Secrets of the Partner Series – Channel Partners – Part 2: Conflicts
[ I co-wrote this article with a colleague from my Cisco days, Wayne Greene. This appeared originally on his blog. ]
Wayne: Bill, on our first blog on Channel Partners we covered a lot of ground on this issue, especially on setting up the motivational structure for those channel partners versus our direct sales force. When we were setting up enablement we had many discussions on curriculum for enablements: what was the 101 course, the 201 and the 301 coursework for those channel partners. But there are also levels of the product and marketing organization in working with the channel partners. Can you talk about some of the more advanced topics we had to work through?
Bill’s answer: We figured out who the channels partners are, and we saw the conflicts that were inherent in this structure. For a variety of reasons, we faced the question of whether the disclosure we provided to channel partners was the same as what we would provide to a direct sales organization. Several things determined this: horizon of release, sensitivity of product area, and complexion of partnership.
Horizon of Release
Hardware companies supply to their partners either no roadmap at all (think: Apple), or perhaps one with a
horizon of only 6 months. Typically anything beyond 6 months is “hazy.” However, software resellers expect both a roadmap and one that is at least a product revision or two revisions in the future. They recognize that there are different levels of engineering commitment to anything beyond the next revision out.
Sensitivity of Product Area
With new entries to the market or highly competitive and differentiating new releases, Product Managers are often quite reluctant to share this with Partners, suspecting that this would give an unwelcome preview to competitors through the Partners. I have been involved in many of these kinds of product releases over the years. To a certain extent the Product Manager “owns” the product and is driven by a number of corporate directives. Nevertheless, a Partner enablement manager can and should invite the PM to participate in relevant content creation and Partner training events where non-specific though relevant information can be shared with resellers ahead of the launch.
Complexion of Partnership
You’ve seen it before: yesterday’s partner is today’s competitor. Sometimes this change is based on things you can foresee in the industry or product portfolio direction. Other times you don’t see it ahead of time: an unexpected M&A results in a strategic direction change that puts your partner in direct conflict with your product strategy or market strategy. Now, the Channel Partner who was once your greatest ally is taking your competitor in with them on sales calls. The Direct Sales organization will self-select those Partners they work with, but it’s difficult to ascertain which Partners today will be tomorrow’s competitors. But it’s important to keep this in mind: for a large vendor, a partner who has become an enemy may only be so in only part of the vendor organization. Other parts of the organization could still enjoy collaborative business benefits from the partnership.
Bill: Wayne, what about situations where the landscape of complex partnerships is so complex it takes a variety of sticky information to unpack and grok the meaning of news events? At some point the PM needs to escalate to the VP and beyond when dealing with news that is very disconcerting to the product and channel strategy.
Wayne’s answer: Sometimes the lines between organizations change hard (across all parts of the organization), other times the shift is more subtle where only certain parts of the organization have an issue. There are many examples in both our work careers where we woke up one morning and read the business news on some new relationship between our company and one of our partners or that a partner just announced a new acquisition. It can even be a piece of news at our own company. Those in charge of the partner relationship and business development might have such a positive spin on it, we might call it “fake news” nowadays, but we back in the business unit are left explaining to our engineers how that recent news didn’t just sink our ship. The spin doctoring could be extraordinary. We often found (and I would say one of the most important aspects of being a product manager or in marketing) was to have a steady hand at the rudder, and most everything seems clearer and calmer a few days later.
There are however more perilous changes in relationships that can occur. It is the job of the product management and marketing folks to calm the troops (both existing channel partners, other parts of the corporate infrastructure, our key sales force (direct sales account managers and system engineering), and the rest of HQ. But at some point in the late afternoon one-on-one with the VP in charge, the difficult questions get asked: “What do we really do with this problem?”. Partner X bought a company that seems to compete with our vision, our product, our “holy ground”. Does this need a direct frontal assault, or do we size up the true competition in our channel? Will the announcement turn our best channel partners away from us? Will it freeze out the market, or
are we confident it will fail on its own? So many things to discuss behind closed doors. Can one anticipate these changes in the partner seas? Is it worth playing one’s cards close to the chest? There are no great out of the box answers, but that is where the marketing and PM folks mettle is tested.
All this strategic thinking is costly and can take a lot of energy. Switching topics slightly,
Bill, can you discuss the opposite end of the spectrum? When you are creating a highly functional channel environment, what does the day to day look like, how much feet on the street with channel partners is needed? Does the big HQ program support cut it? Can the BU and product line owners rely heavily on that?
Bill’s Answer: Wayne, it has to be both: a high-bandwidth/low-touch approach as well as one-on-one/high touch relationships.
Creation and curation of enablement content that is both current and relevant to partners should be table stakes. A blended approach of Just In Time (JIT) recorded online training creates a library of content in the partner training portal that they can draw from at a moment’s notice: sales playbooks, whiteboard videos, architecture presentations, objection handling examples, etc. A good, short, 5-8 minute video that the partner sales rep can watch on his smartphone before he visits his customer gives him a unique selling advantage. This should be combined with the standard product overviews, strategic positioning, corporate messaging, differentiation description, and all the other required training collateral. The overarching messaging can come from Corporate Marketing, or in some cases the BU. Some of it will have to be customized to make it Channel relevant. The sales motions may be the same, however, the logistics of order processing will likely be different. Remember: partners are motivated differently than direct sales—usually on margin. So growing the deal can be vital to their success.
Sometimes you have to meet face-to-face or on the phone with your partners. There are logistical, economic, and scheduling issues that need to be considered to be sure, but every time you meet with your partner for training or strategic planning, you are effectively re-recruiting them to your cause. They have lots of other vendors they can sell for, and many do. You have to show them how working with you is the most profitable, least frictional, and most enjoyable alternative they have available.
Wayne’s parting shot: There are no silver bullets in getting a channel partner program to link strategy to execution. It takes lots of thoughtful reflection and a ton of work to drive the results you need through the channel, even in the midst of rough seas and doubting and perhaps sabotaging individual and partner actions. A steady hand and a focus on calmness in the face of danger is critical.
Next: See Part 3 here
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