Raegan owns the firm’s platform alliance relationships and leads the channel automation and optimization strategy. With over 20 years of channel experience collaborating with clients like Thomson Reuters, Logitech, Palo Alto Networks, Xerox, ADP, and Fortinet.
Kate specializes in initiatives related to SaaS and cloud channel management, partner and alliance strategy, incentives and program design, and organizational assessment and transformation. She’s helped clients such as Microsoft, VMware, and other Fortune 500 technology firms meet and exceed their strategic and transformational goals.
Kate and Raegan discuss the key elements of channel strategy needed to form an optimal partner experience (PX), how to start building your PX, incorporate automation into your channel ecosystem, and prioritize the ease of doing business. Check out the video and transcript below.
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Transcript of the conversation
RAEGAN: Thank you for joining us for a Channel Chat on PX. I'm Raegan Wilson and I run all things channel at Spur Reply. With me today, I have Channel Strategy Director, Kate Caday. Kate, I know your love and passion for the channel runs deep. So, tell me – what is this buzz about PX? Why is everybody talking about it?
KATE: Such a good question, Raegan. You know, there's a lot that's happening, right? There's a power shift within the broader tech industry as that industry matures and proliferates with options, right? So, vendors’ power has decreased. Customers have moved to the center and then whoever owns that customer relationship ends up holding the power. And honestly, that's a great thing, right? It can lead to solutions that are better aligned to the problems that consumers and businesses are actually facing today.
And for many customers who are trying to navigate that complexity, partners are their digital transformation advisors. So now, vendors find themselves competing for mindshare with those top partners — the ones who have refined the art of developing these tailor-made solutions for their unique customer needs.
So why does PX matter in this landscape? The thing is, losing focus on PX — just as with customer experience — will lead to churn. But partner churn, right? There's a cost associated with customer acquisition. There's a huge cost associated with partner acquisition…it takes time and money to grow your partner ecosystem. So, investing in your partner ecosystem…it’s like investing in customer success. It's a key means of driving retention and especially momentum. So [it] can also become a differentiator among vendors.
RAEGAN: So, if partners increasingly hold the keys to the full realization of the value for the customer, how do vendors need to adapt their strategy to ultimately provide an optimal PX?
KATE: Absolutely. I mean, I think first and foremost, just putting the customer at the center when making decisions. So, if your customers are at your center, whenever you're thinking through things, you'll soon identify and prioritize any impediments throughout your organization that hinder partners with being able to engage with the customer successfully.
Honestly…with a lot of our clients, it's tempting to take the CFO's point of view, right? ‘Why invest in PX?’ It's not as direct [in being] able to measure growth like you could with say, resale bookings, right? Or take the operational point of view of like, ‘Well, we don't have the processes or tools or systems to do this so it's not going to happen. End of story.’ But that's the [result] of short-term thinking. So, friction in your engagement model with partners will lead to decrease in momentum over time.
Secondly, we always think about the competition, right? So, we're in a world where top partners can and will choose to work with vendors who prioritize a great PX. So, keep an eye out for what your peers are doing to make their PX great, and pull together your own business case to get moving. If you're not sure what your partners want, ask them. They'll tell you what they want from you, who [it impacts], and why it matters to their business.
So, third, we always try to have clients keep it simple, right? Fix what you know is broken. Again, your partners can tell you exactly what that is. We’ve seen so many vendors try to introduce new programs, incentives, portals, playbooks, etc., and more to address their partners’ concerns. But meanwhile, these core pieces still aren't fixed. The things that partners actually want fixed. Things that we've heard — that I've heard — over my time [are things like] real-time and accurate reporting or clear outline learning journeys and resource maps – not just a huge library with no instructions – telemetry and business intelligence (BI), clear rules of engagement with core sellers, trial licenses, not for resales (NFRs) to help prove value to customers, better-designed portals of functioning search. I know these all sound basic, but partners still don't find those all the time with every vendor. PX should be the whole company's problem. Not just the channel chiefs.
And I'll just walk you through a recent example that illustrates this point. We were working with a vendor whose enablement reporting fell short, so their monthly reports were manually compiled across multiple systems. [They] often had errors in them.
