One Monday in early December MyTech Partners, a Minneapolis-based solution provider, received a call from a prospective customer, a local nonprofit organization that had found MyTech through Dell SonicWall's online partner locator. The parties met on Wednesday and less than a week later MyTech had a signed contract for a $25,000 project.
"That's a very fast track," said Nathan Austin, business development vice president at MyTech.
Contrast Austin's experience with that of Jim Bittle, CEO of Commputercations, a Frederick, Md.-based solution provider that works with Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and WatchGuard Technologies. Recently, out of curiosity, Bittle searched HP's partner locator for solution providers within 10 miles of Commputercation's ZIP code. "It came back with 'Nothing found,' " he said.
IT vendors love to tout their online partner locator systems, not just for their operational nuts-and-bolts capabilities, but as a symbol of their commitment to channel partners. A prominently displayed partner locator link, after all, means a company is willing to forgo a potential direct sale in favor of making a sale through the channel.
That's why CRN decided to take a closer look at how some of the biggest IT vendors provide ways for customers to find and connect with solution providers. Along with other demand-generation efforts such as co-marketing campaigns and sales leads, online partner locator systems are one of the major tools IT companies offer for channel partners.
However, it's difficult to gauge the actual effectiveness of partner locators. Most vendors don't keep tabs on how the online systems are used and reports from solution providers are mixed. Some said they've scored deals as a result of a vendor's partner locator while others said the systems produce few actual leads.
Meanwhile, a CRN survey showed that about 39 percent of approximately 100 respondents don't view the locators as important to their business.
THE LOCATOR LANDSCAPE
CRN's informal review of locators revealed that some vendors make it easier to find partners than others.
Take Cisco Systems, for example. Click on the prominent "Partners" link at the top of the company's home page and the "Find a Partner" box is on the left of the Partner Central page. Likewise, hover your cursor over the "How to Buy" link at the top of EMC.com and the "Find a Partner" link (among other options) appears.
Even software giant SAP, which until recent years was better known for selling software directly to big companies, understands the value of providing a way for prospective customers to find partners. The "Our Partners" link at the top of SAP.com takes you to "Work with an SAP Partner" and then, a little bit down the page, "Find an SAP Partner."
OK, that's an extra click compared to some other sites. But that interim page also offers a two-minute video titled "The power of working with SAP partners."
Other vendors' websites aren't quite so easy to navigate.
On IBM.com you have to scroll to the bottom to find the "Shop & buy" links where "Find a Business Partner" is the sixth of seven options. One could argue that's not bad since that link is right on the home page, rather than one click away like Cisco, EMC and others. But it's still below direct-sales-focused links such as "Ready to buy?" and "Find a sales rep." The only option listed below the partner locators is "IBM logo merchandise."
HP.com's site appears to be very focused on direct sales with "HP Partners" in relatively small print at the bottom with "Buy from an HP Partner" an option in the drop-down menu.
Even less intuitive is Microsoft's home page, surprising for such a partner-focused company that brags at partner events about its Pinpoint partner locator system. You have to click the "Shop" link at the top of Microsoft.com to get the "Find an IT Expert (Pinpoint)" link -- the word "partner" isn't used -- to get to Pinpoint. And that assumes a potential customer knows what Pinpoint is. Clicking on "For Work" in the middle of the home page and then clicking on "Find IT experts and solutions" provides another route to Pinpoint.
The "Find a Microsoft Store near you" link, however, is very prominent at the top of Microsoft.com.
Most vendors provide additional routes to their partner locators beyond their home page. Microsoft's Pinpoint can be directly accessed at www.pinpoint.com. Microsoft, Oracle and other vendors also provide links to partner locators from product Web pages, marketing materials and other locations. "It's quite pervasive throughout Microsoft's online catalogs," said Karl Noakes, general manager of Microsoft's worldwide partner strategy and programs.
But no one seems to have real statistics on how effective partner locator systems are -- the evidence is anecdotal. Most vendors interviewed for this story said they don't track how much traffic their partner locators get, how many prospective customers follow up by contacting partners, or how many of those leads turn into sales.
"We hear about [partners'] successes and we know it's a critical part of their customer engagement," said Mary Catherine Wilson, Dell director of PartnerDirect marketing.
Microsoft was an exception. Noakes forecast that Pinpoint would get 8 million unique visitors this year. But how many of those turn into leads and ultimately, sales, is a question mark.
None of the vendors interviewed for this story provided information about how much they spend to develop and maintain their partner locator systems. Some said the partner locators are one component of their channel partner database systems and breaking out costs for the locators isn't possible. Others simply declined to provide the information.
Despite the lack of metrics, vendors -- not surprisingly -- say their partner locator systems are critical elements of their channel strategy. And naturally, they disagree with any assessment of their locators as being hidden or hard to use.
"This is a major, major focus for us. It's a very important component of our overall outreach to the marketplace," said Ed Abrams, IBM vice president of marketing for midmarket.
