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I can’t tell you how often channel leaders sign up partners and expect the sales to start flowing as if turning a spigot, only to be disappointed. Their miscalculation lies in assuming partners are coin-operated—that you can pay out strong residuals, sweeten the pot with some upfront cash, and stand back and watch the revenue come in. In reality, it rarely works this way. Compensation is critical, of course, but it’s not a partner’s sole calculus, even on a deal’s front-end.

Your company is likely one of many – perhaps dozens – of vendors a partner could work with on any given transaction. It’s your job to get the attention of your partner’s entire sales team, make sure they understand and buy into your value proposition, and can articulate it to their clients. You also need to help your partners come across as knowledgeable about your solutions and competent about their application in their customers’ environment. To do that, you need a well-defined channel enablement strategy that sets up partners for success.

What is Channel Enablement?

Channel enablement is the process of empowering indirect sales partners to sell your products and services. It typically includes training, tools, content, and sales and marketing resources to assist partners with bringing your solutions to market.

A significant portion of channel enablement is sales education and sales training. Even if you’re selling a commoditized product or service, there are several points of differentiation you need to communicate:

  • Time to deployment
  • Geographical availability
  • Applications and benefits
  • Standard lengths of sales cycles
  • Solution weaknesses, misconceptions and common objections
  • Target customer deal size (the goal to close)
  • Target customer verticals
  • Minimum and maximum deal term lengths
  • Annual and month-to-month deal term options
  • Support resources available to the end customer
  • Promotions available to end customers
  • Sales engineering and sales support resources for partners

Your partners need to know all of the above (and more) and be capable of accessing this information at a moment’s notice when the right opportunity for your solution comes their way.

A successfully enabled channel partner should handle the following types of activities:

  • Understand and articulate your value proposition
  • Send marketing campaigns targeting your ideal customer profile
  • Actively engage your company with business and market development opportunities
  • Manage opportunities from beginning to close
  • In some cases, deploy or install solutions in the customer environment
  • Educate the customer’s team on the use of the solution
  • Promote solution adoption inside the client organization
  • In some cases, take and resolve first-level support and trouble-ticket requests from the end customer

Why is Channel Enablement Important?

Without effective channel enablement, your channel partners will be hamstrung in their efforts to sell your solutions. The consequences of ineffective channel enablement include:

  • Ineffective partner sales motions
  • Wasted market development funds (MDF)
  • Lost time and effort
  • Low return on investment (ROI)
  • Decreased or capped partner revenue
  • Partner and customer churn
  • Difficulty recruiting new partners (since word gets around)

If you’re serious about creating a profitable channel partner program, channel enablement needs to evolve from “nice to have” to “must have.”

What to Consider Before Launching a Channel Enablement Strategy

Channel enablement success requires critical processes to be planned and in place, including:

Recruiting Channel Partners – Did I Hit the Mark?

Your first major hurdle in your channel partner program is recruiting the right channel partners. Has your program identified an ideal channel partner profile to target?

Ideal partners know their ideal customers, says Heather Tenuto, Chief Revenue Officer for enterprise channel management platform provider Zift Solutions. They must “have a mature understanding of their own offer and ideal customer profile” to determine whether or not you’re both a good fit for each other.

Heather TenutoOur previous expert panels pointed to universal traits to be on the hunt for in suitable partners, including:

  • Willingness to invest time and effort developing the partnership
  • Actively – and reliably – recruiting new clients
  • Taking care of existing clients
  • Selling through social media
  • Leveraging digital marketing strategies and tactics
  • Embracing collaboration and cooperation
  • Transparency in strengths, weaknesses and goals

As with customer recruitment, partner recruitment never stops. You need a consistent stream of new partnerships to keep your program fresh and growing and offset any potential partner churn.

Strategy matters. The net you cast may need to run wide or deep, or both, depending on the types of partners you’re pursuing.

Channel Business Model Alignment – Do We Have Consensus?

