In this special report Maren Bennette, a long-time contributor to Comms Business Magazine, provides an up to date review of the role that consultants play in our market and how engagement with consultants can be profitable in the long term
Pity the poor communications applications consultants (CAC), as the telecoms consultant community is now being called by some industry observers. Unlike a manufacturer or a channel partner, who are mainly involved with the supply and installation of just part of a customer’s overall business communications solution; or the customers themselves who are only involved in their own project, the CAC’s are involved with many different elements of a solution from the underlying network, both local and beyond, up through the call control and physical devices to the communications applications and finally in to the business applications such as SAP or Oracle. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it, and the consultants are the ones who bring it all together time after time after time.
Nor is it getting easier as the years go by. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, was right about change being the only constant in all things, but especially in today’s communications business, though it is unlikely he had IP telephony, social media or smart phones in mind when he said it.
With this in mind, we interviewed a number of consultants both in the UK and USA, a UK vendor sales director and a vendor consultant liaison programme manager to find out what the consultants are getting up to these days, and what the manufacturers are doing to help them satisfy their clients… the customers who buy the products and services through the channel community.
A Changing Role
Garret Myers, owner of the Gateway Consulting Group and VP of International Development for the Society of Telecommunications Consultants (STC), a North American grouping of independent consultants had this to say: “The major strategic change which we see is the rapid move away from traditional PBX and handset focused consultancy engagements dealt with by individual consultants, towards multi-disciplinary projects involving groups of consultants.
It’s a challenging job since every project is a different mix of elements, but today’s communications applications consultants are extremely well positioned to assemble teams whose expertise and experience align very closely with customer requirements, which often change over the life of an engagement.
The second thought is that there is a growing trend towards determining a brand and product solution for the ‘anchor’ solution prior to going out for an RFP. This is because solutions increasingly include a large number of inter-related elements, making it nearly impossible to write an RFP with enough specifics to respond to and for the consultant to be able to fairly compare responses.
The anchor solution might be a physical PBX, or a software based PBX such as Microsoft’s Lync. Once the anchor platform has been decided, RFP’s and RFI’s will be issued to vendors and channel partners to bid on their implementation and support of the anchor platform as well as the ancillary devices, customised apps and carrier services. In this scenario, consultants are becoming increasingly dependent on vendors and channel partners to help determine platform fit and list pricing in advance of issuance of an RFP.
For that reason we in the consultant community welcome well-run Consultant Liaison Programmes (CLPs) that can link us with the appropriate resources in a manufacturer organisation: the correct sales and system engineering people, the product managers, the licensing folk and the best channel partners to deliver the integrated solutions. Those manufacturers that take a half hearted approach to or worse still ignore consultants, do so at their peril.”
Decision Making Powers
Gareth Johns, principal consultant at London-based multinational PTS Consulting Group, an IT Consulting and Project Management company, concurs with these views and adds, “We are seeing a resurgence in consultancy contracts within many of our target sectors, which include multinational companies in the financial and other service areas, and public sectors organisations both local and national, and this trend is mirrored around the world. What is different this time around is that the decision making power now lies with specific business or functional units within our clients rather than being devolved to the IT department as happened in the past.”
Johns added, “Because these new decision makers are less concerned with the technology they don’t have a bias towards, or more particularly, against new ways of doing things. For example, the clients are now wanting us to put forward at least one cloud-based solution for consideration, though often the preference is for a private cloud solution, based on a data centre providing the solution as a service.”
Johns also raised a concern about the rapid change in communications
applications technology, “It is moving so fast that often the manufacturers channel partner who is the actual systems integrator for the solution has little experience of the solution as a whole. Unless the client is going to pay the premium for a company like IBM or HP to package the complete networking, call control, middleware and business applications together, along with any customisation and implementation services, there could be problems. At times like this we as consultants are looking to the vendor to guide us to the channel partners who can deliver the solution.”
The Role of the CLP
It must be good news for every player in the communications business that consultant’s revenues are on the up after a number of years in the doldrums. Two research companies, The Brookside Group and Hot Telecoms Research, both noted double-digit growth in 2012 and continued strong growth through to 2015. This means their clients are going to be investing in new communication infrastructure, products and services with the vendors and the channel in the not too distant future.
The fact that consultants tend to be engaged on a project between 6 to 18 months before an RFP is issued makes good relations with consultant so important for manufacturers and channel partners.
