IBM Software Strengthens Partner Support


I sat down with IBM software chief Steve Mills last month at the company's DeveloperWorks Live show in New Orleans, and in the course of the interview he said something mildly shocking and somewhat funny. Software companies, he told me, are a "cultural wasteland."

Asked to elaborate, Mills said that firms such as Oracle, for example (yes, he singled out Larry Ellison), are only interested in selling you their software and getting out -- effectively disengaging and not following up to see whether the software helped do what it was supposed to do for your business. "The attitude is like they are doing you a favor," Mills said at the time.

Now, some might argue that this sounds hypocritical coming from IBM, whose MO hasn't been all that different historically in terms of making the sale and leaving. But Mills is adamant that the software group at Big Blue is approaching things differently today, in effect, helping partners land the deal in the first place, sticking around to provide technical resources, providing implementation assistance, and making sure its software works to the customer's satisfaction.

Backing up that claim, the company last December began to quietly beta test new sales incentive programs across its software brands. Among other things, the program represents a revamped reward system that ties -- for the first time -- compensation paid to its technical sales staff to partner and customer satisfaction and the quality and effectiveness of the overall product implementation. In other words, there's more driving the commission checks than closing the deal.

The new focus on quality assurance encompasses the entire tech sales life cycle, linking the IBM tech specialists more closely to IBM partners before a sale, during negotiations and the technology deployment, and then afterward to conduct follow-up and assess how well the software is working. It's a more structured process that aims to give partners a leg up on landing deals in the first place by designing tailor-made proposals that address the potential customer's business goals first and foremost, according to John Allessio, vice president of software technical sales for the Americas, which oversees all five of IBM's software brands.

"Frankly, we had been skipping this step in the past," Allessio told me last week. "By not asking the right questions of the customer and not getting an understanding of their business requirements first, we [and our partners] ended up selling incomplete IT solutions that didn't fully address all of their expectations."

Part of what Mills and his team hope to accomplish with the more methodical soup-to-nuts approach is establishing a set of best-practices within IBM Software (akin to IGS or IBM Consulting) for all flavors of customer scenarios that become historical tools its partners can reference when they approach a new opportunity, Allessio said.

Haverstick Consulting is one partner that is very happy with the tack IBM is taking. The IT consulting firm directly attributes a recent customer win -- to build an enterprise portal for the state of Indiana -- to the hands-on assistance from IBM's tech sales team. After deciding that IBM's WebSphere Portal was the technology it would pitch to the state of Indiana, Haverstick turned to IBM, which offered to prepare and write the technical portion of the RFP.

"It was phenomenal, really," says Terri Kershner, manager of IBM relations at Haverstick Consulting. "We could have completed the tech part of the RFP, but it would have taken forever to do it. Instead, IBM did that part, and we could focus on the part of the RFP that showcased what we could do in terms of services and consulting."

That level of detail won them the contract, Kershner says. And from that point on, IBM continued its hands-on assistance, flying experts to the location to draw up a "solution assurance review" and technology architecture and to provide technical resources.

"We've been lucky with IBM in terms of support, but I've never seen it to this extent," he says. "It's taken to a new level."

Have you seen evidence that IBM Software is ratcheting up its partner support? Write to me at capril@varbusiness.com.