IBM and Microsoft have been busy revamping their partner programmes in an effort to make them easier to understand. Both have announced unified programmes that are based on the accumulation of points to achieve the different levels available. It is hard to tell who came up with the idea first.
Perhaps it is more fitting to credit the airlines, whose frequent-flier schemes they superficially resemble. Using points to reward capability and success makes the programmes easier to understand, as a comparison with the Hewlett-Packard (HP) programme shows.
Both schemes are available to any partner prepared to make a level of commitment, which need not be purely revenue. The schemes recognise that partners contribute to the success of the vendors in a number of ways.
The drive behind the re-think differs, but the aim is clear: to compete more effectively in the SME market, where effective engagement with partners is vital.
The Microsoft Partner Programme will retain the partner categories Certified and Gold Certified, as well as introducing a third: Registered.
Any organisation can sell Microsoft products bought from an authorised distributor, but by becoming Registered they will get an Action Pack including demo software, and will be able to use the Microsoft partner extranet to see whether or not they would qualify to become a Certified partner.
This is where the points come in. To become Certified, a Microsoft partner requires 60 points and needs to fork out £1,000. Points can be accumulated in a number of ways including revenue, case studies, customer satisfaction and competencies.
The reward of points for acquiring competencies is particularly important.
Seventy per cent of Microsoft partners do not actually sell products but deliver services around them. Fifty points are awarded for acquiring an initial competency, for which there are further indirect costs.
Gold Certified partners require at least 120 points, but there is no additional cost to be promoted to this level. Existing Certified and Gold Certified partners automatically will be transferred to the new scheme, but need to comply with its requirements over the next 12 months.
The main drive behind IBM's revamp was to reduce the four tracks of its current scheme down to one PartnerWorld programme. The different levels are named as before: Member, Advanced and Premier. Once registered you can start accumulating points; seven points are required for Advanced and 25 for Premier.
Points are awarded for approved 'skills', revenue, customer satisfaction and completing a business plan.
The basic programme is free at all levels, but there are indirect costs involved in acquiring skills. A skill is an instance of an individual having been trained to a proven level in a sales or technical function.
An Advanced partner requires a minimum of three skills, at least one sales and one technical. A Premier partner requires a minimum of six, at least two technical and two sales.
IBM, too, will automatically move all its existing partners to the new programme at their existing levels and require them to demonstrate compliance by the end of the first quarter 2005.
A points-based system makes the contribution partners make to a vendor's success quantifiable and gives vendors a currency for communication and motivation. There are bound to be some gripes, but Microsoft and IBM's new schemes are easier to understand than HP's current scheme.
The HP Business Partner Programme has three levels - Business Partner, Select and Premier - and to reach the two higher levels requires a mix of certified professionals and revenue.
Only about 12 per cent of channel firms that sell HP products are part of the programme. The rest are proximity partners managed by one of HP's Channel Development Partners.
Comparing the partner programmes of vendors with such varied product lines is not easy, but a points system can help here. One IBM point seems to have the value of six Microsoft points. Neither vendor has confirmed if it will accept points from each other's schemes if partners wish to trade their loyalty.
The value attached to the points is arbitrary. But allowing the programmes to float against each other in an open market would establish the value partners assign to them.
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