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.
I’d like to say it’s going to be a good year in CRM and I firmly believe it, though I can’t offer a single all encompassing reason for my optimism though there are plenty of small things that begin to add up. In an earlier time the metaphor might have been “straws in the wind.” So what are they?
First, the economy is looking better but that’s faint praise. Things are not as bad as they were a few years ago, for instance the economy is adding in the neighborhood of 200,000 jobs monthly but I read an article the other day that said at this pace it will be another five years before we’re back to the employment level before the crash — in part because we need to absorb all the people who are entering the workforce. But as I like to say, black ink is better than red no matter how little there is.
More concretely, in our financialized economy, the markets are healthy and the broad CRM industry is doing its part to pump out new public companies. While all of them can’t be Salesforce caliber there have been many recent IPOs and the new year looks to have a few more teed up. That at least shows us that companies are evolving as they should and finding markets for their wares.
As usual, companies that are expanding the margin of our markets are the ones to keep an eye on. While I have seen my share of emerging CRM companies as an analyst and a judge in CRM Idol, the ones that are most interesting are those at the margins while the companies that try to reinvent the wheel don’t usually capture the imagination. Companies that I am watching for the year ahead include Xactly, InsideView, TreeHouse Interactive, Scout Analytics, Full Circle CRM, Lattice-Engines, HubSpot, Apttus, and Zuora. My good friend Paul Greenberg will publish a list of a bazillion companies he likes in his watch list. This is not intended to be all inclusive, just a smattering of companies I am well acquainted with.
All of these companies are expanding the margin of the market, expanding our horizons, and while only a few will have an IPO this year, the rest are worth keeping tabs on for sure. IPO candidates in my humble opinion include Xactly, Zuora, Apttus, and InsideView. Interestingly, none of these companies is what you would call a social company, which shows that there are more margins than just social. However, each is squarely positioned as a SaaS value proposition and that says the cloud is a live and well.
Xactly is reinventing compensation management, not just for sales where it got started but in every department of the enterprise. Zuora is making the subscription model mainstream by making accounting and finance in this new world easy. Apttus is a double or triple threat offering configuration, pricing, and quotation technology but they also have invented a way to be into and using Microsoft Office applications in conjunction with SaaS products like Salesforce. The result is a new kind of uber app. Lastly InsideView started as a sales intelligence tool but is expanding its footprint to provide sales and marketing teams with the data and insights they need to pursue opportunities.
I am warming up to TreeHouse because they have an interesting product line including partner relationship management (PRM) and marketing automation. PRM is one of those things that has come and gone more than once over the last twenty years, always with different players. I think this time might be significant as increasing numbers of vendors seek quality partner channels as a means of streamlining their operating costs.
If there’s a theme for the last group — Scout Analytics, Full Circle CRM, Lattice-Engines, HubSpot — I’d say it’s analytics. You might not think of HubSpot as an analytics company, and I don’t think they are one. But analytics is a part off what they do when they provide inbound marketing solutions. Inbound, done right, can be a big boon to business.
The other three offer mainstream analysis, if not analytics. Full Circle focuses on marketing management which I have written about many times because I think the idea of understanding the data and the metadata of marketing programs can do much to make you look smart if you’re a marketer. Lattice loves to crunch data about marketing and the sales process and they do it well. I don’t know any sales manager who doesn’t want better knowledge about all of the processes his or her team is involved in and Lattice is one way to get it.
Lastly, Scout has more mainstream analytics but for subscription companies and they make a good partner for Zuora. Subscriptions generate mountains of customer use data that can be used to predict everything dear to a subscription company’s balance sheet — I mean heart. With Scout’s analysis of use data, companies can spot revenue opportunities as well as danger signs like potential churn. Any way you slice it, this makes knowledge and that translates into market power.
So that’s some of what I am looking at as we start the year. I think it will be a year of base hits with an occasional sprinkling of home runs. Many, though not all, of the companies in this article have raised significant cash over the last year indicating both that the VC markets believe in their stories. But this also means clocks are ticking, investors want to see some returns and IPOs or private sales are on deck. Either way this makes for an entertaining start to the year.