The Business Continuity Imperative: The Partner Experience and Channel Performance Agenda
Partners play a key role in the revenue and growth of every organization. Whether channel selling is in assistance to internal sales or independent, what happens in partnering has ramifications that are simply too important to underestimate. The imperative to maintain business continuity with channel partners becomes painfully clear in a global pandemic, and that imperative demands that organizations cultivate partner excellence and channel performance. This effort should start with partner leadership and operations, with the objective of building channel relationships that can survive the test of time. Effective sales channel partnerships are built on mutual trust and a shared belief in the market opportunity, and recruiting and managing partners must be supported by effective processes and technology. The health of these relationships and the resulting revenue from the channel hinges on an effective partner experience, and this requires technology investments that enable leaders to not just manage channel performance, but help inspire it every single day.
Building Sustainable Partner Success
Organizations should begin by assessing the short- and long-term business impact of all channel engagement efforts and how the partner experience is linked to revenue performance. It is important to go beyond traditional partner enablement and examine the extent to which the partner experience encourages engagement that bolsters channel performance. Organizations require better intelligence and more streamlined automation in the partner marketing and selling process, and to achieve this they should utilize a modern set of applications and technology designed to align digital channel selling and revenue performance.
A sales organization’s relationship with its channel partners will continue to determine its success in the months and years ahead. And building connections and channel relationships with today’s partners is impossible without high-quality, seamless digital experiences. In fact, Ventana Research asserts that by 2022, one-half of organizations will determine that the digital experiences they provide are not intelligent or automated and fall short in maintaining business continuity for organizational readiness, resulting in lost customers and workforce instability. This includes, of course, the digital experiences they provide in support of their channel partnerships.
Partner success is about more than just expecting revenue attainment and annual quotas — it’s about sustainability and a partner team’s ability to operate under pressure, execute effectively with the channel over time and rise to the demands of business continuity. The partner experience imperative unifies an organization’s efforts to ensure sustainability through the best and worst of times and should provide continuity and partner engagement that exceeds channel expectations at every interaction. Optimizing the channel selling and partner experience is more than just a nicety; it’s essential for every organization that looks to optimize partner engagement and channel relationships — which will also inevitably impact the customer experience.
Streamlining partner enablement and partner relationship management applications does not by itself mean a partner organization is enabling a superior partner experience. Organizations require more effective partner enablement, which is why we assert that by 2022, one-third of partner organizations will lack an effective channel selling environment to motivate partners to collaborate on commitment to products and services. The challenge with most partner organizations is understanding which partner enablement technologies like self-service portals go beyond automation and efficiency improvements to improve the overall experience and facilitate more effective engagement. Successful partner enablement requires sharing best practices and extending investments to be digitally collaborative with them and using learning management systems and the paths that are known to generate the outcomes desired.
Efforts to boost partner success should also focus on the partner operations team, which must bring digital transformation to the channel processes and find opportunities to introduce intelligence and automation to the tools that are in use. It is important to examine best practices and establish a center of excellence to ensure that work processes connect to the actual demand and service needs of the channel. A proliferation of tasks and activities can sometimes make this operations management difficult, but the use of work management techniques that rely on objectives and key results (OKR) can help align work execution to desired outcomes. The challenge is to share the work and tasks jointly with partners and find ways to work collaboratively across marketing, selling and service-related responsibilities.
Examinations often find that existing project and task management practices and disconnected collaborative technologies are largely ineffective at engaging partner work in a productive and effective manner. The work experience is shared collaboratively with partners could be just as impactful than the work itself as it establishes the engagement and investment of an organization’s priorities and is a priority that I have recently written the importance for business continuity. Developing a unified approach that enables collaborative work is essential and thus should be the top priority for partner leadership and operation teams. We assert that through 2022, one-fifth of partner organizations will invest in new technologies that optimize the use of resources and provide better digital work automation and experiences. Partner operations personnel, like their counterparts in sales operations, need to have support and investment not just from partner leadership, but from the overall business leadership in an organization.
In times of crisis, business continuity is a top priority. In these environments, organizations must not neglect their channel partners, especially if they have not previously been a focal point of sales leadership or the executive team. The partner experience is not just about tools and processes that improve partner efficiency but about management that supports the sustainability of channel performance.
