The Partner Channel Podcast Episode #13

The Key to Co-opting

Your Channel Strategy

Show Synopsis

In this episode of the Partner Channel Podcast, Daniel sits down with Melinda McBride, SVP of Global Alliances and Channel Partners at Equifax. Melinda explains the foundational elements of a healthy co-opetiton and why it’s important to easily articulate your partner’s value proposition. She also describes the importance of leadership buy-in and why there is no such thing as competition. 

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The Script

Daniel Graff-Radford: Welcome to the Partner Channel podcast, The Voice of the Partner Channel community. I’m Daniel Graff-Radford CEO of Allbound, excited to be here with Melinda McBride, senior vice president of Global Alliances and Channel Partners at Equifax. Welcome to the program.

Melinda McBride: Well, thanks, Daniel, and thanks for welcoming me to the show. Excited to connect with you and the Allbound team today.

Daniel Graff-Radford: You have a very impressive career. Can you help us kind of understand your career and how you came to be at Equifax and what you do at Equifax?

Melinda McBride: Sure, sure, well, I think my background, I’ve had a little bit of a circuitous path today to get to the current job. It’s kind of an interesting journey, if you will. I started my career as a technologist and as a developer, actually, and slowly learned that I wasn’t really meant to sit in a screen in front of a screen all day coding things. So as I continued to move through my career, I had stints in solution architecture, in sales, engineering roles, and then after some encouragement and coding from a mentor, I took a role in sales and business development years ago. So after a few years in direct sales, I had the opportunity with a former company to take over their alliances book of business. And we had just a few alliances at that point. But the objective was to achieve inorganic growth through alliances and partnerships. And I just fell in love with the work. That was about 10 years ago, and I fell in love with the complexity, the ability to innovate, to really think differently about business and how do you grow business in that journey. So as I mentioned, I’ve been doing alliance work for about the last 10 years. Four and a half of that has been with Equifax. I came on hired by the woman at the time that run that ran this business to be a part of their enterprise alliances team.

And and there I was, part of our new business development and innovation team. And our goal was really to contribute to inorganic growth strategy for the business through partnerships. And since that time, over the last two years, I’ve eventually taken over the channel and I run the enterprise alliance’s function here at Equifax.

Daniel Graff-Radford: That’s great. You know, a lot of the most creative alliance people I’ve met have had a technical and direct sales background and just love the problem-solving aspects. Can you help our listeners understand what makes a good alliance partner for Equifax, like what you guys would be looking for?

Melinda McBride: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, in general, there’s just core principles about alliances and when are they good and when are they not so good? Right. And first and foremost, I think you have to have agreement between both organizations that indirect distribution is a thing, right? It is a strategy. It’s a viable growth strategy. And your senior leadership has bought into that. So when I’m first talking to a potential new partner, I’m always trying to gauge whether or not they have that level of investment from their leadership team as an organization to partner. Right. That’s kind of the first thing I always think about. The second thing I kind of look for when I’m out in the industry is do they have a muscle around partnering? Do they have a competency that they’ve built around managing a partner ecosystem? And it’s OK if they don’t. But they do they have a desire to develop that? And that’s really a great start of alignment between partners often is that you really have alignment around stakeholders in the strategy, how you’re going to work together. And it helps to have often governance frameworks and ways to measure not whether or not the partnership is successful. So those are some just some basics that I’m usually looking for.

Daniel Graff-Radford: Yeah. So if people are thinking about starting an alliance program and they’re signing up their first alliance, making sure the leaders of both teams are putting actual resources behind the lines, and then the ideal alliance also has capabilities where they’ve done alliances on both sides before. So you understand a model of success that they’ve had in the past. And if they haven’t to know that going in, that’s really good. And so now if you’re signed up this potentially really good alliance partner, what does engagement look like after you guys have signed up that shows you that this is heading in a really good mutual direction?

