How to Manage Channel Partners Remotely
June 3, 2020

As we move forward through these uncertain times together, we’re experiencing what the New York Times calls, “the largest work from home experiment” of all time. But how is this impacting the management of channel partners? Many channel leaders did not see their partners face-to-face daily anyway.

Despite the changes not being exceedingly obvious, companies around the globe have been shifting to accommodate the impact on their channel partnerships. Despite uncertainty, there are concrete ways to support your partners and mitigate the adverse effects on your business and relationships.

Plan for a Few Different Scenarios

With so many unknowns, many companies are left feeling confused about what steps to take next. While sheltering in place makes us feel like we’re at a standstill, it’s essential to plan for both the short and long term. Leaders have had to adapt to these changes that seem to happen suddenly: re-forecasting budget and needs, adopting a normalcy for virtual meetings, balancing meetings and kids throughout the day, and more. Businesses must plan for the future because certain aspects of indirect sales will continue to shift.

Dell is a prime example of a partner-focused company getting creative to manage its channel partners during this time. Due to COVID-19, they’re providing one-time cash payouts for Market Development Funds (MDFs) and free training solutions.

Their financial arm, Dell Financial Services, is offering zero-percent interest on servers and storage. They’re also offering three, six, or nine-month deferred payment schedules to customers. New leasing options have been created for laptops, thin clients, and mobile workstations. To establish some income predictability for their partners, target-based programs that were rolled out in February are now postponed.

To adapt while also keeping business goals in mind, you must have a few plans. Channel leaders should thoughtfully prepare several plans 6, 12, and 18 months in the future. Realize that one size does not fit all – your plans could look very different than another company’s channel plan.

It’s important to think through: “What are the likely scenarios in the future and how do I address them?” While it may seem daunting to make plans when without any clear indication of when businesses will begin to function normally, it’s still worth it to make projections. Be sure to collaborate with different departments in your organization and understand who from your C-suite is your channel advocate. Your long-term plan could include:

  • A robust list of questions that will help you shift to a change management strategy? (Who is on your cross-functional team  with you? What are key benchmarks for your company? How do I meet the benchmarks/goals? Which partners need more attention?)
  • Recruiting and hiring of new partners
  • New policies and plans that will mitigate risks of future pandemics or economic downturns
  • Implementing new resources and technology needed to manage partners better remotely

Tip: Ask yourself: What are the likely circumstances in the future and what’s my plan to address them? Create a few different playbooks for different scenarios that could take place.

Understand How Your Partners’ Businesses are Being Impacted

Right now, most businesses are thinking about how they can adapt and save their own companies. While this is understandable, make time for a genuine check-in with your partners to understand their needs. The priority for CAMs right now should be to get a thorough understanding of how the current landscape is impacting their partner’s businesses.

Meeting with your partners not only enables you to offer support, but it also allows you to gauge their status and the likelihood of your partnership surviving.

When meeting with partners, be sure to find out:

  • Have there been organizational changes or layoffs? Find out the “who-what-where.” Who was laid off? Where were they located? What were  their job functions, and how will it ultimately impact the business?
  • Who is your primary POC? Will your primary POC within their company remain the same or change? Are introductions needed?
  • How is their business shifting? Your partners may be adjusting budgets and departments that could impact their ability to manage customer relationships efficiently.
  • What is their future plan? While companies may be changing their plans daily, it’s still important to understand if they’ve made significant changes to their internal strategy. Are they putting a heavier focus on internal selling? If so, how will this impact you?

Given the uncertainties, partners, vendors, distributors, and the broader ecosystem of media firms, associations, communities, and agencies need to develop relevant scenarios for their own businesses based on emerging news, customer engagement, and new opportunities for recovery.

McBain, Jay (2020, May 8) Quantifying COVID-19 For The Tech Channel — May 8 Update. Forrester Blog.

Tip: Think of incentives to keep your partners engaged while WFH. Are there more learning tracks they could be incentivized to complete?

Realize that the sales cycle and buying process might look a little different depending on industry. Keep partners engaged with new content and learning tracks. Perhaps there are new incentives and gamification opportunities.

