Learning curve

Training partners has become a vital part of a vendor's activities. A variety of approaches are used for channel education.

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By  Alex Malouf Published  July 26, 2004

Vendor strategy|~|Qais-from-EMC-copy.gif|~|Qais Gharaibeh, partner sales manager at EMC Middle East|~|If it were up to vendors, every one of their partners would be sitting down in a classroom, wearing shorts and taking copious notes on the latest technology. But education is time consuming, intensive and can be expensive. The onus is on vendors to decide the most effective training and education strategies for partners. Ayman Abouseif, MEA senior marketing director at Oracle; Graham Porter, marketing manager for Sun Microsystems MENA; Haider Salloum, marketing manager at Microsoft South Gulf; Rania Hannoush, Middle East rewards and planning manager at HP; Qais Gharaibeh, partner sales manager at EMC Middle East, and Mourad Zohny, channel sales manager at IBM Middle East stress the importance that channel education plays and how partners should make the most of what is available.

CME: What is your approach to educating and training channel partners and potential customers across the Middle East region?

AYMAN ABOUSEIF: We believe that training is crucial to unlocking the benefits of technology. However we treat partner training in a slightly different way to end-user training. While customers need training on how best to deploy, use and configure Oracle products, partners need several additional types of training in the areas of selling, implementing and supporting these solutions.

GRAHAM PORTER: When training the channel, Sun maintains annual contracts with our partners that describe the sales and marketing activities they will undertake for the year, their technical competence and specialisation with Sun. When educating potential customers, we build services into our sales process, so if we are selling servers we also insist on offering storage, software and services and that offering includes education if the customer requires it.

QAIS GHARAIBEH: We consider our channel partners as an extended arm of EMC and we enable them to be self-sufficient through our accreditation and certification programme. Partners need to maintain a certain level of certification annually in their own field of operations, whether it be sales, customer support or professional services. For the Middle East, EMC recommends and includes training roadmaps for customers in each proposal made, and customers usually opt for it.

Cme: How extensive is your current training and education programme in the Middle East?

MOURAD ZOHNY: Frequency of training depends on new IBM products that are being announced and how many partners we can assemble, so it makes financial sense. Regarding the latter, we need at least 15 to 20 people together in a classroom before we can justify the expense of flying in an expert from abroad. There is no fixed timetable for educating partners, no schedule for events on a certain day every month or every quarter as training is dictated by product release, but training is a common feature for IBM partners, for both technical and sales issues.

RANIA HANNOUSH: In order to maximize reach across the region, HP has three authorised training centres which have HP certified trainers to conduct sales, pre-sales and technical courses and exams across various countries. The range of courses offered extends from entry-level courses that require mass attendance to advanced learning classes that cater to highly skilled professionals in the enterprise space.

Cme: How do you ensure that you get a return on investment from the costs involved in delivering training and education?

AYMAN ABOUSEIF: The cost and the potential damage that may result from not training our channel partners is so great that we no longer make an effort to calculate the return on investment when providing partner training. This is the nature of the IT business and reflects its complexity, but it is obvious that investment returns can’t be measured.

HAIDER SALLOUM: The return in investment is not directly recovered; it is an investment in the market readiness that pays in the long run through increased sales. The Middle East requires a lot of work in terms of knowledge transfer as the skill levels are relatively low in comparison to other markets and the region is still dependent on an expatriate work force that constantly migrates in and out of the market.

QAIS GHARAIBEH: Education for partners is usually part of an overall business plan they have with EMC, ensuring that the knowledge transferred to partners will be used in the right place at the right time and will not be wasted. Based on such a business plan, a partner would know how many resources to train, to what profile, and up to what level of knowledge. This pays off for them when customers evaluate and emphasise the level of skills a partner should have to qualify for the business, which is usually the case in the Middle East.