Supplier-partner alignment matters— particularly given the relentless march of specialization across industry verticals. If your solution does little for manufacturing companies, you won’t get far with partners focused on manufacturers. There are exceptions to this rule. You might have a mutual referral relationship with a provider serving other verticals precisely because you don’t compete directly, for example. But for the most part—and indeed for business development purposes – your aim should be to build partnerships that play to shared strengths.

Screening factors that can help you identify best-fit partners include:

  • Industry verticals and geographies (current and planned)
  • Branded vs. white-label requirements
  • In-house vs. partner support requirements (and plans for each)
  • Relevant experience (partner familiarity with the vendor’s solution and expertise selling similar offerings)
  • Partner education and training requirements to come up to speed
  • Partner goals for your company’s solutions (collecting names for a broad portfolio vs. seeking a deep – perhaps even exclusive – partnership for your solutions)

Robert MauteAlignment isn’t a one-and-done screening proposition. Successful partnerships require cross-departmental coordination to align business processes and objectives. This ongoing process “involves engaging each area in the partner organization (executives, sales, marketing, sales engineering, etc.) to understand how to best align and build mindshare,” says Robert Maute, Chief Revenue Officer for master customer experience technology integrator CX Effect.

Onboarding Channel Partners – Are They Set Up for Success?

You’ve just landed a new partner. Great! Now the real work begins. (Success in the channel can generate revenue in tremendous volume, but nobody said it would be easy!)

Channel onboarding needs to be efficient, scalable and predictable. Liz Lederer, Senior Vice President of North American Channel Development for cloud communications provider Star2Star, puts it this way: “If you would like repeatable and predictable revenue from partners, you have to offer them repeatable and predictable programs and processes.”

Liz LedererThose processes range from warm welcomes to measuring your joint sales success. For a more comprehensive rundown of steps and timelines, check out this list of eight steps to include in your channel partner onboarding process.

Onboarding a partner is a multistep, months-long process. Partner onboarding checklists or project management platform (PMP) routines can help you stay on track and delegate the process – or portions of it – effectively.

Swipe Me: 9 Channel Enablement Best Practices

To help you create a better channel enablement strategy, we spoke with eight channel business leaders about their experiences effectively enabling channel partners.

Nine best practices emerged from these interviews.

  1. Tailor Your Channel Enablement Strategy to the Digital-First Selling Environment
  2. Meet Partners Where They’re at on Their Technology Journeys
  3. Incentivize & Reward Success (Beyond Just Deal Compensation)
  4. Tackle Target Market & Vertical Specialization for Your Partner
  5. Build a Partner Enablement Program for Salespeople, Not Marketers
  6. Take Care of Your Partners’ Customers, No Matter What
  7. Listen to Your Partner & Focus on Their Needs, Not Yours
  8. Take Time Out to Give Your Partner One-on-One Attention
  9. Create Multiple Touchpoints to Reach Your Partner

Best Practice 1: Tailor Your Channel Enablement Strategy to the Digital-First Selling Environment

The word “unprecedented” has nearly lost its meaning amid the pandemic. Nonetheless, the economy has been permanently altered. Recent research from McKinsey & Company found that 70 percent to 80 percent of B2B buyers prefer remote human interactions or digital self-service to in-person interactions.

That preference is becoming a reality. According to Gartner’s Future of Sales research, 80 percent of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will happen in digital channels by 2025.

Michelle Ragusa McBainIn other words, engaging and enabling partners for digital marketing and social selling will be crucial to success. This reality already took hold during the pandemic, says Michelle Ragusa-McBain, Vice President of Global Channel & Digital Strategy for channel consulting firm JS Group.

 

“The pandemic sped up digital transformation that has been a long time coming, but the truth is that genie is not going back in the lamp,” Ragusa-McBain says. “There is a shift in how customers independently research. Just think about yourself – when you want to go to a restaurant, do you [look] at Yelp? When you order something on Amazon, do you read the reviews?”

Helping your partners stay ahead of the trend with a digital-first enablement strategy is no longer optional.

