VAR selection requires careful evaluation

Choosing a VAR is hardly a perfect science. There are many VARs to choose from -- each with their own unique portfolio of products and range of technical expertise. The trick is to do your homework and investigate potential VARs before making a formal engagement. Here are some handy guidelines that can help you identify the best VAR for your needs.

Value-added resellers (VARs) assist with IT projects that are too large, complex or time-consuming to tackle in-house....

But how do you know that you're getting a "good" VAR? Are you looking at a knowledgeable and reliable resource interested in establishing a long-term relationship with you, or are you getting a glorified retailer just out to sell you products at a markup? The truth is, choosing a VAR is hardly a perfect science. There are many VARs to choose from -- each with their own unique portfolio of products and range of technical expertise. The trick is to do your homework and investigate potential VARs before making a formal engagement. Here are some handy guidelines that can help you identify the best VAR for your needs.

Start with your needs

A VAR evaluation cannot start until you have a thorough understanding of your objectives. Know exactly what you need to accomplish and visualize how things need to work when the project is done. Without a set of objectives to follow, it will be much harder (even impossible) to evaluate a VAR's background or capabilities. Also take some time to recognize the things that you specifically don't want.

For example, a VAR might be engaged to install a NAS system on your network. Knowing that you'd prefer a certain manufacturer's NAS box with 10 terabytes (TB) of SATA II hard drive capacity in advance will certainly help to narrow the VAR search. Knowing that you'd also want the VAR to install and configure the NAS device with your specific Ethernet switch model, and handle additional storage expansions with a 24 hour turnaround would bring even more detail to your investigation.

Once you have a handle on specific objectives, a product manufacturer can typically refer you to several VARs in your region.

Don't underestimate the value of references

Yes, it's certainly a bit cliché to say it, but check their references. There is still value in good word-of-mouth. "I know a lot of companies that weren't happy with their VARs," says William Peldzus, director of storage architecture at GlassHouse Technologies. "They [VARs] sold them [customers] something that just didn't work, and didn't stick with them."

Obviously, VARs without a proven track record of customer satisfaction should absolutely be avoided, but the real trick to references is to formulate difficult questions. Asking simple questions such as "Did you like this VAR?" won't tell you very much, so dig deeper to identify issues relevant to you. For example, does this VAR show value to your organization or help you with your last downtime? Find out how the VAR deals with problems. "There are different answers to those questions that will help you evaluate whether that VAR is actually doing more then just selling you the equipment," Peldzus says. Also, feel free to ask an OEM directly what they think of a particular VAR's representation.

However, your investigation should not be limited to the VAR's front door. Other analysts suggest going further and investigating the VAR's technical personnel -- especially when a prospective deal involves consulting or ongoing technical services. "What services are offered by the VAR, and what is the skill set of the personal involved in service delivery," says Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at Storage IO. "Don't be bashful asking about the experience of service personal including reviewing their resumes."

Consider size, scope and longevity

Time and size usually equals success, so also take a close look at the VAR's business profile. This includes the length of time they've been in business, their staff size and their coverage region. The goal is to determine whether (and how well) a VAR can service your location. For example, a VAR with an office of five people in metropolitan Des Moines will probably not be able to service a client in downtown Boston as well as a VAR with 50 people across a dozen offices in Massachusetts. In truth, that small VAR in Des Moines might handle a given project just as well as the east coast firm, but local availability is usually better.

Schulz also recommends other conventional exercises in due diligence, including checks with your local Better Business Bureau, the State Attorney General's office, and even inquire about past experiences within local trade and user groups. Serious problems with a local VAR's business practices will often be revealed in these places. "Ask your accounting and finance people if they can do a background or profile check," Schulz says.

Complete solutions and collaborative attitudes

So, you've defined your needs and identified several solid VARs that can potentially tackle your project. When making a final selection, analysts underscore the importance of a value proposition -- which VAR can offer the most complete solution (not necessarily the most equipment) for your money. You can certainly buy products from a variety of sources and try to integrate them yourself, but a desirable VAR will provide the products, help configure and troubleshoot the installation and take ownership of the installation with ongoing service. "Value can be in terms of service, support, integration with other solutions and products, simplifying acquisition and billing, and so forth," says Schulz.

Nothing spoils a VAR relationship faster than a narrow attitude. "My product is working but your solution isn't, so it's not really my problem," Peldzus says, noting that a good VAR is concerned with their client's overall solution -- regardless of the amount of product the client has purchased. "That's usually where the clients enjoy and get the most value out of working with a VAR versus an OEM," he says. ***


This was first published in October 2006

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