For that reason vendors and their channel have often run consultant liaison programmes, or CLP’s as they are known. These programmes used a combination of a dedicated ‘non-sales’ resource who acted as the primary conduit for contact between the supply side and the user side of the equation, together with consultant’s events, news feeds and one on one updates. However, during the industry downturn when marketing budgets were slashed it was often the CLP that was among the first to be cut with the argument being that; ‘we can’t put a value on opportunities that may come our way 12 months from now, and anyway our sales and marketing people can and should pick up that job’.
The trouble with that view is that the consultant community doesn’t like it. What consultants want most from a CLP is the contact with a person who can answer their questions and solve their problems quickly, without an eye on the sales opportunity that may or may not be coming their way.
Coming in a close second is access to early release information on products and services that their clients may be interested in for that 12 to 18 month project. It’s the consultant’s job to keep their clients aware of trends in the market – that’s one of the reasons they are hired. Ergo, it is in a vendor’s interest to have good close relations with the consultant community. Of course it is also important that the sales teams maintain good personal relationships with the consultants, especially whilst the opportunity is actually being worked. Woe betide the sales person who ignores the consultant or, worse still belittles them, because consultants like elephants, have long memories – and they are involved with deal after deal after deal unlike a customers who only buys once in a while.
In the research published by the Brookside Group Avaya and Cisco are given top marks for their programmes world-wide, though interestingly Avaya UK told this writer that ‘we don’t have a CLP in the UK’, a fact confirmed by local consultants. Other manufacturers such as Mitel run ‘virtual CLP’s’. Simon Skellon, Mitel’s UK Sales Director and a strong advocate of good consultant relations, said. “We urge our sales force to be proactive in their personal contacts with consultants, and we back this up with social media information feeds about new products and services, as wells as case studies of recent wins.” Others prefer a mix of the traditional CLP with modern methods of communications. Interactive Intelligence Inc. for example, has been very successful in its consultant and analyst relationships by employing a CLP manager and by using webinars, Twitter and LinkedIN to impart knowledge and stay in touch.
Interactive Intelligence CLP manager, Ian Nevin has this to say: “With change comes great opportunity, and the opportunity has never been better for telecom consultants and for manufacturers with programs to address them.
Traditional telephony is now dead but that does not mean that customers do not require to communicate. Moreover in this information rich age where the need for effective communications is significantly more important, the requirement for telephony has changed from being a basic need to an ability to deliver customer service far in excess to that of your competitor….as such you are effectively turning customer service into a competitive weapon.”
Nevin continues, “Consultants are front and centre of this change and enablement of customers to achieve competitive superiority. Consultants translate the business challenge into a technology solution. A good consultant can see both sides of the business/technology equation and can talk in business terms so that a CXO understands the benefit of using social media, contact centre or moving to the Cloud to reduce cost and leap forward with superior technology.
For example: With the economic recession a lot of IT/Telecom projects were placed on hold; the Cloud allows customers to move from a large Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) to a monthly, manageable monthly Operating Expenditure (OPEX). Consultants are the ‘glue’ between business and technology that explain how can this be done. Here at Interactive Intelligence we can supply both premise and cloud based technology because both are based on same architecture and offer same functionality, however we are seeing much greater take up of our Cloud offering than before and a large part of that is being driven by consultants.
Typically manufacturers have direct or channel sales models but consultants operate outside of these traditional areas and do not fit neatly into a traditional manufacturers go to market model. Consultants fiercely defend their independence and cannot be easily handled by the likes of traditional sales or marketing. As such they are often overlooked by manufacturers or wrongly handled and this in my opinion is a mistake. Consultant influence in the market is growing ever more stronger with the introduction of new technology. I estimate that between 30-50% of end user buying decisions are now influenced by consultants. If a manufacturer does not have a consultant programme they are missing out on between $20-30m of incremental revenue that are not seeing through not having an effective Consultant Liaison Programme.”
Change frightens some, excites others, but it cannot be ignored, just as Heraclitus said you cannot put your foot in the same river twice because the river is constantly changing, the same can be said of the telecommunications industry. It is constantly changing and if you do not stay on top of those changes you will lose out to those that do.
Consultants are the ones facilitating and easing through these changes for customers and if a manufacturer ignores this influential community or does not have a structured programme to address them, they are missing out on significant incremental revenue that they could have had.