI arguments for the use of technology?
Alford: In the last decade schools have struggled to fund the basic introduction of school-wide networking. Often they've been limited to a few computer labs. They've also struggled to utilise the resources and get a return on them.
Because the education departments haven't been directly funding technology investments, those departments have tended not to see what is being done by the schools, and so even getting support for successful projects has been limited.
ARN: Who do you find is the most likely person in the schools to push for technology?
Alford: Librarians have often been the driving force. It started out with getting access to CD-ROM versions of expensive reference works, and now of course, it's getting on the Internet. We've found that the people we have entrusted with furthering the access to information and knowledge, the librarians, have in fact been at the forefront of the change.
While they may at times have put their position at risk from a political perspective, our experience has been that they have been the leaders in getting the vision of a technology assisted education system in place.
ARN: Corporate and government customers, I expect, would want good support and service. Is the same true in the education sector?
Alford: Yes, and often it's even more important. A lot more commercial and govern-ment enterprises have in-house expertise than do schools. At least to manage the ongoing network. We find schools are more reliant on the network being very stable when we leave the site. They don't usually have people who can manage the network - nobody will let them skip classes to become network experts.
ARN: What sort of other challenges do school networks present?
Alford: Security. You don't often get corporate users throwing keyboards around the room or taking the trackball out of the mice. Students are far more likely to delete every file on a server, just because they can. It's very difficult to even trace who is responsible. So getting the security right is an area where we've developed quite a bit of expertise. Another challenge is geography. Schools are usually made up of several small buildings spread across a few acres. Schools have been very early adopters of fibre optics for that reason.
ARN: Does it require a degree of masochism to stay committed to the education sector?
Alford: Not for us. We've been doing it for so long that we don't think the strange requests are strange any more. We have always employed some staff from the sector, we have software that fits directly into the school sector. We've built up a relationship and understanding with the sector so we don't feel that their needs are out of the ordinary.
We'd feel out of place in some market sector that we haven't been involved with, the same way other VARs might feel about the education sector.