IBM Tightens Partner Certification Requirements

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IBM will require stricter training and certification requirements for software solution providers in an effort to increase more profitable solution sales. The changes may also weed out commodity-oriented resellers.

IBM this week quietly announced it will soon require partners meet more stringent certification requirements to resell a number of products in its software group.

The move comes as a result of customers demand of higher skill levels from solution providers delivering solutions around Big Blue’s Websphere, Tivoli, Rational database and Lotus offerings, among others, says Shaun Jones, vice president of IBM’s Worldwide Channels and General Business Marketing.

“In the past, any IBM solution provider could resell software offerings, we’ll now base partners’ ability to sell some solutions on more stringent qualification criteria,” he says.

As customers find IT budgets slashed, software projects become harder to justify and sales appointments are more difficult to secure. Jones says partners with the highest degree of certification, education and proven skills are doing best in the market right now, and the stricter certification requirements will help those partners further differentiate themselves from their competition.

Partners will be required to hold IBM technical certifications, demonstrate sales mastery and file detailed product plans with IBM, Jones says. By fulfilling these criteria, partners will further hone their expertise on products and services they’re most skilled at, qualify for higher levels of vendor incentives and marketing support and as a result, receive higher margins.

For ISVs and custom application developer partners that mainly target the SMB and midmarket, there is another path to meet IBM’s stricter criteria, says Jones. Solution providers who deliver custom applications built on top of IBM middleware can use those applications to demonstrate mastery and sales success of their solution and the underlying IBM software, and can then meet the new requirements.

“Partners that create solutions that sit on top of our middleware – CRM, ERP, for example – they necessarily have to have in-depth knowledge of the software their solutions are built upon,” says Jones. “If they can show IBM what they’ve built and that they’ve had a successful selling record, we look at those components and could qualify them on that solution,” he says.

Dave Kemper, managing partner at IBM solution provider Dataskill, says he believes the new requirements will help drive new business and also increase opportunities with existing customers.

“This is an opportunity to evangelise on current technologies we already offer, but it also allows us to ramp up in technology areas where we haven’t been as strong in the past,” Kemper says. The benefit for Dataskill’s customers is the assurance that their solution provider holds the highest set of skills and can select and properly implement the right technology to solve their business needs.

“There’s a higher degree of assurance for customers that the right solution and implementation paths are chosen, and that their investment will pay greater dividends rather than turning into ‘shelfware,’” Kemper says.

Kemper says the new requirements will help to weed out solution providers who may have gained business from customers based solely on price rather than expertise, and will allow Dataskill to win more customers and implement more comprehensive solutions.

“We hope that those partners who’ve treated IBM software as a commodity product will be eliminated from the marketplace,” he says. “We then can hope to drive additional value for customers, which will deliver higher margins based on more solution sales and more comprehensive solutions,” Kemper says.

Jones says after consulting with partners across IBM’s software group, he feels the approach will be fairly straightforward for those partners who’ve already demonstrated a high degree of commitment to IBM and solutions based on its software.

Though the move was announced yesterday, the changes will not take effect until October 2009, giving partners approximately seven months to make changes and examine their business models, he says.

“For those partners who’ve already had great success with us, this will not be a big inhibitor for them to continue doing business with us,” he says. For other partners, the new requirements will push them to evaluate their solution offerings and make a stronger commitment to increase their skills and qualifications based on their business models and how profitable vendors’ solutions are for them.

“We’re giving partners a seven-month opportunity to evaluate their commitment and their readiness, and we will continue to work with partners to discover where there are gaps in their skill sets so we can work harder on filling those gaps,” Jones says.

Partners who want to strengthen their commitment to IBM can take advantage of IBM’s existing sales and technical training and certifications, says Jones. With the tests and procedures already in place, the onus is on partners to decide how they will proceed.

Jones says IBM will continue to offer training and certification at a local level, as well as at national and global partner conferences. He cites recent Tivoli- and Lotus-focused events at which IBM offered the certification tests free of charge, and adds that IBM is already seeing calendars fill up as partners move to attain training and education.

Jones says the end result will be increased revenues and profits for both IBM and its most committed solution providers.

“We’re not trying to penalise anyone; we feel this will help all boats to rise, including ours,” he says.