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Techaisle Blog

Insightful research, flexible data, and deep analysis by a global SMB IT Market Research and Industry Analyst organization dedicated to tracking the Future of SMBs and Channels.

Dell XPS 13 – Straight from the heart

Since the last 3 years I have been listening to Jeff Clarke, Dell’s vice-chairman of Operations and president of Client Solutions, and his team talk about innovation within Dell and how XPS-13, Dell’s flagship, initially consumer-focused and now business-ready notebook, is one of the most innovative laptops in the market. I must confess that after every meeting I walked away with a bit of cynicism. Every single time I had questions but no answers. Did a borderless InfinityEdge display define innovation? Did premium materials explain innovation? Did high-performance describe innovation? What about the issues that small businesses really cared about – improve productivity, provide security, easy manageability, exceptional support and low price? These would certainly count towards innovation. But then many of these improvements are usually driven by underlying software and not the hardware.

I have been a ThinkPad user for most of my working life – from my IDC days in Hong Kong to present time at Techaisle. Except for the time period when I was at Gartner. I am not a case of old-habits-die-hard but I have had a genuine admiration for the IBM & now Lenovo ThinkPad series. It never needed any support, except for that one occasion when I foolishly crushed it that cracked the screen. There was also a period as an analyst when I maintained three different brands. HP notebooks to bring to meetings with HP, IBM/Lenovo for their respective meetings, and Dell for meetings with Dell. However, I realized that a ThinkPad brand was one of the most non-controversial notebook to bring to meetings & presentations without evoking any sarcastic banter.

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SMB Shadow IT, BDM spending amount to nearly $100 billion in the US alone

Is IT losing its authority over IT expenditures and directions? Data from the Techaisle report “The 360 on SMB & Midmarket IT Decision Making Authority” suggests that increasingly, business decision makers (BDMs) make technology-related decisions and control technology-related budgets.

The report finds that SMB “Shadow IT” in the US – expenditures made by business management without IT involvement – will amount to $27 billion in 2015. Added to the “formal” IT budget that is visible to IT but under BDM management, technology spending by US SMBs that is outside the control of the IT department will reach $99 billion, a figure that is greater than Microsoft’s annual revenue, twice the revenue of Cisco, and nearly 25 times larger than the revenue recorded by Salesforce.com in its fiscal 2014.

The data clearly illustrates that the earth has shifted from underneath the IT department within small and midmarket businesses. Executives in these companies need to understand what these new spending patterns mean to IT deployment and efficiency within their operations, while suppliers to this market – business application vendors like Microsoft and Salesforce.com, hardware vendors like HP and Dell, and the thousands of services firms that help US SMBs to make sense of technology – need to adjust to the changing patterns of SMB IT investment and control.

Shadow IT is a commonly-understood phenomenon: it represents spending on IT products and services by BDMs that are made without the IT department’s approval, guidance, or in some cases, even without IT’s knowledge. IT itself generally portrays these purchases as dangerous to the organization, creating the potential for security breaches, incompatibility between corporate systems, inconsistency in corporate systems of record, and/or loss of critical data. BDMs tend to portray them differently, positioning these purchases as IT extensions to current business activities that respond to business needs more quickly and directly than the IT department is capable of doing.

Whatever one’s perspective on shadow IT, it is clearly an important force in the SMB IT market. How important has been a matter of conjecture, since by its nature, shadow IT is difficult to isolate and quantify. However, by comparing multiple data sets from surveys that capture both ITDM and BDM perspectives, Techaisle is able to provide fact-based estimates of shadow IT activity within US SMBs. Highlights of these findings include:

Shadow IT spending on business applications

Authority for “formal” business application spending varies widely between small and midmarket businesses. However, the overall level of shadow IT spending on business applications is very consistent across the two SMB segments, at 15 percent of total small business application spending and 14 percent of midmarket business spending. In addition, business management (BDMs) within SMBs formally controls over 50 percent of business application expenditures.

Shadow IT spending on infrastructure products

The infrastructure products market is much different than the business application market – both across small and midmarket businesses and with respect to the influence of IT over “formal” purchases. The influence of IT is much greater in the infrastructure category than in business applications: IT is responsible for 23 percent of infrastructure spending within small businesses and controls well over 50 percent of total spending on infrastructure within midmarket businesses.

