Deciding whether or not to contract with a third-party business consulting or advisory services firm to improve sales and marketing initiatives can be a transformational moment for any copier dealer.

Whether it’s a matter of improving sales, implementing the right IT solutions or finding the right people to fill the most important roles, business owners are increasingly turning to outside specialists to jump-start their organizations and bring clarity to their overall business strategies.

In 2018, U.S. companies spent more than $241 billion on management consulting services, according to market research firm IBIS World. There are in excess of 700,000 individual consulting firms to choose from and their specialties span the gamut from sales, marketing and IT to human resources, operations and financial advisory services.

With so many options out there, it’s incumbent on business owners to be introspective not only about the true realities of their business practices, but also what exactly it is they hope to accomplish from bringing in a consultant or third-party vendor.

These consulting engagements are expensive, ranging from a couple of thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars – or more. Beyond the money, any worthwhile advisory interaction will require opening up the books, full transparency of the day-to-day operations of the organization and a willingness to make key employees available for interviews and evaluations.

Sometimes, the motivation behind reaching out for external help is to maximize and expand upon the things a company is doing well. Unfortunately, more often, it’s really about bringing in a fresh set of eyes to honestly evaluate what is going wrong and what steps can be taken to right the ship.

“Normally, we get contacted by a dealer that’s struggling with an array of business issues,” said Jon Hey, a partner at the Brookline, Florida-based advisory services firm Strategic Business Associates. “They feel like they need someone from the outside to help them come up with new ideas about how they can improve the quality and performance of their businesses to improve profitability.”

Arriving at this moment isn’t always easy. Owners often are reluctant to spend the money for a consultant — especially when business conditions are suboptimal. There are anecdotal tales of consultants that promised some type of panacea that never materialized, leaving hard feelings and disarray in their wake.

To avoid this disappointment, copier dealers eyeing prospective consultants for their revamps need to be realistic about the time and effort required to glean anything meaningful from an engagement. Advisory services aren’t for everyone.

“The smaller entrepreneurial (dealers) probably can’t benefit as much from our services and likely can’t afford it,” Hey said. “A company needs at least $8 million to $10 million in annual sales for it to make sense to use our services.”

Hey said that some owners aren’t convinced they need a consultant or advisor, banking on their years of experience in the cockpit.

“We really like to call ourselves advisors because we have years and years of experience in this particular industry,” he said. “We didn’t go to Harvard or Wharton. We ran these companies. We come to this with real-life experience in terms of doing the things we suggest these dealers do.”

Assuming your company can afford the commitment in both time and money for a new sales and marketing project, the next step is figuring out exactly what type of consultant or third-party vendor is needed.

Often, that journey starts close to home.

Clover Services Group, a division of Clover Imaging Group, launched its Amplify content marketing group in 2016 to help dealers grow their business by unlocking new opportunities to target vertical markets with customized content and marketing services.

Its existing relationship with many independent dealers, retailers and OEMs through its core imaging supplies business makes it a natural and familiar option for dealers looking for advice and tools to grow their businesses. The ancillary benefit to existing Clover customers is the ability to leverage their overall spend for both what they’ve been doing and what they need to be doing next with a partner that fundamentally understands their business needs.

Amplify offers dealers the training and digital marketing tools they need to sell their products and services. This includes website design and content marketing along with video production and inbound marketing consulting services. Its certified HubSpot agency provides a platform for marketing, sales, customer service and CRM applications.

“The thing that makes us different from anyone else, is that all of our services are backed up with analytical data,” said Aaron Dyck, senior vice president of Clover Services Group. “For the dealer community, it comes down to how do I educate my customers?”

Dyck said the Amplify suite of services is ideal for dealers who know they need to do a better job of promoting their products and services but lack the manpower, expertise or time to deep dive into the vagaries of SEO analysis, content creation and content optimization to keep pace with the omnipotent and fickle Google search algorithm.

“We do something that dealers can’t do,” he said. “We have a team of people dedicated to that. Dealers might have one person or a couple people responsible for marketing. When we share customer success data and do a side-by-side analysis, we can show dealers the benefit.

“Say this program costs $50,000 a year,” he added. “You can either invest in this program or hire a new salesperson. Even then, that person will only sell what they can based on their skill set. We allow you to sell an entire product category to all your markets.”

Kelley Imaging Systems, a Kent, Washington-based provider of office technology products, mailing equipment, software and IT services, is one of about three dozen Amplify clients. It needed help with a variety of marketing issues including a rebuild of its company website, beefing up its content and landing pages, the inclusion of the HubSpot agency and the creation and distribution of press releases to improve its visibility.

