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Channel starts considering the legacy of the coronavirus

As lockdown starts to ease, considerations are turning to what the “new normal” will look like, and how it will impact the channel

The channel, just like the rest of the world, has reacted to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in phases, gradually adapting to a situation that seemed to have come straight out of fiction.

Initially, the rush was on to set up staff and operations on a remote footing. Distributors and resellers quickly sent staff home and made sure they were still able to support customers. Where they couldn’t, in the case of on-site engineers, for example, some people had to be furloughed, with resellers accessing the government scheme to protect workers and jobs.

For those that sold laptops, headsets and security tools, and could help customers get set up on Teams and Zoom, the first few weeks of the lockdown were a very busy period.

Those early weeks of the lockdown in March saw sales figures of some product categories hit triple figures in year-on-year increases.

As we entered April it started to become clear that we were going to be dealing with this coronavirus situation for quite some time, with scientists talking about vaccines taking months, even years, to discover. That meant even if the lockdown was eased, social distancing would remain, and that would have a profound effect on channel workplaces and customers alike.

Reacting to that reality, suppliers stepped up the support they could provide partners. Resellers were assured by many that no reassessment of channel programme tier statuses would happen this year. Many gave early access to marketing development funds (MDF) and pointed to finance offers to make life easier on the financial front.

“The whole world is currently in the tight grip of this pandemic, but the EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa] market in particular has been badly hit, with many countries in partial or full lockdown,” said Sean Collins, senior director, EMEA channels at Extreme Networks, back in April. “It would be irresponsible to expect our partners in EMEA and across the world to continue meeting our channel programme requirements without taking into account the changing market conditions.”

Lockdown measures eased

Over the course of May, governments’ efforts to flatten the curve across the world appeared to be working and lockdown measures started to ease.

Channel minds have now started turning to what will happen next – what will the “new normal” look like and how can they support customers through it?

First, it is obvious that the rest of this year is going to involve a lot of home working, with some of the changes in working practices likely to become permanent.

Gartner has indicated that by 2024, face-to-face meetings will only account for 25% of enterprise meetings, down from levels of 60% before the coronavirus.

Simon Pamplin, director of technical sales at Silver Peak, said that the analyst house had put some numbers to thoughts that many were expressing across the industry.

“This research puts a figure on what many of us have been thinking since lockdown began: the world of work as we know it will have changed drastically because of Covid-19,” he said.

“Cloud-based digital collaboration tools and UC&C [unified communications and collaboration] applications have been common in the workplace for many years, but have been there to supplement face-to-face meetings, rather than being the dominant means of communication. If Gartner’s predictions are accurate, businesses’ current network architectures are ill-suited to meet this shift.”

Video conferencing

Millions of people have taken to Teams and Zoom to keep in touch with colleagues and customers, and the impact it has had on working patterns has been immense. It has also caused many firms to examine their current infrastructure and conclude it is not fit to support the changes in working patterns.

A second area where there are likely to be long-term changes for the channel is around the relationship between resellers and suppliers.

This crisis has given resellers a chance to see clearly which suppliers are working to support them and which ones have not had the ability to help. Recent research from Quocirca about the print channel found that the experience in the pandemic was having an impact on the way partners viewed suppliers.

Many reported that they would look more critically at who they chose to work with. One responded to the analyst house with the comment: “Looking at what OEMs can offer us as support to channel partners will be a crucial element for the choosing of our future OEM partners.”

The majority of suppliers have stepped up their support and will be remembered for the good that they did in the crisis, but there could be fallout for those that were seen to be slow to respond or weak in their assistance measures, given the long memories the channel have.

Suppliers and distributors can also expect calls for some of the measures introduced in the past couple of months to become permanent. Take as an example the reseller community lunches launched by Tech Data. These have proved to be popular, covering technical, business and personnel issues throughout the crisis. The distributor accepted that this increased communication had been welcomed by partners and it was looking to keep the sessions going.

“We have got to be consistent and we have talked about how this will continue when we are out of Covid-19,” said Simon Bennett, business unit director for enterprise software and cloud at Tech Data.

Trusted advisors

That sense of doing the right thing for partners is one that leads into the final legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic, which should be a positive one for the channel. The last few months have given new meaning to the words “trusted advisor” and have given resellers the chance to demonstrate to customers that they really understand their needs and can come up with solutions.

The word “hero” has been used a lot to describe the dedication of key workers throughout the crisis, but there have also been some heroic actions taken by those in the channel.

Stories about Spanish staff at Logicalis who worked tirelessly over 36 hours to help a healthcare provider get its systems back online, SCC giving its time and talents to help roll out a PPE training site nationally and other numerous examples of the channel stepping in to help keep the NHS working have all emerged over the past weeks.

Those examples underline the role that the channel plays in society, providing help and assistance to those customers in need. The best legacy of this pandemic would be for more resellers, managed service providers (MSPs) and distributors to get the recognition they deserve for the actions they take every day, including hopefully more “normal” ones, in solving problems.

The phases of response

Jeff Clarke, vice-chairman and chief operating officer at Dell Technologies, spoke to analysts a couple of weeks ago when the vendor released its first-quarter numbers about what he sees happening in the future.

“As the world starts to pivot from response to recovery, I see it in three phases. Phase 1, the rapid response,” he said. “This phase is largely behind us. Organisations have moved to work from home, kids are learning from home, and we are seeing hopeful signs, including a possible vaccine.

“Phase 2, the new normal. As a society, we are realising that work isn't a destination, rather it's something many of us can do anywhere, anytime. We are solving customer issues remotely with great success, and customer conversations have changed from 'What do we do now?' to 'How do we plan for the future?'

“And then into the third phase, new opportunities,” said Clarke. “High volumes of virtual, online businesses, an accelerated digital existence, making an automated, intelligent and secure supply chain paramount to business continuity.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning play a big role to glean meaningful business insights from the vast amount of data this digital existence will create.”

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