TOP 10 TIPS: BUILDING A SPECIALIST PARTNER CHANNEL
My role at inovoo is to build an international partner sales channel, i.e. to generate sales for inovoo’s technology in markets where we don’t have a local office, and it’s a role that I’ve held in several small and medium-sized IT companies throughout my career. Our partners are specialists in their own markets, with the skills needed to resell our products.
Since we’re now seeing positive results at inovoo from the work we’ve already done to build a partner sales channel, I thought it might be helpful for me to share what I consider to be some key steps to success, based on my own personal experiences. I hope that they make interesting reading, even if you don’t agree with them all!
1. Define Your Product
Doh! I can hear you all slapping your foreheads right now, in mock amazement. But many small, innovative companies, perhaps only operating in one geographic market where they are already known by their customers, may not have yet needed to precisely define what their product actually does.
For example, you may have the fastest, most powerful “Thrumbling Software Engine” (“TSE”, for short), implemented in a huge company that happen to be next-door to your HQ, but does the largest potential customer in Outer Mongolia know how to use a TSE?
OK, so I’ve never been to Outer Mongolia, nor have I ever heard of a “TSE”, but I hope I’ve made my point. If you don’t explain to a potential customer or partner exactly what your company and products can do for them, why should they be interested?
2. Get to Know Other Markets
If your company is already successful, you probably already know your local marketplace. But do you know which other markets are a good fit for your products? Remember, it’s not just about the technology, either – consider practical issues, such as:
- Geography (how long does it take you to travel there?)
- Language (is your software already multi-lingual, including all documentation?)
- Support requirements (what time zones can you provide support to?)
After you’ve done your research go for the low-hanging fruit first, and concentrate on markets & regions that provide the easiest “first step” for you. That way, you can learn from your early mistakes.
3. Choose Your Partners Carefully
To begin with, at least, the easiest way to assess a partner’s suitability is to take a look in the mirror. If you find a potential partner that has a very similar structure and philosophy to your own company, the chances are that they are going to be a suitable partner. It makes sense, therefore, to tread carefully in the beginning and be highly selective before signing that shiny new Partner Contract.
Of course, as your partner channel grows you will, hopefully, start to attract potential partner companies that you were unaware of before you started, but the valuable experience you’ve acquired by bringing these partners up-to-speed can now be used to recruit newer, less closely-matched partners.
4. Prepare for the Long-Haul
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that building a specialist partner channel takes longer than you might hope. Of course, if you’re producing shrink-wrapped, off-the-shelf products that require minimal implementation skills and can be sold by anybody with a telephone, I’m afraid you’re reading the wrong blog.
Building a specialist partner sales channel takes time precisely because it’s specialist, i.e. there are probably only a handful of partners within a given geographical territory that have the required skills AND the interest to re-sell your technology. Plus, you might not even know who those companies are, yet!
How long will it take? There are so many variables, such has how long your own company has been in the market and how large a profile it has, that it’s impossible to be precise. Even when you’ve found a suitable partner, they still need to fill their sales pipeline and implement their first project before you will see any returns.
From personal experience, don’t expect a positive return on your investment within the first 12 months, unless you’re very lucky.
5. Be Realistic and Honest
By definition, a partner that is going to resell your product will soon understand all of its strengths and weaknesses, so there’s no point in starting the process of building a partner channel unless you plan to be:
- realistic about the investment in time & skills required from the partner, and
- honest about the potential returns from the product for the partner
However, a successful business partnership is one where these values are displayed by all parties involved, so be sure to look for this as part of your initial research for potential sales partners.
6. Have Empathy & Trust
These are essential values for any partner manager to have both externally, i.e. towards your sales partners, and internally, i.e. towards your own colleagues.
As a company’s partner manager, your role is not only to gain a deep understanding of the partner’s business but also to trust their judgement within their home market.
Equally important however, is your responsibility to your own company, and the requirement for you to explain to your work colleagues how a potentially difficult request from a partner could bring longer term benefits to the company as a whole. Remember, as the partner manager you are probably the only person in your company who is in a position to understand this.
It is critical, therefore, that your values of empathy and trust also extend to your work colleagues; you need to put yourself in their shoes to understand why they might object to a partner request and, at the same time, build mutual trust that neither party will place unreasonable demands on the other.
7. Provide Availability
Never leave a partner waiting for an answer, even if it’s “I’ll get back to you asap”. Remember, they are your customer and if they’re getting in touch with you, it’s probably because they’re trying to sell your product for you.
From your partner’s perspective, it should seem as though you’re sitting at an adjacent desk in their office. After all, this is what happens when you are working in your own company and you want to speak to a colleague, so why should a partner accept a slower response from you? After all, they are trying to sell your product for you!
Availability becomes more of a challenge as the number of partners in your channel increases and international time zones are crossed, so it’s important to set realistic expectations of availability and have procedures in-place that meet those expectations.
8. Be Adaptable
At the risk of stating the obvious, a specialist sales partner channel is one where each partner is a specialist in what they do, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to develop a “one rule fits all” model when building the channel.
There are common themes of course, such as the partner skills you’re looking for as well as the typical customer business processes that your product addresses, but each partner is likely to have a specific approach to their home market that will require you to adapt your support for the partner.
For example, a partner who specialises in customised solutions to the financial services sector will require different product demos and sales collateral than a partner who is a distributor of your products to multiple resellers of a data archiving solution.
Once again, the key to success here is for you, the partner manager, to fully understand how the partner wishes to operate in their home market and then adapt your company’s support, materials and products to meet the partner’s requirements.
9. Build Relationships
A good network of business relationships is an invaluable asset when building a partner sales channel because it helps to give your company & products a “voice”.
It’s going to be difficult for you to find partners, let alone customers, if nobody has heard about your company and products, so building business relationships is a good starting point in any partner strategy your company creates.
To provide an example of how this works, a few years ago inovoo became an EMC partner and we now have two EMC certified solutions. This has given us a huge commercial advantage in our home market, because any prospective customer immediately understands that our products are completely compatible with the enterprise-level technology that is part of the EMC product portfolio.
Now, imagine what an advantage this is as we look to expand inovoo’s international presence, through a network of specialist partners. Put simply, it gives us a much louder “voice” in the international market because EMC already has an international presence, and they help us to establish both contacts and credibility through their own, excellent partner program.
As a partner manager for inovoo, it’s certainly much easier for me to initiate discussions with potential partners if I can start the conversation with “I’m from inovoo, an EMC Platinum Partner”, than it would be if we didn’t have this business relationship.
10. Remember – You’re Part of a Team
Your partners can’t be successful without support from you, and you can’t give full support to them unless you have an excellent team behind you.
At inovoo, we’re fortunate to have outstanding marketing materials at our disposal and the team creating this collateral have a willingness to modify them for a partner at short notice. We also have excellent, intelligent pre-sales and development teams that quickly respond to strange partner requests. If you don’t have that kind of support available to you as a partner manager, you’re not going to be able to properly support your partners.
From personal experience, the role of partner manager can sometimes be a lonely one. You’re the link between two separate companies whose staff are constantly engaged in projects completely unrelated to each other, and at times it can feel like nobody wants to talk to you.
My advice is to use these moments to find out what your work colleagues are doing. Discover if there’s something you can provide that will help them in their role and in doing so, strengthen the bonds you have with the team.
If all else fails, write a blog to share your ideas with anyone who reads it. It will at least pass the time until you have to drop everything, when a partner finally decides to answer your latest request for information.
Sorry, got to go now – the phone’s ringing…