“I am dumbfounded! It’s the last two weeks of our quarter and the email I just sent to the partner sales rep running the largest deal of the quarter generated an out-of-office response saying she’s on holiday for the next 10 days! How can she think it’s OK to take holiday at the end of the quarter!”

While there are several situations where vendors and partners can get out of sync, the most painful for the vendor is often performance and operating cycles. While many partner organizations operate on a calendar fiscal cycle (usually because it’s easier in terms of both corporate and personal tax reporting), many vendors operate on a non-calendar fiscal cycle. This inherently creates a disconnect in terms of performance urgency and operational planning/review relevancy.

When we are pushing the partner sales team to “get deals in” so we can make our quarterly revenue target, the partner is wondering where our urgency was the previous month when he/she was trying to “get deals in” for their quarter end targets. When we want to conduct annual partnership planning at the beginning of our fiscal year, the partner is wondering why we’ve never asked about the details of the fiscal plan they are already 5 months into executing for their business. These are classic examples of vendors using the word “partnership” but utterly failing to exhibit partnership in their actions.

The best Channel Managers proactively engage partners in conversations about mis-matched performance and operating cycles. They collaborate with partners to define a Mutual Operating Period (MOP) for the partnership that accommodates the fiscal urgency of both organizations. In some cases that might mean creating two MOPs within a single fiscal year to accommodate both organizations’ fiscal planning cycles; or creating an MOP that creates a new quarter-end that best accommodates both organizations’ fiscal quarters; or it might even be agreeing to an MOP that maps directly to one organization’s fiscal cycle, but both parties have openly agreed it’s the best answer.
The end solution for each partnership isn’t really what matters. What matters is the conversations and collaboration that takes place leading up to the solution. Partnership is about mutual benefit, and when mutual benefit isn’t possible, mutual understanding and respect. When both parties feel like the other understands their unique challenges and is willing to accommodate those challenges when possible, the partnership flourishes. When partners acknowledge and agree on “workable” solutions, they are much more likely to “go to bat” for each other.

Channel Managers can’t force their partners to care about the vendor’s quarter-end urgency. They can however, ensure there is mutual understanding of both parties fiscal and planning cycles, explore operating rhythms that accommodate any discrepancies, and mutually agree on a “best” alternative. Not surprisingly, when Channel Managers approach their partners with a collaborative mindset, partners are much more willing to participate in the vendor’s quarter-end urgency.

What steps are your Channel Managers taking to increase their partner’s end-of-quarter urgency?

I’m a bit suspicious when I hear this kind of complaint from a Channel Manager because it’s often just a veiled attempt to portray the Channel Manager as indispensable and indicate no revenue would happen without them.  More importantly it reveals a critical warning sign of how the Channel Manager approaches their role:  more as a “super rep” than the sales enabler they need to be.  And we can’t grow channel revenue with “super reps”; in fact, a channel organization full of “super reps” almost always results in declining revenues.

Unfortunately, while talented in many other ways, channel partner organizations are often small, founded and managed by technical people or consultants who have little or no sales experience, and populated with personalities resistant to outside coaching.  The easy temptation for Channel Managers is to simply “take over” the deals that need to be closed.  However, those efforts simply maintain the status quo and mean that next quarter will be just as hard as this quarter.  And worse, that approach creates and encourages a level of dependency between the partner and vendor that is unhealthy and unhelpful.

Growing channel revenue requires Channel Managers that are true sales enablers.  We need Channel Managers who act as virtual sales managers or sales directors over the sales organizations of their partners.  Granted these virtual roles are purely influence-based, but like any good sales manager their approach needs to be one of building and refining sales skills to continually move the partner sales organization up the scale of self-sufficiency.  The best Channel Managers are continually working to create a portfolio of partners that produce increasing revenue with decreasing effort from the Channel Manager.

But that requires a careful balancing act between sales enabling activities and closing revenue for the current quarter (revenue that we often desperately need!).  Channel Managers need to use active opportunities as the platform upon which they both assist in closing business and enable improved partner selling skills.  They must carefully orchestrate a combination of Opportunity Reviews (where they can provide strategic advice and high-level support on many opportunities), Opportunity Coaching (where they can provide tactical recommendations and detail-level support on fewer opportunities), and Co-Selling activities (where they can model and coach appropriate selling skills on select opportunities) to impact as many revenue opportunities as possible.

A critical foundation for this balancing act is to help the partner sales organization define (or refine) their own sales process with clear descriptions of what an opportunity looks like in each stage of the sales cycle, and the types of information or activity that represents risk at each stage.  When Channel Managers can help a partner sales organization see their selling process as a disciplined approach to identifying and managing the risk of each opportunity (much like they already do with an implementation or development project), they are much better positioned to create the appropriate balance between Opportunity Reviews, Opportunity Coaching and Co-Selling. 

