How Partner Scoring Gives You Better Channel Management & Performance
Every channel leader is faced with the same core problem -- how do I spend my limited resources, programs, and people to generate the biggest possible influence on partners and best meet my business objectives? Answering these questions is the critical function of channel management. And a strong partner scoring method is key to effective channel management. It lets you increase your return on each partner by understanding their strengths and weaknesses, Partner scoring helps you manage your portfolio of partners, best select who to manage, where to scale, and what makes the most significant impact.
The changing world of the tech industry
The revenue game has changed in the tech industry. For many years, it was all about product innovation. Look at the old guard of tech leaders – Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, their product innovation gave them years of market dominance. Innovation is still a critical factor in being a market leader, but the required pace of innovation to maintain that leadership has increased exponentially.
Companies now realize how they go-to-market is the new path to sustained market leadership. This makes sense. A great go-to-market engine works across products and makes it more difficult for competitors to deliver the same value.
Partners are a huge part of many company’s go-to-market efforts. Used effectively, they are a force multiplier. But they are hard work. They consume resources, have different impacts with different customers, and can be unpredictable.
Unlike direct sales resources, they cannot be directly controlled. They operate independently and not always in the interest of the vendor when their and your objectives are out of alignment.
What is a channel leader left to do?
The changing world of partners
Partners traditionally fit into one of three categories—they resold products, they provided services, or they developed their IP as a software or hardware solution. The same three core business models exist, but there are now many different iterations around those models.
At the same time, the need to specialize to compete in the market has grown. Many partners do not focus on verticals; they focus on micro-specialties. For example, they sell physician practice management software to small hospitals in the northeast.
Or the partner has grown to scale their business into a large, powerful entity that tries to do almost everything for their (primarily enterprise) customers. They have created separate departments for each area. All run slightly differently.
In both cases, it can be hard for vendors to establish and manage traction. Because the customer is either hyper-focused in one area or the very compartmentalized across services, the value to investment ratio may not balance out.
In this new world, almost every partner fills a unique niche in the market – and delivers different values. The trick is understanding what that value is and how to foster growth.
The changing world of channel leaders
At the center of this confluence of change is the channel chief for most companies. Their job has never been harder.
They are at the heart of the shift to the cloud paradigm. It needs to balance keeping revenues from their on-premise partners flowing while simultaneously convincing partners to change their business models to support cloud sales. They oversee significant shifts in the business as old, last generation products make way for new next-generation products.
Channel leaders need to make sure every segment is covered as they build go to market pathways connecting their companies, partners, and customers of all types and sizes. Often, every customer segment requires its own set of partners and a unique set of partner initiatives.
The complexity of the partner offering has also multiplied. You have a partner program, channel incentives, partner enablement, partner recruitment, field governance, and customer satisfaction requirements, just to name a few.
At the same time, performance pressure continues to mount on channel chiefs. Revenue growth is slowing as an industry. This results in smaller budgets spread across more partners and more products – the need for scale is essential. There is a greater conflict between direct and partner sales for individual transaction ownership – the need for an explicit right touch sales model is critical. Contra revenue and incentives have become a more significant and more vital part of everyone’s channel budget – the need for demonstrating the direct impact of programs is indispensable.
All three of these changing worlds combine to make clear optics into partner performance and value an essential skill in today’s modern channel management. In short, you need a way to score your partners.
What is partner scoring?
Companies need the right set of channel partners to form healthy partner communities, and today these channel partners play a more critical role than ever in not just making sales but also providing additional support. Subsequently, driving growth with channel partners requires an insightful, deliberate, and data-driven approach to managing partners.
Use as a benchmark
Partner scoring is a unique method of measuring partner performance. It combines elements of key performance indicators, predictive modeling, and big data algorithms and allows channel leaders to measure both individually and as an aggregate.
There are two keys to good partner scoring:
First, partner scoring must look at more than generated revenue. Partner sales are an essential measurement for any channel management effort, but sales are only one-way partners contribute to a tech company’s success. Often partners are critical influencers shaping a customer’s decision on what to buy and what not to buy. Their endorsement, or better yet, building solutions around your platform, solidifies your position with the customer.
