The Changing Channel

Who Speaks for the Channel Partner?

Impersonal vendor channels are drowning out partners who voice their concerns. Is the only solution to speak louder?

At a recent CompTIA ChannelCon meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., a longtime solution provider told me quite emphatically that he didn't want to sell products any more. It was simply costing him too much.

"My concern," he explained, "is how I'm going to get vendors to pay attention to me and give me the technical heads-up they always have." Many solution providers are similarly convinced that they get technical roadmap previews and other early notices on new developments only because they produce volume sales.

I asked if he had brought this up to any of his vendor partners. "Why would they care to listen to me if I'm not selling their stuff anymore?" was his reply.

Given where we were, I then asked if he had approached CompTIA about it.

He then asked me to whom at CompTIA he should speak. Then he said something that stopped me cold: "Besides, aren't they just going to support the vendor?"

Immediately realizing he might be right and I might be wrong, I asked if he had approached the association's board of directors. He asked me who that was. I asked if he at least knew who the chairman of the board was. Nope.

Even though he was a longtime member who participated in leadership activities, he had no idea who was in charge. The fact that CompTIA has a staff made matters worse. As I spoke to more members, it became clear to me that members were by and large unaware of the board of directors and saw the staff as being the ones in power.

And so it was with a new perspective that I attended a panel session in which journalist Larry Walsh was discussing channel issues. Walsh made a comment that grabbed my attention, saying there are "many vendors who are questioning whether they need their channels anymore."

As a working member of the channel for three decades, I've heard similar statements over the years many times, but the vendors always come back to the channel. It's obvious why. They can't hope to scale to serve the number of customers they need to serve to be profitable without channel partners to provide the service.

While other selling mechanisms arise that make it easier and less costly to sell hardware and software, delivering the services required to make a solution work requires experts. No vendor can hire enough and keep them on payroll. That's the true and lasting value of the channel.

Who's Going To Tell That to the Vendors?
You would think this would be the primary role of IT industry associations, but clearly it is not. I've singled out CompTIA because that's where my epiphany occurred, but the obvious alternatives aren't always better. For example, the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP) is an all-volunteer organization that's ostensibly deployed geographically with chapters around the world.

This sounds great until you spend a few years working with them and realize that the times when members receive the most value is when the nearest chapter happens to be enjoying the presence of good local leadership. Chapters routinely rise and fall as good leaders leave because of career changes, time restraints or burnout.

Voice of the Channel?
With CompTIA being led by non-channel employees, IAMCP being inconsistent at the chapter level, and other industry associations serving the needs of the distributors or other entrepreneurs who run them, who speaks for the channel partner?

The answer must come from our community of channel partners themselves. Don't just pay your dues and attend some meetings. Demand value for your dues. Find out who your leaders are and insist that they lead, follow or get out of the way. There are plenty of great leaders working tirelessly on these boards of directors, but they're shouted down by those who are only there to benefit their own interests.

All that we in the press can do is to shine a light on the problem. It's up to you as a business owner to advocate for yourselves to have one, unified voice for needed change.

More Columns by Howard M. Cohen:

About the Author

Howard M. Cohen is a consultant to IT vendors and channel partner companies and a board member of the U.S. chapter of the IAMCP. Reach him at [email protected].