The realities of Enterprise Storage Sales

At 30,000ft in the air over the holiday weekend, and with no wifi, one’s mind tends to wander a bit. And thus I spent some time thinking about the current happenings in the storage market. Things like: the recent VNX2 release, and people criticizing the launch because they felt there wasn’t enough “newness” from a technology perspective compared to the sea of storage start ups; the emergence of the all flash array (AFA) market starting to take hold spurring numerous discussions; and of course the many storage start ups out there offering “game changing” technologies trying to sell into the “old guard” customer base.  Being on the front lines of many sales campaigns (focused on storage, compute and virtualization), I have a unique view on what drives customers to make certain purchasing decisions. Enterprise storage sales campaigns are one of the most competitive and fiercely fought sales cycles that exist today. There are several reasons for this, but the primary reason is that storage is sticky in a customer environment. Enterprise storage is the life blood of many customer environments, and once they find something that works well and is to their liking, they are hesitant to make a change regardless of what the next new shiny thing can offer them, unless that change is very compelling. Many customers have enjoyed long-term  business relationships with their storage partner and manufacturer and that time to build up trust, credibility and worthiness is not easy to supplant with just the next new shiny thing. Often times, these are relationships an account team has built that spans years and years. The value of a good selling/buying relationship should never be underestimated . Customers are buying from people just as much as they are buying a given technology.

Now, what’s the point? Well, its to underscore the fact that often times, the best technology doesn’t always win a deal. I know its a difficult thing to accept from a pure engineering standpoint, but this is a fundamental truth in the real world when transacting business. There is lot of debate today around “legacy storage architectures” versus “next-gen storage architectures”. Why is it that with so many new storage start ups that have theoretical feature & architecture advantages, EMC shipped 71,000 VNXs, and 4.1 Exabytes of VNX “legacy” storage? I’m using the VNX as an example, but this applies equally to other “legacy” enterprise storage vendors — Netapp, IBM, HDS, et al (and in fact, most of this article could be extended to Enterprise technologies in general).

Non-Technical Factors that influence a storage purchase decision

Quality of the sales team

I cannot overstate how important the sales team is to the securing the win. This includes not only the Sales Engineer but also the Account Manager. Their ability to articulate the solution benefits, but more importantly tie it back to the particular business use case at hand is of utmost importance. Intimate knowledge of a customer’s business brings tremendous value. I have worked with Account Managers that have had a 10yr selling relationship with a customer that has chosen our solution, not because of a pure technical win on the products, but because the sales team knows so much about the customer’s business that the customer is confident the solution proposed is the best fit regardless of the nerd knobs and widgets underneath. This is a very critical aspect to understand and appreciate. Customer’s value sales teams that know their business inside & out and these long term selling relationships should not be taken lightly. Often times the customers are betting on the previous track record of the sales team to successfully deliver projects versus just a strict product evaluation. Contrary to popular belief, most customers don’t care about shiny new things, they care about successful projects which translate to business value.

On the other hand, with a poor sales team (thats the account manager AND the sales engineer) even the best product is doomed. The sales team members are the ones that build credibility for the solution with the customer by attending meetings, performing analysis, presenting the findings and articulating how the requirements of that particular customer translate into a solution they are proposing. Often times, the decision on which solution to go with hinges on the confidence the account team has built with the customer that not only have they presented the correct solution, but that they will be there to support the customer from day02 on forward.

Additionally, having a sales force that understands the enterprise sales process is critical. The new storage startups are starting to see this and that’s why we are seeing them going after sales professionals from the traditional enterprise companies. I don’t want to turn this into a enterprise sales 101 post but things like — after securing the technical win, whats next? Does your contact in the account need to present to the board? Does his/her boss have decision making authority? Is the decision going to be made by the CFO, in which case an ROI/TCO study is required? Does the IT Director push decisions down on his/her staff, or does the staff make the decisions? Does this customer buy on “relationship”, on “price”, on “technical merit”? Are deals done on a golf course or in a meeting room? These are all things which a shrewd sales team figures out in parallel while proposing a technical solution. Again, these are the nuances of selling into the enterprise and there is a reason why enterprise sales professionals are so well compensated. The job is not easy, there is no instruction manual, and not everyone can do it. But to watch a enterprise sales professional who is a master at their craft is a truly amazing and many of these “legacy” enterprise vendors have sales professionals who have been perfecting their craft for decades.

 Completeness of the solution, beyond primary storage

Customers these days aren’t interested in buying just primary storage. They want a storage provider that understands the complete lifecycle of their data. From primary, to backup, to archive, to replica, its critical to at least understand how to integrate with a data protection strategy and optimize it. Being able to offer up and discuss various data protection strategies is critical to becoming a trusted advisor to a storage buyer, even if it’s not sourced from a single vendor. I.E. “We belive we offer the best storage product for your requirements and here is how you can use <insert 3rd party solution vendor> to back it up, with the following integrations in vSphere, utilizing this type of pre-validated design from our lab” … etc.

