Launching or expanding domestic or global partner programs is no small undertaking. The checklist of to-dos is long, but one to-do that must not be overlooked is setting up effective channel operations to meet the needs of the range of partners within your partner ecosystem. What are channel operations and their vital role in partner program management?

To answer these questions and more, we spoke with five industry experts. Our panelists include:

What Are Channel Operations?

Channel operations, often referred to as “channel ops,” is a function or department within a partner program that streamlines and optimizes the collaborative sales efforts between a company and its external partners.

“[Channel operations] empowers channel sales teams to successfully attain their immediate goals, including areas such as generating revenue, maximizing profits and expanding market presence,” says Fusion Connect’s Redmond.

The scope of channel operations encompasses strategic and operational duties, providing guidance and executing programs.

Generally, channel operations teams oversee the creation, implementation and management of the processes, systems and platforms that support the partner program. The channel operations team drives sales operations, enabling and supporting activities, such as:

  • channel sales planning and forecasting
  • program budgeting
  • deal registration and review
  • quoting and sales escalations
  • compensation, discounts and incentive planning and admin
  • processes, systems and platforms
  • revenue metrics and reporting

Channel operations also must coordinate with various company functions, such as marketing, sales, finance, legal, IT and other departments depending on the organization.

Typical roles in a channel operations team include:

  • Director of channel programs and operations – This role typically oversees the channel program team, partner commissions, operations and support.
  • Director of channel development – This role develops and maintains strategies, tools and processes to win and expand relationships in target markets for the channel organization. They provide direction and guidance for channel partners and internal channel sales on campaigning in select channels, geographies and markets.
  • Channel operations manager – This role maintains and manages partner transactional data, including deal registration, lead registration and MDF utilization.

Specific job responsibilities for the channel operations roles listed will vary among suppliers.

Channel operations at many companies are closely tied to channel partner management and may encompass management responsibilities. For instance, channel operations at Aryaka Networks fold in partner management functions such as commissions, contract management, deal registration and program management, says Aryaka’s Cothran, adding that Aryaka designed channel operations to complement the company’s existing sales operations team while keeping the partner top of mind.

“Channel operations may have cross-over responsibilities with the overall company operations department,” says BuzzTheory’s Henderson. “But they need to be staffed with experts who understand the channel and how to interact well with the different partner types in your ecosystem. They need to understand how partners do business, how to meet partners’ needs and how to compensate and incentivize partners, all while keeping their organization’s bottom line growing in the right direction.”

Gigamon’s Jacobson agrees that channel operations and management have a symbiotic relationship. “Channel operations create the programmatic and systematic framework to enable the channel management teams to go out and execute against the channel strategy,” he says.

Want to know more about channel operations? Check out What’s Your Channel Operating System? here.

Four Best Practices for Channel Operations

How should your partner program run its channel operations? Keep the following four best practices in mind:

1. Establish a C-Suite Role with Responsibility for Channel Operations

Our panel recommends assigning ownership of channel operations to a C-suite leader – specifically the Chief Revenue Officer, who is responsible for sales, marketing, operations (e.g., accounting and revenue metrics) and customer experience.

CROs typically run revenue operations (RevOps), which Forrester defines as a business strategy designed to maximize customer lifetime value and company performance by unifying and optimizing data, processes, technology and talent across the customer lifecycle. RevOps delivers many benefits to organizations by creating an end-to-end view of the customer lifecycle across the organization, including all functions – marketing, service and sales, including sales channels and ecosystem partners.

Accordingly, channel operations would fall under the oversight of the CRO both for C-suite buy-in and communications and workflows with other departments supporting direct and indirect channels.

“We are seeing this in many companies as a key role that breaks down the silos between sales and marketing that ultimately drives more revenue and increased customer satisfaction,” says Community Architect’s Martin. In her experience, it’s critical for one leader to have ultimate responsibility for the operations, sales and marketing levers that drive revenue.

While this is an emerging best practice, not all companies may be at the stage to have a CRO or a full-fledged RevOps strategy. In that case, companies should establish a channel operations department to manage channel sales and sales enablement functions, reporting up to another executive leadership team member, such as the COO or head of operations, or the channel chief, as is common.

2. Break Down Silos Between Channel Operations & Other Departments

Our panel continued to beat the RevOps drum by recommending partner programs break down silos between channel operations and other departments.

Partner programs often fall into the trap of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. An example of this dysfunction is when channel managers make promises to get deals across the finish line that channel operations can’t deliver on due to information silos between channel operations and channel sales. Examples include:

  • Unrealistic Service Delivery Pace – Channel sales promise service delivery turnaround times that aren’t greenlit by channel operations.
  • MDF Fulfillment Issues – Channel sales promises Market Development Funds (MDF) to partners who have not met the proper qualifications set by channel operations.
  • Product Inventory Backlogs – Channel sales push through a contract that can’t be filled on time due to hardware on backorder or other supply chain issues.

While the abovementioned scenarios may seem unlikely, they may occur if channel ops aren’t integrated appropriately with channel sales.

