Taking over the reins of a regional organisation in the current uncertain climate is not an easy task for anybody. But that's the challenge facing Johnny Karam, recently-installed regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at security software giant Symantec. In his first interview with Channel Middle East, he reveals the company's plans for its channel this year.
You recently held your annual MENA Partner Summit. What were the main channel messages you delivered to partners?
Symantec has always been partner-centric and I wanted to emphasise that message. We do 100% of our licence sales through our business partner community and that will continue. Another key message in my keynote was around the enablement of our partners.
In the first 60 days in the job the main item on my agenda was to take the car or jump on a plane and visit the channel managers of our business partners
Last year we enabled those business partners - be it from a sales or technical accreditation perspective - and the growth that we did in terms of the number of accreditations was phenomenal. One of the things that we would like to do now that we have the skillset in the market is work closer with the business partners to understand the specific leverage we can create with them because we believe there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.
Does that mean you will try and drive specialisation in the channel? That's certainly an area that Symantec has talked about before.
Yes, if we are smarter about working closer with each other and can see where the advantage of that partner is in the market or a specific segment based on the specialisation they did we can put a plan around that to leverage those resources. That creates a competitive advantage for the partner and for us, and we can create more value for the customer. We are also continuing to invest internally in our channel team by hiring additional channel people in order to wok closer with business partners.
Would it be fair to say you will reduce the number of partners you work with?
There is no formula for it. Say there are two Platinum partners, for example. Symantec is so large and has so many solutions that we would want to work with each one based on its specialty.
We would help it to leverage its portfolio, relationship and customer base in order for it to become the specialist in certain technologies. So it is not necessarily about having fewer partners, it is about helping them to become more specialised around technology and differentiate themselves. We are not looking to reduce the partners; we are looking for committed partners that believe in Symantec.
What is your strategy for the wider region in terms of building out local presence and addressing the market?
We have been investing more and more in the countries. Recently we opened an office in Cairo and we have clear plans on how we are going to invest. While we plan to reach the thresholds and open other offices in the region, we have a strategy and focus for specific countries in order to support the partners with channel account managers and sales teams on the ground. We are addressing those markets in a fully-fledged way whereby internally we even have virtual country managers that will watch over each and every country to ensure that nothing falls between the cracks.
From your conversations with channel partners, what do you think matters to them most at the moment?
In the first 60 days in the job the main item on my agenda was to take the car or jump on a plane and visit the channel managers of our business partners. The message then - and it was emphasised at our Partner Summit - was that they all want to work in a strategic mode and get closer. They realise that Symantec has a great chance right now and we believe it is our year to make a difference.That optimism is based on facts. Symantec didn't realise there was a crisis and start changing its message to the market by talking about optimising existing investments, increasing efficiencies and reducing IT costs. We see a lot of companies right now waking up to that reality and saying, "okay, how we can adjust, how can we change our messaging?" But those were our key messages from the beginning because we do not hold any hardware agenda or storage agenda or database agenda. We are a software company that secures and manages information, that's all we do.
What about margins? That is always an issue for partners.
I always hear vendors talking about increasing the margins of partners, but you only hear the end result, you never hear anybody talking about how they are going to get there. We all love talking about the house at the top of the mountain, but nobody talks about the journey.
We are working with each and every partner, and we have specific steps that we are doing with our business partners in order to increase those margins for them. Those steps are clear and they are based on mutual commitment. Nobody else can give that breadth of solution to secure and manage information, and we are very comfortable saying that.
Some IT vendors in the region have been revising the way they financially compensate their partners given the lack of market visibility at the moment. What has been Symantec's approach to this situation?
Our approach has always been front-end and back-end rebates for our partners. The front-end is where loyalty plays a major role and this is where the partner sees it. Symantec sticks to the partner and makes sure their investments - not only internally in skills but in the end-user and proof-of-concepts - is rewarded. On the back-end, we have fantastic programmes from Opportunity Registration to the Aspire Programme. There are several programmes that we put in place because we are partner-centric and do 100% of our sales through partners with no exception.
Competitors such as Kaspersky and AVG have begun to invest more heavily in the region and build out their channels during the past year. What has this development meant for Symantec?
I think that what is important to our customers is the overall security strategy and we have been working with customers to explain that to them. Most of the customers appreciate that security is not about a lock on a door, which some of our competitors provide. It is about having a security strategy in order to mitigate the risks they face and this is a place where Symantec is playing a role. If you take a specific product then, yes, we might have competition coming from one place or another, but the level of conversations we are having with our customers is really to secure and manage information, and link it all together.
What about in terms of channel strategy though? As more competitors look to engage with the channel, does it place greater pressure on Symantec to drive partner loyalty?
Absolutely. We live and die by the loyalty of our business partners because we understand that they have a choice. But we are not waiting for any external pressure to wake us up because we were never complacent about the fact our business partners always have a choice. The culture we have within Symantec is to maintain the trust and stay humble with our business partners.For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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