GRAHAM PORTER: Sun believes that the return on investment in training is demonstrated by customer satisfaction, which we measure both as a pre-sales activity and as an after-sales support activity.
||**||Cost of education|~|HaiderSalloumMS.gif|~|Haider Salloum, marketing manager at Microsoft South Gulf|~|Cme: Should resellers and end-users receive training and education for free? Do yours, or does cost vary across the product portfolio that you carry?

RANIA HANNOUSH: Providing free of charge training is an idealistic concept due to the very high costs involved in organising training courses. Equipment procurement and shipment costs for conducting classes are high and vary depending upon the required product. In addition to this, the cost of employing a certified trainer would make it difficult for our training centres to provide free of charge classes. Course costs vary depending upon the product portfolio and certification track — be it sales, technical or pre-sales.

HAIDER SALLOUM: There are no free lunches out there. I don’t think end users should receive free training and should instead plan and budget for training regularly as part of the cost of any technology solution. The same goes for the channel as well. However, since there are so many technologies out there in the market, vendors should really help partners out by subsidising part of the costs otherwise it becomes very costly and time consuming for the partner to carry the full cost of training.

Cme: If training isn’t free, how do vendors help soften the financial impact for resellers?

AYMAN ABOUSEIF: We all know that technically speaking nothing is for free; even if a vendor claims that the training is free, in fact they would be loading the initial product price with the training cost. Having said that many of the training classes Oracle offers its partners are either at a significantly reduced price or at a nominal fee. Even a token charge guarantees the seriousness of the attendees.

MOURAD ZOHNY: IBM provides discounts based on the number of people the partner sends to training and the kind of business that is done with this partner as well. The discount is also tied to their sales and revenue performance. This programme was brought in following the launch of our PartnerWorld programme at the beginning of this year and is very comprehensive.

Cme: How can training and education differentiate a vendor from competition?

QAIS GHARAIBEH: EMC achieves 30% of its revenues worldwide through partners, and we are looking to increase that percentage this year. In the Middle East, EMC delivers after-sales first level support through partners, and enables them to do basic implementation services through our certification programme, and we constantly look at increasing partner skills so they can do more. EMC strongly believes that strategies focused on both education and increasing the partner’s share of the overall revenue are powerful differentiators that make companies more attracted to work and partner with EMC over its competitors.

GRAHAM PORTER: Sun’s co-op marketing fund is fairly unique among vendors these days — most have cut back on such programmes or watch as resellers simply give the money away as extra discount. Instead, Sun insists on overseeing how the money is budgeted and ensuring that training, demo kit acquisition, lead generation and branding actually take place as joint activities with our resellers.

Cme: What is the appetite from resellers for training across the region and does it vary country-by-country?

MOURAD ZOHNY: Most of our partners are eager to receive training but to some extent it is also driven by how demanding their customers are. A certain segment of customers would require the partner to be up to speed on latest products and technology and so receiving training to fulfill customer requirements becomes a ‘must have’. We have seen some country variants in terms of customer demand and this is reflected in our partners’ appetite for training. In countries such as the UAE and Saudi, where customers are more sophisticated, there is the most demand for channel training.

AYMAN ABOUSEIF: One issue that vendors face in this region is that some small resellers or partners carry too many brands and hence are unable to dedicate the right amount of resources to each product line or brand. In this case you find vendors competing for the training time that partners set aside. We don’t see a specific difference in partner appetite but one can notice that some geographies get more than their fair share of channel related activities either due to ease of logistics or to higher concentration of vendors and partners.||**||Classroom courses|~|MuradZoghbyIBM-copy.gif|~|Mourad Zohny, channel sales manager at IBM Middle East |~|Cme: How important is it to go out in the field to meet companies? Couldn’t this be done for a fraction of the cost online?

GRAHAM PORTER: Given the flexibility and reduced cost benefits, a lot of our training is done online, but Sun also hosts many seminars around the region each year and we train resellers at the same time. Face-to-face training enables regional companies to benefit from the experience of experts visiting this region and also gives Sun valuable feedback from the field.

