After more than a year of the Covid pandemic, there are signs of at least a partial return to normality as vaccination rates increase. But what will that normality consist of? As Bob Dylan once remarked: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”
So what lasting effects have the pandemic and lockdown had on partner relationships with vendors and how will they affect how the channel operates in 2021 and beyond?
David Watts, UK & Ireland managing director at Tech Data, says: “There is much more of an interdependency, both up and down the supply chain, between vendors, distributors and the partner businesses that are directly serving the needs of customers. This interdependency exists at many levels. With the increased adoption of cloud services and of subscription- and services-based business models, that is going to become an even more ingrained part of channel relationships.”
Nash Kapoor, VP of sales, northern Europe at Alsid, agrees that the pandemic helped to reinforce a sense of solidarity across the IT supply chain. “Although Covid took everyone by surprise, how the channel collectively responded to the pandemic had similarities to how it reacted following the 2008 financial crash,” he says. “It brought everyone together.
“You can tell a lot about people and organisations from how they respond to a crisis, and in my experience, everyone from vendors, disties and partners banded together to ensure everyone survived the overnight implementation of radical digital transformation.”
Antony Byford, managing director at Westcon UK & Ireland, says: “The pandemic gave the industry the opportunity to demonstrate empathy for one another. Under normal circumstances, companies are going through different economic cycles at different times, so they don’t always align. With unforeseen global events like the pandemic, it’s a real leveller for the business community.
“In the end, we’re all going through this together and it has opened the door to real, honest conversations in the channel about availability, credit and what is realistic when it comes to value-added deliverables.”
Kevin Bland, director of partner and alliances at Red Hat, says conversations with partners “have been more direct and honest than ever and have led to some of the most productive discussions I can remember in recent years”.
He adds: “Since the pandemic, partners have been clearer to us about where their priorities lie and where they want our help. This is usually something that develops over time, but we are finding this is now happening immediately since everybody’s priorities and targets have been thrown into sharp focus by the pandemic.”
Kevin Bland, Red Hat
Bland speaks of an “increased honesty” that has led to “more direct conversations” over what Red Hat’s partners’ goals are, “and a better understanding of exactly how we can both work together to help achieve them”.
Rachel Rothwell, regional director of UK & Western Europe at Zyxel Networks, says partners are “much more trusting in our relationships, but this has been earned as they now expect a much higher level of support and engagement”.
He adds that Zyxel is sharing more responsibility alongside its partners and is much closer to customers’ projects. “This is instead of the traditional transactional dynamic, where they would come to us just for specific products and manage the process themselves,” he says.
Greg Jones, EMEA business development director at Datto, doesn’t beat about the bush. “If partners have not seen a change in their vendor relationships over the last 18 months, they should be asking themselves why and considering if they are the right vendor for them moving forward,” he says.
In terms of how the pandemic changed the dynamic of the relationship between channel partners and vendors, the curtailment of physical face-to-face meetings had a dramatic, but often beneficial, effect.
Suzanne Swanson, vice-president global partners at Trustwave, says that without “in-person networking, such as having dinner or playing golf”, the company has “had to lean on other ways of building relationships that strengthen how we work together to drive success for our customers”.
Swanson says it is no surprise that video calls and virtual events “were the main tools we turned to for relationship building”, but the consequences were surprisingly positive. “We found that we were actually connecting with our partners even more frequently and still able to communicate on a personal level in the virtual space,” she adds. “While we certainly look forward to connecting with our partners in-person, connecting virtually has given our relationships a different dynamic.”
Suzanne Swanson, Trustwave
This is a point taken up by Daryl Brick, EMEA VP for partner sales at Cradlepoint, who reveals that the speed at which his company does business has been “positively impacted” by the pandemic. “The lockdowns and various travel restrictions have meant we’ve all had to communicate from our home offices, but this has proved to be incredibly successful,” he says.
Brick has been able to meet more partner executives during the pandemic than he would normally, adding: “The lack of travel to meet partners in-person has also resulted in fewer train journeys, flights and miles in the car, which has enabled us to reduce our carbon footprint.”
John Brown, director of EMEA channels at Menlo Security, says people are “more often than not easier to get hold of in the pandemic”, adding: “It’s acceptable to video-call someone straight off the bat in normal working hours. Also, reduced travel time and fatigue have resulted in much happier and more productive executives on both sides of the fence.”
David Friend, CEO at Wasabi, says channel partners have reported enjoying a great year. “Granted, there are consequences from having very little face-to-face contact, but I think we’re all functioning at a much higher level of productivity,” he says. “We’re becoming more accomplished, growing our businesses faster and wasting less time.
“Because we’ve all been in the same boat with respect to travel, nobody has to worry about being ‘left out’ because they’re not showing up in person for every meeting. I don’t think we’ll ever want to go back to the way we were working before the pandemic.”
Meg Brennan, vice-president for global channels at Riverbed Technology, says that by removing travel as a job requirement, the pandemic has “created far more opportunities for diversity and cross-border collaborations, adding: “Now that everyone is extremely accustomed to meeting this way, we believe that even when face-to-face meetings return, many meetings with partners will remain virtual.”
Meg Brennan, Riverbed Technology
There are benefits to remote contact and lots of Zoom calls, according to Scott Harrison, UK & Ireland channel sales director at Vertiv. He believes Covid-19 has forced partners and vendors to get to know each other in ways they wouldn’t have before.
“From children and pets on Zoom calls, to sneak peaks into people’s homes, these virtual interactions have provided more personal insights into their colleagues, which have proven invaluable for building relationships,” he says. “When the restrictions ease and there is a return to a semblance of normality, partners and vendors will be catching up in person, which will be fantastic for sharing ideas and boosting innovation.
