Centres of excellence

Somewhere to educate partners and demonstrate solutions to customers; centres of excellence are coming of age in the region

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By  Alex Malouf Published  December 27, 2004

Academy advantages|~|HaiderMicrosoft.jpg|~|Haider Salloum, marketing manager at Microsoft South Gulf|~|What is a centre of excellence? Is it a partner university designed to provide the channel with the skills to take a step up the value ladder? Or could it be a deal clincher for major corporate clients? Or how about for customer support on technical issues? Centres found in the region are these and much more. At its best, a facility forms a vital vendor tool in building and developing long term relationships with both customers and channel partners. Jump on board for a tour of the centres and see what they have to offer Take a walk around the I-Force facilities at Tech Access, the Invent centre at HP, SAP’s competency centre or Microsoft's Technology centre and prepare to be impressed. The hardware on display is first rate, the consultants on hand are world class, but most impressive of all is the vision behind these projects. “We and Sun pumped a million dollars into the set-up as part of our investment in the region,” explains Jawad Ahmed, marketing manager at Tech Access, Sun’s Middle East channel development partner. “We put in place the research, people and resources that form part of the sales engagement from customer to end deployment. Partners use this freely for client engagements, and my role is to push them to utilise this centre as much as possible.” To allow partners to take advantage of kit that includes high-end servers, state-of-the-art multimedia facilities and consultation is a major commitment and represents the ultimate value-add for the channel. “We know that there are a certain number of engagements partners cannot undertake by themselves, because of issues including solution complexity and lack of hardware,” notes Haider Salloum, marketing manager at Microsoft South Gulf. “Companies may lack resources and be able to spare hardware. We have the means — 72 processors and 2 terabytes of storage on site — that allow us to simulate any complex environment.” Other advantages in having a vendor onboard include customer assurance that the service they are getting comes directly from the top. “Customers would like some skill in the game from Microsoft. They say to us, ‘we understand you are a partner-based organization but we want to make sure you reduce the risk by being involved personally as a company in this engagement’. Our presence makes the difference,” adds Salloum. With the resources at hand — both hardware and human — it is not only closing the deal that becomes a much simpler affair. “We are here to help speed up the sales cycle,” says Salloum. “For every step of the process there is a partner involved. When we do a knowledge transfer, the partner benefits. When he goes out to implement, he has an easier task. When you speed up the sell, you benefit the partner by helping them do the deal. So it is a win-win situation for both us and them.” The underlying aim for vendors is to gain an insight into the customer’s needs and look at the long-term rather than making an easy sell. “It’s in our interest to understand our client’s businesses and to develop the right relationships,” says Amelia Van Duijse-Green, managing consultant at HP’s Invent Centre. “If we go in and say, ‘listen Mr Customer this is a great thing for you,’ without having an understanding of the business context then we will make our lives more difficult. We may not be positioning the right solution and shooting ourselves in the foot in the longer term. It is best for us to have that understanding and so it is an investment we make in offering our customers the right solution that meets their business demands.” ||**||From why to how|~|TechAccessnoperson.jpg|~|A snapshot of Tech Access' state-of-the-art I-Force centre|~|From the reasons why to how they are operated, each centre takes a slightly different approach. Big Blue has facilities in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where customers and partners can test their applications on IBM mainframes. “Our setup is primarily to serve independent software vendors who want to run their applications on Linux platforms,” says Mourad Zohny, channel sales manager at IBM Middle East. “Customers are able to use the hardware at any time, and are assisted by IBM staff.” Tech Access operates in a similar fashion, offering partners the chance to demo solutions on Sun mainframes. “We have a number of I-Force solution partners who use the centre freely to show and explain their offerings,” says Ahmed. “Partners can come in and use this centre freely, and we usually piggyback a hardware sale on the back of that. But we are also very keen on bringing user groups here and training up staff from other vendors as well. Veritas events are held here, and we also hauled in Oracle’s entire MENA sales team to show them what they can do here.” SAP, which operates directly in the Middle East, invites customers into its Dubai facility more often that not as part of the sales cycle. “We have major corporations who come in here and our experts take them through the whole process, of what the solution entails and what it can do for them,” notes Nabeel Hamad, business development director at SAP Arabia. “Our professionals will go through the functionality that they want and will often point out added extras they are not aware of that will benefit them in their business approach.” HP’s and Microsoft’s approaches are arranged in stages. HP uses its Invent facility to take a birds eye view of business processes and the impact that IT will have on the company. Van Duijse-Green explains: “There are a couple of ways that a customer