Expanding Channel Ecosystems Need To Tighten Focus On Customers

A 3D virtual summit hosted just before this past holiday season by Impartner, a channel management platform provider, offered a compelling look at more than the future of how people might meet. Presentations by Forrester’s Principal Analyst, Channels Partnerships and Ecosystems Jay McBain, and Maria Chien, VP, Practice Leader, Channel Marketing Strategies, examined the trends that have been compelling companies to transform the ways they go to market, and offered insights into the adjustments – some seismic – that organizations will need to make in the not too-distant future.

In avatar form, McBain and Chien pulled up chairs with CMR in the summit’s virtual lobby to talk more about how channel leaders are transforming their businesses.

During his presentation, McBain highlighted a number of companies that have made comprehensive changes to their go-to-market strategies and channel programs. He told CMR that they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Jay McBain, Principal Analyst, Channels Partnerships and Ecosystems, Forrester

Jay McBain — Let’s look at the 10,000 companies who run channel programs and some maturity scale of where they’re at. IBM became a subscription business, then Dell, then Cisco, then HP. All of the hundreds and thousands of people that work inside those channels at those companies quickly called Maria and me and said, “What I’ve been doing for decades seems to not fit in something that’s 10 times larger. It doesn’t seem to fit in the narrow boxes that I built for my channel today. The technology and the processes and the programs and the people that I deployed, don’t seem to meet what Michael Dell just announced that they’re doing.”

McBain referenced Accenture research that reported that 76% of CEOs think their current business model will be unrecognizable in five years and ecosystems are the number one reason why. Does he think that many companies are proactively making necessary changes?

Jay McBain — Most have, at least at the board level, started to map out what that means. It could be a forklift maker adding an Internet of Things device and starting to send out data — to look more like Tesla than a forklift company. Every company in every industry is becoming a tech company. They’re developing software, they’re developing emerging technologies, they’re doing things that look more like a technology company than everything else. That’s the transformation.

They’re also completely changing how they serve buyers. So they’re converting their systems in the e-commerce marketplaces and subscription and consumption models. You won’t be able to buy anything as a consumer or a B2B buyer in full. It’ll always be in a 30 day or one-year recurring model.

As the world turns to subscription and consumption models, businesses are forced to transform the channel and the broader ecosystem in terms of how to make that work.

There are people that agree with us that all these changes are taking place, that this is going to be an inflection point for our industry requiring them to go back and look at their teams and their processes, people and technology programs and say admit they probably are one on the scale of maturity of actually getting there.

During his presentation and our chat in the virtual lobby, McBain spoke extensively about the emergence of channel ecosystems, the impact they are having on common partners programs, and the increased attention they are getting from the c-suite.

Chien agreed that a shift from focusing on transactional selling to deeper engagements with prospects and customers is changing the face of more than just a company’s channel program. Indeed the transformation that companies need to make must be supported at the executive level.

Maria Chien, VP, Practice Leader, Channel Marketing Strategies, Forrester

Maria Chien — I think it’s a move from a transactional selling motion. When you think about the evolution of ecosystems being beyond just the traditional or historic resell and you look at things like influence and customers and all these other elements coming into an ecosystem that becomes a strategic initiative, that need to be addressed in the C-suite.

Companies need to pull in all these different parts from product development to your route to market choices and selling motions… to drive digital marketing transformation reflecting a customer obsession and focus on customer experience initiatives.

The evolution of it is happening, which takes away the historic redheaded stepchild status of channel programs because they’re no longer at arm’s length. Now channel has a seat at the table. It’s part of this strategic imperative or business imperative of the organization.

Channel marketers should be prepared to make sure that their programs remain a priority, said Chien, but also to consider stepping up to a broader mandate.

Maria Chien — Channel marketers are becoming the new strategic business leader looking at how to enable, engage, drive demand, measure that, have customer marketing and retention/renewal strategies. They need to engage with product and portfolio marketing teams to make sure that their offerings are meeting partner customer needs. They need to ensure that partner customers are becoming advocates because it’s all in this ecosystem play.

So we’re no longer being reactive. We’re actually that much closer to the strategy examining how to make sure that ecosystems are healthy, are thriving.

Channel professionals need to ensure that those elements that you look at are enabling partners, engaging partners, driving demand are in place. That they are creating an exceptional partner experience, having a strategy that is articulated through your annual planning process and then measuring that and align it to investments both in resources and technology.

We’re seeing these organizations that are more nimble, that are highly strategic, that are influencing the influencer, as we say…companies that see what’s happening, that understand what’s happening with the buyer. And when they align around the buyer, their ecosystems will thrive because we’re all aiming towards that common goal and the common good. And so you need to make sure that you just don’t tell them, the who, the what, the how. That you go in and tell them the why. Maybe you can rally around the why, then you’re going to have a different type of ecosystem that you can work with.

The Avatars In The Room

Impartner’s foray into 3D Virtual Meeting space offered attendees a unique opportunity to connect with each other in a different way. CMR asked Chien and McBain to share their opinions of the format.

Maria Chien — I thought it was fantastic. I honestly didn’t know how it would work and it exceeded my expectations. It was fun. It was a great way to end what has been an interesting virtual event year. A lot of virtual formats were good. This one definitely stands out for the uniqueness.

Jay McBain — I think we’re in the first inning here of a long baseball game of meeting virtually. I was really pleased with this environment. I can imagine that my future of work has been radically altered. I would rather do as an avatar more than half of the travel that I will do in the future. And then when I travel, I will spend 80% of my time on the human side. I won’t go into the rooms, I’ll actually sit in the hallways and the hotel lobby and I’ll work on personal relationships.

Kerry Desberg, Chief Marketing Officer, Impartner, chats with CMR editor Terry Moffatt

But I think this is a complete change as we get into the baseball game here and this technology improves. I think this is radically different than anything I’ve seen this year.

The idea of a virtual event being back-to-back-to-back Zoom webinars doesn’t work and people are just done with it. On the flip side, an Apple event is an incredible experience but it’s not a personal one. You’re just listening to a pitch.

If I can combine that Apple level production value with the technology where I feel like I’m an avatar and I’m there and I’m walking down the hallways and looking at the walls and entering rooms., I’m excited for what’s ahead.

Maria Chien — I would say the difference is the personalization.  I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time in some specific events — like the Women’s Leadership Council —  the breakouts, the speakers, and then some round tables. It created that level of “you’re here, you’re in the moment, you’re authentic.” it’s very personal.

People were incredibly genuine and really real and raw, creating a sort of intimacy and personalization that we hadn’t seen. The avatar brings that more to the mainstream and when you align that to a technology company that’s doing it, it just reinforces where we’re going in the future. Not necessarily just the universe but the future.