Overall, shadow IT accounts for 56 percent of small business infrastructure expenditures. The enormous shadow infrastructure spends by small business indicates a clear problem for small business IT managers, and realistically, for small businesses themselves: the notions that shadow IT creates security and related issues are not merely an IT construct, it is a real issue. Suppliers with solutions that help address shadow infrastructure problems (such as MDM, managed app stores, etc.) will find a very substantial potential market in the US small business segment.

Shadow IT spending on IT services

BDM-led spending on IT services has different implications in different employee size categories: in small business, it often represents an authorized or “formal” spending on mainstream IT services, while in larger businesses, it may represent a means of avoiding IT department involvement in new IT/business initiatives. Techaisle data supports this perspective. BDMs control 35 percent of IT services spend in midmarket businesses. The shadow IT spending within the midmarket – pegged by Techaisle at 48 percent of the total – creates an intriguing opportunity for IT services suppliers. “Official” suppliers to midmarket businesses may continue to sell to IT, which controls a higher proportion of the formal IT services budget than their BDM colleagues. However, when shadow IT is added into the opportunity pool, BDMs are as potent a force in the midmarket business IT services market as ITDMs. This suggests that two different approaches – positioning IT services firm as an extension to IT, or as an alternative to IT – have equivalent market opportunity today.

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Dell Channels – All the right moves?

Channel Momentum

As some IT companies continue to consolidate and others split up, Dell is promising its channel partners consistency, stability and increased profitability. And it is showing:

  • Dell Channel revenue now represents more than 40 percent of overall Dell commercial revenue and its channel business is growing faster than the overall market

  • Channel revenue growth is up double digits in 10 of Dell’s top 11 countries year-over-year

  • Dell solutions are now available through three of top Distributors - Ingram, TechData and Synnex - and where Dell is experiencing growth in excess of 50 percent


To keep the channel momentum intact, Dell is pledging US$125 million in enhanced incentives to help channel partners bid and close new customer acquisitions and also deploy towards retention deals with existing customers.

As always, not willing to take any hype on face value Techaisle took to the streets to really talk with Dell SMB channel partners and especially those who have partnered with both Dell and HP. Over the course of last three weeks, Techaisle conducted over 25 depth interviews with SMB channel partners. The discussions clearly revealed that the partners have started to look at Dell rather seriously. As one of them said, “Dell has changed its approach and outlook towards channel partners after it went private. They monitor and coordinate with their partners just like any other OEM. They have changed their ways in how they strategize and have created their training plans to cater to our needs and are succeeding by actively collaborating.”

Another partner, based in Texas and focused on SMBs was more direct, “Dell hasn’t been looking at channel partners as a key to gain market share unlike OEMs like HP. A few months back only about a 30 percent of sales were driven by the channel partners and the rest was a result of Dell’s direct sales efforts. The reason is that Dell itself had a large sales team managing sales accounts. However, after Dell went private they have mended their ways in how they look at us. They have kept the key sales accounts with themselves and the rest have been distributed amongst the channel partners for further management and revenue generation which is a good step as it inculcates trust and sense of real partnership.”

Impressive Numerics

At one of my sit-down meetings, Cheryl Cook, VP, Global Channels and Alliances shared some impressive statistics:

  • Dell has 167,000 channel partners out of which 4,255 are Preferred and Premium partners.

  • Nearly 700 channel partners chose to become premier or preferred partners of Dell in 2014, a testament to channel commitment

  • Training uptake, (a top requirement of channel partners as per Techaisle SMB Channel study), was up by 54 percent in 1H’14. But more importantly, training on software solutions increased by 102 percent.

  • Over 82,000 deal registrations were processed, up 8 percent YoY and software (security, device management, data protection, systems management) deal registration was up by 32 percent

  • Rebates processed was also up by 23 percent during the same time frame

  • 4400 new customers were acquired through channels, transacted 10,000 new orders out of which 1200 were for storage and 1600 for software


Although she deftly skipped my question on how many named accounts have been formally handed over to channel partners she reiterated that Dell is continuing to maintain its compensation accelerator program which is yielding good results. Recently, a little over 200,000 greenfield accounts have been posted on the Partner Portal.

