If there’s one thing that vendors and channel partners agree on, it’s selling. More or less. Everyone agrees that more selling is better but the discussion can diverge greatly from there. Vendors and their partners are not immune from the virus that affects direct sales people. We often hear direct sales people say their leads are no good and we hear marketing say that sales doesn’t follow up. Sound familiar? Of course it does.
The name of the game in sales is finding the fastest route to the cheese, so to speak, and anything that slows down the transaction (or the mouse) is suspect. In the real world, we all know that customers are not simply purchase order generators and that selling takes work but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that the marketing and sales process can’t be improved.
Marketing gets a lot of attention because today’s marketing automation platforms bring some scientific rigor to the process. Better marketing makes better leads and better leads make for shorter sales cycles and happier partners. That all sounds good, but how do you get there? Here are some tips.
First, stop giving every lukewarm bit of customer response to a sales person with a mission to bring in the business. It’s not a lead — yet. If a prospect downloads a white paper for instance, it certainly shows some kind of interest but what kind? Is the prospect looking to buy something or is a grad student writing an MBA thesis?
Marketing automation is popular today because it provides lead nurturing. Instead of handing over such “leads” to sales people, marketers hold onto them and put them through nurturing processes that aim to capture more information such as who the buyer is, what the business problem is, whether or not there is a budget. Only when such information is in hand does a modern marketer release the lead but this brings up a challenge for the vendor-partner relationship, namely, who is responsible for lead nurturing?
The answer is it depends. It depends on the nature of the product, relationship, and market. Ideally both parties should engage in some kind of nurturing — partners can’t expect all of their leads to come from the vendor. This means vendors and partners ought to come to some agreement on how to approach the market and what defines a lead. This is part of the value a vendor brings to the relationship.
Second, and many partner programs already have this down, a vendor needs to have some standards about lead handling. There should be mutually agreed SLAs (service level agreements) in the channel defining how quickly a partner contacts a vendor lead AND reports back on it. There’s nothing worse than nurturing good leads only to have them ignored. A modern PRM system can usually handle this and it is one of the best reasons to have one.
Third, the vendor must be able to track and report on lead disposition. Metrics for first touch, follow up, close rate, wins, losses, and no-decisions, and similar things can help a vendor in determining how to share leads and ultimately participate in stack ranking vendors. Having your PRM integrated tightly with your CRM and Marketing Automation platforms makes this effort much easier.
Of course, partners should have the ability to accept or reject leads once they’ve done their due diligence. This is completely analogous to direct selling where marketing generates a marketing qualified lead (MQL) and sales verifies it as a sales qualified lead (SQL). Sadly, it is not yet state of the art in many partner programs.
Rejection is often a good indicator of the lead generation process’s effectiveness. If too many leads get rejected it might indicate that they’re too raw going out the door and a need for better nurturing. But if an individual partner has a consistently high reject rate along with a poor win/loss ratio, it might say something about that partner. That’s why it’s important to capture partner data throughout the deal funnel and to analyze it.
Too often we hear that marketing and selling are not exact sciences, like physics for example, and that’s right. But they are sciences nonetheless, just more like economics and sociology or anything that relies on a Bell curve. Using analytics and metrics to understand the fat middle of your curve and to identify your long tail outliers can help any organization improve marketing and sales and that will improve the effectiveness of your channel.
A partner might not be a customer exactly but it’s never a bad idea to think of partners in that light, at least in some instances. Last time we delved into the partner experience and compared it to the customer experience and discovered some similarities. But we can take the comparison further and rather than emphasize the customer aspects of the relationship, look into the business attributes.
First time vendors setting up a partner channel are prone to making the rookie mistake of thinking, “If we build it, they will come.” This come and get it approach to the channel often results in an inevitable disappointment as vendors realize that potential channel partners don’t share their enthusiasm. But it’s not enthusiasm; it’s hard business sense that drives things. Partners need to be shown in good detail how they can make money working in the channel and that usually goes far beyond vendor promises that “You can make money selling our stuff because we offer big margins.”
This brings us back to the notion of whole product. In an end user situation it means the core solution plus all of the policies, procedures, programs, and outreach that assure customers that they’ll be successful not only in productively using your solution but in interfacing with your company. Partners are no different though their whole product needs are. Consider these needs and you’ll get the idea.
