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Techaisle Blog

Insightful research, flexible data, and deep analysis by a global SMB IT Market Research and Industry Analyst organization dedicated to tracking the Future of SMBs and Channels.
Anurag Agrawal

Techaisle study reveals the IT Channel in search of a roadmap to success

Techaisle’s landmark survey of 2,115 channel partners, representing a cross-section of the partner community, indicates that while pressure for change is mounting, partners have not yet coalesced around a path forward. The Techaisle channel survey shows that the partner community members are searching for a roadmap to success. That roadmap will vary across partner models, as will the opportunities and requirements for suppliers. In this time of transition, effective channel collaboration will determine growth and viability for both individual channel businesses and their vendor suppliers.

The early years of this decade have been challenging for individuals and businesses in all sectors. In some cases, the pandemic – or, more recently, rising interest rates and declining consumer confidence – have caused tremendous upheaval, with suppliers finding that traditional definitions of the market, sales motions, and fulfillment no longer applied.

The current decade has brought an even thornier set of challenges to the IT channel. In addition to the macro conditions that apply to all businesses, and against a backdrop of changing business models, shrinking product margins, and the need to build profitable services practices, channel members need strategies to cope with:

A shift in core customers – from technologists to an organization-wide mix of personas, including businesspeople who define technology in terms of business rather than IT functionality.

• A shift in buying and selling models – from fee-for-product/service to approaches that involve outcome-based evaluation and contracting or shared risk agreements that tie payments to achieving defined business goals.

• A shift in solution composition – from monolithic systems to modular stacks that address target functionality via APIs – as well as a corresponding change in the underlying business approach, from “design once, deploy many” to a need for individualized solutions tailored to a fluid set of customer needs.

These conditions have combined to place the channel under tremendous stress. Channel members have explored different business models, different product mixes – accompanied by demands for new skills and service capabilities – and other marketing, selling, and partner relationship configurations.

Both channel businesses and their vendor suppliers are vested in understanding how solution portfolios are changing and how the channel and vendor communities can best work together to bring solutions to market. These are complex questions, but their answers are at the heart of a wide range of sales, marketing, and executive imperatives. This study provides valuable input to those discussions.

Aligning to Changing Solution Portfolios

The starting point for an analysis of alignment to changing solution portfolios is the portfolios themselves – what is the channel selling, and how fast is revenue associated with these offerings expected to grow? Data shows that more than 80% of partner firms are selling cloud and/or collaboration, and more than 60% sell customer experience, employee experience, or analytics solutions. From a growth perspective, 80% or more of channel members anticipate growth in cloud and 5G, and 70% or more expect growth in collaboration, analytics, SD-WAN, virtualization, and/or SD-WAN.

Anurag Agrawal

Google Cloud partner program setting a frenetic pace for partner intimacy and enablement

Setting the Pace

Amazon AWS lets a thousand flowers bloom, Microsoft Azure has curb appeal, Google Cloud is the new gold rush. Google Cloud reported Q3 revenues of US$4.99B, an increase of 45% year over year. During the same period, Google Cloud's operating loss has narrowed from US$1.2B to US$644M. Partners are optimistic. Although Google's partner program may be nascent, it is evolving rapidly, setting a frenetic pace and speeding down the right track. The partner management team within a vendor organization is responsible for the quality of partner relationships, a critical responsibility. Ramping up new partners is expensive and time-consuming. Partner portfolios deliver the most significant returns when vendors achieve high buy-in levels and mind share within their partner communities. Partner management isn't defined solely by relationship quality, though. The effectiveness of individual relationships and partner programs and activities can be measured in terms of sales impact – and sales impact itself is generally driven, at least in immediate terms, by the quality of sales enablement and support

Kevin Ichhpurani, Vice President, Global Partner Ecosystem & Business Development at Google, is creating a partner differentiation strategy. The strategy includes a no-services friction partner first approach, developer training, selling to line of business buyers, incentives alignment, and driving marketplace revenue. Carolee Gearhart, Vice President, Global Channel Sales & SMB Sales at Google, takes the strategy further by clearly defining fundamental tenets of partner advantage – simple, collaborative, innovative, and built for growth. Google never built Google Cloud as a channel business. To begin with, Google Cloud is enabling partner transparency, increasing visibility of information, and simplifying lead registration.

