Table of contents:
- Channel partners need ongoing attention from vendors
- 1st Consideration: Channel partner training, support and feedback
- Should vendors be supporting their channel partners?
- Can I regain a channel partner's trust after losing them?
- Channel marketing and demand generation to support partner relationships
- Is the maturity of channel marketing behind?
- How vendors can show commitment to partners from the start
- Research and understand a partner’s business
- Orient partners with onboarding expectations
- What can channel leaders do to make partners feel included and seen?
- 1. Be honest with channel partners and own your mistakes
- 2. Be different from competitors, collect partner feedback & partner advisory councils
- Strengthening partner relationships more challenging during pandemic
- 2nd Consideration: Eliminate barriers – allow for better integration of partners into your channel
- Engage partners on social media
- How rigid should your channel structure be?
- Structure channel program’s rules to fit your needs – not too easy, not too hard for partners
- Strategies for managing channel conflict
- Breeding trust in channel partners when there’s competition from direct sales team
- 3rd Consideration: Be more present, mindful and inspire channel partner engagement
- Will channel partners leave if you’re not paying mind to their needs?
- Do you really want channel partners who are thinking of leaving?
- Implementing partner incentives and rewards
- Should you end relationships with underperforming channel partners?
- Channel chiefs need to think differently about their partner programs
- Closing comments:
- Heather K. Margolis’ channel sales background
At the heart of every channel program are your channel partners. They represent you, they are in direct contact with the customer and carry your reputation for you – which they can either elevate or tarnish, largely depending on the quality of training they get from the vendor they’re working with.
So why is that so often they are left neglected? Why aren’t channel chiefs prioritizing support to channel partners? Why aren’t they paying more attention to developing better partner enablement tools, such as optimized training programs to better meet their needs or start even earlier with a comprehensive, dedicated partner onboarding process?
Partner engagement is key to your channel success and the best recipe for ongoing engagement is ongoing attention and support from the vendor.
So, are your channel partners being neglected? And what can you do to:
- allocate more time and resources to support them?
- alter your partner strategy to allow for better integration of channel partners?
- and generally, pay them the attention they need and deserve?
Just remember:Don’t neglect your channel partners’ needs, and they won’t neglect yours.
This Episode's Guest
Our guest today, Heather K. Margolis, has been in the channel space for over 20 years. Throughout this time, she has gone on to achieve a number of impressive feats such as embarking on not one but two entrepreneurial ventures.
- She has led channel programs for companies like EMC, EqualLogic, and Dell. She helps channel organizations build smarter channel programs, manage channel relationships to find added value, and engage their communities through social and traditional media.
- She has been described as, “one of the most savvy channel marketing experts in the industry.”
- Starting from positions such as Channel Marketing Executive and Director of Marketing and Alliances and later, going on to be the founder and chairperson at Channel Maven Consulting and founder and CEO at Spark Your Channel (both now acquired by 360insights), she has carved quite the name for herself in the channel world.
- She puts the maven in the appropriately named Channel Maven Consulting – a consulting firm that provides strategic channel and marketing consulting to IT channel organizations of all sizes.
- And of course, she puts the spark in Spark Your Channel, an innovative demand-gen company that provides partners and sales people with automated customizable content, analytics, and modern prospecting best practices.
She’s here with us today to discuss a question all channel chiefs should be asking: Are Your Channel Partners Getting the Attention They Need (and Deserve)?
Channel partners need ongoing attention from vendors
Paul Bird: In a nutshell, why do you think it's so important for channel partners to have consistent attention from vendors and what role does it play in a vendor’s overall channel strategy?
Heather K. Margolis: When I started in the channel almost 20 years ago, there weren't as many options.
I worked at EMC and if a customer was looking for storage, EMC was one of the few games in town. Now that there are so many different options out there,
"partners have choices. We need to make sure that, as a vendor, we're not just thinking about our business and our goals and what customers get from our solution. We also need to make sure that the partner feels taken care of,"
that we’re easy to do business with, that our products and solutions are going to make them look like a hero.
It's incredibly important that the vendor is always saying to themselves: what's in it for my partners?
Paul Bird: You’re right, EMC was really the only real show in town when it came to storage.
There has been a proliferation of technology in the last 20 years. Now having that choice means you have to have more focus on the relationship you build with partners.