Edison Peres, Cisco's senior vice president of worldwide channels, calls the company's Partner Locator system one of "three major platforms" in the company's channel program. The others are the Partner Central portal resellers use for all dealings with the vendor and its Partner Led initiative that focuses on partner sales to SMB customers.
"This is central to Oracle's partner strategy," said Lydia Smyers, Oracle group vice president, worldwide alliances and channels, about the Oracle Partner Network (OPN) Solutions Catalog, the company's online partner database and locator system. "It's the heart and soul of how we represent our partners."
HP channel executives say that company's partner locator is designed for prospective customers looking for solution providers who offer "transformative" services and are not just selling a new notebook computer, said Tony Anderson, director of indirect marketing for HP's enterprise group. "That's where I've seen the partner locator come into its own -- making sure end users know who has the right specialty and leading them to the right partner."
Vendors are upbeat about their partner locators but solution providers have decidedly mixed feelings about the systems. So with 39 percent of solution providers who responded to a CRN survey saying partner locators were "not important at all," 32 percent said they were "somewhat important" and only about 29 percent rated them as "very important."
Eighty percent of the nearly 100 solution providers surveyed said less than 10 percent of their sales are generated through partner locators; only 1.25 percent said more than 50 percent of their overall sales come through those systems.
"I can't think of a time that we got a lead from any of those except one time from Dell a couple of years ago," one respondent added in the survey. "Locators don't work -- not prevalent on websites," wrote another.
"Those leads tend to be leads for single units or parts, not for projects," one survey respondent maintained. "Of all the vendor lead sources, the actual partner locator is the least important."
However, partner locator systems can and do pay off. Just before Christmas, Theta Software, a Microsoft channel partner in New Zealand, scored a $100,000 (New Zealand dollars) contract through Microsoft's Pinpoint partner locator system to implement Microsoft's Dynamics NAV ERP application suite for a customer.
"It's a good avenue for leads for us," said Theta Software sales manager Kevin Fong, noting that his company gets one or two such leads every month through the system.
Austin at MyTech Partners, which captured the $25,000 project through the Dell/SonicWall partner locator, said, "It's at least one a month, if not several times a month, we're getting referrals through the partner locator."
Hayes Drumwright, CEO of Trace3, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider that partners with Cisco and has a profile on the vendor's partner locator system, praised Cisco's partner locator. "I don't think anybody has as robust a system as Cisco," he said. Trace3 also participates in partner locator initiatives run by EMC, Symantec, NetApp and others.
But John Bristol, who manages Trace3's relationship with Cisco, acknowledged that "it's pretty rare" for Cisco's partner locator to actually bring in new customers. Mostly it's used by prospects who already have Trace3 on their radar screens looking up background on the company, "a validation tool" for checking things like Trace3's certifications, according to Drumwright.
"I think the real demand gen has to be done with the [vendor and solution provider] sales reps at the street level," he said.
"Most of our leads have good 'source' tracking information and few show 'partner locator,' " said Marc Mandelbaum, marketing director at New York-based solution provider Net@Work, in an email. "It's hard to tell for sure, but if we do, it's not more than a few. Of course, it's possible that a percentage of our inbound calls [and] emails found us on partner locators, but our reps do try to ask, 'Where did you find us?' and I rarely have seen that as a source."
One exception: Mandelbaum said Net@Work has seen a "handful" of leads come in from Dell's partner locator, especially in the past year.
Vendors, of course, rightly emphasize that partners who put more into partner locator systems, including building a resume of vendor certifications, competencies and specializations and crafting a detailed profile, are the ones who get more out of them. "The partners who do that are getting better results," Microsoft's Noakes said.
"We're trying to give all partners an equal chance to win in the marketplace," said Toni Adams, vice president of global partner and alliances marketing at VMware. "But at the end of the day, our competent partners are our best partners to deliver our products and services," she said, noting the importance of partner certifications on VMware's partner locator.
Beyond generating sales leads, solution providers say partner locator systems do offer value in other ways. Fong at Theta Software said Microsoft's Pinpoint also serves as a way for his company to globally market packaged software -- specifically the Dynamics NAV add-ons the company develops.
"We use it to find other partners," said Bristol at Trace3, noting that the company sometimes turns to the Cisco partner finder when Trace3 has a contract in a remote region and needs on-site help from a local solution provider, or when the company has need for special expertise or service capabilities.
In addition to the "external view" of the Oracle OPN Solutions Catalog available to prospective customers, the system has an "internal view" that Smyers said is used by Oracle sales representatives and other employees to find implementation partners, confirm partners' specializations, or identify qualified partners in specific geographies.
"I think partners have a great opportunity to represent themselves," said Sue Smith, senior director of channel programs at Symantec, who manages that vendor's partner locator system.
While HP execs are unable to say how much business the company's partner locator is generating for channel partners, Matt Smith, marketing director for the company's printing and personal systems organization, can say for sure that people are using it.
"When the thing goes down, we hear about it," he said.
PUBLISHED APRIL 1, 2013