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July 29, 2021

Channel Chats Episode 4: Channel Technology and the Partner Experience

In our fourth installment of Channel Chats, CMO Richard Flynn welcomes channel sales expert Raegan Wilson, who is a new Managing Director at The Spur Group. Raegan has 20 years of channel experience working with clients like Thomson Reuters, Logitech, Palo Alto Networks, Xerox, ADP, and Fortinet. She specializes in channel automation and partner experience optimization.

In the conversation, Raegan and Richard discuss developing the right partner experience for your company, how to choose the best technology for your channel needs, and assessing whether your tech stack is working for you and your partners.

Check out the video or the transcript of the conversation below.

 

Transcript of the conversation

Richard: Welcome to Channel Chats. My name is Richard Flynn.

I'm one of the senior partners and a co-founder at The Spur Group, and today we're going to do something a little bit different.
Normally we interview channel chiefs, but today I'd like to welcome one of the new hires that we've had at The Spur Group, and she's got a role as a Managing Director. Let me introduce Reagan Wilson.

Reagan Wilson is one of our managing directors at The Spur Group. She's got about 20 years plus of experience working with many different channel organizations, including Poly, Xerox, ADP, Rackspace. Her specialization has been around the systems and the processes and the infrastructure that companies need to really be successful.

And as we've talked about in several of the last channel chats, what we're seeing is a trend is that the partner experience is becoming a high order need that that you guys are trying to figure out as a channel chief, and we've been doing a lot of engagements around this recently. One of the common threads that we see is that having the right infrastructure in systems is one of the keystones to really being successful in this space, so we thought it might be a little interesting to hear from Reagan. Get her experience and understand what she's seen that helps people to be successful in this space and share that knowledge and thinking with you.

So with that welcome Reagan.

Raegan: Thanks Richard. It's been awesome to be part of the Spur team. I'm glad to be here.

Richard: Well great. So let's start off with the partner experience. How do you see the importance of partner experience in terms of how companies are measuring value that they're delivering to the channel?

Raegan: Well, today's channel programs are built on the technology stack and with the power shifting towards the partner, the needs to support the partner have intensified. So we're seeing companies now scramble to put things like partner portals in place in order to support these growing, or up and coming channel programs.

As a result of that, people are forgetting to take into consideration the partner experience and even their partner programs, and they believe that putting a partner portal in place is the most important piece.

So I feel like there's a miss sometimes when it comes to partner experience. I liken it to an analogy that one of my clients use, it’s like grocery store or a convenience store or Costco. All three of those serve different purposes, and your partner portal can be like that. You might not be Costco today, but if you put in place a partner portal that looks like Costco and it has a bunch of empty shelves, your partners are probably going to think that there's something wrong with the picture.

So you need to right size your channel technology stack and make sure that you're focused on partner experience so they're not walking through your proverbial Costco partner program or partner portal and just finding a bunch of empty shelves. It might make more sense to go the mom and pop/7-Eleven route where you have fewer shelves, fewer items on those shelves, but at least it looks like it's stocked.

That's where a partner experience comes into play.

You really have to think about the partner experience upfront, and ask, “Do I have the necessary content for my partners? Have I segmented my partners properly? Do I have partner programs in place or structure around my deal registration process? Do I have an on-boarding experience?” Because those things are all important to make sure that you have in place. Versus going down the path of, “I'm trying to build the Costco.” Small and right size is better than big and empty.

Richard: I think that that's absolutely true. As you know, a lot of our clients are coming to us and saying, “I need to simplify my partner program. I've got way too many specializations, way too many customizations. I’ve got different role types. We have different agreements that I need to have them site, so I need to somehow simplify all of that.” I think that what we've seen in the case of many companies is that creating that friction-free environment, both in terms of what you're doing for the partner and in terms of what you're doing for your employees is really important.