1st Consideration: Channel partner training, support and feedback
Should vendors be supporting their channel partners?
Paul Bird: What about the lack of support? Do you see vendors that simply don't support their partners in a way that they should and the impact that has on just the overall dynamics of that partnership?
Heather K. Margolis: Of course. Unfortunately, there are several variables at play. If a company has an amazing solution that:
- customers are clamoring for
- that's pretty easy to support
- that doesn't take a lot of hand-holding on the partner's part
then you can kind of get away with that.
I don't know many of those examples. Maybe Microsoft is pretty straightforward and their partners have been selling it for years.
"If your solution takes any sort of education or you don't have a very distinct value proposition against your competition, then your value proposition needs to be that the partners are well-supported and taken care of and your solution sells itself."
The lack of support, if I were a channel partner, when I was a channel partner - that would make me walk away. That would make me say: you don't value our relationship, you don't value my business. There are plenty of other companies out there that I could sell that will.
Paul Bird: I just had a discussion with somebody about the importance of the relationship between vendor and partner and the longer you have that relationship in place, you can almost start taking advantage of the good nature because the partner’s always been there.
There have been times in my career where I've been working with a specific vendor and they've crossed the line so to speak and I ended up moving my book of business to somebody else. So, attention is really key.
Heather K. Margolis: When it's a customer who's unhappy, you lose one customer. When it's a partner who's unhappy, you could lose 50 or 100 customers overnight.
Can I regain a channel partner’s trust after losing them?
Paul Bird: It's difficult to try and get a customer back after you've lost them, but what about a partner? What's the level of effort to try to get a partner to trust you again?
Heather K. Margolis: The dynamic there is,
"if the partner has gone out of their way to substitute your solution with something else, they're not switching back quickly."
That means they've taken time out of the field to train their salespeople, they’ve onboarded a whole different portfolio and pricing.
If you've truly lost them, you're probably never getting them back.
Channel marketing and demand generation to support partner relationships
Paul Bird: In your line of work, when it comes to channel marketing and demand generation, what are some of the things companies can do to make sure these failures aren't happening and that they are supporting those partner relationships?
Heather K. Margolis: It's been really wonderful to see how many IT companies out there are starting to think differently about partner demand generation and even partner tiering.
Not just tiering partners based on revenue, but tiering partners based on the level of marketing and sales know-how they have and where they need support.
It's important for IT companies to first take a step back and stop doing the things we were doing 20 years ago.
Just the other day I had a conversation with an IT vendor who was talking about webinars in a box.
You've been doing them for 20 years and maybe in 20 years you've had five successful executions of a webinar in a box because partners don't have a platform like Zoom or GoToMeeting where they could have 100 people on board and be able to talk to them and keep them.
The other thing is,
"partners sell anywhere from 5 to 25 to 300 different technologies. They don't know enough about your one technology to be able to [speak on] it for 30 minutes."
We're sitting here having a conversation because you're talking to me about something I eat, sleep, and breathe every day. Your partners don't feel comfortable enough to have a conversation like that.
We all need to take a collective step back and a deep breath and think about: am I getting partners things that they need?
It's also, what came first, the chicken or the egg? What's more successful marketing or sales?
We talk so much about through-channel marketing, instead of overarching demand-gen, including sales. And yet, per Jay McBain at Forrester, something near 90% of partners don't truly have a marketing person.
We're not talking about someone who also serves as the receptionist and is the significant other of the business owner.
A true marketing person who can execute on a multi-touch probably doesn't need one, because they already have one.
"All of the other partners out there need 2 or 3 perfectly aligned pieces of content that not just nurture a lead or an opportunity, but actually fill the funnel. And that's what we haven't been giving them."
Paul Bird: More people are focused purely on what the partner can give me. The typical deal registration process as opposed to doing demand-gen for partners - and that breeds the loyalty.
If I'm a member of your channel and you want to get my attention, start doing demand-gen for me. Start doing that marketing, like you're talking about, and I guarantee you that mindshare will be really easy to acquire.