Lacey Rondon

Best Practice 2: Meet Partners Where They’re at On Their Technology Journey

Different partners will be at different stages in their ability to adopt and sell your solution. It’s your responsibility to make it easy for them to integrate into your program.

“Here at Rackspace, we try to meet our partners where they are at on their technology journey,“ says Lacey Rondon, Regional Partner Leader for multicloud solution provider Rackspace Technology. “We offer a variety of webinar series on topics that our marketing teams have researched to find relevant and top of mind for our customers, and we try to educate our partners on those same topics.”

Fortunately, you can provide partners with the same training resources you’ve created for your own sales teams. “Engagement and enablement remain essential elements of any trusted partnership,” says Jasmina Muller, Vice President of Global Channel Partnerships for critical event management platform provider Everbridge. “Therefore, our enablement program gives our partners the ability to be part of our new hire training course, just like our sales executives when they start with Everbridge.”

Jasmina MullerBest Practice 3: Incentivize & Reward Success (Beyond Just Deal Compensation)

Revenue is the driving force behind your sales partnerships. You want access to opportunities you wouldn’t have uncovered directly. Your partners want to be paid for their efforts and to gain peace of mind that their customers are in good hands that will take care of them over the long term.

When you’ve struck that balance with your partner, keeping them engaged can be lucrative for both parties. Tactics for standing out from crowded solutions portfolios include:

  • Official certifications for training completions
  • Appointments to partner advisory committees
  • Tiered rewards programs that give partners access to increasingly greater benefits
  • Exit programs for partner companies looking to sell
  • Awards programs for sales performance

“Partners are competitive,” says Zift Solutions’ Tenuto. “Leaderboards can help partners see where they are ranked in your ecosystem and help them understand where to focus.”

Best Practice 4: Tackle Target Market & Vertical Specialization for Your Partner

One way to ensure your partners are targeting the right market is to train them to sell into the verticals you’re pursuing. Accelerate this strategy by putting some skin in the game with market development funds (MDF) targeted toward your verticals. And don’t forget to invest in sales and marketing materials to help partners zero in on the target’s hot buttons.

Materials that can help partners with vertical targeting, include:

  • LMS courses with mandatory certification on vertical needs and solutions
  • Vertical solution flyers and datasheets
  • Resource-rich vertical solutions pages on your website
  • Vertical case studies
  • Demos and videos for in-vertical end-customers
  • Product marketing kits or turnkey campaigns target verticals, typically including:
    • Vertical-specific guidance on sales follow-up timelines
    • Email cadences
    • LinkedIn InMail message cadences
    • SMS text message cadences
    • Call scripts
    • Voicemail scripts
    • Blog content for the partner’s site
    • Social media post content

To ensure these resources are put to good use, consider requiring partners to qualify as a vertical specialist with training courses and testing. This approach not only safeguards your investment in materials and MDF, but also ensures that competent professionals are representing your brand.

You also may want to ease into vertical targeting after partners become more familiar with your solutions. Star2Star’s Lederer advocates starting with the basics and moving into targeted verticals and geographies once the partner has some wins behind them.

Lederer explains: “We have a regular marketing cadence to ensure the partner’s social profiles and websites are optimized, then we guide them to put marketing campaigns and programs together that will help them maximize their quarterly promos and go after their target markets. We may start with their existing clients and then help them move to the target vertical/market and geos they want to penetrate.”

Best Practice 5: Build a Partner Enablement Program for Salespeople, Not Marketers

Most channel partners – even the exceptionally financially successful ones – are sales-first organizations. Some have no marketing departments whatsoever and will rely on your team for marketing help.

With this in mind, it’s important to create enablement and marketing materials for sales teams, says MeiLee Langley, Senior Director of Channel & Field Marketing at cloud communications provider Nextiva.

MeiLee Langley“As a marketer myself, I didn’t develop our CoNEXtion platform with a marketer in mind. I developed it for a salesperson,” says Langely. “I ensured a salesperson could learn the platform in less than 30 minutes and then log in and launch a campaign in less than 10 minutes. And now that we have over 550 partners using CoNEXtion, we’re able to continuously add new content, campaigns and programs to keep our partners actively engaged with our teams, products and messaging.”

