Is your Channel Engagement Approach Functional, or High Functioning?

This is the first blog in a two-part series that explores the differences between passive and active channel engagement, and provides actionable steps to help manufacturers create a high-functioning, outcome-driven channel sales engine.

5 Characteristics of Passive Channel Engagement

Selling through channel partners and distributors is an established, proven, and scalable go-to-market approach for manufacturers of all types. Channel partners that specialize by industry, region, or account are an important piece of the sales puzzle and provide access to large market opportunities without little to no internal investment.

The channel sales model, however, is not without its challenges — mostly notably disparate systems and processes fraught with inefficiencies, miscommunications and missed opportunities. This leaky system tends to inhibit revenue optimization. Sure, you’ve got a car that runs. But it’s not firing on all cylinders, and it’s bleeding precious fuel.

Activities versus outcomes

To date, “enabling” the channel has been more focused on activities rather than outcomes. Sign up channel partners, make sure they have access to the information they need, send them sales leads, support them when they request it, and reap the benefits of their efforts.

This passive approach is functional, but not high-functioning. It does not give channel partners any reason or motivation to engage. And most importantly the passive approach doesn’t promote ‘sales enablement’ in order to help channel partners sell.

Companies that continue to use passive channel engagement practices are losing money. We characterize passive channel engagement as the use of the following:

  • Web-based portals
    Providing a web-based partner portal or secure site that asks channel partners to log in and learn software. These tools offer suffer from low usage and low relevance.
  • Internally oriented CRM
    Trying to manage external selling relationships with an internally oriented CRM system that does not accommodate for the disparate parties involved and their often conflicting processes and systems.
  • Incomplete
    Absence of valuable feedback and input via a continuous and collaborative approach to information sharing.
  • Inconsistent communication
    Ad hoc communication around the quality of sales leads, status on open opportunities and needs related to training and education.
  • Old data
    Relying upon emails and spreadsheets to collect, aggregate, and report on channel sales performance creating a lagging view of revenue generation and goal tracking.

In our next blog in the active versus passive channel engagement series, we’ll explore how to create a higher-performing sales engine and share 6 tips for developing an active approach to channel engagement.

How to Gain a Competitive Advantage with Channel Sales Enablement

Struggling to motivate an underperforming network of distributors or channel partners? Looking for ways to gain a strategic advantage over your competitors while maximizing channel sales? The problem may not be the distributor(s). The problem may be a lack of support.

Sure, any business with a network of indirect sellers can build revenue. But are you making the most of this relationship by maximizing the revenue contribution that can be obtained from them? This, in essence, is the goal of channel sales enablement. To optimize channel relationships for better revenue, happier distributors and strategic competitive advantage.

But how?

A rising tide…

As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, and it’s an apt expression for channel sales enablement. The better you are at supporting your channel distributors with the resources they need to be successful, the better revenue gains for everyone.

To do that requires viewing the world through the lens of your distributors and channel partners.  What are their needs? How can you support them to better engage with potential buyers, and to ultimately increase the number of leads that turn into deals? Are you sending partners quality leads worth following up? Is it easy for them to provide ongoing feedback on the status of each one?

The distributor perspective is key as you work to anticipate their needs and provide the right product information at the right time. The tricky part is this: All this communication needs to happen without disrupting their daily activities or requiring them to do something new.

The problem with portals

Herein lies the problem with partner portals. They are easy for manufacturers, while inconvenient, at times irrelevant, and ignorable, for partners. Portals are a one-size-fits-all solution that puts the burden on the distributor to access during the right stage of the buyer journey. The information they access isn’t context aware, doesn’t have “right timing” going for it, and is not targeted specifically to a channel partner’s unique requirements.

Enter “context aware” sales enablement

Context aware sales enablement puts the right information into the hands of the right person at the right time. The reality of successfully executing this process, however, is no easy task. Particularly the timing element. Send information too early and it will be put aside and forgotten. Send it too late and it’s irrelevant.

To land in the “just right” sweet spot requires a shared platform for collaboration that is not adjacent to core workflow but integrated into it. That means it leverages email, resembles spreadsheets, and has a light but secure interface that is easily accessed from a desktop or mobile device.

