When channel marketers logged off from the B2B Sales & Marketing Exchange (B2BSMX) online experience last month, they left with an armful of insights and information to better align their partner sales and marketing programs in 2021.
Partner marketing teams at many channel-focused companies are often under-staffed and insufficiently funded, even at large organizations. As a result, many of the more successful channel programs are implementing strategies to provide partner sales staff with the tools and content necessary to engage customers and prospects from the top of the funnel to post-purchase support.
For example, buyers expect partners to provide more visibility and easier access to relevant information, such as pricing and policies. They want solution providers to help them develop goals throughout the entire sales experience and expect partners to understand them throughout the lifecycle of their relationship.
Aligning channel sales and marketing activities to support the modern buyer’s journey is critical, said Maria Chien, VP, Executive Advisor of Channel Marketing Strategies at Forrester, as she kicked off the conference’s channel track. “The future B2B buyer will expect buying and customer experiences to be increasingly open, connected and intuitive,” she said. “Successful vendors will be those who understand how to balance all three to adapt and drive.”
Channel focused companies should make it a priority to develop a long-term marketing strategy that aligns with their go-to-market objectives. They must also establish a data-driven approach to channel-driven demand planning, and design a holistic partner enablement model that aligns channel partner activities with their customers.
Ongoing Engagement Critical To Optimizing Customer Experience
Larry Walsh, CEO and Founder of The 2112 Group, described the new buyer’s journey and customer experience as the endless river. The emergence of managed services made customer retention a priority. But with the transition to cloud computing — which broke the refresh/upgrade cycle and made resources more portable — “customer retention is now an imperative,” said Walsh.
Optimizing customer experience requires continuous engagement, stressed Walsh, especially by a vendor’s partner ecosystem. Historically, vendors did not map their partners to the buyer’s journey. To delight customers, a goal Walsh said was prioritized by one vendor, companies need to develop parallel paths that align partners with the customer journey. “They need to understand where they can inject partners into the customer journey better,” he said. For example, partners “need to drive the post-sales experience.”
Vendors need to incentivize customer engagement with partners, rewarding continuous engagement activities and not just sales. Making the soft skills of continuous engagement a priority is as important as rewarding traditional hard-selling skills.
The benefits can be significant, Walsh continued. When partners participate in continuous engagement activities, vendors gain insight into customer sentiment. Feedback can support performance and product improvements, barriers to entry to would-be competitors are raised and vendors can also secure prices and margins.
“More than 50% of customers will pay more for a better experience,” said Walsh.
Engaging Partners Anytime, Anywhere
B2BSMX attendees were offered some excellent examples of how they can ensure their partners’ sales and marketing teams can more effectively meet customer demands. For example, Check Point Software has created an app — Check Point Engage — to ensure that its partners can build and maintain their roles as a trusted advisor to their clients.
During his presentation, Frank Rauch, Check Point’s Head of Worldwide Channel Sales, reviewed how the app streamlines activities that provide specific partner sales rep personas with the information both they and their customers need. In particular, the app provides quick access to customer information that can help reps be better prepared for calls with customers. This includes publicly available information about a company and data collected by Check Point. Sales reps have real-time access to current or prior business with the customer.
“It’s critical that sales reps have the ability to master all the most relevant solutions tailored to their customers’ needs,” said Rauch.
Build Relationships By Personalizing Partner Portal
To drive deeper engagement with their channel programs and platforms, vendors are striving to create more personalized experiences for their partners. Emphasizing that “partners are the center of our world; we’re not the center of theirs,” Cindi Johnson, Global Director of Partner Programs at Tanium, provided a deep-dive into how her organization is winning the hearts and minds of partners by creating a sustainable and personalized partner portal.
It’s especially important for channel teams to understand their capabilities when deciding to create a more engaging partner portal, she said. Without a doubt, channel teams should have a clear version of what they ultimately want to achieve — “your ideal end state,” said Johnson. But first, it’s important to determine “must haves” for partners; to validate what’s needed and wanted, “what will keep users coming back.”
But channel teams must also have a clear understanding of their limitations, technical prowess and the capabilities of their existing tech stacks.
With personalization as a constant, Johnson reminded attendees to prioritize automation or simplification of key processes, enable collaboration with select partners and self-service capabilities for others. She stressed that vendors should ensure their portals are future proof, allowing them to easily add new functionality down the road.
Reaching Vertical Markets With Partner-Built Solutions
With 65% of all technology buying decisions being made by business unit leaders, it’s imperative that vendors enable their partners to understand and address the very specific needs of their different prospects. During his presentation, Rob Spee, Regional Vice President, Channel Sales at OutSystems, and host of the Channel Journeys podcast, shared his strategy to enable partners to build business solutions and align partner marketing and sales teams with prioritized markets.
“Partners are the vertical to our horizontal,” said Spee. To better enable its channel ecosystem and support customers in specific lines of business or markets, the company encouraged its partners to build their own business solutions. It helped to align its partners and marketing and sales teams with prioritized markets. And it created customer experiences that enabled buyers to identify partners that could address their specific requirements. A customer-facing marketplace helped buyers identify partners that met their specific partner needs.
Joint business planning with partner-determined shared goals, documents plans and plan enablement programs. To help partners better engage customers, OutSystems created a variety of co-marketing campaigns to support segments, including manufacturing, financial services, insurance and healthcare.
The results of the program, launched earlier this summer, are encouraging, said Spee. To date, partners have developed 56 business solutions that are targeting specific industry, sub-industries and vertical, said Spee. “We see more coming online constantly.”
As Rauch, Johnson and Spee confirmed in their presentations, channel leaders are indeed adopting strategies recommended by Forrester’s Chien. They are expanding their organizations’ channel demand strategies and programs to support highly personalized, intuitive experiences throughout the buyer’s journey and customer lifecycle.