What about partners with marketing departments? Open lines of communication with them as you would with a distributor, so your solution’s benefits, SPIFFs and promos are shared with their sales teams.

Best Practice 6: Take Care of Your Partners’ Customers, No Matter What

Sales partners love SPIFFs and other incentives but repeat sales (or recurring revenues in the services world) drive their financial stability and success. Taking care of your partners’ customers not only saves them time and aggravation, but also ensures the revenue they fought hard to earn streams into their account every month. Get this right, and they’ll push more revenue your way. Get it wrong, and you’ll push them away.

“In the end, the most important thing a supplier can do to build and maintain partner mindshare is to provide excellent customer service,” says CX Effect’s Maute. “Channel partners will pay attention to the brand that keeps customers happy and coming back for more. Poor customer service can destroy years of hard work developing mindshare in your channel.”

Best Practice 7: Listen to Your Partners & Focus on Their Needs, Not Yours

Tessley Smith

Your partners have greater visibility into the competitive landscape for both solutions and partner programs. If you’re willing to listen, they can be an invaluable sounding board on the strengths and weaknesses of your partner program and how your solutions are performing on the ground. Check your ego at the door and solicit honest partner feedback to help you develop and keep your competitive edge.

Tess Smith, Senior Vice President of Sales for NetFortris, says partner feedback drives his company’s product roadmaps. “We gather feedback and align with our partners to drive product development,” he says. “They have a thorough understanding of what customers are asking for and it gives [us] a direct customer knowledge base that helps drive what we need to build and develop [at our] company.”

JS Group’s Ragusa-McBain agrees. “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen to your [partners] and understand their goals, pain points and opportunities to assess how to best help them achieve their goals.”

Charlie Pagliazzo, Vice President of Channels at communications solutions provider Granite Telecommunications, echoes this sentiment. “It’s about understanding your partner’s goals and how you can enable them,” he says. “There’s nothing on a partner where they have to do anything; it’s [a question of] ‘do they want to?’ If you’re demonstrating value and a commitment to them, they’ll want to work with you.”

Charlie PagliazzoBest Practice 8: Take Time Out to Give Your Partner One-on-One Attention

As the nation moves toward hybrid work models, opportunities are emerging to engage with your partners in person. While one-on-one web meetings are valuable time-savers and should replace some in-person meetings, they shouldn’t become your only way of interacting with your partners, says Granite Telecommunications’ Pagliazzo. “Video calls can’t totally replace in-person visits,” he says. “[It’s important to take] partner and client visits, get out and be present.”

Office reopening also fuel opportunities for hands-on sales and support opportunities with distributors and large sales partners at their offices. Dedicating experts like sales engineers to spend time with these partners for coaching and closing support can keep your solutions at the forefront of their sales activities. It’s a win-win for you and your partner:

  • You demonstrate your company’s commitment to the partnership and move to the front of the line for deals in your product zones.
  • Your partner gains a dedicated expert with deeper specialization in your products than they can develop in-house.

Best Practice 9: Create Multiple Touchpoints to Reach Your Partners

Migration to online platforms was pushed forward by years during the pandemic. To compete, your company must be present on all platforms your partners use to consume information.

“The click-to-open rates on e-mails have been at a record low of 15 percent, and phone calls (especially cold calls) have rapidly shifted through warm relationships on platforms like [LinkedIn],” says JS Group’s Ragusa-McBain. “There is a preference for UC vs. face-to-face, Slack or text vs. email. And [there’s] a desire to find new and innovative ways to market to your clients, connect to, prospect and build authentic and genuine relationships that drive sales.”

NetFortris’ Smith says that interacting through multiple communication pathways ensures partner engagement. “We engage through multiple channels [including] social [media], direct mail [and] traditional calling programs, but the key is to not create confusion and be easy to work with,” Smith says.

Using these best practices in creating your channel partner enablement strategy can keep your hard-earned partner relationships accretive and thriving.

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