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The challenge of solving the partner programme puzzle

Getting relationships with the channel is critical and many look to make that simple – but achieving it is a complex ambition

You have to hand it to outgoing Nutanix CEO Dheeraj Pandey for saying out loud, in an interview with MicroScope last month, what a lot of people have been thinking for years. Announcing an overhaul that brought all the company’s partners under a single programme, he admitted that Nutanix had been guilty of “creating too many programmes that don’t talk to each other – and it ends up becoming really cumbersome for the partners themselves”.

Explaining why the vendor had changed the programme, he added: “We realised that if it didn’t bring it all together, then it would be hypocritical for us to talk about simplicity and elegant products and have these programmes that are not integrated at all.”

Pandey’s comments raise a question that many channel partners have probably asked themselves at various points in their dealings with suppliers: Why is it so hard for vendors to keep partner programmes simple? Because the sad fact is that very few resellers dispute that programmes can often be overly complex and difficult to navigate. Or vendors, for that matter.

David Friend, CEO of Wasabi, says the reason why so many partner schemes end up the way they do is that “designing a simple partner programme is like designing any other product – to keep it simple requires discipline”.

He adds: “Everyone agrees that simple is better. But in my experience, most people are complicators, not simplifiers. If one feature is good, then two features are better. Hence, the world is full of overly complicated products.

“Partner programmes become complicated because there is always some partner relationship popping up that needs something special, something a little different from what was there before. There’s always somebody in sales who says, ‘If only our partner programme could do X, we could get more revenue’. The problem is, of course, that the very presence of X complicates life for everyone else. Revenues may actually go down, not up.”

Martin Gibbons, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) channel director at Cohesity, agrees that partner programmes can be “unnecessarily complex”, but says there is “some justification” for larger vendors.

“They have multiple product lines with different incentives and rebates, so the vendor adds layers onto the partner programmes year on year,” he says. “Throw in a bit of ‘me too’ competitiveness when they look at what rivals are offering, and it’s really quite cumbersome. The problem for smaller or new vendors is that they try to emulate their bigger rivals and copy some aspects of their programmes, only to find they have too much complexity for what they need.” 

“Partner programmes become complicated because there is always some partner relationship popping up that needs something special”
David Friend, Wasabi

Lisa Del Real, vice-president for global partner programmes at RingCentral, says one of the main reasons why vendors overcomplicate their partner programmes is because “they want to be all things to all people and confuse flexibility with choice”. She adds that anyone working on the vendor side of the channel will have had a partner approach them asking: “Why don’t you have a programme specifically for me?” 

Perhaps to emphasise how difficult it is to keep programmes simple, Scott Kemish, global vice-president for channel sales at nCipher Security, proffers a differing point of view, arguing that channel schemes are complex and “notoriously difficult to get right” because vendors try to “treat their business partners as one and the same”.

He adds: “Partners are not the same – there are multiple classifications, such as resellers, distributors, technology partners, manufacturers and systems integrators, each having different GTM [go-to-market], drivers, approach and strategy.”

Every partner is unique

Jason Chester, director of global channel programmes at InfinityQS, agrees. “Every single partner is unique,” he says. “They have different motives, business models, attitudes and approaches to their markets. They have different mixes of skills from sales, marketing, commercial and technical. They also have different personalities, different ways of working. In a global context, they work within different cultures – societal and business – and myriad other different nuances.”

Vendors attempt to address this by slicing and dicing their partner programmes “with a plethora of different types, options, tiers, levels and models”, says Chester. You can see the problem.

Matthieu Brignone, vice-president for EMEA/LATAM (Latin America) channel sales at Pure Storage, points to another factor. “The key obstacle to simplicity with partner programmes is the sheer size of the channel network. Every time you work with one reseller, it’s the equivalent of working with hundreds of salespeople who aren’t employed by the company and have their own priorities and objectives,” he says.

Brignone says it can take many months for partners to digest a newly outlined sales programme and often requires recruiting, onboarding, training and certifying the new partner.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to partner programmes, so it’s easy for them to become complex,” says Brignone, echoing Kemish. “Market maturity plays a key part here – what works in one country might not work in another, depending on appetite, awareness and adoption. Resellers operating in larger, more diverse markets will need different offerings for their customers. All of this makes it harder to simplify a programme for the whole industry.”

“The key obstacle to simplicity with partner programmes is the sheer size of the channel network”
Matthieu Brignone, Pure Storage

Bruce Hockin, EMEA channel sales director at Arcserve, identifies “legacy” as another factor working against keeping programmes simple. “Channels change and develop, technologies and markets evolve,” he says. “You can’t keep reinventing, or else you devalue your proposition as partners struggle to keep up with the changes and become disenfranchised. So programmes slowly evolve, bits get added on while ‘trying to keep everyone happy’ and monsters develop.”

Databarracks managing director Peter Groucott talks about vendors ending up with “a Frankenstein’s monster of a programme” as they seek to add more and more layers to their channel schemes. “The big problem with partner programmes is that they are designed to help the vendor manage partners at scale,” he says.

“Very little thought is ever given to what the partner actually needs from the vendor. If you try to solve all your partner challenges by adding another layer to your partner programme, it becomes bloated, confusing and too difficult for the partners.”

Good intentions

Groucott makes the salient point that “partner programmes always start with good intentions, but can quickly sprawl out of control”. 

Jono Clarke-Storey, EMEA channel director at Skybox Security, doesn’t mince his words. “It’s hard to keep partner programmes simple because, by their nature, they rarely are simple,” he says. “Vendors need to ensure they can cover the entire lifecycle of partner management – from recruiting and onboarding through to training and certification of sales and technical professionals. Considering all of the heavy lifting that is involved with the creation of a successful and mutually beneficial partner programme, it’s easy for complexities to arise.”