Partner value proposition
Your value proposition starts with margin but by no means ends there. It encompasses everything from the robustness of your product to how easy it is for partners to register a deal, leverage your marketing and content, create invoices and make returns, and, oh, yes, get paid. It also relies on your brand and product reputation in the marketplace. If your major competition has a more visible and trusted brand it will attract more partners simply because the competition will appear easier to sell. But everyone has to deal with differentiation via competition, which is why, all things being equal, you want to be the company that’s easiest for a partner to deal with.
Your partners are like anyone else, they don’t want to spend a day on-site when an hour online might suffice. That goes to the heart of ease of configuration and deployment. You can always improve product usability and for that reason you should never stop asking partners how to do this.
Many partner programs are made or broken on their business processes and for good reason. Your processes make up the part of whole product that your brand and product don’t. Your business processes are what make you easy or difficult to work with and they require constant monitoring. Processes typical to a partner channel can include business onboarding, ongoing ease of doing business, easy access to technical support and service materials, well thought out terms and financing programs, deal registration, and marketing cooperation and marketing funding support.
Very often we think of partner relationships as bi-lateral between one vendor and one partner at a time. After all, partners don’t want to share their knowledge of customers and deals in a forum where others could scoop them and that’s completely understandable. But when it comes to product and business process improvements you might discover a different reaction. A community organized around sharing in these domains usually turns up many good ideas that benefit all parties because ideas mature quicker and with greater detail when many heads consider a problem and provide solutions. So don’t rule out a partner community.
The role of PRM
Most of the partner processes mentioned and many others, are best supported by a robust PRM system. For example, one process not already mentioned is integration with CRM. PRM is not CRM, it is a specialized platform for managing the relationship between the vendor and the partner. But data and process flows need to work bilaterally between the two management systems for maximum effectiveness.
PRM should support everything else in the partner relationship and enable and automate the processes discussed above. If a vendor is using separate spreadsheets to manually manage its partner program, that vendor may quickly discover that the spreadsheets put an effective cap on the size of the partner population it can manage and thus the revenues it can drive through the system. This is not to say that a manual, spreadsheet based system can’t work, but it does imply limitations based on volume, size and, importantly, error rates in all of the business processes managed by spreadsheets. If your competitor’s way of doing business is more streamlined, they will win some of your partners.
Automating your partner business processes will maximize the utility of your partner program by providing much better support for partner initiatives and reducing the time it takes a partner to get something done. It will also reduce the inconsistencies and errors associated with even the best intentions in a manual process.
All this boils down to a partner’s ability to make money and control costs in your program. It’s what everyone aims for but it’s a more realistic way of getting there than simply opening the doors and saying come and get it.
The headline on the press release read: “NetSuite Offers Sage Partners Major Incentives to Begin Growing their Business on the NetSuite Cloud” and I figured, it must be summer. For the last few years, Sage has announced an offer like this. For the last couple of years it was a take away program for salesforce.com customers.
I like NetSuite, they offer a good package of ERP and CRM software delivered as a SaaS service. They’ve made a lot of smart moves in the last couple of years including their IPO (which was not just smart but brilliant) and an apparent decision to move up market from their original SMB focus.
Going after larger companies made sense because I think NetSuite found out that their then target market didn’t have all of the resources — human and financial — needed to implement such an all-encompassing suite of software. Though the product is good, any ERP implementation comes with a great deal of thought work that’s needed to rationalize business processes before automating them. I think some small companies just choke on the effort.
Now it looks like NetSuite is trying to go after the SMB space again, this time with a full court press on Sage’s partners. Just as I like NetSuite I like Sage too. As a company Sage certainly has product and partner issues, but any company does. What’s interesting to me about the NetSuite PR is the hyperbole it exudes.
Though the PR has several quotes from Sage partner take-aways the text is over the top. One paragraph starts with, “NetSuite expects this program will find a warm reception in a Sage channel partner community wracked with fear, uncertainty and doubt about the future of on-premise applications…”
Wracked with fear? Really?
I have to say I used to wonder about Sage too and about when they’d get their SaaS act together. They’ve been late to the party, but not AWOL, they have products, especially in the CRM world. Lately, though, I’ve concluded that Sage might know something about the space that I’ve been missing. It’s a rather conservative market from the perspective of new product adoption.
The obvious success of SaaS in CRM may be enough to move the ERP partners but maybe not. Undoubtedly some will move, the PR is proof of that. But building a successful partner program is something that takes a great deal of investment in time and money. And although NetSuite has been in the partner business for some time already, I think they’ll have to execute very well to make in-roads here. It’s a conservative market and it’s summer. In a recession.
As the Zen master says in an old joke, “We’ll see.”