IBM's BPMAC: A Small Group With Lots of Pull
by Mary Lou Roberts
When more than 50 percent of your server sales come from resellers and distributors (and more than 70 percent of your iSeries server sales), it's a good idea to check the pulses frequently of those who keep the boxes flowing off the assembly line. And that's exactly what IBM has been doing with the Business Partner Marketing Advisory Council (BPMAC).
Nearly two years ago, IBM launched the group, which is made up of select (by invitation only) executives from Big Blue's largest and/or most influential resellers and distributors, tossing in a few consultants and ISVs for good measure. The goal has been and continues to be to use the group as a sounding board to improve communications about marketing, operations, communications, and any other issues that might affect the lifeblood of the IBM reseller channel.
BPMAC meets twice a year face-to-face, including a session at PartnerWorld, and holds teleconference powwows more frequently in between. Agendas have included such topics as revision of the Partner Rewards program, simplifying the labyrinth of communications and dark corridors that have been required to do business with IBM in the past, and providing the select partners with glimpses of IBM's vision for the future in order to get feedback.
IBM seems uncharacteristically shy in touting the benefits that BPMAC has delivered. Kirstin Bodell, IBM's director of channels marketing for IBM Americas, could not be reached for comment. And Michael Maloney, spokesman for IBM's Global PartnerWorld Organization, reports that IBM prefers not to comment right now about "a handful of things that, if talked about, could be premature." Rather than risk raising expectations, IBM would prefer to keep the activities of the Council under wraps. "We have a number of initiatives underway that are getting close, but just aren't there yet," he says. He does, however, note that the purpose of the Council is to "review the whole strategy of how we go to market."
Some BPMAC members, however, have no such reluctance to boast about the progress of the group.
There are apparently 12 to 15 member companies on the Council, and they constitute a good mix, reports Maggie Hayes, marketing manager for Sirius. "We have a good range of sizes of companies from different geographies." She strongly believes that the initiative is worthwhile, giving participants insight into what IBM is doing and what's coming down the road. "We don't really get any advance information," she's quick to add. "But it does help to give us information and focus to the programs that are out there. We open discuss IBM's direction as well as industry issues."
Typically, the face-to-face meetings are well-planned events with set agendas, Hayes says, including a variety of executives from all levels--primarily vice presidents and directors--involved in business partner marketing and communications.
Pip Smith, sales director for Jeskell has been on the Council for more than a year and sees its efforts as extremely valuable. "It gives us perspective and helps us to understand the complexities of the internals of IBM and how we can have influence."
As an example, Smith notes the constant barrage of emails that come from IBM--on the same subject. "We just can't read them all," he says, "so sometimes we wound up not reading any of them and missing some very important communications." BPMAC has been working, he says, to consolidate the communications by putting the emails together and sending fewer, but more concise communications. "This has been in place for about four months," he reports, "and is improving every day. It's a very big asset."
Hayes agrees that the consolidation of communications has been extremely helpful, along with the establishment of a single ID that "gets you to everything in PartnerWorld."
Having the group in place also gives IBM a mechanism to put out a very personal message to the resellers, Smith says. "The companies on the Council are all sizeable businesses. With more than 50 percent of IBM's business coming through the resellers, it's important to get the messages out correctly."
Lisa Garriott, acting director of marketing for Avnet Partner Solutions, IBM Americas, believes that BPMAC has been extremely valuable in yet another way. "In addition to increased communication between IBM and the channel, the Council has enabled the business partners to form partnering relationships and share best practices. At Avnet, we are very focused on providing superior customer service for our partners. This includes working very hard on behalf of our partners to ensure their needs are being met and their voices are being heard. IBM has been extremely proactive in working with us to address the needs of our partners."
Garriott adds, "During many of the meetings we have open discussion on how we can do things better as an organization, including a variety of IBM products and services. We discussed increasing enablement activities, education, and marketing programs to ensure the sellers have everything they need to complete in the marketplace."
One thing that the Council does not do, apparently, is to review/preview IBM's advertising plan. For example, "the Council did not look at the iSeries marketing and advertising program," says Hayes. "Sirius got a chance to look at the ads before they ran," she says, "but that was largely because we are the largest iSeries reseller and we gave them a lot of input." It was not, however, within the purview of the Council.
What's still being worked on--and what's in store for the future? Here's where IBM won't open the kimono, for fear of setting expectations too high, noting that priorities change. Smith reports, however, that the group has a "ready-list" of things that focus on communications more than anything else, as well as processes for improving sales forecasting. "There's a project in place to improve this process by the fourth quarter of this year."
There will be payback on this not only to IBM and the business partners, Smith contends, but to iSeries (and other platform) customers as well. "If the forecast is better, we reduce the liability on non-delivery, and can do better pricing as well. We all have more control."
"If business partners are better informed, they will be better able to put the true benefits of IBM, its technology, and its solutions into the hands of its customers," says Hayes.
Are there other things that the Council should be working on? Not that Smith can think of right now. But if anyone comes up with an idea, he says, it's sure to be laid on the table. "There aren't a lot of shy people on this Council," he quips. "It's only the senior members of the largest business partners who attend these meetings, and they have influence. We all speak up."
Hayes suggests that those on the Council are "always looking for better ways to share information. How effective is PartnerWorld? Are the business partner programs on track? Which are the most effective?" In fact, she can't think of anything right now that the Council is not working on that they should be. IBM clearly intends to drive more and more business through the channel, and this is a way to make that effort more successful.
Few efforts in which IBM--or any large corporation, for that matter--is involved can be scrutinized without uncovering some dissatisfaction or complaint. Members of the BPMAC, however, seem not only satisfied but delighted with the progress IBM is making in making the business partner channel more effective.
Historically, the iSeries has been the poster child for excellence in channel sales, and the platform is well represented on BPMAC. IBM, iSeries resellers and distributors, and iSeries customers alike hold out high hopes for a resurgence in sales on the platform. BPMAC seems to be one mechanism to increase the odds that will occur. Perhaps IBM should not be so hesitant to talk about what appears to be such a successful undertaking.
Mary Lou Roberts, a 35-year veteran of the information systems industry, is a new contributor to IT Jungle. In addition to her work as a reporter in the iSeries space, she has spent her career as a marketing and communications professional working exclusively with information technology publications and companies. She can be reached at WriterNewf@aol.com.