We've encountered a lot of times when this person owns that information on that spreadsheet, and this other group over here can't articulate what are the follow up activities because some other group is kind of managing that type of thing.

So let's talk a little bit about the technology stack. You know, as you're thinking about that, what is it? And what are the things that can really make a difference to help a company as they're thinking about simplifying their offering? How can technology really be a critical factor in making that happen?

Raegan: Well, technology is key. But you have to start with where you're at. You can't look across the path to your competitor and try to be just like them. You can't look upstream to a large company like some of our clients and try to be just like them. You've got to meet your partners where you're at, or else you'll look like a fraud to them.

From the other pieces, you have to balance the internal benefits of the technology stack to the external benefits of the of the technology stack. What I mean by that is oftentimes we see customers putting into place things will make their internal processes better or more streamlined and easier for their internal sales teams, but they're not taking into consideration the partner. Or vice versa, we've built all of these processes out in the technology stack to make the partner’s life very easy, but now we've complicated things internally.

So balance is really key when you're thinking about that technology stack. Taking two steps back, putting your partner hat on for a minute and thinking about it from their perspective, walking a few steps in their shoes. And then taking a few steps back and walking a few steps in your channel account management shoes or in your sales operation shoes and making sure that everything is balanced and you're not putting technology in place that's throwing things out of whack. Where there's a huge benefit to the partner at the expense of your internal teams or vice versa.

But the technology stack itself is so critical to any and all partner programs these days. Small channel companies are buying up portals right and left. They realize the importance of partner portals or partner relationship management (PRM) systems. A lot of these tools are off the shelf, and they come with a huge set of functionality and really good best practices that are already built in. And they can be launched in 30 or 60 days, depending on your readiness level. So what we're seeing is these smaller more nimble companies launching more functionality than really big large companies.

And I know Richard, we're seeing on the Spur side of things our clients coming to us and saying, “Oh, how do we dial back the complexities that we've put in place with these homegrown tools? Or these stitched together systems? And how do we turn towards what these more nimble smaller companies are doing with their off the shelf tools?”

Richard: And then related to that as a channel chief, how do I then make a decision about whether or not I want to just build on my Salesforce CRM that I have? Or should I buy some sort of third party? I'm not going to mention any names, but we all know that there's several PRMs or channel incentives or web portal type solutions out there. How do I really think about what I need to have in place, and how do I make that buy or build decision?

Raegan: So I love this question and I'm probably going to answer it in a different way than maybe some would expect, but I think leaders often forget that partners are people, and partners are free agents. And what I mean by that is they're not getting paid by you unless they're successful in selling your tools or systems or platforms. They're not. They don't recognize any revenue by taking your trainings by doing a deal registration.

So if you have to take a step back and put yourselves in their shoes and really think about what do they need to be successful, and do you have something that's compelling for them to want to partner with you? I feel like oftentimes these channel leaders don't think about partners from the human aspect, and I feel like that's something that's missing.

Just in general, you've got to think about partners and making sure that you have something that's compelling to offer them. Whether that's automated or it's in a tool, it doesn't matter. Whether that's integrated with your CRM, it doesn't matter. But you've got to have something that's compelling. Once you have something that's compelling, making it easy to use, having a good partner experience just adds to that overarching relationship that the partner is going to have with you. At the end of the day, the partner needs to have a reason to do business with you.

Now going back to your question about do you build it in your CRM system? How do you get there from here? I think a lot of it comes back to the maturity of your program and the resources that you have because there's a lot of tools out there that look very similar. They check the same boxes. But deal registration in one system might function completely different than deal registration in another system, and while the words are the same, the functionalities are different.