Transitioning from a “super rep” to a sales enabler is a challenging move for most Channel Managers – but one that’s necessary for channel revenue growth.  What are you doing in your organization to help transition your “super rep” Channel Managers into sales enablers?

Driving revenue through the channel is hard.  Because the channel partners don’t actually work for the vendor, many vendor channel managers and channel executives seem to take a less structured approach to revenue achievement planning.  They seem to follow the “if we build it they will come” approach, spending more time worrying about their partner program and associated benefits than about creating a typical sales accountability culture.

We can’t drive predictable, consistent revenue through the channel if we don’t hold each channel manager accountable for developing and executing a reasonable plan on how they will achieve the assigned revenue objectives with the assigned portfolio of partners.  We need channel managers to take a thoughtful, analytical approach to determine which partners can produce what kind of revenue and with what required assistance.  It should be no different than what we expect from a named-account or territory sales rep in terms of a “quota achievement plan”.

At the top of that achievement plan is an admission that few channel managers want to make:  how much revenue is each of my partners going to produce whether I show up for work or not?  Our self-promoting alter-egos want to demand that our partners couldn’t possibly produce anything without us; but the reality is that the vast majority of channel partners are quite capable and produce more than we’d care to admit without us.  The best channel managers however, are able to clinically identify which partners produce adequate revenue with little or no assistance in order to spend time and effort with other partners where they can have the biggest impact on revenue production.

A channel manager’s achievement plan details their portfolio production capacity and where they have expected performance gaps.  The plan should identify what kind of engagement strategy they intend to pursue with each partner in order to maximize the portfolio growth and revenue production.  In which partners will they heavily invest for both current and future exponential growth?  In which partners will they invest just enough to maintain a reasonable revenue production?  And in which partners will they only invest opportunistically as the situation requires?

The channel manager role is not one of “perfection”; it is one of balance and leveraged investment.  The channel manager needs to approach their portfolio and achievement plan much like a manager approaches a team of individual contributors:  identifying which team members require what kind of assistance, and leveraging their management efforts where the return can be most impactful.  When channel managers are honest about where their efforts have true impact, they can build a much more effective achievement plan that directs their daily efforts towards meaningful impact.

What does your organization require in terms of achievement plans from Channel Managers?

I’m always a little bit surprised when I hear a Channel Manager comment on the inability of one or more of their partners to achieve their “assigned quota”.  It seems somehow contradictory to juxtaposition the concept of a mutually beneficial business partnership with the concept of assigned quota.  However, I’m not sure it’s all that uncommon – which might explain why so many partners are struggling to perform to their vendor’s expectations. Driving revenue through a partner channel isn’t about assigning quota, it’s about motivation; and the vendors who want to succeed are taking an active role in defining, building and maintaining that motivation with their partners.

Motivating a channel partner has little to do with the margins you pay.  Oh sure, you have to have a reasonably competitive economic model to offer them, but ultimately that’s just the “price of entry”.  Your partners aren’t deciding on a day-to-day basis whether to push your product or not simply based on the additional 3% or 4% margin available in your “Gold” level partnership (although they’d sure like you to believe that when they’re negotiating with you!); they are making daily business decisions on where and how to spend their resources and time based on what activities will help them achieve their strategic business objectives. 

If they’re a consulting house that resells your software, every decision they make is based on how to increase their overall consulting revenue and profit through more deals, better utilization of existing resources, and higher rates.  If they’re a solution provider whose solution is built on top of your platform, every decision they make is based on how to maximize their subscription or license revenue through more users, more product, and fewer discounts.  At best, your software or platform is a means to an end – and frankly, not always a required means.

Motivating partners starts at the strategic, organization level.  We must fundamentally define and agree on why we are in business together (i.e. where are we headed together as a partnership over the long-term), what we hope to accomplish together (i.e. what market opportunity and how much of it do we intend to capture over the long-term), and how we best work together towards our common long-term goals (i.e. who is involved, when will we review strategic progress, etc.). 

When we collaborate with our partners on a mutual long-term, strategic goal, we don’t need to “assign quota” because a specific level of performance is implied or “required” from both of us in the next period (month, quarter, year, etc.) in order to take the first step towards achieving our longer-term objectives together.  Of course, that means setting short-term goals together, but that’s a lot different than assigning quota!  When we do the hard work of creating this kind of strategic alignment with our partners, the short-term goal setting and day-to-day tactical execution becomes much easier. 

