What VARs Want: 7 Things Every Channel Chief Should Know

The job requires the energy and drive of an Olympic athlete, the political skills of a seasoned diplomat dealing with warring factions, and the mathematical mind of a top-flight cost accountant looking to make a case for an investment in sales incentives before a tight-fisted CEO. Throw in the business-shredding impact of the move from high-priced on-premise capital-expenditure-based IT projects to subscription-based cloud business models, and you have what may well be the toughest job in technology: the channel chief.

As part of CRN's 2015 Channel Chiefs, here are the seven steps to success from those to whom the relationship is so crucial -- solution providers themselves.

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1. Show Up

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Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is showing up. It's a sentiment that every solution provider interviewed by CRN cited as one of the keys to being successful as a channel chief.

Rick Chernick, CEO of Camera Corner Connecting Point, Green Bay, Wis., No. 291 on the CRN 2014 Solution Provider 500 list, who has managed vendor relationships with hundreds of vendors over many years, said he expects channel chiefs to make the trip to Green Bay, make a personal connection with his sales teams, and even go on sales calls with him.

Chernick said he expects nothing less from channel chiefs than the same kind of effort he makes with his own customers: going out on sales calls to find out what his team can do better and then making sure that each one of those customers has his cellphone and home number if they have any kind of problem. "You have to be accessible and approachable," said Chernick. "You need to know what is going on in the street. You need to hear from your customers firsthand. I give customers my card with my direct cellphone, office phone and home phone."

Chernick credits Hewlett-Packard, which recently sent a team of reps to Green Bay for a quarterly business review, with having that personal connection. "They make the trip to Green Bay, visit with us quarterly, keep us on task, and talk about what we have on the table, how they can help us make sales calls or with marketing and training."

Chernick's message to channel chiefs and reps: "Give me two days and we'll go make customer calls, the second day you'll be running to the airport to sleep on the plane on the way home. And there will be a lot of takeaways and a lot of things you'll have to get back to me on. But you are going to be in the face of a customer and know what is going on out there."

When asked which companies have done the best job of fielding channel chiefs who show up, Chernick names HP and distribution giant Ingram Micro. "I don't even know the channel chiefs from the other companies that we deal with," said Chernick. "They are like chameleons hiding in the tree. Where the heck are they? It just appears to me that channel chiefs in general have gone dark. I'm not saying these companies are bad or the reps on the street are not good, it's just that we don't see the channel chiefs."

Next: Be A Channel Champion, Not A Paper Champion

2. Be A Channel Champion, Not A Paper Champion

There is nothing more infuriating to a solution provider than a channel chief who is great at paperwork but refuses to get his or her hands dirty in the sales trenches. Bob Venero, CEO of Holbrook, N.Y.-based solution provider Future Tech, No. 234 on the CRN 2014 Solution Provider 500, calls those kinds of channel leaders "paper champs."

"When it comes down to getting in the sales trenches and working with the VARs, they don't do it, they fall apart," said Venero, who has worked with hundreds of channel chiefs over the past 19 years. "They don't have the initiative, the drive and nine times out of 10 they don't have the dedication. Of all the channel chiefs we have worked with over the years, I would say less than 30 percent have been effective in the growth of our company. You have to look at somebody who is willing to work and not just sit back and collect reports on what the VAR is doing." Solution providers said the most successful channel chiefs refuse to sit on the sales sidelines.

When Future Tech established a relationship with Dell seven years ago, it started with a meeting with Dell CEO Michael Dell and Dell Vice President, Global Commercial Channel Sales and Programs Jim DeFoe. Venero credits DeFoe with fostering, nurturing and then building the relationship one sale at a time. "Jim came to Future Tech and built a business plan with us, showing us where we needed to go and how to get there, and then he measured our success, which allowed us to get additional investment in the partnership," said Venero.

3. Understand The Economic Benefits

The channel exists first and foremost because of the significant economic benefits it brings to technology vendors. Those benefits have become more compelling with the high cost of fielding a direct sales force and the rise of the operating-expense, cloud-based services business models.