Clear Partner Communications is Key
Challenges like a global pandemic demand active dialogue and clear communication across the partner organization. Unfortunately, crises often have the opposite effect. Ad-hoc communications about changes in strategy or incentives and discounts are easily misinterpreted and can hamper effective partner management and operations. Furthermore, working out of a home office with limitations on normalcy and disruption to otherwise routine after-work and weekend activities can challenge the mental health of any worker, including those within the partner organization. To maintain confidence and trust in the organization, partner leadership and managers must communicate goals and changes in strategy with this context in mind. Carrying on as if business is usual — or worse, sending haphazard and unclear communications — will diminish chances of success.
To operate effectively, partner organizations must be able to provide digitally secure communications to facilitate channel collaboration on products and services. Ineffective communication creates friction that can lead to frustration, especially when the applications do not seamlessly support mobile technology. Channel organizations must ensure their communication and productivity applications provide mobile experiences that help support partner interactions with their channels. We assert that by 2022, one-third of organizations will determine that their business applications are not suited to support their business continuity needs due to ineffective collaborative and mobile experiences, which are essential to operate seamlessly in a virtual environment.
Engaging partner organizations in new virtual ways will become essential to enacting partner selling methods that best represent your organization’s values and that optimize interactions with channel and their potential customers. While it’s important to rally its partner sales efforts during a crisis, trust in a partner organization is based on sincere interactions and the ability to deliver continuous value. This requires more than simply increasing the velocity of communications. To be effective, a partner organization should establish best practices and policies that guide channel selling experiences and interactions with buyers — whether the relationship is direct or indirect. Applications and systems must enable communications and learning outside of normal operations. And importantly, your channel sales organizations should engage in active coaching and measure the partner experience at every buying touchpoint by soliciting feedback and monitoring channel performance to accurately determine challenges and opportunities.
Partner Experiences Matter
Some organizations have managed to optimize their partner sales by focusing more on the channel processes and less on the partner experience and channel performance outcomes. It’s important that an organization make investments into better supporting digital interactions to help the channel with marketing, selling and services. However, these efforts are rarely differentiators that create opportunities for breakthrough growth. We assert that by end of 2021, only one-fifth of organizations will have the insights needed to understand and optimize the partner experience. Sustainable growth is only possible when the organization goes beyond sweet talk to demonstrate to existing and potential partners the possible value available in the partnership. The vendor-channel relationship is not one that organizations should expect to operate without meaningful investment. An organization must foster memorable interactions across the partner journey and meaningful digital partner engagement. These channel experiences require digital and video collaboration that can foster the partner relationship in the most personal manner. This also means making best possible efforts to facilitate continued interactions when external factors (like a pandemic) prevent normal communication and regularly-scheduled events. Any meaningful partner interaction with a channel should be prioritized when educational digital content can be provided to inform and guide buyers. Organizations should examine the experience partners have with the vendor related to the products and services, and provide coordinated, accurate information via a modern product information management (PIM) system. The priority as I have written is essential for an overall product experience that is shared through channel and should be consistent no matter if you are marketing and selling directly or indirectly through partners.
Organizations should prioritize investments that will yield continuous insights on the partner’s sentiment. Namely, if an organization is unable to capture and monitor interactions and feedback from channel, then it is probably missing the insights needed to effectively coach the partner sales team and improve channel performance. Continuous feedback from partner sales and channel provides visibility into the dynamics that determine an organization’s channel revenue potential. Partner organizations should seek to establish a Voice of the Partner (VoP) program with a set of processes and technology that uses channel feedback and sentiment along with analytics and machine learning to help better understand and optimize channel performance. We assert that through 2023, only one-quarter of organizations will have a focus on the partner experience and will lack the ability to monitor and optimize partner experiences that impact the customer experience.
VoP processes and applications provide insight into actual partner selling experiences using feedback across every interaction to guide improvement. Furthermore, partner sales organizations that lack a quality VoP program demonstrate a lack of commitment to — and investment in — the channel and partner selling experience. Buyers provide the most honest feedback at the time of the interaction and a failure to capture these sentiments significantly hinders an organization’s understanding of channel and partner satisfaction and its effect on the overall partner experience. If your executive team looked at the feedback and sentiment from your partner sales team and channel sharing their interactions on Glassdoor, would you be pleased with what they would have to say? Will your sales team share their negative partner selling experience sentiments with your organization and impact your own employee experience? And what is the impact to the future customer experience?
