The feedback channel
Most vendors that employ a channel strategy are happy to highlight the value of their partners in public as a great way to reach customers, and to sell and support their products. The path that leads from the vendor to the customer via the channel partner is well worn and familiar, but how does it work the other way around? What happens if the customer wants to feed information back up the path to the vendor? What role, if any, does the channel partner play in that instance?
The easy answer is that it depends on the vendor, the channel partner and the customer. Quite often there’s no formal mechanism or channel as such for customer feedback to be sent back up the chain, a point made by Neil Mullaney, managing director at Comsys. "By far the most common feedback channel from the front lines is ad hoc, and is usually done when channel sales managers are having opportunity review meetings with the reseller," he observes. "This is how the vast majority of information flows between reseller to vendor."
Ironically, he thinks, the time when vendors are most receptive to feedback from their reseller partners is when they are conducting a loss review to understand why they have lost a major deal to a competitor. It’s a situation that helps to focus vendors’ minds and attention. "During this process all the vendor sales people, product managers, brand managers and sales managers are listening carefully to what the reseller is saying because everyone is keen not to lose out in similar circumstances again. This is the kind of feedback that can make its way to the senior management layer of the large vendors."
Mullaney believes there is very little formal structure in place for resellers to provide feedback to vendors or distributors acting on their behalf. Often, resellers might use a vendor’s partner kick off meeting as a forum to give feedback to senior management, but "it would be very rare for a reseller to be directly asked by any vendor for an appraisal of a product or service".
He says most major vendors operate pretty much the same way and it would make sense to have a more formal structure to feedback customer perceptions to the vendor via the reseller. Greater feedback would mean faster reaction times to what was going on in the market and to meeting customer demands and competitiveness "could be improved through closer communications between the reseller and the vendor". In addition, distributors could play a significant role by collating feedback from resellers for vendors.
From a distribution point of view, Alan Thornton, account manager at Direct Distribution, is adamant that there’s nothing much formal there. "We haven’t been introduced to a particular feedback process by any of the vendors," he states. "There is no facility that I am aware of to recommend change or encourage suggestions on how products may be improved."
While he believes a designated process to provide feedback from users would be a worthy aim, Thornton wonders whether vendors have the energy and resources to handle it. It’s probably much easier to rely on market research and focus group feedback which is what they tend to use for bringing a product to market.
Martin Cullen, head of SME and partner business at Microsoft Ireland, says that feedback for the vendor can come via its Technology Adoption Programme where users sign up to be early adopters of the company’s products, but commit to providing feedback on those pre-release products. There’s also the MVP (Most Valuable Professional) scheme where technology experts in a given field, such as virtualisation, are actively solicited by Microsoft for their feedback. According to Cullen, MVPs tend to be in the partner community or the extended partner community.
The company tries to establish a "business rhythm" with partners at a technical and business level to get a feel for how products are brought to market, how customers are looking to drive deployment of those products and what will help and hinder them. It’s also keen to encourage partners to make sure customers take advantage of as many components of Microsoft’s products as they possibly can. Cullen points out, for example, the Hyper-V is part of Windows Server and Microsoft wants to "make sure the partner community takes the opportunity to express that to customer".
People who sign up to Office 365 for Exchange might benefit from realising they also have the option to use SharePoint and Lync. It’s about getting customers to use more of the technology they’ve already invested in but may not know they had. Cullen says in those cases it’s a win-win for partners because it enhances their trusted adviser role and provides an opportunity for consultancy services to deploy the technology.
Eoin Goulding, managing director at Integrity Solutions, agrees that there is value to be gained from helping customers to use more of the technology they already have. With most products, customers are typically using 60% of their functionality or less. With a lot of IT managers under pressure to save costs, they’re starting to look at what they can get out of what they already have. If a partner can help them to get that functionality from an existing product so they don’t have to spend money on something else, it’s obviously a benefit. As Goulding says, a lot of customers probably have the solution but they’ve never turned it on.
The obvious next step would be to have a mechanism that allowed channel partners to inform vendors that customers were failing to take advantage of particular features of a product and perhaps it might lead vendors to place greater emphasis on those features in its product marketing. But that could be a much harder proposition.
