The channel opportunity in home-office tech

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This article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of CRN magazine.

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The channel opportunity in home-office tech

As collaboration and mobility tools create new ways for businesses to work, they’re also creating new opportunities for channel players which are prepared to look beyond merely selling tools and instead focus on delivering business value.

The rise of collaboration suites and other cloud-based productivity tools has empowered workers to remain productive when away from the office, underpinning decentralised workplaces where people are no longer chained to their desks.

Resellers have been forced to move with the times by offering software subscriptions rather than one-off sales. But to thrive in the age of collaboration and mobility, channel partners must look beyond this transactional approach and truly engage with their customers.

Helping businesses embrace the future of work is not simply a matter of handing workers a G Suite or Office 365 subscription as they walk out the front door, says Shane Muller – founder and managing director of cloud and cyber security solutions provider OBT.

As a trusted advisor, the role of channel players extends beyond teaching businesses how to use these tools, Muller says. Instead, the real value for the channel is found by ensuring their customers know how to get business value from these tools.

“Resellers are mostly pushing the same tools but granting your customers access to these tools doesn’t automatically make them more productive,” Muller says. “Many organisations have the tools and capacity to remotely work, however very few have the ‘practice’ of remote working – this has already started to show up as businesses struggle to prepare for continuity in the face of the coronavirus.”

“As a channel partner you need to differentiate yourself with vision, not just a vision for selling tools but a vision for guiding your customers through making the most of these tools and unlocking real value.”

In order to deliver on this vision, channel players need to address their customers’ pain points and recognise the challenges they face.

This begins in the pre-sales process, with the goal of changing user behaviour, rather than just handing them new tools, says Darren Gore – CFO and senior sales specialist with ICT solutions provider and Microsoft partner Calibre One.

In one case, Calibre One encountered a mid-sized construction company still managing its job scheduling using one Excel file stored on a network drive – with data often lost when more than one person tried to open the spreadsheet at the same time.

“It’s a basic example, but they simply didn’t know there was a better way,” Gore says. “Just handing them collaboration tools might not have changed this behaviour but understanding their pain points and then showing them how to solve that with Sharepoint blew their minds.

“If you don’t approach collaboration and mobility this way then you’re in danger of handing your customers yet another digital toolset which they’ll learn to hate because nobody’s actually showed them how and why it’s useful.”

Truly understanding your customers includes understanding their people, processes and technological maturity. Channel partners that don’t do this, risk delivering ill-suited solutions. 

Choosing the incorrect business metrics to measure ways of working and business transformation is another common mistake which can lead to “wasted time, effort and resources,” says Yun Zhi Lin, director of innovation APAC and chief innovation officer with cloud transformation consultancy Contino.

“I’ve seen many workplace collaboration projects overlook the importance of people, process and culture, approaching these tasks with a single focus on technology,” he says.

“Without applying the human touch or considering the end user, resellers are unable to effectively mould the way their clients work for the better.”

Once channel partners understand their customers and appreciate their needs, ensuring the long-term success of mobility and collaboration projects is not just a question training and change management, says Joe Sweeney – IBRS analyst and workforce transformation specialist.

Beyond focusing on the technology underpinning workforce transformation, Sweeney says channel partners also need to help their customers instil a culture of “big little innovation” where workers at every level are focused on “continuous quality improvement”.

Part of fostering this cultural change is advising them on the best way to translate innovative ideas into action which aligns with the business strategy, Sweeney says.

“Purely focusing on the technology, rather than also getting people to start thinking about how they do their job, results in very high levels of dissatisfaction in pretty much every instance I have seen,” he says.

“The end result is very low levels of take-up of the new technology and in some cases outright hostility as people become blockers.”

Addressing this can require taking a holistic approach, such as working closely with the HR department when new collaboration and digitisation processes are likely to change job descriptions or even render some roles redundant.

“To ensure success, it needs to be a much broader engagement than just getting the technology into place,” Sweeney says.

“No-one is going to be open to innovation and change if they’re in fear of potentially losing their job, so if you don’t address these kinds of aspects then your efforts can wither on the vine.”

For some channel players, this change in approach can require going through their own business transformation to reconsider the way they see themselves and the way they engage with their customers.

Businesses find the best success with collaboration and mobility tools by using them to meet business challenges, not just IT challenges. In the same vein, channel partners looking to deliver value need to become business consultants, not just IT consultants, says Peter Moriarty – founder and CEO of cloud transformation consultancy and G Suite partner itGenius. 

“As a channel partner, you need to widen your gaze to see where technology intersects with business growth and business strategy,” Moriarty says.

“This means blending the lines between IT consulting and business consulting, coming back to that idea of becoming a trusted partner rather than just a supplier.”

This is when an account management team becomes key, Moriarty says. Account managers can act as business consultants rather than simply chasing cyclical sales when it’s time to prompt customers to upgrade. This requires you to intrinsically understand your customers by focusing on specific niche market segments and sizes, as well as working closely with specific vendors which solve the key issues your customers face.

The best way for channel players to prepare for the job of guiding customers through embracing mobility and collaboration is to begin by applying it to their own business.

“These things need to become part of your own internal culture and philosophy,” says OBT’s Muller. “Once you live and breathe this stuff on a daily basis then it’s easier to understand your customers’ pain points.” 

“Your behaviour also showcases the full potential of mobility and collaboration to your customers, as you wouldn’t go to a stockbroker who’s not buying the stocks they’re telling you to buy.”

All of this is not an easy transformation for channel players, and itGenius’ Moriarty says the business went through “a bit of an identity crisis” when determining how to continue delivering value in a landscape becoming commoditised.

“This transformation requires expanding and upskilling your teams, to develop relationship-based skills rather than just technical competencies,” he says.

“Anyone with a computer science degree can be taught how to install and support a new software, but you can’t train just anyone to be a great account manager – people who understand networking issues don’t necessarily understand business challenges.”

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