The importance of providing an excellent customer experience has been previously outlined on the mission of a customer experience program. It’s impossible to separate the partner experience from the selling experience, which in turn is inextricable from the customer experience. Merely stating a commitment to the partner experience is not enough to meet revenue expectations, let alone to establish mutual confidence in the sustainability of the partner organization. Unfortunately, we assert that by 2023, fewer than one-fifth of organizations will establish a voice-of-the-partner (VoP) program, enabling them to ascertain partner satisfaction through analysis of interactions with and feedback from them and mutual customers. As does an organization’s roadmap for its products and services, a roadmap for placing more intelligence into channel and partner experiences for optimizing channel performance reflects an organization’s investments and priorities to ensure business continuity.
Smart Partner Investments Matter
Organizations must consider whether investments in applications that support partner management — including recruitment, onboarding, marketing, sales, services and the ability to work collaboratively on products and services — align to channel performance expectations. Investments should do more than automate tasks. We at Ventana Research assert that by 2022, two-thirds of sales leaders will begin considering a new generation of channel analytics and applications designed to improve performance and productivity.
Smart investment requires the effective assessment of an array of partner and channel applications. An assessment should include, but not be limited to, the following questions:
- Do your partner applications enable leadership and operations to work closely with channel to motivate and engage channel?
- Are you able to collaborate digitally using secure communications between your partner team and the channel?
- Can you monitor and coach your partner and channel sales professionals based on their actual conversations and experiences with buyers?
- Have you performed resiliency testing to ensure all partner applications and processes can operate efficiently in suboptimal conditions?
- Do you have optimal product information that is easily assembled for partners?
- Can you share work related tasks and activities that streamline shared goals?
- Are you able to digitally collaborate on partner deals efficiently?
- Can you digitally collaborate on marketing and sales initiatives and their related tasks and activities across your organization and with your partners?
- Do you have partner price management methods, not only to optimize channel revenue but also to achieve quotas and targets?
- Are you able to share your learning management system to better enable partners to be effective in their marketing, sales and service?
- Can you intelligently reconfigure your partner territories based on channel sales potential and performance, and potential scenarios based on resources in the future?
- Do you have the ability to assess your partner sales capacity and resources, and then plan to adapt and hire resources to maximize your channel sales potential?
A “no” answer to any of these questions indicates risk that could directly impact a partner organization’s channel revenue potential. Every organization, no matter the industry, the number of its partners or the size of its organization, has an opportunity to significantly improve the partner experience and channel performance.
Furthermore, partner applications should do more than just enhance the partner experience and provide insights into channel performance. It’s critical that you can enable partner leaders and managers to adequately plan for and adapt to changes in territory and quotas based on the capacity and resources available. This continuous exercise is a shared responsibility, and it is impossible to do without linking actuals to the plan to determine the impact of changes. We assert that by 2023, only one-third of sales organizations will have a unified technology approach to manage partners for and the work and performance of channel professionals across territories, quotas and incentives. How partner leadership manages quotas and territories can establish the tone of the relationship with the partner team and can have profound impact on the organization’s ability to reach goals and quotas.
Antiquated methods such as spreadsheets are clumsy, error-prone and not designed for modern, collaborative business processes. They are difficult to operate, diminish accountability and increase risk. It is critical that partner organizations, especially in times of duress, use business continuity as a driver to improve partner planning and intelligent use of channel analytics and thus examine their investments in partner performance. It’s also just as important to provide managers and partner professionals the ability to instantaneously assess and plan their channel sales activity against the quota they are being held accountable to, and also to project commission and incentive compensation they can expect to earn.
Partner with Finance
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of teamwork between the partner organization and finance when it comes to the channel revenue potential and the sustainability of the partner organization. This focus on revenue has inspired the role of Chief Revenue Officer, which is tasked with looking beyond the direct sales organization at how an organization can further monetize its products and services through channel sales to boost financial performance. Smart finance organizations have developed revenue risk models to assess variables that can impact the partner sales organization’s ability to achieve plans, quotas and targets.
A successful partner organization goes further, embracing collaborative and continuous planning for all aspects of the partner relationship, including marketing, selling, services and operations, all of which operate in light of quotas, territories, capacity, resources and incentives. Partner planning demands continuous refinement and seamless collaboration within and beyond partner sales that increases the potential to achieve channel performance goals.