“However, the pandemic has highlighted alternative ways of building and maintaining relationships. Using in-person and online engagement smartly will be important as we transition to a hybrid way of working.”
David Weeks, senior director of partner experience at N-able, takes a similar line. “Amid all the chaos, the relationship with our MSP partners has become a lot more personal, even though video calls put space and distance between us,” he says. “Instead of formal office meetings, I am inviting partners (virtually) into my back garden or my living room to catch up. This does a lot to break down barriers and means we can speak more freely to each other as partners looking to achieve a shared goal.”
Paul Flannery, VP of international sales at Epicor, outlines another effect of virtual and video meetings. “Channel partners have had to adapt to a sales environment which has none of the personal cues they’re used to,” he says. “There is now a limited window for reading body language. All you’ve got when you enter the Zoom meeting is your product, your brief, your industry expertise and your principles.”
Andy Bogdan, head of UK SMB channel at Kaspersky, predicts that productivity levels will increase in the post-Covid world of work. “Many businesses within the channel will utilise and promote their remote services even further as working from home/out of the office becomes more prominent,” he says. “Time spent travelling across the country to meet people, going to events or meetings will be minimised as virtual meetings and events become the norm, giving us more time to undertake higher-value tasks.”
Andy Bogdan, Kaspersky
Bogdan believes the pandemic has shown the channel, and everyone who works within it, a new way of working, “and I am confident that the opportunity to change won’t be missed”.
But Alsid’s Kapoor warns that virtual meetings are not a replacement for in-person engagements. “We’d do well to recognise that virtual versus in-person meetings is not a zero-sum game,” he says. “The pandemic did not promote flexible working, but the opposite. Being forced to work from home is, by definition, inflexible.”
Kapoor adds: “There will be an over-compensation for in-person meetings as the country reopens and people are keen to meet up again in-person. The hybrid approach will see everyone rush out, but then I think it will settle, and we’ll be doing meetings when we can over video-conferencing. So parts of the shift are here to stay.”
Mick Bradley, EMEA VP at Arcserve, argues that after 12 months of channel partners and customers trying to do their jobs “from the confines of their living rooms, I think we’re all itching to find out how we can explore face-to-face meetings”.
But there will need to be a balance, he adds. “It won’t be that we wake up one day and head straight out on the road, but it’s crucial that the more familiar techniques of wining, dining and general interaction is not lost, so investing money as we come out of lockdown will be key to achieving that.”
Mick Bradley, Arcserve
Bradley thinks the channel’s role going forward will be to “motivate and create enjoyable relationships between customers and suppliers”, and that will be key to accommodating a return to normal life post-lockdown. “A key thing to remember here is that there will be a lot of tired and bored people post-lockdown,” he adds. “Culturally, there needs to be a big investment in enjoying relationships and driving engagement.”
Gareth Meyer, head of operations at Ultima, highlights the effects of the “instant availability of everyone” due to the lockdown and the forced shift to remote working. “While companies could accelerate their go-to-market strategies by having improved access to our partners and their executive sponsors, there was a downside to instant availability and the effect of the ‘always on’ mentality that we have all developed,” he says.
As a consequence, many vendors have instigated “wellness” days to help employees have proper downtime and the opportunity to reset, says Meyer. “At Ultima, for example, all employees, aside from our support desk staff, took a wellness day and downed tools last Thursday. The feedback from partners and employees was extremely positive. We all need to evaluate how we work going forwards with the expectation that everyone should always be available.”
Wellbeing is an issue that Andrew Corcoran, UK&I channel sales director at VMware, also chooses to concentrate on. He speaks of “a welcome focus” on employee wellbeing and mental health throughout the pandemic at the company, “and the channel in the UK and Ireland has responded in a similar fashion by supporting their employees and partners”.
The heightened understanding of working remotely and the relationship with productivity from the business perspective has seen many channel partners in the UK and Ireland report growth throughout the past year, says Corcoran. “Placing an importance on employee wellbeing and their mental health has delivered results the cynics would not have thought possible as they started their journey working from home last year. When the restrictions are finally lifted, I have no doubt that the focus on wellbeing will remain.”
Dave Henderson, co-founder of cyber specialist VAR BlueFort Security, argues that it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Many vendors and distributors traditionally reliant on a face-to-face relationship model struggled to shift to an online presence because they were not digitally native, he says.
Dave Henderson, BlueFort Security
“Communication between the various channel partners and their customers has undoubtedly taken a hit,” says Henderson, and many vendors took their policy approach to Covid-19 from their US headquarters. “This led to a misalignment with conditions and customer requirements on the ground in the UK,” he adds. “There has been no expectation of any particular cadence of contact between vendors, distributors and VARs. The net result is that unless a conscious effort to keep in touch is made, in some cases, considerable amounts of time have passed without vendors, distributors and resellers hearing from each other.”
Also, many vendors “struggled to operate and understand the multiple video-conferencing tools that they need to communicate with their customers”, says Henderson.
“Nevertheless, some superstars have emerged and through a mixture of innovative online events and sheer determination, they have managed to hold together and develop their customer relationships.”
The pivot to remote working also led to an increase in the number of transactional errors with distribution, he added. “Accuracy has suffered for sure. And perhaps most worrying of all, surprisingly lax security practices in the distribution/vendor supply chain communications have been exposed.”
Looking back over the last 12 months, Riverbed Technology’s Brennan says the vendor’s relationships with partners and distributors “have strengthened in a way they wouldn’t have had we not experienced this pandemic together”, adding: “There is a strong sense that we have weathered a storm together with our distributors and channel partners. As a result, there is a much higher level of trust, commitment and loyalty than previously experienced.”