The best way for a supplier to waste time and money is to go through the extensive process of recruiting partners, then invest even more in onboarding those new partners, and then simply leave them to their own devices and hope for the best. Hope is definitely not a strategy!

Why is Channel Partner Engagement Important?

For over forty years suppliers have embraced the channel because it is the most efficient way to reach the large audience they need to reach to be successful. This makes channel partners truly the supplier’s sales and marketing arm, an integral part of their company.

As Henry Ford, Peter Drucker, Thomas J. Watson and others have said, “nothing happens until someone sells something.” This is why enthusiastically and effectively engaging and embracing channel partners is so critical to any supplier’s success. Channel partners must be managed just as you would any individual salesperson you might hire.

In fact, there’s even more to be gained from a new partner. The salesperson you hire may have an account base to bring with them when they come aboard, though they may be precluded from contacting them. Potentially, the partner has several existing account bases, as many as they have salespeople on staff. Properly motivated and effectively managed, those salespeople start selling for you much further along the sales cycle since they’ve already built relationships with those customers.

Great partners are more than just revenue-producers. Closest to the customer, they are often where your best ideas for new product applications, features, and improvements come from. Fully engaged, great partners help your company grow and evolve.

What to Consider When Creating a Channel Partner Engagement Strategy

Building a great partner relationship involves more than creating a great relationship. There are several great relationships which need to be cultivated, each of which contributes to greater success for all.

  • Upper management must buy into the partnership enthusiastically for explosive growth to be possible. This may require getting a few quick wins accomplished early. Consider bringing highly qualified leads, or even sales that were closed by your direct sales force for the new partner to deploy.
  • Sales professionals can help you with those early wins. Make time to review their existing account base with each of them to uncover the best opportunities for quick closes. They know their customers. When they come to learn about your product they’ll quickly make the connection between it and those of their customers who would be most interested. While working with them be sure to show them the money. Best to focus on their best margin opportunities which are likely to be their own company’s services that surround and support your product.
  • Technology services people are often the ultimate decision-makers in partner organizations regarding which products and external services are included in customer proposals. They can be your best advocates within the partner organization and are often overlooked by short-sighted suppliers. Salespeople also leverage the credibility of the pre-sales technical expert to help convince customers to go with their suggested solutions.
  • Operations teams can be your great ally, or your biggest impediment. The easier and more accessible you make it for them to assure proper configuration and accurate ordering of your products, the more they will smooth the path for you.

It’s important to have an ongoing engagement plan with each of these important parts of your partner’s organization. The channel manager’s primary responsibility is enablement. When sales feels confident in their ability to sell, and professional services implements flawlessly with orders flowing easily through operations, executive management buy-in will skyrocket.

You Are Not an Infinite Resource

The continuing success of your channel managers rests in reminding them that they are not infinitely elastic. That is, they can only manage a certain number of partners effectively. This depends upon the complexity of your products as well as many other factors and is sometimes difficult to assess. The best first step is to develop an understanding of which partners are really partnering with you, and which have simply signed up opportunistically for a single deal.

The Pareto Principle applies here. 80% of your success will come from less than 20% of your partners. How do you know which partners have the potential to be great, and which do not?

How to Measure Partner Engagement: 5 Metrics That Matter

There is a terrible tendency for channel managers to become “pipeline police” and partners resent it. When all they do is show up asking for an updated pipeline report there’s no exchange of value between the two companies and partners feel it.

Pipeline leads to the one empirical metric, the desired end result which is always revenue. Even here, however, the metric must be treated conditionally:

  1. Driven Revenue is not the same as “sales performance.” The category of “non-transacting partners” is becoming more popular. These are partners who have determined that product sales don’t fit their business model for a variety of reasons. Logistic overhead is too high. Extending capital is too risky. Product sale simply doesn’t fit their intended brand identity. These partners drive sales of a supplier’s product by proposing projects including them, but the actual sale is conducted by another company, perhaps a catalog fulfillment house or distributor.
    Some suppliers provide incentives to these non-transacting partners. Even more will continue to invest in those partners’ marketing efforts to go with the momentum they’ve built up. While not as simple to track as direct purchases, a solid deal registration program can go a long way to measuring how much influenced revenue a partner produces.
  2. Truly active pursuits should come onto your channel managers radar when they exceed 80% likelihood. The mistake many make is to track each and every suspect a partner has touched. That’s where the perception of pipeline police begins. You want to offer as much help and support as possible to deals that stand a very good chance of closing. Your deal registration program makes this substantially easier to track.
  3. How much of your money are they spending? Or more precisely, how much are they taking advantage of the resources you make available? A partner who spends no market development funds is likely not marketing at all. A partner who never invites your channel manager or pre-sales specialists on joint customer calls shows no interest. It’s altogether possible they are as self-sufficient as they claim, but that sufficiency should show up in the number and quality of truly active pursuits they report.
  4. Customer experience actively combines historical performance with current state and anticipated future state observations. Since you and your partner are extensions of each other, it’s perfectly valid to ask customers “how are we doing?” Craft your interactions to focus equally on past, present, and future to get a more fully rounded picture of how well your partners are representing and supporting your products.
  5. Partner experience is every bit as important as customer or employee experience and requires measurement as such. With the cost of acquisition for new partners so high, losing a quality partner is damaging on so many levels. Does the partner feel valued? Is your product an important part of their brand? Are your people treating them respectfully? It takes so much to build a relationship yet so little to damage one. Make sure your people know you’re measuring your partners’ evaluation of them.

“Partner” connotes a relationship, and relationships are built between people. Much of your analysis will never be empirical, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be measured. Great partners seek suppliers whose channel managers truly manage the relationship and help them manage their own companies. These five metrics will help you anticipate challenges and manage expectations accordingly. At the end of the day, your channel management team knows intrinsically who your best partners are. They can feel it!