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You need big ears and a big mouth

Those wondering what the role of the channel might be have been giving some useful tips to Billy MacInnes

What is the role of the channel? It’s one of those questions that people keep asking, not necessarily in expectation of a comprehensive answer. Often, it seems that the people asking the question are doing so mainly for effect.

The fact they are asking the question is, in itself, a cause for celebration. It’s not that long ago that people were definitively stating that the channel had no role. As Gianfranco Lanci, Lenovo corporate president and COO, said at the recent Canalys Channels Forum (CCF) in Venice, he remembered being one of the few back in 2000 who still believed the channel had a role to play.

The biggest endorsement of the channel was probably provided by its greatest foe when Michael Dell, who had spent so many years extolling the benefits of direct over indirect and excoriating the wastefulness of the channel, unveiled a formal channel partner scheme back in 2007. Since then, Dell EMC’s channel business has grown to around 45% of overall revenues and is on course to go as high as 55% or more by 2019. A symbolic moment.

Anyway, the good news is that people appear to have realised that the channel’s role is not purely to sell technology. If it was that easy, the vendors could definitely do it themselves. Or they could get a business like Amazon to do it for them.

What many vendors, customers and analysts have started to appreciate is that there is more to the technology sales model than meets the eye. For those looking at it from the outside, it would appear blindingly simple: the market consists of two sides, the provider of the product and the user/buyer of it. But that’s what makes them blind to the very important role that the channel plays between those two sides.

The vendor’s agenda for technology is not always the same as the customer’s. And that’s assuming that the product provider has a clear idea of why someone should use its technology – which is not always the case. The vendor’s perspective is not the same as the user’s. Too often, vendors see their technology in isolation, in a pure version of the world where there are no messy conflicts or compromises with existing systems and processes. It might be slightly unfair to say so, but it can sometimes seem as if they are living in the advert for their technology rather than the real world.

We all know that adverts are idealised versions of reality, so idealised, in fact, that they create expectations that are usually impossible to match. It’s quite possible that customers will have expectations of that technology which are, equally, impossible to match. It’s not the channel’s job to try and get the technology to meet those expectations.

It’s the channel’s job to help the customer to see whether there is a useful purpose for that technology in his or her organisation and, if there is, to implement it in the most effective way for that business. In other words, it’s the channel partner’s job to make the application of that technology a reality for the customer. Often, the reality is different from what the vendor and customer envisaged for it.

At CCF, Dell EMC president for global channels, John Byrne, said the channel’s role was to be focused on the customer, which involved “having big ears” so partners could develop an understanding of the journey their customers were on and help them on that journey. Martin Hellawell, chairman at Softcat, made a similar point when he said partners should “let customers work out where they want to go and go with them”, adding that they didn’t need “to second guess them”. In other words, the main requirement is to listen to what their customers need rather than what the vendors think they need.

So what is the channel’s role? To have big ears and a big mouth. Big ears to listen to what customers really want and need and a big mouth to help vendors understand what their technology can do for their customers, rather than what they’d like it to do for them. Oh, and the eyes to be able to see that it works. But despite the near consensus that exists today that the channel has a vital role to play, the one thing partners don’t need is a big head.

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