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2021 Channel Chiefs: Pivoting Quickly To Meet Partners’ Needs

The “new normal” ushered in by the pandemic meant solution providers had to quickly shift gears and channel chiefs had to move just as fast to meet their changing needs. Here are our 2021 Channel Chief honorees.

The IT industry began 2020 with high expectations with the economy holding steady and global IT spending forecast to grow 3.4 percent to $3.9 trillion. Channel executives and managers at the IT industry’s leading companies geared up for a year of working with solution providers to help businesses and organizations with “big idea” projects like digital transformation and cloud migration.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic began its surge around the world and everything changed. Millions of employees were sent home and demand surged for PCs and laptops, collaboration tools, video conferencing services and security for remote workers. Solution providers had to quickly shift gears in the face of the new normal – and channel chiefs had to pivot just as fast to meet the changed needs of their channel partners.

“It’s been a year that doesn’t relate to any other year, previously, at all,” said Colleen Kapase, vice president of worldwide partner and alliances at fast-growing data cloud company Snowflake, in an interview.

In recognition of the achievements made by channel executives and managers in 2020, we present the 2021 Channel Chiefs, this year’s edition of CRN’s annual list of the leading channel executives. Our 50 Most Influential Channel Chiefs of 2021, a subset of the complete Channel Chiefs list, are an elite group drawn from the larger pool of honorees.

Channel chiefs at leading IT vendors including Cisco Systems, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM and SAP quickly took steps to help their channel partners absorb the economic blow from the pandemic by suspending sales targets, providing program level protection, extending deadlines for certification and specialization renewals, and offering generous financing terms, flexibility in using market development funds, and providing free or subsidized training opportunities.

“Faced with the pandemic challenge, we decided early on to shift to a virtual partner model,” said Kirt Jorgenson, senior director of global channel marketing and programs at cybersecurity vendor Imperva, pointing to his company’s partner engagement, enablement, training and demand generation operations.

Imperva, for example, had planned a number of live regional partner meetings and roundtables for 2020. Those were transformed into virtual roundtables, where channel managers listened to executives from 10 or 12 top partners, and a half-dozen webinars where Imperva’s top executives provided partners with executive briefings on the company’s business and technology plans.

Communications and collaboration software developer CoreDial likewise saw a surge in demand as work-from-home took hold. But customers in some hard-hit industries, such as hospitality, implemented workforce cutbacks and found themselves with more UCaaS seat licenses than they needed.

CoreDial’s channel managers implemented a plan that allowed channel partners to “pause” billing those customers for temporarily unused seats – rather than shut them off entirely.

“That gave partners the ultimate flexibility,” said Chief Revenue Officer Ken Lienemann, in an interview. Some of those businesses have begun rehiring and re-activating those seat licenses – a much easier task for partners who don’t have to repeat the entire sales process.

At Snowflake, channel chief Kapase and Philip Larson, senior director of worldwide partner programs, were gearing up for the launch of the company’s Snowflake Partner Network as the pandemic hit. (The program’s partner portal, in fact, went live March 16 – one day after the company’s employees were all told to work from home.) The debut of the company’s inaugural partner program went on in June as scheduled, but with all the events held virtually.

Channel executives everywhere had to adjust to shifts that partners were seeing in their own businesses. Finding it more difficult to recruit new customers, for example, Imperva’s channel partners focused more on deepening their relationships with existing customers and selling them a broader portfolio of products and services, Imperva’s Jorgenson observed.

“One thing we consistently heard from our partners was that customers were accelerating their transformation to the cloud,” Jorgenson said. “Pre-pandemic, everybody had a plan to do that, but maybe in 18 months to three years. We’re seeing a big acceleration of that.”

Channel chiefs also observe that the pandemic has increased customer demand for remote services from solution providers – everything from basic support and training to higher level cloud consulting and migration services.

“That services play has put a premium on those organizations and partners who can provide remote services profitably, at scale,” Snowflake’s Larson said. “What we really need is our partners helping our customers move from on-prem[ises] to the cloud. Those partners who are services-oriented are really where our focus has been.”

Another trend: Solution providers appear to want to work with fewer IT vendors, observes CoreDial’s Lienemann, choosing to go broad and deep with the technology portfolios of fewer vendors rather than offer products from many It companies.

“We’re seeing a lot of that in our data and we’re hearing that a lot from our partners,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a big trend for us in 2021 for sure.”

In some cases the pandemic has had fundamental impacts on vendors’ channel and go-to-market strategies. Many small brick-and-mortar retailers, facing plunging sales amid pandemic restrictions, switched to online sales to survive. That spurred demand for Avalara’s automated sales tax applications from ecommerce service providers like Shopify, Wix and BigCommerce – essentially creating an entirely new channel for Avalara’s software.

“It’s really forcing us to think differently about our partner programs,” said Greg Chapman, Avalara senior vice president of partner management, in an interview.

“It was a challenging year [but] we came out of it hitting or exceeding just about every performance goal,” Imperva’s Jorgenson said of 2020. “It’s constantly staying at top of mind, building mindshare with your top partners. I think, in the end, we learned a few things and got some benefits out of it.”

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