Second, partner scoring is only valuable if it is measured over time. Partner performance varies at any given point in time. Even the best partner sometimes fails to make a critical sale. But the cyclical nature of partner performance normalizes over time. Partner scoring has value in understanding trends and changes- both with individual partners and with your business community
Focus on outcomes
The point of partner scoring is not just measuring your partner performance. It is understanding whether your efforts are having an impact.
Imagine being able to share data with your CEO, CFO, or EVP of Sales that shows how your incentives had a direct impact on partners. Think of the impact you could make if you could direct field resources to the activities or partners that have the most influential contribution to your channel objectives and being able to adjust which partners to focus on depending on how your objectives evolve. That is the promise of partner scoring.
Know your levers of partner performance
A partner scoring framework lets you identify the strong and weak points of your partner community. You rank each partner’s ability to drive revenue, support your strategic platform, win and retain customers, and counter your competition.
Partner scoring gives you actionable insight:
- Know the specific strengths and weaknesses for each partner
- Compare peer-level performance even in partner segments that are more influencers than sellers
- Measure the impact of programs and initiatives on partner performance
- Increase accountability of partner managers for their partner’s performance
Understand potential vs. performance
There is a difference between partner potential and partner performance. A partner with $50 million in total revenues and $5 million in sales of your product is very different than a $500 million partner that also sells $5 million of your products. The potential for more sales is probably better in the large partner, but the performance of the small partner is better – they are more aligned to you and your product.
Remember that you only have four levers of partner performance:
- A partner can sell more of your products
- A partner can align with more strategic products instead of end-of-life products
- A partner can drive customer wins in critical rather than oversaturated market segments
- A partner can favor you or your competition
But if a partner caps out and performing at their full potential, they will have a tough time generating growth-- unless you can steer them into a new opportunity area. That is, the dance partner scoring should let you manage – drive underperforming partners to their potential and steering lower potential partners to better growth opportunities.
Your partner scoring model needs to take all this into account.
How should you score partners?
The Spur Group has a proven data scoring method we use with our clients. Before we explain our model, let us explain what goes into any good partner scoring model
What makes a good partner scoring framework?
Use transactional data
Partner data is available like never. There is a wide range of systems to capture this information:
- Transactional point of sales data is captured by most vendors capture. This is a wealth of information. It often contains not just how much a partner sold, but the product mix and often customer information.
- Deal registration and incentive engines capture pipeline, close rate, partner sales capabilities, joint selling effectiveness.
- Training, certification, and readiness programs can capture the number of reps and SEs and level of training and certifications earned. Appropriately done, app centers and product certifications can give detailed insight into partner developed IP.
- Portals and campaign engines should track and manage engagement at the individual and the partner level.
- Support consumption, both by the partner and their customers, can and should be tracked.
- Program registrations, web forms, and partner business plans should feed profile collection.
This does not include all the information about partners that is now available through different third-party providers.
Keep it quantifiable
Partner scoring is a statistical model. It needs to be based on numeric observations. This does not mean you cannot have qualitative information about your partner’s performance. It does mean that you avoid baking that information into your scoring model.
One way to avoid this is to make observable, qualitative information into numeric data. For example, you can ask partner managers to rank a partner’s alignment to your platform as a positive, neutral, or negative data point. This lets you make calculations based on these data points. But be careful, too many of these types of measures will likely skew your scoring based on biases and partner favoritism.
You are better using this information as notations and context. This way, they do not influence a partner’s score, but they may explain it.
Use measures that are tracked over time
As mentioned earlier, the real value of a partner scoring system is evaluating the changes that happen over time. If you do not have repeatable data, this is hard to do.
Build your own data mart
The challenge for channel organizations is this data is usually spread across many different systems, and often the channel group is not the “owner” of the data.
The channel team must create its own data mart. This has several advantages:
- You can normalize data in a manner that suits your needs without changing the way the rest of your company uses the data.