They didn't provide partners with any proactive flagging that certifications for their sellers or technology folks were about to expire. So, partners frequently only found out that their certifications were about to expire when the rebate program payouts dropped or they were about to drop a tier in the program, which was a terrible PX.
And the thing is, it wasn't part of the channel chiefs’ direct world, but it did impact partners’ perceptions of the ease of doing business with that vendor. So, it's really important.
RAEGAN: Where do you advise clients start when it comes to PX?
KATE: Yeah, I mean, it's a tough thing to figure out, right? But I think first it starts with taking stock. So, the best way to kind of figure out [what that looks] like from a strategy perspective is just map out the end-to-end lifecycle of a typical partner in your ecosystem. There might be a couple of different versions if you work with a lot of different types of partners...So, after you've mapped that out, map out the touch points that you have with partners on a regular basis across the whole life cycle.
That can turn out to be overwhelming really fast. A lot of vendors have tried to develop these great programs that are not tied together. It turns out the partners are being blasted. I would also say too, involve your partner account managers with this part of the process. So, pull them into a focus group, brainstorm with them, and then, you know, heat map what's working well and what's not. And have your— if possible – your partner account managers actually validate that with the partners to check your understanding.
You're likely going to hear some different pain points depending on who the partner is, how they monetize – just unique experiences...but chances are, there will probably be some consistent themes as well. That's what we've typically heard when interviewing partners on behalf of the vendor.
So, after you've taken stock, prioritize. Consider using a modified version of the Eisenhower matrix, the importance and urgency matrix, to figure out where to focus your efforts. So, starting with importance, that's guided by what's closest to revenue. So, for instance, if your partners are struggling to acquire new customers because it's really tough to get cloud credits for a proof of concept (POC) or gain access to presales technical experts in time to close a deal, that might be a high-priority PX item.
Urgency turns into…what's the level of effort required to execute this, right? So, some items might go on the road map because they cost a lot of money. The operational expenditure (OpEx) to get the right systems in place, for instance, might mean that it has to wait until next year. So, after you've prioritized what's most important and then also what's realistic, circle back with your partners, if possible, or your partner account managers and just make sure that it actually resonates. A lot of vendors are in a hurry. A lot of clients we work with are like, ‘we need to land these updates now,’ but the reality is, is that if it's not what the partners want, it doesn't matter. So just check back in with them and make sure that you're actually investing in the big fixes that will make the most difference.
RAEGAN: I love it. That's great. There's so many pieces. So many things.
KATE: Absolutely. So, Reagan, I'm curious to hear from you. What role does automation play in the PX?
RAEGAN: Well, I would say that automation is the keystone of the PX. It's the final piece that brings the PX together. However, it's not the starting point. Automation really supports the program and the process, and it can only be successful when the other pieces are there to support it. We work with so many companies that have purchased the various partner automation platforms that are out there and they come to us looking for assistance in implementing [them].
And for most of our clients, there are areas where there are key pieces missing. We typically see things missing around processes, around deal registration or market development funds (MDF), rules of engagement, [and] defined roles and responsibilities. Oftentimes there's a lack of training for partners available or content. And to be completely honest, it's really hard to automate a process or program that you don't have. So, you have to have those other pieces in place for that automation to slide in as that keystone.
But there are several considerations that create the right environment for a really robust PX. I call them the five P's: people, program, process, partners, and platform. So, you really have to have the right people internally to support your PX.
This means assigning resources to…a dedicated person that's thinking about PX. We work with a lot of more mature vendors, and they actually have a role for PX. You might be a smaller company. You might not have that role. But you need to be having someone that wears that hat. And maybe they wear others. But PX should be a role within your organization.
From a program standpoint, your programs must be robust. You know, to your point Kate, they've got to be designed end to end, thought about with the partner in mind, and they have to be built out. Then you can add the process in. And the processes must be in place to really support the programmatical elements. Without the process, there’s not really much you can automate. From there, we add in the partners, and I would say you need to understand who the right partners are. Many programs are very wide, and they have a lot of partners in the program, but are those the right partners?