What are you doing to create better strategic alignment with your partners?

“We have the best technology. We have a superior solution. Our solution is the industry leader.” I was reading what members of the audience – all from different companies – had written on index cards in answer to the question: What is your company’s primary differentiator? I continued reading the next three. “We have the most experienced consultants. We have a proven methodology and process. We have unparalleled industry expertise.”

I was still holding another 70 to 80 cards, all with something similar written on them. But I didn’t need to read very many of them for the group to realize how similar their supposed “differentiators” sounded. It highlights how difficult it is to truly differentiate ourselves in today’s highly competitive sales engagements if we don’t target our value messages to specific buyers. Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson in their book The Challenger Sale call this “tailoring for resonance” and identify it as one of the key sales skills in today’s most effective sales people.

Most sales people are able to tailor their value messages to the customer’s business or industry by incorporating appropriate vernacular and phrases (e.g. calling financial services customers “clients” or healthcare customers “patients”, etc.) And many are able to tailor to the appropriate industry or business by focusing on the business processes most relevant to that business or industry. But that is only the beginning for true resonance tailoring.

The best sales people also tailor their value messages to the customer’s specific business goals and objectives, linking their solution directly to what the customer is trying to achieve in their own business. They reference strategies, initiative names and metric goals unique to the customer’s business plans. They further tailor their value messages to specific roles or organizational levels – changing the value language and phrasing to match the typical language of the executives, middle management, or end users who are present for the discussion. Ideally, they are even referring to specific individuals about specific benefits and value. Finally, the best of the best salespeople are able to tailor their value messages based on a customer individual’s personal agenda and goals, ensuring, that each customer buyer or influencer sees their personal “win” in the solution.

How well do your sales people tailor your value messages for specific customer resonance?

In early 2015 Esurance ran a set of TV commercials in which a less-desirable replacement presents themselves as the “sorta” provider: a race-car driver instead of the normal parking valet; a drug dealing science teacher instead of the normal pharmacist; a tattooed, muscular biker instead of the normal school teacher. In each case the “sorta” replacement explains how they are essentially the same as the normal provider while the customer appears very uncomfortable. Using the tagline “Sorta you isn’t you” Esurance makes the point that you deserve an insurance plan that’s personalized to your needs. I couldn’t agree more and believe the same principle applies to sales presentations and demonstrations: customers deserve a presentation that’s personalized to their needs, not one based on their “sorta” version.

In previous posts I’ve talked about the importance of learning about the customer’s business goals, objectives, challenges and issues. However, having that information is only helpful if we use it to customize and personalize what we show the customer in our demonstration or talk about in our presentation. Too many sales people, even after conducting appropriate customer discovery, still use a standard sales presentation or conduct a standard sales demonstration. If we don’t customize what we talk about and demonstrate to match the customer’s specific goals, needs and situation, we are essentially telling the customer that they’re just like everyone else. we might as well tell them that they’re a “sorta” bank, or a “sorta” healthcare provider, or a “sorta” retailer!

Changing a sales presentation or demonstration from a risky event into a win enabler requires careful preparation and personalization of the content. We don’t need to build an entirely new presentation or demonstration, but we do need to personalize what we talk about, what we show, and the order in which we do those things to match the unique needs of the customer. As I’ve worked with and trained hundreds of sales people all over the world, I’ve seen many consistent and universal preparation mistakes that inject unnecessary risk into sales presentations and demonstrations – taking them from “divine” to “disastrous”!

What kinds of preparation mistakes do your sales people typically make and which mistakes do you find hardest to correct?

 

Traditional solution selling encourages sales people to understand the customer’s business challenges well enough to align their solution to those challenges, and then show how their solution can help the customer mitigate or eliminate those challenges. But in today’s sales environment traditional solution selling isn’t enough; today’s best sales people take solution selling to the next level by teaching their customers something new, or challenging them to think about their businesses in a slightly different way. Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson in their book The Challenger Sale call this “teaching for differentiation” and identify it as one of the key skills to effective selling in today’s hyper-competitive, customer-knowledgeable sales environments.

But is is realistic to think that your sales people know enough or can learn enough about a customer’s business or industry to actually teach the customer something new? Can a young, relatively inexperienced technology sales rep credibly teach a veteran industry or business discipline worker something they didn’t already know? Absolutely! Teaching for differentiation doesn’t have to be mind-blowing or earth-shattering, it just has to provide the customer a new or different way to think about something in their business or in the way they leverage technology. And even the young, relatively inexperienced sales person has what it takes to execute on this – IF they are paying attention!