Investment in Training, Support, Lead generation, Consultative partnerships

Most channel partners that Techaisle spoke with agreed that Dell has been concentrating on technical training sessions and regularly assessing partners’ performance with a clear objective of empowering them with required product knowledge to be able to pitch to the right set of SMB customers in the best possible way. Unlike the immediate past, account managers from Dell have suddenly become approachable. Some partners went to the extent of telling Techaisle “we specifically like the pre-sales and sales trainings that Dell has designed for Channel Partners. At times I feel that their efforts in the field of training annoy us as there are multiple and repetitive requests for attending or undergoing the same set of trainings that we have already gone through. They do not yet have a system to remove these redundancies”.

Channels are also having good experiences working with Dell’s consultative approach. “Lately, we were dealing with a few SMB customers and they wanted the account managers and few other technical experts to be available on call. We worked together with Dell and closed 3 deals where the consultative partnership worked in our favor”, said an SMB channel partner based in California.

Dell is also investing in supporting the channels when they bid for complex engagements. Their pre-sales support has improved as compared to before as channels now have access to their technical resources who work along with partners’ technical teams in understanding customer requirements, existing customer infrastructure to suggest suitable solutions.

In addition to training and support Dell is making a series of investments to help channel partners by:

  • Making available 5X demo gear to facilitate proof-of-concept

  • Increasing number of Solution centers for partners to showcase Dell end-to-end solutions to their customers (granted not many SMB channel partners will take advantage)

  • Improving areas of financing such as extending credit and payment terms thereby assisting channel partners in better managing their cash flows. The terms announced are 75 days interest-free financing on all Dell purchases for an introductory period of 180 days


Are conflicts a thing of the past? Channels are cautiously optimistic

Dell seems to be diligently working towards building trust within its channel partners. Dell and its partners have had a love-hate relationship due to conflicts with Dell’s strong direct sales force across all divisions. In fact, with the progress made, channels are wishing that Dell limits its investment in its internal sales teams as it would in all probability bring back the channels to “square one”.

The channel partner community reminded us of unpleasant past experiences of “Dell snatching customers from their partners and dealing with them directly”. But they quickly added, “We haven’t come across such a scenario (lately) and would never want to face a situation like that”.

Another partner said, “Dell has always been known for their direct business and has ramped up their efforts in the indirect sales through channels around a year ago. Earlier, we never knew if a deal which is routed through us will be closed keeping us in loop (with our margins intact) or Dell may go ahead and deal with the customer directly. Now, this has completely changed and Dell itself directs the customers to go through us”.

An HP and Dell partner was eager to get his point across regarding lead generation saying that Dell is managing a nice balance while sharing potential customer details with only one partner. HP is not following this approach triggering conflicts.

End-to-End Solutions message is resonating

Dell is steadfastly focused on its end-to-end solutions strategy and channels are paying attention. “Dell offers support in implementing end-to-end solutions. They work with us in consultation to determine the best product and solutions based on SMB customer requirements. Account Manager from Dell works with us closely when we deal with such deployments. We get all the technical help required, if skills are not available with us. Dell offers us access to experts (both on calls and physically, when required) from functional areas when we deal with SMBs for deployment of end-to-end solutions”.

Channels are finding that not only end-to-end solution deals give them extra margins but also makes it easier to deal with Dell, namely, channels get a better attention from Dell. Techaisle feels that if selective attention becomes the norm then many Dell SMB channel partners may flounder.

A mid-west Dell SMB channel partner was very vocal when we spoke with him. “Dell is important while we engage in end-to-end deals with our customers. Dell’s role starts from pre-sales to the deployment of such engagements. They offer the required marketing set-up for the products and solutions. If we have to take care of these things on our own, I think our margins will squeeze and it will be difficult to sustain our business”.

Having a full portfolio of offerings also allows “non-end-to-end solution channel partners” to sell adjacent technologies. For example, “we have clubbed and sold Dell hardware with Cisco, NetApp and IBM storage management and security solutions”.