AYMAN ABOUSEIF: Any comprehensive channel training programme must incorporate both online and instructor-led training. Oracle offers its Oracle Partner Network programme members a comprehensive online library of training, but this is also complemented by instructor-led hands-on training. It is important to remember that not everyone has a culture of self-learning so just making classes available online does not necessarily mean partners will sign up and attend.

Cme: Is channel training the vendor’s responsibility, or should distributors play a role too?

RANIA HANNOUSH: The vendor is the product manufacturer and so should be responsible for training those who configure, sell and support its products. This will firstly bring the manufacturer and the partner closer together. Secondly, it will enable the vendor to better communicate its product strategy and enhancements to the end-user through its authorised channels.

QAIS GHARAIBEH: For storage solutions such as EMC’s, value-added distribution is the key to reaching the small and medium-sized business (SMB) market. A big part of the distributors’ value-add is to provide training to second-tier resellers.

Cme: Isn’t training and education just used to build up hype and buzz around new technologies?

MOURAD ZOHNY: New technology is becoming much more complex and when you look at the kind of solutions being implemented today, even in the simplest servers and networks, partners need solid knowledge and understanding of the solution being sold to customers to be able to go out there and implement for the customer, so training is not just buzz. It is therefore essential for partners to be educated.

GRAHAM PORTER: Inevitably there is some marketing hype, especially during pre-sales, with every vendor claiming to have new bells and whistles which make them better than the competition. We invest US$1.8 billion a year on R&D and actually produce our own technology — so we can show our added value unlike other vendors who use other people’s technology.

Cme: Some resellers are scared that highly skilled and certified staff are much more likely to go and look for new jobs. What is your message to them?

GRAHAM PORTER: Many vendors are encouraging their channel partners to become more solution-oriented as opposed to being box movers, and this shift requires a whole new mindset based around solutions and services that specific customers value. Resellers need trained staff with specific skills in order to effectively build, market, and sell solutions, so if some resellers are scared that these skilled people will leave what does it tell you about their company overall?
||**||Channel appreciation|~|Graham-Porter-Sun-copy.gif|~|Graham Porter, marketing manager for Sun Microsystems MENA|~|Cme: What is more important to you: educating end-users on your technology to pull them in or training the channel to push your products to the market?

AYMAN ABOUSEIF: Both are equally important as Oracle wants to make sure our customers are successful using Oracle products. We want the partner to sell the right product and to set it up correctly and we want the customer to have the skills and the knowledge to take advantage of the products. Both are crucial to the success of any complex project.

QAIS GHARAIBEH: The two hold the same importance. You need to train partners to create the pull, then you need to train the customers on how to use the new features and functions. By that point, partners should be trained on implementing and maintaining these solutions.

Cme: Does the channel appreciate the training you provide?

RANIA HANNOUSH: Our knowledge hungry channel is always looking out for new unique selling points that the product has to offer as it gives them a competitive edge. This is a characteristic we highly appreciate in our partners across all segments as it motivates the company to offer new and diverse modules from the most entry level of courses to the highest level of accreditations.

MOURAD ZOHNY: When partners attend our training they appreciate it very much. We actually need to hold more courses locally with more frequency. Our partners are very happy with the level of knowledge that they get and the interaction with the instructors — the face-to-face effect.

Cme: How will your Middle East training and education strategy evolve over the next 12 months?

AYMAN ABOUSEIF: There are two areas Oracle will be looking at: the first is improved targeting of channel partners, and the second is enhancing the online-offline training mix, training frequency and its geographical reach.

QAIS GHARAIBEH: We will focus on two areas: increasing the self-sufficiency of partners, and elevating their skills to cover more complex solutions. With this strategy, we can enable our partners to differentiate themselves, and maintain a loyal community in which there is a clear vision of growth for everyone.
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