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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 evangelize 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

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 penalize anyone; we feel this will help all boats to rise, including ours,” he says.