Then there are other channel partners who try and build solutions with a product from Dell as the center-point. “Based on customer requirements we will see if there is a Dell product suited to meet the needs. If yes, we pitch for it and if there isn’t a product suited, we may bundle it up with other solutions and design an end-to-end solution for our customer. If the customer wants to go with a specific product and Dell doesn’t have promising product in the area; in these cases we will bundle it up with other product and present it as an end-to-end solution to our customers”.

Lingering Channel Challenges

To my question on what should channel partners be expecting next from Dell, Cheryl Cook quickly points out her focus on strategic pillars of mobility, security and Big Data with big push on converged infrastructure and innovative storage solutions.  She counters me with a question on VMware EVO:RAIL and its “fantastic” suitability for the SMB market segment.

Channels are listening and echoing that the fastest selling Dell solutions are Rack and Blade servers. But they feel that Dell has not yet been able to position its Force10 and SonicWall offerings effectively and channels are losing to Cisco or HP.

As conflict is disappearing, trust is settling in, channels have a new gripe. When a customer floats an RFP to a number of partners, Dell seizes the responsibility to directly speak with the customer, decides which partner is in the best position to offer most favorable terms and informs other partners to step aside and not waste their time on a deal which may not land with them at all. This annoys the channel partners as they would like a fair opportunity to win the deal and gain a customer by cutting down on own their margins.

No Regrets – but could have been bolder

Looking at the last one year since taking the helm, Cheryl Cook has no visible regrets. After much coaxing and cogitating she says, “Perhaps we could have been bolder in our move” referring to speed of Dell’s organizational moves and intuitive proactive thinking. The future is bright and she and her team are committed to helping all partners – “narrow or broadline”.
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Perspective: Cisco’s SMB Channel Partner Success Management

Cisco and the SMB market

Cisco has established an undisputed leadership position in the enterprise market. The company combines a widely-adopted and well-integrated portfolio of networking products with a highly-skilled (and paid) direct sales force to manage/expand its presence within major accounts.

The SMB market is a separate challenge. Here, buyers are less likely to require integration across multiple network components and more likely to emphasize price. They are also more likely to receive advice/management from channel partners, further reducing Cisco’s control over the acquisition process.

Against this backdrop, Techaisle’s SMB Channel Trends research illustrates the strengths and challenges Cisco must manage, as it looks to expand its share in the SMB segment.

Cisco Commands High Trust and Reputation within its Channel Partners

Within the channel community, Cisco enjoys a sound reputation and a high degree of trust. Techaisle’s SMB channel partner survey shows that 78 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners trust Cisco, a higher percentage than is registered by competitors such as HP and IBM. Nearly 70 percent of the partners believe that Cisco has quality products – again, the highest ranking recorded within the ‘hardware leader’ group including Cisco, HP, IBM and others. However, only 52 percent mention that Cisco has cutting edge technology, a percentage lower than that for both IBM and Microsoft. Moreover, 60 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners say that they Like Cisco, lower than corresponding rates for HP and Microsoft, only slightly higher than is found for IBM.

In its 2013 Annual report Cisco has written, “A substantial portion of our products and services is sold through our channel partners, and the remainder is sold through direct sales.” With specific reference to SMBs, Cisco wrote, “Generally, we define commercial businesses as companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. The larger, or midmarket, customers within the commercial market are served by a combination of our direct salesforce and our channel partners. Small businesses or companies with fewer than 100 employees, within the commercial market are primarily served by our channel partners.” Techaisle’s data shows that Cisco has attracted positive attention within this channel partner community, but that its technology and relationships may not leave it especially differentiated from competitors.

Data shows Cisco's SMB Channel Partner Challenges

Cisco is seeking to capitalize on market transitions and is steadily driving its channel partners to offer products and services that deploy cloud, mobility, virtualization, managed services, data center solutions and now Internet of Things. This is by no means an easy task as most SMB channel partners are being actively courted by competitive vendors that also want to grow their emerging technologies’ business. SMB channel partners selling emerging technologies have an average of 3.46 vendor partnerships; this average jumps to 4.21 for Cisco SMB partners, a difference of 21 percent. With this increased contention for mind/market/wallet share, it can be difficult for Cisco to manage brand identity and its related messaging.

