Learning how to recruit channel partners is the holy grail of many tech firms across the globe. And why not? Successful channel partner recruitment means developing a revenue engine that’s paid exclusively on performance, is trusted by businesses of all sizes and industry verticals and adapts nimbly to changing economic conditions. During hard times, channel partners are the trusted advisers companies rely on to find cost savings and for IT outsourcing. When times are good, they’re turned to for guidance and assistance in developing tech stacks for competitive advantage. And in mixed-bag conditions, they do a little of both— helping companies find room in their budgets for the next-generation services they need to compete.

For these and many other reasons, learning how to recruit channel partners can deliver significant rewards. Developing a pool of them can become a powerful engine for growth. But therein lies the rub. First, you have to find the right partners. And you have to recruit them amid serious competition from other companies that also want those partners. And when you get through all that, you have to keep them engaged and working for you in a marketplace awash in hyper evolution.

Navigating the Channel Partner Recruitment Process

There’s not one way – or even a prevailing method– of recruiting channel partners. Companies that thrive in the channel get there through many paths – none of which are magic bullets for channel success. In fact, to a layperson, success may appear to be random; firms that struggle in the channel often appear to be modeling similar approaches to competitors that achieve success.

That’s because channel success is complicated and requires a more profound commitment than pushing product and payouts. Those factors matter to be sure, but capturing and retaining channel sales partners is a complex process that touches every aspect of a provider’s business. Success and failure can occur at multiple touchpoints between your firm and your (potential and current) partners that encompass facets of your entire operation.

How to Recruit Channel Partners: Advice from Channel Leaders

To identify best practices for navigating the complex channel partner recruitment process, we talked with eight proven channel business leaders with varied professional backgrounds about their experiences. Together, they’ve:

  • Built and sold agencies (and technology services broker agencies)
  • Led large global channel operations
  • Enabled channel management through specialized software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms
  • Successfully developed programs at “channel first” companies
  • Successfully added channel programs at large firms with diversified go-to-market strategies

Ten tips for greater success recruiting partners emerged from these interviews.

  1. Make It About the Channel Partner, Not Your Company and Its Products
  2. Develop “Ideal Channel Partner” Profiles in Advance
  3. Don’t Overlook the Soft Parts of Partner Profiling
  4. Find New Partners by “Fishing Where the Fish Are”
  5. Work with Distributors and Technology Services Brokers to Reach Top-Performing Sales Partners
  6. You Snooze, You Lose – Follow Up with Leads Quickly
  7. Demonstrate How You Add Value to Your Sales Partners
  8. Prioritize Responsiveness to Build Trust and Keep Partners Engaged in Selling Your Services
  9. Assess, Assess, Assess
  10. Know When to Say “No” to New or Further Investment in a Sales Partner

How to Recruit Channel Partners #1: Make It About the Channel Partner, Not Your Company and Its Products

Solutions selling isn’t new to technology providers. It’s central to their internal direct marketing practices, and it’s how they coach their partners in their go-to-market strategies. But that same approach is all-too-often overlooked in channel partner recruitment – particularly by big brands that think partners should feel privileged to represent them. Providers that have built demonstrably better marketplace solutions also can fall into the trap of pushing product over partnerships.

To be fair, both viewpoints have some merit. Partners sometimes encounter brand-sensitive clients, and cutting-edge solutions can open doors or tilt deals in the right circumstances. When institutionalized, however, those limited perspectives miss the mark with partners in the same way that “product pushers” lose out to “problem solvers” when selling to end customers.

Steve FarmiloeThe provider-centric approach also is why the mix of brands that thrive in the channel differs from the pool of market leaders that sell direct. There are some “channel friendly” market leaders, but there also are many smaller companies that have established brand and revenue leadership within the channel through a relentless focus on the issues their channel partners face. Their channel commitment runs deeper than building strong pre- and post-sales support (though both are vital); they strive to understand the business challenges of their partners.

