Do You Fire Under-Performing Partners?

With channel sales, the type and number of partners you attract and retain can determine your success. What’s also true is that the type of business you are in often determines the type of partners you want to attract, level of commitment and the type of benefits you might offer.  So what do you do when partners are not performing? Here are some perspectives to consider:

Low volume, high-priced and high involvement products make it very difficult to support and keep under-performing partners. The key to success if you’re at a company in this situation is revenue sales from a few partners vs. low or sporadic sales from many partners. This means that taking the time to select and train the right partners is mission critical. Because of this, make the decision to fire under-performing partners earlier rather than later in the relationship. If partners that meet your preferred criteria are on-boarded, but can’t perform after a short period of time, start spending time with ones that are more successful.

If you’re at a company where high-volume and low-priced products sales are the norm for your channel, the decision to fire partners becomes different. It’s nice and even necessary in this case to have many partners that support your products. An excellent example of why this is important is when inventory is long and it’s the end of the quarter. Having a larger number of partners in this case makes it more likely that you will be able to offload surplus inventory by providing your partner network with an end of quarter promotion. The solution for addressing under-performing partners in this case is to treat high-volume, better-performing partners well. A tiered partner program (platinum/gold/silver) can give better-performing partners access to more sales tools and benefits. Rather than fire partners, the idea is to motivate them to increase their volume and subsequently their access to valued program features like training, leads and MDF funds. With high-volume and low-price products, this tends to be a better way to deal with the issue of under-performing partners.

What hard decisions have you had to make surrounding under-performing partners? What did you do? 

Partner Value Propositions

Every partner program is different with each market having different things channel partners value. Channel managers have the job of finding out what partners value and what they don’t. What doesn't change is unless you have a value proposition, partners will not seek you out or remain partners for very long . The following are some of the most common value propositions to consider:

Increased Sales

Your company can provide more value to partners than competitors by increasing their sales. Having a program to distribute qualified leads to partners is one way to show value here. Protecting partner opportunities, preventing channel conflict and assisting with deal closing as part of a deal registration program also shows value. 

Training

Surveying partners for suggestions on improving your partner program helps you to understand where to focus efforts. Training will invariably be one of the top improvement areas. Providing easy access to quality training is of real value to partners because it helps them sell intelligently and promotes their trusted status with end users. 

Partner Marketing

Providing access to co-branded collateral, joint campaign creatives, email marketing and marketing funds is valuable to many partners. The key here is to make it easy to access and create what they need.

Quality Support

Partners appreciate being able to easily log support calls with you and your prompt attention to them. Even better, give trained partners access to tier 2 or 3 support, skipping the initial level that is typically a waste of their time. Make finding the support documents they need quick and easy so they can better support your mutual customers. Partners are more loyal if they get the help they need quickly.

Again, not all markets are the same, but focus on finding the areas where your partners find value and you will produce results. One final point is that as your market gets more competitive, the better your partner program must be. Partners are free agents. If another company has a world-class partner program with a Web-based portal, training programs, fund management and marketing assistance and you don’t, they will move on given competitive products are functionally similar. 

What value propositions have you seen work with your channel partners?

Marketing Communication Secrets

Many marketers never seem to connect with their prospects and customers. Some simply never do the persona work necessary while others get that far and then fail in how they talk to those that pay their salary. It’s important to get the how you’re going to communicate right before deciding what you’re going to tell them. This may seem counterintuitive. But if you want to create content that will resonate and help you engage, you need to be very aware of how your communication perspective influences buyers.

Communication Secret #1: It’s Not About You, Stupid

Over and over again, companies talk about themselves like their buyers already care about them. They don’t. If you have content that is more about your accolades, your executive team, or full of ego stroking language with buzzwords only your employees understand, you’re not connecting with buyers. You’re just confusing them or worse yet, turning them off to your company. Focus on buyer issues and talk about what you have to offer in those terms. It’s about solving their issues. Anything else and they’ll keep their money or move on to a competitor that cares to connect the dots when it comes to identifying solution value.

Communication Secret #2: Translate Your Speeds and Feeds

No one cares that your widget has a patented whatchamacallit. You’re only placating your CEO, programmers or service personnel at your company. It pays to find out how buyers talk about what you provide, speak the same language and organize information in a way that makes sense in the context of solving their problems. Stay away from technobable when it comes to your marketing language and put things in terms your buyers will understand. 

Communication Secret #3: Talk to Them, Not Around Them

In college, they teach you to communicate in generalities. That’s great for research-driven studies and analysis. But if you talk around buyers instead of directly to them, they will lose interest. If you want to reference the industry and buyer issues in general, great. It can be a powerful tactic that transitions into 2nd person language, which addresses buyers more intimately. Buyers have to feel that what you have will work for them specifically. 

