What Makes A Good Channel Chief?

Don't underestimate the value of the channel chief.

That's the warning solution providers give to their vendor partners. And more and more vendors seeking channel mind share and market share are getting the message. CMP Channel's 2008 annual listing of vendor channel chiefs covers the spectrum from industry giants such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Cisco Systems to an array of upstarts, startups and up-and-comers hoping to convince solution providers that their respective products are key building blocks in business solutions.

Solution providers say that too often, especially in larger, more established IT companies, the channel chief role has become a mere way station in the climb up the corporate ladder. And those providers are quick to agree that a moving target chief is no help in building a long-term partner relationship.

"That ticks me off," said Manuel Villa, president of San Antonio-based solution provider Via Technology LLC. "What it shows to me is that those guys aren't that committed to the channel. You can't say you have a channel program if you have a revolving door for your channel team. It's all about relationships. I know it's a numbers game for those guys, but it's really about relationships."

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In contrast, Villa said that a channel chief who takes time to meet with VARs and to understand how his or her product works in an overall solution can make a difference. Villa cited a recent 45-minute private discussion with Fortinet Inc. channel chief Michael Valentine. Villa says the Sunnyvale, Calif., network security vendor's vice president of Americas channel sales took time out to discuss his business and understand where Fortinet might help.

"It's not just about moving their product, but it's about overall solutions," Villa said. "Folks come in all day long wanting us to buy a truckload of this or that, but that's not the business we're in any more. We're in the business of solutions."

Don Richie, CEO of Sequel Data Systems Inc., an HP-only solution provider in Austin, Texas, said a great channel chief must not only build relationships with VARs but educate the company's direct-sales force on the value of solution providers. "The channel chief needs to be somebody who is an advocate for the channel as well as the company he represents," he noted.

Richie points out that to be effective, the channel chief post needs to be a high-profile and stable position within an organization, instead of one where channel executives are constantly changing.

"We need someone who's going to present the channel's value to all business units and show them what the channel does and how it can help them grow their business," he said. "The channel chief has to portray the solution provider as an ally, not an adversary."

And solution providers note that a strong, trusted channel chief could shake up industry dynamics. Brian Deeley, manager of Graymar Business Solutions Inc., a Timonium, Md., solution provider, noted that when Juniper Networks Inc. hired IBM channel veteran Frank Vitagliano, it paved the way for Juniper to more effectively challenge Cisco Systems Inc.

"The whole reason Juniper brought on Vitagliano was to build channel relationships," Deeley said. "People thought of Juniper as a tier-two company and they didn't have a good channel relationship. It doesn't happen overnight, but if you have a strong channel chief and the support of the CEO, you can build a channel over time.

I think that's one reason they came out with switches, because they saw the ability to compete in the market and take share with the channel they've built out over the past 24 months."

Other solution providers say they have little contact with the channel chiefs at their largest vendor partners, but channel executives can still exert influence by running an effective channel organization.

"The channel chief is important whether you get to talk to him or not," said Mark Singh, president of ValCom Computer Center Inc., Midland, Texas. "HP has put in place some very good channel partner business managers, and we have been working closely with those people. It's made a huge difference."

Over the past year, HP partner business managers have helped with training, gone on customer visits with him and helped with product-related issues, Singh said. "These people know their stuff and are interested in my success."