Richard Eglon, marketing director at Agilitas, speaks of vendors trying “to build hybrid-type models” to satisfy multiple outcomes for their partners. “This means partner programmes have become increasingly complex because vendors are trying to cater to a wide variety of resellers in a multitude of different ways,” he says. “To keep these programmes simple, they need to be stripped down and restarted from fresh in the ‘new world’, focusing much more on business outcomes, rather than the latest technology.”

“Programmes slowly evolve, bits get added on while ‘trying to keep everyone happy’ and monsters develop”
Bruce Hockin, Arcserve

Eglon warns that vendor programmes need to be more flexible for partners so they should “no longer be taking a dictatorial approach”. He adds: “It needs to be more agile from a commercial perspective and there needs to be more focus on the ongoing collaborative relationship between vendors, partners and, more importantly, the customer.”

So, if everyone agrees that channel programmes are too complicated, what can be done to make them easier to understand and use? Justin Gilbert, senior director of channels at Zix, says: “Any partner programme development must begin and end with a focus on the partner’s needs. This partner-centred approach requires in-depth partner interviews, surveys, focus groups and updates to the programme based on feedback.”

Which is sound advice, although you could argue that’s what helped to make some programmes more complex.

Simplicity is the key

Andrew Clarke, global head of channel and alliances at One Identity, believes simplicity is the key. “A simple rule for developing a change programme or incentive is keep it simple and don’t have lots of rules or caveats,” he says. “No one reads the T&Cs fully and then, when a partner misinterprets an offer and the vendor does not reward, you get fall-out. Putting the partner first and understanding what motivates them, how they are paid and how they operate when developing the initiative, is key.”

Dionne Barlow, director of marketing, e-commerce and partner management at reseller Stone Group, distils it to a single word. “Consistency is key,” she says. “Confusion comes when programmes are constantly reinvented. It would be great if they didn’t change them every year and keep moving the goalposts. Then there are the processes. With all the reinvention comes another website and set of logins. Vendors should look to streamline these where possible.”

Barlow calls on vendors to limit changes to the programme, adding: “Ensure a greater focus is on the reseller programmes but, above all, vendors need to be clear on the objectives. If everyone knows what they’re working towards, success will be easier to achieve.”

Mark Romano, director for channel and field marketing at WatchGuard Technologies, makes a point that others are keen to articulate – it is important that the vendor “stands in the shoes of its partner”.

He says: “Understanding that a partner sells from six to seven different vendor line cards, all with their own partner portals, can be a real-time sink. Ensuring that a partner can get into your portal, find what they need and get back out is real time that can be spent with customers.”

“Confusion comes when programmes are constantly reinvented”
Dionne Barlow, Stone Group

Wayne Gratton, director of business development and marketing at Nuvias, is also keen for vendors to stand in their partners’ shoes. “Make it clear to partners what your expectations are, so there’s no room for ambiguity and a better chance for alignment and results,” he says. “Step back and put yourself in your partner’s shoes. This requires a sizeable channel-focused organisation on the vendor side or a distributor that can step in and tailor programmes for maximum effectiveness.”

Noting that partners often have eight or more competing programmes, Brent Owens, EMEA director for channel programmes at Vertiv, says the challenge for vendors is that they need to offer “the best possible programme to create differentiation from their competitors, but they also need to keep it simple to use, otherwise resellers won’t invest their time”.

He adds: “This can end up creating a vicious cycle, or ‘analysis paralysis’, as vendors compete to create the most exciting, yet comprehensive programmes to keep their resellers engaged and loyal.”

Owens stresses that the best way to make programmes easier to understand and use is for the vendor to “do all of the heavy lifting, so the partner can get the benefits with minimum effort – this means anything from tracking to managing to paying”.

They should use simple language, avoid buzzwords, ensure the registration process is easy and “drive a self-service, one-stop-shop model using PRM [partner relationship management] so the partner can monitor their progress, benefits and progression”, he says.

What’s in it for me?

Arcserve’s Hockin says vendors should ask themselves at every point in the programme: “Does a partner benefit from this?” If the answer is no, then they shouldn’t do it.

“The partner, even subliminally, will ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘Why am I doing this?’,” he says. “If the partner cannot answer that positively, it will have a negative impact on the partnership. A great example of this is technical accreditation, which sometimes can be too long, not relevant enough, too costly, or inconvenient. If partners understand the ‘value’ to them, they are more likely to complete it, rather than consider it a needless hoop they don’t want to jump through.”

Vendors should also avoid unnecessary change, warns Roland Stritt, senior director of channel at SentinelOne. “Even if it sounds great to introduce different names to the partner tiers or cool ‘side’ programmes, stick to what has been proven in the field and partners recognise and feel familiar with,” he says. “Keep it simple and in a way that every partner can find themselves in the programme and that they only need five minutes to understand it and know what they need to do to step up.”

Stritt adds that vendors should avoid having too many different specialisation programmes. “Limit the number of benefits and requirements within a programme to the stuff that is relevant to the partners and what they care about most,” he says.

Wasabi’s Friend summarises it like this: “The job of the channel programme should simply be to incentivise the channel partner to sell your product and not the other guy’s. That means making the most money with the least effort. Think of it as a fraction, with profit in the numerator and effort in the denominator. If effort goes up, value goes down. If the channel programme is complicated, it requires more effort to figure it out, and sales suffer.”

Once again, vendors need to put themselves in their partners’ shoes and ask: “Is your company easy to do business with? Is it easy for me to make money with these guys? How much effort do I have to put in?” Complexity equals effort, and effort is bad.

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