When IBM shuffled its executive ranks in July, Donn Atkins landed as the new general manager of global business partners for IBM. He took the reins from the popular Mike Borman, who now heads the iSeries brand. During his 18 months on the job, Borman built up loads of goodwill with partners, much of it on display in August when Big Blue swept eight categories in VARBusiness' Annual Report Card (ARC) rankings of vendors. Clearly, Atkins, who gave a speech at the Chicago event, is stepping into big shoes. But the 27-year IBM veteran says he's ready for the challenge. Atkins spoke with VARBusiness senior writer Carolyn A. April recently about his new role.
VB: You take over at a time when IBM is being hailed by partners as the most responsive, helpful and consistent it has been in years. Much of the credit can go to your predecessor, Mike Borman. How do you maintain that earned trust while putting your own stamp on the job?
Atkins: It's a great question. [Since I started the job,] I have spent my time connecting with people and to what the team here is accomplishing. I have the same message: I'm trying to continue the good work that has been done and understand areas where we can do better. As I begin to understand how your Annual Report Card was evaluated, it gives me a framework to go by, if you will. I looked at the criteria on which our partners provided feedback, and even though we won our categories, there were areas that we have room to improve. That's Point 1. It's important that we make those improvements in the context of consistency and predictability. Second, I don't believe that any company can just sit idly and not think about the opportunities out there.
VB: What are your top priorities in the next six months to a year?
Atkins: I want to make IBM a company that is easier to do business with. IBM has many parts to it, and we need to bring together all of our approaches into a single stream. And as PartnerWorld tracks into one, this will come together even more. Also, we have to continue to respond to dynamics in the industry as they affect the profitability of partners. If you think about it, the whole ease-of-doing-business problem can be a detractor from partner profitability because of the time they must spend trying to deal with us. We need to look at our programs. A natural by-product of this is reinforcing the value of representing a total solution and for our partners to be a big part of IBM's value proposition.
VB: How do you plan to boost partner profitability in the coming year?
Atkins: There is some issue with the interchange of information between our partners and IBM. Some of that has to do with IT systems, our internal processes, how we announce products and provide information on incentives. We need to make that more cohesive. We need to find ways to protect the investment that partners make around their own value-add. If they do all the heavy lifting to help a customer understand what is available to them and to see the value in a solution, then they should be the one who delivers the solution and the one rewarded. We will ensure this by certifying that the partner who adds the value gets the contract. We won't have these partners come in at the end of the engagement.
VB: Is this effort aimed at partners playing in the SMB space only?
Atkins: Clearly it will [apply there], but I see our partners involved across all of our customer sets. They have relationships built up over years with some of our largest customers.
VB: Speaking of SMB, IBM has put partners at the front of its push into that market. How can partners best compete in the SMB space, and where do you see their biggest opportunities?
Atkins: SMB customer set where all the resources of IBM are focused on the value partners can bring and on not competing with our partners there. We have our internal compensation systems aimed at helping our partners be successful with our SMB customers. And if you look at the brands, they are focused on helping partners close deals and satisfy customers. To be successful in this space, you must look at the packaging of products. A good example is our Express offerings. You also have to make sure that partners have all the capabilities, training, skills and support. We also look at...how to support ISVs and systems integrators, and how to link them together to provide a total solution.
VB: Can you provide some insight into the changes made in the past year to focus on selling solutions?
Atkins: The solutions-selling thought was based on market reality. Customers don't focus on individual products, but want someone to come in and solve a business problem. Or they are making buying decisions that are driven by a particular application. If you think about that, it's consistent with what I have been talking about in partner strategy. We look at embracing partners and enabling ISVs. The software group today is part of my overall management cadence: I look at their strategy and plans, just as the other groups. We have shifted more dedicated resources for partners. We now enable them to not be focused on a single product, but to look at solutions and the need for multiple products... We need partners more than ever as you think about particular solutions. It's a natural.
VB: Do you plan to push more software through partners?
Atkins: One thing we want to do is leverage our presence in the hardware area to help partners include software as part of their total solution. We are also looking at places where software is sold without hardware. We are definitely focused on driving more software through partners.