Don’t take the risk of ignoring online tools

Online tools are here to stay and it's up to the Middle East channel to embrace them. Those who use such tools will undoubtedly enhance their value proposition - providing they marry them with conventional business methods.

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By  Andrew Seymour Published  February 1, 2007

Traditional trading methods remain as powerful as ever and conventional ways of conducting business - face-to-face and on the telephone - are a tried and tested approach. But there is a real possibility that this is set to dramatically change this year.

At the end of last year, Middle East distributor Aptec launched two new online tools designed to make it easier for resellers to interact with the company and reduce the time of certain tasks that often take longer than they should to complete.

Its online Return Merchandise Authorisation (RMA) system allows resellers to verify the status of their RMA request by logging onto a fully automated system available at any time of day. Such a system removes the hassle of chasing sales or logistics staff who may not necessarily have the latest information at hand anyway.

The same applies to Aptec's newly available online financing tool, which cuts out the need for endless faxes to the credit department by offering partners immediate access to their updated statement of account and transactional history.

Other distributors in the market, such as Asbis and Tech Data, already offer comprehensive web-driven services to Middle East resellers although Aptec's launches are particularly noteworthy because it first tested the water with online tools seven years ago. It rolled out a system for local corporate resellers to view and order stock, but the concept never truly caught on.

The launch of an RMA and statement of account service - along with its existing software licensing purchasing system - is regarded by the company as a precursor to its next attempt at going live with an online ordering system later this year.

So why should we believe online tools will be better received by the reseller channel in this era than they were seven years ago? Well, a lot has changed in that time, not least the mainstream usage of the internet and a more rounded understanding of the value it can bring to a business when used correctly.

The mentality of, "if I speak to a salesperson I can always get a better deal" used to ring true, but that view doesn't hold as much weight these days.

What's more, the old adage that you should not believe what you see on the web is also starting to lose credit. The net is widely becoming seen as the one source you can rely on to find products at the most competitive price.

These changes in attitude, combined with growing constraints in terms of time, cost and competition, make it foolish for anybody to argue against online tools having a part to play in shaping the development of the Middle East reseller channel.

However, the key difference between this market and others is that any distributor committed to building a set of online services must ensure that it strikes a suitable balance with the human interaction that still forms the very basis of this vibrant market.

There can be no denying that the automation of certain processes has been exploited by many distributors around the globe as a way of slashing labour costs. But I'm not convinced that such a trick would pay off in this region. Putting more processes online is fair enough, but it is equally important that the staff who previously performed those functions are afforded the opportunity to manage their time more effectively. At the end of the day, resellers still want account managers and a point of contact. Anybody who misjudges the role that human interaction plays in this market is taking a significant risk.

As the Middle East channel graduates from a purely transactional to solutions-based environment, we will see more distributors enhance their online offerings. But that balancing act with the traditional methods of doing business in the channel must always be kept in mind.

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