“The best partnerships aren’t dependent on a mere common goal but on a shared path of equality, desire, and no small amount of passion.”
– Sarah MacLean, New York Times Best Selling Author
The most overused word in our channel may be “partner.” Fortunately, it seems to just keep getting more appropriate. In the earliest days of the channel, some resellers featured more than 100 vendor logos on their websites, referring to them as their partners. Merriam-Webster’s salient definition of partnership is:
“a relationship resembling a legal partnership and usually involving close cooperation between parties having specified and joint rights and responsibilities.”
While the vendor’s products were available on the reseller’s “line card”, the relationship could hardly be considered that kind of partnership. To build really strong relationships, vendors need to address the key channel partner pain points that not only frustrate partners, but cause them to seek out new vendors.
Today’s channel has matured tremendously from those early days. Other than catalog fulfillment houses, office supply stores, and a few remaining retail computer stores, the “line card” mentality is long gone.
Instead, today’s channel partner has far greater expectations of the vendors they choose to partner with. The kind of expectations that truly define an operating partnership. Smart vendors recognize that by fulfilling those expectations, they are creating the most productive kind of partnership. A partnership in which all parties win; vendors, distributors, reselling partners, and most importantly, customers.
However, not every relationship is the same, and few are ever perfect. When the less-than-perfect aspects approach the core of the passion vendors and their channel partners share, there’s going to be pain points.
Most channel partners today, be they Managed Service Providers (MSP’s), System Integrators (SI’s), or other, work very hard to develop extensive expertise in their technical teams because that is what their customer is paying for, and that is what promotes their all-important reputations for excellence. When they reach out to a vendor for support, it is unlikely that theirs is a level-one problem. They likely need someone closer to product development than help desk, yet many vendors make them go up through the standard escalation path, first wasting tremendous time they don’t have. Some vendors simply won’t make their development people available to channel partners, though they expect those partners to represent them comprehensively.
Part of a channel partner’s customer value proposition is the assistance they provide in planning for the future. This planning is enabled by an understanding of what products and new technologies will be introduced by their vendor-partners in the near and distant future. For their purposes, channel partners cannot be content with the same information that is released to the press. They need deeper strategic analysis and deeper ability to understand new products in the context of their technologies. Customers may easily lose respect and trust for advisors whose information is dated or commonly available. In a true partnership, the vendor wants their partners to be able to excite customers about what’s coming down the path.
Vendor representatives, like any true sales professional, want visibility of what’s in the sales pipeline. Since the channel partner is closest to the customer and active sales campaigns, they are without doubt the best place to obtain that information. Discussion of active sales efforts can be a very valuable and enjoyable engagement between vendor and partner. But when extracting and recording current pipeline information becomes the sole function of meetings, channel partners bristle. The problem they face is that they are investing significant time in keeping that information updated and are really receiving no advice or other value from the vendor relationship. Working together needs to be more than just reporting data.
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A big part of the reason channel partners get their people trained, is to improve their ability to sell, deliver, and support a vendor’s products. When vendors ask them to pay for that training, it makes the partner feel their existing investments are unappreciated. Having people out of the field for training itself brings a substantial cost to the partner. At least one major manufacturer used to actually pay partners for that lost billable time. Since they depend upon the channel to be their front line of sales, vendors should exhibit great enthusiasm for training their partners.
Long-time channel partners will remember vendors who offered “customizable collateral” as part of their co-op marketing program. Their definition of customization was the ability to crash-imprint their partners logo and location onto brochures before distributing them. Today, promotion focuses on how channel partners can help customers, by using a vendor’s products. Yes, its important to assure the quality of the product, but as support to the messaging about the partner’s related services. With many software providers supplying software tools to enable new channel partner services, it may be more effective to not even mention who the developer of the tools is.
Tying marketing support funds to previous sales makes little sense to channel partners. That’s putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Above all, the purpose of marketing is to drive sales. Vendors need to prepare to prime that pump by providing initial funding based on quality planning.
Channel partners have no expectation of earning substantial margins on the actual sale of products. Their best and most profitable revenue sources are the services they perform surrounding those products. When a vendor talks margins, they may not realize their channel partner is laughing. On the other hand, vendors who help plan out new services the channel partner can package, get tremendous attention and appreciation.
As cloud adoption rises, the sale of servers, storage and other network infrastructure products go into decline. As such, Channel Partners must work steadily to innovate new ways to replace lost income and the additional lost revenue from attached services. Therefore, we can anticipate that the new independent software vendors (ISVs) emerging from this transition will create an even larger number of partnership opportunities, as they align with MSP’s, SI’s, and other partners to facilitate the sale, delivery, and ongoing support of their new applications. Hopefully, a vibrant new channel experience will emerge from their learnings and experience over the past few decades.