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Hewlett-Packard Co. this week made changes to its PartnerOne program in an effort boost sales and increase partner profitability while making it easier for VARs to do business with the company.

PartnerOne enhancements will boost partner sales margins, reward them for expertise in specific market segments, open up new service business opportunities and accelerate payments to partners, according to HP.

“I think the partners will find value in these enhancements,” said Tom LaRocca, HP’s vice president of Americas partner development programs.

The changes, while welcome, mustered a tepid response from partners, who have been clamoring for strong indications from the Palo Alto, Calif., vendor that it is committed to its channel business.

“The changes are fairly subtle in my opinion. I would compare it to fluffing a pillow versus buying a new one,” said David Hudgins, president of HP partner PC Products & Services, in Greensboro, N.C.

Partners in recent years have complained that HP has focused too much on direct sales.

LaRocca said HP has been listening to partners, who provide feedback to the company daily. The PartnerOne enhancements, he said, are another step in the company’s efforts to establish predictable models of engagement with the channel.

Enhancements include rewarding partners for their expertise in specific market segments, LaRocca said. Using the PartnerOne Network Tool, partners can provide information via the Web about their businesses that HP uses to create profiles and provide leads specific to market segments.

VARs with expertise in certain technologies, such as SAP AG’s ERP software, or market segments, such as small business and government, can qualify for marketing subsidies, demo units, special rebates and pricing discounts.

HP also enhanced the PartnerOne Portfolio Tool, increasing partner rewards for selling across HP’s services and products portfolio. VARs selling Alpha servers, education services and business continuity services qualify for extra compensation.

In addition, partners who sell Care Pack services for commercial printers can qualify for reimbursements for the services they deliver on behalf of HP. This is a new program element that LaRocca said was created in direct response to partner requests.

Payments for PartnerOne benefits haven been accelerated to four or five days for partners who sign up for electronic funds transfers, said LaRocca. Payments previously would take several weeks.

“For a small reseller who uses cash flow to make payroll,” LaRocca said, “it could be a huge benefit.”

Jane Cage, a principal partner at Heartland Technology Solutions, in Joplin, Mo., said if the PartnerOne enhancements deliver on helping to boost the profitability of VARs who sell and service HP products, it will be a “positive step forward.”

“We are all about simplification and earning more revenue by performing services on the items that we sell,” she said.

Likewise, Scott Goemmel, executive vice president at PMV Technologies, of Troy, Mich., said the additional services have the potential for helping partners grow their sales of HP offerings.

As with other recent channel-related HP announcements, partners were guarded in their reaction. Some say that while HP often delivers the right message, the actions don’t always follow. But this is beginning to change, say some partners.

HP VARs are particularly interested in a clarification of the company’s rules of engagement for doing business in the SMB segment to prevent the potential for conflict between channel partners and HP’s direct sales force.

LaRocca acknowledged this is an issue for channel partners, but added the company is working on it and an announcement is forthcoming. “It comes down to predictability,” he said. “We need to have a predictable model.”

In the enterprise space, HP last year said it would shift 250 large accounts to partners, a process that is ongoing and is expected to last through the summer. Partners have reacted positively to the move, saying HP is following through on its promise.