The competition among tech vendors for customers has always been fierce, but thanks in part to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the competition for channel partners has become just as intense, according to Gary Sabin, vice president of product management at Impartner Software, a partner relationship management (PRM) platform provider.
The rapid shift to remote work and pandemic-related travel restrictions have made it more difficult for direct sales representative to get on planes and fly all over the world, which means that vendors are now relying more on local partners, “specifically those partners who understand their local areas and niches and industries that they work on,” Sabin told Channel Insider.
A second factor driving an interest in local partners is that customers are increasingly expecting a less generic approach from their vendors.
“If I’m a CIO in the oil and gas industry, I want to work with a technology partner who really gets oil and gas, not some generic large firm that treats me the same as they would an education customer,” Sabin said. “That way, I’m getting the right solutions. The customers want that more specialized, more customized outcome and therefore they’re looking for that in partners.”
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Give Partners ‘a Consumer-like Experience’
As they vie for partners, one place IT vendors should look to improve their chances is the online partner portal – for many channel players, that’s the primary place for interacting with the product makers and service providers.
“The most important thing is that the partner experience has really become hyper-critical and the mindshare, eyeballs and revenue are the biggest things that matter in 2022,” Sabin said. “The biggest takeaway is that you have to give your partners a consumer-like experience.”
Like other consumers, partners have gotten used to the ease and speed of the experience on devices like smartphones and tablets and they expect a similar experience in their business settings, including the partner portals of their vendors. That can be seen in the growth of the PRM space. Market Future Research expects the PRM market to grow to more than $1.9 billion by 2026 and Grand View Research analysts predict it will expand an average of 16.2 percent a year through 2028, helped by the rising popularity of Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices.
Changing Business Environment for Channel
“It used to be that vendors held all the cards,” Carolyn April, senior director of industry analysis at CompTIA, said last year. “Today, because of cloud and changing business models, the vendors and products are abstracted from customers who just want to solve a business problem. They’re not, ‘I want to buy X vendor’s product.’ As a result, vendors have to provide a better experience with partners, who have gotten a lot pickier about who they want to work with. Now partners demand good tech support, ease of communications, among other things.”
Sabin agreed, adding that customers may choose what vendor to work with based on how easy it is to work with them, with the online portal playing a central role.
“If I can sell HP or Lenovo and it’s completely challenging and it’s twisting my arm and I’ve got to chase things around and I fumble through the experience or I can go sell Dell servers as a technology partner and that’s a nice, easy one-stop shop, I know exactly what I’m doing and it’s very transparent,” he said. “I’m going to be selling the Dell servers every time because of the ease of doing business.”
All Eyes on the Portal
Vendors need to look at the portal through a partner lens, according to Sabin. Traditionally the partner relationship has been managed by the marketing department, with a focus on content aimed at entertaining partners with product and brand information. Partners already know all that. What they’re looking for is a lightweight business application that includes tools, such as dashboards, and enables partners to easily find information to let them know how they’re performing and give them transparency into their relationship with the vendor, from what they owe them to what they can do to further that relationship.
A portal, he said, should be a “single-pane-of-glass experience that is much more of a data-driven and a business-enablement application than a consumer-like website experience.”
By providing that, partners get the tools to manage the pipeline and more easily run their businesses. It also leads to greater transparency, which can help remove channel conflict and puts the information within the partner’s reach. Questions about status – are they in the Gold or Silver category? – market development funds (MDF), discounts and other issues, which before may have required a few phone calls, can now be resolved via the portal, Sabin said.
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Centrally Stored Information is Key
It’s also important to have all the information stored centrally. Partners have to interact with almost every aspect of a business, just as direct sales does, including working with content, training, and accessing revenue and pipeline information. However, partners don’t always have access to the four or five systems that hold all of that data. If partners can access it via a single online portal, both they and the vendor can immediately know what is working and what isn’t, rather than having to wait until the end of the quarter for a report.
“It’s really about being able to see your report card in real time instead of having to wait until the end of the semester or having a surprise teacher conference,” Sabin said, adding that partners don’t like waiting to get the global business reports (QBRs) quarterly and yearly. “It’s this big mystery of, ‘am I going to get a good grade or not? What am I going to hear about?’ There shouldn’t be any mystery coming into those settings. They should really just be planning sessions because everybody knows coming in exactly where they stand.”
System Integration is Vital
Vendors also need to more seamlessly integrate the systems that hold data that partners can use if they want that single-pane-of-glass approach. The channel tends to play a secondary role to direct sales. Because of that, when a company begins to work more closely with partners, they tend to “mash together several incumbent systems and provide a veneer over the top of it that masks the fact that there’s chaos underneath.” That chaos can lead to poor communication, missed deadlines, slow payments and other issues.
“We’re eroding confidence and we’re giving [partners] an opportunity to look elsewhere when other vendors are offering them payments that are fully integrated now vs. still arguing over if the check’s in the mail from the other partner deal,” he said. “All of those things tend to bubble up to the partner and that’s why it’s critical that this system is easy to manage and change and do that within the control of the actual channel management programs.”
Vendors need to understand that the number of single-brand channel partners is declining and that it’s essential to offer an easy portal experience that uses industry best practices that partners are familiar with. The channel can be vendor-fluid and represent multiple brands on a deal-by-deal basis. If partners have to learn and adopt an entirely new process for navigating the portal with a particular vendor, it makes it more difficult for them to embrace the vendor’s product.
If you’re using best practices, it should look similar to what they use elsewhere, Sabin said. “There’s already that familiarity there. ‘I know how to operate in this environment because it’s very similar to other ones I’ve operated in.’ That’s really imperative.”