Melinda McBride: Right. I think that’s a great question. And I think the baselines are right as I’m looking and we’re forming initial ideas, it’s first and foremost, do we have an aligned value proposition together? Right. Is it easy to kind of articulate very quickly how we can help one another? And what does that mean? Right. So that’s foundational, right? Then it’s about relationship and the investment to me in that relationship. Can you collaborate to understand what a go-to-market strategy looks like? Is there full trust and transparency in terms of figuring out what those metrics of success should be? How are you getting together frequently to measure whether or not you’re you’re each pulling your weight, if you will, in terms of delivering on the promise of the partnership and the channel strategy. And then I think it’s a lot of you know, once you’ve done all those things, making sure you’re looking back on a regular basis to reflect upon your success and make sure the investment of time is aligned with the partnership.

Daniel Graff-Radford: So that’s great. So it sounds like there’s planning that has to do with, you know, what activities will be done together and what will who will do what, how regularly will you get together and discuss those activities and then looking for those over time and engaging when they are exceeding, beating or falling short about how to how to make those things work. That’s really great. One of the things that, you know, we have heard a lot is that thinking about alliance partners that sometimes compete a little bit with you or work with competitors, and that when you’re talking to people that want to be channel advisors and they’re looking at what could be a stickier relationship that sometimes works with you and sometimes doesn’t. What advice do you have for those channel leaders?

Melinda McBride: Oh, my goodness, this is like one of the biggest questions we all have, right? It’s a question that gets raised internally by your folks at your product organization or your strategy organization. Why are we doing this? Right. And then it gets asked in the partnership. Right. How do we compete with one another? You know, the ironic part of all of this is to me, there’s no such thing as competition. There’s only co-opetition. Because if you have your channel strategy right, you have your buy-in on what you’re trying to do. There really is no such thing as competition as long as you can carve out with the partner what things should look like. So it takes a lot to get there and understand that. And of course, conflict is always going to be a part of any channel program. But I can tell you anecdotally, 50 percent of the portfolio I manage today is comprised of some of our largest competitors in the market. But the reason why that works is there are certain places where we’re never going to play. And that partner serves as a great distribution channel for me, vice versa.

I often provide a very similar capability to some of those competitors I play in markets they don’t. And what we found is a way to work together to where we can both reap the benefit of having broader distribution and taking advantage of that from a market perspective and having the fruits of that. But it takes a lot to be able to do that well. And if you don’t have foundations around how you’re going to govern, how you’re going to communicate, and establish processes and visions of why you’re doing a partnership, you do start to have challenges. And I’m not saying that those things don’t come about, but I think over the years at Equifax, we’ve been able to develop a very strong partnering muscle and governance framework in training around when we partner when we don’t, that I think we’re able to mitigate a number of those situations and have very successful partnerships where you have an instance of channel conflict or coopetition, if you will.

Daniel Graff-Radford: Sure. So it sounds like a really positive, forward-looking attitude about what winning together looks like, having a strategy to that. And because you have, as you described it, a muscle for the behaviors that you guys are going to do together watching that work, or if it doesn’t work, being it, being aware of that and it leads to good outcomes, that’s really great.

One of the things talking about where we are in time, you know, it’s the beginning of 2021. We had a number of leaders of the channel, the beginning of 2020 and then in planning for 2021, working very hard to try and stay on the same page as their senior leadership.

So senior leadership had sort of a certain view of the way that revenue was going to work and then the channel leadership was trying to stay in tune with their senior leadership. You know, you are part of a broader community of senior leaders that have worked through this and a number of different ups and downs in the economy. What advice do you have for people that are new leaders to running channel that are trying very hard to stay on the same page as the senior leaders in their company so that their plans stay aligned and maybe mistakes or successes in that that you would want people to be aware?