Dermot Hayden, sales manager at Sophos Ireland, admits that it can happen that customers have bought its solutions and are unaware of their capabilities. "We try to make sure that what they have from us is doing what it should," he says. A lot of customers are using the company’s Endpoint solution purely as an anti-virus (AV) product even though it includes features like DLP, encryption and device control. Indeed, one large Sophos customer that had the product in place was in the process of looking for suppliers for DLP and device control because it didn’t realise they were included in the Sophos product.
As Hayden points out, this could also be damaging to Sophos because if customers are only using it for AV, they will view it as easier to replace with another AV product. "The more they use the functionality in the product, the more benefit they derive from it and the more likely they are to stick with Sophos," Hayden argues.
You could argue that perhaps the vendor’s channel partners haven’t been doing a good job of making customers aware of the extra functionality included in Endpoint Security or you could say that perhaps Sophos wasn’t doing a good job of encouraging its channel partners to give customers a wider view of its products. But if there was a feedback channel in operation that could pick up on these types of issues, send them back up the chain and result in the changes to the way the product is marketed that placed greater emphasis on the additional functionality included in it, vendors like Sophos and their partners could strengthen their relationship with customers.
In its defence, Sophos does have a number of formal ways of capturing feedback. It hosts a customer advisory board and a partner advisory board once a year where it invites selected customers and partners – "more often than not those that have been the most vociferous during the year" – to discuss what they like about the product and what additional functionality they’d like to see. Channel account managers can also feed-back information they get from their regular meetings with resellers back to the Sophos product teams.
Functional Michael Conway, director at Renaissance, agrees that the ability to tell customers that their existing products can provide additional functionality can help the reseller to win brownie points. "People buy products to do things and nobody tells them they can do other things as well," he says. If the reseller can point this out, it makes the reseller look good, the customer feels well looked after and everybody gains something.
As a value added distributor, Renaissance typically assumes the role of the vendor it represents. "We do get a lot of feedback from our resellers," he reveals. Sometimes if they report that a product wasn’t great, Renaissance would feed that right back. From time to time, there are going to issues with a product release and Renaissance would seek to feed back those issues to the vendor very quickly.
Security is a particularly dynamic environment and vendors are often very responsive to feedback as a result because they are always looking to improve their offering and to make sure they can deal with any threats that emerge.
But even if there is a channel, be it formal or informal, for customer concerns or issues to be fed back by resellers to vendors, is it realistic to expect feedback from an Irish customer to an Irish reseller to be given any weight at all when the vendor’s Irish operation might well be just a small part of the UK business which, in turn, is a subsidiary of its EMEA operation? How much sway would the concerns of someone in Galway or Dublin really have in terms of product development or support on a worldwide IT supplier?
While it’s hard to see some of the larger suppliers paying much more than lip-service, if that, to small customers in a small island off the north west coast of Europe, it may well be that something will happen if their concerns are replicated across many other territories.
Besides, will those concerns or issues identified and expressed by a vendor’s Irish customers really be any different to those from customers in France, Italy or Germany? Hayden doesn’t think so. "Do Irish customers have different or specific security requirements over and above those in UK or anywhere else? I genuinely don’t think that is the case," he says. The trends in security are global and the threats are the same for most countries. That said, he claims that feedback from Ireland is "every bit as likely to be dealt with quickly and given as much weight as feedback from a customer in any other country".
Feedback is being captured all the time and comes back into the business through multiple routes, but although it may be captured on an informal basis, it’s dealt with on a very formal basis once it’s been captured. "Feedback is the most important information we can possibly gather," Hayden states.
Goulding says the way customer feedback is handled is often dictated by how prepared the vendor is to accept it. There are some suppliers that will only meet customers if they are a certain size or if there’s a certain sized deal on the table, in which case the value of any feedback from customers via channel partners appears to be directly related to the value of the products they buy. This may not be the best way forward. He relates an instance of going into a customer and finding it about to throw out a product from one vendor because the customer couldn’t get it working – and the affected vendor hadn’t even heard it was happening.
Conway argues that if vendors and distributors "don’t take feedback and welcome it" they are losing out. He finds that if Renaissance goes to the customer with the reseller, possibly also with the vendor, in response to an issue that has been raised it can help improve the position and understanding of the reseller tremendously. Smaller vendors and their distribution partners can be more responsive in that regard, give the customer a sense that their concerns have been fed back, and are being acted on and responded to.