Vendor accreditations can be confusing. While it might seem easiest to choose only top tier partners, you could be doing yourself a disservice. Vendors’ accreditation schemes are intended to help you, and can reduce the risk in selecting an IT provider, so it’s worth understanding enough about them to make informed choices.

At Total, we aim to simplify not mystify, and to help our customers cut through the jargon that can easily overwhelm us all. So, let’s take a look at what exactly accreditations are, and why they’re important.

First, it’s good to understand why accreditations exist. There are an estimated 8,000 value-added resellers (VARs) in the UK, and technology vendors rely on them to reach their ultimate customers. While few vendors would want to turn business away from a reseller, they’d prefer that customers are getting advice and support from someone that knows about their technologies. Accreditations started as a means of vendors recognising VARs that had knowledge of their products.

Growing complexity
Over time things have become more complex. Just as no two companies are the same, no two vendor programmes are the same – so I’ll need to make some generalisations in this blog.

The desire to ensure that VARs have the knowledge and skills to help you, the customer, has resulted in some impressive training and certification programmes. Some of these are like university courses.

Typically, vendors’ education programmes contain different streams for sales, technical pre-sales advice, implementation and support. You’ll probably be familiar with some of the latter certifications, such as Microsoft Certified Associate or Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), through your colleagues. The extent (and cost!) of the training and complexity of the examinations often mirrors the complexity of the technology, and can last months. Complicated technologies may well involve a tiered programme of certifications, ranging from introductory to advanced levels.

I’ve used the word certification quite deliberately. This is usually the term applied to the achievement of the individual – for us, a consultant or engineer – while accreditation generally refers to the achievement of the VAR as a company.

Just as many certifications have several tiers, so too do most accreditation schemes. To some extent these help you differentiate between more and less skilled VARs, but it’s not always quite so clear cut. 

The tiers are typically a development of the bronze-silver-gold hierarchy, with bronze commonly replaced with a label like Authorised, Registered or Certified (sorry!) partner. But gold isn’t always the top tier of a vendor’s programme. Over time some have added Platinum, Titanium and even, rather like an exclusive credit card, Titanium Black tiers! So, without knowing the specifics of a vendor scheme it can be difficult to know how good a gold accreditation actually is. 

Often, an Authorised Partner will have done some training, a tier two Silver Partner will have some certified staff, and a tier three Gold Partner will have more trained and certified staff and/or staff certified at a more advanced level. On the face of it, gold is therefore better than silver, but (again there is a but!) sometimes the top tier is more a reflection of scale than ability. Is a £1bn pa turnover, 1,000 person VAR with four certified consultants better able to help you than one a tenth of the size, with two certified consultants? Additionally, the very highest level of some vendor schemes may be reserved purely for resellers that are selling tens of millions of pounds of the vendor’s products and services every year, or for international resellers.

Vendors with diverse and complex offerings, like Microsoft, have also come to realise that they could have top tier partners that knew everything there was to know about one technology, such as Exchange, but very little about another, such as CRM. Microsoft were one company that pioneered recognising partners’ areas of expertise by adding ‘competencies’ or ‘specialisations’ to their accreditations. Many now see these as more important than the accreditation tier.

The real deal
I started this blog with a bold claim about simplifying rather than mystifying. But owing to the intricacies of the schemes, I’m not convinced I’ve succeeded so far! It is an imperfect world, but the presence of a vendor accreditation certainly does demonstrate a level of knowledge – and that knowledge is greater on the middle tiers and upwards, than it is at the lower level.

Total’s accreditations are very important to us and they show that we have invested in our relationships with key vendors. But a good vendor-VAR relationship is about much more than training and certifications. Like any relationship there are many other important aspects, but from your perspective, as the customer, the quality and strength of that vendor relationship is the key thing. If there’s a problem, can your VAR pick up the phone to someone at the vendor who is both able and willing to help fix it?

That ability to resolve problems is something I take great pride in and it’s something we do very well at Total. It’s a very caring business, and just as I’d hope that all our customers see that in our interactions with them, I’d like to think that our vendors do too. But it’s not something that a badge can convey.

Accreditations are a good starting point to choosing a partner for your project, but they should be just one part of your selection process – and, overall, there’s no substitute for building a strong relationship with the right solution provider.