The following post is a reprint used by permission from The Partner Channel summer 2012 magazine.
SBS Group Atlanta, previously Enterprise Solutions Consultants, is an affiliate of SBS Group within the Microsoft Dynamics Master VAR program. Enterprise Solutions Consultants dates back to 1987 as a small to mid-sized VAR with roots in Great Plains Software, now Microsoft Dynamics GP. The firm became an affiliate in August 2011, just shortly before the Master VAR program’s formal launch.
The Partner Channel (TPC): You’ve owned and operated a VAR business since 1987. What made you decide to become affiliated with a larger Partner?
Bob O’Brien (BO): I tried an outright purchase plan once before with Tribridge. In 2008 we became a separate office for them, but after a year we decided to go our separate ways. Thankfully, all my customers went in with me, and all came back out. That’s a pretty good degree of loyalty.
A couple of years passed and then I started talking with SBS Group about the Master VAR program, before it was announced, and it gave me insight into what I think is a good evolution for certain types of Partners. Older Partners need a place to be acquired or to get some sort of transition plan in place.
Since my customers went through this with me once before, I wanted to make sure that they’d have a really good experience with the transition to SBS Group. I didn’t offer infrastructure, SharePoint, or Office installs, but now I have all that in one spot for my customers. They not only have absolute access to me, but also access to a much larger group of people and products who can take them beyond Microsoft Dynamics GP if need be.
I was really impressed with how SBS presented themselves to me, and almost a year in, I like that I’m still my own boss and maintain my own priorities, which is a pretty important thing.
TPC: Was it difficult for you to give up your company’s brand and take on the SBS Group name?
BO: Whenever you make a change, your customers get a bit nervous. When we rolled it out, we told them that they were getting a larger umbrella of services and resources. SBS Group does a pretty good job of getting the brand name out there and approaching customers and settling any nervousness. Their visibility and reputation are good enough that there was no downside.
From a VAR logistics perspective, Microsoft wants more standardized paperwork and more firm paper contractual relationships with customers, so we did have to go back to make sure that was in place. It wasn’t a shock to the customers, but it did make them think about our relationship and their business needs.
TPC: How many affiliates does SBS Group have now?
BO: It’s in the 20s. I’m on the monthly operations call, and they make an announcement almost every month about new Partner affiliates. We weren’t the first; there was an acquisition like me before mine.
TPC: How tight is the working relationship with them?
BO: They have a pattern of activity, from working with a marketing process for potential new customers to an annual customer meeting and monthly webinars. It was very easy for us to slip our customer group into that.
The two principals of SBS Group, Jim Bowman and Joe Longo, took the lead on the transition from ESC to SBS Group Atlanta, and it was extremely smooth. I made the argument before we started that I didn’t think they would be able to keep my overhead as low as it was, and they proved me wrong. Our actual cost for being in the Partner network is next to nothing, and now we’re able to distribute some VAR costs over more Partners and so, for instance, I get a full-time marketing person when I need him/her.
TPC: Is there one group of people at SBS Group that supports all the affiliates?
BO: Yes. I wondered how the principles could do it – only so many hours in a day, right? But they handle it well.
TPC: What are the characteristics of Partner organizations that would work well as affiliates in the Master VAR program?
BO: I would say they are practices that represent only one or two ERPs and have been in business for a while. They also would have a proven track record with an existing customer base by now. As SBS Group gains affiliates, they’re doing what they can to make sure there’s an amount of fairness regarding geographic territory. They’re looking to fill in around the country and have a good representation of the ERP packages and vertical solutions.
That’s another thing – as an affiliate we have access to all that vertical expertise now.
TPC: Has there been a downside to the change?
BO: The ramp time was short, and because the idea was new, it might have been a little smoother from org to org, but the org to customer experience was great. Because we came on early in the program, I probably experienced that more than affiliates that come on now. When they use me as a reference, I share that with incoming Partners. I think I was part of the great experiment in the early days, and there was responsibility on my side to make sure I paid closer attention as the system was working itself out.
I wouldn’t call it a downside at all, but really more of a healthy growing pain.
Overall this has been a great experience. There’s no negative pressure on me to do things by a certain date; instead it’s them asking how they can help me build my business. They have provided me with goals, but they’re aligned with where we want to go as a business and not just their plan.
Some Partners might look at some of the logistical things like master service agreements and liability insurance requirements and think they’re not necessary, but they need to recognize that while there may be more rigid business rules applied in a Master VAR affiliation, they’re all good ones and in place for the appropriate business reasons.
TPC: What advice would you offer to a Partner considering affiliate status?
BO: It gives you instant access to expertise. In a local contest against a large regional or local VAR, if they have 25 people in their organization, for instance, and you only have five, you can now say that you’re part of a 200-person organization and you’re national, able to support them wherever they are.
This model works. Ninety-nine percent of it is local and how you want to do your business, and the relationship is much more harmonious than an organization that’s just out to acquire Partners. It’s a good structure, certified by Microsoft, and we can make our own decisions. This opportunity is a long time coming in the marketplace, and I applaud Microsoft for endorsing it and setting up the structure to make it successful from the get go.
As the products evolve, the channel evolves. This is a good way for small to medium-sized shops to become something bigger than they are without any sort of investment outside of changing their letterhead.
If I was 25 years old and just starting out, I may not feel the same, but seeing all the changes over the years, I think this is the way it’s going. It’s a good way to continue on in this business.
This VAR Profile is part of the summer 2012 issue of The Partner Channel Magazine. Download the full magazine for FREE at http://thepartnerchannel.com/magazine.