Success in the tech industry doesn’t come easy. You need the right solutions, the right salespeople, the right marketers. But to really gain traction in the market, you need a deep pool of partners—solution providers, MSPs, integrators, etc.—capable of acting as an extended sales force for your products and services.
Building a broad, deep of talent partners requires a well-thought-out strategy because partners come in all shapes and sizes and treating them all equally is likely to end up frustrating you, your partners, and ultimately your customers.
To help tech vendors better understand the dynamics of a strong partner base, CompTIA has developed a series of training programs, Channel Account Manager (CAM) Training 101 for beginners, and CAM Training 201 for more advanced channel management initiatives. The programs are available for free to all CompTIA corporate members, but they’re also available to non-members for a fee as well.
[NOTE: Read Part 2 of this blog here.]
Earlier this year, Gary Bixler, CompTIA’s vice president of global communities, led one of the weeklong sessions, relaying a number of tips and tricks for tech vendors to be more successful with their partners. Each class tackled different aspects of channel partnerships and provided proactive steps that vendors could take back to their respective companies.
The need to better understand your partner base was impressed upon Bixler several years ago when he worked for a global tech vendor. On a business trip to Singapore, Bixler visited a technology mall, common in the region, to talk with various partners selling his company’s products. Everywhere he went, his group was welcomed with open arms and the partners talked about the value of relationships. But after Bixler’s initial flight home was cancelled, he had an extra day and went back to the mall alone and dressed casually. It was a much different visit with the same partners.
“I tried to engage in conversations, but the salespeople refused to talk, refused to talk about selling our product. It was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “I thought I knew how our business was operating and how partners were engaging and supporting us in that region. I was missing some big things.”
Better Partners Means Better Business
The need for better channel training still appears prevalent, judging by survey results conducted during a recent CAM 101 training. Almost 91% of attendees said their company’s level of channel conflict was either moderate (75.5%) or severe (15.1%). Only 7% said their companies had no channel conflict within their organizations.
Bixler details six tips to manage the inevitable issue of channel conflict, instances in which a vendor’s direct sales team competes with its own partners or two partners are competing for the same opportunity. While it’s unlikely to eliminate channel conflict, it can be significantly minimized through a balanced, fair process that satisfies all parties, he said.
“If you have zero channel conflict, it means you don’t have the coverage you need. It means you have white space that no one is covering,” he said. “A little conflict is healthy as long as it’s managed well.”
To minimize channel conflict, vendors should:
- Establish a clear understanding of the rules of engagement
- Commit to and deliver consistent application of those rules
- Remember that customers make the final purchasing decision
- Define a target audience and solution mix with partners
- Communicate sales pipeline opportunities early in the process
- Focus on consistency and credibility
While establishing those processes, it’s important to remember that not all partners are the same, that partner models are evolving, and vendor/partner relationships are also changing.
“Partners are different sizes, how they go to market varies greatly. The challenge is to engage a wide range of partners, embrace their models and move forward,” Bixler said. “They’re transforming from product- and project-based models to more of a solutions-based approach. Recognize that the relationship has to change as well.”
The CAM 101 workshop leads participants through six modules:
- Know Your Game and the Goal
- Partner Alignment and Prioritization
- Accelerating Partner Productivity
- Understanding and Managing Multiple Channel Partner Goals
- Marketing Through and with Channel Partners
- Trends in Emerging Technology and Customer Experience
Building the Right Channel Skills
Successful channel account managers are built, not born, and a lot of their success can be attributed to how their company structures its channel program, defines goals, and evaluates current competencies in order to create a strategy that fosters growth.
Build trust with partners, creating win-win environments for both the vendor and the partner—not to mention the customer, advises Bixler.
“Think about your most successful engagement, what would you want to repeat? It’s all about honesty, transparency, accountability,” Bixler said. “It’s not just how you make money but it’s how you’re profitable. You have to be good at communicating and articulating what you need. Partners are busy, they don’t have a lot of time. Be concise, consistent, and relevant. Stick with the plan.”
That strategy should include processes to build, manage and communicate across all partner levels, as well as plans to hold partners accountable for success too.
“Be a win-win advocate for your own business and your partners. You need the right skills and support from the company to do that,” Bixler said. “At the same time, I see a lot of CAMs shy about holding partners accountable, especially in onboarding. A key to success is to make sure partners are doing what you need them to do so you’re not doing everything. Come to the table with a program that allows them to do things on their own.”
Partner Alignment and Prioritization
In one session this year, attendees were asked why their customers do business with their respective companies. The responses included discounted pricing, product innovation, reputation, vertical expertise, and support. None of which may directly fall into a CAM’s job role.
Thus, it’s important that tech vendors ensure their solutions are aligned with customer needs, priced competitively, and communicate a roadmap for the future. Having those provides partners to build a foundation with a vendor, and in turn to represent your solutions to customers, Bixler said.
“Are you taking your business in the same direction that a partner is going? It’s not just about having a great product today, but in the future as well,” he said. “As the same time, if they can’t see a clear path to profitability, that’s a problem if they’re expected to make investments in staff, tools, processes.”
Identify Your Priorities and Set a Course of Action
Channel account managers need some very specific skills: to manage a pipeline, provide a forecast, meet a quota, execute on a program, and use their leverage to create results. But that’s not enough in today’s market. Today, CAMs need to completely understand their partners’ businesses: how the make money, what their goals are, and how they plan to get there. They need to analyze that information with the vendor’s goals and be able to articulate and execute on a strategy that creates success up and down the supply chain, according to Bixler.
“You might find yourself in front of technical account manager for a partner in the field talking about the product. The next day you’re in front of a CTO or CEO talking about strategizing implications of partnership,” Bixler said. “You have to be able to change your approach, your communications style, your level of detail. Empathy is a big part of the win-win mindset. Put yourself in the partner’s shoes.”
At the same time, it’s important to balance that empathy with your company’s mission too. “You have to know when to be a little tougher. That’s a key tradeoff. If you’ve successfully set your value proposition, they should see the benefit of working together and driving to success. If you’re confident, they see that. Push them and challenge them,” he added.