“Before working with the Amplify team, we were struggling with our website and coming up with new content,” said Sarah Krueger, Kelley’s director of administration. “Since we began working with (Amplify) our traffic to the website and blog subscriptions has increased greatly. We’re definitely seeing the value.”

Krueger said she wasn’t worried or skeptical about whether or not these tools would make an impact because the company had a pre-existing relationship with Clover for many years.

“For our industry, it is very difficult to find vendors that understand what we do and how to best assist with the correct marketing efforts and tools,” she said. “We also knew that we desperately need help and they seemed to be the most natural fit for us.”

This theme of familiarity and trust resonates throughout most of these engagements. 

XMC Inc., a Bartlett, Tennessee-based managed services provider and Xerox dealer, also went with Amplify for its various online marketing and sales generation programs.

“Within a week of launching our new site, we were getting qualified leads that have been in the buying window and eager to work with us,” said Holly Dale, an XMC sales account executive. “Working with Amplify has given us a trusted partner with industry knowledge who can create meaningful content for our social media, blogs and email campaigns along with real-world analysis and experience in our industry.”

Any company over a long enough period of time will experience a range of outcomes when working with external advisors and service providers. When you’re counting on a measurable return on investment, picking the right consultant or third-party advisor/provider often comes down to how well you really understand and are honest about your own strengths and weaknesses as an organization. And you might hear or learn things that you didn’t really want to acknowledge.

“Everyone promises, but not everyone delivers,” Dale said. “No one wants to be a number on a bottom line when something as important as your company’s entire online presence is the item at hand. (The Amplify team) took the time to really get to know who we are and what we do … and they weren’t afraid to share ideas and disagree with us occasionally when they had a better idea.”

Sometimes those ideas require a leap of faith and a willingness to diverge from or modify business objectives and offerings that owners have followed and believed in for decades. Simply put, a thriving business cannot stand pat on what’s worked in the past if there’s to be a profitable future.

Collabrance LLC, a subsidiary of GreatAmerica Financial Services, defines itself as a master managed service provider that helps dealers navigate the tricky evolution into the managed IT services sector with minimal risk and limited investment.

Rather than building an internal IT department or asking existing employees to dabble outside their areas of expertise, Collabrance leverages its equipment-financing roots to offer dealers and IT providers with the tools they need to help scale their managed service provider business faster and with less risk.

“The Collabrance offering helps MSP’s focus their existing technical team on revenue-generating tasks,” said Greg VanDeWalker, senior vice president of IT channel and services at GreatAmerica and Collabrance.

VanDeWalker said one of the bigger problems he’s seen in the copier channel is a lack of leadership from owners. The owners who are as deeply involved in the copier side of the business as they are the IT side have the most success. But that’s the rub. These guys know how to sell and have been doing it well for years.

“The owners who ‘get it’ are very involved and are trying to grow the IT side of their business fast,” he said. “Why is this? Money. They realize a relatively small IT practice could easily equal and fairly quickly surpass the valuation of the copier side of the business.”

This perplexing phenomenon is not unique to old-school copier dealers. MSPs are often owned by technically minded people who make the same mistakes their copier brethren do, but in reverse.

“They have a hard time selling,” he said. “Many times the owner is the only sales rep and they need coaching and training. If they have a sales rep, they tend to not be great leaders of salespeople.”

Collabrance’s virtual sales manager and sales simplicity seminars are examples of tools that both dealers and MSPs can access to push their businesses to the next level. But getting there requires buy-in and commitment from the very top.

“We have burned a lot of energy in past years working with copier dealers who wanted to ‘put their toe in the water’ from a managed IT services perspective,” VanDeWalker said. “That simply doesn’t work. We want to find copier dealer owners who are committed to the business model … so we can show them a path to profitability quickly.”

Small-business owners – and sometimes even CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations – are notorious control freaks. Many of them have limited formal business training. Fewer still, for now anyway, have an extensive background in technology. Ceding control of the direction of their company, particularly into areas outside their wheelhouse, can be threatening.

For any consulting or advisory project to flourish, the onus falls squarely on the owners and top managers to fully commit to the process before contracting with any advisor, consultant or third-party provider. Otherwise, it’s probably best to not to bother at all.

“As close as some presidents and owners – even the very best ones – are to what’s going on in their companies, without exception an initial evaluation reveals many issues that the owner is not aware of,” Strategic Business Associates’ Hey said. “Almost always, communication, or lack thereof, and the lack of training and development is what keeps these companies from driving efficiency and profitability.”

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Larry Barrett

Larry Barrett

is an editor and analyst at BPO Media.