- You have control of the development environment; this reduces the dependencies on having a different org crunch the numbers for you.
- You increase your ability to model out “what if” scenarios internally
Avoid changing your model
Think hard about your model and try to get it right the first time. Every meaningful change requires the recalculation of the entire model. This means past data as well as current.
Think of it as a customer segmentation model; it is more important to be consistent than perfect.
The Spur Group scoring model
The Spur Group’s partner scoring framework centers around our belief that you need more than a simple forecasting tool. Our model framework helps companies increase sales, improve ROI, and influence partner behaviors to act on the products and markets that currently matter the most. To effectively rank your partners, you need to examine both their performance and their potential for growth. We calculate a PERC (Partner Estimated Revenue Capacity) score for each partner:
The Five Cs Model
How does the channel capacity plan framework work? We use a model we call the 5Cs:
- Contribution is the function of the size, frequency, and number of transactions the partner completes each year. Each partner’s sales velocity is a direct measure of their contribution.
- Consumption is how effective is the partner at driving customer usage. If contribution represents revenue, then consumption represents performance at growing a customer’s lifetime value. It recognizes that going deeper within a customer makes you stickier.
- Capability is the alignment and demonstrated knowledge around your company’s offerings, and then to sell and support these products. It is weighted to favor strategic products,
- Coverage is what geographies and market specializations a partner possesses. The more focused a partner is in the markets that matter to you, the more vital they become to your partner community.
- Commitment measures their preference for selecting you over your competition. Most partners work with multiple vendors, and their loyalty to your company is a critical determinant in channel revenue.
The 5Cs provides a measurable score that determines how much value each channel partner delivers.
Step 1: Rank for each component
Contribution measures more than just how much revenue each partner generates: it accounts for sales velocity.
What drives sales velocity? Contribution-- what essentially is sales velocity-- is based on the standard FRY formula for frequency, reach, and yield.
- Frequency: How many transactions does each partner complete in each period? A partner that makes just one sale a year could be assumed to sell your products on an opportunistic basis, while a partner that makes ten sales is more likely to prioritize your company’s offerings.
- Reach: How many customers are involved in these transactions? You need to prioritize identifying these customers, and in the event you cannot learn how many named accounts your channel partners are selling to.
- Yield: What is the average deal size each partner makes?
Identifying the Biggest Contributor
To calculate a partner’s contribution score, first create a stack that ranks all your partners based strictly on each partner’s sales frequency, with your best partners at the top.
Next, divide your entire partner community into quintiles, or five equal groups. (I.e., If you have 100 partners, each quintile has 20 partners.) Note which quintile partners fall into and assign a score of 1 to 5 based on what quintile that partner falls in with one being high, five being low.
Then you need to perform the same stack ranking exercise for reach and yield, respectively. A partner will likely receive different scores for each measure, as demonstrated below. Depending on your overall business strategy, you can weigh the FRY components.
Why Weight the FRY Factors?
The 4 C scoring method can be adapted to your industry and overall channel strategy. It is not a one size fits all solution.
A savvy channel manager who is in tune with their partner community will know if it is easier to increase the number of transactions or if the average size of a deal is the most mutable factor.
The harder it is to change a factor, the more critical the top quintiles may be.
The goal is to weight the three FRY components of the contribution score based on how well you know your partner community. Keep those factors in mind as you weight capability, coverage, and commitment scores.
When The Spur Group originally developed our scoring model, we did not separate consumption from contribution. While customer usage should translate to revenues for a company, consumption measures something subtly different from sales velocity.
Consumption focuses on how good a partner is managing customer acquisition costs and customer lifetime value. In the world of cloud sales and SaaS, this is commonly referred to as negative churn. (Negative churn is an interesting term. We are generally conditioned to believe that “negative” is a bad thing. As anyone familiar with a subscription business will tell you, negative churn is precisely the opposite. It is the dynamo behind what makes a subscription model work as a growth engine.) As such, we changed our model from the 5Cs to the 5Cs and added consumption as the fifth C.
