Can the cloud become an SMB standard?

The biggest obstacle to widespread SMB adoption of cloud technologies might well be the vendors who can't live up to their customer's expectations.
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor

When I wrote last week about the potential business risk of using the cloud I got a lot of feedback, both here and in my inbox. Unfortunately, while there were a lot of concerns about the safety and security of using the cloud expressed, most of the people passionate enough to respond missed the fact that the biggest segment of the cloud consumer market, the SMB customer, doesn't care about most of the issues that knowledgeable IT folks raise.  Frankly, in many cases they are simply willing to believe the claims made by the service provider, especially if their tiny IT staff has bought in to the vendor's marketing.

It's easy to dismiss their lack of interest and simply say that they will learn from experience. But remember that bad press gets a lot more traction than positive reporting, and that dissatisfied customers are much more likely to make noise about a product or service than a satisfied customer.  And while the SMB customer who doesn't have a great deal of technical expertise at hand isn't going to be making waves in the technical community, they are likely to talk about their bad experiences with a cloud vendor with other business leaders in their community, and it is very hard to get that bad experience out of a customer's mind when they hear about it from a business peer.

Part of the problem can be traced to core technology vendors.  There are a number of major providers that let third-parties build on their services and offer partnership programs that these third-parties then use in their marketing. The third parties can then build on the name recognition of the core technology they build on and advertise that they are a "Precious Metal Partner of So & So Corp" which gives potential customers who know little about these programs a better feeling about their forthcoming purchase.

The vendors themselves are at fault for the dilution of the value of these partnership models. Many vendors only requirement to be a top level partner is that the third-party pay a top-level fee and keep a small number of staff (which might be as small as 1), certified on their product on hand.

To a certain extent, the experience is similar to the early days of many well-known certification programs, where someone could be certified with only book knowledge and zero actual experience. Over the years, the certification programs which gained the greatest amount of respect in the industry were those that required not only a deep level of knowledge, but also hands-on technology and product experience.

The cloud service provider market needs to learn from these experiences and develop programs that provide some level of guarantee to the potential customer that they are going to get the best possible service and support from their cloud experience. Accreditation programs need to be developed that learn from the mistakes of earlier programs and can be used to accurately gauge the level of commitment that a service provider is offering and their ability to deliver on their promises (remember that terms like SLA and QoS often mean absolutely nothing to the average SMB customer).

The Technical Accreditation Program now being offered by Mitel is a good example of the way the industry should look at providing a higher level of confidence to potential customers. Of course it is only a starting point, as the programs are not a requirement for Mitel resellers, but currently only a way to differentiate the service offerings between different service providers who utilize Mitel technologies. The program has value only if Mitel makes an effort to educate consumers as to why the higher levels of certification are necessary for a reseller, but as that would mean that they would be marketing  against partners who choose not to invest in the skillset the accreditation programs require, it seems that it would be unlikely that Mitel would make that marketing statement directly.  It's a fine line the vendor must walk between their partners and their customers.

The "cloud", as a technology entity, can easily lose the confidence of the SMB market, which is where the cloud can have the most benefit and do the most business. It's going to be up to the vendors in this market to try to prevent this from happening.

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