Solutions Marketing: Leveraging Channel Partners to Supercharge your Solutions Business

For most companies, the main objective of a channel partner program is to increase market coverage by using partners to provide leads or close sales.  In some cases, channel partners are also used to augment a company’s offerings by providing substitute or add-on installation or delivery capabilities.

Given these objectives, vendors typically provide their resellers and VARs with just the basics:  discounts, incentives, product catalogues, and a modest level of training and marketing support.  Very few companies see their partners as critical to the success of their solution strategy.

You’ve probably chosen certain firms as partners because of their customer knowledge and expertise.  This is exactly the reason you should use them not only to sell your solutions but, more strategically, to help shape and launch them.

To fully utilize the power channel partners can bring to your solutions business, you need to involve them in each of the following key processes:

1.  Customer insight Since your channel partners generally represent a number of companies’ products in addition to yours, and may have either horizontal or industry expertise that allows them to have substantive conversations at the C-level, they are often able to identify unmet needs or trends that you can’t see.   Actively engaging key partners early in the requirements gathering process can significantly affect the value and market acceptance of a new solution.

Tip:  Hold frequent formal and informal “listening sessions” with key partners to mine their knowledge of the market , competitors and customer needs.

2.  Solution development In our definition of a solution (see box below), we point out that partners may provide one or more of the products, services, or intellectual capital components that are part of the solution. When companies involve potential partners in the solutions development process as early as possible, they often discover partner capabilities they didn’t even know existed. A systems integration company we work with requires that at least three of its key partners be involved in the solutions development process before the final solutions offer is viewed as “market ready.”

Tip:  Make it mandatory that either a specific number of partners, or specific key partners, must be involved in every significant solution that you develop.  Also, make participation in the development process a key component of your partner contracts.

3.  Solution launch Very often, when a solution is launched, the channel is an afterthought. Not a good idea. The nightmare solution launch that we’ve seen too often is when a company makes inaccurate assumptions about the capabilities, capacity and level of receptivity of its channel. For example, we saw a large technology company roll out a new cloud-based solution only to watch it crash and burn because they had severely underestimated the training required to get partners to properly deliver and install it. Especially when the channel partners’ services are part of the solution, a concurrent launch to and through the channel should be part of any solution go-to-market plan.

Tip:  Consider testing your most important solutions with your key partners first.  If you have implemented everything they need to be successful, you will likely have included everything your direct sales team needs as well.  You may also find that you’ve given your market launch a mega-booster shot by expanding the range of your initial outreach.

4.  Business development Selling a complex solution requires a true team effort, from the development of detailed targeting strategies and customer or industry-specific messaging, to ongoing account management. Channel partners who have enduring customer relationships can help in all of these areas and so should be involved from the beginning.

Tip: Involve key people from your partner’s sales and marketing teams in your initial targeting and segmentation activities.  Also, put together and support integrated pursuit teams, and even consider an extra team incentive for joint selling.

5.  Solution delivery and value creation For a solution to be successful, the solution providers – including the company and its partners – must understand, deliver and then, ideally, measure the achieved business value of the solution. This is fundamentally different than a basic product sale where you deliver, configure and install the box (or software) and then pass the customer off to a service or maintenance team. Companies and their partners who wish to gain the additional margin that a high-value solution can offer must be willing, individually and collectively, to stay with the customer for the long term.

Tip:  Hold your partners responsible for the Net Promoter Score of your key customers.   This will force you to address all of the partners’ requirements to be successful not only in closing the sale but also in creating long term customer relationships.

Frankly, we haven’t seen any company that has successfully incorporated all of these elements into their solutions and channel strategies.  If a company were to do this, however, we believe they would significantly increase the success of their solutions business and likely pull away from competitors.

What has your experience been?  Have you implemented such a strategy?  If so, do you agree that these are the key areas?  What can and should you be doing differently to better leverage your channel assets and relationships?

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