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VARs To Vendors: Stand By Me

Solution providers warn that IT vendors need to put more weight and status behind the post of channel chief or risk falling behind in the sometimes bloody race for market share.

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Solution providers warn that IT vendors need to put more weight and status behind the post of channel chief or risk falling behind in the sometimes bloody race for market share.

Too often, they say, the channel chief job is seen as a highly visible yet short-term stop by executives looking to punch their ticket as they climb the corporate ladder. Solution providers say the "it's the program, not the personality" mentality seems to hold sway among vendors but is wearing thin in the channel. In the span of just one year since our last Channel Chiefs report, Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, which rely on solution providers for a huge portion of their annual revenue, have seen major changes in their channel chief ranks. What's more, solution providers say the new wave of emerging vendors that is relying almost exclusively on the channel to make their mark needs to make the channel chief the most important executive in their organizations if they hope to succeed.

"There aren't any Franks within the tier-one Cisco- [or] Symantec-type of vendors anymore," said John DeRocker of Nexus Information Systems, referring to former longtime IBM channel executive Frank Vitagliano. "But on the emerging side, there are plenty of outside-the-box thinkers."

DeRocker, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the Plymouth, Minn.-based solution provider, said that dynamic and flexible channel chiefs are crucial for new vendors that want to do business with the channel. "If they do what they typically do—stay within their box—there is no channel flexibility," he said. "I don't even look at them at all as a potential partner."

DeRocker and other solution providers said the channel chief's ability to forge relationships with partners has a direct correlation to how much, if any, business they do with the respective vendor.

"The vendor is the kite, and the resellers are the tail," said Rick Chernick, CEO of Camera Corner Connecting Point, a solution provider in Green Bay, Wis. "The kite doesn't fly without the tail. If the vendor wants to be successful, they have to take us with them and they have to respect us and realize that we all have to make some money."

As such, Chernick said a credible channel chief needs to effectively lobby for the channel and preach to his or her staff that if the solution provider does well, the vendor does well. He said, too, that good channel chiefs need to be highly visible, speaking to solution providers at as many partner events as possible. "And [they have] to be willing to listen so that we can help coach them and help all parties involved, meaning solution providers, customers and manufacturers," he said.

Tim Joyce, president and CEO of Roundstone Systems, an HP enterprise solution provider in Alameda, Calif., said a great chief would be someone who understands the value of the vendor's strongest and closest partners and who can integrate them into the sales process. "He's somebody that essentially says, 'I would like to make it easy to help solution providers do more business with us,' rather than someone who keeps reshuffling the deck so you can't figure out what his next move is."

And does the program or the personality matter most in a channel chief's success? "You'll get furthest if you have both," Joyce said. "You can have great programs, but if they aren't executed well, it doesn't work. And if you have a great leader without a strong program, everything flounders."

Smaller solution providers, however, said they rarely have direct contact with channel chiefs at large vendors, and many said they simply don't care who occupies the post.

"I really don't see them as visionaries. I just see them as another employee in the company," said Alexander Zaltsman, a partner in Exigent Technologies, a $2.5 million solution provider in Morristown, N.J. But the seeming lack of attention that large vendors bestow on smaller solution providers creates a huge opportunity for smaller vendors to fill the void. For smaller companies, the channel chief role could fall to the CEO or other top executive. "For smaller companies, you can talk to the people at the top and find out about the direction of the company," he said.

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