Channel Conflict in Technology Businesses

Phil Morettini
 


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As I’ve been reading the trade magazines recently, I’ve paid particular attention to the channel magazines. A big story for several months has been the change in leadership at HP, since Mark Hurd took over as CEO from Carly Fiorina. This change has been met with much interest and concern for two reasons: 1) HP is a VERY BIG supplier to channel and 2) The company that Mark Hurd formerly led, NCR, utilized the channel to a far less extent than HP. So the natural concern is Hurd may steer HP toward a greater percentage of direct business in their distribution model.

CHANNEL PROPAGANDA It was interesting, especially at first, to watch various editorials attempt to “read the Mark Hurd tea leaves. ” This started IMMEDIATELY AFTER his very first press conference, which ANNOUNCED his appointment as the new HP CEO. The better part of one issue of a prominent channel magazine seemed dedicated to trying to decipher the impact on the channel by interpreting his earliest words. Hurd basically said, “I don’t know yet”. His appointment had just been announced within the last hour, so that seemed to be a pretty reasonable statement! While certainly not universal, many a columnist and channel spokesperson interpreted this simple, honest statement to be a putdown of the channel’s role at HP, with dire consequences certain to follow if this held true. These wags even went on to warn him of how the channel will turn on HP. They pretty much threatened that he had better live up to recent HP channel executives promises to make the channel even more prominent in HP’s distribution model. It’s pretty ironic considering many HP executives will tell you that most of their business already flows through channels, sometime hampering their ability to gather good marketing data. To quote a high profile (and somewhat silly) primetime TV reporter, “I say give me a break!”

The whole thing was really jumping the gun, and frankly quite silly. As Hurd has had a bit of time to study the massive company he is taking over, these same channel players seem to be pleased with his follow-on statements, and the direction they believe he will lead HP with respect to the channel. I got quite a chuckle over a period of weeks reading the various stories. As I stated above, it’s ironic to me, since HP already pushes the great bulk of its $80B business through the channel. While doing this, their business is certainly not optimized, and the key competitor breathing down the company’s throat is Dell. Dell’s direct distribution model is clicking on all cylinders, moving down the line like a Japanese bullet train while attempting to blow HP out of the water. And if HP doesn’t make some fundamental improvements to its business model, it just might happen. You would think it might be wise to examine whether utilizing direct distribution more heavily might be good for HP to study.

Of course, my channel colleagues reading this will want to burn me at the stake for espousing such blasphemy! Go direct—how dare you say such a thing! That is the nature of channel conflict—all parties want the business for THEMSELVES. Much smoke is always blown by the various interested parties about what is right and fair, and commitments that were made and so on, but let’s face it—it’s basically self interest. They just want the business for themselves.

So what’s a company to do? Just sell direct, or just sell through VARs, or just sell through retail? Unless you have strict exclusive territories throughout your distributions system, problems will still arise. You’ll always have some kind of conflict (two direct reps or two resellers fighting over who should have an account), but at least you would eliminate cross-channel conflict, which can be particularly complex and nasty.

Well, limiting yourself to a single channel focus certainly may make your life less complicated, and less rife with conflict. But unfortunately, in most cases, you’ll be leaving a lot of money on the table. If you rule out natural channels that can sell your product, you won’t be maximizing your return on your heavy investments in IP, which should be one of the fundamental concerns of any business.

HAVE YOUR CAKE AND EAT IT TOO So I say, sell through every channel that makes sense. If done poorly, it can, and almost certainly will, be very messy. You’ll be sorry you did it, and probably become a convert to a single channel, or at least less complex, distribution model. But it doesn’t have to be so. Yes, you CAN have your cake and eat it, too.