Community Architect’s Martin notes that lack of visibility is problematic for channel operations, especially given their role at supplier organizations. “Operations is often only the reporting or budget decision-making part of the equation and never is on the sales call or builds the marketing programs,” says Martin. “They see only the request or the results, but not everything in between.”

To combat such issues, it’s vital to give channel operations personnel a holistic view of customer service, sales and marketing functions. As these departments become less siloed and more collaborative, they can deliver a better partner and customer experience.

“The [partner] does not care if their contact is marketing, ops, [customer service] or sales,” says Martin. “They just want to call in and know someone can answer their questions.”

But the consequences of siloes can be more dire than annoying a partner by transferring their calls. Lack of alignment between operations, marketing and sales can result in revenue loss. For instance, if marketing misses their objectives by not driving enough touch points or impressions, then sales may miss their KPIs. Or perhaps marketing and sales hit their goals, but operations can’t deliver on promised partner incentives or service delivery timelines.

Our experts note that cross-department collaboration pays off. At Aryaka, for example, channel operations work closely with the channel sales team to build cohesive programs to recruit partners. “Partnering with sales builds the best programs,” says Aryaka’s Cothran. “[We’re] providing the [indirect sales] team with industry-leading programs with focused partners [to drive revenue].”

She explains that the channel operations team at Aryaka is responsible for channel programs, including DRIVE, THROTTLE and IGNYTE, which are tailored to technology services distributors (TSDs), elite sellers and MSPs, respectively. Targeted programs make it easier to recruit right-fit partners.

“Breaking down silos begins with simple communication and regular cadence meetings across departments, but for best results requires defined workflows and processes,” said BuzzTheory’s Henderson. “Ultimately, channel organizations will need to invest in tools like a PRM to automate communications at scale and deliver a single repository for data needed for reporting.”

3. Separate Channel Operations Strategy & Execution Roles

When structuring a channel operations department, our panel recommends separating strategy and execution roles.

“This requires at least two individuals,” explains Gigamon’s Jacobson. “One to help drive the strategy and programs with the channel sales leader and another to support the channel managers and partners in the daily execution of their roles.”

When both are managed together, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. In other words, there’s no one squarely focused on the goals and objectives due to distractions of the day-to-day operations.

At the same time, channel organizations must have a leader who is focused on operational excellence. ZiftONE Alliance Partner Spur Reply explains: “Strategy defines the right things to do. Doing things well – execution – is what sets companies apart.”

Spur Reply identifies four stages of channel operations maturity as follows:

  • Unstructured – The approach is haphazard and depends on the strengths of individuals in the channel ops team. There are few standard processes, if any, that are poorly documented and fall apart as individuals leave the department.
  • Basic – Regular meetings and communications occur, but they aren’t always effective. Channel ops staff will generally follow defined processes but don’t consistently adhere to them. Knowledge of processes and procedures may be compartmentalized among individuals in the department.
  • Functional – Standard processes are identified and followed without deviation from channel ops team members. Structured corporate planning exists but is often siloed from individuals or teams, so investment and commitment to overarching channel ops goals are lacking.
  • Robust – Processes are followed and documented properly by all members of the channel ops team. A culture of learning and improvement is present, with feedback from partners and internal stakeholders regularly gathered and implemented across all standard processes. Strong alignment exists between goals, investments and commitments across all team members in the department

4. Use Technology Platforms to Automate Channel Operations Processes

Manual processes present an obstacle to scaling channel operations to the extent required for most programs to achieve a meaningful return on investment (ROI). Our panel finds that investing in technology such as partner relationship management (PRM) systems, customer relationship management (CRM) systems, project management software (PMS) systems, marketing automation systems, email marketing systems, human resources (HR) tools, online accounting software, communication and collaboration platforms, secure networking and cybersecurity technologies is the only effective way to provide that scalability.

“Channel operations can be burdensome when there is a lack of investment in technology and platforms to support daily functions to execute the channel strategy,” says Gigamon’s Jacobson. “Leaders in channel operations and management need to successfully position the need for these technology platforms to create more efficiencies.”

Fusion Connect’s Redmond points out other challenges channel operations may face that can be improved through the automation provided by a PRM, including:

  • Inadequately documented or incomplete processes – A PRM documents onboarding processes through checklists and reminders within the system that operations personnel need to follow.
  • Delays or inaccuracies in responses – A PRM can send automated reminders to both partners and supplier personnel to complete action items to circumvent delays.
  • Extended installation timeframes – A PRM can reduce time spent on steps surrounding an extended installation, minimizing the total deployment time for the end customer.

The PRM also provides the reporting and data to justify operational expenditures and incentive-based promotions.

“Keeping everything logged in the PRM is ultimately going to be your program’s saving grace, giving channel ops the data it needs for readouts with the C-suite or board of directors,” says BuzzTheory’s Henderson.

The Bottom Line

Channel operations fulfills a vital role in ensuring partner and vendor sales commissioning, deal registration, order processing and channel revenue forecasting are all accurate and run correctly for suppliers and their partner programs. Channel leaders should consider adopting these channel operations’ best practices outlined above to get the most out of the investment in their partner programs and ecosystems.