Melinda McBride: Yeah, and so I think it’s an important point and it’s always a question as to why you may be pursuing a channel strategy. Right. And it’s something that it’s not a one-and-done question. Quite honestly, your strategy as an organization is always changing, right? You have different needs at different times in terms of where you want to push, where you want to lean into organic growth or where you may want to lean into inorganic growth through something like channel partnerships. So it’s always evolving. But I think the baselines are really to be successful as a channel strategy leader, you do have to have the support organizationally. That channel strategy is important. So I think that is something that just has to be a foundational element and it doesn’t have to be a perfect alignment. Right. You can have lots of people that are going to agree to disagree that pursuing a channel strategy over a direct strategy is the right way to go. But there are foundational things to think about. Right? On the surface, does this make sense from a business perspective? Right. And there are certain components of all that are oftentimes really the finance model.

Right. One of the things I lean into most closely at Equifax within my business are my partners in finance because when we’re looking at a partner deal, we’re always trying to align with where the business is, what our margin expectations are, what our product strategy is, what we’re really trying to do in terms of our market strategy. So there’s a convergence of those three things your finance strategy, your product strategy, your market strategy that come together. And once they come together enough, there’s a picture that starts to emerge that you can see where a channel strategy really makes sense. And then it’s about, you know, keeping the metrics around that and building the case and constantly evaluating the efficacy of that approach and having the metrics around the success rate that you will accomplish. So this is a metrics-based it’s a relationship-based business like any sales business, but it’s also very focused on metrics and benefit to the company that you should constantly be evaluating against those broader organizational goals. Does that help?

Daniel Graff-Radford: That makes a lot of sense. So you’re bringing data about your partner program and expectations and a model and what it’s going to do financially for the business. And then very regular updates of being on or off plan and doing evaluations of the data that you can get of those partners and how they’re going to perform during any sort of change in time. So being data-driven and not getting necessarily into an argument about direct or indirect, but both have data and then kind of sharing in what both works. That sounds really good.And so now moving to the Final Four questions, if you had a superpower, what would it be and why?

Melinda McBride: Oh, my goodness. So it’s funny you should ask this question because my 11-year-old son asked me this question the other day and it took me a while to really think about that because I am data-driven and I want to think about the best outcome. But I said it was time travel. I’m a huge history buff. And the ability really to travel through time and observe different moments in history, I think would be amazing. I’m also a child of the 80s, so maybe I’m just channeling my inner Marty McFly in Back to the Future. But yeah, I think that would be my desired superpower.

Daniel Graff-Radford: Time travel. All right. Well, no one’s invented it yet. So so maybe soon. And if you were to give our listeners an example of a mistake and the success that you’ve had in the channel.

Melinda McBride: Yeah, great question. So I’ll start with kind of mistakes. And I wouldn’t say it’s one mistake in particular, but kind of more of the bigger picture of mistakes that you can have in channel partnerships. And it goes back to what we were talking about earlier is I really have had some partnerships where I didn’t do enough thinking about what value we were bringing to each other. And specifically in the instance where I’ve had a real failed partnership, it’s been when I could not bring enough value to that end partner. And so one of the things we often encounter in my world is we’ve got a lot of partners that are smaller companies and they’re looking at Equifax. They’re saying, hey, Equifax, you’re a great distribution channel for me. You’ve got size, you’ve got scale, you’ve got access to the market. And that’s absolutely true 90 percent of the time. Right. But even though I may have those things, sometimes I may not have the best right to play there. Right. For the specific application of what you know, maybe the product is maybe I don’t have access naturally to the stakeholders that would be the buyers and decision-makers for that particular product. Or maybe it’s a stretch to ask my team to have enough knowledge and information to be able to sell that product and any of my other channel distribution areas, either direct or inside sales.