So the devil is really in the details, and I think from a leadership standpoint you have to take a few steps back and really make sure you're asking the right questions when you're in demos or talking to these vendors. Ask “what's the level of complexity for customization?” Because I've seen systems that are tied to CRMs, for example, where the demo is really nice and it looks great, but it took them a roomful of integration partners and six months’ worth of dev work to get it to that point. Whereas other off-the-shelf systems have those processes baked into them, and you turn them on and you configure your fields. So the devil is really in the details when it comes to picking a channel platform and making sure that it's going to work for your expectations of launch. Is it a six-month implementation? Is a year-long implementation? Or is it 30 to 60 days? If you have all of your ducks in a row and your program and your documentation already built out.

Richard: Yeah, I think that that's a really important point. You know it's funny I'm dating myself here, but I lived through the wave where ERP was the big IT sale back in the day, and it was pretty interesting that not a lot of ERPs were implemented successfully. There were a lot of failures and a lot of CIOs who lost their jobs because their ERP solutions never quite landed the way they all wanted it too.

I think that there's something there in terms of a lesson learned when you are thinking about your technology stack in this case. Everybody likes to believe that they have to customize their offering, that there's a bunch of stuff that makes them unique compared to everybody else. I know that as we look at this most of the time, you have more similarities than differences.

I think about one of the vendors who we just did some business with. They had a deal registration system they were looking to build and then they had a custom configuration tool to help partners understand the configuration they needed. They were better off spending more money and effort on that custom configuration tool and buying it off-the-shelf deal registration tool because what they were doing for deal registration wasn't that different. And you can get something that's out of the box that'll do 99% of what it is that you're doing. Then you can spend your money and your effort on the really complicated stuff.

I think that there's some words of wisdom there. That in trying to really take a solution that is simple, structured and off the shelf, in many ways, makes it very simple to implement these. And we're even seeing some turnarounds where companies are then installing new systems in 30/60/90 days, right? Because with these cloud-based solutions, so it also helps lower your costs, simplify your development, and make a much more rapid implementation.

Raegan: Absolutely. And the other thing to consider is where should you spend your time? It probably shouldn't be doing custom configuration on every single tool to your point of like, “Can you buy something off the shelf and have it be 90% of the way there? Heck yes. Let's go down that path.” And let's make sure that it's self-configurable and self-manageable so that if there is a change or something that you need to do in the future that you can do it yourself. That's really key. Then spend the time and the money on those custom configurations that you can't go and buy off-the-shelf that needs more support and management.

But there's tools out there for almost everything. And the reason those companies are out there and the reason that the channel stack growth grew from 2020 to 2021 by like 60 vendors is because people are doing this right and well in these off-the-shelf tools.

Richard: And they almost all work on Salesforce.com. If you've got that as your CRM or your CPQ solution, or something along those lines. They almost all snap in as an overlay on those.

Raegan: We're seeing more and more vendors go down the path of integrating with even more CRM tools. So we're seeing you know the integrations with Salesforce. We're seeing the integrations with Dynamics. We're seeing the integrations with HubSpot. We’re seeing integrations with Zoho. We're seeing more and more vendors going out and making sure that they have integrations with these other CRMs. And heck, you can throw Zapier in there in the middle and maybe even do whatever you need with some of these tools with just APIs.

Richard: So if I'm a channel chief, what that means is that I can potentially buy something that me and my group can manage, not touch the IT-managed CRM solution and still play well so I can deliver a good partner experience. I can get the information and control that I need, and at the same time work with the solutions that are out there that the IT group wants to manage and control.

Raegan: Well, I love that you bring up the IT group. I think that people often forget that there is a cost of services within internal resources. I had a project a couple of years ago where they actually put a dollar amount on their IT resources to staff projects. It helped people really determine whether it made more sense to buy something or to build something because those resources oftentimes look like they're free. When you’re not allocating budget to the resources you're using to staff or manage your project. So you really want to take on as much as you can, because then you're not in queue. And oftentimes I hate to say it, but the channel team seems to be like the red-headed stepchild, so you're always getting pushed to the bottom of the list.

