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.
Something interesting is happening at Sage but it looks like the company isn’t ready to tell its whole story. That’s a challenge if you happen to be hosting a combined partner and user group meeting which Sage did this week in Washington. The company’s annual get together had its share of announcements and keynotes and the new CEO, Pascal Houillon, did a good job of introducing himself to the assembled masses. He made several announcements too but I think some of the importance of Sage Summit happened between the lines.
Houillon introduced important new directions for the company in line with its global parent. That last bit, about the global parent, is important. We think of North America as the center of the world but there are other parts and not all software companies hail from here. While Sage North America (to use its full name) might be the biggest part of that empire, the parent organization still calls the shots and some of what was announced has already been rolled out elsewhere, specifically the rebranding, which I will get to.
Sage is embracing three important directions and while some were discussed before, the global company’s momentum is now clearly behind them. They include cloud computing, Sage Connected Services and a rebranding effort. Then there’s what’s between the lines.
Many of these changes have been in the offing and Sage’s commitment to them mirrors what much of the rest of the industry has been doing. Because Sage sells exclusively through a partner channel and primarily to the SMB market, change has been relatively slow in coming though. Part of the tardiness may come from Sage’s channel resistance and some from reticence emanating from overseas; regardless, the message I got was that change has arrived in the form of cloud computing, connected services and rebranding.
Major CRM product announcements were relatively sparse at the conference in part because at least one, the 2012 release of the iconic ACT! product will happen in August as is traditional. Last Friday the company announced SalesLogix Advanced Analytics, an analytics package that will enable SalesLogix users to crunch customer data and derive the benefits of better customer centric information and that counts as an announcement.
So does the company’s announced commitment to cloud computing. Sage already offers SageCRM.com and SalesLogix Cloud edition so its credentials have already been established in cloud computing. But where as the message to partners last year was more like you have a choice, this year though choice is still a prominent idea, the clear direction of the future is cloud and partners are being advised to adapt their business models. The unofficial talk I heard was that the company will introduce a cloud orientation that is more substantial in the next twelve months or so and this is where reading tea leaves becomes important. More after we talk about rebranding.
Perhaps the most concrete and interesting part of Sage’s announcements is what it is doing in connected services. Here the company deserves kudos for inventing something that none of its competition does quite the same way. A company like Sage is the logical choice to create connected services given its large partner channel in the SMB space.
Briefly, connected services was announced last year and this year the company has delivered some solutions including e-Marketing for Sage CRM, a solution for ACT!, SageCRM(.com) and SalesLogix. Sage also introduced Business Information Services in conjunction with Hoovers as well as some others.
The idea behind connected services is that the customer uses specialized functionality when needed such as when developing a marketing campaign. The approach has two benefits. First it saves the customer from having to buy or subscribe to software that it may not use frequently enough to justify paying for full time. Second, the service comes with that other kind of service — real people who are experts and who can add value to the effort.
Other cloud schemes may enable a user to access specialty software but that happens in a more conventional setting where the customer makes a purchase. This is progress. While other vendors continue to offer a plethora of software through online stores, the idea of connected services replete with professional services deserves consideration.
Sage says they intend to roll out a raft of connected services, many developed by partners but CEO Houillon assures all that they won’t rush the process and that they’ll take the time to ensure reliability of the offerings. While I can empathize with the sentiment, I think the company needs to understand that speed to market and reliability assurance need not be polar opposites. In this market it is essential for a vendor to have both and Sage needs to put some giddyup on this idea while it is unique to their offerings.
The Sage self perception is that the corporate brand, Sage, is not strong enough. Customers of products like Timberline and SalesLogix think of themselves as customers of those brands rather than of products from the parent organization. This should not come as a surprise given that the company has grown by acquisition. Many customers may remember buying their solutions from another vendor so the brand association is understandable.
Trouble comes when a Timberline user decides it needs CRM and a Sage partner has to go through a lengthy justification of, say, SalesLogix as a reliable product from the same company. In other circumstances an incumbent vendor might have the poll position for CRM but Sage says that doesn’t happen enough and the company’s answer is to deemphasize the brand names and attempt to build up Sage.
I am not sure of the wisdom of this approach especially considering that the strategy is to replace the brand names with numbers. The naming scheme was not discussed but the idea is that Timberline, for example, might become Sage Accounting 300 or whatever. Accountants might warm to the idea of numbers but I am not sure about losing all the Timberline brand equity. I am told that this approach is being implemented in other parts of the Sage empire with great success but you can put me down as a skeptic.
In my humble opinion, if Sage wants to build up its corporate brand that’s what it should do. Messing with the other brand names seems like an attempt to solve the wrong problem but I am just reporting here. The rebranding will take place over the course of the next 12 to 18 months and we need to take a wait and see attitude. Some partners I’ve heard from like the idea and others don’t. Sardonic rumormongers have suggested ACT!’s name be changed to Sage CRM 101 (LOL!). We’ll see.
To help partners adjust their business models to cloud computing and selling more and different business services, Sage Partner VP Tom Miller told us about one of the many education courses that Sage is offering its partners. Called The Firm of the Future, the week-long course helps partners through a process that examines current and future business models and helps them build a plan to move forward. Sage has always been education heavy offering partners lots of courses to help them succeed in business and The Firm of the Future is another in that line. It’s a good thing in theory and many partners will benefit from it.
Migrating to a cloud computing business model is complex and challenging for both Sage and its partner network. While cloud computing can be accomplished with little re-architecting simply by making applications available on cloud infrastructure, this is a great opportunity for Sage to go further. Most other vendors in the front and back office have developed products based on a single code set that can be deployed on premise or as SaaS and they offer a choice of single or multi-tenant models. I think this is where Sage is headed or where it should be headed.
The company now has many separate products based on different platforms, which it must enhance and upgrade individually. While this is certainly possible it has a cost that a company with similar numbers of products and a more consistent code set doesn’t have to deal with. As Sage contemplates its move to the cloud and in light of the effort at rebranding, I think it makes sense to expect more news from the vendor about consolidating its technology. This is my analysis and I can’t find a Sage executive to give credence to my idea so don’t bet the mortgage money on this as a prediction.
Nonetheless, if Sage wants to be more competitive and improve its brand position, it has to do more than change names. Rebranding without some more fundamental effort to rationalize the product lines doesn’t make much sense and perhaps that’s what simplified product names is suggesting. If Sage wants to present itself as a family of related products under one roof, they need to go for greater commonality among products. To me this position is very interesting. Partners may worry about their future and that’s understandable. But no one should expect to hold everything constant forever.
Cloud computing has been around for a long time and Sage and its partners have taken a conservative position regarding change. The surest way to survive and prosper will be for partners to embrace change. Even though all the pieces may not be in place yet, Sage has painted a reasonably complete picture of its future and it’s time for the partners to step up.