The Changing Channel

In the New Partner Channel, Who's Doing the Selling?

As more IT firms continue to adopt the professional practice model, the traditional salesperson no longer fits the model.

Way back in 1987 I gave a presentation about how, eventually, with all the discounting of computer products, companies in the IT industry would no longer be able to afford big commissions for salespeople, and salespeople would have to bring more value to the table. In fact, I predicted we would soon blur the lines between salespeople and consultants. Remember that, back then, resellers were more about selling computer hardware and software at steep discounts than they were about services. I told my audience that I didn't think the classic model of the IT salesperson would survive for long.

In an object lesson about how important it is to know your audience, I should point out that I presented this to a group of regional sales managers. I was lucky to escape with my life.

Hard to believe it's been a quarter-century since then, but in that time our channel has polarized. On one end are large organizations that still resell computer hardware and software at a steep discount to end-user companies. On the other is the growing community of solution providers, integrators and other consultative engineering firms who earn their living from what they do for clients rather than what they can sell to them.

Those in this latter group no longer resemble "reselling" organizations, which is why they resist being called "VARs" because they don't "resell" much, if anything. What they do resemble more and more closely are professional services practices -- similar to law firms, accountancies or medical practices. They provide high-value skills for a specific fee.

IT channel companies, like many other industries, have traditionally divided "salespeople" into two categories: hunters and farmers. Hunters focus on new account acquisition while farmers find more opportunity within existing accounts.

But it's the rare law firm, accountancy or medical practice that has salespeople on staff, preferring to market themselves by reputation through referrals. If someone needs to persuade a potential new client to engage the firm, it's usually the senior partners in the firm who do so.

As more IT firms continue to adopt the professional practice model, the traditional salesperson no longer fits the model. Clients want to speak with someone more knowledgeable than a salesperson right from the start, such as a consultant or, better yet, a partner in the firm. Also, the firm is hard-pressed to part with a large portion of the profit from the work. Consultants and engineers are expensive people to employ these days.

IT salespeople need to make some decisions about their future. If you feel you can never reach the expertise level of a true technology consultant, start looking to some of the large national or global resellers for whom product sales are still the major focus.

If, on the other hand, you consider yourself to be the professional who provides superior solutions to your clients' business challenges, increase your focus on education. Come to deeply understand how all of your technologies interact to form solutions. Increase your own intellectual net worth to match your ambition.

There are plenty of training resources available. It will continue to become more difficult to obtain employment in sales in the IT community, unless you can provide more value to the sales process than simply being persistent. Be sure to add training in how to better manage client relationships, which will be indispensable for advancement in your new and changing role.

This is an exciting time in the channel. As many of our colleagues mature their businesses, their needs change. The day of the fast-talking slickster with the 90-mile-per-hour haircut, shiny shoes and great golf handicap are giving way to the knowledgeable professional, still with a great golf handicap, who adds value to the process. The next step will be professional accreditation from academia and the ascendance of our industry to the ranks of the professional practice.

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About the Author

Technologist, creator of compelling content, and senior "resultant" Howard M. Cohen has been in the information technology industry for more than four decades. He has held senior executive positions in many of the top channel partner organizations and he currently writes for and about IT and the IT channel.