Google Cloud has two main product lines: Google Workspace, a subscription SaaS solution, and Google Cloud Platform, a cloud consumption solution. Since they are different products, they have different buyers, buying economics, and competitors. To have an efficient partner program, Google is building a program that meets where the customer is buying rather than changing the sales motion. Instead of creating a partner program for different partner types, Google is developing a program based on engagement models. Early on, Google realized that it does not have an installed base to which partners can sell renewals. Partners, therefore, have to visualize compelling economics to invest in Google Cloud Platform and Google Workspace. Hence, Google has invested in activity-based incentives in the pre-sale stage. Incentives that drive customer demand and lead to sales. Partners have differentiated motivations that drive new customer acquisition, upgrades, and multi-year contracts for Google. It has attractive deployment incentives and recently introduced adoption and consumption incentives, giving partners incremental profitability and incentivizing them to grow their book of business.

Partners are listening

Partners are listening and increasing their resource investments in GCP. Techaisle data shows that 58% of partners are building in-house expertise in Google Cloud. And 62% of SMB-focused partners are either currently offering or planning to offer Google Workspace solutions. We have spoken with many AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud partners in the last six weeks. As one partner put it most eloquently, "…but the reason we are standardizing on GCP is that it offers some of the best incentives that are out there. We used to work with AWS as well. And previously, my last organization worked heavily with AWS and Azure. We knew that Google had one of the best hosted Kubernetes offerings that are out there. Once we started working with Google, we found out that not only were we right, but Google also can manage Kubernetes clusters across all the clouds. And we also wanted to get into a little bit more data analysis and, in some ways, machine learning. Google has its Cloud Vision API, its natural language processing engines, Big Query, and just a mighty engine for any data analysis services. Microsoft, Amazon likes to say that they offer a better ecosystem, but we wouldn't necessarily consider that ecosystem a mature one just yet. There are not as many integrations as they are marketing. And Google has so far stayed true to its word on what they were able to promise as far as just raw processing power."

Thoughtful incentives enabling partner engagement

A key enabler for partner intimacy is the alignment of incentives for the entire customer lifecycle – from demand generation to customer adoption and cloud consumption. Google's attention to detail for both pre-and post-transaction is a vital partner empowerment lever. It naturally has a tremendous revenue flywheel effect for the partner. Google's deep focus on pre-sales incentives for partners has the partners excited. When PoCs make or break customer relationships, pre-sales funding is essential. As another Google partner told us, "Our incentives primarily come in the form of PSF and leads that Google funnels our way. So, during the SOW process, a significant portion of the SOW is paid for by Google. We do a lot of proof of concepts and pilots and just set them in secure landing zones. And I'd say probably say the large majority of PSF probably goes towards those types of engagements."

Sales incentives are one of the areas of highest vendor channel investment. Techaisle's partner research shows that fees and activity-based incentives, solution development funds, and deal registration are necessary enablement incentives for 40% to 50% of partners. Over 60% of partners prefer Sell To/Sell With sales models, indicating the need for co-sell, co-marketing, and IP-led solutions. Data shows that 29% of partner revenue is coming from IP-led solutions. The steady rise in demand for solution development funds and the decline of market development funds shows that partner IP-led solutions are becoming front and center. Recognizing the trend, Google has devised incentive programs to engage with different partner business models and partners selling Google Workspace and Google Cloud solutions.
techaisle google cloud blog graphics 01

Anurag Agrawal

Dell Technologies Partner Program – Evolution not Revolution – Consistency to Drive Continuous Improvement

Rola Dagher is the new global channel chief at Dell Technologies. Proverbially speaking, changing of the guard brings in its wake anticipation of partner program changes. Because of the success achieved, Dell Technologies does not feel compelled to make significant modifications to its partner program. On the contrary, continuous fine-tuning of the program has helped Dell drive channel partner growth. While the core tenets of Simple, Profitable, Predictable remain, Dell plans to target consistency and constant validation with some refinements. For example, Dell is simplifying the partner preferred program (now to be named Power Up), launching a new platform to track earnings, MDFs, MyRewards with lower latency and cloud-like functionality of partner portal increasing investment earn-outs with potential to cross-sell and upsell. Dell had launched MyRewards in 2017 to capture the mindshare of the channel sales reps. The system awarded $1 value in points for cash to redeem for products and travel. 2017 also saw Dell launch its digital marketing platform (which has grown enormously), introduce Activation Packs for smaller partners with pre-approved MDF dollars, and develop compensation to channel partners on contract value for the cloud (consumption models).

