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The Danger of the One-Dimensional Stack
Adhering too closely to your own infrastructure stack can deprive you of opportunities unless you work some flexibility into your standards.
Technologist’s talk “stacks” all the time. Network technologists refer to the protocol stack that shepherds data across networks. Systems integrators speak of the application stacks they create to provide necessary functionality to their clients.
As more and more made the necessary transition from reseller to service provider the way in which they thought of infrastructure products such as routers, switches, hubs, and more had to change.
Standards Reduce Costs
When you only use one manufacturer’s routers in your network designs you set yourself up to save plenty of money. You only have to train your people on one manufacturer’s products. You only need to tool up and provide higher level support for one manufacturer’s products. You enjoy greater flexibility as you always know you can send any member of your engineering team to resolve any problem, and your methodology is easily transferred from one to another.
The volume of sales of those routers you can achieve can earn you many advantages and rewards from that manufacturer. There’s much to be said for standardizing on one manufacturer’s products.
The Big BUT!!
But… standardization on one manufacturer’s products and only skilling up for that brand may very easily prevent you from pursuing and obtaining many other engagements.
The customer universe consists of two parts: your existing customers, and those not yet your customers. You know that it is five times easier to sell more to existing customers, but you also know your business cannot grow unless you continue to bring new customers over from the dark side of non-customerhood.
The odds are overwhelmingly good that any new customer has equipment installed that comes from a competitor of your chosen infrastructure products partner. It is also altogether unlikely that new customer will be interested in tossing out those investments and replacing them with your preferred choice. Unless their entire infrastructure is very close to end-of-life your chances of complete replacement are just about non-existent.
Clearly, if you want to be able to win new customers away from your competitors you need to be well prepared to maintain and manage their existing infrastructure investments.
Never Try to Be All Things to All People
You may be thinking that this brings you back to square one where you need to be able to support any and every router, switch, server, or other device as well as any and all operating systems and utility software.
Don’t do it. You can’t afford it.
You never want to try to be all things to all people because you’ll never be able to successfully stretch your resources out to accommodate everything and everyone. Nobody can. Those who tell you they can are wrong or lying. A sure fire strategy for failure.
A Structure for Success
Methodology sells. Customers want to work with someone who knows what they’re doing and has done it many times before. Your documented methodology tells customers you’re serious about your work, and that you believe deeply in planning. Those are highly appreciated values.
Your infrastructure stack is as much a component of your methodology as is your protocol stack, application stack, or any other organized approach you take to how you do what you do. Carefully choose your preferred router for each customer segment, and your preferred switch. Preferred server, too, for those who still maintain on-premises servers.
When you speak with a customer who needs a new network, sharing your stacks is part of showing them your methodology. You impress them with the structured, organized approach you take to giving them the best possible solution. If they bring their own technologist, you can tour them through your preferred protocol stack.
Even with a net new customer you may encounter existing infrastructure investments. Now you’ll have decisions to make as to whether or not you can safely contract to support those. There are two solid strategies you can employ at this point:
1) Skilling - You may decide that certain manufacturer’s products are so popular that you must be prepared to support them. Some may be so similar to your preferred device that there is very little upskilling necessary.
2) Partnering - It is worth the time and effort to research, identify, and come to agreements with capable partners who support the brands you do not. With the right agreement, you can safely partner with what would appear to be competitors with no fear of them “poaching” your customers. This eliminates the need for you to incur additional training or other support costs.
Your only other options are to “wing it” or walk away from the opportunity.
Publish Your Product Methodology
From the perspective of marketing and selling, offering a published list of infrastructure products and your approach to each is very valuable. Consider a structure similar to this:
Preferred – The brands of products you will include in your network and system designs, the ones that you prefer to use.
Supported – Brands you are prepared to implement, maintain, manage, optimize and otherwise provide services to. Assurance that either your people or your contracted partners are available to deliver support seamlessly.
Provided – If you still have a proactive product sales business, you may wish to offer procurement services to any customer who wants them, to obtain whatever products they want. You make no commitment to servicing or supporting these products, only to procuring them.
Offering customers this level of certainty raises their comfort level as they know exactly what to expect, and there will likely be no surprises.
The All-Important Vendor/Partner Dimension
In earlier days when it was all about selling products, it was easy to earn a great relationship with any vendor of any product. You simply sold a large quantity of their products. They measured your partner value by your sales volume. They included you in their planning activities, rolled out their product roadmaps to you early. You had access to their best resources.
Some IT service providers still enjoy those relationships even though they no longer transact product sales themselves, preferring to shift them to catalog or other fulfillment houses.
One of the ways in which they maintain those relationships is to continuously demonstrate their preference for including the vendor’s products in their preferred infrastructure list. The vendors see this realized in more and more sales pulled through by customer projects. The IT service provider makes sure the vendor knows about every product sale they create, even if they do not transact the sales themselves.
Even though the profitable success of the IT service provider’s business is no longer based on product sales, the ability to maintain the very useful support relationships with preferred vendors makes it well worth your while to invest time and thought into building your own preferred, supported, and provided products lists.