Channels In The Era Of Cloud: Vendors And Channel Partners Are Jockeying With Each Other For Position

Cloud computing has arrived on the market in a big way, with virtually every tech vendor, regardless of size, geography, or solution, vying for a cloud position. But in the race to the cloud, many tech vendors have forgotten that ever-critical customer relationship vehicle: the channel. Or, if they haven’t forgotten it, they’ve coaxed channel partners with the pat mantra, “Do more consulting” (“… while we take care of delivery”). To get channel partners’ perspectives on how the technology value chain is changing in an as-a-service delivery model world, Forrester recently teamed with Outsource Channel Executives (OCE) to survey executives of channel companies across 39 countries, from the local level to the global.

The results of the survey are in, and they tell quite a story: that there is a good deal of angst and confusion among channel partners over their role/value in the cloud services technology value chain; that they aren’t sitting on their hands, waiting for tech vendors to tell them what to do; and that they need a lot of help in transforming their marketing and business models in this new era of cloud computing.

Now, not all channel companies are going to be able to make that transformation (nor should they – after all, cloud computing will never represent 100% of the technology market). But there are going to be many that will try and fail, ultimately resulting in a 12%-15% channel company washout. So think about it – supply (the number of channel companies) goes down; demand (for channel partner assets) remains high. It’s those tech vendors that amp their channel game to enable their partners’ cloud aspirations that are going to come away as the new “channel chiefs.”

The Problem With Tech Vendors’ “SMB Specialist” Partner Certification

SMBs have historically led the way out of recessions – and with the impression in mind that this recovery will prove likewise, tech vendors have been clamoring to roll out new “SMB Specialist” partner certifications. The problem is that most of these SMB certifications are meaningless. The requirement for channel partners to achieve SMB certification in many vendors’ channel programs is that the channel partner has to prove that they have successfully sold to and supported SMB customers. Huh? Sounds like the “chicken and egg” syndrome, doesn’t it?

A few vendors, primarily those with large product portfolios, place the appropriate “breadth” value requirement on their SMB channel partners (as opposed to “depth”, i.e., deep knowledge in one particular technology domain) and require their SMB partners to test on several technology domains, albeit at the “101” (“beginner”) level. Note that most vendors, too, provide no path for their SMB-certified partners to reach their top partner tier (most vendors still reward revenue contribution over everything else), so those partners are at a competitive disadvantage to large channel partners that target both the enterprise and SMB markets.

The problem is vendors’ view of “breadth” with respect to SMB partner certification. Cisco Systems’ view of “breadth” is competency across the network and collaboration domains; Symantec’s is competency across the security spectrum; Microsoft’s is office suite and application software; and HP’s is primarily hardware and IT management (at least until it integrates the 3Com channel program).

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Reaching SMBs Through SMB Communities

It’s a well-established fact that social media is every bit as – if not more – influential for business decision-makers (B2B) as it is for consumers (B2C); Forrester clients can read more here. And SMBs are the most prolific of all business-size segments in utilizing social media and online communities to inform their technology purchase decisions. So where are SMBs turning to for that information? Where can you check the pulse of SMBs’ thinking?

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The Mathematical Inevitability Of The SMB-led Economic Recovery

[Co-authored with Zachary Reiss-Davis]

Back in February 2009, I wrote a report titled “A New SMB Market Phoenix Is Rising” which examines how small and medium businesses (SMBs) will be the initial source of job growth and creation which leads us out of the current recession, as they have in most previous recessions. The report also examines how SMBs use technology, and how technology vendors can best market to them - this figure highlights my conclusions.The Historic Employment Rate Performance Of Small Businesses And Enterprises

Today, Paul Kedrosky, who has a Ph.D. in the economics of technology and writes extensively on macro-economic trends, wrote a piece I found very insightful about why young firms (small businesses) not only historically account for most of the job growth in the United States, but that their doing so is mathematically inevitable. 

My upcoming report, “Fueling the New SMB: Marketing Services-as-Software” on this topic, will work its way through our editing process in the next week.  In the meantime, I encourage you to read his post and my older report and let me know if they match what your marketing team is seeing today.

Adapting to Cloud: The Channel Models They Are a-Changin’

NetSuite, a leading SaaS ERP/CRM provider, recently announced that it is revamping its channel partner comp model: 100% on Y1 subscription revenue, and 10% thereafter. VARs have been remiss in taking up the SaaS torch, largely because most SaaS vendors haven’t provided a financial model conducive to VARs’ cash flow requirements. Per the on-premise license model, channel partners make a big portion of their nut on initial product margin, i.e., up front. But vendor SaaS economics minimize up-front remuneration and spread revenue out over a long period of time. Though it sacrifices year-one revenue, NetSuite’s 100/10 model more closely mirrors VARs’ accounting practices. 

NetSuite’s model will be the first of many SaaS channel model “experiments” that will ultimately be a shot in the arm for the SMB market in particular. Contrary to popular belief, SMBs have been slow on the uptake of SaaS (application hosting outpaces SaaS adoption by SMBs by a factor of 3-4x) ... Business applications; deployed via on-premise, SaaS, or application hosting

 ... due to the fact that VARs, in ownership of the customer trust asset, haven’t been pushing SaaS. But the financial barriers to channel partners’ SaaS advocacy are being broken down. 

Now that the path for VARs to play in the cloud is being forged, and their play along with software vendors, aggregators, and ISPs being validated, distributors and DMRs, long wedded to on-premise license models, are going to have to figure out their place in the new cloud channel order. 

What do you think? Is this one of many experiments? What is the role for distributors and DMRs in cloud computing?