Heather K. Margolis: We talk all the time about things that fill the funnel. If you think about yourself as a customer, the things that make you take a closer look are:
- Short videos
- Micro content on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. (if I'm on the consumer product side)
- A 2-minute video or a meme that hits hard and makes me want to look closer on LinkedIn
- Really interesting pieces of content I can consume quickly
Those are the things no one is giving partners. I don't want to generalize, but very few IT companies are giving partners that type of content. But they're all giving them datasheets and e-books and 20 or 40 minute webinars.
Well, guess what? That's what I look at when I've already decided that this company is in the running.
"We're not giving our partners anything to help them fill the funnel. We're only giving them things to help them nurture that funnel."
Is the maturity of channel marketing behind?
Paul Bird: Do you think the maturity of the channel, as it applies to marketing, seems to be behind the pace of technology today?
The reason I ask is that I work with a lot of companies that are nurturing their channel through partner portals.
But what I'm seeing is a lot of people producing e-books, white papers - and not the kind of easy to consume content that you're talking about. The closest thing that I've seen is people that are putting together infographics.
So, do you think the pace of channel marketing is not staying at the same rate as maybe things in the consumer space?
Heather K. Margolis: Certainly not in the consumer space.
My husband sells chocolate and whenever we have marketing conversations, I talk about things like e-books and infographics which, five years ago, were cool new things and now people are like, oh look, another infographic.
It's astounding how far behind the IT channel is. The fact that some of our partners still don't have a LinkedIn profile is really shocking. So yes, I like to be generous and say that we're 3 to 5 years behind. But in some cases, I think we're decades behind.
Paul Bird: We're on the leading, and sometimes bleeding, edge of new technology, but from a marketing perspective, we're still dragging behind.
How vendors can show commitment to partners from the start
Paul Bird: What about when a new partner signs up?
Let's say a vendor has just onboarded a new partner. What are some of the things they should consider in showing the partner how committed they are to them right from the start?
Research and understand a partner’s business
Heather K. Margolis: The partner wants to know that you understand their business.
If you can clearly communicate things that are important to them, that means when you're talking to a partner, first you're looking at where they're starting from.
If you say to a partner, we're gonna give you all this great micro content, you're going to be able to post it on Instagram. And they say, what’s Instagram? I don't even have LinkedIn. It shows them that you did not research them at all.
P.S. if you have a partner that's not on LinkedIn, maybe you should try to find another partner in the same region or with other qualities that are the same.
Orient partners with onboarding expectations
Heather K. Margolis: It's also really important that you have a set onboarding plan. That you can point to something and say:
- first, you'll have a call with our onboarding team
- then you'll login to the portal, and these are all the great things you'll find in the portal
- and this is how you manage your account, and all those good things.
They want a clear path. We talk about the buyer's journey, this is really the partner's journey.
Then turning them over to someone like a channel account manager or field marketing manager where you can set goals together that are attainable.
I always say I don't want to take a partner who's at a level 1 to a level 10. Their head will explode, they'll be very unhappy with the relationship, they'll feel like a failure at every step of the way.
Being able to look at a partner and assess where they are based on the research that you can do online and look at their website and their social handles and their executives. Getting a 1 to a 3 is a success to me and getting a 5 to 7 is a success to me.
Scorecarding those partners and figuring out where they're starting from will help you goal-set a little more efficiently and effectively.
Paul Bird: I knew of these types of people working in the channel 15 years ago, when LinkedIn was still coming up to being a tool that we all use.
But it still astounds me today when I can't find somebody on LinkedIn and they don't have a profile. It makes me wonder, how comfortable are they with technology and how long have they actually been in the industry? So if they're not on LinkedIn, it's probably a no-go from the start.
What can channel leaders do to make partners feel included and seen?
Paul Bird: I'm sure that you are interacting and talking with channel chiefs on a regular basis.
What can they do, at the top leadership end, to make sure that partners always feel included, seen and really valued?
1. Be honest with channel partners and own your mistakes
Heather K. Margolis: There are so many things. I'll talk a little bit about things I've seen done wrong.
They’re no longer a client, but we had a client years ago who every year would relaunch their commitment to partners.
In the seven years that we worked together there were five different channel chiefs.
Every year that channel chief would get up and say no, really this time we're going to be much more committed to partners, we're going to ensure that there is no channel conflict, we're launching a new portal with new content for you and you're going to be able to do all these great things.
By the second or third time a partner hears that, they're sort of rolling their eyes. By the fifth or sixth time they hear it, they're running for the hills.
