Enabling a successful partnership

Successful channel management has two golden rules:

1. Align thyself with thy partners.

2. Do unto thy partners as thou wouldst have them do unto thou.

Call it aptitude and attitude but, as they say, most of this we learned in kindergarten.

Expanding on the rules above, here are the key points:

  • Alignment: your success will be a function of how well your goals, incentives, sales forces, products are aligned with your partner’s. Executive buy-in and engagement from both parties is key. Any disconnects here should be a red flag.

 

  • Attitude: success is also a function of personal relationships built between you, your company and the partner.  Shared commitment is essential.  Otherwise, life is too short.

 

  • Upfront effort: internally consult with your sales, marketing, finance, legal, development, management teams to gain buy-in regarding your partner program. (A partner program would focus on many of the categories outlined in this Channel Management Best Practices blog.) Will your sales force and senior management proactively support partners?

 

  • Company culture: partnering is one of those things that can be in the company DNA or not.  Some sales people play well with others; some don’t.  Some companies’ direct sales heritage is so strong that channel conflict is a given. Many times, it seems it’s the more experienced sales folks who believe in the karma of putting good stuff out there and having good stuff come back. They know they can do more business by taking their army of one and creating lieutenants (partners) in the field. They get that “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” makes the world spin round.

 

  • Sales: align your sales force and your partner’s so relationships can be built.  This is critical, and it starts at the top beginning with the sales management teams working together. People need to trust each other for business to be done and especially for control to be shared over accounts.  Line up territories, accounts, industries, whatever the metric and compare customer lists.  Take the initiative and have your sales folks reach out to their counterparts.  Organize a joint event.  Find a few joint customers and leverage them. Find a few joint prospects and work together to get a deal in the door (your team may need to do most of the work and then credit the partner’s team for the result).  Then promote that success.  

 

  • Incentives: without the proper incentives, all is lost. The partner has to have sufficient sales incentives in place to encourage sale of your product.  Even better would be quota credit. Likewise, your direct sales force must be compensated to reduce channel conflict. Typically, this is done by compensating them on the net revenue regardless of whether they sell or the partner sells the account. A completely neutral channel plan would compensate your sales force on the gross revenue. Your direct sales force may or may not get quota credit.  If you have a channel sales force, they would get quota credit and typically be compensated on net revenue.

 

  • Support: partners need lots of support. This does not mean becoming a nuisance but it does mean on-going training and sales, marketing and technical help.

 

  • Training: realize that you probably have room for three bullet points in the minds of your partner’s sales force: 1. the problem your product solves, 2. how your product solves the problem, and 3. who to contact if they find an interested prospect.  For reference, the appendix of your presentation should include a slide each on your company, qualifying questions, customer success stories, competitors, and, most importantly, how the partner’s sales force makes money (mention this upfront in the presentation so you’re sure to have their attention).  Show a demo, but keep it under 10 minutes. (See the post on Partner Marketing for info on collateral, etc. used to support sales.)  Save the nitty gritty product details and demo training for a presentation to the pre-sales technical folks.

 

  • Respect the partner’s business: do not overload them with metrics and certification requirements.  They have a business to run so don’t demand more of their time than they can give. Focus on generating demand–the more demand for your products they see, the more time they will devote to your products.

 

  • Create demand: prime the pump with leads/deals. Facilitate early wins to gain partner mindshare.  Direct sales will need to refer business to partners to help make this happen.  This could involve a major shift in thinking for the sales team and is part of the reason you’ll need to get internal buy-in upfront.  See also points on Company Culture, Sales, Incentives above.

 

  • Clear rules of engagement and escalation:  Everyone needs to know what’s allowed and who to go to when disagreements arise.  The easiest way to format rules is to address what happens in the case of simple scenarios: partner gets lead first, company gets lead first, both acquire the same lead independently, one acquires a prospect/customer and then the prospect/customer calls the other, how to handle each other’s existing accounts, one loses a customer that is an interesting prospect for the other, when to disengage from an account.  Leads must be registered and approved by sales management to be eligible for commission payments.  There’s no way to think of all the scenarios that might arise, but an effective process and solid relationships between sales teams will go a long way to addressing anything that comes up.

 

  • Effective communication: profile your partner’s information needs and the frequency of contact they desire so you can send only the info the partner wants when they want it.  Like as not, they represent products across multiple vendors and are inundated with “helpful” material.  Keep it simple, make their lives easier and they’ll love you for it.

 That’s it (and that’s plenty) for the major points.  Here are some minor ones:

  • Pricing: many companies offer greater discounts for upfront license purchases. That’s okay but sometimes larger discounts are also given to larger partners on the assumption they’ll drive volume.  A better tack may be to offer improved pricing only to those partners who sell more, regardless of size.
  • Planning: your go-to-market plan with your partner should be regularly updated.  Invariably, the agreement will call for periodic updates and just as invariably they don’t happen.  Partner planning should occur in parallel with your own sales force planning.
  • Incorporating partner feedback (product and otherwise): partners can be a good source of customer feedback as well as input to partner specific features.  Demonstrate commitment to the channel by making partner comments part of your company’s feedback system.
  • Pipeline and forecast: capture partners’ customer opportunities in your CRM system.  This may require modifying the system a bit in order to track opportunities by partner. Per the rules of engagement, leads must be approved by sales management to reduce misunderstandings and channel conflict.
  • Skin in the game: Once your partner program has gained traction and you find yourself receiving inbound partnering inquiries, many companies charge for participation to encourage partner “skin in the game” and as a mechanism to help weed out less committed partner prospects.

Next: Identifying Prospective Partners.

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