Customers today place a premium on niche experts but for long-serving partners, flipping such a switch is no easy task.
“We already have a foot in the door with our customers and have the benefit of access to different technologies,” said Tristan Warner, co-founder and CTO of eNerds. “But we don’t provide telephony and acknowledge we need to remain relevant, so it’s a constant challenge around specialisation.
“Our fear, like all managed service providers, is losing customers to competitors that can do everything. It’s a credible fear position in the market because customers require a technology provider capable of providing all services due to a preference of having one bill.
“We can often lose tenders in this scenario and we considered acquiring a business to help fill the gaps. But this is a difficult undertaking also.”
Instead, Warner leveraged the ecosystem of compatible partners in Australia, forming an alliance with a telephony expert in Melbourne.
“We don’t compete in the market and this aspect of partnering has been successful for our business,” Warner added. “But finding the right balance between specialisation and generalisation is key.”
Speaking as co-managing director of CCNA, Craig Sims has recognised a “dramatic change” within the channel, leading to a regular cycle of internal change to keep pace with market shifts.
“We’ve had to constantly morph and evolve our offerings,” Sims said. “This can be difficult in a consolidating market because you can either do everything yourself or bring in trusted partners.
“We can do a lot of the work internally and our business has always adjusted to industry trends, which has been driven by our staff.
“We have people who can consult and have the capability to ask a customer what they need and to respond with some outcome-orientated solutions. That’s been fundamental to our ongoing success.”
In assessing the wider Australian market, Craig Finn — managing director of Newcastle-based Advantage Communication and Data — outlined an alternative approach for regional partners, driven by a change in customer requirements.
“When you’re a regional player, you become a jack of all trades,” Finn explained. “But through the rolling out of the NBN access network, we now have a global market available and can compete with other providers.
“Previously, I would service 100 per cent of the IT budget on the voice side of the deal, but now I’m competing with different partners. There’s a lot more direct competition taking place and we’re having to constantly reinvent ourselves to remain relevant.
“We’re the trusted advisor and customers come to us for our advice and expertise. We’re focusing on understanding our niche but we don’t have the luxury of a deep market.
"The NBN access network is opening the door for increased cloud migration and we’re taking advantage of those opportunities."
With presence across ACT, Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales, Anthony Smith — owner of Datavoice Communications — pointed to a rise in end-user knowledge as a key shift within the market, as buyers become more informed, more often.
“When we speak to a customer today, they have carried out research and are more educated than before,” Smith said. “We’re in a much more competitive marketplace but they are still turning to us because we’re still experts in the industry.
“If you don’t change with the times you will fall behind. Up until not long ago I was the business owner, the sales person and the sales support.
“Now we’re recruiting people who are consultants and who understand the industry, the technology and the customer. But we don’t always need the expertise in-house.
“We leverage the ecosystem to increase our expertise and deliver that back to the customer, lock, stock and barrel. Operating regionally can be difficult but through the NBN access network, we now have the bandwidth to build transformational offerings for businesses.”
Operating as a small business channel specialist, Craig Bovaird — national ICT channel manager at NBN Co — endorsed the belief that regional players must be flexible, but also advised the ecosystem to align with the core goals of the customer.
“It’s a simple approach in that respect,” Bovaird said. “Regional partners have to be a jack of all trades while partners in metro areas can be very specialised but it’s about listening to your customer.
“No matter where you are based this approach works and allows partners to understand what their niche is and adapt accordingly.
“Customers are asking different questions of the channel and the conversation has been flipped meaning partners must be targeted in how they respond, otherwise their trusted advisor status can become threatened.”
While the channel is creating a new identity within the market — built on transformation and trust — partners are adjusting amid a flurry of new technologies, solutions and services.
Such an adjustment can be distracting between countless rounds of presentations, product brochures and vendor pitches, creating a need to step back and take stock.
Perhaps transformation is the agenda of the day, but for customers, it must be doused in realism.
“Customers are asking the channel to be pragmatic,” outlined Tamika Sercombe, ICT channel program manager at NBN Co. “Whether it be cloud, IoT or digital transformation, the market is filled with hype that can easily end up not meaning anything.
“For customers, these technologies appear insurmountable in the context of being deployed. Instead, they require partners to be practical in helping them understand the benefits quickly, through proof of concepts and smaller roll outs.
“Simply going into a customer and selling a solution is no longer enough for the channel. Customers expect partners to understand their business, to understand their customer’s business and to help them get solutions across the line.”
Yet Sercombe observed that partners continue to be hampered by an inability to effectively communicate transformation agendas with the customer, with marketing a long-time challenge for the wider supply chain.
“It’s difficult to create the right mix when communicating with a customer,” Sercombe said. “Different segments of the market have a different voice which means a broad-brush campaign is often hard.
“Partners must communicate the right information to the right audience, such as technical information to a technical audience or business information to a business audience. Relevance is key.”
In response to ambitions of simply “getting started”, Chris Greatrex — managing director of Artis Group — pioneered a concept called “quick starts”, designed to deploy new solutions in tangible ways.
“The CRM and ERP space is complex but we run a series of quick starts which is a process of getting technology into the hands of the customer,” Greatrex explained. “We want customers to test solutions in the business and socialise them among colleagues to gain a true understanding of what they want to achieve.
“Almost every time, a quick start deployment has evolved into something larger because it’s always a first phase deployment to simply get something going.
“About 20 per cent of our customer spend comes from IT, with finance and marketing the key drivers of any technology decision.
Once a decision is made to proceed with a project, that’s when we leverage the ecosystem and partner with infrastructure providers to align with our software-as-a-service offering.”
In looking ahead, a modern- day partner type is emerging to capitalise on a growing desire for transformation projects across Australia, fuelled by a wave of innovation impacting end-users.
Because as new partners within the channel spring into life, so are customers.
A study commissioned by NBN, undertaken by AlphaBeta, found that the NBN network is set to contribute to the creation of up to 80,000 new businesses by 2021.
“One of the overriding value propositions of the NBN access network is greater choice,” Masterton added. “We’re a mega aggregator in terms of what we’re trying to achieve through the channel, and we’re bringing together the expertise of phone and internet providers, vendors, distributors and partners.
“We’re building a transformation story for the ecosystem to take advantage of and through our channel program, partners can easily get started on this journey.”
This roundtable and article was sponsored by NBN Co. Photos by Christine Wong.