One Hat or Many?
Can your IT services company be a generalist and a specialist?
- By Ted Dinsmore
- June 01, 2006
Why do many IT services companies targeting small and midsize businesses
(SMBs) act as if they can deliver anything and everything to their
clients? In theory, they may be able to do so, but it's a hard proposition
to sell to customers. And it's even harder to differentiate your
company from your competitors when you're promoting yourself as
a "jack-of-all-trades" because the old adage's follow-on clause
-- "and a master of none" -- is often closer to reality than that
Too often, SMB-focused IT services companies that are struggling
to win customers promise that they can provide any and all IT services.
That approach may appeal to a few customers because it offers one-stop-shopping,
single-point-of-contact convenience. Most, however, won't like it
because it's not entirely credible.
Besides, if your IT services company is a Microsoft partner, you
just have to be a master of something to get any desirable traction
out of the partnership. That is, you have to be heard and seen as
a specialist, although you may also have deep generalist talents.
This principle applies both to success in the SMB market and to
getting results from partnering with Microsoft.
As Edward O'Connor and I mention in our book Partnering
with Microsoft, one of the Microsoft Partner Program's flaws
is the need for companies to specialize to qualify for a competency.
Obviously, Microsoft corporate views its partners as specialists
rather than as generalists. In addition, Microsoft has a fundamental
need to categorize its huge volume of partners. This need has evolved
as the partner program has grown and become more sophisticated,
with the latest iteration being the competency program. It's not
only in Redmond that Microsoft thinks of partners by specialty --
the Microsoft field offices look at partners that way too. But in
some ways, Microsoft's specialization requirements turn out to be
a blessing in disguise for most partners.
Becoming a Trusted Advisor
To demonstrate the value of specialization let's back up
and address some fundamental questions: What is the goal of being
an IT services player in the SMB space? Is it to sell more products,
whether Microsoft's or another vendor's, within a specific segment?
Is it strictly bottom-line driven?
The better approach, of course, is serving as a trusted advisor
to a set of customers, depending on your company's focus and expertise,
where proven value can be articulated, demonstrated and extended.
a different message from "We can do it all," which simply
doesn't make sense to most SMB customers with experience
in buying IT products or services.
Assuming that you agree, let's take the questioning a step further.
Because we're all somewhat driven by the bottom line, how do you
reach your financial goals while maintaining and demonstrating your
company's integrity to your customers? And how do you leverage your
relationship with Microsoft, based on the same integrity, to reach
For those who might wonder how integrity got smuggled into the
equation, raising the question could signal a problem with your fundamental vision.
Showing your customers -- and your partners, including Microsoft
-- that your company has integrity is paramount to winning, keeping
and extending both customer and partner relationships.
Integrity boils down to a correlation between your company's capabilities
and its messaging. Consider these guidelines and what they say about
your SMB-focused IT services company:
- Corporate integrity: This means having everyone
giving the same message, from your sales team doing business development
to your implementation staff performing solution delivery.
- Market integrity: This refers to what customers see.
Deliver what you promise; only promise what you can deliver.
- Profitable integrity: This results from the previous
two guidelines, and it represents the Nirvana that every sales
organization exists to reach. It involves achieving a trusted-advisor
relationship with your customers.
If there's a disconnect between what your company says it will
do for customers (sales) and what it can do and actually does (delivery
and support), then you may have an integrity problem of the first
order. Your customers are obviously the final arbiters, the benchmark,
in this important inquiry. (See "Does Your Company Have an Integrity
Assume that your messaging is a valid representation of what your
company can and does deliver -- and thus that the critical elements
of your company (sales, delivery, support) are aligned. If your
customers agree, then your company is aligned with the market. Your
company has integrity.
The next step is to chase after profitable integrity, or achieving
a trusted-advisor relationship with your customers. Charles Green,
author of "Trust-Based Selling," defines trust as "the elusive but
essential basis for the most successful sales relationships." That
definition is especially apt for the SMB market, where IT is often
a big mystery and the person who unlocks it -- who makes it work
-- is an essential and trusted member of the extended team.
Your Company Have an Integrity Problem?
Consider your answers to these guiding questions
to determine whether your business has integrity
problems that may influence relationships with
customers or Microsoft:
Identify the problem: What is your company's
message? For example, is it "We can do anything
for a manufacturing company"? Or is it more specific,
as in: "We can refine your ERP solution so that
you can source raw materials, then manufacture
and ship them in half the time it takes today"?
Talk to your delivery people: What's their
of your messaging? Do they understand it? Does
correspond to their view of what they're doing
Talk to your salespeople: Are they comfortable
with the messaging? Are they aware of any inabilities
to deliver to customers what they promised when
they sold the services?
Talk to your support people: Ask the
you posed to your delivery people. Are your delivery
and support people on the same page?
Talk to your customers: Are they aware
of any oversell/under-deliver issues with your
company? Consider using the Microsoft customer-satisfaction
tool. It's useful to have a third party take the
pulse of your customers. -- T.D.
