Please note this very important message from last time: We need vendors at these events. We need them to engage. We need them to have a two-way dialogue. We need to educate them on our clients and their needs. We need them to educate us on where the products are going.
But . . .
Vendors frequently show up at SMB Events and they have no idea why they're there. Someone, somewhere knows why they're at the event. But not necessarily the people at the event.
One of my favorite activities at conferences is to ask the people in the booths why they are there: "What are you hoping to get out of this show?" On VERY rare occasions someone will say "100 new names on our mailing list; six new sign-ups; or one big sale."
99.99% of the time, the answer is, "We just mostly need to be here, improve name recognition, and make sure people are aware of our product."
WTF? You're [Microsoft / HP / Intel / Zenith / Connect wise / Autotask / Cisco / etc.] - People have heard of you! The people at this show have heard of you. Name recognition should be off the table as a "reason" to be here.
Your world consists of a very large funnel with many layers. Every single thing you do at these conferences should either move people into the funnel or through the funnel to a sale. Recognizing the name Microsoft is the stupidest excuse possible for being at a show. Computer illiterate people know the name Microsoft.
So, at a minimum, the person in the booth has no idea why they're at the show. That's okay as long as someone does - AND the activities in the booth are designed to advance that goal.
(One huge exception to this rant is the Exchange/Everything Channel events. The featured sponsors there have a lot of fun and orchestrate a whole series of activities over several days to advance their goals. That's not true of most vendors at the show, but clearly true of the featured sponsors who do the "board meetings" and related activities.)
We (VARs, MSPs, etc.) tend to think in terms of the 2-5 big shows we go to every year. But vendors frequently do 12-24 events a year. Some large vendors do 100-200 events a year. Some do much more than that.
Consider 100 events at $25,000 to $100,000 each . . . and pretty soon it adds up to real money!
They spend millions of dollars . . . frequently with no idea of why they're doing it, how they will measure the outcome, or what they specifically want. As I deal with these large companies I'm amazed at how ineffective their marketing habits are.
Just to pick on Microsoft again . . . Does anyone remember the week a bunch of us received pineapples with no marketing message or indication of why it showed up? We had apparently been in some marketing program, and one piece of that was to send us a pineapple. But there was ZERO communication about why this thing just showed up.
No connections. No call to action. No story about sales. No link to a web site.
Building an SMB Strategy That Works
So what can vendors do to get value from their conference appearances?
In my opinion the key is to Engage us in a discussion. Don't come down like Moses from the Mountain and tell us the way it's gonna be.
We are business owners. And the people who go to conferences tend to be successful enough to shell out money for a conference, airfare, hotel, meals, and maybe some entertainment. In other words, we have the money to there. Trunk slammers with two clients charging $40/hr are NOT attending these conferences.
So, as business owners, we don't expect to be told what to do. Especially by people who want us to give them our money.
Here's big shocker: We want to make more money. We want great products, great tools, new customers, and things that differentiate us from the competition. Here's how you can help:
- Have a program that allows two-way communication
Listen to us. You will sometimes get little or no feedback. You will sometimes be ignored. And other times you'll get a confusing collection of requests that seem to conflict with each other.
Lesson: We're not the homogenized, unified "type" your marketing people came up with. We're entrepreneurs who want to have a conversation about our collective future.
Commit to this communication. Don't allocate $50,000 to one project and then cut it because it wasn't what you wanted. Commit an ongoing piece of your marketing budget to user groups, focus groups, forums, Facebook personnel, feedback, interacting with us as human beings and business owners.
(Note: Microsoft has absolutely excelled at this with their Small Business initiatives for Partners. No relationship is perfect, but you can't argue that they're not trying. They have engaged the SMB/SBS community for YEARS with one initiative after another.)
- Give us access to your programs/tools/products
Some vendors make it so difficult to do business that small I.T. companies simply can't participate. For small items, this means free NFR copies, free 60-day trials, etc. For more expensive products and services, we don't expect to get everything for free. But there should be some kind of NFR program that's EASY to engage in. You don't have to give away $1,000 products. But have an X% off NFR program that doesn't require a mound of paperwork.
