Customers have questions, often a lot of them. There is often not time during a sales call for the customer and the vendor to get to know one another and become acquainted with each other's needs and offerings. Through ongoing conversations not only when a customer is considering an immediate purchase the relationship between vendor and customer can be built. This allows them to understand one another, feel comfortable reaching out with suggestions and more.
Because the conversation is an opt-in experience vendors can talk with customers or potential customers without the need for a sales or marketing interface. The customers are ready to hear about products. They want know and they want to learn. This is a marketplace where sales lead generation is already done simply by the fact that the customers are present. They have already given the vendor their ear.
Learning how to behave in this open conversation marketplace is difficult for many vendors - especially those that are very well established large businesses. Adapting is critical, as those companies that are perceived as caring about their customers will have a significant advantage over those companies who appear to find it a burden to stoop to interacting with small clients.
Large businesses are accustomed to keeping the SMB market at arm's length. They often arguing that the "channel" the reseller and system integration market is their interface to small business. The channel, however, acts as a chasm keeping small businesses from ever speaking directly to their vendors. This causes both to rely on a third party who may not share any common interest with either to broker any semblance of a conversation.
The channel is not incentivized to act in the interest of either party. It will likely only present products and services that the channel members themselves support, rather than exploring niche product options and exotic solutions that may be a better fit.
The interest of the customers are then not passed back to the vendors, leaving the vendors guessing blindly what products and services would be useful to the SMB marketplace. The lack of experience with SMBs often means that vendors are completely unknowledgeable about their customers. Or in many cases simply do not even have those customers.
SMB IT shops will generally only turn to one system integrator, managed service provider or vendor to supply them with hardware. Since PCs drive SMB IT this means that SMB shops will, by necessity, be turning to managed service providers who are partnered with someone who supplies desktops.
That makes it unlikely that those service providers would additionally be partnered with someone like, say, IBM or Sun. This in turn causes that service provider to automatically recommend products only from the vendor(s) with whom they are partnered, further isolating customers from potential solutions provided by alternative vendors. This isolation can be mitigated through direct vendor to customer relationships even if purchasing itself is still handled through a channel provider. It is in both the vendor and the customer's interests to interface directly and to engage in a conversation.
It is not uncommon to see IT managers choose a vendor based primarily upon that vendor's willingness to engage in an open conversation. Customers like vendors with whom they have a relationship. They really like knowing that when something goes wrong or when a great new (but not entirely understood) opportunity arises that they can turn to a vendor rep and ask for assistance.
No one expects the representative themselves to have all of the answers. They expect that person to have the resources necessary to reach out internally at the vendor and engage the right people. Not only is this method friendly and cost effective but its also very low stress.
SMB Customers often don't know where the problem may reside and do not have contacts internal to the vendor, unlike enterprise customers who often deal with specific issues so often that they know the necessary resources at the vendor. And without a helpful representative they may be left without the necessary contact information or channels to get the assistance they need.
In some cases this may result in customers feeling that the product is poorly supported or just does not work. In others it could result in new opportunities being lost or the customer turning to another vendor whom they know offers a workable solution.
While the online SpiceWorks community is hardly the only venue for vendor to customer interactions it is rapidly becoming a unique place, due to its scale, reach and unique SMB focus, where vendors and customers can make connections, join in open discussions, create relationships and get support.
The community is extremely large, with over 700,000 IT professionals all from the SMB ranks. Its rapidly expanding its online presence and also with local users groups and regional SMB IT conferences - all of which present opportunities for vendors to interact with the SMB marketplace in new and exciting ways.
SpiceWorks represents, I feel, a key component in the future of vendor relationships in the SMB IT market. SpiceWorks acts as a broker to the conversation, providing the venue and framework necessary to make customer/vendor interactions as simple and valuable as possible.
As the community continues to grow and as more vendors decide to become a part of the conversation I expect to see the value of this forum expand exponentially. It is in communities like this that those vendors serious about the SMB IT market will succeed in differentiating themselves and engaging current and potential customers.