Agents and VARs: Collaborators or Competitors?

By Khali Henderson Comments
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Khali HendersonIf you randomly poll telecom agents and voice/data VARs about whether they view each other as collaborators or competitors, you'll find a surprising numbers will answer: both.  Usually, individual companies are viewed as one or the other while the respective groups are viewed as potentially both. But that is not always true, either; sometimes the role varies on a deal-by-deal basis.

That there is any question at all about the relationship is a fairly recent phenomenon. For many years, the purviews of telecom agents and VARs (telecom or IT) were quite separate, so that the potential for joint selling or lead swapping with no conflict was virtually assured. In the past decade, there has been increasing overlap in roles of channel partners of all types as technologies (voice and data) and networks (WAN and LAN) began to converge. These lines have blurred much further in the last few years as cloud delivery has turned all kinds of hardware and software products sold by VARs into "utilities" like communications services sold by telecom agents.

One of the best explanations for this situation comes from Shawn Schmidt, president of Digital Planet. Schmidt, who has the rare distinction of operating both a master agency and a VAR organization, wrote in an October Channel Partners Peer-to-Peer blog, "Who's Side Are You On?," that there is distrust building between agents and VARs who each fear losing their place at the table: "The equipment folks feel the carriers [and by extension their agents] are becoming competitors, not only with their premises-based offerings, but in their cloud offerings as well. Ironically the agents also feel the VAR is getting into their space by offering IP PBX solutions with SIP, and hosting infrastructure externally, which negates bandwidth requirements."

Clayton Connor, manager of administration for telecom agency Advanced Technology Consulting Inc., acknowledged that too much overlap can lead to competition. "However," he said, "if both parties are honest and upfront, and the 'ground rules' are very clear from the beginning, there should not be any issues. We've found our relationships with VARs to be very beneficial to us and our clients."

Many agents and VARs will admit that they have no interest or ability to successfully compete with their counterparts — not head-on anyway. While some PBX dealers have developed thriving carrier sales practices, many prefer to partner with an expert telecom partner. On the agent side, it's unlikely that an agent is going to develop an inside wiring practice and that business will be referred to a VAR.  Michael Bremmer, CEO of Telecomquotes.com, appropriately quotes this adage: "Just because you can doesn't mean you should."

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