Consumption always looks at existing customers and factors in three main areas.
Upselling the customer
It looks at how effective is the partner at upgrading the customer to a more expensive or upgraded version of a product they already own. Think of this as the ability to move a customer from the basic edition to the pro edition to the premium edition.
It is valuable to both the company and the partner because the acquisition costs for this type of sale are relatively low compared to the potential yield.
Done effectively, it also makes a company’s solution “stickier” as customers fill their needs gaps and receive a higher value. But there is a danger – if the upgrade is pushed on and not valued by the customer – you can lose trust and see future revenue shrinkage. That is one of the reasons why measuring this over time helps you understand whether a partner is good at helping customers realize the value of your premium offerings
Cross-selling the customer
Like upselling the customer, cross-selling is a big opportunity for you to layer your revenues with very low customer acquisition costs.
For many companies, this looks at their product attach rate. This measure is the frequency at which one product is sold in conjunction with another.
Understanding this metric helps you refine your sales strategy, strengthen your customer value proposition, and refine your customer profiles.
You may also want to think about measuring external, complementary, third-party product attach rate as part of your consumption model. Why? Because this is a simple way to demonstrate your value to your partners as you allow them to expand their footprint within their customers.
Ability to drive expansion
It is most commonly achieved through seat expansion, but other expansion techniques aren’t an upsell, or a cross-sell.
For most companies, this is a pretty linear model. You charge a fee for the essential product and then additional costs per user. As the customer expands the number of users, the consumption value increases.
For other companies, the model might be a little more complicated, but the concept is the same. For example, cloud-based storage offerings may provide a simple way to expand the amount of storage that isn’t a new service level (the upsell) or an attached offer (the cross-sell). It would also be an expansion model.
Capability measures a given partner’s knowledge of your company’s offerings to make sales and provide product support. A partner’s capability to sell your products highly depends on their sales force readiness and relevant earned certifications.
Proving a Partner’s Capability
Capability is determined with three components:
- People: How many certified people does the partner have? The more of their sales force that has technical and sales certifications, the more likely they are to rank high for capability.
- Focus: What products does your partner have certifications? The type of product certifications the partner holds can tell you much about both their business focus and capability.
- Productivity: How effective is the partner’s certified team? Productivity can be simply calculated by the total dollars in this partner’s sales divided by the number of certifications the partner should account for quality over quantity.
Finding the Most Capable Partner
Quantifying capability requires a more personal touch than quantifying contribution, which directly correlates to sales. As a result, the criteria for scoring partners on capability is softer.
Start by identifying an excellent benchmark-level performance for the number of certifications. Then examine each partner and determine where they rank against that benchmark:
- Partner’s performance exceeds the benchmark
- Performance meets the benchmark
- Performance is below the benchmark.
This process must then be repeated with focus and productivity, respectively. Calculate a weighted average of the three scores to determine an aggregate partner capability score. Apply weights based on your channel strategy and knowledge of your partner channel for a more refined relative to your business community.
Coverage measures the impact of your partners in each market. This metric can help determine the importance of any given market to your business, whether you are trying to gain more market share or maintain your foothold in that market.
Subsequently, coverage is relative. It is the only one of the 5Cs that incorporates peer partner performance in the formulation of a single partner’s reach to account for market relevance. As a result, it is quantified very differently than both contribution and capability.
Evaluating Market Focus
Multiple factors impact and influence a partner’s market focus. To score partners on coverage, evaluate which markets they do business in by breaking them down according to a geographic territory, customer segmentation, or a combination of these two factors.
Determining the Reach of a Partner
To calculate a partner’s reach score, first categorize the market by the estimated number of customers who have not been reached (shown as the Y-axis in the above graphic), and the average revenue per account (the X-axis).
Divide the resulting graph into four equal quadrants and assign each a numerical value:
- Best: High number of unreached customers and high average deal size for existing customers.
- Better: High average deal size but a limited number of unreached customers.