Get Comfortable with Video Conferencing

For the time being, your partner relationships will be managed remotely. This can be a challenge for newer partnerships or partners that require more

hands-on assistance and attention. While phone calls are effective, now is a great time to utilize video conferencing. While it doesn’t replace in-person interaction, it still provides some of the face-to-face benefits that build relationships. You may be asking, “can’t I just stick with phone calls?” Video calls allow you and your partners to see each other’s faces as well as body language and hand gestures.

This can even be a great time to strengthen bonds and become more of a familiar face if you weren’t previously relying on video calls. Choose the video conferencing solution that works for you and your team. Companies should opt for the paid versions of video conferencing solutions. The premium version of your video conferencing software will give you more functionalities like integrated scheduling and longer call times. Also, it will allow all employees to use the same program.

Zoom is the most popular video conferencing option currently. Most video conferencing solutions have features specifically geared to make remote meetings go smoothly. Zoom has features like instant backgrounds that allow you to appear in front of a professional backdrop versus your current makeshift home-office space. Companies across the country who are now ordered to work from home are using video conferencing to unite their internal teams.

Establish a Communication Rhythm

You may already have a cadence of communication established with your partners. Regardless of whether you do or not, your cadence may have to change in this new climate of remote work. The goal is to maintain your relationship and review progress more frequently. (By the way, have you checked out our template for partner QBRs?) Due to the shift to a remote workspace, increasing your level of communication is more important than ever.

Create a schedule to talk to partners regularly. How often you connect with them should be based on your relationship and your goals. Determine if weekly or bi-weekly meetings are best for you and your partner. It helps to have a consistent meeting agenda that includes: quick review of KPIs, projects at-hand, new content or learning tracks, and requests from partners. It’s good to reinforce a healthy feedback loop during these meetings.

Another approach is to remove the barriers to partner communication with instant messaging options. Slack is a

valuable tool that allows for immediate interaction. Consider creating separate Slack channels that allow channel reps to message with CAMs.

One glance at your LinkedIn feed will reveal sales leaders that are discovering creative ways to bring their remote employees together. Virtual happy hours and virtual water cooler sessions have been popping up more frequently as work from home continues. What are some ways you can connect and keep morale up with partners?

Tip: Give direct mail a try. Make a human connection with your partners by sending them a gift that arrives directly at their door!

Review Contracts and SLAs

Make time to discuss service level agreements (SLAs). Your partners are still obligated to maintain a predetermined level of service to keep customers happy and maintain your reputation.

Be mindful in your approach to this outreach. Make sure you understand if there are any challenges your partner is facing. Be sensitive to any changes their company is implementing as this may impact their performance for your business.

You may find out that your partners are unable to uphold the specific requirements outlined in the beginning of the partnership. That’s okay. The point of the meeting is to set expectations, gather information, and adjust the SLA if needed. Since you rely on partners and indirect sales, it’s important to first understand your goals and how to make changes or adapt to the needs of your partners.

Create Additional Resources for Partner Support

To boost and maintain partner sales efforts, offer other resources. Now is the time to invest in tools and solutions that will help your partners do their jobs virtually. You could provide additional marketing materials, training resources, software, hardware, or sales support. The idea is to enable your partners to sell more effectively during a time when sales cycles may be longer than usual.

Your CRM and partner portal will play a significant role during this time, as being organized becomes even more important. For partners that once went into an office every day, having a live, accessible repository of all necessary information is now imperative. Implement a PRM tool that keeps you and your partners in sync by having access to all the same information and being able to share documents in real-time.

Your technology tools should enable the following functions:

  • File collaboration and content sharing apps
  • Contract and document management (eSignature software)
  • Sales and deal tracking and collaboration (partner relationship management software and customer relationship management software)

Partners can capitalize on moving customers to cloud infrastructure faster, recognize and secure new threat parameters, automate customer workflows and business logic, provide enhanced disaster recovery and redundancy protection, and engage deeper in business consulting to help customers survive and, later, thrive from this crisis.

McBain, Jay (2020, May 8). Quantifying COVID-19 For The Tech Channel — May 8 Update. Forrester Blog.

Bottom Line for Managing Partners Remotely

Even during uncertain times, it is possible to maintain and even boost your partners’ performance. By utilizing widely available technologies like video conferencing and PRM systems, you can stay top of mind with your partners. Virtual collaboration is key now more than ever, and has been increasing due to lack of in-person methods of building relationships. By creating 6, 12, and 18 month plans for your channel program, you unlock the power to have thriving partner relationships.

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