Dell and its partners have been pleased with the channel strategy, and, as a result, Dell does not plan to change course. While every other IT supplier is planning for channel transformation, Dell's channel leadership believes in "evolution, not revolution." The enterprise partner preferred and commercial preferred programs (for targeted account lists) have been successful, yet they were complex to follow and execute. Learning from the experience, Dell has simplified the program to make it even more impactful for Partner of Record (PoR) partners. An identified list of accounts where partners are already working with Dell competitors; Dell sellers commit themselves to joint account planning to shift the customer to Dell. Partner competitiveness, better sales engagement with clarity of seller-partner offering, and robust programs on competitive takeout and customer acquisition have helped Dell and its partners. All part of the evolution strategy.

Until last year, Dell had struggled to simplify deal registration, both due to the task and technology transition's inherent complexity. Dell is therefore launching a better partner experience portal. Regardless of the complexity, due to relentless execution and commitment, Dell's partners made giant strides. There is no question that Dell has a complete product portfolio in the IT industry. This position has significant potential benefits but can lose impact due to the need for partners to navigate an immensely complex set of offerings. Dell deserves plaudits to recognize this challenge and respond with partner programs that mute the various solutions' roar and enable partners to focus on working effectively – and profitably – with their customers.

Channel partners are the custodians of customer needs. Armed with knowledge, training, and experience, partners are and can be in a great position to guide, design, architect, deploy and manage technology solutions for end-customers to work through the crisis and the future. Despite the headwinds, channel partners are quickly adopting both tactical and strategic approaches to solving customer problems to deliver customer success. Partners are the beacons that customers are looking for – partners who listen, share pain points, advise, and are responsive. It may be the best of times to develop a transformative strategy that is customer-in rather than product-out.

To help frame understanding of go-to-market investments, Techaisle asked its panel of channel partners to identify which of a handful of statements they believed to be accurate for their business. Data shows that the channel is in a longer-term transition. There is a need for sales staff to react to increasing customer's technical knowledge by being more innovative is essential and vital for their businesses. There is also broad and growing agreement that line-of-business selling is rising as a proportion of all sales and that "the as-a-Service model has significantly changed what a partner looks for in sales and business development professionals." These findings indicate that channel sales staff can't rely primarily on fulfillment-centric deals. Instead, they need to demonstrate a real understanding of customer business issues and how technology can deliver meaningful business benefits.

Dell is working on its partner training and sellers to transition from product to solution selling, from pricing-led to outcome-driven strategy. It seems to be yielding results. For example, in Q3, over 60% of Dell's new customer activation was through the channel. An increase in incentives to 20% for flex-on-demand offerings (for both referral and resell) lead to US$1.3B in offers in as-a-service. Dell is working to enable partner participation with Project APEX and access to Dell's as-a-service portfolio. The first offering in its portfolio will be Dell Technologies Storage as a Service (STaaS), delivering a pay-per-use model and elastic capacity and deployed on-prem. It will launch in the US for Dell's direct business in the first half of the fiscal year. Dell will share an update later this fiscal on partner availability with Project APEX, including STaaS. The key enabler of Project APEX is the Dell Technologies Cloud Console. This single web interface enables both customers and partners to manage cloud workloads and services. The Cloud Console's initial rollout will allow customers to browse a marketplace of IaaS products, services, and solutions. For partners, Dell is working on a roadmap and timeline for the console to be API eligible, allowing partners to integrate with their marketplaces.

Techaisle data shows that transformation partners are targeting revenue growth over quarterly, short-term incentives. But incentives seem to work wonders for Dell. Channel partner interest in fees and activity-based incentives are driven primarily by firms with traditional channel business models. SIs and VARs, who form most Dell partners, consider this type of stimulus most important to their businesses. But firms developing IP prefer solution development funds (which has been introduced by VMware). Channel partners focused on commodity products may not capitalize on deal registration, and only large partners would have access to staff/embedded headcounts. Rebates may be popular, but they do not increase margin much and often depress street price instead. Fees and activity-based incentives support solutions that require very long sales cycles, which would not be as beneficial in a rapid-turnaround niche. Solution development funds can be instrumental in building an ecosystem around a platform product but may take a long time to generate tangible results. SPIFs are generally helpful to shaping sales behavior but can be expensive, require effective targeting and management, and only work where there is buy-in from the partner business's owner. Within the overall channel partner ecosystem, 50% prefer fees and activity-based incentives, and 43% want solution development fund. Staffing and embedded headcount are preferred by 37% of partners.