So, once you understand who the right partners are for your program, then you can start creating those programs to tailor to what those partners’ needs are. And then lastly, once that keystone’s there, that's when the platform comes into play. Then you can add that in to support all of those other pieces.
You've got to have it all. Kate, you mentioned earlier that PX can be a differentiator for vendors. And I would say that the automation tools used are really the key differentiation when they're done well. They can make your program look really good or look really hokey depending on how you implement those things. So, at the end of the day, understanding the program, the process, and that maturity level that you're at…should really drive what you can automate now and then what needs to be phased in as you build a more robust set of processes and programs around those other elements.
I had a client tell me that she had this analogy where she compared their partner automation maturity to a grocery store to really help set the internal expectations. Because internally they were [saying,] “Buy a portal. Buy a portal. We need this.” And she said, “Okay, well, we're not really ready. So, you need to understand that we're more like the little mom-and-pop shop and we're not like Costco. And at the end of the day…each of those serve two different completely different purposes and there's different sized grocery stores in between, right?”
So, you don't want your partners walking into what they think is a huge store or a Costco where they're going to go get all of these things and the shelves are stacked to the ceiling…when what you have is really a small store with empty shelves. So right sizing that automation with your partners is the right step. Build it based on the maturity of your program and processes and your partners will thank you for setting them up with the right expectations.
No one likes walking into an empty store with a bunch of empty shelves. But one of the nice things about automation is that it can create transparency and trust with partners when done well. So financial visibility is one area that I think automation can play a really big role with programs like deal registration renewals, incentives…market development funds (MDF), [and] sales performance incentive funds (spiffs).
When you bring in the automation piece, partners can then see what projects they're on, what opportunities they've been allotted, what leads they have, and how far along they are in their business planning process. The automation can really eliminate or minimize the friction and frustration that partners face, as well as [the friction or frustration that] internal teams face. So, think about how it can bring that transparency and trust into the equation for your partners.
KATE: That totally makes sense. I've been hearing a lot about the phrase ‘easy to do business with.’ Could you talk with me a little bit about how you feel about what it means to be easy to do business with?
RAEGAN: I think that is like the channel cliche of the year or the last couple of years. Everyone says, “I want to…make it easy for partners and be easy to do business with.” And at the end of the day, it looks different for all sizes of organizations. But the starting point is really understanding your partners’ business goals and figuring out how your services and solutions and products fit into their business.
Partners should be able to have a very clear path to success within your program and they should be able to track that progress. As you mentioned, Kate, not all partners are the same. Some might have one primary selling motion. They might be a reseller or a services partner while others might actually slot into multiple selling motions. And so, it's really critical to build programs and then tools that support partners that come in those various shapes and sizes and [then] right size those programs to those partners since all partners aren't all the same. It's critical to have different sets of measurements for those partners as well.
I would say consider using what we call the 5C's to help develop that right partner scoring model. Those 5C's are contribution, consumption, coverage, capability, and commitment. A lot of programs focus on the first one, which is contribution. That's probably the easiest one to usually measure. That's typically your sales velocity and your revenue. But you've kind of got to look beyond that because, again, partners aren't all the same and because they have different selling motions. That one isn't always necessarily the biggest [measure] for other partner types.
You can look at other things like consumption or how they're increasing customer retention or driving new clients or adding on products and services. You can look at coverage [and ask yourself,] ‘Where do these partners sell? What do they influence?’ Are they in markets that you're trying to break into? Are they in different verticals that you want to cover? From a capability standpoint, this is typically knowledge and effectiveness. What are the capabilities of these partners? Can they take you further than another partner?
And then lastly — commitment. This one I think should always be weighted in any program. This is that consistency that you see from the partner and also the loyalty. Are they selling just your product or are they selling [through] ten other vendors in your space? You might have a smaller amount of revenue coming from that partner, but…if your revenue is 100% of…that space that you're in versus 10%, that might be worth more in your program.