will typically approach us. We can get a customer coming in who wants to explore the latest innovations in their particular industry and how that will impact them. They explore how technologies can affect their particular domain. To give you an example, we had a healthcare innovation seminar here and were joined by a number of doctors from across different clinics and hospitals. They came in, and we explored with them the healthcare solutions that are coming to play in the healthcare environment. Alternatively we get customers coming in from a specific account just to look at a theme, such as mobility, and how can these solutions be applied in a customer’s environment. We will pose this theme and a number of different customers will come in and explore it with us.” “We offer a two-day discovery workshop usually for free as a service for customers. If a customer would like to go in depth and qualify more in detail about the specific impact of a particular solution on their business, that is a consulting engagement that we undertake for a two to three week period. This part of the process is charged,” she added. ||**||Customer call-ins|~|BjarneCA.jpg|~|Bjarne Rasmussen, VP of CA technology Services|~|Microsoft’s walkthrough fits in closely with that of HP. “There are three steps that a business can take with us,” says Salloum. “The first, free to customers, is to discuss a particular scenario that fits their requirement, so the customers can understand how it works and why they need it. This scenario will open up ideas as to what could be possibly done with the technology. The talk isn’t all tech as the interesting part is we have the business decision maker participate as well as the IT guy.” “The second stage is to take the solution from the design stage and to show the customer how what we are proposing fits their current environment, their workforce and infrastructure — what we call an architectural design session. This is a two-day engagement where we sit with the customer and the deliverable out of that is an architectural document that shows how this technology will fit in with their existing environment and infrastructure. So the outcome of this could be a network diagram, an architectural design, or a layout specification for a new application.” “The third and final step is a proof of concept for a customer who wants a tangible feel of the solution. Not only have you seen what the technology can do and how this fits in your environment, but you will see a running live demo of this particular solution. A proof of concept could be anything from one week to six weeks depending on how complex this engagement is. We work with their teams to build up a working version of the particular solution we are looking at,” concludes Salloum. Computer Associates (CA) is using its Beirut base as call centre to deal with issues and queries from customers. “Our aim is to provide a very good support service to our customers across the Middle East,” says Bjarne Rasmussen, VP of CA technology Services. “If they have trouble with software or they have questions relating to how a CA product would work with the latest version of their operating system, then they need to talk to a professional who can provide good service. For this purpose we have a service centre that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” “Customers can contact us in a number of ways — by phone, email or the web. We are establishing freephone 800 numbers in all the countries across the region. So you basically call a local number and the call is routed to Lebanon. When we are contacted, our staff listens to the problem and they provide a solution. CA covers many products and so how we work is to filter the calls coming in by importance and severity. Our staff will call the customer and ask questions such as what is the product. They will check the customer is known and has a license so that we can make sure we provide the right solution to the right person. And when that is done, the question will go to the right engineer. As of today we have five professionals signed up and they will have different customer situations that they work on,” notes Rasmussen. ||**||Academy futures|~|ZoghbyMuradIBM.jpg|~|Mourad Zohny, channel sales manager at IBM Middle East|~|One common factor running through these centres is their age. All these facilities were established in the last few years, and plans are in the vendor pipeline for more centres to be placed across the region. IBM has ‘portal centres’ in Europe and the US, where Big Blue shows customers the ease with which they can shift their hardware from other vendors to IBM. “We are discussing internally the possibility of setting up a porting centre in the Middle East in the near future,” notes Zohny. Microsoft is currently rolling out its Partner Academy programme across the region to push its partners up the value-add ladder. And plans are underway to make the Finance Centre, a joint project of Intel, Microsoft, and HP, a permanent part of the Middle East’s IT landscape. Centres of excellence are a development that the whole channel should be thankful for, vendors believe. For a customer to be shown a solution by the vendors themselves could be possibly the best sales tool in the channel’s arsenal. “The best feedback that we have is our customers come back,” argues Van Duijse-Green. “They return to us two or three times to look at different parts of their business and take a fresh view. They actually ask to come back. They appreciate the fact that we are not interested in pushing inappropriate solutions, technology or products at them but that we actually want to listen to what their problems are. We have to help them identify the appropriate solutions for the problems. In my mind I think they are very happy to come here.” ||**||

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