This difficulty is illustrated by study findings showing that of the Cisco SMB channel partners, 44 percent consider Cisco to be their top partner. The other 56 percent mention Microsoft, Oracle, HP, IBM and several other firms. Within the VAR/SI community, Cisco’s share of preference is 48 percent; this drops to 39 percent amongst the MSPs/SPs that are viewed as critical to the success of future cloud initiatives.

It is not enough to only measure customer satisfaction or brand awareness to identify overall channel and market presence. Techaisle believes that it is important for IT vendors like Cisco to measure their Brand Equity within SMB channel partners as well as SMBs. Techaisle’s Brand Equity Score, BES-360, helps to identify areas where IT vendors can improve to increase share of wallet.

Cisco’s SMB Channel Partner Brand Equity

Our research finds that Cisco has done extremely well in building trust and reputation within its own SMB channel partner base. Cisco’s Brand Equity Score within its SMB channel partners is higher than most – but lower than scores for both IBM and Microsoft. The implication of these findings is that even through Cisco has high brand equity amongst its channel partners; it is not necessarily true that its entire SMB-focused channel base is firmly wedded to Cisco’s game plan.

Breaking down the data for Cisco, Techaisle’s study finds that almost 25 percent of Cisco’s channel partners have a Brand Equity rating of 80+ (on a scale of 1 to 100). This group forms Cisco’s core partners. The data also shows that almost 35 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners have equity of less than 40. These are the partners that Cisco needs to work on.

Interestingly, small business focused channel partners give a higher Brand Equity Score to Cisco than mid-market focused channel partners. This is a segment that Cisco should address as the mid-market is a battleground for most IT vendors and there is yet no clear dominant player.

Among all SMB channel partners of Cisco, VARs are actually driving up the Brand Equity Score. In fact 41 percent of VARs constitute the HBE (High Brand Equity) group. On the other hand, MSPs constitute only 20 percent. In order for Cisco to continue to grow its CMSP program and build on its initial successes, Cisco has to turn its attention to the MSPs that serve the SMBs to understand the key reasons for lower brand equity.

Drilling down further into the data, Techaisle finds that Cisco is not doing better within the overall managed services community than it is within MSPs focused on cloud. A higher percentage of Cisco’s HBE partners are offering managed services to SMBs whereas a higher percentage of ABE (Average Brand Equity) partners are offering Cloud to SMBs. Cisco’s SMB cloud ambitions would benefit from moving some of these ABE cloud partners to HBE segment. The HBE segment offering cloud services need extensive training on cloud solutions to become more successful in offering cloud to their SMB customers. More than 40 percent of these channel partners are working with SMB customers that have private cloud. This may be good for Cisco in the short-term but it does not represent best practice in this segment, and it is misaligned with the ongoing acceptance of public cloud as a preferred IT delivery platform.

Product resale revenue is 43 percent for HBE partners as compared to 38 percent for ABE. Similarly, recurring revenue is 57 percent for HBE as compared to 61 percent for ABE. Naturally, this bodes well for Cisco’s current revenue as the High Brand Equity partners are driving higher revenues from products. However, if Cisco plans to increasingly promote services then a lot more work is required to identify partners with higher services revenues and move them into the High Brand Equity segment.

Final Perspective

Brand Equity Score findings help indicate areas of expansion or exposure as vendors, like Cisco, assess their potential for expanding the footprint of their brands within the SMB channel partner community. The composition of Cisco’s BES across its channel indicates the core strength of its brand. Techaisle’s analysis indicates that Cisco has both strengths to build on and areas requiring focus as it moves to position its next-generation solutions (especially, cloud solutions) through its channel to the SMB market.

Techaisle’s brand management work is anchored in the belief that if a vendor’s brand equity is good, then it can compete successfully with vendors with lower brand equity for sales of comparable products or services. Vendors with sound products/services but low brand equity will struggle to maintain parity with competitors that have higher brand equity, even if that vendor’s products/services are (somewhat) inferior.

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