So if you can take on the ownership of updating your content, managing your deal registration process, managing your MDF program, all those pieces that are really important to partners. Well, guess what? When you have a promotion, you can send it out the day that it needs to launch, or you can even in some of these tools, set content to publish on a certain date. So you have all those keys and those tools and the palm in your hands versus, putting in a ticket internally and hoping for the best.

Richard: So if I'm a channel chief, how can I kind of do a quick assessment or an internal evaluation on whether or not I think I have the right stack or where do I need to kind of fix my stack?

Raegan: So there's a few ways that you can access your channel stacks. First and foremost, you've got to start with your partners, so look at partner engagement. Ask for partner feedback. They're probably going to be pretty honest with you, so brace yourselves for what you're going to receive.

Then, secondarily you want to ask for internal feedback as well, so look at usage. Do you have channel account managers that are doing thing manually that should be being done in your partner portal? That's a huge red flag. I had a client a couple of years ago where their channel team was at the sales kickoff and they're like, “We're just doing all of it for our partners.” It's easier know there's tools in place. There's a reason for it. There should be rules of engagement that drive your partners to follow the systems that you have in place, so make sure that your internal teams aren't abusing the system by doing things on behalf of the partner and teaching them poor habits.

And then third, you should probably do an external assessment, so get a third-party — shameless plug here, like The Spur Group — to come in and do an automation assessment. You let someone independent come and look at what you're doing. Rank and stack you against best practices and what else is out there in the market. Then leverage that feedback to make the updates and changes that you need.

Richard: I think that that's great advice. You know, I think the only thing I might add is every time you hear that we have that information managed in an Excel spreadsheet. You know that's a warning sign, because it probably means that the very best the data is siloed somewhere, and at the very worst, it's probably not really managed in a holistic or comprehensive manner.
But I think that you're right, ask your partners look at your internal processes. Understand where you're aligned and if you're still in doubt, asking expert is probably the right way to think about it. You know, we've seen a lot of people over the years address these issues. What are kind of a big gotchas that people might not think about that they want to consider as they are making these changes?

Raegan: The biggest thing that I see as a gotcha when it comes to technology is that technology doesn't solve the problem. You've got to come ready to implement, and that's where I see people fall down all the time. They believe that the tool is going to solve the problems for them, that they can put off the program pieces, they can put off having rules of engagement or processes in place and they can just spin up a deal registration program or put a portal in place.

All too often those same companies come back and say they point the finger at the vendor unfortunately and say, “Your tool’s not good. It didn't work. We didn't have engagement.” When really they should be pointing the finger at themselves because they didn't spend the time to build the programs and processes out. They didn't take the time to invest in putting in good content or building partner-ized content.

If your content is out there for the public, then your partners can get it on your corporate website. The things that they need to access via your portal or through your partner tools should be unique to partners. So you need to spend that time up front. To build and invest in your partner program and not just feel like technology is going to solve it for you because it will just become its own problem if it's not fed.

The second thing I would say is that it's not a “we built it, they will come” one and done thing. It's a living breathing organism, and your partner tools need to be fed content, updates and programs in order for your partners to use them. That takes planning and it takes people. If you're not putting that time and effort you might want to take a step back and really analyze if you should be doing what you're trying to do within your channel program.

Richard: I think that's all really sage advice. I think that having that good communications with your partners is really again a cornerstone that you want to build this on. In all of my years, I've actually seen that partners are pretty harsh when they think that you're not listening, but they're pretty understanding when they think that you are listening.

So if you're going to ask them, “What do you need to improve? How do we improve this? How do we take steps?” And then you start implementing those and you're sharing what you're doing, you're laying out the road map and getting feedback, they're going to be forgiving when the system crashes on day one. Or it takes 3 hours to get that that deal registered as opposed to the one hour SL, as long as it's covered and solved.

But when you don't communicate and when you seem to be doing things outside of it, it's challenging. I think that this ties back to the first part of what we were talking about. This is ultimately about partner experience. You know what it is that you're trying to do is get people to have less friction in the way that they're doing business with you, and as long as you're kind of accomplishing that, you've got a good place that you're going.