So, consider those 5C's. Then, once you have that scoring model refined and then aligned to the partners in your program, from there, automating the exposure of that scorecard or the dashboard is really the next step. It's gathering up all those data points, putting it in a pretty little package you can then expose through automation tools so that your partners can see where they're at, what they need to do to track into your other pillars or motions or tiers in your program, and how they rack and stack.
This checkpoint really makes sure that you have built something that's measurable. If you go to build your scorecard and you don't have the data points that you're trying to measure, you might need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to pull those things in. If you can't really expose it for partner visibility, then I would ask: is it something that you should be measuring at this point? Maybe it [can] go into the future measurement for your partners.
KATE: Yeah, that totally makes sense. [That’s] a great point. What one thing would you recommend vendors consider when trying to enhance their PX?
That’s a hard one. One thing I would probably say [is to] just take a step back and look at what you're doing. Assess everything at least yearly. If not, quarterly. Start asking those hard questions. For us, a lot of our projects start with an assessment. And sometimes we get questions like, “Why do we need to start there?” …We just had [a conversation] yesterday where the client said, “This is great. What you provided makes a ton of sense. Now we can kind of see the blind spots that we have.”
So, I think assessments are a great way to benchmark against best practices and then identify opportunities for optimization within your program and within your tools. And from there, you can assess the level of complexity. Have you built a program that is really hard to manage? That you don't have the data on? [Are you] not actually reviewing the things that you're asking for from your partners? Those are some questions you probably want to ask.
We often see unnecessary complexity built into various programs where you're asking for partners to provide you something and then there are really no checks and balances on the back end. So, you've got to really ask yourself the hard questions [like] ‘Are there complexities?’ or [‘Do] these elements that we have in our program…make sense? Are they something that we can measure [and] maintain…is it something that's adding value to our partners?’ From there, I would say…audit the user experience both internally and for partners.
I think sometimes we forget about one side or the other. Is it easy for your internal users to do business with partners based on the information and data flow? Is it easy for partners to do business with you? And some questions to think about when it comes to that overarching PX and the programs and the complexity is, do these – fill in the blank, whatever elements you have – do they serve a real purpose? Is it blanketed across all partner types? Should it be targeted toward one type of partner? One selling motion? Can you simplify things? Are you forcing unnatural things or are partners [having to] jump through fiery hoops to get things done?
From there…once you have the program kind of assessed and locked and loaded and updated then you can go look at your automation platforms. Are there opportunities for efficiencies? Is it easy to navigate? Can you find the things that you need? Is it designed in the manner that you thought [it would be?] Are partners getting through the [portal’s] areas and finding what they need?
Are you actually leveraging the platform to its fullest capacity? Have you had a quarterly business review (QBR) with your platform vendor? Have they launched new functionality? Are you optimizing the things that you…have licensed? What else is available? is your content relevant? Do you still have that webinar recording or webinar registration page up from last year? Do you have things that are outdated? Because that's a big red flag to your partners that you're not on top of things…can your partners find what they need?
Put yourself in your partners’ shoes. Can you easily navigate the things you expect your partners to find? I was on the phone with a client last week and he said, “I can't find the things inside the portal.” So, if you can't find it, it’s likely that your partners can't find it. Maybe set up some time and…do a screen share and ask your partner to go find A, B, and C and just watch them go through the system and see what the actual PX looks like for them. Get that feedback and actually take action on it.
Kate, you also mentioned the focus groups and surveys. I think it's a really good way to get from your partners the things they need and the things that they care about and make sure that those things line up with what you're putting together. Because oftentimes, what we think they need and what they need are not aligned.
So, use that feedback to benchmark the progress and then really take action. It's in your hands. You have the control and now is the time to make those updates and changes. We're seeing a lot of people enhancing their programs and really focusing on PX.
KATE: That's a great ‘how to,’ Raegan. Thank you so much for those insights. I hope you all enjoyed hearing more about why PX is business critical as well as a few how-to’s that you can put to use today at your own company.
So, if you're interested in learning more, check out the links below or click on the ‘Contact us' link to get in touch directly. Thank you again for joining.
The transcription has been edited for clarity.