The good news is this: Channel selling remains a high- impact model for growing your company, and putting solid partnerships in place continues to provide access to new customers and references that translate to business for you. Research by business strategy research firm The 2112 Group found a 16 percent compound annual growth rate in gross sales over the last several years—and no signs of slowdown.
And the better news is this: Partners have turned into trusted advisors, experts who will help skeptical customers make the right buying decisions when faced with complex choices. That means the investments you make in building and developing your channel partner program will help your partners do an even better job of advocating for your products and services to prospective buyers.
Your company may be dealing with resellers, affiliates, dealers, distributors, OEMs, ODMs, systems integrators, solution providers, software vendors, value-added providers, independent retailers or some other entity in your channel programs. But your goals remain the same: to develop and maintain an on-going relationship with your partners that’s healthy, profitable, consistent and continually improving.
How you structure your learning programs goes a long way to helping meet these goals. What’s the connection? Market researcher ITA Group has reported that the average salesperson spends seven hours a week looking for information related to preparing for sales calls. But that can be a hit-and-miss process. How do you make sure you land uppermost in their results list? That’s where channel partner education comes in.
By combining professional training that’s relevant and timely with channel incentive awards for completing that training, they’re more likely to include your products in their curation efforts.
While there’s plenty that’s new in channel partner management (including a greater emphasis on the use of the cloud and software-as-a-service, more focus on delivering services over hard goods, and the use of artificial intelligence to automate decision-making), I’d like to focus on two trends that are showing up time and again as areas of interest for anybody running a channel program.
Channel partner segments are becoming nuanced
As Forrester Research reported, the “gold/silver/bronze” pyramid structure for segmenting partners is out of date. As an example, Analyst Jay McBain cited Amazon Web Services, which has created more than a hundred specializations for its tens of thousands of partners in the marketplace, sliced and diced by geography, customer sizes, tech stack layers, business models and other “nuances.” Consultancy PartnerPath refers to these as “hyper-specialized skills.”
Each of those groupings comes with its own resource and training needs. And with so many different types of partners in your ecosystem, you may find yourself moving to a menu model, suggests McBain, where partners will self-select and self-service their onboarding, incentives and co-marketing agreements. We’d add training to this list. The idea of bringing like-minded individuals together in a room for face-to-face instruction to learn about your product line has become as quaint as the use of boomboxes for sharing music.
The channel is increasingly being automated
No longer is your job simply to mail out leads from the latest tradeshow to channel partners on slips of paper that can be torn apart and handed around at the sales meeting. Now, automation in marketing lets you and your partners customize messaging, branding and outreach by market and to get the right format, timing, tone, subject line and all the rest of it in communications.
The same digital transformation is taking place on the education front. The modern learning management system (LMS) delivers instructional content in the format people prefer it, whether that’s online, on-demand or even in-product; via a smartphone or through an 86-inch flat-screen display; and in engaging formats that won’t make them feel like they’re wasting their time wading through stuff they already know or don’t care about. Thankfully, the learning portals that in the past turned out to be little more than dumping grounds for out-of-date content have given way to platforms that are much more usable, helping your company produce training content quickly and nimbly and stay up to date with education as your products and services evolve.
Today, learning management systems (such as PartnerAmp LMS) include built-in authoring tools to help you quickly create content that is up to the minute by following a content creation process that uses system templates and simple drag-and-drop to ensure rapid development. The LMS is no longer there just for record keeping and providing a certificate of completion; it helps you assemble your courses.
Why you need a new channel partner LMS
You may read the term, “LMS,” and think, “We already have one of those, and it’s doing nothing to help us increase sales through our channel partners.” There may be a few reasons for that:
- It could be that you’re trying to use an existing LMS that serves as your employee training portal;
- It might be that you’re using instructional content you recorded from day-long, face-to-face training events that nobody can sit through without going stir-crazy;
- Possibly, your training materials are just plain boring—with lots of talking and little action.
Let’s look at each one of these hurdles.
Your existing employee LMS won’t work
Using the same LMS created for employee training to manage learning for your channel partners does offer a few advantages. For example, you wouldn’t have to license a second LMS, which could save you money; you already know how the existing LMS works; and there are probably some shared content needs between the internal people and your extended enterprise.
Yet, with LMSs designed for employee training “there’s more of a mandatory mindset,” as LMS expert John Leh explains. Based on job role and region, companies compel their employees to take specific training in a set timeframe for compliance reasons, as part of new employee onboarding or even as part of leadership development. In all of those cases, he says, there’s a “mandatory aspect” to it. As a result, you may not care so much about the user interface or the ability of your learners to discover their own content or pursue their own learning pathways.
Training for your channel partner program, on the other hand, is entirely voluntary, Leh points out. Learners must be “enticed” to visit the site and to browse through its offerings. “If they don’t find what they’re looking for quickly, they go off to the next thing.”
Also, integrations are more important for your channel partner LMS. While the employee LMS may need to tie into your human resources system, Leh notes, the extended enterprise may require integrations with systems being used for customer relationship management, customer service, partner relationship management, marketing automation, proctoring, ecommerce, event management, social management and user authentication.
You are still using the same learning content you used in your face-to-face training
Remember when your channel partner training consisted of people sitting in a room next to others doing similar jobs and working through a three-ring notebook of curriculum to learn what they needed to know about selling or supporting your products? It’s possible that you recorded that training and now make it available as part of onboarding your newest partners. Yawn. Even the best, most dynamic instructor loses something in that kind of translation.
And even converting a two-day training session into a half-day virtual session won’t cut it anymore. What you need to do is to spend the time turning those materials into modular, self-paced, online courses that still continue to serve those learners with the information they need, just like in the old days, but in a more digestible and engaging format.
Your training materials are boring
Sorry to be so blunt, but people don’t have the patience for boring content anymore. After all, there’s always an alternative they can turn to the moment their attention waivers. If the learning isn’t instantly relevant, if the content isn’t interactive, if the lessons aren’t short and punchy, the people within your channel partner organizations that need the training will find something else to do with their time. And you’ll find yourself replaced in their minds with other products and services that come across with a lot more sizzle and a lot less drudgery.
The LMS tracks the details
As you develop your channel partner education strategy, there’s one aspect of the LMS that you can’t give short shrift to: That’s the ability of the LMS to maintain an accurate record of participation. It may be tracking the precise point where the learner has progressed to in the course; it may be the results of the quizzes, videos or other activities they’ve participated in.
Without those details, there’s no way of rewarding your partners with the credentials they’ve achieved or monetary incentives or product discounts they’ve earned. The last thing you want your people to spend their time on is sorting out who among your channel has received what training, what they’ve absorbed from that training and how they should be compensated for their efforts.
By automating the management of your channel partner education program, you’ll be able to scale up the number of partners you serve and generate the data you need to prove the impact of those training efforts on sales, customer retention, and other markers of channel success.
Resources for more information:
- “5 Positive Channel Trends for 2018.” The Twenty One Twelve Group. March 12, 2018. https://the2112group.com/2018/03/5-positive-channel-trends-for-2018/.
- Talented Learning, https://talentedlearning.com/.
- “Time to Refresh Your Stale Channel Enablement Strategy.” ITA Group. Undated. https://www.itagroup.com/insights/refresh-your-channel-enablement-strategy.
- “What I See Coming for the Channel in 2019.” Forrester. Jan. 16, 2019. https://go.forrester.com/blogs/what-i-see-coming-for-the-channel-in-2019/.