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How to forge the perfect relationship with your enterprise storage vendor

If you want the business relationship with your storage vendor to be a successful one, it needs to solve your storage problems and your storage needs.

You want your storage problems solved, you want to save money, and you want to see storage solutions work as advertised. The vendor sales representative wants your business. If the number of sales calls my own CEO gets each day is any indication, there are certainly enough companies out there fighting for that business.

Many vendors of enterprise solutions (by vendors, I'm referring to resellers, direct manufacturers or consulting firms) often forget one obvious fact:. From the customer's point of view, solving their problems or needs is more important than the vendor getting a sale. This forgetfulness is more common when there are layers between the customer and the manufacturer , for instance, if your reseller is buying from a distributor, who then buys from the manufacturer.

When vendor Olympics take place (that fun game where you play the vendors against each other), the vendors get tunnel vision and focus on getting the price down to preserve that relationship against their competitor. They end up doing financial surgery on their own feature sets to win. Ultimately, unless you are very careful and fully understand what's being included, the proposed solution may fail to meet your requirements. Next thing you know, you're shopping around for another solution.

Finding a good company to

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partner with -- a company that won't forget the main reason for that business relationship -- is as critical as the technology itself. Your sales rep should be focused on the long term, not the short term. The old storage sales motto, "He who owns the disks, owns the data center," is still true for the most part.

In addition, companies are constantly growing and changing, so the potential will always exist for an ongoing profitable relationship with the vendor if you are willing to grow with them. You both win. But how do you establish that kind of good partnership? More importantly, how do you make sure that partnership is on your terms? There are two things you can do.

Don't underestimate the importance of the person who accompanies the salesperson: the sales engineer. Find out their background and their expertise with a particular vendor's products. Are they going to be a solutions architect with enterprise experience? Are they trained and certified on the enterprise storage manufacturer's products, if they don't work directly for the manufacturer?

Enterprise storage solutions can be extremely complex. It can't hurt to have the manufacturer involved in the planning. The presales technical team needs to have a greater understanding than you or the sales representative have of the capabilities of the enterprise storage products, as they apply to your particular environment. This individual will likely be architecting the initial solution.

Here's an anecdote that illustrates the difference between a sales rep, a sales engineer and a customer support engineer. A customer calls up his sales representative and asks whether the company's product can do something. The salesperson says, "Sure, no problem!" Next the customer calls the sales engineer and asks the same question. The sales engineer says, "Maybe, but you need to consider this or do this." The call to customer support gets this answer. "Nope, that doesn't work." And that's why you never see the customer support people on the sales calls.

All three of these folks can be right from their own point of view. The sales engineer is the one who's going to get you to that middle ground of practicality of the solution. Listen to what they have to say. Ask questions, then follow up. Always perform a sanity check on any solution by finding out who is using it and whether they're happy with it, as well as with the company that provided it.

There are two kinds of references, technical references and business relationship references, and they can go a long way to helping you identify the right enterprise storage partner. Beware of vendors that spend more time knocking the other guy (a tactic called FUD -- Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) than focusing on the merits of their solution. If they have something bad to say, make them use the "prove it" rule.

Your list of requirements for your vendor usually starts off with must-haves, then nice-to-haves. You should also let the vendor know which items will at some point in the future turn into must-haves. You don't want to buy something that will ultimately stop short of your requirements a few months down the road. You'd then be facing a forklift upgrade.

Beware of vendors that spend more time knocking the other guy (a tactic called FUD -- Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) than focusing on the merits of their solution.
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Have the vendor document how the solution addresses your requirements now, how it will address requirements in the near future, and how much it will cost to turn on those features. Insist on line item quotes in your proposals with an explanation of what each item is. Will the vendor stand behind its product or solution if it fails to meet published specifications? Exactly how will they do that?

Talk to references about their experiences with support. Find out what maintenance will cost after year three, if it is even available after that time frame. You don't want to buy something that EOLs (end-of-lifes) within a year of your purchase. If the EOS (end-of-service) comes within a timeframe that you're not comfortable with, you need to find out before you purchase.

If all of the above are addressed to your satisfaction, then you're well on your way to a successful business relationship with that enterprise storage vendor.

About the author: Joel Lovell is senior storage consultant for Storage Engine Inc. His specialty is high-performance storage and storage consolidation. He is EMC-trained in business continuity solutions, enterprise storage infrastructure and enterprise storage management. He previously was a strategic storage specialist for the Americas for Silicon Graphics and a senior systems engineer for EMC.

This was first published in September 2008

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