Channels and partnerships are a big part of any company’s growth strategy.
This goes for both startups and established firms. In almost all cases there is a limit to how much or how quickly a company can grow relying only on a direct sales force. Yet, finding the best partners to work with and enabling those partners to be successful can be a very slow process, not to mention very resource intensive and frustrating. My Aventi Group partner, Sridhar Ramanathan, posted an article in February on channels titled Product Marketing is a Key Voice in Channel Strategy, in which he outlined a number of areas where a company can apply best practices to improve channel partner performance. He started with some ideas on business proposition and messaging for channel partners, and we plan to follow up with additional entries touching on the other areas he references.
In addition to effective channel marketing and channel operations, another key success factor in building strong channels is to ensure your product or solution is as “channel friendly” as possible. In other words, have you done everything you can to make it easy for partners to market and sell your product(s)? Many companies underestimate the difficulty involved in positioning and selling their products. With a direct sales force, you have close to complete control over your selling motion, including how a product is positioned, how salespeople engage with prospects, how a product is priced and packaged, and how salespeople are compensated. With indirect selling or channels, you can still influence many of these factors, but your ability to control and manage the selling process will always be limited. Here are three (3) recommendations to keep in mind as a way to make your product more “channel friendly”.
1.) Clear and simple messaging
This may seem obvious but messaging for channel partners must be as simple and clear as possible in order to be effective. Frequently, and especially in high tech, companies make the mistake of assuming everyone has some basic knowledge of what their product does as well as a familiarity with common acronyms, industry terms, etc. This is a problem with high tech messaging in general, but the impact can be magnified with partner messaging. With channels, you are often trying to extend your sales coverage into related or complementary solution areas. Recognize that a channel partner’s salespeople may have very limited knowledge of your solution and/or the underlying technology. Your messaging must make sense to them, use language and context that they are familiar with, and clearly align with the business value and benefits offered by other solutions they are tasked with selling. If a salesperson can’t quickly understand the product messaging and positioning, then they typically won’t spend a lot of energy trying to sell it. On more than one occasion, I have been told by someone in sales that confusing or poorly constructed messaging is a big red flag indicating “other” problems with a product and that the product or solution is “something to stay away from”.
2.) Easy to sell
This one has a couple of parts. The first part of “easy to sell” involves the basic steps or “recipe for success” that a salesperson much follow in order to sell your product. You need to be able to provide very clear answers to some basic sales process questions, including:
Why does my customer need your product or solution?
what problem are you solving?)
What is the solution?
(single or multiple products? services? where and how to buy?)
Who am I selling to?
(key decision maker? influencers?)
How do I sell the product?
(what collateral or sales tools can I use? demos or trials? references?)
What questions or barriers exist and how should I address them?
What sales support is available?
(how do reach someone for technical support, demos, etc.)?
The second part is about optimizing the sales cycle. How long should salespeople expect a typical sales cycle for your product to last? If the length of a sales cycle is a lot different than what those salespeople are used to then you will likely run into challenges. This applies both if the sales cycle is shorter or longer than what they typically experience. Salespeople quickly get used to a specific sales motion that involves a relatively consistent amount of time, number of calls, etc. to close a sale. The more you can present a sales cycle that resembles what that sales organization is familiar with, the more likely you will see fast results.
3.) Easy to implement / easy to support
Here is a third key area that usually comes up or is discussed as you negotiate a channel agreement with partner management; however, it can also emerge as a major challenge later in the relationship. I have seen many channel partnerships get off to a good start and collapse very quickly as support issues or implementation challenges emerge. In many cases, it is hard to predict and plan for support and implementation until you have a few joint customers. That said, investing time upfront to ensure you have considered likely support processes and situations or customer scenarios that may arise can help to alleviate or more quickly resolve challenges once the partnership is in full swing. Just about every salesperson out there has a story of selling a new partner product only to find out the product is difficult to implement and/or the partner company does not have an effective support infrastructure. Just demonstrating to a channel partner and the partner sales organization that you have thought through support and implementation and have a structure and plan in place will build confidence with the partner and help to assure salespeople that they will not regret selling your product to a customer. It is also helpful to go into a partnership with a clear understanding as to what it will take to implement a joint solution once a sale is made. This way, everyone has some realistic expectations about time, resources, and costs required. The partner salesperson is then able to position this properly with a joint customer and avoid surprises after the sale.
Look for more articles on effective channel marketing to follow.