Delivering customer solutions from the core to the edge

This exclusive ARN Roundtable - in association with NBN Co - explored how partners can deliver customer value through a changing technology landscape
L-R: James Henderson (ARN); Phil Cameron (Westcon-Comstor); Tristan Warner (eNerds); Craig Bovaird (NBN Co); Vivek Trivedi (Exigo Tech); Chris Greatrex (Artis Group); Jason Hall (Dicker Data); Tamika Sercombe (NBN Co); Craig Sims (CCNA); Felix Wong (Ingram Micro); Peter Williamson (Aria Technologies); Keith Masterton (NBN Co); Emile Nader (ICT Group); Craig Finn (Advantage Communication & Data) and Anthony Smith (Datavoice Communications)

L-R: James Henderson (ARN); Phil Cameron (Westcon-Comstor); Tristan Warner (eNerds); Craig Bovaird (NBN Co); Vivek Trivedi (Exigo Tech); Chris Greatrex (Artis Group); Jason Hall (Dicker Data); Tamika Sercombe (NBN Co); Craig Sims (CCNA); Felix Wong (Ingram Micro); Peter Williamson (Aria Technologies); Keith Masterton (NBN Co); Emile Nader (ICT Group); Craig Finn (Advantage Communication & Data) and Anthony Smith (Datavoice Communications)

As an avalanche of new technologies descends on the Australian market, customers are seeking new ways to deliver transformation.

Such a shift in demand is disrupting the supply chain, challenging the traditional linear model of the channel in the process.

With customer experience key, partners today must widen the conversation to deliver on the promise of new technologies and solutions.

To achieve this, the channel must evolve in parallel, driven by new- look distributors and a collaborative ecosystem.

“The traditional channel supply chain has evolved significantly,” said Keith Masterton, general manager of business channels at NBN Co. “There’s been a shift away from traditional models and technologies and this trend has been taking shape for several years.

“Many partners are progressing alongside but others are struggling to keep pace. The customer has changed buying behaviour which increasingly impacts the channel.”

For Masterton, the conventional channel is no longer “selling to an IT manager’s requirements”, rather a combination of business leaders and influencers, each housing separate budgets and technology agendas.

“The market is moving towards front-end business enablement and the channel is well placed to capitalise on this disruption,” Masterton added. “The NBN access network can provide more than just a transition piece of the equation, rather a catalyst for widespread transformation.

“The NBN access network represents a compelling event for the IT industry and a platform for partners to help customers transform businesses.”

The rise of new-look buyers — spanning marketing, HR, sales and finance — is triggering the birth of new-look partners, distributors and vendors, driven by the creation of different channels to market.

“Traditionally, the supply chain was linear,” observed Jason Hall, general manager of services and IoT at Dicker Data. “But due to the rise of disruptive technologies, no one vendor has everything to offer which means the aggregation point lies with the distributor.

“Distributors are now tasked with creating solutions from multiple sources, but the challenge centres in pushing this knowledge and expertise out to the channel at scale.

“Our goal is to support partners and allow them to have a different type of conversation with customers, because the end-user isn’t always aware of the options available.”

In short, the DNA of a distributor is changing.

Phil Cameron (Westcon-Comstor); Keith Masterton (NBN Co) and Felix Wong (Ingram Micro)
Phil Cameron (Westcon-Comstor); Keith Masterton (NBN Co) and Felix Wong (Ingram Micro)

While traditional offerings such as box shipping, logistics and finance remain, the distributor of today — and tomorrow — no longer operates at the centre of the supply chain, rather amongst the spider web of innovation taking place across the channel.

“We’re a distributor, we’re a partner of Telstra and we’re also a vendor,” summarised Peter Williamson, national sales and marketing manager at Aria Technologies. “We actually have a triple agreement with the channel and NBN is the inflection point.

“This opens the door for dialogue with customers who may or may not be informed and partners have an opportunity to take advantage. NBN Co is providing infrastructure which allows partners to bring new and innovative solutions to businesses across Australia.”

Despite an evolution of distribution, according to Williamson, the core functions remain unchanged, with a focus on enlisting, educating and enabling the channel.