So that’s really where I’ve seen us make a lot of our mistakes is assuming we had a right to play, assuming we had access to the market for a smaller player that was looking to us to be a key distribution factor. So that’s my mistake. And that’s more of a holistic mistake and something I think we’ve learned from over the last couple of years in my channel, where I would say we have real success. We have one partner that’s in my book that we’ve had for over 10 years and we created 10 years ago a joint product and the market. Right. And this particular product partner relationship has been a significant amount of revenue for both of us in the millions annually for the partnership. And I would say if I was to look at that as kind of the gold standard, why is it successful? Why has it been able to perform so well? It came down to three things, right? Early on, we had a very core alignment to our joint value proposition.

We are each bringing something to the table that the other cannot deliver on their own. Two, we had a great go-to-market strategy. We were truly leveraging each other’s strengths right in our respective markets and we happened to do this with this partner. We happened to address the same market and often the same stakeholders. But what we talk to them about and the way we talk to them is very different. So there’s just a ton of alignment there. And then third, I think, you know, this ongoing success, great partner management, great engagement, communication, commitment, and managing to the metrics as we were talking about earlier, regular governance around how we’re going to communicate, how we share a pipeline, how we look into where we are closing opportunities and how we are driving revenue as it continues to grow year over year, or do we need to reinvigorate things? So all of those things, I think, have really contributed to success. And this is the model now as I look at new partnership in my book, like, well, does it meet these criteria? Right. And if it meets these criteria, it’s probably going to be a great look-alike partnership.

Daniel Graff-Radford: I think that’s great. I think that both the example of a new partnership that doesn’t have great alignment, it’s not going to go to the right places and for you to be able to clarify what alignment is and then to have that very successfully aligned partnership to model for future partnerships. Those are great examples. And for people that are listening and they want to kind of learn how to get to be a leader in the channel, is there a book that you recommend that inspired you across your career that you’d recommend for people?

Melinda McBride: Yes, I think, you know, we do have a very formalized alliance management training at Equifax, it’s an education program that we’ve built up over the years. And it’s fairly significant in terms of the requirements that our alliance managers and channel managers have to go through to get certification in this process. But one of the books that we include in that training is something many of your listeners may have heard of. Difficult Conversations by Doug Stone, I think is one of the most important business books that you can read as a leader in general, but specifically around channel leadership because you do have things like channel conflict. Alignment that needs to happen internally and externally within organizations to support a channel program. And so learning to navigate difficult conversations that can often have conflict as an element is a very important leadership skill and especially important for channel leaders to be able to get your point across. Have a difficult conversation. Be able to do that really with transparency and candor in a very trusting and manner is just a critical skill set, I think, for channel leadership.

Daniel Graff-Radford: I love that you guys have a culture of learning a culture where you said the team members at a high bar for those roles and that you have a common language through certain books. I think that’s great for your company and it’s a great recommendation. And I’ve been looking forward to this question. Melinda, since you’re so data-driven and you have access to so much data. Five years from now, what are some of the major changes right now that will affect us in the future that you think people should be thinking about in the channel?

Melinda McBride: Well, I don’t know if it’s a major change or shift, but I think just the simple acceleration of technology, data, analytics, the speed of change, right, is only going to continue to accelerate. So what does that mean for us? That means alliances and channel programs. I think they become even more critical for companies that want to compete globally as no one company will be able to scale completely on their own. You have to be intentional about where you have strengths and where you can leverage partners to complement your strategy in order to deliver on growth objectives. I’ll give you a great example of companies that are out there. Think about some of the data marketplaces we’re seeing emerge, right. These ecosystems Snowflake, which is obviously a huge company that’s in the news, a lot growing very significantly, IPO’d just a couple of months back. Right. That is all about partners and channel ecosystems and providing access and democratizing things to expand growth for partners. And, you know, I just think those types of relationships are only going to become even more critical with the rate of change in technology and data and analytics over time.

Daniel Graff-Radford: That’s great. So I want to thank our guest, Melinda McBride, senior vice president of Global Alliances and Channel Partners at Equifax. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us here at the Partner Channel podcast. If you like what you’ve heard, you can subscribe to our podcast episodes anywhere you listen to podcasts.