Five years later, direct is definitely not a religion at Dell

Greg Davis, vice president of channels, Dell

Greg Davis, vice president of channels, Dell

There are very few things in the channel world that fall under the “never” category, but five years ago today, I witnessed something I truly believed I’d never see – the launch of a formal, and fairly comprehensive, channel program from Dell.

Sure, we’d all heard rumours of the number of solution providers with which Dell quietly worked for years, rumors that were usually either ignored or outright denied by the (then) direct-dealer.

But even Michael Dell’s shocking (and carefully leaked) internal memo in the spring of 2007 that direct sales were “not a religion” at Dell didn’t really resonate. This was Dell. You bought direct from Dell. Dell’s commercials portrayed any kind of “middleman” as a greedy parasite that did nothing but needlessly inflate costs.

So I was somewhat skeptical when the details of PartnerDirect first came to light. It was a radical shift in culture for the company. Could it really pull it off? After all, companies with a much more channel-friendly background had made shifts towards the channel in the past, and in many cases, pulled back when the going got tough or the right opportunity presented itself.

When PartnerDirect was announced, I was editing a print channel publication, and I featured a semi-ominous picture of Michael Dell on the cover, with the somewhat cheeky (by my admittedly conservative standards) cover headline of “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”

But five years later, I don’t think I’m breaking any news or making a terribly outlandish statement by saying that if direct ever was a religion at Dell, it is definitely not today.

By rolling out a clear channel program, investing heavily in that program, making hard cultural changes, putting the right leadership and communications infrastructure in place, and being open and honest about its aspirations and challenges in building a channel, Dell has convinced me – and some 130,000 solution providers worldwide – that it’s in this for the long haul.

Greg Davis – formerly Dell Canada chief – has been the executive responsible for shaping, leading and driving that cultural change, as Dell’s first (and only to date) channel chief.

“It’s been a terrific five years, but certainly not without its challenges,” Davis said, reminiscing on reaching the five-year anniversary of PartnerDirect. “When I look at the start of this thing in 2007, what were we trying to accomplish, I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made.”

However, as is typical of Davis’ self-deprecating and introspective style of communication, that bit of pride is quickly followed by a qualifying “but we still have plenty of work to do.”

He said Dell’s goals in the channel are still pretty much what they were back then – grow faster than the market, be an easy and simple company to work with, and focus on training and certifications for partners. Today, 35 per cent of Dell’s revenues come through the channel community, and true to form, Dell’s channel business is the fastest-growing segment of its business.

Of course, there have been some changes along the way. For one, Davis is now able to spend more of his time working on actual business opportunities with channel partners. That must be a refreshing switch, because in the early days, Davis’ job was all about trying to convince a justifiably skeptical channel community that the company historically seen as its arch-nemesis wanted to be its new BFF – with the emphasis on the second F.

“It’s exponentially easier today than it was five years ago” to get partners to appreciate Dell’s channel message, Davis said. Time does truly heal all wounds.

“When we kicked this off, we had about a dozen deal registrations in the month of December 2007. We did something like 1,600 deal registrations last week.”

And while Dell’s focus on training and certification of its partner base has remained consistent, there have been other changes along the way. The Dell of 2007 was a hardware builder. The Dell of today is much more multi-faceted, and much more focused on messaging around total solutions of hardware, software services, and yes, channel value-add. It’s taken its partners along with that transformation, and Davis aid that path will continue.

“We’ve really just scratched the surface with what we can do with the partner community,” Davis said. “We’ll continue to listen, to adapt, to grow our partner base, and to speak very openly about our challenges and how we plan to overcome them.”

Talking to Davis, you get the sense that building PartnerDirect from scratch five years ago was a challenge, but also in some ways easier than some aspects of the job for channel chiefs of companies with 20 years or more of channel history. Yes, there was the difficulty of convincing a skeptical community that this was a for-real, long term change. On the other hand, Dell was able to learn from the best of what its peers had been doing, and build that from day one, rather than having to integrate two decades or more of disparate channel programs.

Still, it’s hard to keep a channel program simple when you’re simultaneously changing the company’s focus (from products to solutions) and implementing a slew of acquisitions that have brought with them a slew of different channel programs and partners. Just this year, Davis and his team have tackled the challenge of integrating partners from Quest Software, SonicWall, and Wyse Technology.

Things continue to evolve, and Dell seems to remain aware of the fact that its channel efforts are now in kindergarten at a time when its competitors’ channel programs are reaching the point of nearing graduation from grad school, in terms of age. But in terms of maturity, Dell’s channel efforts are remarkable mature for a five-year-old.

Old habits die hard, and I still find myself tempted to use the pejorative “direct-dealer” description when describing Dell, as I did for the first decade or more of my career. I now find myself backspacing to add the qualifying “former” in front of it, but I think after five years of commitment and good communications with the channel community, it’s time to drop the term altogether. At this point, calling Dell a direct dealer feels about as in-touch with the current nature of the beast as would be calling HP a calculator company.

How has half a decade of PartnerDirect altered your perception of Dell? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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