By aligning yourself with recognized leaders in your IT consulting specialty area, you can leverage your partners’ credibility, increase market visibility, and gain access to resources; but there is a cost. Programs such as the Microsoft Partner Program or Cisco’s Channel Partner Program offer consultants and resellers access to their brands, to marketing dollars, to training and certifications, and to incentive programs that can be lucrative. Microsoft, for example, offers consultants complete suites of Microsoft’s new software products as part of a subscription pack for evaluation, self training, and demos.

There are so many partner programs in the IT industry that VARBusiness magazine (the trade paper of the reseller channel) recently published a 13-page list of them, which includes everyone from 3Com to Xerox. In most of these programs, the big draw for consultants is leads. The marketing engines of the IT giants, from IBM to Oracle, draw huge numbers of inquiries from their Web-based marketing, for example. Many of the other benefits of partnering are financial, including discount promotions, rebates, and financing, all of which are very meaningful in this credit-strapped economy.

If we look at this strategically from the vendors’ point of view, the benefits are obvious: Vendors who build a strong reseller and consultant channel expand their reach by recruiting IT experts to sell and support their products. They get the opportunity to work with local entrepreneurs who are motivated to respond to low-hit-rate “blind leads.” Vendors also gain vertical market coverage, geographic representation, and access to qualified technical experts with unique skills. So there are benefits on both sides.

Consultants considering these partner programs must be cautious, however. The sales leads that attract many consultants to partner programs are often of such poor quality that small firms can spend more time following them up than they’re worth. It’s not until you’ve expended energy and money trolling through endless lists of unqualified leads from grocery shops, pizzerias, and 13-year-old gearheads that you understand the downside of vendor lead programs.

For independent consultants or small IT service shops, many of the other program benefits can also be disappointing. Most programs are designed to reward those who can move large volumes of products, and smaller partners often get nothing more than an occasional newsletter or product demo disk. Some vendors’ certification programs are so demanding that small firms can spend more on training and testing than they get back in benefits. And some vendors sign up so many partners in each geography that consultants are competing amongst themselves for leads, co-marketing funds, and local sales and engineering support, thus cannibalizing the local market.

The biggest risk of partnering is loss of neutrality. The word consultant creates the expectation in the client’s mind of unbiased advisory service, and customers are right to expect you to offer your best recommendations for the client’s particular needs, regardless of vendor alliances or financial incentives. Can consultants align themselves with a particular database vendor, for example, and still offer neutral, unbiased advice to their customers who need database recommendations? Complicating this question, some vendors can be quite aggressive in their expectations of loyalty and commitment. In my earlier career as a branch manager of a local reseller, I received subtle, and not so subtle, requests from vendors to drop other lines or products if I expected to remain in their partner programs, or to keep getting leads and market support from them. I’ve seen vendors play local resellers against each other, and I’ve heard demands that consultants recommend only their products or get cut off from upgrades, demos, and other partner benefits. This sort of behavior gives a new, negative meaning to the concept of partnering.

Some consultants and IT shops take part in these programs merely to get the free stuff or to gain privileged access to sales and tech support. Other consultants insist that they can participate in partner programs without diluting their independence or neutrality. Yet some consultants maintain that the financial incentives and partner pressure that accompany these programs will inevitably corrupt their ability to offer unbiased advice. Some consultants and IT service shops garner great benefits and see significant growth in their exposure to potential clients from these programs, while others decide to avoid these relationships in order to maintain complete impartiality in their client recommendations.

If you’re considering enrollment in a partner program, my advice is to research the program through outlets like VARBusiness, to think through the implications of aligning with a specific vendor, and to engage with those vendors you are prepared to commit to and who are prepared to commit to you.

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