It is evolution and not revolution. Those expecting Dell to make market-shattering transformative changes will likely be disappointed. Dell is working towards simplifying operations, educating partners, and enabling better digital marketing. Yes, there is a lot more Dell needs to do. Recent work by Techaisle shows that the need for updated understandings of channel management imperatives has expanded beyond the tactical questions of sales or management metrics or marketing activities. The pandemic has been an accelerator. Digital transformation provides enormous opportunities for the channel. It offers a means of establishing a customer relationship that secures ongoing/escalating account revenue and influence, improving the business outlook of channel firms who can capitalize on customer need for digital transformation support. For now, Dell's channel partner program has both its feet firmly planted on solid ground. Dell does not want and does need to take flight. Instead, it plans to and should continue its fight to remain valuable and loyal to the channel partner community.

Anurag Agrawal

New partner program from Cisco seizes the channel transformation conversation

Cisco held its annual Partner Summit on October 28-29, 2020, where it announced its new partner program. Since then, I have been sifting through pre-event analyst briefings, at-event announcements, post-event partner discussions. It has been difficult to find flaws with the Cisco partner program's vision, trajectory, commitment, and investments that Cisco is making in an integrated execution model to simplify partner engagement, support profitability, and drive partner differentiation. Cisco is focusing on customer-in rather than product-out.

Key announcements:

  • New partner program organized around four roles (Integrator, Provider, Developer, Advisor) while maintaining three-tier structure (Gold, Premier, Select)
  • Partner Experience Platform (PXP), a digital house to deliver a single source of truth and provide actionable insights, API-enabled for more automation and higher efficiency for partner success; consistent eight-month initiative resulting in a move from 166 siloed partner tools to a unified platform approach
  • Business Critical Services (BCS 3.0), a set of advisory services for customer use cases, for example, a secure remote workforce, trusted workplace, cloud transformation, multi-cloud networking, workload management, and automation
  • Significant increases in incentives for participating in BCS, Success Tracks, and Solution support

Rather than elaborating on each announcement's details, in this Techaisle Take, I am highlighting the three areas that showcase why Cisco is leading the charge in defining channels' future.

Future-ready partner profitability journey

The impact of the cloud on traditional channel business models is wrenching at all levels of business operations. Pay-as-you-go models are compelling to customers; there are higher rewards in business valuations for recurring revenue, and pursuit of as-a-Service calls for different sales approaches. Cisco recognizes that the profit model that was relevant yesterday, based on product lifecycle with margins, rebates, and close to the box services, is not the profit model that a partner will need to succeed. In direct contrast to several IT suppliers' narration about the customer journey, Cisco leads the partner profitability journey's conversation. Before the new announcements, the Cisco partner program was Cisco-out but not customer-in. Cisco put partners in a box, based on how they transacted or interacted with Cisco. The new program emphasizes the roles that partners play for customers. Besides integrators and providers, Cisco has added two new roles– developers and advisors. Developers who assemble solutions by leveraging Cisco components or building on Cisco's platform, and advisors who use their expertise to guide customers to the right solution, often in a pre-sales motion, or kickstart on the lifecycle journey.

Channel partners have looked to vendors for information on technology directions. They will continue to align new offerings with customer needs and internal resources with emerging requirements. This dependence grows more acute in times of structural industry change, as channel partners look to vendors for product insight and guidance on how to position their firms to ride with and not get swamped by the waves of change. However, the cloud has broken many of the links which connected channel and IT supplier business strategies. The buyer needs have become much more acute in the cloud era – meaning that the channel partner has an essential role to play in supporting mainstream businesses in IT acquisition. But the services/functions that have justified vendor payments to the channel have less direct value, which has strained the vendor/channel relationship. The channel's most significant opportunity is in meeting buyer needs – and that requires that the channel partner plot a path for the buyers rather than vendors. Cisco's new partner program helps partners be future-ready and build these capabilities to drive profitability by delivering full customer value across the lifecycle.

It is critical for partners to invest in new capabilities and differentiate their practices because the differentiated practices can jump-start their profitability journey. Front-end discounts and deal protection matter too for the partners. Cisco is inching towards a vendor-partner zero-friction future by introducing guided deal registration, which means faster approval time through a simplified process, apply the right promotions to offer the best discounts. Partners that are customer experience specialized will see incremental discounts and protection.
To align with the primary revenue model, cloud channel partners often view sales commissions as tied to a book of business, which is a challenging proposition to present to seasoned reps who have substantial quotas and variable compensation expectations. It is one reason why established channel partners have difficulty migrating from product sales to hybrid/cloud sales. To assist the partners, Cisco provides a bonus for maintaining monthly recurring revenue and a cumulative book of business. Lifecycle incentives vary from US$7500 (lifecycle starters) to US$100,000 (for defining a use case and then successfully delivering upon it) with the potential to earn up to 6% for additional software licenses sold.

