If I was a Channel, Would I Partner with Mitel?
Isn’t that the question UCStrategies readers really want to know? I’m not a channel partner, but I get to chat with them at conferences, and after awhile some patterns emerge. I just got back from Mitel’s 2013 Business Partner Conference, and I’ve got a couple of variations on that fundamental question.
Our readers should be well aware of the various disruptive forces in UC, and nobody really has a handle on them. The cloud, mobility virtualization, social media, Big Data, video, etc. are impacting vendors just as much as channels and of course their customers. Let’s not forget service providers and all those new players from outside our space who weren’t on your radar two years ago. I’m even wondering if Steve Jobs could have gotten his head around where all this is going.
We’re a long way from the simple days of PBXs and everything is really up for grabs. No vendor is sitting pretty, and many are making big bets on certain technologies, business models, strategic partners and acquisitions. Some are getting it right and others are imploding, but nobody can risk standing still – things are moving too fast.
I’ve been consulting almost 30 years, and there is still nothing more important than listening and asking good questions. Having been to the previous two Mitel partner events, up until this week I would have been inclined to say “no” to the question in the title of this post. Even with Rich McBee taking over for Don Smith, it wasn’t clear to me that Mitel was on the front end of the leader/follower spectrum.
The underlying technology has always been good, but the InterTel marriage was creating some channel conflicts, their first-mover advantage with VMware seemed to be going nowhere, their $35 Freedom/Mitel Anywhere price point placed them in the commodity pool no channel wants to swim in, the investment community wasn’t buying in, they weren’t really leveraging their mobility assets, there was no video story (even if Magor was somehow in the picture), and the brand just wasn’t breaking through.
That’s a lot to deal with, but a year later, I have to say they’ve come a long way. They still have a long way to go, but as Rich McBee said, they gave themselves a complete physical. He rightly noted this is Mitel’s 40th year, and it’s a nice milestone compared to the lifespan and previous incarnations of their competitors. These days, 40 is halftime for most of us, and it’s a great time for a physical. Well, they did their share of listening and introspection and have come away with a great prescription for getting healthy. More so than in the past, they’ve recognized what’s not working and where things need be better aligned with both channel partners and end customers.
To be fair, it’s really hard for the Tier 1s to do a re-boot, but for a company of Mitel’s size, you can get a lot done in a year. The key to doing this is listening and learning from what’s going on around you and updating your mission to reflect that. This brings us to the “outside in” theme of BPC 2013. Instead of doing things that work well for your needs and processes, the focus has been turned on customers and from there you work backwards to serve them on their terms. All customer-centric companies follow this thinking and the great ones have these values in spades throughout their culture.
We got some great examples of that, especially from Kerry Bodine’s keynote, and this takes us to the big question for Mitel. Is this the kind of company you want to partner with given all the disruption out there? If you see an adapt-or-die Darwinian theme here, you’re right, but guess what, it doesn’t just apply to Mitel and that takes me to a variation on this question.
The fixes we heard about only take us to today, but an even bigger challenge and question lies ahead. Mitel’s new CMO, Martyn Etherington, is a dynamic breath of fresh air, and this is exactly the kind of energy and vision Mitel needs to get them to today and beyond. In terms of today, he laid out the textbook moments of truth mantra from the world of customer satisfaction research, and if they stay on this path, they’ll be more than fine. Some of this is simple stuff, like using the language of your customers or as Martyn talks about, understanding the customer journey – why they buy, how they buy, as well as knowing how to have both marketing conversations and sales conversations. Simple, right? Well, if it was so easy, everyone would be doing it, but clearly that’s not the case.
Prior to the tech world, I ran a market research consultancy and did my share of customer satisfaction studies 20 years ago. I’m thrilled to say this is the first and only time I’ve heard this thinking used in our space. Just like the consumerization of IT is turning the enterprise tech world upside down, it’s high time we had consumer-based marketing to help drive UC. Martyn definitely gets it, and cited examples such as their Digital Demand Generation team, remarketing to get more Web real estate presence, or building Mitel-sponsored communities to be where their customers are online. As my kids would say, duh!
If I’m a channel, isn’t this the kind of vendor I’d want to partner with? I know it really comes down to money at the end of the day, but the business of selling expensive boxes and hardware is going away, and the future lies in applications, professional services, customization and cloud-based services. It’s clear to me that Mitel understands this, and while they still have work to do, they’re doing the right things and as their financials indicate, they’re also doing things right. It’s pretty hard to find another vendor in the UC space right now who’s doing these things any better.
Suffice to say, I’m good with where Mitel is today, but it’s tomorrow I’m worried about, and they’re thinking this way too. It’s always easier when you’re in a position of strength, but let’s reverse the question and ask the same of the channel. If I’m Mitel, are these the kind of channel partners I want to deal with? At BPC, they laid out their pain and how they’re re-tooling for the future – which is coming faster than anyone can really handle.
Fair enough, but how is the channel adapting? Not that well, frankly. We see it, we hear it, we write about it, and Mitel has these concerns as well. Are they willing and/or able to do their physicals and embrace new technologies, new business models and new types of customer relationships? Some will, but if I was a betting man, I think we’re in for a wave of attrition, exits and buy-outs, along with a few leaders who truly reinvent themselves.
This is a big market, and in the rearview mirror, you just know new players will emerge out of nowhere. They’ll be Web-savvy, cloud-based and far more expert in the cost efficient delivery of real time services than communications technologies. In time, they may come to dominate the channel, and as their market power increases, which type of vendors do you think they’ll want to partner with? I think I know the answer – how about you?