Know-how, can-do

Know-how, can-do

Phil Parent takes a look at the unsung heroes of the complex IT solution

If you’re selling complex ICT solutions, you should have distributor, vendor or your own internal pre-sales solution architects on your speed-dialler. “The sooner you get a solution architect into the sales process the better,” says Jeff Maslin, senior business manager, infrastructure - servers and storage at Ingram Micro. “A good business development manager or account manager should waste no time and bring the solution architect into the conversation early. If you don’t, and if you don’t have the in-depth experience in the products and context to get it right the first time, you’ll run the risk of not delivering the best solution, losing business and damaging reputations - yours, your company’s and the vendor’s.”

Here’s the best part. Most vendors and distributors will provide the expertise of highly-skilled, very experienced solution architects for interesting projects at no charge to the end-user or reseller. Let us repeat that. No charge to reseller or end user. Vendors and distributors recognise that solution break-downs are to be avoided at all costs and they are willing to invest in top-notch people to help resellers provide the most appropriate solutions.

Most of the time resellers can add hardware and software into their client’s infrastructure quickly and easily. Let’s face it, most of the gear you sell is more or less a commodity. But for newer solutions, larger installations, anything unusual or plugging big machines into heterogeneous environments, you need an expert. And, unless you have someone on your staff who has seen it all, done it all and learned from it all, the odds of a trouble-free, on-time and to-budget installation get real long real quick.

Experience counts

You won’t find any office juniors filling in for the solution architect. While formal education and training certifications are important, experience on a wide variety of platforms and in an equally wide number of organisations is the one factor that transforms a bright techhie into a seasoned pre-sales pro. Jeff Maslin, for instance, started out with Digital more than 20 years ago and has worked with Compaq and IBM before taking up his role with Ingram Micro. Same with Chris Tauber, MS unified communications business development manager at Express Data.

“I started out in the 1980s with New Zealand Post,” says Tauber, “installing and maintaining PABX systems. Since then I have touched almost every type of telecommunications solution that has had any sort of profile in New Zealand. As a result, I’m fairly familiar with what companies are currently running and where our particular solutions can add maximum value. For instance, we recently helped a reseller upgrade the UC capabilities of a power company for life-line emergency communications. With projects like these, there is little room for error and we have to ensure that we get it right the first time.” This, in a nutshell, is what pre-sales solution architects provide.

Building relationships

As any professional will tell you, doing business is all about building relationships. It is no different with solution architects. “Over the years we’ve built up a good rapport with our key vendors, their tech resources and our reseller partners,” says Tauber. “We know who to call if we need more information on a particular solution and know how to present this to our channel partners based on their levels of technical expertise. We typically attend training and sales seminars, work with our account reps and go on-site with partners where appropriate. We talk to a lot of people and have a good working knowledge of the best way to deal with the different parties involved in the sale.”

Reseller-based solution architects

Not all solution architects work for vendors or distributors. Indeed, many resellers, especially the larger systems integrators, have specialist teams in-house to support their sales and business development teams. They help account managers with bids and system design and assist BDMs understand where and how new technology can be successfully implemented at client sites.

Fronde, a systems integrator and value-added reseller with offices in Wellington and Auckland as well as Australia, has a well-developed internal team of solution architects. “Fronde’s pre-sales architecture capability is delivered through our Strategy Services team,” says Paul Armstrong, strategy services manager at Fronde. “Consisting of 15 highly-experienced individuals, they bring with them a wide-range of experience built up over many years in their areas of expertise including software development, security, integration, mobility, agility and cloud.”

“The Strategy Services team,” continues Armstrong, “is broadly proficient in technology and business, management, marketing, governance and commercial understanding gained across a wide range of industries including government, utilities, education, banking and finance, defence, aerospace, services, retail and logistics.”

Fronde architects obtain training and certification in methods and technologies. “This training and certification,” continues Armstrong, “is often provided through different Fronde partners such as Salesforce, Google, Microsoft and IBM and can include certification in practices like agile methods and security.”

Vendor-supported resources

Vendors with a wide variety of solutions across many vertical markets have well-developed pre-sales teams and actively work to build solution architect skills within their channel partners. HP’s Business Partner Solutions Architect (BPSA) programme was specifically set up to improve and encourage pre-sales capabilities across HP's reseller partners and distributors.

“We have a formal programme in place to ensure that there is enough resource within New Zealand so that HP solutions are specified, installed and supported to a high level,” says Stephen Moore, pre-sales manager for HP’s enterprise group. “Becoming a BPSA is not a trivial undertaking…we target senior technical people with a passion for solving problems. They undergo extensive training and then we have a programme of continual improvement. In fact, we have regular meetings where all of the local BPSAs get together for training and product updates. Some of the BPSAs work for competing organisations so we don’t get too specific about particular bids, but we’re all united in trying to help our clients get the most benefit from their ICT investment with HP.”

How and when to engage with a pre-sales solution architect

Most pre-sales solution architects are quite approachable…good communications skills are a prerequisite for the job. If you are in sales or are a BDM, the minute you get a whiff of a project that will require some expert knowledge, you should tap into your pre-sales resources. “For a partner, bringing in a solution architect speeds up the sales cycle,” notes Maslin. “One can do face-to-face or hold what we call ‘conference call discovery’ at the end user site together with the partner. That way partners can leave the premises with an agreed strategy, phased if necessary and a design already on paper or whiteboarded.”

Distributor and partner pre-sales people can be more ‘vendor-agnostic’ than dedicated vendor SAs. “If a partner can tap into an impartial solutions resource then one is free of any one vendor’s sales machine. Both the partner and the end user get the benefit of hearing a non-biased view of the available technologies,” explains Maslin. “It’s a good opportunity to show how different vendors play in the client’s space. Sometimes it is not always about the technology. For instance the warranty support in the region is important and spare part levels come into play. An impartial solutions architect sees things that are often missed.”

So if you want to speed up the sales and delivery process, ensure that the solutions will work as advertised and learn a lot about excellence in customer service from consummate professionals, call a pre-sales solutions architect. They are on your side and want to help you achieve your goals.

Five key reasons to involve a pre-sales solution architect (SA) for your more challenging implementations

1. Vendor- and distributor-based solution architects are usually fully-funded. Typically, you or your clients will not have to pay anything at all for their services. A successful implementation is their reward.

2. SAs know their solutions inside and out. Their expertise means that they can help you specify the exact make and model that is the most appropriate for the task at hand. They are not swayed by hype (or brochures, for that matter) and focus on results.

3. SAs have tight relationships with the tech support at both the distributor and vendor level. If they are faced with a tricky issue, they know who to call to get the right answers.

4. They speed up the sales process. They have the facts and figures at their fingertips and can provide content for proposals. Plus they can help sort out tricky pricing and licensing issues.

5. Most SAs have worked in a variety of roles and are businesspeople as well as technologists. They instinctively know what the clients really need to achieve and can help define the solution to solve real business challenges.

Risks of not involving a pre-sales solution architect at the initiation of a challenging sale

1. You’ll have to do all the work yourself and burn up a lot of hours re-inventing the wheel.

2. Critical installations are not the time or place for on-the-job training and do-it-yourself.

3. There might be a better way of doing things that you don’t know about.

4. You’ll have to correct earlier errors when you finally do call in the experts.

5. Your rivals will have a competitive edge because they already avail themselves of all of these free resources.

6. You’ll avoid clients telling you “Gee, your solution runs better on PowerPoint than it does on my network.”

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