The Wrong Way

Here’s an example of what not to do:

Company X is led by Dr. Boring and accomplished associates that have won all sorts of awards. It has a patented widget with revolutionary new AccelStream™ technology that breaks industry barriers related to solving packet loss in the current Internet protocol environment. This technology can be deployed across 98% of access modalities.

The Right Way

Here’s an example of more direct, customer-focused effort:

Faster is better when it comes to downloading the music, movies and other content you love. With a small one-time download, you could be getting what you want twice as fast. AccelStream™ works for virtually all computers, smart phones and tablet computers you have and is free to download. It’s smart technology that lets you enjoy more of life.

Different? Absolutely. If these secrets are new to you, start implementing them in campaigns and then move to address website and collateral deficiencies. If you are already familiar with the concepts, review you communication at least quarterly. It’s easy to fall back into bad habits when time and company pressures force you to move faster.

How have you been successful in connecting with buyers?

Core Issues for Companies that Sell Through the Channel

There are core challenges common to all companies that sell through two tier distribution. While there are many, the four below are some of the toughest to overcome.

Scalable and Effective Management of a Partner Network

It is very difficult to recruit, develop and maintain a good relationship with a large partner network. Technology is a must to cost-effectively get your partners the tools necessary to sell, service and support your products. Automation and on demand access to resources are key to scalability and cost-effective management.

Developing a Relationship with End Users 

If you sell through the channel, it is very difficult to find out who your customers are. This gets more difficult as products move down the cost and complexity curve (think mainframes vs. mice). However, you must find a way to develop a relationship to effectively up-sell, resell and retain these customers. Moreover, you have to do this in a way that supports and complements the relationship the partner has with the end user. If not, you risk losing partners and many future customers in the process.

Staying Top of Mind with Partners

Partners rarely, if ever, build a business around a single product. How do you find ways to keep your solutions top of mind with your partner network? If you are a large company, you can probably spend your way out of this problem. If you are not, you need to get much more creative. Having effective communication with partners, motivating them with spiffs and providing better sales tools keeps your company and products on their preferred recommendation list.

Preventing Channel Conflict 

It is critical when working with partners that you develop processes to prevent or at least minimize channel conflict. Conflict can exist between partners or between different segments of partners like VARs, OEMs and direct marketers. It can also exist where your company has both a partner network and a direct sales team.

Have you experienced any of these core issues in your channel organization, and how have you dealt with them? What are some of your other core issues in selling through the channel?

Really, Who Are They?

Persona Building in Modern Marketing

One of the basic things any marketer should do when they come into an organization is understand who your customers are and who your prospects should be. If you don’t, you spin your wheels working off of assumptions. The sad truth is that while many marketers understand the concept of creating personas, few have done the work beyond creating a mental picture of their buyers. That’s dangerous. Making assumptions about terminology your buyers use, their technology savviness, demographics or—more importantly—their buying motivations can disconnect you from them. 

You can’t market effectively to buyers if you don’t

  1. Define who they are from a demographic , cultural and professional perspective
  2. Know what issues they are facing at each stage in the buying process (i.e. awareness, consideration, decision)
  3. What their role is in the company’s buying process
  4. How they measure success 

What’s just as important here is the concept of making that persona information part of your shared corporate knowledge. Being disconnected from your own company when it comes to who your buyers are is a recipe for marketing failure if there ever was one.

So where do you start? The following are tips for creating personas:

Internal Research

A logical place to start for most marketers is interviewing salespeople. That’s great. Also include support managers and executives. You’ll find some disconnects right off the bat. Document the most important personas, keeping it to a manageable list to whom you can market given your resources.

Sitting in on Conversations

Refine those initial personas by sitting in on sales and support calls. Also go out on sales calls if possible, targeting individuals that meet different persona criteria. You can’t capture issues effectively if all you do is hear them second hand.

Keyword Monitoring

Touchy feely work should always be followed up with hard data. Look at natural keywords that are bringing people to your website and those of your competitors. Look at those same keywords in the context of social media conversations. Do the parties involved match your personas? Record the language around issues and at what point in the buying process a keyword is used. Also look in your customer relationship management (CRM) database for people that match your personas and check out which issues are being brought up at specific points in the buying cycle.

Behavioral Data

It takes many, many touches to make a B2B sale. Though Web analytics and marketing automation you can identify what content is resonating when with buyers that match your personas. Sometimes gaps and lost sales by persona speak volumes about not addressing persona needs. Ideally, you’ll get some good information here about issues that buyers face at different stages.

While we’ve talked about the how above, we haven’t talked about the who, what, when and why. Ideally, throughout all your research, you should be identifying who buys products when, their role, timing for when they buy and what the process looks like, along with key prospect demographics. You need to understand who they are, how they operate, how best to reach them, and—most importantly—what words and ideas to use when in the course of communicating with them. This is where persona building starts feeding effective messaging. After you create your personas, you can validate them through sources like collateral feedback, surveys and research calls. 

These tips are a starting point for creating personas in an age of better marketing tools and data. Where else can you draw information from to create your personas?

