Ask the Expert: “How Do I Know If I’ve Found the Right (Technology) Partner?”
Bill Cate has had the opportunity to work with large-scale partner ecosystems for 27 years. He understands the value the right partner can deliver. Read his advice before committing to a relationship.
There are literally thousands of technology solution providers out there, but not all of them will be the right partner for your company. Having a trusted and qualified partner is the primary ingredient needed to affect positive change for your customers and gain a competitive edge. That’s why, in honor of Partner Appreciation Month, I wanted to share this conversation with Bill Cate, Vice President of Marketing and Global Channels at Zebra Technologies.
Caryn: At Zebra, we talk about the importance of finding the right partner when designing, developing, implementing, scaling, or managing technology. But what makes a partner “right”?
Bill: I love my TaylorMade driver, but I do not use it for chip shots. Even if you have worked with a trusted partner for past projects, it does not mean they have the right skills for your next big project. It really comes down to matching the business requirements of any given engagement with a vendor or solutions partner that has demonstrated delivering business outcomes in similar projects.
At Zebra, we have been innovating multiple ecosystem strategies for the way the world works. And this must start from the perspective of our customers’ expectations. For example, we have a segment of our channel ecosystem specialized in delivering “convenience.” These partners have invested in highly efficient, large-scale infrastructures that provide customers with broad choice and quick delivery. Then there are partners who are experts in the delivery of configured systems and others who provide integrated solutions through specialized vertical practices. Then again, there are many partners who do not sell anything. Instead, they deliver consulting and/or implementation services. So, the goal is to choose the best partner to fit your needs.
Caryn: Let’s talk about what you mean by “configured systems.” Are you saying that the right partner will be able to configure any of the hardware or software it provides to your customized specifications? If so, is this something all companies should look for in a partner?
Bill: In instances where the customer is comfortable with their use case requirements, but they are not quite sure which technologies to select and may also need help with staging and installation, we typically recommend one of our Value-Added Resellers (VARs) with expertise in “configured systems.” They are well trained in providing product and services guidance, configuration, and deployment services. They also have a deep understanding of the many software applications available from our Independent Software Vendor (ISV) partners and can help with those introductions, selections and implementations.
Caryn: How do you distinguish “configured systems” from “integrated solutions?” Wouldn’t they be considered synonymous in most cases?
Bill: There are many similarities; however, it is important to explain the differences. While “integrated solutions” partners have a deep understanding of the products/technologies, that is not usually their primary value add. They are primarily focused on the delivery of complex integration and software solutions. In most cases, they have their own software intellectual property (IP) and/or expertise in industry leading software. They are very often specialized in a particular vertical or horizontal solutions practice (i.e., retail, manufacturing, warehouse automation, healthcare, government, supply chain optimization, RFID, or track and trace) and they offer advanced integration and managed services. In cases where the customer may not have a good handle on their business requirements or even what success looks like, integrated solutions partners can help in the early stages of problem identification.
Caryn: Considering that most new hardware and software components require some level of integration with existing systems or third-party systems, would you say that all companies should have a good solutions integrator on standby when making technology system changes?
Bill: That is a fair recommendation. Depending on the customer’s in-house expertise, it is always a good practice to have a trusted and proven partner that understands your business. In fact, a great partner will also say when they are not the best for a given engagement and when they may have relationships with other partners whom they can cooperate with to meet the customer’s needs. At Zebra, we do all we can to encourage partner teaming to fill value gaps so that, together, they can approach their customers with a more complete story.
Caryn: You said “convenience” is something that companies should look for when choosing a partner. What do you mean by that? The ability to buy technology, request service or receive support on demand from a partner, online, 24/7? Or is convenience relative to a partner’s flexibility in working within your terms and on your timeline?
Bill: When I say, “convenience channel,” I am referring to the acceleration of customers demand for business-to-consumer (B2C) kinds of purchasing experiences. While buyers do some online research and price/value comparisons, they usually know exactly what they want. In recent years, Zebra has been building out our value-tier product presence on marketplaces such as Amazon and JD.com and working with broadline technology partners like CDW and resellers like Barcodes, Inc. with a strong digital commerce capability. It's important for us to have a comprehensive omnichannel strategy and be where our customers want to buy.
Caryn: Let’s pause on this notion of buying online for a moment, because I’ve always felt e-commerce purchases were very transactional. I know there are ways to communicate with the companies selling products online, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider it convenient or personal – or a form of partnership. Do you feel like companies lose anything by buying technology online versus calling a company and speaking directly to a sales rep or solution engineer?
Bill: Across the buyer’s journey, customers are more self-educated as 89% of business-to-business (B2B) buyers search online in their purchase process. Many of our digital commerce savvy partners offer a wide array of incremental value-add depending on customers’ needs. Some examples include dedicated businesses designed to meet more B2B expectations, installation services, consulting services, etc. Everything they do online is designed to meet the customers’ buying expectations.
Caryn: So, how do business outcomes factor into the partnership decision?
Bill: Now you have gone to the other extreme in customers’ expectations. Partners focused on delivering high impact business outcomes are best characterized by their focus on the design, development and (often) deployment of solutions. They are often engaged with customers as long as 18 months in the sales cycle, providing early consulting and ongoing implementation expertise. Many of the integrated solutions partners discussed earlier fall into this category. However, this channel segment is primarily made up of Strategic Alliance and ISV Partners, at least within Zebra’s global channel ecosystem.
Caryn: Is there anything else you feel the “right partner” will offer?
Bill: Careful understanding and validation of the customer’s expectations. This all starts with listening.
Caryn: Are there any warning signs that your technology partner might not have your best interest in mind or be able to meet your needs or expectations?
Bill: Choosing the right partner is just as important as hiring the right employees. Hire slow and fire fast. A good partner will under-commit and over-deliver, providing a detailed and well-considered project plan including milestones along the way. A very experienced partner in any given specialty area will be able to confidently present customers with a list of proven success examples over time.
Caryn: Trials and pilots are common in the technology world, so I’m curious if it ever makes sense to give a technology-related partnership a trial run?
Bill: If possible, always a good idea. Start off with a small project with lower risk and learn how to work together.
Caryn: Zebra has an ecosystem of over 10,000 partners, which I know is a lot of relationships to maintain. How do you and your team balance the unique needs of each partner and take steps to ensure Zebra is a good partner to each of the 10,000 companies?
Bill: We do not do it alone. Across most of our channel, we have long-standing relationships with large scale distributors with expertise in partner management, support, logistics, credit, financing, services, and support, staging and integration. The other part of our strategy is to recognize that a one-size approach does not fit all. Each partner has a unique value-add they bring to the marketplace. We have designed our PartnerConnect program strategy to recognize the many difference business models in our channel ecosystem. We talked about high level categories like “convenience,” “configured systems,” “integrated solutions” and “business outcomes,” but it goes much further than that as we profile partners based on product, market, and vertical specializations. It is all designed to ensure we are partnering with the most qualified companies aligned with our growth strategies and our customers’ needs.
Caryn: If you were to give companies one piece of advice about choosing the right partner, something they should never forget, what would it be?
Bill: Everything else considered, this is still a people business. Relationships are built on trust.
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