- Good: High number of untapped customers but a small average deal size.
- Bad: Small number of untapped customers and small average deal size.
As with the previous components, you can easily weight this formula to get a more accurate coverage score for each partner. The formula should be weighted based on your channel strategy, industry, and other relevant factors.
The example diagram prioritizes market size and applies a higher weight to emerging markets. However, your market strategy may focus on the maturity of a market or strength of your niche, so adjust the weighting accordingly. Note that your company’s determination of a major versus emerging market may be very different from other companies.
Crafting an Informed Market Strategy
When thinking about coverage, take steps to understand the type of markets your partners are selling. A high number of accounts that have not been sold to yet is a high-value segment, referred to as “whitespace.”
The most robust market opportunities have a lot of whitespace customers and high average revenue per customer. Expanding into a growth opportunity market like this can have a significant impact on revenue, and capitalizing on that opportunity requires careful consideration. There are three typical approaches you may take depending on the market opportunity:
- Ramp-up Coverage: If many accounts yield low average revenue, you will want to ensure that you have enough partners to cover it to increase revenue.
- Stay Put: In markets with very few whitespace customers and above-average revenue per account, consider it well covered as your partners are productive.
- Know When to Walk Away: Markets with low customer counts and low average revenue equal a market that is not worth focusing. It should be a low investment priority.
Partners generally work with multiple vendors. In some respects, commitment is a measure of a partner’s loyalty to your company. It is determined by the percentage of deals that include your company’s offerings.
The Measures of Competitive Alignment
Commitment is often overlooked in many partner capacity planning frameworks. However, you should not overlook a partner’s loyalty to you compared to the other partner’s vendors.
There are five distinct measures you should examine to determine how committed they are:
- Planning Execution: What is the partner’s track record of execution against partner-level business planning?
- Thru-Partner Marketing: How much does the partner participate in your marketing efforts, and how much of their marketing resources have been leveraged for this exact purpose?
- Deal Tracking and Closing: How dedicated is the partner to tracking leads and closing probable deals?
- Visibility into Pipeline: Does the partner share pipeline information through deal registration or other systems?
- Branding Partnership: Is the partner actively promoting your products and brands on their websites? (The Spur Group can uniquely quantify this aspect for you.)
Determining Exceptionally Loyal Partners
Quantifying commitment is subjective, like the capability measurement.
Just like with the capability measures, you first need to determine an individual benchmark for each of the five areas of commitment:
- Partner’s performance exceeds the benchmark
- Performance meets the benchmark
- Performance is below the benchmark.
As with contribution, capability, and coverage, set weights based on your channel strategy and intricacies of your partner community, take that average to determine a partner’s commitment score.
Step 2: Rate each partner into peer-levels
Once you have calculated the partner ranking for each component, you can now rate each partner.
We use a simple five-star rating. Our experience is this works very well at this level. It is easily understood and simple to communicate.
Partners that score well in all the 5Cs are 5-star partners. Those that do well in three are 4-star partners if you do well in two areas you are three-stars and so on.
It may seem like a simple exercise, but it is usually very telling. It is challenging for a partner to score well in every one of the 5Cs and five-star partners are truly the cream of the crop. Not only do they have high revenues, but they are also profoundly engaged around all elements of your business. They are your market movers.
Four-star partners often have the potential to become five-star partners, but they are underperforming in one or two areas. It creates a clear growth plan for driving their performance around their missed potential
Three-star partners are almost always most of your core partner base. They almost always score high in capability and commitment, with lower but good performance around contribution and coverage. They are where you achieve scale in your channel efforts.
Two-star partners are engaged up-and-comers. Here is where recruitment and onboarding are essential.
The long-tail of one-star partners are partners that are opportunistically engaged with you.
Step 3: Calculate a final PERC Score
The final perc score is always calculated across the star grouping of partners. You can then assess whether a partner is performing above, at or below average for similarly sized partners.
Here is where you gain insight into what and where you should focus. CDW will always outsell smaller partners, but it is much more likely that a smaller value-added partner will have larger transaction sizes.
