As my esteemed editor seems to suggest in the covering brief to this month’s cover story, (Product Managers), the IT distribution sector- along with the rest of the national economy – is facing an extremely stern challenge given today’s shaky economic climate and a socio-political environment that is fraught with uncertainty.

This puts product managers in an extremely difficult situation where, on the one hand, they are expected to continue ordering stock to meet vendor growth expectations, while at the same time being forced to deal with reseller demands for better pricing in a cutthroat sales market.

On yet another hand, the same product manager faces extreme pressures from the distributor’s shareholders as they expect stock to be kept to the barest minimum, to be sold at the highest margin and for credit extension to be eliminated altogether.

While shareholder expectations should probably be the norm in any business, there is no doubt whatsoever that it takes a special breed of product manager to balance all these inherent pressures against the vested interests of other players in the market, not least of which are those vendors involved in the relentless pursuit of quarter-on-quarter growth – regardless of trading conditions.

It should be remembered that product managers in distribution are usually recruited as a resource dedicated to a single vendor as a non-negotiable condition of a being granted distribution rights for the territory.

As far as the vendor is concerned, a distribution product manager is expected to be both a technical as well as a product specialist ‑ a fanatical evangelist totally focused on the vendor brand and committed to guaranteeing the achievement of outlandishly optimistic revenue targets.

In serving the vendor’s best interests, the product manager is required to undergo extensive training to gain international vendor sales and technical certifications. This expertise is then expected to be offered free of charge on behalf of the vendor to resellers and their customers through pre‑sales consultancy services as well as a degree of postsales technical support.

Vendors also often rely on their dedicated distribution product manager to initiate and manage an extensive array of marketing programmes into the reseller channel. These duties could include, among others, sales incentive schemes, reseller recruitment into certification programmes, the staging of product launches and seminar selling events, the distribution of marketing collateral and the implementation of direct marketing campaigns.

In serving the vendor, the distribution product manager is usually forced to adhere to an onerous range of reporting and other administrative and product management requirements ‑ sales reports, stock holding, purchasing forecasts, warranty claims, pricing and shipping issues, rebates, co‑operative marketing claims and many others.

Then there’s the reseller channel ‑ the distributor’s customer who is expected to sell the distribution product manager’s stock in ever-increasing quarter-on-quarter volumes to meet the vendor’s growth expectations.

With due respect to obvious exceptions, many resellers tend to exploit distribution product managers with what can almost be described as “criminal intent”.

Often too idle or too stupid to take the trouble to establish the suitability of a particular product for a particular application, resellers rely on the technical expertise of the product manager to provide basic information such as product features, benefits and technical specifications.

In some instances, the reseller’s lack of commitment to skills development and the provision of value‑added services based on a particular product or brand means that the distribution product manager is forced to take responsibility for motivating and driving the entire pre‑sales process at an end user level. Once this hard work is done, the reseller will step back into the loop to invoice the customer, “drop the box” and move on to the next prospective order.

Even if the reseller does not exploit the value‑add pre‑sales services that the product manager is capable of providing, it’s almost inevitable that the product manager will be drawn into other aspects of dealing with the demands of a notoriously inept reseller. These demands can range from special pricing, to requests to stock returns after the wrong product was ordered or a better price was obtained from a rival.

As if being regarded as a virtual slave to the vendor whose product is being handled, or resellers too incompetent or lazy to do their own work, the distribution product manager has a far more important responsibility ‑ the requirement to answer to executive management of the distribution company where he/she is employed.

It is against this background that the time has come to recall and plagiarise the inspirational words used by John F Kennedy during his inauguration address to the American people on 20 January 1961.

Wouldn’t it be absolutely great to have a vendor stand up and say to their distribution partners: “Ask not what you can do for me, but what I can do for you.”