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Improving channel relationships: Listen more, talk less
If a vendor wants to improve their relationship with the channel, it might be as simple as listening more
According to Bob VanKirk, CEO at SonicWall, “listen more, talk less” should be a key mantra for vendors seeking a strong and successful relationship with channel partners.
Vendors can gain a lot from listening to where channel partners are going with their businesses, their requirements and pain points, says VanKirk, describing partners as “a force multiplier” and one of the key differentiators for vendors.
Microsoft provided a small example of the mantra in action in March when it announced updates to its cloud partner programme based on feedback from partners. Vice-president of partner go-to-market, programmes and experiences, Julie Sandford, said: “Partner feedback has resulted in key programme changes. Since the launch last October, we’ve received significant feedback from across our ecosystem, which has resulted in programme changes to better serve our partners.”
While that’s great to hear for a channel partner, it’s still worth questioning whether most vendors are really listening – or if they are guilty of hearing only what they want to hear.
Rob Mackle, EMEA managing director and co-founder of Assured Data Protection, doesn’t pull his punches. “Certain vendors have been, and still are, guilty of not listening,” he says. “Vendors that wear blinkers and don’t listen to their customers and partners run the risk of turning in the wrong direction, leading to poor performance down the line.”
He suggests that a good vendor knows its market and executes on its strategy, but not before listening and learning from its trusted partners and customers.
Stuart Robson-Frisby, regional vice-president for EMEA channels at Tanium, believes there are good and bad listeners in the vendor fold. “There are plenty of vendors that do listen to partner feedback and use it to improve their offerings, but also many that don’t,” he says. “This is a bad habit, but I can understand why it happens. When you take great pride in a set of products and a partner programme, it can blind you to potential areas of improvement.”
While vendors may be reluctant to take a step back and view their products and programmes more objectively, it’s something they need to do. “Even if only one partner points out a weakness, chances are that others are feeling the same way, so it’s best to find and then fix these issues as quickly as possible,” he warns. “This can only be done by truly listening to partner feedback, which should be viewed as gold dust.”
Vendors should avoid becoming too defensive and learn to treat partnerships as a two-way relationship where a constant feedback mechanism is in place.
Joseph Landes, chief revenue officer (CRO) at Nerdio, also emphasises the value of partner feedback to vendors. “I have always said the truth lies at the partner [level],” he says. “They are the ones who are going to tell you if you are on track or not, and it is imperative to do significantly more listening than talking with them.”
Michael O’Hara, managing director at DataSolutions, believes most vendors do listen to channel partners and there are good reasons why they should, adding: “Vendors that want to build an ecosystem of reseller partners that will proactively sell, implement and support their products need to listen to channel partners.”
He notes that building a strong network of reseller partners is a great way for a vendor to grow its business exponentially. “A reseller network does not cost a vendor much compared to building out sales and support teams internally within the vendor organisation,” he says.
Resellers get plenty of approaches from different vendors to sell their technologies, so they will look for a vendor with good technology when they evaluate which new vendor to add to their portfolio. “But [they’ll also look for a] a good channel programme and support – in other words, a vendor that listens to resellers and puts the appropriate supports in place,” says O’Hara.
He adds that vendors with a direct sales team as well as an indirect channel team can be problematic. “They can send mixed messages to channel partners and, in my view, that may not be the best solution. In these situations, the vendors may well not be listening to their channel partners,” he says.
Valuing transparent collaboration
Chris Waynforth, UK general manager and vice-president, international, at Expel, argues that transparency and collaboration are key to building trust between vendors, partners and customers.
“Unfortunately, we’ve observed that channel partners and vendors are not always on the same page,” he remarks. “One can see evidence of this when a vendor takes over a partner-originated deal, or when a partner has trouble getting a contract signed. Those difficulties are the unfortunate result of vendors not listening to channel partners and truly understanding how business success looks for them.”
This can cause a breakdown in trust between partner and vendor, putting the overall relationship at serious risk. “And it takes a long time to rebuild what’s lost, if it’s even possible,” says Waynforth.