"The channel chiefs that are effective understand the channel, they understand the programs that work and they go out of their way to help the channel," said Sam Haffar, CEO of Houston-based Computex Technology Solutions, No. 123 on the CRN 2014 Solution Provider 500. "Those channel chiefs understand the solution provider business model, and what kinds of programs are effective. They support our business."

Solution providers say it is the channel chiefs well-schooled in the economics of the channel who put in place programs that drive sales growth.

Haffar credits HP with having that critical understanding of the economic benefits of the channel. He credits HP Senior Vice President and General Manager Worldwide Indirect Sales for the Enterprise Group Sue Barsamian and HP Vice President of Americas Indirect Sales for the HP Enterprise Group Scott Dunsire for helping lead the channel charge. "HP has set the bar high over the years," he said. "They know the partners, understand the business we are in and the challenges we have, and then they put in place programs that help the channel."

Next: Develop A Strong Relationship With The CEO

4. Develop A Strong Relationship With The CEO

One of the tenets of any successful channel program is that it is only as strong as the channel commitment of the CEO.

Channel chiefs who develop that strong relationship see a huge payoff not only in rallying channel partners to go the extra mile for a deal, but also in customer confidence in the vendor's technology solution. One example: a personal email from HP CEO Meg Whitman that sealed a deal on an $8 million 3Par deal for Anexinet, an HP Platinum converged infrastructure partner based in Blue Bell, Pa., No. 213 on the CRN 2014 Solution Provider 500. That personal email pushed the deal over the goal line and made a huge impression on the Anexinet sales team.

5. Clear A Path For Partners By Getting Rid Of Bad Actors

There is nothing more detrimental to a channel chief than rogue direct sales reps who scorch and burn solution providers in the sales trenches.

Chris Scanlan, a 10-year Accuvant veteran who is now the senior vice president of North American sales for Accuvant FishNet, the $1.5 billion security solution provider behemoth, calls those channel antagonists "bad actors." And he stresses that it is critical for channel leadership to get rid of them if they want to motivate channel sales reps. Scanlan credits HP's enterprise security channel leadership for doing just that.

"To HP's credit, they absolutely identified these bad actors and removed and eliminated them, whether they were executives or people in the channel or direct-minded folks," he said. "HP absolutely took a zero-tolerance approach to that." Building a consistent channel program is also key, solution providers said.

Mont Phelps, CEO of national solution provider NWN, No. 88 on the CRN 2014 Solution Provider 500, said there may well be no better example of channel consistency than Cisco. "They have very clear rules about where they go direct and where they don't," said Phelps. "There are very few, if any, exceptions.

And those rules have been in place long enough that everybody knows them and plays within those rules."

6. Listen To Partners Before Taking Action

It's amazing how often channel chiefs put in place new programs or policies without getting feedback directly from partners. NWN's Phelps said the best channel chiefs do more listening than talking. "You really have to understand what we do, how we do it and how we can work together," said Phelps. "The successful channel chiefs are the ones that listen. Some channel chiefs think their job is to tell you what to do. It is the ones that listen and collaborate that are the most successful."

Phelps credits VMware Vice President of the Americas Partner Organization Frank Rauch as one of the best in the business. "Frank has been successful at multiple companies because he always listens and has the right fundamental belief in partnership," said Phelps.

7. Be Passionate About The Channel

To be the best at any profession, you have to have a passion for what you do. The channel is not any different.

Michael Goldstein, president and CEO of LAN Infotech, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., solution provider who has dealt with hundreds of channel chiefs over nearly 25 years in the channel, said channel passion comes from channel chiefs who love what they do. "Those channel chiefs make me feel like I am more than a number on a sales sheet," he said. "I mean something to them. They answer your questions and always follow up."

The epitome of that channel passion, said Goldstein, is Dell's Frank Vitagliano, vice president, global partner strategy, programs, who has become a legend among solution providers for his tireless commitment to building relationships and solving problems for partners.

"Hiring Frank was one of the smartest moves that Dell has ever made," said Goldstein, who credits that channel commitment with helping to drive double-digit sales growth in his Dell business.

"Frank is one of a kind. He is always out there shaking hands, taking phone numbers, solving problems and always listening. That is channel passion."