Growing up as a Red Sox fan and growing old as a office imaging analyst, it’s been hard not to root for the underdog.

I certainly can’t complain about my last ten years with the Sox (minus 2011 & 2012), but from kindergarten to college I got pretty used to watching my team either finish somewhere in the middle of the AL East or lose in the Playoffs/World Series in some of the worst ways imaginable.

Maybe it was watching the Yanks buy their way to the top, maybe it was seeing Wade Boggs trot around Yankee stadium on horseback, and it certainly had something to do with A-Rod’s very masculine swipe at Bronson Arroyo’s tag in the 2004 ALCS, but by the time I became an adult baseball had given me a pretty clear idea of what’s fair and what’s unfair.  After all, the Red Sox only had baseball’s second highest payroll most of those years…

Fast-forward to 2013 and the parallels between the Red Sox/Yankees “rivalry” and the dealer/direct “rivalry” are clear to see.  And just like Jake Fishman circa 2003, copier dealers have a lot to complain about.  They are sick of competing against their own suppliers on a regular basis, can’t justify paying wholesale costs above the branches’ sales prices, and can’t believe it when they see direct reps selling into smaller SMBs that they know can’t be profitably supported under a direct cost structure.

Although I stay objective in my analysis (of course), I have also had a hard time condoning some of the practices I’ve seen from direct organizations over the years.  I understand the importance of having a strong direct presence (it’s a total requirement), but I can’t sign-off on direct organizations targeting smaller SMBs and/or rural markets in an effort to grow share at the apparent expense of profitability and channel relations – at least not in today’s market.  I even wrote a blog about it.

However, just like this year’s postseason (bye Yankees!), I’ve recently gained a refreshing new perspective on what’s really fair and unfair in the MFP/MPS channels.

While working on a recent project that included interviews with dealers and direct reps, I noticed a major difference in business philosophy between these two parts of the channel.  In short, the direct guys (at least the good ones) are embracing services and solutions at a far deeper level than the majority of dealers, and are not even interested in discussing pricing, while many dealers are still grasping on to the old ways of doing things, which does not give them a lot to talk about outside of pricing.

Dealers, please note: I said “MANY” not “ALL.”

Of course, dealer philosophies vary and many are doing an outstanding job adapting to today’s service/solutions-led market, but there is still a lot of box-pushing going on in the channel, and still a lot of resellers that would rather continue doing what they have always done than venture into the unknown.  Far too many dealers still don’t “get” the economics or market need for MPS and many that do have a program in place still limit their offering to support for their own A3s and HP LaserJets.

Dealers undoubtedly face a funding disadvantage versus direct branches, but just like the pre-2000 Red Sox, many dealers’ greatest challenges are around strategy and execution, not payroll.  And to quote just about everyone in our industry, this strategy has to be services and solutions-led.

Dealers of course understand this services and solutions-led mandate, but the channel’s long-established 30/60/90-day quotas, leasing tactics, and separate positioning of hardware/click sales and solutions/services sales (among others) are keeping a lot of dealers from making their solutions-led transitions a reality.

This is the way the 1990s Red Sox worked back when we were trading a young Jeff Bagwell mid-season to get a terrible lefty closer or over-paying a declining Jose Canseco to get butts in Fenway’s seats.  Looking back, we needed to spend a lot less time complaining about the Yankees and place a lot more focus on emulating their strategy (at least the holding/developing/signing talent part, plus the playing to win part).  This is true for dealers too.

Dealers are never going to beat the local direct branch on price, but having the right conversations with right clients does not have a wholesale cost attached to it and there is no doubt that fully embracing a consultative approach can serve as a valuable equalizer against direct branches as well as a differentiator against competing dealers.  Most importantly, any solutions or service sales that come from these conversations (plus any clicks or MFPs) will bring new sources of revenue and profit, which is much more fun to talk about than costs and pricing anyway.

The good news is, dealers will always be far better than direct reps at relationship-based selling, service execution, and taking a long-term approach to their client accounts (at least among SMBs).  And the better news is, these strengths have everything to do with services and solutions.  All dealers have to do is commit to this evolution and then position their company strategy and structure to take advantage of these inherent strengths.

Major strategic and structural changes like this cannot be taken lightly, but remember as you tune in to game three of the ALCS today, the Red Sox shed 10% of their salary and three big stars on the way to the playoffs this year and had to beat a strong Tampa Bay team (3rd lowest payroll) to get there.  Strategy wins.