Context aware sales enablement provides what portals can’t. It pushes contextual information to the channel partner by deal stage, product line, customer type, or geography. The criteria doesn’t matter as much as being able to segment and supply information based on their individual needs.

Here’s a real-world example of context-aware channel sales enablement in action.

Manufacturer A sells its products through channel partner B and uses a shared platform for real-time collaboration and engagement. As the channel partner is leading a potential buyer through the sales funnel, he or she has instant access to helpful product information, including data sheets, installation and maintenance pdfs, that help educate the buyer and win the deal. The channel partner doesn’t need to go searching for updates, or log-in to a portal. The information they need is in line with their activities as they receive a lead, update status, and track activity.

Manufacturer A has turned sales enablement into a competitive advantage and the revenue contribution of their channel partner increases as a result.

Sales enablement is an essential function to master and requires viewing the world from your channel partners’ point of view. Make it your mission to make them successful and you will be as well.

5 Channel Sales Resolutions You Can Actually Keep

New Year’s resolutions are a notoriously bad bet. In fact, the odds of keeping one are against you. According to Business Insider, nearly 80 percent of resolutions fail by the second week of February.

But don’t give up on resolutions just yet. The key to instituting a change you can actually keep is to identify low-hanging fruit where achievable gains can be made quickly and easily.

Just as “get healthy” is the most common resolution for individuals when the calendar turns to Jan. 1, the most common goal for companies who operate in the channel-sales space is to optimize the channel revenue execution process. But that’s the kind of nebulous resolution, by itself, that won’t make it to February. The better approach is to break up channel revenue optimization into manageable, easy-to-execute chunks.

Here are LeadMethod’s 5 Channel Sales Resolutions for 2018 that are easy to keep and deliver rapid benefits:

1. Enhance forecasting and revenue visibility. Selling through partners without timely and accurate visibility to the entire sales pipeline complicates decision making and can lead to negative surprises at the end of the quarter. To improve forecasting and revenue visibility, both manufacturer and distributor must work from the same platform to successfully track and manage opportunities.

2. Improve lead and opportunity tracking. Without proper tracking, leads and sales opportunities invariably fall through the cracks. The result is lost revenue and wasted marketing dollars. Know exactly what happens to every lead at every stage of the sales process by aligning with how your partners sell.

3. Improve channel sales enablement. Channel partners are only as effective as you are at equipping them with the resources they need. To set partners up for success, provide “context aware” sales enablement that maps the right materials to the opportunity by stage, product, and scope.

4. Expand channel revenue contribution. When you depend on the channel for the majority of your revenue, you take actions that you expect to deliver results even though you are not directly involved in that execution. Get involved and drive the execution by aligning processes and systems with your partners.

5. Implement a closed-loop feedback process. Stop doing the things you have always done if you aren’t sure if they are useful or valuable. Give your channel partners a direct voice on the quality of leads you share by implementing a closed-loop feedback system.

These 5 resolutions are easy to implement with the help of a technology partner committed to maximizing the revenue execution process for companies who depend on distributors. Talk with us to find out more.

How to Overcome Channel Conflict for Better Results

Google “channel conflict” and top results and definitions all relate to unwanted competition between business partners — sales reps, retailers, distributors, etc. Perhaps channel partners unnecessarily compete with one another for customers, or possibly even with the brand itself. What typically follows is financial losses and low morale.

Here at LeadMethod, when we share best practices for minimizing channel conflict, we take a different approach because we’re dealing with businesses that face a different problem.

From the distributor-based companies we work with, we regularly hear how channel conflict arises, not from partners undercutting a supplier, but from a disjointed and fractured lead nurturing process. This has traditionally been the achilles heal of the channel sales business model.

Here’s the rub: Suppliers get the initial lead and perform the initial nurture before passing it off to a distributor. Conflict bubbles up because this handoff isn’t as seamless, as it should be for the potential buyer. The timing and messaging are off, critical details are poorly communicated. Or maybe the supplier and distributor are stepping on each other’s toes.

To avoid this scenario, it’s critical that suppliers and distributors are aligned in both their messaging and in the timing of their nurturing. Suppliers should nurture when the lead has been captured to let the buyer know that Distributor A will be contacting them soon to deliver the quote and product details. Then, Distributor A’s nurturing takes over (and the supplier’s stop) to show the lead how to buy and service the products.