APIs are essential to empower the consumption of Cisco technologies and enable partners to build tools and services on top. The shift to APIs isn't a matter of moving to where the market is going – it represents a requirement to accommodate a current need that will continue to increase in importance. Software-led business assessment is a tool that Cisco is introducing to help partners identify where they are in their journey. The tool identifies areas that partners may want to invest in or begin the process of becoming software-led and moving into the world of transformation. Associated with the assessment tool is a profitability simulator. Once the partner has determined the transformation path it wants to take, the tool simulates a profitability profile to ensure that partners get a return on their strategic investments.

Pivot to customer value creation through as-a-service

The notion that channel businesses need to add value - logistics, installation of software, upgrade, or implementation of a system, provision of services - to remain viable is old. Each value-add has an essential factor in common – it looks at what the channel does to enhance its revenue stream or differentiation. However, future-ready channel partners need to look at the issue from the other direction: how do the products and services delivered create value for the customer? What is my client able to do differently or faster, or more efficiently in a way that enhances their revenue stream or differentiation? In today's post-pandemic reality, customers are not especially interested in optimizing their hardware and software widgets' performance – they are focused on improving their businesses' performance. And this is where Cisco is focusing, empowering partners through agility, relevancy, and profitability to create customer value successfully.

We know that "as-a-service" is growing and is on its way to becoming the dominant technology acquisition model, as both a consequence of customer demand and a result of IT suppliers changing their business approaches to emphasize the as-a-service delivery model. Like HPE and Dell Technologies, Cisco is on a mission to empower buyers' preferences for rapidly deployable solutions through as-a-service, the need to work with managed service providers, realize value from technology investment, and assure the desired business outcome.

Cisco is estimating its as-a-service opportunity to be US$140 billion, two-thirds of which is potentially from the small market segment with pre-integrated solutions based on consumption models. Cisco is approaching the new technology acquisition business model holistically through three lenses: 1/ delivering exceptional outcomes, 2/ enabling and facilitating agility for Cisco customers by removing their operational burden when adopting Cisco solutions, 3/ regardless of the IT and cloud maturity as well as the size of the business, allowing them to adopt Cisco solutions in the most flexible manner.

Seeing the 'new normal' through the eyes of the customer

As per Cisco, its most profitable partners have been winning larger deals by accessing new buying centers outside of IT, by co-selling with ecosystem partners. Over the past six months, the need for partners that can support strategy, implementation, integration, and optimization has become much more acute. Business patterns changed by COVID-19 require businesses to accelerate digital transformation within their operations. In many customer organizations, purchasing authority has shifted from IT to business management. The shift requires partners to position their offerings and services in terms that emphasize business metrics, such as time to market and measurable revenue and cost impact, rather than technical specifications and targets. This business focus ripples through partner marketing and technical operations: marketing needs to emphasize time-to-benefit, the ability of individual solutions to contribute to overall business agility, and the direct application of IT features to pressing business needs; on the technology side, partners need to focus as much as possible on services centered around pre-built vertical solutions that can be deployed and integrated rapidly, with replicable processes and predictable outcomes, so that delivery matches the vision set by marketing and the requirements of the customer executives.

For decades, a turnkey solution approach worked well for customers, the channel, and vendors but it is out of sync with a hybrid world focused on a continuous path towards ever-greater levels of digital business capabilities. Business users are not committing to static systems that manage defined tasks/processes; instead, they are building approaches that allow for incremental deployment of new capabilities that increase reach and efficiency. And this is where Cisco is heading with a book of business aimed at the business buyer through a co-selling approach with Cisco sellers and ecosystem partners. To be successful, channel partners need to develop an ability to be flexible in their approach to customer needs. Cisco is committing to support this flexibility by enabling an ecosystem that can extend the ways solutions are deployable by adopting APIs that facilitate integration across complementary offerings. It also requires Cisco to establish alliances that help position these integrations as part of a strategy aligned with a digitally-transforming market.

Final Techaisle Take

In short, Cisco's partner program is ready for the future. It is a program that can help channel partners become the navigators in plotting customer digital transformation strategies.

Research You Can Rely On | Analysis You Can Act Upon

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