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How to Manage Channel Partners Remotely

In 2020, the business world underwent what the Times Magazine called, “the largest work from home experiment” of all time. COVID-19 cases now recede for many regions, but it’s clear that remote working is here to stay.

But how is this “new norm” impacting strategies for managing 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 must now shift to accommodate the pandemic’s 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 the long and short term

Some governments have relaxed day-to-day regulations, but don’t think that all business operations will return to how they were in 2019. Partners and customers alike may continue to feel the direct or indirect impact of the pandemic, so find ways to accommodate their current realities.

Dell is a prime example of a partner-focused company that found creative strategies for managing its channel partners during the recent tough times. Due to COVID-19, they provided one-time cash payouts for Market Development Funds (MDFs) and free training solutions. 

Their financial arm, Dell Financial Services, offered zero-percent interest on servers and storage. They also made available three, six, or nine-month deferred payment schedules to customers. New leasing options were 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 were postponed.

To adapt while also keeping business goals in mind, you must have two separate strategies. Leaders should have one plan for the short term and one for the long term. When creating your channel partner management approach, you may want to pivot from previous strategies in one (or more) of the following ways: 

•  Cancel, postpone, or alter SPIFF or MDF funds

•  Alter joint marketing efforts like conferences and content strategies

•  Manage inventory more conservatively 

•  Rework sales targets and compensation plans 

•  Equip partners with the necessary technology to work remotely

Don’t overlook the importance of crafting a long-term partner management strategy beyond COVID-19. While it may seem pointless to make plans without any clear indication of when businesses will begin to function normally, it’s still worth it to make projections. Your partner management strategy will inevitably be amended as new developments emerge, but it’s better than having no plan at all. Your long-term plan could include: 

•  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

Strategy 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 see how they’re doing. The priority for CAMs right now should be to thoroughly understand how the current landscape impacts their partner’s businesses. 

Checking in not only enables you to offer support to your partners, but it also allows you to gauge their status and the likelihood of your partnership surviving. A thorough check-in with partners will serve as crucial information for your own forecasting. When meeting with partners, be sure to find out about:

•  Organizational changes and layoffs. Find out the “who-what-where.” Who was laid off? What regions were they in? What were their job functions, and how will it ultimately impact the business?

•  Staffing or resource restraints. Many companies have renewed optimism for the upcoming months and years, leading to a swell of job openings. However, hiring, onboarding, and resource allocation doesn’t happen overnight. Understand your partners current gaps and goals to gauge their limitations and potential. 

•  Who your points of contact are. Will your primary POC within their company remain the same or change? Are introductions needed?

•  What ways their business is shifting. Your partners may be eliminating departments or positions, like service, that could impact their ability to manage customer relationships efficiently. 

•  What their plans are. While no one’s going to have a concrete plan, you still want to check their temperature. The outcomes they predict can tell you a lot about the future of your partnership.

Even if your partners have “successfully” transitioned to remote work, expect productivity to be lowered. Many employees must work from home while also caring for and homeschooling their children. While your channel partners may be grateful to still be working when millions of others are getting laid off, they’re most likely feeling sadness and stress at the same time. 

The uncertainty of this era has created a deep strain on our mental health. As a business leader, it’s essential to keep the human aspects as well as the business goals in mind during this challenging time.

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

Due to COVID-19, many of our questions and concerns about our futures and wellbeing remain unanswered. Because of this uncertainty, loss of productivity is a natural byproduct. Add that to the fact that, depending on your industry, the sales process may be more difficult. Keep all of this in mind when learning about your partner’s situation. It goes deeper than business; it’s emotional and psychological as well. 

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. It can also smooth out your facial features to brighten your face and decrease unflattering shadows. Companies across the country who are now ordered to work from home are using video conferencing as a way 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 stay top of mind with your partners and assure them you’re not going anywhere. 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 at regular intervals. How often you connect with them should be based on your relationship and your goals. You can choose to hold weekly or bi-weekly check-ins to ensure there is consistency. The goal of planning your outreach ahead of time is to eliminate the chance of dropping the ball and creating harmful lapses in communication.

Another approach is to remove the barriers to partner communication with instant messaging options. Slack is a valuable tool that allows for immediate interaction, as most companies already utilize the software. Consider creating separate Slack channels that allow channel reps to message with CAMs. This opens the lines of communication with your partners and connects you more as team members versus just business partners.

One glance at your LinkedIn feed will reveal sales leaders that are coming up with creative ways to bring their remote employees together. Virtual happy hours and virtual watercooler sessions have been popping up more frequently as quarantine continues. Come up with out-of-the-box ways to connect and boost the morale of your partners. One possible opportunity during this time is to form even more reliable connections with your channel partners. The work you put in now to forge stronger relationships will pay off when the economy and workforce do return to some sense of normalcy.

Strategy Tip: Utilize non-traditional methods of outreach like Sendoso. Make a human connection with your partners by sending them something that relates to their lives and shows them that you care. Ex: a toy for their child, a treat for their dog, or a book that you think your partner would enjoy.

Review contracts and SLA’s

Once you’ve adequately planned and checked in with your partners, get something on the calendar to discuss service level agreements (SLAs) and contracts. Just because there is confusion or uncertainty doesn’t mean that your requirements for doing business are suddenly going to become lax or be forgotten. 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. It’s not a good move to do this too early, as you may come across as uncaring or self-interested. Make sure you’ve gotten the lay of the land and have discovered what’s going on with your partner’s business before you launch into your expectations of them. 

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 call is to know where you stand so you can make the proper adjustments and preparations in the event that they’re not able to perform. Don’t let interruptions in your business be the reason your customers receive lower levels of service.

Create additional resources for partner support

To boost and maintain partner sales efforts, offer fresh resources. Now is the time to invest in channel management tools and strategies 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 on the same page 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 relationships management software and Customer Relationship Management software)

While they’re a solution to a short-term problem, they will still be relevant in optimizing the performance of your partnerships for the long term.

How to Manage Partners Remotely – The Bottom Line

Even during uncertain times, it is possible to maintain and even boost your partners’ performance. Total remote management of your channel may not be ideal, but it is possible. By utilizing widely available technologies like video conferencing and PRM systems, you can stay top of mind with your partners. Communication is key now more than ever, and may even have to increase due to lack of in-person methods of building relationships. By setting forth long and short term strategies for managing partnerships, you ensure that needs are met right now and that you also have a plan for the future.

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