It's really important that you're being honest and that you can own your mistakes.
I'm a huge fan of Simon Sinek. I’m a sponge when it comes to all of his content. He would say the leader who says I'm sorry, I made a mistake, gains so much more goodwill from their audience than the one that either criticizes their competitors or says that they're the best.
That's something we need to think about.
2. Be different from competitors, collect partner feedback & partner advisory councils
Heather K. Margolis:
- Also, making sure that you're not matching your competitors exactly - then it just sounds like lip service.
- Getting feedback, making sure they feel their voices are heard:
- also go out to the rest of your partners with a survey or have channel account managers give you feedback. Letting the partners know that the feedback is getting back up to the channel chief is super helpful as well.
- I love partner advisory councils and a regional or partner-type specific partner advisory council:
- Let's say you work with MSPs, resellers, and nationals. Having a partner advisory council for each of those partner types is super helpful.
Paul Bird: I used to see dealer advisory networks and things like that a lot.
Do you find that there's more of a departure from gathering that feedback? Because that really is super important for understanding where you are.
And you're right, you don't want to be in a sea of sameness by being the same as everyone else.
I wonder how much those dealer advisory councils are being overlooked as a core part of a channel strategy?
Heather K. Margolis: Some companies still have them but potentially the point is being missed. It used to be that you did those to genuinely gain feedback and make a change from there. And you miss the point of what the partners get out of it, that they're actually getting to speak to their peers and:
- gain some knowledge from their experiences
- their failures
- what's worked
- what hasn't
We need to go back to a place where that's just commonplace.
Strengthening partner relationships more challenging during pandemic
Heather K. Margolis: The past year and a half, two years of the pandemic has changed things like live events where we would get together and do these things. I think virtual does make it a bit more challenging.
But if you can incent the partners to feel more comfortable, maybe get to know each other beforehand. I actually spoke at a partner advisory council that one of our clients was doing for a full day and was so happy to see how first of all, a lot of these partners knew each other or knew of each other, and secondly, they were so willing to share some pretty critical feedback with this vendor.
Paul Bird: It’s great to hear you're getting feedback because in the age of covid, we have lost that face-to-face communication, the sidebar conversations.
We have the meetings on Zoom, GoToMeeting, etc. but it really is just on topic. There's no pre-meeting conversation, or post-meeting conversation, like you would see face-to-face.
Heather K. Margolis: Right, as you're walking into the room, you don't get, I have those shoes, or I see you're wearing a such and such shirt, I went to school there.
You're missing that banter, which makes people more comfortable to then share openly.
So, do icebreaker games or some way to pair each other up so that the partners know each other beforehand.
2nd Consideration: Eliminate barriers – allow for better integration of partners into your channel
Paul Bird: The important thing is paying attention to partners before they need you. So let's also think about knocking down barriers for partners and getting partners better integrated into your channel.
What can channel chiefs be thinking about to ensure that a partner gets well-integrated into your channel program and they have the best chance for success?
Engage partners on social media
Heather K. Margolis: I love this question. It's one of the easiest things and something we suggest all the time but never see companies doing.
"The best way that you can endear yourself to your partners is following them on social, commenting on their content, re-posting their content - whether it's from your executives, your channel account managers, or your logoed handles."
It makes the partners feel like you genuinely care about their business.
Certainly you don't want to repost, comment, or like something where they're talking about one of your competitors. That feels like you're checking up on them.
But thinking more about giving them more exposure than necessarily liking content that's about you, is really going to show partners that you genuinely care about their business and that you're there for them.
Paul Bird: That is something that I know I don't see. I don't see a lot of people we have partnered with that are following us and encouraging us.
I am what you would call a Salesforce enthusiast. I'm constantly on LinkedIn posting information that is specific to Salesforce and some of the initiatives they're taking.
I get a great following from other people that work either as Salesforce developers or administrators and we are a Salesforce partner, so I am connected with a number of people at Salesforce. I don't see the love coming from the organization, but I do see it from all of their followers.
It is a really great way to make your channel partners feel like part of the program if you are interacting with them, not only in the day-to-day deal management side of things, but also outside of that as well. Where you're supporting them in their initiatives outside of the transactional side of things.
How rigid should your channel structure be?