There are many potential channels for your products: direct, OEM, one-step through VARs, 2-step through distributors/VARs, retailers, independent sales reps, strategic partner referrals, and more. In extreme cases, ALL of these potential channels may be appropriate ways to deliver your product to the market. The question I am often asked by clients is “How do you make it all work without it blowing up in your face?” The way you can do this is to live by two very simple rules:

1) DON’T EVER SCREW A REAL BUSINESS PARTNER

It actually sounds pretty simple and easy. Yet humans can be greedy creatures, and just a little greed in partnering can quickly ruin reputations for a long time. There’s the greedy VAR who thinks he deserves a piece of every deal with any customer within a 100 mile radius of his office—a customer he might have only sent a piece of mail, or cold-called a year before. But more seriously, it only takes one weak-willed sales manager at a manufacturer or software developer, trying to make quota or maximize his income, to cause real havoc. If he attempts to cut a channel partner out of a deal that they drove, or had legitimate influence on—this is a mortal sin. Your channel partners will be outraged, and they will spread the word and not soon forget. Your reputation has been tainted, and that crucial trust that is necessary to make any business relationship work is now gone. Everything becomes harder. Partners aren’t willing to share information about what’s going on in accounts—maybe even withholding names on potential new deals. A struggle for account control, rather than teamwork, becomes the rule of the day. So if it is a REAL partner, one who is trying to drive business to your mutual benefit, do whatever it takes to make it right. Give up short-term profitability to maintain a long-term profitable relationship. Don’t ever, ever screw a partner in the name of short-term gain. It can ruin your channel business long term.

2) DO ALLOW BUYERS TO PURCHASE THE PRODUCT FROM WHOM THEY WANT TO BUY IT

If you are honest and fair with people, potential channel conflict shouldn’t unnecessarily stop you from maximizing revenue by using multiple methods of delivering your product to the market. There is a range of customer profiles in the market. Some want to buy everything through their trusted VAR/Integrator, who helps give them a third party evaluation of the product’s virtues. Others want to deal directly only with the manufacturer or developer of the specific product they are purchasing. A third category of buyers likes to buy as much as possible through their favorite large manufacturer—this is a great reason to OEM your product to the IBMs of the world. In each of these situations, the channel that is best positioned, via relationship or type of support, should and usually will get the deal. In each situation, if your product isn't available in that channel, my may not get the deal. The last category of buyer, however, is different. This is the bargain basement buyer, the one who couldn’t care less who he buys from, as long as he gets the lowest price. These are the people that can wreak havoc on a multi-channel distribution system, if you aren’t careful.

BEWARE THE BARGAIN BASEMENT BUYER

It’s this price conscious buyer that will often bring cross-channel conflict to the forefront. Since they are seeking the lowest price, they end up shopping the purchase across many potential sources for the product, creating great price competition among your channel partners. This is where conflict is often born. There are many tactical mechanisms to limit these situations (such as deal registration), which I won’t delve into. The main thing to have thought out is where these customers should end up buying. There are two basic approaches:

1) Tell your value-added channels that this price conscious buyer, who isn’t looking for any added value, isn’t going to buy from them. You might decide that this buyer is going to find the lowest price at retail, or maybe direct if they buy in volume. In this case, it’s important to set those expectations up front when you recruit channel partners. Let potential partners know where they fit, and where they don’t. They can walk away if they don’t like it; otherwise they’ve been warned. This is being fair and honest. Before potential partners invest in selling your products, they should have the real picture of what they’re getting into.

2) Conversely, you can strive for street price equity between channels. This gets tougher to do the more channel types you have, and also the larger your channel is in general. But it can be done. The main thing here is to avoid giving incremental channels discounts based upon volume. If you do, incentives are created for a channel player to discount to achieve volume—thereby lowering their costs, so they can win more business via aggressive discounting. This leads to a continuous downward spiral in your street price, and to unhappiness and channel conflict to such a degree that will drive you to drink, or at least a career change. It will get ugly. But if you limit your channels to those that truly are strategic for your product, and which add real value, it can be managed. The key is to set discount schedules based upon value-add and associated costs, rather than revenue or unit volume.

So there you have it. Sell through all the channels your product belongs in. Be honest and fair with you partners. Sounds pretty easy to me! Let me know if it does to you-send me a comment using the contact info below.

Phil Morettini is the Author and President of PJM Consulting, a Managment Consultancy to Software and High Tech Companies. PJM Consulting executes special, strategic projects and can also supply interim senior management in General Management (CEO, COO, Division Manager), Product Marketing, M&A, Distribution Channels and Business Development. You can contact Phil on the PJM Consulting Website (www.pjmconsult.com ) or via email at info@pjmconsult.com

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