If the channel teamed up to create a comprehensive checklist of all the qualities an IT vendor should have in principle to be classed as a pro-channel firm, Dell would have no trouble ticking them all.
Chief executive shouting about channel commitment: check; direct business taking a shrinking share of the company's sales: check; and schemes and incentives put in place to reward channel sales: check.
Since Dell launched its PartnerDirect channel programme in EMEA seven years ago, it has certainly come a long way.
When it first dipped its toe into the channel, the mere mention of the firm's name was enough to send a shiver down partners' spines for fear of having deals pinched by aggressive inside sales teams. But now the newly private firm transacts the majority of its sales through its partners in EMEA and has truly thrown itself into the channel.
Last month the man himself said the channel business was so well established at the firm he calls it "Dell-normal".
"When we design a product, when we add capabilities, when we look at services or financing, our channel is built into that. It's built into our whole go-to-market," Michael Dell (pictured) said.
Actions speak louder than words?
Although Dell field marshals may see the channel as their most potent weapon in the war against HP, IBM and EMC, some resellers remain unconvinced the message has filtered down to front-line troops. Stories of resellers bashing heads with Dell's direct sales team are not entirely a thing of the past.
Matthew Wood, sales director at Dell mid-tier Preferred partner Concorde IT, said his firm was ambushed by Dell's inside sales team – which should be an ally – on a deal.
He said after talking to a customer at length and taking the deal to Dell, he later found out Dell's inside sales team had contacted the end user directly and told them they could undercut Concorde on price.
"I was gobsmacked," he said. "How can I try to build a business with Dell and increase profitability when things like that happen? It's crazy.
"I hear a lot of noise from account managers and distribution about Dell's channel focus, but I can really go on my real-world experience of working with them," he said.
Dan May, commercial director of Ramsac - another Dell Preferred partner - agreed and said his firm suffers a "constant battle" to protect deals from its direct sales force, something he branded "farcical".
"We realise we're not one of Dell's biggest partners but we're spending a fair amount of money with them," he said. "And there's been a complete drop-off in any kind of account management. I don't think I've seen anyone from Dell in the last 18 months."
Other lower-tier Dell partners have had similar experiences but chose not to speak out for fear of making the problem worse.
One disgruntled Preferred partner told CRN that the biggest risk to his Dell business was the vendor itself, but insisted that the firm's technology is so good that not working with it is not an option.
"If the channel truly is 'Dell-normal' for business, what is Dell Direct? Where does it fit? These messages are not well communicated or understood, which creates confusion and uncertainty," said the partner.
Another smaller partner peeved at Dell also agreed to talk only off the record, for fear of upsetting the vendor.
"[We] partners need to tread carefully as it' s Dell Direct we are pointing the finger at," they said. "Dell Direct is the underlying issue in so many channel conflicts, yet they are the real decision makers at the end of the day."
Last month CRN revealed that Dell was offshoring support for some of its mid-tier Preferred partners to India – a move which did not go down well with those affected. One partner said he found out about the change only after trying to get hold of his regular, UK-based account manager for a separate enquiry and criticised the way the firm communicated the change.
Dell reseller Unleashed IT was so upset by the India support move that it stopped working with the firm altogether. Its managing director Chris Rogan said on the company's blog that local support is a must.
"We've closed our direct relationship with Dell [in] protest of our relationship being moved and managed in India," he said. "I am sure I changed phone and insurance companies for the same reason, so I'm more than likely to do the same with my business as I'd do in any other aspect of my life – after all, it is my business!
"I'm not a man to mince about or have patience on such matters – with Dell, I'd been through it before and I have no particular desire to have a repeat performance, especially after finding out HP are managing customers locally."
When CRN broke the news it was offshoring support for some partners, Dell – which was taken off the stock market in October in the largest public-private takeover the corporate world has seen – insisted it was committed to the channel.
"At Dell, we are dedicated to our customers and ensuring they receive the outstanding experience they deserve, whether it's via a partner or direct from Dell," it said in a statement. "The channel is a key focus area we are investing in, and we are constantly looking for opportunities to build on the success of our PartnerDirect programme."
The bigger the better?
Although the horror stories are all too common among partners situated towards the bottom of PartnerDirect, top-level Premier partners – including Softcat – seem to have few qualms.
Softcat sales director David Ridgway said he puts the reseller's good relationship with Dell down to mutual hard work.
"It works two ways – Dell invested the time and resources in us and we invested time and resources in them – you have to build those relationships," he said. "That's where smaller partners may not really be in a position to do that.
"We send people over to Dublin to meet the Dell sales guys. They are used to selling direct so talking to them about ‘why channel?' and ‘why Softcat?' has really helped us build relationships with the team. But a company such as Dell can't do it with everyone; we're lucky we're big enough to be able to do that. We get that face time with the Dell sales teams."
He added that Softcat has been proactive in working with Dell and offers the vendor the chance to hold meetings at its offices, which are regularly followed up with networking opportunities for the duo's staff.
He added that the firm has come a long way since its direct-only days.
"We signed up with Dell right at the beginning and if I look back at now compared to when we first signed up, they have come on leaps and bounds," he said.
"It has taken time for the channel message to filter down. Michael Dell has been saying ‘channel, channel, channel' for years and those sales guys are coming around to that fact. It has taken time and they are not there 100 per cent yet.
"There are still some direct sales staff at Dell who are not as pro-channel as we'd like, but an awful lot of them really are."
Dell has put a number of incentives in place to win over some of its direct staff who may remain sceptical about the channel.
Back in February, Dell started offering sales staff in North America 20 per cent more commission for selling seven areas of its portfolio via a partner than they would selling direct – a scheme which will be heading to EMEA in the coming months. Dell is also creating 200,000 channel-led accounts in North America which will be free from direct interference, a strategy that will also be mirrored here.
In a statement sent to CRN when partners first raised concerns about Dell's channel approach, the company insisted the channel was at the heart of the business.
"Winning through and with our channel partners is a key element of our success in the UK and across EMEA," it said.
"We have been growing our channel business in the region strongly over the past seven years and we will continue to invest in enabling our partners. We are also investing in people to deliver exceptional customer service to our partner base at all levels, regardless of where they are based geographically."
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