“There will always be challenges for partners but this also brings opportunity,” he said. “The NBN access network is critical to our economic success and provides a different proposition for partners, irrespective of whether you generalise or specialise.”

In a market in which NBN Co offers greater choice, and differentiation for partners, the status quo has been challenged by those that are closest to the customer.

The knock-on effect is a distribution game changing at pace, moving in lockstep with vendors and partners to transition to solution- based selling, recurring revenue and the delivery of digital offerings.

“Ingram Micro is evolving into a solutions aggregator,” added Felix Wong, chief country executive of Australia and New Zealand at Ingram Micro.

“Technologies such as cloud, software, services and the NBN access network have all been developing independently during the past decade, but now we’ve reached a point of maturity.

“Now the channel can help package these solutions together to better serve the end-user.”

In assessing the market, Wong acknowledged that the customer today is “struggling with change”, as new technologies and solutions emerge en masse and at scale.

“Customers are not technologists and they require guidance to deliver on business outcomes,” Wong said. “Our role as a distributor is to not only help aggregate solutions but to provide education into the wider marketplace.”

In recognising that “no one vendor can do everything”, Phil Cameron — managing director of Australia at Westcon-Comstor — explained that an air of collaboration is flowing through the channel, driven by a need to team up and join forces.

“It’s now common for vendors to form alliances with other vendors which is becoming a popular trend in the channel,” Cameron said. “This type of collaboration is happening across all layers of the channel because technology buyers have completely changed.

Vivek Trivedi (Exigo Tech) and Tamika Sercombe (NBN Co)
Vivek Trivedi (Exigo Tech) and Tamika Sercombe (NBN Co)

“We specialise with a base of core vendors and go deep down through the technology. Some of our vendors are seeking alignment with other vendors in our portfolio which highlights a shift in thinking for the market.

“NBN Co is driving this change also, as partners move towards consultative selling and a new way of engaging the customer.”

Evolving ecosystem

On the flip side, partners are also tapping into a deep pool of specialists to build packaged solutions for customers, in recognition of increased end-user demand for innovation.

Innovation for innovation’s sake is a fruitless endeavour however, with the channel now tasked with initiating transformation projects that can be personalised in one instance, and delivered at scale in another.

“Distribution and the channel both deliver value at a very high level for our business,” said Vivek Trivedi, managing director of Exigo Tech.

“A customer recently re-engaged with us as an IT solution provider because they now have access to the NBN access network, which means we can deliver on their transformation strategy.

“That’s a huge statement for our business and we leveraged the channel to execute on this potential. This was a collaborative approach in which we delivered an outcome to the customer, which is resonating across the industry.”

Such collaborative and consultative approaches haven’t always been engrained into the mindset of partners however, with the overuse of “technology talk” continuing to hamper progress.

“It’s very difficult to move away from not talking product, and our organisation was no different,” Trivedi added. “But we have changed our approach and are now programmed in a certain way, which allows us to talk the language of the customer.”

In echoing Trivedi’s observations of a fluctuating market, Emile Nader — CEO of ICT Group — described an ecosystem in which evolution is now the norm and selling is no longer grounded in speeds and feeds.

“Our sales people are consultants,” Nader explained. “We’ve got to deliver outcomes to the customer but given the rate of change within technology, it’s challenging to keep up on occasions.

“We’re a small organisation in comparison to Dicker Data, and we leverage their resources and skills to support and deliver solutions to our customers. The NBN access network opens even more opportunities as we now have access to technologies that were previously out of reach.

“Take the construction market for example. We’ve gone in, found a product and positioned this to save time and money for the customer.”

Across Australia, forward-thinking partners are placing bets on specific verticals and technologies, due to the realisation that staying vanilla seldom brings success.

Read more on the next page...

Page Break

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.”

Regional realities

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."

Craig Finn (Advantage Communication & Data); Jason Hall (Dicker Data) and Chris Greatrex (Artis Group)
Craig Finn (Advantage Communication & Data); Jason Hall (Dicker Data) and Chris Greatrex (Artis Group)

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.”

Getting started

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.

Peter Williamson (Aria Technologies) and Craig Bovaird (NBN Co)
Peter Williamson (Aria Technologies) and Craig Bovaird (NBN Co)

“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.