When resellers were invited to give both barrels to their manufacturer partners in CRN's first-ever Vendor Report, they duly accepted, with no ammo spared.
One vendor was savaged for its unreliable and low-grade products while others were picked apart for their arrogant, unresponsive and poorly informed account managers and Byzantine partner programmes. Another vendor, with a fruit-based name, was accused of "gouging the channel" when it came to rebates and margin retention.
There is no doubt the 108-page report - which represents to our knowledge the first time UK vendor-channel relations have been probed in such depth - will make uncomfortable reading for many.
But it also tells the story of how the majority of vendors are getting it mostly right when it comes to how they service their partners.
The 292 respondents at VARs, solution integrators, distributors, MSPs and hosting/cloud specialists were asked to grade the performance of each vendor they had dealt with in the past year based on five service areas: product quality, account management, accreditation and training, after-sales and technical support and rebates and margin retention.
These grades were then averaged and converted into a percentage score out of 100. Those polled were also invited to add frank, confidential background comments.
Although the full version of the report is only available for a fee, we are able to reveal some of the top-line findings here (scroll down for a synopsis of how HP, Microsoft, Cisco and Apple fared).
None of the top vendors for which we received a sufficient number of responses scored below 60. And positive comments outnumbered negative ones by 829 to 393. So, not bad overall.
But that is not to say that even those that came out top of the pile don't have room for improvement.
Take VMware, which topped the overall standings with a score of 81 per cent and finished either first or second in three of the five core variables.
The virtualisation behemoth was praised by one VAR for its "superb" training that taught "real skills", while on after-sales support another respondent enthused that "problems never come back unsolved".
VMware headed the pack in terms of accreditation and training with a score of 78 per cent, while a score of 77 per cent in both the account management and after-sales/technical support fields was enough to place it second in each.
But despite the plaudits, even VMware has plenty of room to improve. It finished only 12th in terms of the rebates and margins it offered, while it received mixed feedback on the quality of its products, with one respondent branding them "overpriced".
The upper reaches of the table were dominated by enterprise-focused vendors regarded as market leaders in their specialist fields. Not surprisingly, volume-based vendors - which often have looser ties with a larger number of partners - tended to finish lower down the list, although Toshiba and Samsung were among the exceptions.
Report author Peter Joy said each vendor's performance should be judged relative to the market they serve.
"Our 40 featured vendors are a varied menagerie, with diverse backgrounds, clienteles, business models and products: enterprise software, security, PCs, printers, networking gear - the list goes on," he said. "Some should certainly expect to rank among the top 15 on service, considering the demands of the clients they serve. For others, a ranking of 30th is really not too bad. Resellers and vendors can form their own judgements on relevant comparators and competitors."
Having said that, the rankings threw up a few surprises. One of the world's largest security vendors, a leader in its field with a vast channel, finished second from bottom on account management, for instance.
Meanwhile, a relatively small UK-based vendor specialising in email management left everyone else bobbing in its wake when it came to rebates and margin retention.
And despite its reputation for being a direct-selling behemoth with a dubious attitude towards the channel, one US-based enterprise software and hardware vendor finished in the top half of the overall rankings with a score of 73 per cent.
In addition to grading the vendors on five aspects of service, respondents were asked to pick out which vendor they dealt with stood out on two further variables: demand generation and funding and channel leadership.
On demand generation, the vendor which finished third - a networking specialist - ranked only 24th overall and had some partners complaining that they had never met anyone from the firm.
And, despite a lukewarm reception overall (see opposite), HP led the way on channel leadership. One security vendor and a printer specialist failed to garner any votes in this category.
The Vendor Report can only be obtained for a fee by contacting Colin Logan on [email protected] or on 0207 316 9484.
Given Apple's reputation as a channel pariah, it may surprise some to learn that the gadget supremo placed an overall ninth in the report. But it also earned the distinction of being the only vendor to finish both top and bottom in different categories.
It blew the competition out of the water on product quality, earning a score of 92 per cent. One respondent claimed that Apple was "way in front in specification and aesthetics", while another attested that the company had the most reliable kit on the market.
But on margin, the Cupertino-based Mac maker scored a pitiful 46 per cent, with 20 of the 21 associated comments of a negative nature. "Apple allows us to make nothing," moaned one. Its products may have been universally lauded but Apple could do better on account management, with one respondent slating staff's "couldn't care less" attitude.
It is a testament to Apple's growing channel footprint that 51 per cent of the 292 respondents were able to give us data on the vendor, topped only by Microsoft and HP.
Cisco enjoys an enviable reputation among enterprise customers - as the old saying goes, "you don't get fired for buying Cisco". And it seems the networking goliath is also well liked by its channel partners, placing fourth in the overall standings with a score of 79 per cent. Fifty-three of the 73 comments we received were of a positive nature.
Cisco finished second on both the product quality and accreditation and training variables and topped the standings when it came to its demand generation and funding activities. But you only get out what you put in with Cisco, the report found, with commitment required to make any money.
Some complained that Cisco's rebate system was as hard to master as its accreditations, and it duly finished 18th in the rebate and margin retention category. The managing director of a larger partner also expressed concern at the routing and switching juggernaut's push into services.
HP chief executive Meg Whitman cranked up the partner-loving rhetoric at the vendor's recent global partner summit as she sought to demonstrate that the firm is a brand in which the channel can trust.
With that in mind, it may come as little surprise that HP topped the pile when we asked resellers which of their vendors had shown the most commitment to leadership in the reseller channel. But outside this, HP's performance in the CRN Vendor Report was up and down, matching the bumpy journey it has been on in recent times. It placed 13th overall - well behind some of its key rivals - but continues to enjoy a hard-earned reputation for modern, well-engineered kit at competitive prices.
HP is still the most important vendor for the channel, with 55 per cent of the survey's 292 respondents giving us data on the £44bn-turnover giant. Some 90 of the 131 comments left about HP were positive but - perhaps not surprisingly, given its size - some found the company to be unresponsive
Microsoft touches more channel partners than any other vendor, with 59 per cent of the survey's 292 respondents giving us data on the software supernova.
The vendor earned plaudits in several key areas of the report, finishing third on accreditation and training with a score of 77 per cent. It also performed well when we asked resellers to pick out one vendor that stood out in terms of demand generation and funding and channel leadership, placing fourth and fifth respectively.
But, held back by its reputation for "buggy software", Microsoft finished 14th overall, with 75 of the 109 comments left about the company taking a positive tone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the high-volume, low-margin nature of its core market, the Redmond-based behemoth was also hammered on rebates and margins, finishing 38th, with a lukewarm score of 56. Some complained that it was "virtually impossible" to make any money from the vendor, although few resellers can afford not to offer the world's best-known IT brand.
MATCH THE COMMENT TO THE VENDOR
"Too big to care, too bureaucratic to make any decisions."
"They are not afraid to break the status quo and create innovative products which are truly revolutionary. It is not just about the solidity of the infrastructure, but the simplicity of their products."
"[Staff want] regular conference calls about nothing and which achieve nothing!"
"[Its] account management is fantastic. We have access to all levels of management and are looked after very well."
"Its products are bloatware, self-promoting and slow."
"[Its] pre-sales account management has improved immensely. It is now much easier to deal with."
"[I have a] terrible, lazy, slippery-shouldered account manager."
"German-made quality with Japanese designs, they just do the job as it should be done - no fuss, no razzamatazz, just a solid, consistent, reliable product that does what is expected of it."
"When you have a problem they never, ever bother calling you back."
"[Its] after-sale tech support is wonderful."
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