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The Channel's Split Personality

Everyone loves to hate the channel, right? Customers resent the mark-up and often have to put up with inexperienced staff. Manufacturers complain about lack of initiative--that the channel isn't aggressive enough about creating its own leads. And consultants and analysts don't believe that the channel is evolving fast enough from old-line thinking--it over-emphasizes hardware when what the market needs in order to grow is software-based solutions.

There is truth in each of those claims, but after attending the UC Strategies Summit last week, I don't believe they tell the whole story. About 125 people attended the Summit, representing three key stake-holding communities--SIs/VARs, consultants and manufacturers. The program is structured with keynotes and breakout sessions, but the rhythm of the conference is based on giving the three groups face-time with one another to network and identify ways to better work together.

What became clear is that the folks in the channel are not in that much of a different situation than their customers: They're totally aware of the trends--the shift from hardware- to software-intensive, the rise of mobile, and the potential for "social" and the Cloud to alter the landscape.

But responding to those trends is a matter of timing; while the macro-trends are reshaping the channel's long-term strategy, there’s still rent to pay. As one guy told me, "The problem with the future is you have to get through the present."

And that means the channel can't ignore what customers buy today. To be sure, that’s changing--fewer desktop phones and voicemail ports are being sold, video and Cloud-based/managed services are on the upswing. But, not surprisingly, the SIs/VARs point out that these while each of these are picking up steam, they're far from a given in customer RFPs; the pace of change varies greatly from one market segment--and one customer--to another.

As a result, the folks in the channel suffer from a form of split-personality disorder: One part of their brain tells them to pursue technologies and services that are driving the future along with the revenue streams associated with long-term software and service licenses, while the other lobe sends out warning signals about next week's payroll, which favors selling traditional systems and services.

Against this backdrop, the manufacturers walk a fine line, with pitches presenting alternating visions of fear--"If you don’t sell these, someone else will"--and greed--"Software sales turn into annuities."

Cisco and IBM emphasized social and mobility, while Siemens focused on the Cloud. NEC’s Dave Jantz did a terrific job weaving together industry uber-trends with the day-to-day pressures the audience face, while Avaya's Brett Shockey made real progress explaining Flare to a skeptical audience. Microsoft claimed that one customer defines its approach this way: "This isn't about fancy phone calls; it's about policy-based user access to an enterprise software architecture." If I was a betting man, I'd wager that a marketing person rather than a customer came up with that line, but after watching my Final Four bracket explode I've given up gambling.

The UC Strategies team did a terrific job putting together and executing the Summit. It's largely the vision of Jim Burton, who, for many years, has preached how important it is for the channel to evolve in order for new technologies to grow. As UC increasingly moves into the mainstream, Jim's conviction is being validated.