If you sign people up for FREE marketing materials and free/paid NFR programs, you will give and get great value at the SMB conferences. You will engage people in a discussion (see previous item) and learn how their businesses work.
- Address the Business Model
Technology is great. We're all nerds. When we get a new PC, we open it and look around. Geek Geek Geek.
But that's not why we're at the conference. Don't spend your time going through menu options. We can do that. We're very technical. Point, click. That's a skill we all share.
We want to know how "this" fits in the small business stack. How will your management tool save me money? How will your tool help me run my business better? How will your product make my client's drool because it improves their business?
Our clients are generally LESS interested in bits and bytes than we are. So gigabyte is just a thing. How will your product help them make money? Because if we can help them make money, they will engage us. And that helps us make money. And that helps you make money.
- Support your products!
This sounds stupid . . . but it's amazing how many people have good-to-great products with horrible technical support, zero technical support, or expensive technical support.
There should be a separate support line for technicians. You can screen for stupidity. Those of us who know what we're doing and learn fast will not be offended. We tend to sell more product than the newbies who should be transferred to the end-user support line.
But your VAR partners deserve a support line that gets answered and provides good support. And I know you need to have a layer for incompetent technicians. I get that. But there should be some way to skip that layer quickly and easily if we're competent.
When I call tech support, I deserve to only talk to someone who knows more than I do about your product. Period. One of the reasons we stopped using Microsoft support several years ago is that the first-line techs were absolutely incompetent AND made it difficult to escalate a call.
We don't sell Dell, but I am always happy to call Dell's Gold Support because every person I've ever dealt with there is a rock star. Yes, the client has to have a support contract. But I think that's completely reasonable.
At a minimum, support to simply install a product should be free unless the product is very complicated. Backup and anti-virus programs do not fall into the category of "complicated." Simple programs that should simply work should simply provide free tech support.
If you're losing money on this, ask your engineering team to create a better installation process.
A Sad Example
Back in the day . . . we used to bounce back and forth between the two major backup products on the market: Backup Exec and ARCServe.
Gradually, ARCServe's tech support went downhill to the point where they apparently just stopped answering the phone.
ARCServe support seemed to simply after the client bought it. So we stopped selling it. Apparently, so did everyone else. Over time we stopped selling ARCServe and only sold Backup Exec.
ARCServe got bought by CA. Backup Exec got bought by Symantec.
About five or six years ago CA made a MAJOR push to re-enter the SMB community. They gave away thousands of copies of the CA ARCServe product. They sponsored events. They engaged in discussions. They tried really hard to push their product on us.
But I had such a bad taste in my mouth from their previous experience that my for-sale copy of the brand new ARCServe sat on my shelf for several years before I put it in the box for Goodwill.
I could not bring myself to trying that product, no matter how good it was technically, because of my bad experience from the past. Apparently many other people had the same experience.
CA might have worn me down with a two-way communication process. With user group support. With engagement. With programs to educate me. With GREAT tech support. With an active role in the community.
Instead, they faded away. They checked the box that says "We tried selling in the SMB space" and chocked it up as a loss. They might still sell their products to the SMB space, but they certainly don't work hard to engage us and listen to us.
And that story is not about the quality of the product.
It's not really about the quality of their tech support because I never gave their revised tech support an opportunity to help me.
That story is about failing the SMB VAR and then failing to engage the community in order to make a come-back. It's about using a top-down command structure view of the world to spend millions of dollars fruitlessly pushing a product without creating any kind of relationship with the potential partners.
I'm not saying every company out there needs to have a "Head Schmoozer" to engage with the SMB Community. But there should be some process to work with us in the way WE are comfortable working. Small businesses . . . and virtually all SMB VARs are small businesses . . . like to deal with people, with straight-forward process, and with programs that have a pretty direct effect on the bottom line.
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Maybe I'm getting old, but I want to be seduced.
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