At the end of the day, all of these timing and communication hurdles can be mitigated by better visibility. If you can see in real-time the status and context surrounding every single lead in your pipeline, the root cause of channel conflict — disjointed communication — is no longer a factor.

The best and easiest way to avoid the negative impacts of channel conflict is to adopt a programmatic approach enabled by an underlying technology platform.

The programmatic approach is designed so that:

  • Products are aligned with the right distributors
  • There is visibility to how much lead volume is going to each distributor
  • Revenue visibility is available across all distributors
  • Distributors are provided a way to share accurate and timely feedback.   

To do this, you need a technology platform with a rules-based approach to lead assignment. This will allow you to get the right lead to the right distributor at the right time. And it will allow for the seamless transition of transferring a lead from the supplier to the distributor — unnoticed by the buyer — before the channel works the lead through its sales process.  

Where possible, a direct system-to-system connection can be made to enable the channel sales process. At a minimum, all players should have access to the same tracking and engagement system to understand status, needs, and next best actions in the sales process.

This kind of lead nurturing visibility is a proactive approach that diffuses channel conflict before it has a chance to begin. And the beneficiary of all this channel kumbaya? Your customers, and your bottom line. They enjoy a streamlined, consistent buyer experience that hits all the right notes at the right time. You experience a healthy uptick in sales.

3 Tips for Successful Channel Partner Nurturing

In a channel sales model, manufacturers generate leads for their channel partners and distributors. Done right, these leads are first scored based on their priority and then passed to the appropriate channel partners for follow up.

What’s happens next, might be less clear. Were the leads contacted? How fast? Was a quote offered? Did the lead turn into an opportunity?

That initial sales lead outreach is just the first step of a critical relationship management process known as lead nurturing. Just as B2B or B2C brands nurture prospects along the buyer’s journey for better sales results, so too can manufacturers nurture their channel partners.

Lead nurturing is essentially relationship building. In the channel sales environment, it’s the process of maintaining relationships with distributors or partners throughout every stage of the funnel. It focuses communication efforts on listening to the needs of channel partners, and providing them with the information and answers they need to better sell your product throughout each step of the end-buyer’s journey.

The key to a successful channel partner nurturing program is the ability for both manufacturers and channel partners to easily communicate about the status of a sales lead in real-time.

Here are 3 key elements to a high-functioning channel nurturing program:

1. Frequent and consistent communication around sales opportunities.

You send a high score (priority) lead to a distributor and expect the lead to be contacted within 48 hours. Let’s say the lead was not contacted within that time frame and the customer is still waiting. You can initiate an automated email nurture to that distributor salesperson as a reminder to contact the potential client. In another example, a lead has been labeled an open opportunity for more than 30 days and you would like to know if the distributor has either quoted the customer, sold the product, or lost the deal. Initiate a distributor lead nurture to remind them after 30 days to quickly update you on the lead status.

2. Provide relevant help at the right time.

Once you know the status of the leads in your pipeline, you can then help your distributors by providing contextual sales information that will be useful to them at the right time. Sending information too early increases the chance that it will be forgotten or misplaced. Information sent too late is useless. Good channel nurturing provides product line updates, sales materials and other updates by stage and location at precisely the right time, which will better position your distributors to convert opportunities into sales.

3. Easy and real-time way to provide feedback.

Effective nurturing in the channel is a two-way street. Distributors need to be able to communicate with you as easily and clearly as you communicate with them. A real-time tool that enables ongoing feedback between you and your partners creates a “closed loop” around opportunity status, lead quality and needs — without the hassle or cost of surveys or call centers. Leads are less likely to fall through the cracks, and outdated or irrelevant information isn’t contaminating the process.

Distributor nurturing is a great way to gently remind distributors to communicate lead status during every stage of the buyer journey.

But how do you do this when everyone isn’t working from a shared platform? They answer is, you don’t.

Communicating with channel partners on a single platform makes executing a lead nurturing program easy by enabling a two-way flow of communication and feedback in real-time. You product stays front and center without ever sending an email, making a phone call or logging into a portal.

