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How SUSE Is Reinventing Its Approach to the Channel

In the last 18 months, open-source vendor SUSE has been refocusing its channel program to be more customer-centric by helping partners better serve their end-user customers.

Linux and open-source vendor SUSE has been quietly revamping and improving its channel-partner program since late 2016 to better serve the company's end-user customers, from large corporations to small and medium-size businesses.

In the past, channel partners got more assistance based on the increasing volumes of SUSE products and services they sold, Mark Salter, vice president of worldwide channels for SUSE, told Channel Futures. But that's been changing as the company is now rewarding partners based on the knowledge and skills they have about SUSE products, which they can then share with their end-user customers to help them run and bolster their IT infrastructures.

"We took what we did for years, our bronze, silver and gold levels for partners, and said to ourselves, 'The purpose of the channel is to benefit our customers,'" he said.

So, to recognize that core mission, the channel program was reconfigured to enable and reward SUSE partners based on the training and expertise their people possess.

"It's more customer-centric," said Salter. "We took the program and made it simple. We no longer reward partners more just for selling more."

For SUSE, the new approach is being taken because the most important thing that SUSE's global partners can do for their customers is to know exactly what they are talking about when it comes to providing information and expertise about the company's wide range of open-source products, said Salter.

"The value to customers in the products amounts to little if you don't have skills within your company" to support them, he said.

Mark Salter

Under the improved channel program, SUSE increases incentives to partners when they get more training, expertise and certifications with SUSE's offerings. All these programs, including online and classroom training, are provided to channel partners for free by SUSE.

The idea is that by better training channel partners, those partners will then be better able to help end-user customers master those technologies, said Salter.

Partners have access to training and expertise, including around-the-clock direct support from SUSE's customer support staff, regardless of how much SUSE software they sell, said Salter. That allows partners who only offer services, without selling any SUSE software, also to participate in the channel program.

SUSE benefits from that as well, he added, because when partners have improved and broader knowledge of the company's products, they make fewer calls to SUSE's customer service lines, which lessens the burden on the company's support teams.

"We're making the partners the first line of support by giving them this knowledge," he said, which can be shared with customers for free.

Salter says most of SUSE's business is conducted through the channel.

"There are a variety of routes to market. Customers can buy from hardware partners, from cloud partners, from systems integration partners and others," he said.

Most of SUSE's revenue today continues to come from Linux, but its related product lines continue to grow as the company works to diversify and broaden its products and services for customers, said Salter.

In North America alone, there are several thousand channel employees who are skilled in SUSE's products through certifications and training, he said.

"We want to provide real incentives for our partners to take that knowledge to their customers and say, 'Here's SUSE,'" and explain how the products can help them, he added.

Partners with the appropriate SUSE certifications also can offer their customers consulting services so they can get the help and expertise they require. Non-certified partners will not be invited to provide consulting services.

In addition, SUSE has changed the way end-user customers can get their training for its products, according to Salter. Such training is now offered through SUSE's channel partners, instead of directly through the company, which is what had been offered in the past through contractual agreements.

"In North America, this is new in the last six months. We have done this in Europe very successfully in the past."

The move away from providing direct training was made because SUSE recognizes that it's a software company, not a training company.

"Being a good consultant does not make you a good teacher," said Salter. Instead, several third-party companies, including Fast Lane, GCA Training and Novacoast, provide the training for end users, with more providers to come.

"Customers need specialized training and that's why we are moving to a training program."

For SUSE channel partners, certifications are offered in sales, technical sales, SUSE administration skills. Software engineers who can take an installation and integration from start to finish and make it work successfully for customers can also get certified.

The company's channel program is open to any potential partners, giving them access to all certifications and training in SUSE products at no cost, even small one or two-person shops, said Salter.

"The beauty of this is they can start with no knowledge, and then they can get some knowledge and then start getting real, tangible benefits from us."

SUSE has nearly 500 registered channel partners in North America which hold some certifications to assist their customers. Five "solution-level" partners are also participating in the program, and they possess the highest tier of SUSE certification skills.

"We don't want to grow that aggressively," said Salter. "We want to grow that conservatively because you want to have the right partners" to help your customers, not just large numbers of the wrong partners.

"The channel will continue to be the beating heart of SUSE," said Salter. "It always will be."

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