Channel Chiefs: Security Specialization Key To Partners' Success

The key to succeeding in security as a solution provider is to specialize, specialize, specialize.

That's what top security channel chiefs from ForeScout Technologies, Fortinet, Palo Alto Networks and Sophos said at a recent roundtable discussion held at XChange 2015 in National Harbor, Md., and hosted by CRN's parent, The Channel Company.

For partners of any type, whether they're VARs, systems integrators or service providers, specializing in one or a few areas of security is key to both winning sales and then executing on client solutions, said Ron Myers, vice president of worldwide channels at Palo Alto Networks, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

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"You can't be half in; you have to be profoundly expert in this, otherwise you're going to be competing on price and you'll never win," Myers said. "If you're half a foot in to trying to sell this solution, it's not going to work. Our partners have to be able to tell a story. They have to have brand and customer experiences ... so they can deliver what they say," he continued.

While some might think specializing might limit a partner's slice of the security market pie, Joseph Sykora, vice president, Americas channels, at Fortinet, of Sunnyvale, Calif., said the market is big enough that even a highly narrow, focused approach is a huge boost to a partner's business.

"There's so much business out there ... I would advise people to focus on certain areas of security and definitely embrace it. There's plenty of room to grow," Sykora said.

[Related: Selling Security: Channel Chiefs On Who Partners Need To Be Talking To Today]

Myers agreed, saying that a focused approach will lead to more success and revenue opportunities than a more generalist approach.

"If you try to spread yourself too thin and be a generalist, you won't be as successful as if you're going to be an expert," Myers said.

Ryan LaSalle, global managing director of security transformation services for Accenture, agreed, saying that the systems integrator giant has invested heavily in deepening its security practice around digital transformations, security technology implementation and optimization, as well as security management.

"We think it's a strategic advantage," LaSalle said.

That specialized approach isn't just the key to success for partners -- the channel chiefs argued that it's the ticket to success in security for vendors, as well. That will be a challenge for so-called legacy vendors that are looking to dive into the security market but, by the nature of their businesses, are not 100-percent security focused, the channel chiefs said.

"Everyone is picking up the entire portfolio [of security solutions], but we're the security specialists," said John Shier, vice president of technical services at Abingdon, U.K.-based Sophos. "I think [less specialized vendors] are trying to play catch-up with the rest of us."

Myers said companies like Palo Alto Networks are "winning net new customers every single day" from those legacy players because of security specialization over generalization. That's a trend that will only accelerate, said Devin Archer, Americas channel director for ForeScout Technologies, of Campbell, Calif.

"I think that it's an arm's race and as soon as they've got something figured out, it's two years obsolete and it's going to be hard to keep up," Archer said.

For partners, the payoff from specializing is immense, the channel chiefs said, with most partners talked to by Sophos' Shier seeing margins in the mid-20s for the solution itself. But, he said, "where the magic is" is when partners add professional services on top of the solutions themselves.

However, getting to that point can be a challenge for partners that move from a more generalist managed services or consultancy approach, all channel chiefs agreed. ForeScout's Archer recommended partners start with one, small area of security that they can build a deep professional services business around. From there, partners can expand once they have built up their expertise, he said.

"I'm looking for [partners] that can bring those security conversations to the table," Archer said. "Choose something and build at it and get good at it, because that expertise at one thing is going to lead to expertise of the adjacent thing and so on."

However, vendors aren't leaving partners high and dry in the transition. The channel chiefs said they're ready and willing to help partners in that effort. However, Fortinet's Sykora said it isn't a one-way street -- partners have to speak up about their needs and reach out to their vendor partners for help if they need it.

"It's a partnership. ... We're not going to let a partner fail," Sykora said. "We all have organizations that want to help you build the practices. It's just a matter of reaching out. ... It's not going to come to you. You have to put some skin in the game. You're going to have to reach out to one of the organizations to help you."

Partnering is also an option for those looking to expand their security specialization without sacrificing expertise, multiple channel chiefs said. For example, Palo Alto Networks' Myers talked about a partner he has that specializes in risk management, but doesn't have much implementation experience. So, it partners with peers to maintain a high expertise level.

The bottom line, the channel chiefs said, is that no matter how they go about getting there, partners will win more if they specialize. That's a win for the partners, vendors and customers, they said.

"It just strengthens the entire industry at that point," Sophos' Shier said. "We're building trusted advisers within the company and without."