Best Buy For Business Chief Eyes Channel Partnerships

Hemler, an 11-year Microsoft veteran who took the Best Buy For Business helm last month, said he sees channel partnerships as critical to driving solution sales to small businesses.

"The opportunity we see is huge in small business," said Hemler, the former president of Microsoft Canada. "Frankly, one of the limiting things we see in our opportunity is the ability to really go serve these customers with a good experience. We can sell to them until the cows come home, but if we can't actually serve them and make stuff work and implement it, it does none of us any good. That's where the channel comes in. There is a scale that is there. There is a reach that is there. There is a physical presence that is there. In many cases, they are trusted providers to those customers and they bring a great business capability."

What Best Buy for Business is trying to figure out is how to engage and leverage channel partners "in a way that is good for all of us," added Hemler. "I firmly believe there is opportunity for all of us in this space. Combining together we will sell more and service more customers and really have a much better customer experience. "

Hemler's pledge to work with solution providers is an about-face for Best Buy For Business, the small business focused unit of $36 billion retail behemoth Best Buy. Up until now, the unit has not formally reached out to solution providers, although many partners source products from Best Buy and have informally worked with Best Buy For Business on more complex solutions engagements. Best Buy For Business, which was launched four years ago, now has 281 stores within store outlets, an outside sales force, a telesales force, small business consultants and thousands of GeekSquad technicians.

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Hemler's move to seek partner input and to build more formal partnering initiatives comes after Best Buy acquired small business VoIP provider Speakeasy for $97 million on March 27. Speakeasy, which has received high marks for its VoIP services, already has thousands of channel partners. In fact, Speakeasy announced in February that channel participation had doubled in size over the last year and is expected to account for 40 percent of the company's revenue by the end of the year.

Hemler, who will oversee the Speakeasy unit when the deal closes later this month, said he is firmly committed to Speakeasy partners.

"They are an important part of the Speakeasy business and customer experience," he said. "Our goal is to generate a lot more business that we can all handle. We can also bring a bunch of good things to them as being part of the bigger Best Buy family."

Hemler said he is looking forward to talking directly with Speakeasy's partners about his vision for partnering. He said Best Buy can bring additional product and solutions capabilities to those partners. For example, he said, Best Buy is working on a set of Best Buy For Mobile communications solutions that could be sold by Speakeasy partners.

"That's really about changing the mobility experience for customers," he said. "Every business has people with cell phones and most have had a pretty cruddy experience in terms of buying and sourcing those cell phones. That's a whole new capability we can bring to these Speakeasy partners."

Hemler said he sees Speakeasy's channel partnerships as a "catalyst for how we can work together with the broad channel." High on Hemler's priority list is getting a two-way conversation going with many solution providers.

"There are things we could and should be doing with partners, and frankly I know they are going to give me tons of other great ideas we haven't thought about," he said.

Hemler said the road map is to make sure the Speakeasy integration goes well, expand partnerships with those solution providers and then go to the broader channel.

After taking the Best Buy For Business job, Hemler outlined three areas the company is going to concentrate on: digital display and signage; VoIP and business communications, including mobile phones and devices; and enhanced collaboration through products like Microsoft Windows Vista and Office.

Hemler stressed that Best Buy For Business is not moving away from GeekSquad, which is primarily focused on consumer and small business.

"We as Best Buy For Business are serving a whole set of business customers out there that are just not in the sweet spot or offerings of GeekSquad," he said.

Brian Deeley, manager of Graymar Business Solutions, a Timonium, Md.-based solution provider, said the Best Buy For Business partnership can work if the retail chain is "truly committed to this and willing to build those partnerships with the community, but it has to be something of strength."

Deeley warned that both retail giant CompUSA and direct marketer behemoth CDW launched channel partnership initiatives that generated initial excitement but turned out to be "big failures."

"I am always looking for partnership opportunities, but there has to be something in it for both parties," said Deeley.

Hemler, for his part, said he is determined to make sure Best Buy for Business brings to the table a program that can work for both the company and channel partners.

"I am really excited about this," he said. "We are looking for ways to get good feedback from the channel on what would be valuable to them. I really want this to be not so much about what Best Buy for Business wants to do, but here is what Best Buy for Business wants to do and it maps to what the channel needs. If we do this right, it could be huge."