Fresh-Faced McAfee Renews Its Channel Vows

With a new channel chief freshly poached from Cisco Systems and new programs aimed at keeping its sales reps from stepping on partners' toes, McAfee says the coming year will give VARs a chance to see how a healthy channel program is supposed to work.

At McAfee's Focus '09 conference in Las Vegas Tuesday, Alex Thurber, senior vice president of worldwide channels and a former 10-year Cisco channel veteran, told a room full of 300 partners that McAfee is aware that its channel program has frustrated VARs, from both a technical and conflict standpoint. In the coming year, Thurber said, McAfee will launch new initiatives aimed at ironing out these wrinkles.

"We have been way too hard to do business with in the past," said Thurber, explaining that some problems have stemmed from issues with integrating acquisitions, while others arose from glitches in McAfee's CRM system. "We will make it easier to do business with us."

McAfee has seen an inordinate amount of channel executive turnover in the past couple of years, and this has been a sore spot for VARs that are accustomed to channel stability and face-to-face interactions. But longstanding field sales behavior within McAfee has also posed problems for the channel.

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To prevent McAfee's field sales staff from competing with partners, McAfee will pay its salespeople 10 percent more on deals in which a partner is involved from an early stage in the sales cycle. McAfee is also urging sales teams to look at every deal as one that's best handled indirectly, Thurber said.

Thurber's boss, Michael DeCesare, executive vice president of worldwide sales for McAfee, told Focus '09 attendees this step will go a long way toward fixing the problem. "We do think that will play a pretty big role in correcting some of the behavior issues we have seen out there," DeCesare said.

DeCesare also took time to enumerate the channel investments McAfee is making to improve partner enablement, revamp its MAX partner portal and CRM system, and devote more resources to lead development for the channel.

Partner enablement, another issue McAfee has wrestled with, will be augmented in the coming year by the hiring of 20 to 30 new channel staff. In addition to online courses for developers, McAfee will send trainers to partner facilities to offer face-to-face instruction, DeCesare said.

Getting McAfee VARs to diversify their security skill sets will enable them to deploy the full range of McAfee solutions, and DeCesare said this is one of McAfee's goals. "The challenge we have, and the reason we push you so aggressively, is that deals today involve multiple security areas like endpoint, network and encryption. But the channel ecosystem is still generally specialized in just one of those areas," said DeCesare.

McAfee's motivation -- one it shares with many IT vendors today -- comes from the growing realization that it's easier and makes better business sense to get different pieces of the technology pie from a single company when possible. "We hear from every CIO that they're tired of doing business with multiple vendors, and that they want to partner with a single company on deals," DeCesare said.

NEXT: McAfee's Channel Investments

To help with lead development, McAfee will hire 115 new staff in the coming year, representing about 8 percent of its current sales force. These staff will be specialized in specific product areas, such as data loss prevention, and they'll focus only on outbound calls and passing leads on to the channel, DeCesare said.

While McAfee's planned investments will help it execute more effectively, the company is also working to simplify its channel with new programs and a clearer definition of what partners need to do to meet expectations.

Thurber said one of his goals is to foster a channel model that's based not on volume, but on value, and in which VARs can be confident that the investments they make in McAfee will be reciprocated. Thurber said this is reflected in new channel initiatives McAfee has slated for launch next year.

In the first quarter, McAfee will launch its Authorized Support Program, in which Security Alliance Elite partners act as second level post-sales support for McAfee customers. According to Thurber, the program includes access to Level 3 McAfee support specialists and technologies that can help partners solve problems and bring customers quickly back online.

McAfee is also working on what it calls the Interlock Rebate Program, although the strategy here is still not clearly defined. The concept of "interlock" came up often during the conference, and was mostly used to describe situations in which McAfee products and cloud-based services can be tied together within solutions.

McAfee is urging partners to include interlock in their sales pitches to customers. Pedro Abreu, vice president of McAfee's partner program, said because interlock is such an important differentiator for McAfee, the company wants to provide VARs with incentives to push interlocking solutions wherever possible.

McAfee will launch a pilot of the Interlock Rebate Program in the first quarter, and in addition to rebates, it will offer partners targeted marketing, field and technical enablement support, according to Abreu. "We need to reward partners that sell on the interlock," he told partners.

McAfee's channel has been a revolving door in the past few years, and partners had every reason to wonder what the company had in store for partners at Focus '09. The frank terms that Thurber and DeCesare used in acknowledging the historical channel transgressions of McAfee's sales teams are an example of the fresh and optimistic attitude that was evident at the event. And these days, optimism has a way of standing out.