“Since I have built and grown a sales agency, I know the issues that a sales agency owner thinks about,” says Steve Farmiloe, Senior Channel Sales Manager for AppSmart, a marketplace and technology services broker agency for technology services. “I know not only what keeps him/her up at night, but I’ve got proven solutions to help increase the agency value. Contrary to popular selling methods, it isn’t about what I can sell to the sales agency. The real value is about getting on their side of the desk and helping them solve the issues that their sales agency faces each and every day. Understanding them, walking in their shoes, and having solid business acumen is primary.”

Dave BeagleDavid Beagle, head of channels for Ooma, agrees. His organization, a provider of cloud-based voice and collaboration solutions, approaches partners with a four-pronged “FIST” strategy for partner management:

  • Financial benefit to the partner. What is the value of your products and services to the partner? How do they make money with them?
  • Integrity of our organization. How do we position ourselves as trustworthy? It’s more than reviews or being a public company.
  • Sincerity of our personnel. Having people who truly care and like working with their partners will always translate to a healthier engagement and should never be under-appreciated as a recruitment aspect.
  • Transparency in our communication. We must over communicate and never assume on our partner’s behalf.

“Add all this up and be candid about everything, and the partners you sign will be long term, more likely,” Beagle says.

How to Recruit Channel Partners #2: Develop “Ideal Channel Partner” Profiles in Advance

All partners are not created equally. Some are high performers, some can be nurtured into becoming high performers, and some have limited potential. Knowing the difference and how to screen for the right partners can save you a lot of headaches and wasted investment.

Ooma’s Beagle says the easy answer to the question of what makes an ideal partner is one whose organization is aligned with his sales, marketing, provisioning and support. “The respective departments, when [aligned] truly deliver an ‘extension’ of each other and a true ‘partnership,’” he says, adding that “the more nuanced [answer to the question] is a belief system where both parties truly do believe in each other’s capabilities to grow, serve and support.”

Heather TenutoHeather Tenuto, Chief Revenue Officer for enterprise channel management platform provider Zift Solutions, adds that the ideal partner is one that knows their ideal customer. They need to “have a mature understanding of their own offer and ideal customer profile,” she says. Without that, it’s going to be a struggle to find out how your solution fits.

The effort to profile and screen for an ideal partner pays off—especially since it could take six to 12 months (depending on the length of your sales cycle) before you have a good bead on a new partner’s performance. “Don’t be afraid to do the labor-intensive work,” says Stuart Skjerven, channel programs and marketing manager for Mitel, a business communications provider. “If you’ve identified a best-fit partner, they’re worth it.”

How to Recruit Channel Partners #3: Don’t Overlook the Soft Parts of Partner Profiling

Profiling potential partners is both an art and a science. After all, nearly every booming sales partner started small – perhaps as little as a one-person shop. Figuring out which boutique or mediocre-performing partners have the potential to become top performers is every bit as valuable as “hard” partner evaluation based solely on metrics.

As EagleTEQ Founding Partner Curt Allen puts it, “Everyone wants all their Cs to become As, but sometimes Cs are just Cs.” Allen would know; his experience recruiting and grooming partners includes leading a successful technology services broker agency, which sold in 2016, serving as channel chief for providers such as Windstream and Vonage, and consulting to providers and distributors on their channel strategies in his current role.

Our panel identified common traits to look for that can help to uncover suitable partners. These characteristics ranging from culture and values to sales approaches and operations, including:

  • Having a strong work ethic
  • Focusing not only on recruiting new clients but properly servicing existing clients
  • Engaging in social selling
  • Leveraging digital marketing strategies
  • Possessing a collaborative mindset
  • Embracing transparency that enables successful collaboration

Cloud entrepreneur Dina Moskowitz, founder and CEO of SaaSMAX and creator of the PartnerOptimizer partner discovery tool, says developing ideal partner profiles doesn’t just help you know which partners to target, they also keep you from chasing red herrings.

