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Tips for Building Client Relationships: A Q&A With Avant CEO Ian Kieninger

Ian Kieninger has spent his career helping sales teams and customers understand the alphabet soup that is unified communications. As CEO of Avant Communications and co-founder of the Technology Channel Association, he is a UCaaS thought leader. As a Vonage channel partner since 2015, he is an expert on Vonage solutions. And perhaps most importantly, he is an expert at building client relationships and, in the age of digitization and automation, that is the real competitive advantage.

Group of businesspeople in suits looking at screen and discussing building client relationships
Building client relationships is key to becoming a trusted adviser to your clients.

In this interview, Kieninger discusses the changing buyer/seller relationship, his advice for becoming a trusted adviser, and how Vonage's new channel partner initiatives support his winning sales strategy — building client relationships.

Vonage: How has the buyer/seller relationship changed? How has that changed the sales conversation?

Kieninger: There's more confusion in the marketplace than ever. The comfortable old trusted brands aren't bringing the next generation of cloud-based technologies to market fast enough. There's an entirely new ecosystem of vendors that buyers need to understand, and they don't. The legacy relationship between buyer and seller was more of a conversation around procurement, price, features, and delivery. Now the conversation has changed to where the buyers want outcomes.

Along with that, IT departments are driving fewer decisions than ever, so we need to help them understand these new technologies so they can stay relevant within their organizations, and more importantly, keep the controls in place. Otherwise, you see things like shadow IT popping up — with no controls and no budgetary restraints around them — because the end user is becoming more sophisticated. Look at the millennial generation. They are sophisticated end users, and they want a seat at the table when new technologies are being discussed and selected.

Then, across the spectrum, the security discussion is coming up more. The final capping piece to all these technology decisions is: can it be secured, and how can you secure it?

Vonage does a good job of educating our advisers on the specific questions to ask, how to speak to different department heads, and ultimately understand how to position an outcome, going across multiple levels of the organization.

Why is it important for channel partners to become trusted advisers, rather than simply transactional salespeople?

Everything is becoming automated. When you can buy technologies at the click of a button, helping buyers navigate the procurement process doesn't add as much value. It's becoming less about the bits and bytes of one technology versus another, which I refer to as the what. Most buyers come to the table understanding UCaaS about 70% from their own research, and they're ready to start the buying conversation. So salespeople need to be thinking about the why and the how now.

In other words, the conversation is not, "Here's what this technology is, and here's one versus the others." The question buyers need help answering is, "Why should I choose this one for my business, and how will it help me get the outcomes I need?"

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How do you help your team become trusted advisers for clients?

We equip our trusted advisers with information and tools that it would take their customers months to research and understand, and sometimes can't even get on their own. We do this through a variety of resources, ranging from content on best practices to end-market training events. The cornerstone of our platform is our Pathfinder app — software we developed to be used in front of the customer — which is a different strategy than our peers. We've built a ton of intellectual property into the app, including 400 case studies from all the different verticals and segments and real-time data center fiber search tools that blow customers away. This saves so much time and energy, and it gets people through that transactional conversation quicker so we can land on the solutions-oriented conversation.

We also recently created an analytics division, and we hired an analyst from IDC and a data scientist from UIC. We're taking the data we generate in the normal course of business and some third-party data to provide a better understanding of UCaaS for channel partners. We just launched our first analytics report, which is our forecast and opinion for the next six to to twelve months. Now advisers have some qualitative and quantitative data to go in front of the CIO and say, "Here's where things are going. Do you want to be prepared for this? How does this fit into your strategy? What kind of outcome could using UCaaS have on your business?"

How does Vonage support your strategy for building client relationships?

Many vendors don't take this approach. They're all speeds and feeds and pricing and branding, and sometimes that doesn't draw nice parallels to a solutions-oriented conversation. But Vonage has a similar internal strategy to ours.

Once a trusted adviser knows the objective of the customer — and that's their job, to get in there first and figure it out — then we've got to drill a little bit deeper into how different business units use communications technology. Let's use the phone system, for example. It's not just the CIO making these decisions anymore. It could also be the CMO, the CFO, or the sales organization. So understanding how the choice of technology affects other departments is then the starting point, where we start to pivot and start linking up with a provider that can solve for those things. Vonage does a good job of educating our advisers on the specific questions to ask, how to speak to different department heads, and ultimately understand how to position an outcome, going across multiple levels of the organization.

It's an internal, cultural alignment that works out really well, and that's hard to do within a large sales organization. Our partnership has accelerated dramatically in the past 12 months, thanks to the new channel investment at Vonage and the new channel leadership — which we're really excited about.

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