2020 Wasn't All Bad

By Jordan Statt
Monday, February 22, 2021

Well folks, 2020 is behind us. We are a quarter into the new year and much of the content buzzing around the web today is focused on the future. What is coming next for consumer behavior, and which technologies will become table stakes? As we have pointed out previously, technology will continue to enable merchant and consumer flexibility more than ever before.

But where does that leave the VAR, and how did the Channel cope in the face of arguably the most personally and professionally challenging year in memory? As the Director of the Retail and Hospitality industry’s largest Dealer Channel, I think about the barometer for success in 2020, and compare that to what defines success today. As always, it’s more complicated than simply counting the dollars made and lost...

Success in 2020

Who were the successful Dealers of 2020? At Heartland, I am proud to say that we didn’t lose a single Dealership partner to the negative business impact of the pandemic. But the year was not the same for all Dealers, even ones who I would define as successfully navigating through it all. We saw two distinct successful Dealer classifications in 2020:

The Hedgehogs

For those who have not read Jim Collins’ Good to Great, the Hedgehog concept is simple: The opportunity for greatness as a business is the recognition of the intersection between what you are passionate about, what you are or can be the best at, and the ability to successfully make money doing it. In realistic terms for Dealers in our channel (and others), those who performed best in 2020 stayed true to their values as VARs. They focused on repeatedly providing opportunity to serve merchants in their local communities, refusing to allow the pandemic to disrupt what they are best at. They adopted new demonstration methods, got significantly better at one-call closes, and found ways to implement and support merchants with less on-site personnel. This devotion to their merchant customers, new and existing, ultimately led to growth for some in 2020.

The Indoor Runners

The second category exhibited last year were the Indoor Runners. I liken this group to runners on a treadmill; busy staying active, but ultimately staying in the same place. Phrases like “hunkering down” and “riding it out” are what come to mind for this category. However, despite any negative connotation those terms have invoked in the past, the reality is that this group was far from unsuccessful.

While not growing (or not growing to the degree of the Hedgehogs), they still found ways to successfully run their businesses. This past year was utterly challenging for nearly all businesses, and of course, staying open through everything was no small feat. This group, in many cases, had to lay off staff in the slower months of the pandemic and, in some cases, had difficulty rehiring back in markets where unemployment benefits made return to work less attractive. COVID-19 fatigue impacted purchasing decisions greatly around the country in the SMB retail and hospitality spaces, and this group felt the weight of that larger than most. But, in spite of these headwinds and challenges, this group remained steadfast that service to their customers was paramount.

What They Both Have In Common Today

These two groups may have seen different financial results for the 2020 year, but they have a lot in common, even today, that is worth pointing out.

Strong Partnerships

Success in anything rarely comes without help from those around us. In our personal lives, it is our friends and family who support us, motivate us, and enable us to be our best selves. In business, we rely on internal employees, mentors, and partners to carry us forward. Dealers who are successful have partnerships with vendors offering great technology and program infrastructure that enable them to focus on the things they can be best at. In my mind, 2020 drew that fact to the surface more than in recent years, where ISVs lacking the above components put significant pressure and strain on their VAR partners. As an independent business, VARs need to think critically about what they are getting from their partners in good times and challenging times.

Commitment to Customer

Customer focus is of particular importance here. Some of those VARs who grew their business in 2020 were in the most challenging markets like the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast. Many sought to preserve their existing customer relationships through the use of Cloud technology that brings with it flexibility, and were quite successful at fighting off closure attrition. Where the Hedgehogs differentiate, though, was their adaptation of the concept to net new merchant customers. Of course accretive revenue through the sale and support of new technologies is always good, but literally saving customers from pandemic-induced extinction is magnificent.

Grit

If the above two elements are what it takes outwardly to succeed as a VAR today, Grit is the cream filling; passion and perseverance over the long-haul. That last part of Grit is the most critical. Success as a modern VAR means playing the long-game, and Grit means working in excellence over a long period of time, despite the challenges you encounter in the present, and the knowledge that more will come. I am inspired by so many Dealer partners we work with at Heartland, and VARs we don’t yet work with, for their Grittiness. After all, serving lifelong customers is what we all want, and I am eager to see this Grit positively affect all those in our industry for the remainder of this year and beyond.