Sunday, November 6, 2005

Professional-Services Firms as Sales Channels

It was probably coincidence, but I’ve had a few recent conversations where start-up founders want to use professional-services firms as sales channels. The attraction is obvious: Unknown Start-Up isn’t being taken seriously by Big Company, but what if Unknown Start-Up’s was pitched by Big Company’s existing system integrator (or auditing firm or strategy-consulting firm or ad agency or whatever is appropriate for the start-up’s business)?

While I don’t claim to be an expert, I have some observations from experience. They apparently had value in those conversations, so I figured I would share here.

  1. Working through services firms does not solve your sales problems; it moves them. Where once you had to sell to customers, now you need to sell to services firms. For some companies, it’s a more fruitful path. But don’t kid yourself: You are adding another moving part to your sales machine. At least in the near term, it will require more effort and resources than going direct.
  2. Most services firms are as risk averse as their clients. Training their people to sell your technology, not to mention deploy it, costs firms money. If that investment is necessary just to establish whether clients will bite, why should they do it? They are not like venture capitalists, who can afford to make many losing bets in exchange for a single big winner. They need to keep their people billed-out to clients.
  3. The best entry point is through a professional-services firm’s client. You may not be able to get Big Company to consider your start-up by itself, but can you at least intrigue someone there enough to pass you along to Big Company’s professional-services firm? It’s a night-and-day difference between your asking a professional-services firm to check you out versus one of the firm’s clients asking that you be checked out. The latter can justify internal expenditures in the name of the client relationship; some partners might even get Big Company to pay for a small project, making an evaluation billable. Either way, it breaks through the problem in number 2 above.
  4. Deal with partners, not the firm. Most professional-services firms are partnerships, where the senior members of the firm are partners in ownership. Typically, each of the firm’s clients will have a partner in charge of the relationship. This partner is both chief sales rep and chief gatekeeper for that client. You must convince this person to be your advocate. You will not be successful going around him or her. Less obvious, you won’t be successful going above either. There may be higher-ranking people in the company, but it’s unlikely they will want, or even be able, to push your solution on other partners. Only when you’ve been part of multiple partners’ successes is there a chance for a practice to form around you, and, from there, the sales leverage to emerge.
  5. Don’t give up proximity to the customer. Some partners will want to insulate the customer from you, so the customer only deals with the professional-services provider. This is especially true of advertising and marketing agencies, less so of technical professional-services firms. Don’t let it happen. You want credit and referencability for your part. Also, if things go wrong, you need to know before it’s too late; otherwise, the professional-services team could leave you holding the bag, saying “the technology didn’t work.”

If this all sounds hard, it is. A lot of ingredients must come together the right way, so invest incrementally. After all, your prospective partners will only go deeper based on results; the same should hold true for you too.

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