The Changing Channel

Who Is the 'One Great Salesperson'?

The new channel business model has little room for salespeople who are not also technology pros.

One of the questions I'm often asked by value-added resellers (VARs), solution providers and other channel players I speak to is, "Do you know of any good salespeople?" My usual response is, "Yes -- they're working at your competitors."

The truly good sales professionals in our industry tend to stay put unless some fool goes and messes with their compensation packages.

This is not a new challenge. Back in May 2005, Robert Wright published an article in VARBusiness Magazine titled "Death of The Salesman," in which he said, "For a VAR, finding the right talent is incredibly challenging, despite the droves of laid-off consultants, engineers and, of course, salespeople. Hiring has always been a difficult process for solution providers, but it has, perhaps, never been more of a burden for the sales side of the business than it is today, according to many solution providers."

Wright then asks, "Are VAR sales forces becoming dinosaurs?"

My response to that article was published in the June 27, 2005 issue under the title "Birth of the Salesman." In my article, I pointed out that I had been predicting this for a long time, but the good news was that "the salesman has not died in our industry; he just hasn't been born yet."

Eight years have passed and that salesperson I was talking about has certainly been born -- and there are many of them out there. Some came from the ranks of IT engineers and consultants. In the earliest days, these professionals were among the lowest-paid employees in most IT channel companies. Back then, in the 1980s and 1990s, salespeople were making money hand over fist, and it didn't take much. The "Quote of the Week" in that June 27, 2005 issue was, "The demand for IT products was so enormous and the customer so naïve, that anyone who could fog a mirror could be successful in a sales position." Yes, that quote was from me.

But what has been happening gradually over that time is that the technology professionals have become the bigger wage earners because, frankly, they bring more value. For many of today's channel firms, they and their skills are the true "inventory" that is being sold. Salespeople who have been in the business and built up a coterie of loyal clients still thrive, but the new salesperson can no longer expect to just wait by the fax machine for purchase orders to show up.

At last year's Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) in Toronto, I presented a session called "Client Relationship Management for the Technology Professional," a session I had long dreamed of presenting. I had originally titled it simply "Sales for Techs," but knowing how much engineers despised most salespeople, I changed the name to more accurately reflect what I was teaching.

We had over 200 attendees, most of whom were consultants, engineers and technicians. There were some salespeople in there, as well. The point of the presentation was that it is the IT professional who owns the trust of the clients more than sales or any other part of most channel companies. They needed to know how to most effectively interact with those clients, how to keep them fully informed and ask good questions. They needed to know how to be as adept at managing the client as they were at managing the technology. They learned the meaning of "fix the customer first."

The applause and the comments shared with me after the session were perhaps the most encouraging moments of my life. This proved that the technology professional really wanted to manage client relationships well and was ready to focus significant attention on it.

We're seeing the emergence now of many new business models in the channel, and many of them don't include anyone solely in a sales role. Many have "appointment-setters" arranging meetings and truly knowledgeable technology professionals going out to speak with clients, reducing the sales cycle by eliminating the awkward first meeting where the salesperson takes notes and promises to get back with answers.

Some of those business models, however, have ceased to be company models, but rather are becoming professional practice models similar to law, medicine, accountancy or other recognized professions. There is, after all, consistency between what they do and what our professionals do -- they sell their time and skills for a fee and thrive based on the quality of what they do with those skills. 

I believe that we, as an industry, need to get behind the concept of creating university accreditation programs and state-issued licenses for our professionals just like the other professionals do.

In these firms, as in most professional practices, there really is only one great salesperson making it rain -- and their title is "President."

About the Author

Howard M. Cohen is a consultant to IT vendors and channel partner companies and a board member of the U.S. chapter of the IAMCP. Reach him at [email protected].