Websense Partners Wary Of Channel Promises

Websense partners are optimistic, but wary, of what seems to be a sudden about-face toward the channel with new leadership and a slew of new initiatives.

As part of the extensive channel changes, David Roberts, former senior vice president of sales, Americas, along with Geoff Haggart, who handled channel sales for EMEA and APAC, suddenly "stepped down" from their positions earlier this month, leaving gaping channel holes amid the company's extensive channel restructuring effort.

During its North Americas partner conference Thursday, held in San Diego, Websense formally debuted Matt Hynes, the company's new worldwide channel chief, who came on board after serving as vice president of worldwide channel sales at ArcSight. Hynes, who will report to Websense's executive vice president of worldwide sales, Didier Guibal, is taking a more comprehensive global channel role after the company eliminated the regional senior vice president positions. Websense said that Hynes' new role as global channel chief was not intended to replace the eliminated senior vice presidentP roles.

Some partners hail the restructuring as a step in the right direction for the company and contend that Websense's personnel changes and channel rollouts represent an about-face after several tumultuous years of upholding a channel strategy that consistently undermined deals and eroded trust and communication with the channel base.

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One Midwest-based partner, who asked to speak off the record, said that during Roberts' tenure, Websense pulled the rug out from under partners by taking some of deals direct at the last minute.

"I think Websense needed to make a change because their program was undermining their partners' ability to commit to Websense," he said. "Maybe [Roberts] was getting hit from above, but it's very difficult for resellers to commit to partners who can just go direct."

Another East Coast VAR who asked to remain anonymous said that in addition to taking deals direct, Websense would also undermine the partner by dropping prices significantly when it took a prospective deal through a distribution channel. "We would be in working with a customer and Websense would be scared to death of losing a deal. So they would go through distributors and have them undercut the price," he said.

However, the recent restructuring could indicate a renewed investment in the channel that they haven't seen in a long time, partners say.

At its partner conference, Websense rolled out a slew of enhancements to its channel program, including a new, simplified margin structure that touts 25 percent margin across all partner tiers.

Websense also launched a two-tiered federal channel program, along with increased margins for deal registration and renewal migration to the WSG and v10K appliance.

In addition, the company rolled out a preferred vendor program, which provides channel partners access to numerous demand-generation tools such as Harte Hanks Telemarketing Services, Binary Pulse direct marketing and appointment setting campaigns, and Bridgemetrics Microsites, used to build branded custom landing pages and microsites.

Next: Websense Execs Say They Are Responding To Partners

Websense executives said that the past few months didn't necessarily represent a stark contrast to how the company was previously doing business.

"No I don't think it's radical. We're putting even more emphasis on our partners," said Erin Malone, Websense senior director of channel sales. "We're not trying to create a ton of programs. We're trying to create the programs we're hearing about consistently from our partners.

"The changes that we're making are the ones that are most important to our partners," Malone added.

But some channel partners think otherwise. One solution provider said that in particular over the past 90 days, Websense has stepped up efforts to enable better communication with channel leadership and ease the partnering process on collaborative projects.

"Six months ago I really had my doubts [about Websense's channel commitment]," said Jeff Mullarkey, CEO of Chicago-based RKON. "I don't know if [Roberts'] leaving is a good thing. Whatever they've decided to do in the last 90 days is a good thing. Was he trying to do the right thing and battling them? I don't know. Six months ago they weren't a great partner to partner with and now they have our attention."

And other partners concur that Roberts' departure could make way for new leadership that would revitalize the company's marketing strategy and channel focus. "It would give them an opportunity to get new blood in there and that will help," said the East Coast VAR. "I wouldn't say [Roberts] was at fault. I don't think he was doing anything that was productive, either."

Mullarkey and other partners agree that Websense seemed to stray from channel commitment after it bought Web and e-mail filtering security company SurfControl in fall 2007. Hailed by some as the "golden child" of the channel, Roberts migrated to Websense from McAfee in 2006. Roberts stumbled, however, when he and other executives attempted to impose enterprise sales strategies and integrate a direct/indirect model into Websense as it struggled in the wake of the acquisition, partners said.

"Websense had the market in the enterprise side," said the East Coast VAR, who cut Websense from his line card earlier in 2009 due to lack of customer demand, among other things. "SurfControl had the small, medium business and a solution that worked just as well or good enough. Combining the two different cultures didn't really seem to be the right direction for them."

But Mullarkey said that he has seen a concerted effort on the side of Websense to re-establish communication with its channel base. For example, Mullarkey said that RKON was in talks with Websense about partnering to help run a Chicago-based Websense threat laboratory that would detect and monitor customer threats. Mullarkey also said that recently Websense cut RKON a check on the back side when the customer decided to go through a preferred supplier at the last minute, instead of cutting it out of the deal completely.

"Everybody's got skin in the game. There definitely has been a difference," he added."They were a great partner. Then they bought SurfControl. It was wacky for a while. Now it's better than ever."