Trust-based selling is simple. It's common sense. And it works.
Following are some guidelines for thinking about the practice:
- Trust-based selling is rooted in four principles. Customer-centricity,
medium-to-long-term focus, collaboration and transparency.
- It's not about "being nice." It involves using soft skills for
- A customer who trusts you is invaluable. Trust trumps product
excellence, salesmanship and price.
- Trust begins with the sale. How you sell creates or destroys
trust for the relationship in the future.
- Trust isn't a business process. The only way to be trusted
by yourcustomers is to be trustworthy. You can't fake it.
Ultimately, trust-based selling can massively increase profits
for seller and customer alike. When both those in your organization
and your customers understand and agree upon who you are and what
you can do, you're positioned to become a trusted advisor. From
this happy position, you can look to extend your customer base.
Honing Your Marketing Message
So how can you get specific enough in your marketing message without
shutting off potential sales outside of that highly focused message?
The answer involves finding a message consistent with what your
company does especially well in order to differentiate it from others.
That's your specialization, the hook by which to catch customers.
(See "Getting Microsoft's Attention.") Once you've aligned your
company's message with its delivery and established your reputation
in the market, you can cross-sell partner solutions within your
customer base. And as you get to know your partners better, you
can educate and leverage them on the cross-sell. For example, if
your company provides Microsoft Dynamics AX (formerly known as Microsoft
Business Solutions-Axapta) services and you also offer deep infrastructure
skills in Microsoft Exchange, that's an added bonus to both your
Microsoft partnership and to your customers because you can help
them meet their needs on multiple fronts. (For more on Microsoft
Dynamics, read "Getting
Serious About ERP.")
The cross-sell can be extended to many levels and, in some cases,
it can serve as your differentiator. But note that it offers a different
message from "we can do it all," which simply doesn't make sense
to most SMB customers with experience in buying IT products or services.
And the jack-of-all-trades approach will get you nowhere with Microsoft.
Thus, the messaging is the important point. Once you've established
your message, educate your employees on the precise focus. Typically,
they want to be excited about what they do and to do everything
they can to provide value to your customers. If your personnel are
well-trained about what your company does and doesn't do, it will
be clear to your clients -- and your partners -- and it will get
their attention. When you are on a sales call and you acknowledge
that there are certain things your company can't do, people tend
to pay more attention to what you say your company actually can
do. This is integrity in action.
As a Microsoft partner, it's critical to make
sure that the company understands who you are
and what you do. Getting the company's attention,
though, is easier said than done. Anecdotally,
the average Microsoft customer-facing person receives
around 200 e-mails a day from partners as well
as six to 10 voice-mail messages.
Given that level of activity, how can you get
noticed amidst all this noise? After all, these
are the people you want to know about your services
and products because they should be your additional
feet on the street. To capture their attention,
you need a highly focused message that's also
short and sweet. Once you have your Microsoft
contacts' attention, it's in your best interests
to create your trusted-advisor relationship with
Consider how not to get their favorable attention:
the first thing that many SMB-focused IT services
companies do is to ask their Microsoft counterparts,
"Where are my leads?" That's a great question,
but entirely the wrong approach.
Put yourself in Microsoft's position. How would
you react if a vendor called and demanded an answer
questions like these: "Where are my sales from
you? You resell my product. Where are you in delivering
It's a bit insulting, isn't it?
So how do you take this to a trusted-advisor
relationship with Microsoft as you have with your
customers? Consider these three steps for relaying
your message to Microsoft:
Introduce your company and its specializations
succinctly: "We have a proven track record
Emphasize your company's achievements and
why they're important to Microsoft: "We are
trusted advisors to our customers -- such as A,
B and C -- that account for [a specific dollar
amount] in cross-sales of Microsoft products D,
E and F." Impressive names and numbers will capture
Make the pitch: "We're campaigning to
relationships with new customers in our core area
of expertise in [a specific vertical or geographical
area]. We'd like to work together with you on
that." -- T.D
Now let's tie the discussion back to the Microsoft Partner Program
and how those Microsoft competencies integrate with your messaging.
If you create a trusted-advisor relationship with your customers,
you can easily achieve the same kind of relationship with your Microsoft
colleagues. With Microsoft, the relationship will be based on technical
competency, sales strategy (that is, focused messaging), and the
ability to generate references, which is the ultimate measuring
stick for trusted-advisor status with your client base.
An educated customer won't buy from a vendor that says it can do
this, that and everything else. Customers will buy from vendors
who understand their business needs, provide concrete options with
measurable returns and demonstrate capabilities for supporting those
customers' solutions across their business-value lifetime. That's
the point when the specialist becomes the generalist -- that is,
when the IT-services company achieves the trusted-advisor role with
customers and with partners and can sell both on an increasing array
Achieving trusted-advisor status with your customers and your Microsoft
counterparts is a long, complicated process, but because it's well
worth the effort, I challenge you to consider it.