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Top 4 Tips for Building Channel Partner Programs

According to Crossbeam, only 28.5% of survey respondents said their company knows and implements partnership best practices. But is that really surprising? Partner programs are complex and often underestimated. If you are embarking or mid-journey, here are the top 4 tips to guide you towards partner program success.

Partner Channel Tip 1: Start Small

One of the most underutilized tactics in the B2B tech space when launching an initial or revamped channel partner initiative is the use of a pilot program. There have been many (way too many) partner programs released out into the wild that were not ready for prime time. Even some of IT's biggest brands have been known to launch partner programs or initiatives that simply missed the market and fell flat. It’s even understandable how this happens. Tech companies have sales goals and the channel probably makes up a majority of the revenue KPIs, so the sooner the partners are transacting, the better. That said, when a program does fall flat, it can be very costly and the tech channel (one of the smallest big industries around) has a long memory.

One approach to avoid either an all-out failure or at least a way to dramatically increase the rate of success of launching your channel strategy is to start with a pilot group. This would be a small sampling of choice partners that would act as your early adopters and allow you to work out some of the kinks of your program and shore up some of the details around some of the impactful variables. This is especially true of working through processes, enablement, and opportunity development.

These initial partners should be selected from not just those who you may already have a strong relationship with, but also new entrants into your program that fit the criteria of the ideal partner program (IPP) that you have developed. If you have identified more than one IPP for your channel, make sure each is represented in the pilot. If your target pilot grouping is six, add two more. There are inevitably going to be dropouts.

For greater pilot program success, make sure you take the time to draw up a detailed outline of the pilot and the responsibilities of all parties. Be prepared to supply (and most execute) the deals to feed activity into the pilot. Ensure to provide ample support to the participants of your pilot program and task your channel teams with being hyper-vigilant in tracking results and capturing regular feedback. Those partners who remain dedicated and complete the pilot program should be heavily rewarded! They may have saved you a lot of money, expedite your time to market, and helped you save face in the sometimes unforgiving and sometimes dog-eat-dog tech channel.

Partner Channel Tip 2: Develop an Ideal Partner Profile (IPP)

One of the leading challenges facing channel partner leaders in the B2B tech space has been and remains to be, what they see in the way of the gap between the number of “active partners” (regularly generating revenue) and the number of “inactive partners” (deadweight) within their partner community. This was due, in part, as a result of some of the partner recruiting strategies used in the past. “Net new logos”!

What has begun to evolve is the use of data to help identify what it is that separates those partners who are more successful from the rest of the pack. What becomes apparent when evaluating the data is that there are common characteristics among those partners who are more successful. These commonalities are the baseline of what is an ideal partner profile (IPP). An IPP is not unlike the concept of an ideal customer profile (ICP), which marketers have been using for years, and with the evolution of marketing practices that have become more targetted, the use of ICPs has become more prevalent. As with an ICP, an IPP is an outline that represents a set of firmographic characteristics of a partner who is more likely to be the best fit and has a higher degree of possible success for a particular channel program.

The types of characteristics that make up an IPP can vary greatly. It may depend on the complexity of the technology category, the industry or sector, or the transactional complexity of a deal. If there is a database of partners available from an existing channel program, that data can be leveraged as a starting point. There will inevitably be some things that will stand out when the data is evaluated. These may be things such as the size of their sales teams, their market maturity or annual revenue, the makeup of their offerings portfolio, who their ICP is and what sectors they specialize in, or what skill sets they have on staff. While it’s best to find the common denominators that narrow down the ICP, there may be multiple ICPs that evolve. Such as separate profiles for each unique business model, such as VAR, ISV, or SI.

When completed, the IPP becomes the key asset behind the success of a channel development plan. IPPs are used to aid in creating a much more targeted partner recruiting strategy, an optimal onboarding program, targeted partner program messaging and marketing strategy, effective co-marketing plans, and the development of more impactful incentive programs. When multiple IPPs are identified, adjustments can be made in the program development to accommodate for the subtle differences.

This concept of identifying and implementing IPPs as a channel program development strategy, but the alternative “one size fits all” approach to constructing a channel program has higher risks.

Partner Channel Tip 3: You’ve Got to Keep Them Separated

The strategies of taking B2B technology solutions to market direct versus through a channel (indirect), are very fundamentally different. This is why, if your business strategy is to maintain both routes to market, it is best to delineate dedicated resources for each. This is especially true when it comes to allocating staff for sales and sales operations, marketing, support, and customer success.

When members of your team are being asked to bifurcate their roles between your direct and channel business, there is a higher chance that they are less effective in delivering for either. The differences in execution methodologies, mindset, and best practices are too substantial and often require specialized skill sets. So, as soon as it’s operationally and economically feasible, assign dedicated resources to your channel program for the best results. Make it a point to seek out staffing talent that has previous channel experience when possible or actively support the development of your direct business team to become your channel champions.

Partner Channel Tip 4: Employ Empathy

As you go about building your partner program and developing an enablement strategy remember to do one very critical thing, employ empathy.

The partners are businesses, like yours. They have revenue goals and growth objectives. They have business challenges and competitors. Your solutions are not the only solutions that they sell to their customers. You are not the only tech vendor looking to them to resell their stuff. They can’t give you the amount of attention that you feel they should.

Be empathetic to the realities of how these businesses operate. Start by constructing a comprehensive ideal partner profile (IPP) that outlines the characteristics of your target partner. Leverage that IPP as the nucleus to build your partner program structure so that your partners can more manageably adopt it. Encourage empathy as part of the core culture in your partner channel operations. The extra efforts spent in better understanding your partners’ business and the challenges they face will go a long way in building stronger relationships. This, in turn, will not only result in higher rates of active revenue-generating partners but also helps to build on their support in helping you meet your business goals.