used with permission from the Microsoft Small Business Center
by Peter Alexander
Technology can go a long way in helping your business stay competitive, meet customer expectations and improve operational efficiencies. But most small businesses simply don’t have the resources to evaluate technologies and aren’t sure where to find the right technology partner. That’s where a value-added reseller can help.
A VAR enhances an existing product, such as hardware, with additional features, such as software, and then sells it as an integrated package often tailored for specific industries. VARs add further value to the products they sell through consultation and design, training, implementation, and ongoing service and support.
The right VAR can serve as a small business’s IT advisor and help it deploy the same technologies that larger companies use, such as CRM software and IP communications. You can then use those tools to enhance customer experience–a key step in growing customer loyalty and the bottom line.
A VAR can also offer the following benefits:
- One-stop shopping. A single VAR can provide an integrated solution involving technologies from one or more vendors, as well as a single point of contact for both deployment and problem resolution.
- Broad expertise. A VAR can provide you with expertise in a variety of technologies.
- The big picture about small business. Many VARs cater to small businesses and are small businesses themselves. They’re positioned to understand your challenges and to deliver a solution that’ll fit your business now and in the future.
- Customized solutions. Many VARs•specialize in particular industries and have experience with industry-specific solutions. In addition, they often have relationships with niche players and can utilize them as needed.
Finding the Right VAR
So how do you find a VAR that’s the best fit for your business?
- Shop locally. Do an internet search to find out which VARs in your area specialize in the particular technology you’re interested in, such as CRM or IP communications. Another option is to visit a network or other hardware vendor’s website, which often offer tools you can use to find qualified, certified VARs.
- Ask around. Ask colleagues, customers or others whose opinions you trust to recommend a VAR, keeping in mind that your specific requirements are probably different than theirs.
- Look within your industry. Try to find VARs that specialize in your industry by looking through industry publications and exhibitor lists at the top trade shows.
- Ask plenty of questions upfront. Schedule appointments to meet with representatives from the VARs you’re considering. Interview them as if you were interviewing job candidates. Ask them about their recent successes, particularly with customers in your industry or field. Find out about their specialization, as well as any professional certifications and industry-specific experience. Ask which niche players they partner with for applications that may be standard for your industry. You’ll also want to know how long the technology deployment may take and what training, if any, will be required. In addition, they should be able to give you sample project plans and at least three customer references.
- Pay attention to the VAR’s motives. The right VAR will give you the sense that it’s•partnering with you to make the best technology decision for your company, rather than just trying to sell you hardware and software. They should take the time to understand your mission and future goals and should be able to tell you how the proposed solution will improve your relationship with your customers.
- Find out who you’ll be dealing with. Most likely, the VAR will dedicate one or more staff members, such as a project manager, to the technology deployment. Ask to speak to them before making a commitment. The goal is to ensure you’ll be working with someone who understands your business’s needs and objectives.
- Decide on the level of support you need. Will your business need the VAR to supply a comprehensive service plan that covers nearly all IT concerns for an annual fee? Or do you want per-incident support that you pay for only when needed? Keep in mind a turnkey support contract might provide a better return on investment over time, as IT emergencies on a per-incident pricing plan can quickly become expensive. Make sure the VAR provides the level of support your business needs, such as 24-hour assistance. You should receive a service-level agreement that details specifically what your VAR will–and won’t–provide.
- Talk money. Have the VAR thoroughly explain the costs your business will incur in as much detail as possible. Also, ask them to help you determine what the return on investment is likely to be.
- Ask about financing. Any new technology deployment can be costly for a small business. Your VAR may offer financing options or resources to make it more affordable.
As with any technology initiative, it’s important to review your business goals and objectives before proceeding. Examine whether the technology you’re considering is the best platform for the current and future size of your business. Be clear on which business problems you hope to solve, what results you want to see and when you want to see them. This information will help you better explain your business needs to a potential VAR. In turn, they will be in a better position to supply the technology and support services needed to help your small business grow.