Raegan: Yeah, absolutely, and I think at the end of the day, you know, take a step back and think if I would if you were a partner, would you want to partner with you? And if the answer is no, then do something about it. Do you have something that's compelling that your partners want to do business with you? You know they don't need you, you need them. Take a step back and think about what the partner experience looks like, what are you really offering them and be realistic.

To your point, I think partners are forgiving, and if you're up front about what you're doing, what you're not doing and what your road map looks like, they're going to be understanding of that. But if you come out and you try to hit him with a bang and there's really nothing on the shelves, they're going to think that something is wrong with you. Or that your company isn't solid, that you don't have a good product, you're hiding something, or you're not ready. So be realistic with them and set the right expectations.

I also feel like there's a benefit to kind of slow rolling things and letting your partners see that continual investment. So it doesn't hurt to maybe launch additional functionality or other programmatical pieces after your initial launch. Like that's great, it shows investments.

Richard: I think that's absolutely true. We see that because a lot of people are launching new programs these days, the ones that are successful are the ones saying, “This is kind of a journey. Here's the thing that we're doing this quarter. This is what we promised to do next quarter. Or this is what we're going to be doing after that.” As opposed to The Big Bang programs where they go, “Ta, da! On June 1st we're launching everything.” And everything is in place on June 2nd. I think that that's good advice.
So you know, maybe the last question that I would ask is, do you have any kind of general advice that you would give channel chiefs as they're thinking about their technology stack that we haven't covered?

Raegan: I think we've covered a good amount. At the end of the day, you’ve got to take a step back and think about from your partner’s standpoint as well as where you’re at with your readiness level and your program maturity level. That should drive your decisions, not where you came from, the program next door or where you want to be in six months or a year. Start with where you're at and be good before you’re great. Get the foundational elements right up front because, you know the saying, you only get one chance to make a first impression. That's true with your partners. If they come to your partner portal and it's terrible and there's nothing there for them, there’s a likelihood that they're not going to come back.

So make sure that that initial impression with their partners is a good one. And even if that means you push it off 3 months so you can build the content, the onboarding journey and a good partner experience. Push it out because you only get one chance to make that first impression, and you want them to keep coming back.

Richard: I think that that's great advice. You know my one parting thought might be, we're really fortunate. I remember when I was the head of a large partner program, getting technology to do what we were looking to do was really difficult. You know, databases were crappy. You didn't get good reporting or good line of sight on transaction history. Things were really difficult.
I think that as an industry we are in a pretty good watershed moment, in that the ability to capture information, the ability to apply that in a strategic manner. A set of tools that are readily available out there in the marketplace are really at an all-time high.

If you are looking to improve your partner portal, you're looking to improve your deal registration system, you want to manage your MDF, you want to make sure that your business planning with partners is better, you want to make sure that you've got improved alignment between the goals of your field organization and your headquarters organization, there's a tool, there's a resource, and there's a capability to make that happen today in a way that there wasn't two or three years ago. We're at a good time that there's a lot of good approaches and tools out there to be successful.

Raegan: For sure we're so lucky. I mean the wheel has been created. You don't need to create it anymore. I don't think there should be conversations about build versus buy anymore. It should just be who are we buying because there's someone out there that's already created the wheel. so use it. You're going to gain all of the mistakes that they made in and building it. You're going to be on their road map, not your team’s road map, which doesn't exist.

Richard: Great, and with that I'd like to thank Reagan. This is obviously a little bit different as we've been talking about this with somebody who is internal to The Spur Group, so we're going to have a link. And you know, if you've got some questions for Raegan you're like some additional information. Just click on the link and we'll connect you with the right person here at The Spur Group.

Raegan: Thanks, Richard.

The transcription has been edited for clarity.

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