What Every Vendor Should Know About Building a High Performance Channel Relationship
Before a vendor can scale its partner network, it must win partners’ ability and willingness to think of its brand first (or at least among the “Top 2”) when developing, selling or influencing their end-users. Some vendors make the mistake of thinking that a competitive program alone will achieve this goal for their company. In fact, while a good program is necessary, it’s not sufficient. To engage and scale partners effectively over the long run, ALL of the organization’s key functions must understand partners and commit to them. With this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some best practices for engaging and scaling channel partners. This blog is my contribution – written to identify and explore some key drivers of channel success.
The Foundational “Best Practice for Engaging and Scaling Channel Partners”
The first best practice, the foundation of all others, is to build and maintain a “channel ready” organization – one that aligns with the unique requirements of both vendor and partners.
- Product – develop products designed to fit in target markets and with target partner capabilities
- Engineering – responsible for providing technology partners with easy access to application notes
- Marketing – develop partner programs, support and communications tools, and provides relevant market information (ex. competitive analysis, territory analysis, customer analysis) to help partners succeed
- Services – develop new services and opportunities
- IT – build new systems and create a “single point of interface”
- Sales – develop a new field engagement model
- Finance/Legal – develop new metrics and reporting procedures and create T&Cs
- Operations – create channel enablement tools and processes and help the company evolve to an automated channel management system that reduces cost of doing business for both partner and vendor.
Best Practice for Engaging and Scaling Channel Partners
Here’s what organizational alignment looks like in practice as it impacts the key engagement and scaling processes. Note the important role automation plays in today’s partner management initiatives:
Recruitment Best Practice
Successful recruitment relies on your ability to anticipate and answer key partner questions.
Best Practice for Engaging and Scaling Channel Partners includes the creation of a “recruiting dialog” document that is incorporated into channel manager training. The dialog cover four topic areas:
- Portfolio and Features: what’s available to this partner; how competitive is the portfolio; how big is market demand
- Service and Support: how good is pre and post-sale technical training; is it easily accessible; what types of support can the partner expect as a result of joining the program
- Economic Value Proposition: why is doing business with you a “good deal”? Why are you talking to this specific partner – what value do you think they bring? What performance do you expect from this partner?
- Ease of Doing Business: how many channel partners do you have; who will manage this relationship; how will you communicate; how will you manage channel conflict; what steps are you taking to reduce the partner’s cost of doing business with you
Onboarding Best Practice
Successful onboarding is focused on enabling your partner to sell/develop/influence your brand as quickly as possible.
Three functions are key when it comes to Best Practice for Engaging and Scaling Channel Partners:
– Automate contracts and other administrative functions
– Provide online sales and pre-sales tech training free or heavily discounted
– Provide free post-sale training for a given period – say the first 6 months – followed by a significant discount on further training
– Provide seed units (free or substantially discounted)
– Sales team that works with the partner to make sure that the first few deals close successfully within 60-90 days
Program Management Best Practice
1) Best practice program management makes sure that partner requirements and benefits are aligned with specific partner business models (developer, SI, VAR, MSP, etc.), markets served and capabilities as well as with vendor ability to execute the program.
The major categories of most partner programs are fairly constant – Technical Support, Sales and Marketing Support, Training, Financial Support. What’s important is how you allocate spending across the categories. Generally, if you work with technical partners (ex. ISV’s, technology partners, SI’s), you will want to skew your investment to technical program components such as documentation, developer kits and labs, etc. Reseller and influencer partners require a program more heavily weighted to sales and marketing benefits.
2) Best practice is to “keep it simple”.
Over time, partner programs have become increasingly complex, with resulting push-back from partners who say that vendors are getting too deep into their business. This complexity has added cost for both partners and vendors. Simplicity is especially important if your company has high growth targets and low brand awareness. Clear, consistent messaging for both partners and your organization is critical. Can everyone relate to the key points? Can everyone remember them?
3) Three program “levers” most likely to drive scale are: relevance, ease and flexibility.
– Relevance: Does the program help the partner develop, sell their solutions, wrap their services around your offer, integrate with your offer, etc.? Are the relevant benefits, promotions and incentives easy to access – or does your partner have to wade through a mass of information to determine what’s important for that specific business? Automation makes sure that partners see only what is relevant to them.
– Ease: Does the program reduce the partners’ costs of doing business with you? The time it takes for a partner to participate in the program can be a significant cost burden for both partner and vendor. Some key areas of high cost include: configuring, pricing, creating bundles, applying for and using MDF, training, deal registration and demo management. Thanks to automation, the costs associated with these components are dramatically reduced.
– Flexibility: Do the program components have the ability to “fix themselves” and/or adapt to changes in market dynamics? Again, an automated tool will help you monitor the specific components of the program and, if necessary, course-correct in real time.
Performance Management Best Practice
Provide real-time performance metrics on multiple dimensions – deal registration, MDF, level attainment etc.
This allows both the partner and the channel manager to identify opportunities and issues early and take appropriate action quickly. In the past, best practice was for vendors to have an annual meeting with their partners, followed by quarterly reviews. The complexity, content and length of these sessions varied with the partner level and strategic value. With today’s automated enablement tools, it’s possible to provide the entire partner network with the information each partner needs to be motivated – and successful – with your offer.
Access to Resources Best Practice
Best practices for engaging and scaling channel partners when it comes to resources include:
– Organizing and posting content (documentation, technical notes, case studies, templates for the most typical configurations, FAQ’s, etc.) on a dedicated partner portal or web site.
– Making sure that technical partners have ready access to sales engineers and post-sale techs for trouble-shooting and on-site support as well as to the sales team for sales support.
– Letting partners know who they will be working with (designated channel account manager, designated channel marketing resource, designated post-sales services manager) and how to contact them.
Field Engagement Best Practice
Best practice involves documenting and training on both collaboration and conflict management for partners, the channel management team and direct sales.
Key topics here include:
- Your policy of staying channel neutral until the partner is engaged.
- Your definition of “engaged”
- “What if” scenarios of likely sales situations and how best to handle them
As you can see, “it takes a village” for engaging and scaling channel partners successfully over the long run. Fortunately, there is a lot of experience to help guide you – and great tools to help you get the job done!