A focus on channel revenue is the foundation of both finance and partner leadership, but the “softer side” of the relationship with the partner organization is just as important for ensuring business continuity and a sustainable relationship.
A focus on channel revenue is the foundation of both finance and partner leadership, but the “softer side” of the relationship with the partner organization is just as important for ensuring business continuity and a sustainable relationship. The CFO, finance and partner leaders must also actively engage with HR leadership to ensure recruitment and retention in the partner organization. Keeping top talent requires insights on benchmarked compensation and pay equity issues that, left unaddressed, could lead to negative sentiment through the partner organization or that could negatively impact recruitment efforts due to a tarnished reputation. Keeping strong partner talent is essential, but attracting new talent and optimizing onboarding and ramp time requires effective partner planning across your capacity and resources.
The CFO and finance leadership need to actively support partnering and take time to examine potential improvements and investments. Success requires engagement, not just fulfilling requests for an update on projected channel and revenue forecasts or inputs to the partner plans. Similarly, past legacy investments into SFA and CRM tools to aid partners and manage operationally have been insufficient. For this reason, we assert that by 2023, three-quarters of chief revenue officers will find their existing technology inadequate to optimize partner territories and accounts to meet the quotas required to achieve maximum channel revenue potential.
Unfortunately, finance often doesn’t adequately understand most partner applications nor the value they provide, and these vendors have not done a great job marketing and selling their products to the office of finance. This should not be an impediment for finance, but an opportunity for partner leadership and operations to develop a working plan that unifies their efforts with common applications and systems that optimize the partner experience and enable channel performance. And of course, this plan should include continuous planning and that of price and revenue management considerations to ensure maximum return from all partner efforts.
Partner, sales and finance leaders must work together more closely than ever before and focus on not just the annual plan or quarterly quota levels, but on the information, technology and processes the partner and sales teams use every day of the year. Executive teams and boards of directors are responsible for ensuring investments into the partner experience and channel performance that will support partnering needs today and in the future.
If you are not sure how to approach improving the partner experience and channel performance through the lens of business continuity, there are specific steps that every organization should take, similar to the steps outlined in my perspective on the imperative for digital innovation in business continuity. The use of digital technologies to reinvent the partner experience — from the outside in and from the inside out — requires the right lens that can support business continuity and not distract from it, which can ensure a more comprehensive approach. Most organizations have realized this and are making it a priority to be more prepared. We assert that by 2022, after a decade of concerted efforts in digital transformation, one-half of organizations will not have established business continuity as an investment priority and will not be prepared to operate in a future pandemic or crisis, which will lead to increased operational risks.
To achieve business continuity, optimize underlying processes and technology for your partner organization and the channel. This can have an immediate impact on top- and bottom-line results and will reflect the priority you place on your partner and channel performance. Once your organization has an effective partner program with leadership committed to delivering an optimal partner experience, you can be confident that the relationship is built to last. Ensure that existing and future partner enablement investments are designed for the partner experience, not just for automation and efficiency.
Every vendor-to-partner relationship matters, no matter what role it plays in your sales process and growth. The entire executive team — the CEO’s staff, the CMO, CFO, CIO, COO, CHRO and the Chief Revenue Officer — should be aware of the strategy and plans for optimizing selling experiences. Business and sales leadership needs to ensure it embraces partner performance and its related disciplines throughout the organization in collaboration with direct sales efforts. This requires a focus on the full lifecycle of partners, from recruiting, onboarding to management, but also on the joint partner marketing and selling that requires investments to help garner the expected channel performance. We assert that by 2023, one-half of all marketing organizations’ partner-based marketing efforts will fail due to lack of synchronized work automation for go-to-market efforts. The future of channel revenue depends on the active involvement of finance and HR as they strive to optimize partner performance. Achieving this requires investment and active working relationships between partners and the finance, HR and sales departments and the chief sales or chief revenue officer.
Determining your path forward for 2020 and beyond requires an effective strategy and an understanding of how to best sustain the required business continuity for your partner organization. Make sure you are using applications and technology for partners and the channel that can truly provide an effective partner experience focused on channel performance..
CEO & Chief Research Officer Ventana Research
Mark Smith is the CEO and Chief Research Officer of Ventana Research and leads the firm’s global market agenda for business and technology as a subject matter expert in digital business and enterprise software. Mark is a digital technology enthusiast using market research and insights to educate and inspire technology buyers and suppliers.