With so many choices in partner programs out there, how do you decide which to join and how many memberships make sense? Channel pros weigh in on choosing a vendor.
How many calls a week do you receive soliciting your firm to join a new partner program—three, five, 15? With so many vendors in the IT community, it’s inevitable you will receive numerous partnership offers. And with start-ups popping up like daisies, the volume of invitations can be overwhelming. But there are benefits to partnering up, as long as you make your commitments wisely.
“The most important aspect of a partner program is that our customers become important to the OEM,” says Carl J. Mazzanti, CEO and vice president at eMazzanti Technologies in Hoboken, N.J. “When a customer has a problem, they’re important because we’re important to that manufacturer.” In addition, partner programs provide access to road maps so that Mazzanti’s team can plan for the future with its customers, and manufacturer training ensures that employees possess the right product knowledge without having to learn on the job.
Taylor Business Group is a Kansas City, Mo.-based consultancy focused on serving IT service providers. Josh Peterson, senior consultant, notes that for his clients, the primary advantage of partner programs is that the relationship between vendor and channel partner is strengthened. “The advantage is having a deeper set of offerings for their clients,” he says. “They can use products for their internal use. They can stay fresh on what’s going on in the industry.” And, in many cases, they may become familiar with technology before it’s officially released.
Daniel Duffy, CEO and CIO of Fresno, Calif.-based Valley Network Solutions Inc., notes that in theory, partner programs should produce increased awareness on the vendor’s side of the channel partner’s business, and what its capabilities are. “In reality, that is usually not the case,” he says. “Instead, they run us through reams of forms and applications, and still [that awareness] never seems to find its way down to the foot soldiers, in some cases years after we’ve been set up.”
Duffy believes this is because many programs are developed by those who are disconnected from the channel. “They have their perception of the channel, but it appears as if most of them don’t visit VARs, and they come up with forms and lots of things that, in reality, don’t often produce results—they just produce work.”
Vendor solicitations may also be a distraction, Peterson notes, both to business owners and their salespeople. “Salespeople are often the ones who field those calls, and suddenly they get interested in the next shiny thing,” he says. “The smaller partner programs can really muddy the waters, and they can serve to distract salespeople from a company’s core partnerships.”
CRITERIA FOR COMMITMENT
With this in mind, what criteria should channel partners apply to ensure that the commitment they’re making is the right one?
For Duffy, it doesn’t start with the almighty dollar; it begins with assessing the quality of the product. “I look first at the companies that produce the products that, if I were the customer, I would want to use,” he says. Longevity is also a factor: Companies that don’t appear capable of supporting the product, or don’t look like they’ll be around for very long, aren’t good candidates. “They should have some market leadership or some really strong innovation.” Then, Duffy will begin to explore how profitable the partnership could potentially be.
Duffy notes that the vendor’s approach to training is another major criterion that determines whether he will sign up or not. “The very first thing most of them want us to do is spend a lot of time on training and take all of our people out of the field who are normally productive either selling or doing service, and put them in a room in front of a computer,” he says. In the most extreme cases, some vendors want the channel partner to pay for this. “The companies that expect us to pay them are not even considered, and then those that want us to do all sorts of burdensome and time-intensive training are usually also not considered.”
That’s not to say that Duffy doesn’t recognize the importance of a trained staff. “We have to know what we’re talking about,” he says, but there is also a need for flexibility on the vendor’s side. “When we have opportunities, that’s when I want to get our salespeople certified and trained as needed. If I have one opportunity and I’m a small business, and my customer is a small business, I don’t need six engineers and three salespeople certified. I probably need one of each, and they probably don’t need to be certified for that first year—we just need to know what we’re doing.” Then, as the momentum starts to build, certification becomes key.
THE MAGIC NUMBER
So, is there a magic number, a limit that channel partners should set on how many partner programs they join? That depends on your size and capacity for managing the programs, but most VARs categorize programs into three groups: primary, secondary, and tertiary. At Valley Network Solutions, primary partners are Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, and Microsoft, with secondary relationships comprising companies that manufacture ancillary and support products that are a critical part of most networks, such as WatchGuard, Citrix, and APC. Tertiary partnerships are those that some, but not all, customers utilize. “After the tertiary partners, there are dozens of companies,” Duffy explains. “Our year-to-date sales reports indicate that we have sold products from about 120 different companies. We’re not in all of their partner programs, but we’re in many of them.”
For eMazzanti, the primary partners are Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and WatchGuard; the company is WatchGuard’s two-time partner leader. With Microsoft, eMazzanti has participated in advertising campaigns and partner conferences, as well as case studies. “In focusing on those three partnerships, we become super important to them,” Mazzanti says. Through these relationships, eMazzanti has access to technology eight months to a year before the rest of the marketplace, enabling the company to employ early adoption programs for its customers before many products are released. “This has helped us immensely with marketing the success of our customers, getting technical and educational support from our vendors, and having a road map where we know how to solve problems long before our customers ever experience them.”
By Mazzanti’s own admission, his company’s proactive approach to managing partner programs requires time and effort. Currently, Mazzanti manages these relationships himself, sometimes bringing in another account executive for support. Each month, he and his sales staff participate in Partner Day, whereby vendors conduct conference calls with their partners to touch base. The topics covered include what challenges the firm is facing with various products, as well as an update from the vendor on where things are headed. Mazzanti notes that depending on the size of the partner, the feedback that he and his team deliver may actually be taken into account. “For WatchGuard, we can absolutely tell them we need a feature, and it will be released in a few months,” he says. “We’re close enough that I can call up a product manager.”
Duffy recounts that Valley Network Solutions is solicited for partner programs several times a week; these days, the bulk of those calls are from backup providers. He concedes that while his criteria may be strict, it pays to have an open mind. “You never know who the next Cisco is going to be, so you have to listen and look at these companies,” he says. “I do that through reading on my own, and I will listen to what our sales and service people are saying. If I see a product that looks really cool, that will catch my attention first. Then, if the vendor rep calls, great.”
For Mazzanti, building strong partner relationships is essential, and this requires that channel pros have a clear idea of what their goals are and how much effort they are willing to invest in achieving those objectives. “Figure out what it takes for you to become important to a partner. Interview that partner as much as they are interviewing you,” he advises. “And, commit to it if you’re going to do it. If you’re not, it’s not worth the time to even fill out the application form.”
By Carolyn Heinze
Carl Mazzanti is Co-Founder and President of eMazzanti Technologies, Microsoft’s four time Partner of the Year and one of the premier IT consulting services for businesses throughout the New York metropolitan area and internationally. Carl and his company manage over 400 active accounts ranging from professional services firms to high-end global retailers.
eMazzanti is all about delivering powerful, efficient outsourced IT services, such as computer network management and troubleshooting, managed print, PCI DSS compliance, green computing, mobile workforce technology, information security, cloud computing, and business continuity and disaster recovery.
Carl Mazzanti is also a frequent business conference speaker and technology talk show guest and contributor at Microsoft-focused events, including frequent prominent roles at the Microsoft Inspire (Worldwide Partner Conference / WPC).
Carl, a serial Entrepreneur, gives back to the community through Entrepreneur teaching engagements at Georgetown University, the company’s ocean wildlife conservation effort, the Blue Project, and Tree Mazzanti.