Dina Moskowitz“Obviously, a partner who comes to you with a deal ready to go seems like a good channel partner, but it doesn’t come with a promise that they will have a second, third or fourth deal to bring you in the future. Most do not,” Moskowitz says. “By proactively profiling what [an ideal] channel partner looks like… you can have a much better understanding of what to expect and which partners you would want to invest in.”

How to Recruit Channel Partners #4: Find New Partners by “Fishing Where the Fish Are”

“The channel” is an industry unto itself — and a complicated one at that. Your potential partners attend conferences, read industry publications like CRN and Channel Partners, listen to podcasts, attend webinars, participate in LinkedIn groups—you name it. They do all the things other businesses do to grow their companies and refine their operations.

Just as channel partners with vertical industry expertise meet their customers where they gather, you need to build your brand, develop your leads and build your community where your partners meet.

Michelle McBain, Vice President of Global Channel Strategy at channel consulting firm JS Group, endorses this community approach. “Fish where the fish are,” she says. “Who are your customers? What events (virtual for now) are they attending? What magazines do they read? What webinars/podcasts/groups are they participating in? Who do they follow (who influences them)?”

Michelle Ragusa McBainThe answers to these questions may not be straightforward, particularly since technology convergence means your next best partner may look nothing like the ones you’ve worked with in the past. SaaS or emerging tech partners, for example, may not frequent the usual IT partner haunts and, in fact, may not even know about them. You need to find out where they’re spending their time.

How to Recruit Channel Partners #5: Work with Distributors and Technology Services Brokers (TSBs) to Reach Top-Performing Sales Partners

TSBs and other distributors can bring a lot of value to the table, including access to top-performing sales partners. They help to manage commissions, partner service inquiries and training on your company’s solutions. The larger agencies even have their own partner conferences that deliver opportunities to interact with highly engaged partners.

Jim Tennant, Regional Vice President of Channel – West for TalkDesk, a provider of cloud contact center services, places a high value on TSB partnerships in his firm’s channel strategy. He recommends “having a ‘sell-with’ channel strategy with TSBs that give you access to their top-performing cloud selling agents, [and] allowing those same agents to become educated, certified and earn aggressive residual commissions on opportunities sold.”

Jim TennantWhile TSB agencies can be tremendous allies in connecting your company with top partners, they also can be gatekeepers, ensuring that only vendors offering the best channel agreements, service performance and customer experience get access to their best sales agents. Make sure that you’ve checked all the boxes.

How to Recruit Channel Partners #6: You Snooze, You Lose – Follow Up with Leads Quickly

A reliable channel partner can be a gift that keeps on giving. Of course, you know that already, which is why you’re here. All of your competitors know it, too, and they all collect the same emails at networking events. The prospective partners you talk with may enjoy being the belles of the ball, but their many suitors quickly become a blur. And when they get back from the event and start to receive follow-up emails, they’re overwhelmed after the first few and begin deleting the rest or dragging them to their junk folders.

In other words, you want to be in their first wave of follow-ups. “You need to show up – whether in person or virtual events – but that’s not enough,” warns Mitel’s Skjerven. “Good suppliers make an impression at events and after they leave… . You can’t wait. Follow up in a week, or they’ll forget you.”

In our hyper digital world, channel sales managers who are really first out of the gate, request to connect with partners on LinkedIn immediately after meeting them and while the event is still in progress. A personalized note in the moment can help get that important second meeting on the books.

How to Recruit Channel Partners #7: Demonstrate How You Add Value to Your Sales Partners

Having solid pre-sales support to help your partners close deals is imperative to building a strong reputation in the channel. So is reliable and pain-free provisioning and onboarding of your channel partners’ customers. Post-sale support? Yeah, you’ve got to deliver. And your billing needs to be right, and your commissions need to be accurate and on time.

