Every year, channel impresario Rod Baptie invites channel chiefs to his “Channel Focus” event. There, the industry’s powerful and smart share ideas on running global partner channels. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the first Channel Focus North America. While I wasn’t there, our friend and collaborator Theresa Caragol of TCC Consulting was.

Caragol is a longtime contributor to The VAR Guy and MSPmentor, and is a Penton Xpert who helps us out on a variety of fronts. Knowing she spoke there on how executives can help empower and inspire female leaders, I reached out for her impressions of the event, which featured mix of companies. On hand were regular attendees including IBM, Google, Oracle, SAP, VMware and Autodesk, plus newcomers including Adaptive Insights, Edgewater Networks, Genesys, NDH and Nexenta.

Here’re nine takeaways from sessions she attended and conversations she had at Baptie Channel Focus, which was held at the historic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. With Navy jets and helicopters buzzing overhead, here’s what stood out to her.

Theresa Caragol, TCC Consulting

Idea No. 1: Vendors should embrace a “deploy and edit” strategy to get to market more quickly
VMware’s Ross Brown, senior vice president of worldwide partners and alliances, told attendees that the days of massive, monolithic partner programs that are updated once every few years after lengthy discussion and review are over. The new paradigm for software channels? It resembles the DevOps software development model and hinges on, “deploy and edit.” Get a program, an offering and set of initiatives into the market and then improve and perfect them as you go, Brown says. Brown says the new model is the only realistic way that the channel can keep pace with innovation, including the Internet of Things (IoT), which has fast become a real wave within the industry.

Idea No. 2: It’s the ecosystem, not the program, that matters most
Remember the days when “the program” was the most important thing a channel chief could build? And how significant incentives, rebates, lead generation and other programs were? They still are, of course, but the real action has moved on to the ecosystem itself. That’s where the real value now is. Take Salesforce. At the Baptie event, Sherrick Murdoff, vice president of partner investments, shared his employer’s view of the value of the partner ecosystem. For the past several years, he said, Salesforce has recruited the best and then offered each partner a way to interact with it in a manner that works best for all. As a result of the innovative approach, Salesforce now boasts one of the largest and most robust ecosystems in the industry. And each partner generates, on average, $4 of professional services for every $1 of Salesforce product sold. 

Idea No. 3: Certification is giving way to enablement
Traditional partner programs are stuck in the past, says Sandra Cheek, global vice president of channels at Brocade. What does she mean? “People are still wrestling to find the right compensation models for the future and how best to attract new sets of partners,” she says. “But new approaches are needed in how we think about partner programs and what ‘new age partners’ actually need from vendors.”

Instead of certification testing, partners want more exacting enablement that will help them transform their customers’ businesses, not merely install their gear. To build better programs, vendors must figure out how to better measure partner influence, particularly when it comes to specialized service providers. 

Sandra Cheek, Brocade

Idea No. 4: The rise of specialized partners is real and transforming our notion of "channels"
Among those who have studied the role that specialized partners now play in delivering digital solutions to customers is Baptie himself. He says that accounting firms, human resource consultants, digital agencies, insurance brokers and even private equity companies are all helping customers with digital transformation. They can talk business, already work with C-suite leaders and are looking for new ways to add value because their traditional revenue is under pressure. He recommends that vendors help these partners by focusing on their professional capabilities and not necessarily their technical services. Vendors should “adopt a mission of overall business growth enablement,” he says.

Idea No. 5: Channels are still a mystery to many vendor and telecom CEOs
It may sound silly, but many industry executives still struggle to understand the basics of channels and the value they provide to their organizations. Mark Rogers, chief revenue officer at Impartner, observed in a presentation that many channel programs at mature companies operate at an arm’s length of the executive management team. One of the roles, thus, of a channel chief is not only help enable partners, but also educate his or her bosses. The goal should be to make “channels” as deeply embedded into a company’s DNA as “marketing.”

Idea No. 6: Digital innovation is disrupting channel programs
Thanks to digital transformation, which has enabled software companies to sell more product and services direct to customers, vendors and telecom carriers are struggling with how to effectively recruit, retain and reward partners. Larry Walsh, CEO of The 2112 Group, says the channel is definitely struggling with vendor compensation models, as a result. He believes companies must quickly figure out the roles and responsibilities of the teams and organizations they assign to inside sales, partner enablement and more. And they better get the economics right or else.

Idea No. 7: Service providers are driving the convergence of IT and telecom channels
For years we have heard that the IT channel responsible for delivering goods and services will harmoniously marry with the telecom channel of agents who sell communications services. But the marriage has never been consummated—until now that is. CenturyLink’s Dean Douglas, the president of the company’s Enterprise Segment, says convergence is finally happening at scale. What is more, it is service providers that are driving it as partners look to transform their customers’ cloud, IoT and application transformations.

Idea No. 8: Partners fail when executives are not committed
What’s the primary reason why partners fail to gain traction with a particular vendor? Intacct’s Taylor Macdonald, senior vice president of global channels, told Baptie attendees that it’s a lack of commitment among channel partner executives. If the top brass of an individual partner is not engaged, he says, then success is not likely to happen. A better way? Intacct has adopted a rigorous and generous onboarding program that has an very high success rate. Its distinguishing quality? It engages not just engineers and salespeople but executives of partner organizations.

Idea No. 9: Small program tweaks can make a big difference
Caragol notes, small program tweaks can have a big and lasting impact. Take NetApp, for example. At Baptie, Bill Lipsin, vice president of global channels, says NetApp focused on very specific growth programs last year that led to important gains for partners. Given the narrowness of the programs launched by the company, NetApp was able to determine very quickly what worked and what did not when it came to partner growth. As a result, NetApp was able guide partners into new product areas at a far faster rate than what could have been accomplished with a traditional channel approach.

Finally, we congratulate Rod Baptie on 20 years of success. Well done.