One of the most obvious reasons businesses start building a channel program - whether with traditional VARs, referral partners, affiliates, and technology partners - is to extend their sales and marketing footprint into markets and geographies that they otherwise couldn’t cost-effectively reach. One of the most obvious hiccups these same business often experience early in the process, however, is in building the structure and then hiring the team to recruit the right partners and ensure they are successful. At best, they simply have inadequate coverage. At worst, they see their partners migrate to competitors who are just as eager to grow through indirect sales, and possibly more prepared.
We see it time and again: the seductive instinct of one business leader after another to believe that the most logical person to start growing their channel program is, of course, their most successful direct sales representative. And time and again, we see this strategy not only fail, but actually damage the business in its entirety by: 1) putting one of its most productive team members in a complex and unfamiliar position where they aren’t set up for success; and 2) removing one of the company’s top revenue-producing assets from its sales organization.
Plain and simple, just because a sales rep or other team member is a top performer on the direct side of your business doesn’t mean that they’ll excel building your partner program. If this were a football analogy, that would be like taking your best running back and putting him on the defensive side of the ball just because he’s a great athlete—even the worst coaches know that it’s seldom a great idea. What is critical—offense or defense, direct sales or indirect—is building a strong foundation for recruiting, onboarding, and empowering the right players (partners) to believe in your business, engage with your people and culture, and ultimately get to work selling and supporting your product.
One thing I’ll tell you without any doubt at all is that the best channel partner programs are supported from the top-down, with the CEO, CFO, CRO and other key executives emphasizing and believing in its importance and alignment to the business as a whole. Even if your channel sales team starts as an extension of your direct sales team, you want to have all aspects of the organization involved. The earlier that you can get everyone involved, the easier this process will be. Marketing, Finance, even Product Development might need to be included when developing strategies.
This is because the reach of your channel sales team is farther than just the channel sales that it produces. Sharing resources with direct sales becomes a lot easier when you can sit down and discuss what the channel sales team will need. Also, providing training documentation to your channel partners can be made much simpler when you have a plan in place with your marketing department.
Especially if the channel sales team was born out of the sales and marketing staff, you can’t expect specialization to occur immediately. But if you are not willing to allow some specialization to happen naturally over time, your channel sales team will be missing out on some key tactical considerations.
The mindset of channel sales reps is slightly different than that of an inside sales rep. While a direct rep might work directly with the consumer for faster results, a channel sales team needs more patience. This patience is rewarded over time, and not getting itchy will net minimal returns. Working with the channel affords the sales reps greater leverage as opposed to direct sales, which is a technique that is acquired with some practice.
The channel manager needs a little more patience too. This is more due to the growing pains your channel sales team might experience in the early stages. A fiery leader can get results from an inside sales team, but could also shut down any creative processes that would be useful in a channel sales team. The head of channel sales will also become a bit more specialized over time, finding the best matches between leads and partners.
While these aspects of specialization are by no means a reason to lock the sales team in a closet and never bring in new blood, it’s worth noting that you’re not going to be able to exchange staff at will. Be sure that anyone on the channel sales team has enough time to get used to the different methods of operation. The keyword here is patience. Give everyone a chance to specialize.
The success of a channel sales team doesn’t end as soon as you leave the channel. When you have company wide buy-in to the channel partnership, everything becomes a little bit easier. The goal of the company is to succeed. And if the channel sales team is successful, that’s a huge boost to the health of the company overall.
As I mentioned above, one of the most critical components of keeping visibility high and fostering support throughout the company is gaining the support of upper level management, perhaps even having channel management reporting directly to the CRO or VP of Sales. Not to unfairly elevate the importance of the channel over other sales or marketing operations (if the corporate structure is such that the VP of Sales would feel threatened by the channel structure), but to allow for direct communication between the executives and channel leadership. In this way, you can expect higher visibility, and better support throughout the entire company.
Consider these aspects with your own channel sales team. If there are ways to tweak the structure to gain more out of the team, give it a try.