Paul Bird: Part of building a channel program is having terms and conditions.
Do you think it helps partners better integrate with that program when it is as easy as possible to understand, or do you think the rules of engagement should be pretty well defined to make sure that nobody steps out of bounds?
What side of the fence are you on? Do you feel that a rigid channel structure or an easy-to-understand is better for channel programs?
Structure channel program’s rules to fit your needs – not too easy, not too hard for partners
Heather K. Margolis: I would say, make your program as easy as serves your business.
If you make it so easy that anybody could come in and sell your product once and get access to all of your proprietary content and knowledge sharing, that's probably not ideal.
15 years ago, we used to have four tiers each with its own specialization and for each specialization you had to take 10 certifications.
That doesn't fly anymore. The partners don't have time for that. They're selling too many different solutions.
It's important that the partner's journey is outlined for them. First, they know how long everything's going to take and what to expect. But then, as they're in it, they know that exact next step to take.
I had left EMC and gone to a startup that was eventually acquired by Dell. I would sit near the partner enablement person and anytime any partner joined I would hear the onboarding. I would hear: ok, so then you go over here and click there. No, no, no, over here. No, no, no, no, click… no… to the left… over there.
That is not the experience you want your partners having. Not only are they trying to manage themselves, but then they're on the phone with someone who does this 3 or 4 times a day.
"You really want to ensure that your channel program serves whatever purpose you need without making them jump through unnecessary hoops."
Do you really care that they got that extra certification or that they put this other thing on their website? Or do you care that they speak highly of you when they're talking to a customer?
Paul Bird: I went through the technical sales certifications for vendors year over year over year just so we could maintain our partnership level high enough to get the additional marketing funds, the additional discount.
Making partners jump through hoops is really not a good way to retain their loyalty long term.
Strategies for managing channel conflict
Paul Bird: One thing that comes up, and this is something that I think everyone faces, is channel conflict.
When you start looking at how you're going to engage and give partners that white glove, sharing the love treatment. How do you do that when you have to deal with channel conflict?
What strategy do you recommend when you have to have that hard conversation because a conflict has come up with an opportunity or something like that?
Heather K. Margolis:
"Right out of the gate, having rules of engagement so they know if they didn't register that deal, if that wasn't a previous client of theirs, then here are the steps that are then taken."
I have gotten into situations where the customer is requesting a change. Then, internally, you need to have a plan or a committee that comes together of unbiased parties. You don't want the channel account manager for one of the partners involved in that conversation, necessarily.
It's really important to have a plan for when something like that happens, because it will.
Breeding trust in channel partners when there’s competition from direct sales team
Heather K. Margolis: Also, when there is competition from your inside sales team itself, partners are less trusting of you and your other partners.
If you can breed a more trusting environment across the board, then partners are more likely to feel safe.
Paul Bird: Early on in my channel career, I experienced that if we were a pure channel company, then we had a lot more confidence from the partner than if we were direct and channel focused. Because what's going to stop us from taking a deal direct?
I remember having one of these conversations directly with one of my channel partners.
So, it’s really good advice to have the rules of engagement established in order to be able to move that relationship along and help it grow.
3rd Consideration: Be more present, mindful and inspire channel partner engagement
Paul Bird: What about inspiring partners? What kind of suggestions or recommendations would you have if you've onboarded a partner, you have a good, nurtured relationship with them, but now you want to inspire them to grow?
Is there anything that you can suggest that people should consider when looking at trying to inspire partners to take on more?
Heather K. Margolis: Some of it is showing them what's possible:
- Having very successful partners join you on a webinar
- at your events
- or even just a partner spotlight in your newsletter
so that other partners can see what's possible.
I also think you need to ask yourself, is this something that's important to partners?
We always talk about the lifestyle VAR. Back in the day, they had two homes, three cars, a boat, what more do they need?
It's also understanding where partners want to be.
I have a very good friend who owns a solution provider. He does incredibly well for himself and when his IT vendors come to him and try to push him into demand-gen platforms that just don't make sense for his business, or are too complicated. He takes a step back, looks and says, I have a $10 million business, I'm in my mid-forties, I'm making a couple million dollars a year, personally. Why would I do that?
So inspire partners to figure out what they want and then show them that it isn't that hard.
