Creating a technical or sales channel competency, also known as a certification, has been a tried and true method for separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff in the channel for as long as anyone cares to remember. Establishing competencies is important because they enable vendors to make sure that channel partners can provide a level of service that leads to higher customer satisfaction. The challenge channel chiefs face is making sure competencies are tied to rebates and other rewards that provide enough of an incentive for channel partners to make the time and money required to achieve any given competency.
Most of the intentions associated with establishing channel competency programs are noble. But like most things associated with the channel, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. More than a few vendors over the years have tried to turn competencies and certifications into profit centers; only to see partners flee channel programs when it became apparent all the costs and time required to achieve a competency failed to provide a meaningful return on investment.
Other vendors in their zeal to manage channels partners too granularly have simply gone too far. Cisco, for example, has spent the last several months diligently reducing competency complexity as part of an effort to simplify its channel program. Ten express-level specializations have been combined into one Express Specialization covering all Cisco architectures. Cisco has also reduced what was once 13 Advanced Specializations down to more manageable five specializations.
Cisco also retired all Advanced Technology Specializations, while at the same time creating a broader Master Networking Specialization alongside a range of vertical industry specializations. While clearly trying to reduce the costs channel partners incur when asked to achieve too many certifications, Cisco is leaving in place a smaller number of more rigorous certifications that are harder to achieve and maintain.
But even as vendors move to make certification processes simpler to navigate, the issue many of them still overlook is the total number of certifications a channel partner needs to achieve to properly support a solution. If the average solution consists of four or more products, then a partner is in theory required to achieve competencies in four technologies. Because it’s unlikely all the products involved in a solution come from the same vendor, that almost invariably means the partner is also expected to navigate the channel programs of at least two and possibly more vendors.
Many solution providers when confronted with those requirements simply pass on the opportunity. Rather than make the effort to become a Gold or Silver partner, it’s easier for them to remain at a Bronze level or lower. After all, if most of the profits a solution provider generates come from their own services, jumping through multiple hoops to pick up a couple of points of margin on a product sale all too often doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort. The more products involved in a solution the more problematic it becomes for channel partners to achieve an ROI competency.
Channel chiefs that oversee channel competency programs need to strike a balance. Competencies can play an important role when it comes to making sure that high levels of customer satisfaction are achieved. After all, it’s a lot easier to sell additional products and services to an existing happy customer than it is to sell anything to a new customer.
But channel chiefs also need to exercise care when it comes to wielding what amount to a blunt instrument that adds additional burden to channel partners. The truth is many channel partners have a better relationship with customers than the IT vendor. Channel partners almost always have a second, third or even fourth choice when it comes to deciding what products to include in a solution. Channel partners are not going to invest time and money simply to attain the privilege to sell a product on behalf of a vendor unless the effort is clearly worthwhile. Rather than compete with a rival selling that same product at a lower cost, the path of least resistance for many channel partners is to use their influence to recommend a different product.
Savvy channel chiefs make certain that any cost associated with attaining a channel competency is more than made up for in the rewards provided, whether they be in the form of cash rewards, training or marketing support. Anything less than that assumes a level of arrogance that results in channel partners taking their business elsewhere. After all, no matter how great the customer experience, it’s all for naught if the channel partner never provides the vendor with an opportunity to engage the end customer in the first place.
Mike Vizard has been covering IT issues in the enterprise for 25 years as an editor and columnist for publications such as InfoWorld, eWeek, Baseline, CRN, ComputerWorld and Digital Review.