Tips for Becoming a Successful Channel Marketer

What is the responsibility of a channel marketer?  The simple answer is that they are responsible for the success of partners in selling their company’s products.  With many companies, the competitive positioning and clear rationale behind why someone should choose the products over other options has already been handled by product marketers. Therefore, channel marketers don’t need to concern themselves with positioning and unique selling points, but simply with the success of partners using current resources.

Communication and Resources are Key

Channel marketers and executives should focus on building both programs and tools that help partners communicate the product line’s benefits to customers. That is where the money is.  Because partners have so many different options when it comes to who they work with, those that help them sell more typically win their loyalty.

A good partner portal or partner relationship management (PRM) system allows channel marketers to provide a library of tools that partners can utilize.  Co-branded datasheets, email templates, prepackaged promotions, co-branded sales presentations and competitive pitches are some simple resources that channel marketers and executives can provide in order to help partners sell.  The ability to request assistance for seminars, webinars or event recruitment is an additional resource that enables partner success.  Beyond online, portal-driven communication and requests, a hot line to a deal desk allows partners to get assistance with closing deals��as part of a deal registration system—making partner lives much easier.

If your company does not have a library of tools designed to help partners sell, build one.  If you have one, then taking partners through your resource library during on-site visits and showing them how they can use it will help them to better sell your products.  With this approach, you not only communicate your products strengths, you make it easy for your partner to do so as well. This will lead to more sales and instill partner loyalty as a result.

Simplifying successful of channel marketing down to a single blog post doesn’t do the complexity of the issue justice.  However, scalable communication and the creation of accessible resources are key in creating partner loyalty—and therefore—partner and channel marketing success.

What have you seen work? How important is partner loyalty in your industry?

Keyword Research 101 - Learning to Talk the Talk

Guest post by Chris Frank, Marketing Director, TreeHouse Interactive

For marketers, one of the most important tasks when you come into a company is getting your footing quickly and “talking the talk.” What I mean by that is the ability to talk credibly about your industry and products. You want to connect with your target audiences out of the gate.

Unfortunately, most companies haven’t done the basics here and give their new marketer a double dose of executive bias and industry buzzwords. The best advice I can give marketers that go fresh into a company is to do your own homework. Nothing makes your marketing ineffective faster than blindly trusting what has gone before—especially if it didn’t work.

So how do you immerse yourself in the talk? It takes knowing about some important tools and techniques for identifying keywords, validating their use and creating your own core list as a result. By the way, this is also essential baseline work if you’re starting up a company and want to be sure your messaging is on track from the start.

Below is the rough step-by-step process I use for talking the talk. I don’t claim this to be the end all way to do this, just my technique in abbreviated form.

Brainstorm Your Keywords

You need a place to start. Viewing your product or service from a “what does it do” or functional level should give you 20+ keywords to work with. Then look at competitor sites. What keywords are they using in their metatags? Add them to your list. Also check sites like SpyFu and SEMRush. You’ll find out what keywords competitors are putting paid ads on and get a broader keyword picture. Another place to look is in analyst and consultant articles for your industry. Pay attention to headlines and topic sentences in particular. Gather up all these keywords in one spreadsheet and get ready to really dive in.

Find The Right Keywords To Focus On

This is where the fun begins. In this step you want to narrow down your keywords and then validate the right ones. While many corporate marketers will turn their nose up at affiliate marketer tools, I use one called Adword Analyzer to find untapped related keywords to find potential traffic on all keywords and get some insight into what the paid ad competition is like on them. So your list may expand a bit here first before you pare it down. Experiment with tools. There are many of them.

Look at high traffic words first. Which ones do you absolutely need to be found through when someone searches? Can you eliminate any that are competitor specific? You will find some you thought would be great, but have little to no traffic? Now you can whittle your list down to about 20 and then test.

Get Your Hands Dirty

Testing here means a lot of listening before you’re sure you have the right terms for talking the talk. An easy way to do this is to monitor their use in social media. When you use Twitter search, you can get the RSS feed for any results. This is raw information on who is using these keyword terms in what conversations. Subscribe to this feed with Google Reader, and it makes it easy to see all validation information in one place. How many mentions are you seeing for each keyword? What posts are being discussed around these keywords? Is it the type of discussion your company should be mentioned in? Also look at top search results for your list of keywords. Should your company be in those results or not? Modify your list—adding and taking away from it—until you’re comfortable with 10-20.

What This Research Is And Isn’t

It’s important to understand that this keyword research isn’t messaging. It’s a baseline for connecting effectively with customers and prospects. It will fuel on-track messaging, SEO/SEM, persona building, elevator pitches and unique selling positions later—which is really the next step in what to do with this research. What you’ll find if you do this work is that the words come easy when producing marketing deliverables instead of going through constant revision because it’s not quite right.

Thoughts? What have you found to help with keyword research?