Data Migrations

Often times, it is much easier and requires less effort to migrate from vendorX’s GENn platform to vendorX’s GENn+1 platform than to migrate from vendorX’s to vendorY’s storage. This burden has lessened with the advent of storage vmotion, however, many customers still have significant physical server footprints, physical fileservers (either integrated into a Unified array platform, or physical host) and these things take planning, know how and careful execution to migrate successfully. Each vendor typically has tools that it often offers for free to perform these migrations “in family”, while cross vendor migration tools are not so ubiquitous. Relating this back to the sales side, vendorX can often times subsidize some or all of the migration cost to entice sticking with their storage platform on a refresh and this is very attractive for customers that want turnkey proposals. Anything which can lessen the cost and/oor burden of data migrations will go a long way in a customer decision process.

VAR relationships

More times than not, it is the VAR that holds the long term selling relationship with the customer. Through cyclic changes in manufacturer account teams, a single VAR account team often remains the constant. Now, there are good VARs (that actually deliver value) and crappy VARs (that do nothing more than pass paper), so I’m making a generalization here, but these VAR sales teams are melding together various products and integrating them into a solution for the customer and implementing them with their post-sales engineers across multiple technology segments. The VAR that does this owns the technology blueprint for a given customer and if a customer has worked with a VAR for a long time, and has executed successful project after successful project with them, they will often buy the storage platform that VAR supports/sells because, again, they are betting on the track record of that team to deliver successful projects and this turns out to be significantly more important than having a new shiny storage thing that improves performance by 5% and/or saves them 5% on a TCO. I have had customers tell me “we feel the competing solution is technically superior, but we are going with your solution because of our confidence that you will deliver a flawless project result.” Manufacturer storage sales professionals should read that sentence a few times. 😉 This is why its critical for all storage start ups who are targeting non-niche markets to focus on their channel programs and relationships. These are the folks that will get you in the door if they see value in the product for their customers. The corollary is, a good VAR may not be easy to sign up because they are very picky about what products they onboard and recommend to customers as they perform significant due diligence before offering widgetX on their line card. One bad recommendation ruins the trusted advisor relationship on which they built their business over many years.

What DOES cause customers to make a storage vendor change?

Significant technology differentiation

For most customers, hybrid array X vs new hybrid array Y is not a very interesting or worthwhile conversation to spend their time on. All things being equal, their path of least resistance and highest chance of success is to stick with their current legacy relationships and procurement and simply rev to the next model. There has to be significant differentiation for a customer to look elsewhere for all the reasons mentioned above. IMO, the all flash array market is one area which is going to force customers to start looking elsewhere. The story and benefits are just too compelling. If a customer can replace their tier1 hybrid array which requires configuration of pools, raid groups, various mixes of drive types via complex sizing exercises, auto-tiering configuration considerations… and everything else that goes along with classic storage management… with an all flash array that takes performance sizing off the table, presents one giant pool of storage with nothing else to configure AND the customer can just buy capacity at hybrid array prices…. that is significant differentiation. We are in the early days of the AFA market however it should be noted that the same thing shift when hybrid arrays with auto-tiering and SSD based caching were introduced. The differentiation was significant from older array designs and if their current vendor did not support those architectures, many customers jumped ship to a vendor that did.

The “hyper-converged” and/or distributed DAS architectures are another which is causing customers to evaluate new platforms. Nutanix, Simplivity, VMware’s VSAN, EMC’s ScaleIO all utilize new distributed DAS architectures. Some are hardware+software converged appliances, some are software only offerings that just address storage, but these are heavily differentiated from your typical hybrid array and can offer benefits for certain use cases. And like with anything in technology there are pros/cons to each approach. We are still in the early days of this market, just like the all flash market, but there are enough compelling reasons to look at these approaches as they are not just another “me too” hybrid array to manage.

Legitimate problems

An example would be ongoing support issues. Storage being the life blood of an enterprise with so many critical functions relying on it requires world class support when things go bump in the night. I have seen ‘horrible support’, or ‘fanatical support’ be the sole reason behind a customer’s purchasing decision. The role day0+ support plays in the success of an enterprise storage company is something that isn’t often talked about, but it is significant. When a customer hits a bug, or something happens storage related that causes half their VMs to be down, they need support and they need it ASAP.

Another example is continued hardware failures / software bugs. This one doesn’t happen very often, especially when we are discussing tier1 storage providers, but it does on occasion and leaves a very bad taste in customer’s mouths. There could be that bad batch of hardware, or the edge use case that a customer is hitting in software that completely turns a customer off from the vendor.

There’s more to it than technology

The fact is that from a product/technology perspective there are a plethora of vendors that can meet most customer’s needs through various designs. However there is a lot more to winning a storage deal than a product meeting a point technical requirement. If you are a storage start up, make sure to focus on the correct things ABOVE AND BEYOND just the technology itself to secure your future. If you are a legacy storage manufacturer, you had better pay attention, otherwise the emergence of something like AFA market or hyper-converged architecture will come by and sweep your arrays off the floor.

I should note that I write this from the perspective of someone who works for a large national VAR that does significant amount of storage business in all areas. And all of the above is based on my real world experience.

If you are customer, I’d love your feedback.

If you are vendor/VAR, feel free to share your experiences.



Categories: EMC, Netapp, storage

2 replies

  1. I believe this is the best post I have ever read around enterprise storage selling from a VAR and manufacture perspective. You are right on the money. I have been in a technical pre-sales role for almost 15 years working for both a VAR and a manufacturer. Everything you mention in this blog hits it right on the nail. The sales folks/companies who take care of the customer, follow up when there is no business on the table and are there when things go sideways build a trust with a customer that can take years.

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