When AI Comes to the Channel
For some time now, the folks that manage channels on behalf of vendors have been collecting massive amounts of data about almost every transaction conducted via the channel. Naturally, the goal is to make the channel a whole lot more efficient.
IT vendors these days need to track everything from the relationship between the number of channel partners certified to the rate at which partners that are certified close deals to the amount of money plowed into channel marketing programs and the number of marketing campaigns channel partners actually launched, said Diane Krakora, CEO of channel consulting firm PartnerPath. In short, everything in the channel that can be tracked soon will be, she noted.
Fortunately, IT vendors are getting better at collecting that data in ways that are much less obtrusive. Analytics applications are harvesting channel data in ways that don't require channel partners to fill in volumes of additional forms beyond what would normally be required to get credited for a transaction.
Yet all this data collection does beg the question what's coming next. Salesforce has provided a glimpse of that. Many of the partner-relationship management (PRM) systems on which channel vendors rely to manage the channel are close cousins to customer-relationship management (CRM) applications.
In fact, Salesforce has both PRM and CRM applications in its software-as-a-service (SaaS) portfolio. Right now, the single biggest initiative Salesforce has under way is the development of Einstein, a layer of artificial intelligence (AI) that pulls data from Salesforce applications to make suggestions concerning the next-best course of action to accelerate the closing of any particular deal. It's now only a matter of time before Salesforce applies Einstein to its PRM application.
The implications of AI being applied to manage the channel better are nothing less than profound. Instead of vendors having to devote resources to employing a small army of channel managers in the back-end office, more resources theoretically could be applied to driving sales-enablement initiatives. The downside, however, is that more of those resources would be more narrowly channeled through partners that the AI program at least identified as providing the highest return on channel investment.
The AI genie is now already out of the proverbial bottle. As William Gibson once famously quipped, the future is here; it's just unevenly distributed.
Vendors such as Salesforce, IBM, Google and Microsoft are going to be making everyday use of AI to help manage the channel long before others. Obviously, humans will continue to be involved in making strategic channel decisions for some time. Less clear, however, is how many of the tactical decisions that compose those strategies are actually going to be made by algorithms.
Mike Vizard has covered IT for more than 25 years, and has edited or contributed to a number of tech publications, including InfoWorld, CRN and eWEEK. He currently blogs daily for IT Business Edge and contributes to CIOinsight, Channel Insider and Baseline.