Getting Honest About Partner Certifications and Differentiation
Partner training and enablement are essential, but vendors need to do better in defining and measuring the true value of these programs.
By Larry Walsh
Vendors frequently come to 2112 looking for help in cleaning up their training and enablement programs. Many technology companies boast numerous certificates for individuals and specializations for partner organizations that, on their face, reflect qualifications and competencies in various technical domains.
Technology vendors are rethinking their training and enablement programs to better align with customer expectations and experience. They correctly see that the customer no longer cares about technology as much as the experience and outcomes gained from technology investments. This shift in thinking is rewriting the way vendors and channel chiefs think about their go-to-market strategies and partner relationships.
Making certifications and specializations a pillar of this customer experience philosophy and strategy are paramount to many vendors. The idea is that certification (technical expertise) and specialization (organizational-level competency in a specific technical or vertical domain) will lead to better customer experiences. And, as the thinking goes, customers are more apt to expand and repeat business if they have better experiences.
My first question to them: Is there any evidence that certifications lead to a better customer experience?
Surprisingly, many vendors don’t measure the effect training and enablement programs have on sales or customer experience. Many vendors conduct customer satisfaction studies, but they’re not specific enough to correlate to the core training and certifications of a partner. At best, vendors can infer that training is associated with a better customer experience and engagement outcome, but it’s a loose association.
The case for certifications and specializations falls apart upon examining the requirements for many credentials. A vendor or third-party certification isn’t easy to obtain, but it’s not complicated or arduous either. Often, it’s merely a matter of taking a course and passing a test. Infrequently, certifications and specializations lack any on-the-job validation that would show real competency beyond the examination.
Certification Equals Differentiation?
I often ask vendors about data that shows whether certified or specialized partners have higher sales rates, lower technical support utilization, better profitability, or faster growth rates. Frequently, none of these metrics exist. The entire premise that certifications lead to better outcomes is based on pure conjecture.
Channel chiefs frequently talk about how enabling partners with the right tools will help them differentiate themselves and grow their businesses faster. Channel chiefs and vendors routinely talk about certifications as a means of helping partners stand out. Statements such as these are pure channel dogma: Certifications and specializations equal differentiation.
The question we, as an industry, often look past is for whom partners are differentiating.
The natural inclination when talking about differentiation is in the technology market. Vendors provide training, certifications, badges, and status monikers to help partners stand out in the crowded field of resellers and solution providers. These symbols of excellence are a means by which customers know the partner is qualified, imbued with certain skills and experiences that align with their specific needs.
Certifications and specializations build confidence in the partner, which leads to new business, sales, growth, and profits.
Ahem, it’s a good story, but only just that – a story.
When we ask partners about things that vendors assert lead to differentiation, the story changes dramatically. From the partner perspective, certifications, specializations, and program status levels are more about differentiating to the vendor than to the customer.
The customer, they say, often doesn’t care about such attributes. Rarely do they ask whether a partner is “Gold” in a vendor program or has a vertical or technical certification. In the instances where customers do list certifications and specializations as part of a request for proposal or information (RFP/RFI), they’re doing so as a litmus test to narrow the field of candidates.
We could make an argument that technical certifications are good for individuals, particularly for differentiating when seeking new jobs. Conventional wisdom says that professionals who hold vendor and industry certifications have a leg up on those without credentials. That’s in the past. According to Foote Partners, certification value is waning as employers see credentials as a reflection of having passed a test rather than mastering a skill. Conversely, Foote finds, individuals with demonstrable experience and skills are commanding better employment opportunities and higher compensation than credentialed professionals.
Certifications Benefit Vendors
Partners say certifications and specializations are more about unlocking access to products, services, and channel program benefits. Taking a couple of courses doesn’t make much of a difference in their technical capabilities. The same is true for investments in specialization requirements. The time and money spent on these courses and testing do grant entry for a smaller number of partners that have less competition and higher compensation.
In truth, certification programs are often about creating cohorts of partners that vendors and their channel account managers can focus their GTM efforts and resources on. Rather than slogging through hundreds or thousands of partners looking for one to work with on a project or an account, certifications give CAMs the ability to narrow their search quickly.
Certifications benefiting vendors isn’t bad. It’s actually about creating greater synergy and symbiosis between a vendor and a partner. If a partner cares enough to get certified, it’s signaling to a vendor that it values the relationship. The vendor reciprocates with rewards – access to sales opportunities, higher compensation, connections with executives, and more. These rewards provide an incentive for the partner to continue doing business with the vendor. It’s a closed-loop system.
Getting Real About Certifications, Differentiation
Placing an emphasis on certifications and specialization has a downside for vendors. Compelled to create these cohorts to simplify their channel management, vendors often find that they’re paying their specialized partners more through incentives without an appreciable return.
The sell-through and sell-with motions of many vendor-partner relationships often negate the real or perceived value of certification-based differentiation. According to the annual 2112 Channel Chief Outlook: The 2020 Report, more than four out of 10 channel sales originate with the vendor, not the partner. In vendor engagements, 2112 often sees vendor-originated sales accounting for as much as 90% of channel revenue.
If the idea is that partners can differentiate and market themselves better to generate new business, it’s sales at a high cost. Conversely, a non-credentialed partner that brings in a net-new sales opportunity but needs vendor support to close will generate a higher profit. This paradox makes vendors bristle, which leads them to rejigger their programs periodically.
None of this is to say that certifications and specializations are negative. Partner training and enablement is essential in ensuring that partners can take products to market and support customers. Making certifications more meaningful requires more effort in measuring what matters and ensuring a direct association between the credentials and the expected value.
Acknowledging that certification and specialization for differentiation is more of an internal pursuit than an external one is the first step in building more rational programs. By focusing on the actual objectives, vendors can create more focused training and enablement initiatives. Focus will result in the desired outcomes of simplification, growth, and ROI.
Larry Walsh is the CEO of The 2112 Group, a business strategy and research firm servicing the IT channel community. He’s also the publisher of Channelnomics, the leading source of channel news and trend analysis. Follow Larry on Twitter at @lmwalsh2112 and subscribe to his podcast, POD2112, on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and other leading podcast sources. You can always e-mail Larry directly at email@example.com.