SAS Institute and the channel: lessons learned

Washington, D.C. – Business analytics software vendor SAS Institute‘s partner channel model can now be called an “open, purposeful process” with a predictable customer experience compared to its original form three years ago, said the company’s director of strategic alliances & channels.

When the SMB-focused program was launched in 2006, a large quantity of partners were recruited at the outset with the assumption, said Karl Schlatzer, “that it was going to be fairly high-volume in nature.”

But that model jarred with the Cary, North Carolina-based company’s “high-touch” approach of complex offerings to solve complicated problems. “We have a very large investment in our direct sales organization, our customers expect a very high degree of service,” he said.

In an effort to resolve the mismatch, SAS restructured the program, creating a more stringent recruitment process. Today, the program targets high-skill partners with expertise in particular verticals and offerings, and ensures that recruits actually align with SAS’ direct sales efforts.

While this increased scrutiny means much time and energy is invested upfront, the daily maintenance of the partner community is minimal. “That takes work, takes personnel, takes resources, however when that’s finished, we have a much more efficient sales model,” said Schlatzer.

Today, partners are also less restricted in terms of target market and the range of products they can resell, which has now broadened to encompass the enterprise as well.

SAS’ partner model encompasses between 250-500 partners globally, with individual regions basing decisions on their respective program guidelines and models on customer base and partner mix, said Schlatzer. “In Canada, this may be very different from decisions we make in the U.S. markets or in EMEA markets or in APEC markets.”

Schlatzer said, post-alignment, the program is more attractive to potential partners, and that, in the U.S., SAS grew its revenue base by 15 per cent in 2008 through the channel, and the “pace of growth was faster than SAS overall, so we can view that as a pretty good sign.”

The proportion of channel to direct sales, said Schlatzer, is such that SAS tries to drive 15 per cent of new revenue through the channel, but with the economic climate, it’s unclear whether that benchmark will be met.

Pinnacle Solutions Inc., a Chicago-based SAS reseller that focuses primarily on the SMB market, has been with the program for two-and-a-half years. Pinnacle president D.J. Penix said he’s pleased with the selective recruitment process as a result of the program alignment.

“I’m really happy to see that because it allows us to focus more specifically on customers, and there aren’t a lot of people out there that are incorrectly implementing or providing wrong solutions,” said Penix.

And, with the program’s inclusion of the enterprise market, Penix said Pinnacle Solutions now has the option to entertain that dual focus, and it’s “a great thing that we can still sell to both, but our focus and our target is to the SMB.”

While Penix admitted “hurdles and bumps” through the program’s evolvement, a mutual open willingness for communication has helped both parties.

Moving forward, the program that now manages partners through a lifecycle plan will undergo tuning, but no major enhancements. “We’re in the evolution phase now rather than the revolution phase,” said Schlatzer. “I think we’ve got the model where we want it.”

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