When researching channel nurturing tools, look for a platform that allows distributors to quickly update you on a lead’s status without the requirement to log-in or learn software. LeadMethod, for example, only asks distributors to click buttons from their phone to update manufacturers on a lead status. It’s about as easy as it gets. A sound nurturing program that emphasizes these fluid communication and collaboration elements will help you create a strong and productive relationship with your business partners.

For more information on distributor nurturing, let us show you how the LeadMethod program works.

Increase Channel Revenue by 20% Without Increasing Your Marketing Budget

According to SiriusDecisions, as many as 78 percent of sales leads receive no follow-up. That’s a figure sure to keep CFO’s and VP of Sales awake at night. But that 78 percent number also represents a source of incredible opportunity. By simply creating a process to contact more leads — and therefore better understand why current leads go uncontacted — what kind of revenue increase could result?

If timely and proper lead follow-up is a challenge for companies with internal sales teams surrounded by four walls, it’s easy to see why the poor lead follow-up problem is exacerbated significantly in a business model where sales leads are handed-off between different companies.

For one, channel partners sell numerous products from numerous providers, which in and of itself makes it all too easy for opportunities to fall through the cracks. The process is further complicated because manufacturers and distributors are working from different systems, workflows, and even time zones. And therein lies the challenge: No one company controls the lead-to-revenue process. As a lead generator, you hand-off  a sales lead to what can be described as a black hole. Was it a quality lead? How soon was it contacted? What is the lead’s real-time status in the pipeline? What do my distributors think about a lead’s quality and closability?

When this information doesn’t readily exist, the result is costly.

And not just in terms of inefficiencies and workarounds, but in actual real dollars of revenue being lost due to slow or no follow-up, poor sales enablement, or lack of communication.

Rather than spend more budget on generating new leads, there is significant value to be uncovered when you focus on maximizing the revenue potential that are already exists among your current leads. To do that, requires:  

Visibility. We’ve all heard that you can’t fix what you can’t see, and that idiom holds true here. Does your current system give you an accurate, real-time picture of your sales pipeline, as well as future sales projections? What’s your cost of customer acquisition, and your conversation rates by distributor? It’s difficult to measure, plan and improve without tools that deliver this kind of business-critical information. The alternative is throwing your marketing dollars at a board and hoping they land near the bullseye.

Distributor Engagement. Close collaboration, communication and constant feedback are key components to creating a relationship with channel partners that yields higher close rates. To do this, build in a mechanism that increases communication and enables a true feedback loop on the quality and status of each lead you generate.

Data-driven Decisions. By gaining a clear picture of contact rates, engagement metrics, and deal progression, conversion rates from existing lead flow will naturally increase. Data will also help you identify high performing channel partners  versus those that need extra attention, and will aid in distributor acquisition and retention.

When these three elements — visibility, distributor engagement and data-driven decisions — work in unison from a single platform, channel-based businesses can experience a 300 percent increase in channel engagement and a 20 percent increase in revenue. Now those are the kind of figures that will have you sleeping soundly.

Click here to request a playbook on how to increase revenue through better channel partner engagement.

Lead Scoring Playbook for Manufacturers That Sell Through Distributors

Are your distributors receiving sales leads that are clearly ranked in terms of their sales potential?

Treating all leads as equals is not only inefficient, but also inhibits revenue potential (spending time and resources on an unlikely buyer, while a higher-potential opportunity sits idle). This is why prioritizing sales activity — known as lead scoring — is so critical to business performance. It allows sales professional to focus more time on active selling to the right leads and less time on administration, qualifications and research.

If you’ve been following our blog, you’re familiar with the advantages of lead scoring in the channel. If not, you can catch up by reading the 4 Important Benefits of Lead Scoring in the Channel, where we explain what lead scoring is and spell out why it’s so valuable in an indirect sales environment.

In this blog, we’ll take lead scoring a step further and examine best practices for creating channel-specific lead scoring criteria. You’ll learn in greater detail how to define and apply an actionable set of lead scoring criteria for ranking the perceived value of each lead. Armed with this information, sales can then better prioritize and act on those leads deemed more qualified and ready for engagement over those that aren’t.

