Can New HP CEO Build Trust With Small Business Partners?

Can New HP CEO Build Trust With Small Business Partners?

New Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, hired today, says she's fully committed to HP's $120 billion hardware business. But Whitman and HP Chairman Ray Lane will need to work hard to win back some small business channel partners -- including some MSPs that HP has alienated in recent months.

During a call with Wall Street analysts, Lane defended HP's board, which ousted former CEO Leo Apotheker today after HP stumbled multiple times in recent months. Among the missteps: HP in August 2011 announced plans to potentially spin-off or sell its PC business -- but the initial communications suffered from media leaks and a long time horizon that concerned partners. Initially, HP said the decision process could take as long as 18 months -- a potential eternity for small business channel partners that work closely with the HP Personal Systems Group (HP PSG). Today, new CEO Meg Whitman said HP's board will reach a decision about the PC business by the end of 2011.

Uncertain Times

Even so, in some areas the damage is already done. Plenty of MSPmentor readers have reached out to me in recent weeks, suggesting that they believe HP lost its way under Apotheker's leadership since late 2010. MSPs see clear synergies between HP's mobile, desktop, server, networking, storage and printer products. Some readers worry those synergies will break down if HP sells off or spins out its PC business.

HP has been trying its best to communicate continued synergies to partners. Stephen DiFranco, senior VP and GM of the Americas region for HP's Personal Systems Group, last week told me HP will only spin out the PC business if there's clear evidence the business can work more quickly and more effectively on its own. DiFranco also said any potential PC spin-out business would likely carry the HP brand. Lane made similar statements during the HP analyst call today. Both DiFranco and Lane also conceded that HP's communications haven't been great in recent months -- a welcome admission.

Inside HP Labs

Meanwhile, other MSPs wonder if HP can regain its reputation for innovation, which has suffered badly in recent years. Former HP CEO Mark Hurd (2005-2010) cut HP R&D during his tenure in order to lift HP's quarterly earnings. And in August 2011, HP abandoned its fledgling WebOS strategy, which called for a thin Web operating system to run across HP TouchPad tablets and PCs.

I think HP's biggest problem involves corporate culture. I certainly didn't agree with many of Apotheker's strategic moves over the past year. But I was shocked by all the HP media leaks, which undermined multiple HP and Apotheker business moves before they were fully baked and officially announced.

I suspect communications will improve under new CEO Whitman -- known for her operational experience during her time as eBay CEO. During the call today with Wall Street analysts, Whitman said HP will win back the trust of customers and investors if HP clearly communicates and meets expectations going forward.

Areas of Promise

Still, the news isn't all bad within HP. In recent months, the company has announced a managed print services push that finally involves channel partners. And HP VP Meaghan Kelly has helped scores of MSPs to work more closely with Silicon Valley startups -- such as Axcient, a hybrid cloud storage specialist. Kelly recently shifted from her SMB role into a new role with HP's office of the CTO, where she's focus even more on startup innovations.

No doubt, HP has a big technology portfolio for MSPs -- mobile, desktop, server, networking, print, storage and even managed services. But HP's main partner challenge doesn't involve technology. Instead, it involves communication: HP has been speaking out of both sides of its mouth since August 2011. On the one hand, HP has said PC innovations remain critically important. On the other hand, HP has said the PC business is hurting HP's overall profitability.

It's time for HP to speak with one voice: Clearly communicate which products will remain strategic priorities for SMB partners. Then back up those statements with great partner programs.
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