Sales people have a tremendous knowledge advantage over their customers. The typical customer individual works in the same industry or business discipline their entire career, and very often only works at a few different companies within that industry or business discipline over a 30 to 35 year period. Sales people on the other hand, have the opportunity to meet with, engage, and discuss business challenges and best practice solutions with hundreds of customers, often in many different industries and business disciplines, in just a couple of years! While the sales person may not know the industry or business discipline to the same depth and detail as the customer individual, they have significantly more breadth and exposure.

The best sales people ask lots of questions, pay close attention to what their customers tell them, and take careful notes on what solutions have worked for what challenges. Then they position themselves with their other customers not as the expert, but as a conduit for truly helpful and insightful information from highly credible sources: the customer individual’s professional peers and counterparts. A well executed sales discussion not only provides the sales rep what he/she needs to advance their sales, but differentiates them from the competition by providing the customer invaluable information about new ways to address their business challenges and think about their business.

How well are your salespeople teaching for differentiation?

 

“If you were a bank, you’d really like this feature!” I can remember visibly cringing when my co-worker used this as her introduction to our most important competitive product advantage. Before I could even finish cringing, the VP of Manufacturing – from the customer to whom we were presenting – said, “Well, we’re not a bank; we manufacture Styrofoam peanuts used in shipping and packaging. Clearly we need to postpone this discussion until you’ve done some research about our business and can show us some things we might like!” … Needlesss to say, we didn’t win that deal.

That experience was a pivotal moment in my growing understanding of the importance of appropriate discovery with customers and prospects if I intended to make a compelling sales presentation to them about my solution. Twenty five years later I still see sales people who are so enamored with their solution, finding it so amazing and awesome, that they believe it practically speaks for itself and that the prospect will be equally awed as soon as they see it. However, more often than not, those prospects are unable to relate that “amazing” solution to the business goals they are trying to reach or the operational challenges they are trying to solve every day. The best sales people know they need to connect the dots for the prospect – connecting their solution to the prospect’s business.

Changing a sales presentation or demonstration from a risky event into a win enabler requires targeted and effective discovery by the sales team. That discovery needs to include uncovering key information about the customer’s business, strategic priorities, competitive preferences, and decision making politics. As I’ve worked and trained hundreds of sales people over the years, I’ve seen many consistent and universal discovery mistakes that inject unnecessary risk into sales presentations and demonstrations – taking them from “divine” to “disastrous”!

What kinds of discovery mistakes do your sales people typically make and which mistakes do you find the hardest to correct?

 

Buying choices are personal and emotional choices. It’s easy for most of us to see how that applies to the personal consumer purchases we make every day, but it also applies in a B2B purchase scenario. Ultimately, even large B2B “committee” decisions boil down to personal choices based on emotional perceptions. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that buying decisions are made based on silly, “we-like-you-better” kinds of emotions. What I am saying is that each individual in a buying decision makes their decision (or casts their vote) based on the value they perceive the solution will provide to them both professionally and personally. And value perceived is an emotional reaction. The question is whether or not the sales team understands what each individual buyer actually cares about.

The best sales people ensure they know not only who the decision players are, but they take the time to understand what business metrics and personal motivators each decision player cares about. They get to know the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) each decision player is held accountable for or is compensated on, and they know how those KPIs impact the larger business. Understanding how the business calculates and measures each KPI, or even understanding what KPIs are relevant to a given business is a critical sales skill.

In my experience, industry or business segment KPI information available to sales teams totally misses the mark. It is either way too much, way too little, or presented in such a way as to be confusing and mind-numbing. As sales leaders we need to find ways to help our sales team research and learn the most common KPIs by business type, how they are calculated, and who cares about them in order to help them understand their customer’s business “good enough”. How do you help your sales team members learn new business segment and industry KPIs?

 

“How many times do I have to tell them?!!” This exasperated cry is a regular complaint I hear from senior executives who are struggling to get their entire organization moving in the same direction. Unfortunately, very often the answer to such a cry is, “As many times as it takes!”

A reality of leadership is that most of the people in our organizations don’t think about the end destination nearly as often as we do, and rightfully so. We pay them to accomplish a particular task – a tactical, day-to-day, practical task. We on the other hand, are paid as leaders to not only make sure the right tasks get accomplished, but to make sure how those tasks are accomplished moves the organization in the right direction and towards our identified vision. Which often means repeating our plan many more times than we think is necessary.

Effective execution is as much about leadership communication and motivation as anything else. As leaders we have an obligation to communicate the “plan” how our vision and strategy and tactics are connected as often as possible, to keep it center of mind for everyone in the organization. It is our responsibility to make the plan a day-to-day topic that drives action rather than a once-a-year or once-a-quarter conversation that drives people to sleep.