We’ve found that lead scoring models in the B2B sales space, where points are assigned to pageviews, email clicks, and other engagement statistics, can result in complexity to the point where the core purpose of prioritization is lost. Applying lead scoring to the channel requires a different and more direct approach than traditional direct selling models.

As manufacturers generate leads for their distributors, they should focus on these five criteria:

1. Does the lead match my Ideal Customer Profile (ICP)?

An Ideal Customer Profile is a known and agreed to set of criteria on what makes a great customer. This could be company size, location, industry, or other metrics that inform you who is most likely to buy the product or solutions you sell.

2. Does the lead match my target persona?

Does the title and/or responsibility of the prospect match who you are trying to reach in the organization that has decision-making authority, budget authority, or any other key consideration in the buying journey?

3. What is the source of the lead?

Did it come from a trade show as a result of a passing conversation or a direct quote/pricing inquiry on the website? Was it a marketing-generated lead from a campaign or a highly qualified sales lead based on pre-screening criteria? The source is often a strong indicator of qualification level.

4. What is the level of interest?

Related to the source above but any contextual information related to where a prospect is in the buying cycle – information gathering, committed to a path, comparing products, ready to buy — will help determine a lead’s ranking.

5. What is the opportunity/deal size?

This often requires further sales qualification, but inquiries around certain products or solutions can signal the potential revenue related to a lead. Deal size is an important criteria in prioritization but can also become a distraction if sales professionals chase the largest potential deal sizes at the expense of others. Be sure this metric is viewed in conjunction with the others.

Using this set of criteria, your marketing team doesn’t need to generate more leads in order to see revenue gains. You need only to prioritize the ones you already have — distinguishing the hot leads from the cool ones based on the above set of criteria — before sharing them with your channel partners. With leads that are prioritized based on their sales potential and that contain key contextual information, channel partners will be better prepared to convert more opportunities into sales.

Help Channel Partners Sell More with Lead Scoring

Not all sales leads are created equal. Some leads, because they match your buyer persona or because they have shown a strong interest in your product or service, have a higher probability of becoming conversions. Other leads, because they don’t fit that criteria, are less likely to convert and may actually end up costing you valuable time and resources. As in, your distributor spent too much time chasing an unlikely buyer, while your hot lead was contacted too late.

Sending leads to channel partners or distributors that haven’t been scored is at best inefficient and at worst setting them up to lose. Lead scoring is important because it helps determine the quality of your leads, which are ranked according to their sales potential. Often, the leads that show more interest in your product/service offering and those that fit your ideal buyer persona or target market will be tagged with the highest scores.

Ranking leads by priority from highest to lowest has numerous benefits for companies that sell through channel partners and distributors, including the ability to:

1. Effectively allocate resources

Knowing which of your sales leads have the highest potential to buy is key to effectively allocating your resources and optimizing your sales and marketing budget. The first step is to determine the criteria for assigning values to your leads, which is based on a host of buyer data. The criteria you set will ultimately guide your channel partners as they track and follow up on your prospects, and will help filter out those that are more or less likely to convert. This process will prevent you and your distributors from wasting time and money on bad leads.

2. Establish priorities

Determining whether a lead is “hot” or merely “lukewarm” before you send it to a distributor helps them prioritize their day and signals which leads should be contacted first. Rather than throwing all leads in the same priority bucket, higher priority leads are contacted first while lower priority leads can be given a longer follow-up period. You can even use your service level agreement (SLA) to address this. For example, a high priority lead must be contacted within four hours of receipt, while a lower score trade show lead can be allotted 48 hours.

3. Increase sales productivity and conversions

Lead scoring helps suppliers give distributors the information they need to personalize their sales pitch to customers. The scores also determine which nurture campaigns to place your leads in and the best time for channel partners to engage with those leads. And the more you are able to prioritize quality leads over cold leads, the faster you and your channel partners will see those conversion rates increase.

4. Improve partner engagement

All the benefits of lead scoring noted above will help contribute to a higher-performing channel relationship. But for indirect sellers, the benefits of lead scoring go beyond greater efficiencies and higher productivity. Suppliers who sell in the channel or distributor space know that partner engagement is an ongoing struggle. A manufacturer that can communicate lead priority, and provide additional supporting data, gains a competitive advantage over suppliers that don’t. The outcome of that higher-value communication is channel partners that will sell more and be better engaged with your brand.

