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Channel Friendliness Counts

In this year's VARBusiness Annual Report Card survey, England-based vendor Sophos was something of a dark horse. But competing in the ARC awards for the first time, Sophos, with an overall score of 73, won the highest marks ever in the security software category. Sophos soundly beat second-place Cisco Systems, which had won or tied for first place the previous three years, but this year only managed an overall score of 67.

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Sophos, however, is far from an unknown commodity in the minds of its channel partners, who chalk up the vendor's ARC victory to its efforts over the past year to become more channel friendly.

Sophos' top performance came in the subcategory of support, where it earned a score of 73, a full 9 points above average. This came as little surprise to solution providers.

Sales and technical support have always been areas where Sophos has stood out from the competition, but the vendor has also worked to improve its relationships with channel partners, said Michelle Drolet, CEO of Conqwest, an IT security provider in Framingham, Mass.

"Their technical support has always been stellar. But they've also turned around their channel program and put key players in place that are devoted to channel technical and sales support issues," Drolet said.

Indeed, support is an area in which Sophos has taken great pains to distance itself from the competition, said Michael Rogers, vice president of channel sales at Sophos. "We don't outsource our support, and all our customers are able to call and speak with a Sophos employee," he said.

At the end of last year, about 60 percent of Sophos' business went through channel partners. But in April, Sophos flipped the switch on a 100 percent channel model, upped investment in infrastructure and marketing, and boosted its field personnel numbers by 100 percent, according to Rogers.

The amount of sales and pre-engineering support Sophos partners receive increases as they move up in the vendor's three-tiered channel program, Rogers said.

"We've developed coverage models that provide Platinum partners with one-to-one support by a field representative assigned specifically to them," Rogers said. Gold partners are supported through a field model, and Silver partners have access to an inside account manager and Web-based resources, Rogers added.

Partners say the changes are paying off. "We're very excited about their new channel initiative, and it's something that is really pulling us to them. They seem to really have the kinks worked out," said Jeb Carter, president of DefenderSoft, a Dallas-based solution provider.

From a technology standpoint, Sophos more than holds its own against the major security vendors in the market, Carter said. "That fact, coupled with the ever-increasing challenges of working with major vendors, makes Sophos extremely refreshing to work with," he noted.

Jeffrey Sherman, president of Warever Computing, Los Angeles, said one of the main technology differentiators is how Sophos delivers security updates.

In addition to its 100 percent channel model, Sophos said it has avoided channel conflict by only partnering with solution providers whose skill sets mesh well with the vendor's technology.

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