If they feel like demand-gen is a 10-step multi-touch campaign and launching your own videos instead of leveraging your vendors or jumping through all these hoops, then that's going to feel overwhelming. They're not even going to try.
Just showing them how easy it could be, would really inspire them.
Will channel partners leave if you’re not paying mind to their needs?
Paul Bird: If you're not giving partners the attention they need, do you think that, eventually, they just leave the program completely?
Do you really want channel partners who are thinking of leaving?
Heather K. Margolis: I would flip that on its head and say, do you want them?
If you have partners, we always talk about the 80/20 rule. 80% of your revenue is coming from 20% of your partners. Certainly those 20% feel taken care of.
The next rung down that I like to pay attention to are what I call the growth partners:
- They're either super hungry, early in their business, and need a little hand up
- or they are selling your competitor
From your perspective, they're not pushing a ton of revenue but maybe that's because they're really helping your competitors more. I would take a step back and:
- first decide if you want those partners or not.
- And then, if you find that you haven't been nurturing them as well as you should, think about, first of all, a check-in.
Making sure that your channel account managers – or if they're unmanaged – that they're feeling the love somewhere. Either in your portal or in your newsletter or as I said before, you're liking their content on social.
Implementing partner incentives and rewards
Heather K. Margolis: Also think about implementing some sort of rewards or an incentives program, as a way to light a little fire.
And don't just tie those rewards or incentives to a closed deal. Tie it to little things that they can do. So every time they post about you they're getting a point toward an incentive.
That builds the habit, they'll do it more, but then they are also getting excited about what that next incentive would be: If I do an email campaign about that company, am I going to get even more incentives?
Should you end relationships with underperforming channel partners?
Paul Bird: What are your thoughts on the idea of cleaning out the closet?
Every year or two, taking maybe the bottom 20 or the bottom 10, and suggesting that you no longer want to have a business relationship with those partners.
Do you think that a cleaning of the closet and keeping the channel fresh is critical?
Heather K. Margolis: I don't necessarily like to completely clean the closet.
You never know when a partner is going to bring that huge deal. And your customers are somewhat tied to those partners.
Like I said, when you lose a partner, you lose all the customers that came with them.
I would rather organize the closet so that I have:
- partners that are managed
- partners that are unmanaged
- then referral partners
They're still part of the program, they still have limited access to some content in your portal, they can still hear and see everything that you're doing, but they aren't getting access to demand generation, they don't get MDF, they're probably not part of the rewards and incentives program.
You're not alienating them or ending that relationship, so to speak, but you are categorizing them so that you're not spending time, resources, and bandwidth on them.
Channel chiefs need to think differently about their partner programs
Paul Bird: Any final thoughts when it comes to suggestions or recommendations that you would make to channel chiefs as far as adopting a lot of the things that we talked about today?
Heather K. Margolis: We have had this checklist in our mind for the past three decades of the channel, where we say, I have a portal that's just fine, it's functional, it does what it needs to do - maybe. I have a through-channel marketing automation tool that I'm probably spending too much money on and the content in there is stale, but at least I have it.
Really think about, is my portal taking my partners along a path?
And thinking somewhat differently. Is my through-channel marketing or through-channel sales enablement tool giving partners the resources that people use today in marketing and sales and demand-gen overall?
Really trying to think differently, and not just check a box, would be my advice.
Heather K. Margolis’ channel sales background
Heather K. Margolis: I always joke that I'm a recovering channel professional.
I started my career actually on the partner side. I was at an ISV and had to jump through all those hoops to get the demand-gen materials I wanted and to get the attention of my vendors.
Then, I moved on to the vendor side and worked for some large organizations and a couple of small ones.
In early 2009, I started Channel Maven, which is an agency really focused on communication to partners and making sure that they feel loved and taken care of, as well as demand-gen with partners.
As part of that second piece, two years ago started a software platform, Spark Your Channel, that helps partners better drive demand leveraging video.
Spark Your Channel is a through-channel demand generation platform that allows partners to personalize their IT vendors' more complex content like video, webinars, podcasts, as well as static content.
Connect with Heather K. Margolis on LinkedIn.
Connect with Paul Bird on LinkedIn, book a demo with him, or contact him via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: After recording this episode, both Spark Your Channel and Channel Maven have now been acquired by 360insights.