How to Attract and Retain the Best Channel Partners and Distributors

If you depend on channel partners to take your products to market, you know how important it is to identify, recruit, and retain the best distributors.

When it’s time to acquire new partners, or replace under-performing ones, approach the process as you would hiring a new employee.

When hiring, you consider the experience, background, skills and value a candidate will bring to your organization. Once that ideal candidate joins your team, you provide them with the right tools, resources and feedback so that your new hire can be productive and profitable, and by extension, so can your business. In the same way, the right channel partner selection requires knowing what you want in a partner and communicating your expectations.

You can do this be creating an ideal partner profile — specific criteria used to identify and qualify partners to ensure they possess the attributes required to fulfill the company’s priorities and its target customers’ requirements. Think of it as a job description for hiring new partners that are engaged, productive and profitable.

Some companies even use it to evaluate the growth potential of their existing partners and to help plan and execute channel partner training.

To determine the ideal profile of a partner, here are a few key elements to consider:

  1. What skills and experience do they need?
  2. Does this potential partner possess the right industry focus and technical skills, as well as the right selling capabilities and capacity?
  3. Is this potential partner positioned with the right customer base, geographic coverage and value proposition in relation to other solutions or products they sell?

It bears mentioning that potential partners are vetting you, too. What resources do you make available to them so that they can be successful? Do you provide a streamlined and efficient way to share leads, collect feedback, and distribute critical sales materials including timely updates?

Here, you can put on your sales hat and explain the ways in which your company and your partnership offering are more attractive than your competitors.

Your partner prospects, at least the ones you want, may already be selling other products for other suppliers. You need to introduce your company’s unique value proposition and explain why it will lead to a higher-performing relationship.

Much like employees who perform at their best with the right tools, channel partners excel when given the best tools to drive revenue for their suppliers.  Providing high-quality sales leads, collecting on-going feedback, and proactively engaging to help them improve their sales process all go a long way to retain the best channel partners and recruit the next best one.

Stop Using CRM to Manage Your Channel Partner Relationships

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software has long been considered one of those must-have applications to help businesses sell to customers. After all, it’s a billion dollar industry that’s as ubiquitous in sales departments today as telephones and rolodexes were of yesteryear.  Yet, CRM’s usefulness as a revenue optimization tool has its limitations. In particular, as an effective tool in managing channel relationships.

If your goal is to maximize every opportunity to close more deals, a CRM will leave — or perhaps has already left you — wanting more.

That’s because CRMs are a horizontal approach to sales automation designed for use in a conventional direct sales business model. Its shortcomings become glaringly transparent when trying to force CRM features and functions into an indirect sales environment.

Unique requirements of channel sales & marketing

A CRM system overlooks the unique requirements of channel sales and marketing, offering very little to help a channel partner track opportunities, provide visibility to their partners, and convert more leads to sales.

Why?

Channel engagement is a multi-tiered process comprised of numerous processes, from partner recruitment and engagement to enablement and management, none of which are directly addressed by current CRM systems. CRMs are great for managing contacts and providing a snapshot of sales and marketing activity—assuming all the information has been captured —but they aren’t compatible with the dynamic, multi-tenant environment of the channel.

Effective channel enablement requires real-time lead sharing, training and education, and proactive engagement.

Purpose built for optimizing Channel Relationships

In lieu of trying to make a solution work in an environment for which is was not designed, organizations selling via the channel should consider a software platform purpose-built for channel revenue optimization — ideally one that integrates a comprehensive range of channel management functions in a single, easy-to-use interface.For companies that sell through both direct and indirect channels or prefer the CRM to remain the system of record for the business, you can integrate a channel solution with a resident CRM system, enabling a single, unified view of both selling activities.

As you consider your options, look for an intuitive solution that allows you and channel partners to easily capture, organize, track, pursue, and close leads. It should connect and unify all manufacturer relationships in one view, and enable opportunity tracking and visibility to the right players in real-time.

The difference between a CRM and a channel revenue optimization system is that the latter approach actually improves channel sales. Quite simply, the proof is in the results. Companies that implement a tool purpose-built for channel revenue optimization experience double the conversion rates of those who do not.