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The Next Generation of Partner Mentality

Building a Stronger Partner Channel

In my role as an evangelist I am fortunate to get to see a lot of evolution by being consistently exposed to the broader market for technology. Most importantly, I am exposed to partners who design, build, and run solutions. One of the biggest changes I have witnessed in my 20+ years in IT, is the evolution of the partner/manufacturer relationship, and the rise of partners whose sole mission is to “sell themselves” and not a manufacturer’s products. This change is a difficult one, and it strikes at the heart of a well-established and frankly very successful model of selling through a partner channel. This change is going to happen because it is being driven by the demands of a new type of customer experience and the need to more rapidly adapt and support the reality of modern platforms.

The past of the Channel Partner

For those that don’t know, the word Channel refers to the model of having business partners act as another channel for selling, servicing, and delivering goods from a manufacturer. While not just a tech industry specific concept, it is arguably one of the technology industry’s most common vehicles for selling. There’s good reason for that. Manufacturers cannot hope to be everywhere all at once. Nor can they possibly have 100% of the expertise, domain knowledge, or specific skills needed to serve every customer. Having a network of partners allows a manufacturer to “train the trainers” on the basics of our products. In turn, they can then provide more personalized solutions to customers, without the manufacturer having to shoulder the burden of hiring massive amounts of staff on their own.

In addition, partners can handle matters directly, such as providing lines of credit, billing, and payments within the channel structure. This means that a manufacturer isn’t extending itself financially, which hampers its ability to spend money on research and development. This need for a business and logistics servicing tier of the channel gave rise to an entire layer of specialty partners called distributors. In the time when technology purchasing involved a physical object (a hard drive, a memory chip, a box of software) this tier of distribution also handled important “last mile” logistics around things like warranty stock and repairs, shipping and receiving, and keeping parts on hand for fulfilling orders. This model has developed extensively in the past decades, and works incredibly well. It is supporting a vast infrastructure of parts and objects, that needed to get from a manufacturer to a customer efficiently.

The Present of the Channel Partner

The impact of the rise of “___ as a Service” replacing physical products is deeply felt in this 2-tier channel model. Without a physical object to ship, the logistics and fulfillment needs have dramatically shrunk in the last few years, and continue to decline. Since software is now consumed directly from the manufacturer platform, the need for a delivery, servicing, and upgrade/update/health-check type service offering has been greatly reduced, and in some cases, such as in “100% cloud” organizations, completely eliminated.

Partners who built their business around the fulfillment, sales and service model, who have neglected to keep an eye on developing their skills and technical capabilities in the new platforms, find themselves in a precarious position. Traditional channel is declining rapidly across every segment of the tech industry. This trend is not just in software, but hardware as well, as people move their infrastructure more and more to the cloud. While there are always places where physical and on-premises products will continue to exist, the market that was once so robust, is clearly in decline as the customer demands change. I truly believe that the role of the partner, while clearly in a state of transformation, is no less diminished. In fact, the role of the partner in this next generation of platforms may be even MORE critical to the overall delivery of solutions to customers than it was in the “physical” days.

Customers today face an overwhelming array of offerings for solving their business challenges. As an example, there are literally hundreds of options for monitoring and logging system performance. As a manufacturer, simple logic dictates that I must lead with my product. A partner, however, can occupy a much more strategic and ultimately far more valuable role as the advisor and recommender of solutions. This approach is not new; partners have been the “trusted advisor” for years as customers seek to separate marketing fluff from operational fact. In the “cloud era” though, this role takes on an entirely new dimension which did not exist previously.

Seas of Change

In the “on-premises era” the general notion was this: get a demo, make your decision, get the software and implementation services, install it and mess around with it until it works. Take a class or two, continue using it and mastering it over time. In the cloud era, the act of “demoing, deciding, and deploying” is often the same thing. Installation services are hardly required when you deploy a piece of software with a click of a button. This means that by the time a customer is at the “messing around until it works phase” of the process, they already have the software installed and running, and are using it – often in production. This “instant-on” acquisition model means that in order to complete the solutions process, a deep understanding of new software is part of the sales cycle, and not something you do later.

Partners that are strong in the cloud space already understand this change and it is reflected in the way they go to market. They “sell themselves”, really their knowledge,to their customers. Consulting is no longer just about use cases, understanding a business process, and possible architectures. It’s about digging in and building right alongside the client. This can often mean constructing complex, multi-system solutions with many moving parts that are quite possibly requiring different platforms working together. The distinction between “consulting” and “building” is getting ever thinner. Customers rightfully expect partners to be able to handle a solution from end-to-end; from design and recommendations through architecting, building, tuning, and operationalizing the build.

Partners unwilling or unable to adapt to this new mindset will find themselves adrift in a never-ending race to compete on price. Without any additional incentives, which are drying up or being redirected to cloud-based partners, these “Sell Only” partners could find themselves struggling to stay afloat.

The Rising Tide

This need for ever more skilled and developed partners is leading the major cloud providers to dramatically rethink the channel as a whole. Including the way to find, develop, and enable partners in particular. This need for broad and deep technical skill within our partners is why the concept of technology evangelism was created. Evangelism teams focus on developing a standardized and codified curriculum for partners that will provide meaningful options for certifications (not just against a single product, and not just a typical “how to sell” option). Evangelism teams teach deep and comprehensive technical skills and provide an increased depth of enablement, and business development practices for transitioning, growing, or even starting-up new partner business.

The change doesn’t happen overnight, and there is a long way to go to complete this transformation (You will see in my next post - transformation killing issues that every company has). But it will happen, because the next generation of partners and customers demand it happen.

Riding the Wave

Never has the axiom of “the customer is always right” been more apt and more applicable; customers are demanding a level of knowledge and skill that allows them to build confidently on ANY platform, with ANY tooling. Manufacturers only have the tools and platforms that they create and partner with. That is why partners represent such a critical part of the cloud era. I firmly believe that the more partners are engaged and skilled up on cloud and data services, the more the rising tide of customer demand for such skills will lift all boats. It is time for everyone to get trained up on these new platforms and catch the wave before it passes them by.

Comments? Agree/disagree? Drop them here, or join the conversation with me @charrold303 on twitter!

More Stories By Christopher Harrold

As an Agent of IT Transformation, I have over 20 years experience in the field. Started off as the IT Ops guy and followed the trends of the DevOps movement wherever I went. I want to shake up accepted ways of thinking and develop new models and designs that push the boundaries of technology and of the accepted status quo. There is no greater reward for me than seeing something that was once dismissed as "impossible" become the new normal, and I have been richly rewarded throughout my career with this result. In my last role as CTO at EMC Corporation, I was working tirelessly with a small group of engineers and product managers to build a market leading, innovative platform for data analytics. Combining best of breed storage, analytics and visualization solutions that enables the Data as a Service model for enterprise and mid sized companies globally.