Collaboration key to channel success

Collaboration key to channel success

While some integrators are reporting a significant increase in partnering with each other, an industry analyst has warned many are still failing to form valuable, long-term alliances.

Applications integrator, ExpressApps, specialises in Citrix. Its technical director, Phil Lancaster, said service revenues from working with partners had mushroomed from about 20 per cent of its business two years ago to 80 per cent today.

He suggested customers were a major reason for this trend because they were opting to selectively source IT components to mitigate risk. Integrators were also actively adopting the approach, he argued, by introducing specialists as a way of improving speed and accuracy.

In a recent customer contract, ExpressApps had called in Novell specialist, Jasco Consulting, to assist with the overall systems environment. Although this meant earning a smaller margin, Lancaster said the decision would help retain the customer.

"It's the bigger picture," he said. "A better job means the customer is happier."

Bigger opportunities

BCA IT managing director, Stephen Harrington, has also used partnering as a way of securing larger customer deals. The services company joined forces with Avnet for its IBM storage skills in order to win a contract with a major car manufacturer.

"The opportunity for a storage solution was based around pSeries, whereas we sell xSeries hardware," he said. "We were up against an organisation that had these abilities singularly. But we demonstrated that we had joint capabilities and the relationship as well."

Harrington said up to 30 per cent of its business now came from partnerships.

"It's definitely higher in the last couple of years," he said. "It works where you have an existing customer and want to get a greater share of their wallet.

"It will gain more momentum as organisations continue to specialise - there aren't a lot of generalists out there."

But IDC software analyst, Megan Dahlgren, painted a bleak picture of channel partnering. She argued many companies were still too focused on meeting sales targets and were not taking advantage of the opportunities presented by lasting partnerships.

Dahlgren recommended the channel identify market segments and look at the products and services with the greatest potential for those ecosystems. Integrators should then investigate which partners could help them fit the bill.

"Advise on product, have an opinion, do the pre-sales and identify the business objective rather than selling on sales targets," she said.

Changing landscape

Convergent technologies - such as IP telephony, mobility, security and information management - are bringing resellers together. Technology Trading House general manager, Michael Cooke, said it had been prompted to work with partners because of the new reliance of technologies on each other. He cited telephony on IT networks as a key example.

The integrator was also now working with several Cisco resellers to devise services to customers, Cooke said.

Southern Cross Computer Systems (SCCS) managing director, Mark Kalmus, said he had also taken to partnering as a way of providing application skills not kept in-house.

SCCS concentrates on architectural work such as rolling out hardware, LANs, messaging tools and overall infrastructure.

Kalmus said it called in partners to assist with application customisation and mobility, deploying high-end business systems suites and SQL development.

"Two years ago we had a couple of partners: now we have six," he said. "There has been a maturing of organisations that recognise we need to work together."

Services driver

Several integrators also pointed to managed services as a driver of partnering opportunities, particularly for small or niche services companies. With convergence becoming rife, vendors are driving the channel to deliver more comprehensive services to customers, rather than simple technology rollouts.

EMC partner director, David Henderson, said massive consolidation of vendors was feeding the need for inter-channel partnering.

"As these single-focused vendors take on multiple product solutions, we will still need specialisation," he said.

EMC was no longer talking to partners about deploying a SAN, for example, because the game had moved to more targeted conversations about backup recovery, virtualisation, information management and solving business problems, Henderson said. This was forcing partners to knuckle down on a particular aspect instead of attempting the entire solution.

The storage vendor had a number of partners that had invested in enterprise content management, Henderson said. The problem, however, was that customers still needed information consolidation and infrastructure. Partnering was a way of solving this issue.

Cisco channel manager, Suzanne Hansen, said its technologies were too complex for one partner to install an end-to-end solution. The vendor has rolled out a program to provide incentives to those who can draft solutions. This was also rewarding those who took on a partner to fulfill these needs, she said.

Individual case basis

"It's a brave new world where there has to be a lot of co-opetition," she said. "A reseller selling to a customer is the old way of doing things: we're not just reselling PCs anymore.

"We are trying to work on an individual case basis with organisations. Telstra and IBM doing optical services together, or Alphawest and Optus working on voice solutions: we're trying to make the business environment more suitable for this."

Dimension Data marketing director, Gerard Florian, said a downturn in the market following the dotcom crash had forced businesses to focus on strengths. Like many integrators, he agreed the increasingly complex technologies now required by customers made it impossible to be all things to all people.

But it took a lot of maturity to accept that another player could provide an element of a customer's needs better than your own organisation, Henderson said.

"The challenge is having a non-competitive environment," he said. "Once this is solved, it is a good idea for strengthening the relationship with the customers."

Florian said DiData was happy to take on a subcontractor's role if the circumstances were right. Recently, it had contracted the project management side of integration jobs for banks to a large outsourcing house, he said.

Other integrators also pointed to the large outsourcers as an emerging source of business. EMC's Henderson said the next big opportunity for the channel would be to develop consortiums to challenge larger outsourcers.

In the meantime, Kalmus said SCCS was making the most of partnerships with several larger outsourcing firms including IBM Global Services and EDS. While these organisations would undertake the project management and processing, the integrator was being called into the physical installation work.

"Big outsourcers used to think they could it themselves," he said. "But they've found it costs more to manage people and create the processes. We cost more initially but the overheads are passed on to us."

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