One of my favorite niches in the technology ecosystem has my least-favorite title: solution providers.
That dull-as-a-butterknife, snooze-inducing name is unfortunate. After all, B2B technology could not exist without the solution-provider niche.
So, what do they do? Mainly, solution providers help companies acquire the tech they need to get their work done. It’s one of the core B2B technology categories because it always involves tech companies selling and businesses buying.
As a working example, let’s think about two of the most successful companies in U.S. history: Cisco Systems and General Motors.
Cisco sells routers, switches and other networking gear with hundreds of features that can mix and match with other technologies in countless combinations. GM, by contrast, has factories, product lines, vendors, customers and competitors that generate countless concerns.
Now, let’s say GM has its eye on a range of Cisco gear (note, I have no idea if GM and Cisco do business together). GM has to decide which Cisco products deliver the best balance of mileage and performance to all of its interest groups.
For all its billions, GM needs help making up its mind. After all, GM also has to build production lines, negotiate with vendors and design Super Bowl ads — all the while pleasing investors and outmaneuvering Ford and Toyota. Bad technology choices can cost GM billions. Good tech choices help GM earn billions.
Technology solution providers help GM figure all this out.
Why should B2B tech marketers care about solution providers?
IT solution providers’ work runs the gamut of technology in business today. Working with solution providers introduces you to a vast range of hardware and software that you’d never learn about while working with individual software developers and hardware manufacturers.
Content marketing for solution providers is more accessible to people who don’t have an extensive tech background (like me, for instance). Solution providers need to be able to explain their benefits and capabilities in broad, high-level terms that are easier to understand if you didn’t start out as a technical writer.
With solution providers, it’s easier to develop content that conveys benefits rather than states features — which is excellent training for all other spheres of technology content marketing.
Marketing angle: Three key benefits of hiring solution providers
The copy I write in this niche usually extols these virtues of solution providers:
- They can get technologies up and running faster at a lower cost than their clients can do on their own.
- They often have more specialized expertise than many clients have on staff.
- They help companies keep their IT staff focused on improving the core business (installing new tech can be an expensive distraction from IT people’s everyday jobs).
What are some of the most common solution providers?
Some solution providers do a few things really well, while others offer a comprehensive suite of capabilities. I’ve written copy in these three subcategories:
- Value-added resellers (VARs)
- Managed services providers (MSPs)
- System integrators
Here’s a bit more on each of them:
VARs — Value-Added Resellers
A VAR connects companies with specific technologies. What value do they add? Well, let’s say you’re an IT manager at GM who wants to add a new rack of Cisco networking gear.
You need somebody who knows Cisco gear like the back of their hand. Your VAR partner must be able to look over your IT infrastructure and figure out the best way to plug these shiny new Cisco toys into your existing systems.
And it all has to work in a way that makes your production lines more efficient while encouraging customers to buy Camaros instead of Mustangs.
So, a VAR does things like:
- Consulting on which brands, products and services to buy
- Configuring and installing hardware and software
- Creating documentation and help files
- Training your IT people to use the new tech
- Supporting the technology after it’s installed
A VAR helps a company’s IT staff implement technologies, but the client still runs the IT shop. Another kind of solution provider supervises a company’s entire IT operation (or a significant part of it). We call them managed services providers.
MSPs — Managed Services Providers
Some companies want to get out of the IT business altogether — or as much as they possibly can. With all the upgrades, viruses, cybercriminals and other annoyances infesting the technology landscape these days, sometimes it’s nice to just leave certain jobs to the experts.
MSPs are a fine fit for small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) because these companies are more likely to need help with rapid growth or assistance with the mind-boggling complexities of today’s tech.
The rise of SaaS (Software as a Service) and cloud technologies enables agile MSPs to take over a vast range of chores many companies would just as soon not have to deal with.
MSPs can do things like:
- Cloud email management
- Cybersecurity and system monitoring
- Hosting and storage
- Backup, disaster recovery and business continuity
(Here’s an article I wrote for a local MSP that works with small businesses and school districts.)
Next up: solution providers that do pretty much everything. We call them system integrators.
Confession: My GM/Cisco example was laughably simplistic. Companies don’t have one technology — they usually have dozens or even hundreds at the biggest enterprises.
Companies have IT systems for storage, networking and computing. They also have applications for human resources, logistics, resource management and many, many more. Furthermore, they have hardware: servers, routers, switches, PCs, smartphones, tablets and production/distribution systems enabled by even more technologies.
Hardware wears out and software becomes obsolete. Expansions or acquisitions require companies to get all their technologies to talk to each other.
System integrators take care of all this stuff. Their work often includes:
- Assessing current IT environments to identify which technology needs to stay or go
- Designing system architecture
- Consulting to determine the right technology match for a client’s marketplace
- Choosing, configuring and installing hardware and software
- Coordinating new technologies with legacy systems
- Migrating IT operations to the cloud
System integrators often work as VARs and MSPs because they already have so much experience with a wide range of technologies and industries.
(Here’s a case study I wrote for a system integrator).
Who are some of the best-known solution providers?
Almost all solution providers operate behind the scenes. Here are three of the most prominent players:
- IBM — Big Blue practically invented business-computing hardware, but today they’re making the most significant impact in their consulting business, which is solution-provider work for the world’s biggest enterprises.
- Accenture — Fortune magazine called Accenture the most admired IT solutions provider in the world in 2017. Accenture also has made headlines for buying up advertising agencies to bolster its digital-development business.
- CDW — I used to buy PCs, printers and software from CDW back in the day. Today, though, they have a B2C tech e-commerce site and a substantial IT solution provider business.
Focusing on these titans can be a bit misleading because there are perhaps thousands of IT solution providers around the world. (Here’s a list of 500, for instance).
Why so many? Probably because every business must have a unique competitive advantage to survive. Solution providers must use their skill to wed specific technologies to unique business challenges. That creates the need for highly specialized IT projects — and companies to implement them.
Which publications cover IT solution providers?
- CRN — Trade magazine and website packed with news about the VAR and technology integrator business.
- Channel Futures — Combines the work of VARGuy, MSPMentor and Talkin’ Cloud.
- VAR Insights — Commentary and news coverage for value-added resellers.
Got a favorite B2B technology niche you’d like me to profile? Drop me a note on my Contact Page.