Influencing the Influencers

Many years ago (in 1973 to be exact) I suggested to IBM management, my employer at the time, that few sales, especially in the technology industry, involve just two parties. Now, 26 years later, it's increasingly apparent that business partners, resellers, independent analysts and consultants can make or break the success of a product. Despite its long standing tradition of strict account control and proprietary customer relationships, IBM understands that dynamic and has begun providing expansive services for key voices in the industry, viewing them as both business partners and customers.

That's a good thing, because a word of endorsement from any of several big players—-classical management consultants and industry analysts such as the GartnerGroup, Yankee Group and META Group, et al.-—can make a significant difference. I refer to it as "influencing the influencers," or "leverage marketing."

IBM is doing its share through a number of initiatives, including building ongoing relationships with Web developers, software and service providers, application service providers (ASPs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). And increasingly, outside consultants such as CPAs, auditors and legal advisors play a key role in the mix. These are some of the people who impact decision makers and purchasers of IT, by encouraging their clients, (who might be IBM's or other vendors' customers) to Web-enable existing processes such as data management, systems management and transaction processing.

The first step is to identify these key influencers, track their opinions about IT (and also about IBM's initiatives) and then provide them with focused technical materials and marketing support. To help build and maintain those strategic relationships IBM has its Consultant Relations Program in place and it has a Web site (www.ibm.com/consultantrelations) dedicated to the effort. I'm told the site gets over 20,000 hits a month, a sure sign that consultants and analysts need and value such a resource.

The 1,000-member Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA), as just one example, is a growing industry powerhouse and a valuable link for IBM and other vendors. There are many other such trade organizations, each representing distinct influencer segments within the IT marketplace.

It's really about "selling through" these global influencers, along with the traditional "selling to" because that's how real sales volume and revenue are generated. In late October IBM announced a series of sell-through services and support programs for its ISPs, giving them greater avenues to bundle e-business application sales. The services include, for example, HomePage Creator, Tutorials.com, Continuity Services and e-business Accelerator.

Ideally, those influencers would have their own purchasing needs. So separately, IBM is gearing additional sell-to services to the Web-hosted service provider as a customer/prospect. For example, it announced two enhancements to its PartnerWorld program for IBM Business Partners, designed to sell to ISPs hosting environment tools that will help differentiate them from their competitors. IBM Global Financing also announced a new, 30-month rent-to-own program to address the financing needs of its service provider customers. Both the sell-through and sell-to services are delivered under the IBM Global Services umbrella.

In 1998, 40 percent of IBM's revenue came from any of a number of "non blue suit" channels. Adding consultants to the mix—-consultants who can sway a sale simply by recommending a product in client conversation-—heads that percentage skyward. It's a credit to see Big Blue not only adapt to this change, but embrace it. We saw a similar paradigm shift take place at BPEC (Business Partner Executive Conference) 1999 in New Orleans, where CEO Lou Gerstner publicly acknowledged and lauded the influence of IBM's business partners.

Despite the emerging success of such programs, however, shared account control continues to tweak the notion of what I call "mythical account control," which IBM has clung to over the years—-embracing ownership of its customers from initial customer contact, to sale, delivery and service.

I've said it before, and it bears repeating-—not just IBM, but all large IT solutions providers must come around to the idea of "leverage marketing" and "shared" account control. IBM's Consultant Relations Program, in conjunction with other new initiatives to support ASPs, ISPs and Web developers are three such steps in that direction. In a world where no one company/vendor can do it all, influencing the influencers and marketing through others will prove to be a winning strategy now and into the next millennium.