It is this calculation that lets you create an action plan for your partners.
How should I use partner scoring?
There are many uses for partner scoring. The strength of our suggested model is you can view the data at the partner level, or you can aggregate the data. The scoring model works on each level. This lets you use partner scoring to not only measure partner performance but use it as a cornerstone of your planning, execution, and resourcing models. We see four common uses: partner-level business planning, territory planning, Incentive planning, and program performance management
Drive individual partner improvement
Not only will you be able to score each partner against these four attributes, but you will also be able to determine the health of your overall partner community based on the aggregate score. These scores can be placed in a framework that suggests specific strategies based on chosen market objectives.
You can now measure a partner’s ability to execute within each area: contribution, capability, coverage, and commitment and understand the where to focus on improving specific partner performance
Invest in emerging partners
Channel churn is a natural part of the business community. Small companies come and go. By carefully investing in smaller partners with significant potential, channel churn becomes more manageable, and revenue dips minimally.
Looking for the up-and-comers in your partner community is crucial for both sales growth and increasing your market share. In addition to broadening your footprint, making these investments in channel partners also helps develop backfill for unavoidable aspects of channel churn.
By establishing criteria for your investments that identifies them as the partners of tomorrow, account managers can engage up-and-comers early on and drive growth beyond their original potential.
Improve partner-level business planning
You should have a business plan with all five- and four-star partners. You can create programmatic objectives for three-star partners that serve a similar purpose.
Play to your partner’s strengths. Use partner scoring to verify how a partner performs in any vital area against its peers. Determining whether a critical area is a weakness, strength, or on par will help you set appropriate goals by partner and territory.
- Strengths: Align big goals with big rewards.
- On Par: Keep the partner motivated but do not focus on this area of the business plan.
- Weaknesses: Partners rarely hit modest goals with moderate rewards in weak areas, so be sure to manage your risk correctly.
Use your partner scoring to model out what specific goals need to be driven to meet your business objectives with these partners
Determine the best incentives
You have formulated data that points to potential risks and issues at both the partner and territory levels. You also have four basic strategies to address these risks. Now, you must ensure that your channel incentives are driving the right behaviors.
At The Spur Group, our golden rule regarding incentives is that they should only be used to drive behaviors that partners would not engage in on their own. Your partner scoring model can help you direct incentive funds in this way.
Nearly all channel incentives fit into one of four primary groups:
- Transaction Proficiency: These incentives reward partners based on the mechanics of a deal. Sales of a product or winning a specific customer on a targeted account list, are rewarded.
- Capacity Development: This type of incentive usually coincides with the launch of a new product. These incentives aim to get a partner ready for a specific solution, such as including offsets for training or rebates for the first deals they make with the new product.
- Demand Generation: These incentives reward partner leadership (specifically, finding and closing on opportunities.) Demand generation incentives often accompany a deal registration system and help offset a partner’s cost of sales, such as offering support to partners that run proof of concepts.
- Performance Attainment: This type of incentive rewards partners for hitting specific, usually time-sensitive targets such as growing by X percent or selling Y volume on a quarterly or annual basis.
The right partner scoring model helps you shape your mix of incentives. If an incentive program is not changing the right partner score, it is an entitlement and should be discontinued.
Once you have established a scoring model, you can easily extend it to get even more value for you and your partners.
Once a channel chief has taken steps to form a partner community, managing the partners and properly investing resources becomes a challenge. Without measurable data to base decisions off, channel teams often make the mistake of only focusing on the top-earning partners. This creates an unbalanced and underutilized ecosystem that is not achieving the growth; it is truly capable of driving.
Attaching a reliable metric to partners is key to maintaining and improving your channel health. Partner scoring helps align business goals, demonstrate partner capabilities, and even increase ROI and growth velocity if you use the model effectively.
Partner scoring provides quantifiable data that can grow your business and assist you in making more informed decisions. The breadth of data and how it is brought together into a single community help with investments in specific partners and the overall partner community.