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Shift to Partner Plus more than a programme refresh for IBM

Big Blue’s recent update to its channel programme was a couple of years in the making, and is about more than the usual tiers, rebates and enablement

The channel has changed, and for those responsible for devising partner programmes, the traditional approaches are no longer workable because there is too much variety to impose a one-size-broadly-fits-all approach.

IBM’s channel leadership recognised that situation and began to develop a fresh offering, Partner Plus, which was introduced to the channel just a few days into the start of 2023.

David Stokes, general manager of IBM partner ecosystem EMEA, said that a couple of years ago it became clear that partners were creating value in different ways: “The traditional terms of reseller and integrator didn’t really apply anymore,” he said. “It was more relevant to talk about the way they create value around technology. I think that was a big shift for us, and with the new programme we were able to reflect that.”

The decision to introduce Partner Plus was not solely because of the changing makeup of the channel base but also to represent where IBM was as a business.

“The company had made this strategic shift to lead in hybrid cloud and AI [artificial intelligence], and we’d had the acquisition of Red Hat, which was obviously a big pivot point,” said Stokes. “Then we had the spin-off of Kyndryl, our managed services business, which gave a lot more clarity to our partners about where they could collaborate with us. But we made a third decision, which was that to scale our technology and our platforms, we had to have a strategy that embraced the ecosystem much more holistically, and more importantly, put it at the centre of our go-to-market.”

Partners were canvassed for their opinions and the final programme included the top items from their wish lists, including more support on the technology front. “The biggest thing we heard from our partners was, ‘we love your technology’,” said Stokes. “‘We want more access to your technology. By the way, we want more access to your go-to-market teams, because we like your technical skills. We’re like your sales teams, but we want to work with them more, so make it easier for us and then make some of the technology or make all the technology more available to us’.”

“A big piece of the new programme is the creation of a single portal, where partners can access everything to do with the programme, deal registration and all of our training,” he said. “We’ve made it all free and at the same time as it’s available to our own sellers and technicians. We’ve tried to simplify how partners get on board and access technology and skills. I think one of the biggest changes has been in our go-to-market, so we can’t talk just about programme change alone.”

Making life easier

Those sentiments to make life easier and more straightforward would be echoed elsewhere in the channel, with the majority of vendors drawing up partner programmes with that ambition. For IBM there was a second element, which was in terms of the way the vendor truly viewed its relationships with partners.

"I’ve seen that movement towards an ecosystem that’s less one-dimensional, more matrix, more collaborative,” he said. “I think vendors that can nurture that collaboration, both through open technology and the programmes that connect partners with different skills [will be more successful]. I think by necessity, it’s had to be that way, because no one partner can do everything for a client, certainly when it comes to digital transformation.”

That sense of collaboration is one that Big Blue is taking very seriously, even down to the language that is used. The term “via” is one that is being avoided, with a preference for selling “with” a partner to underline the collaborative nature of its go-to-market strategy.

The other ambition with any partner programme is to take the channel on that journey, and Alison Say, vice-president of ecosystem for UK and Ireland at IBM, said efforts have also been made on that front.

“We’ve got an incentive structure that’s now very simple across all software, all hardware, regardless of how you want to purchase – whether that’s perpetual licence subscription, which is very simple to follow. All partners, large and small, new and older, have the ability to the same incentive structure,” she added. “We have a very clear path on the benefit side for partners to grow in the tiers. Again, it doesn’t matter whether they build or sell or service, they can qualify.”

It has been just over a month since Partner Plus was unveiled, and Stokes said the reaction so far had been positive from the channel community.

“The proof of the success of the new programme is to see existing partners doing more business with us, but also doing more things with us,” he said. “We’re not trying to move a partner somewhere they don’t want to go. We want to meet partners on their business growth journey. When you’re having a conversation with a partner, it’s always about understanding where they’re going, how they want to grow, and then how through a combination of our programme, our technology and our go-to-market we can bring that together for that partner to help them accelerate their growth, and do it more profitably.”

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