Getting all of those customer- and partner-side processes down pat is essential to building a strong channel reputation (and avoiding a poor one). But that’s only the cost of entry. Offering something new and valuable to your partners will not only get you noticed, but also can keep your partners engaged after they sign on.

Focusing on the unusual value you can offer partners can pique partners’ interest and help you hedge against the “me too” trap of trying to convince them to displace their current providers by engaging in SPIFF and commissions wars for “bread and butter” product sales. Besides, being the highest bidder isn’t a winning long-term channel strategy; it only works until a better offer comes along and attracts partners who are more concerned about their bank accounts than their customer accounts.

Curt AllenEagleTEQ’s Allen asks himself these questions: “What is our value proposition? What solution for an approach [to customers] or products are we giving them they didn’t have previously? How are we bringing them new customers they didn’t have previously? I’m not here to take business from existing providers, I’m here to deliver something new.”

How to Recruit Channel Partners #8: Prioritize Responsiveness to Build Trust and Keep Partners Engaged in Selling Your Services

Price always matters. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t. In addition to price, the value propositions of most of today’s technology sales are centered firmly on solving business challenges like overtaxed resources, operational headaches and problems that can cause customer dissatisfaction and revenue loss. Channel partners engage in this arena daily, mixing and matching the services they sell to help their customers tackle an array of issues.

Stuart SkjervenBut as soon as they leave a client site or close a ticket, channel partners face many of those same issues themselves. They’ve got all the overhead and responsibilities of any other business – HR, payroll, accounting, sales and marketing, etc. – but are at the mercy of the providers they work with to keep their customers up and running (and satisfied).

This is where responsiveness can set you apart from your competitors. The faster your sales support operations can quote services, or your channel account managers can resolve issues for your partners and their clients, the more trust you build in the relationship. That’s because you make your partners look good to their customers and reduce their workload while you do it.

“Go the extra mile in providing what your customers and prospects and partners are asking for, and make sure that you are responsive to them,” advises Mitel’s Skjerven. “Everybody has choices these days. I will deal with someone faster if they are responsive to me – it comes back to the customer experience and meeting my needs.”

How to Recruit Channel Partners #9: Assess, Assess, Assess

Assessment is vital to building and maintaining a strong channel partner recruitment and engagement. Zift Solutions’ Tenuto advocates developing and testing partner incentives and participation directly before launching campaigns. (See graphic, “Refining the Partner Engagement Model” below.)

How to Recruit Channel Partners: Partner Engagement Model

In terms of measuring partner performance, detailed quarterly business reviews can help you test your partner profiles to make sure they’re performing as expected. You’ll see which products are performing best for your base on one hand, and on the other, you see which partners are performing the best with your products.

Periodic reviews also can help you identify partners that are not engaging or that may have been poached by your competitors as well as any changes in the competitive environment that require attention.

How to Recruit Channel Partners #10: Know When to Say “No” to New or Further Investment in a Sales Partner

Depending on the length of your sales cycle, you’re taking a six- to 12 -month bet that the financial, human and opportunity cost of recruiting a partner will pay off. That means you want to do all you can to tip the odds in your favor.

Use best-fit partners to model an ideal partner profile—and stick to it. Don’t be afraid to tell a prospective partner “no.”

Similarly, if a partner is not engaged, not performing and slow to respond to your outreach or uninterested in opportunities you provide to up their game, focus your resources elsewhere. Spend your time and energy on partners that share your goals and values and who want success as much as you do.

Stop banging your head against the wall. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of misalignment between your objectives and your partner’s objectives. “The most talented channel leaders in the world know when to say no, or manage differently,” says EagleTEQ’s Allen. “Don’t waste time or set yourself up for disappointment by trying to force your partners to fit into your definition of success.”

While there’s no copy-and-paste method for finding the right partners, keeping these tips in mind while developing your channel partner recruitment strategy can set you on the right path. Capturing (and retaining) the best partners for your organization will set the foundation for your channel’s success.

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