According to JT Lewis, EMEA and APJ director of channel sales at Infinidat, a vendor’s ability to listen to channel partners can be a matter of how big it is – surprisingly, the small vendors seem to hear better. Unsurprisingly, Lewis places Infinidat in that group of listeners.
“All vendors listen to a degree, but from experience, it is the smaller, up-and-coming and scaleup vendors like Infinidat that tend to be listening more carefully to their partners,” he says.
“They can be more nimble and agile when it comes to the sales and marketing support offered to their partners, whereas larger vendors have a lot more in terms of established processes, hierarchy and bureaucracy to follow.”
He argues that listening is a way for smaller vendors to “cement a strong, long-term sales partnership, which they are very keen to do, because having an active third-party channel is critical to increasing market share”.
Claire Snow, EMEA regional vice-president for carrier partnerships at 8x8, points out it can also be about the size of the partner. “As with any industry, you’ll find there is a differing range of attentiveness paid to channel partners. Some vendors will be terrible at engagement, while others will be incredibly good at it,” she says.
“It is fair to say that some vendors are guilty of generalising and assuming partners are all facing the same problems, issues or challenges. However, you must consider that partners come in all shapes and sizes – we have partners that range from one-person entities all the way up to large multinational organisations.
“It’s important to demonstrate that we understand the needs of each individual organisation instead of simply offering solutions to channel partners with a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Roy Duckles, Dragos
Greg Jones, Kaseya EMEA vice-president of business development, makes a similar point. While vendors should always be asking, “How can we help and support our partners better?”, some seem to expect partners to fit into a one-size-fits-all relationship.
“They only focus on the value-add they bring to the customers of their partners. The truth is partners themselves need the same levels of value-add from vendors,” says Jones.
He suggests it is easy to tell if there is a true partnership where the vendor is actively listening to your needs: “For example, does the vendor want to know your goals and business objectives? Is it asking for quarterly business reviews with you? Is it offering real help and advice rather than just pitching products or services? Is it going above and beyond what others are offering with regards to business support? A good vendor should also propose ideas and suggestions on how you could work together better to achieve your joint goals.”
Roy Duckles, regional channel director at Dragos, says vendors are guilty, to a certain extent, of only hearing what they want to hear, adding: “Relationships in the channel should not be viewed as purely transactional, rather they should be viewed as meaningful partnerships.”
The benefits of the partnership need to “go both ways”, and vendors need to be aware of why partners would want to work with them, he adds. What can they offer to their partners? When will the rewards be seen by either party? “Partners also need to understand the vendor’s needs as this helps create a clear, united vision,” says Duckles.
Simon Ratcliffe, principal consultant at Ensono, also stresses that the vendor and partner relationship needs to be a two-way process where both listen to each other.
“It’s important to note that any successful partnership must be a two-way street. There should be reciprocity in the vendor/partner relationship, rather than a particular onus on one side to listen and another to speak,” he says. “Equally, while it is important that vendors listen to their partners’ pain points and insights, channel partners also need to have something useful to say and value to add.”
Show and tell
Jason Kent, director at Open Seas, says it’s in the vendor’s interests to listen to partners. “The user relationship is owned by the reseller, not the distributor or the vendor. So, it’s important to keep resellers on board and engaged with your message,” he says. “Usually, resellers are more loyal to their customers than they are to their vendors. And I understand that because it’s business and it’s the customers that pay.”
Vendors need to be aware that they can’t just come to the channel and stipulate the “how and what”, says Kent. “The channel will walk away, which, in turn, will impact your revenues. This has happened repeatedly in some instances. It must stop. Listen first, develop that relationship, and successful sales will become a consequence of that.”
This is a point echoed by Mark Benson, chief technology officer (CTO) at Logicalis UK&I. “The channel is a primary avenue for vendors to reach customers, and if partners feel neglected, they may avoid certain vendors,” he says.
“It would be counterintuitive for vendors to turn a blind eye to the channel, as it would mean losing that deep understanding of the market and their customers. Vendors that listen to and engage with their channel partners, while leveraging their insight, are the ones that are best positioned to succeed in the market.”
Listening can take many forms, but vendors need to show they’ve heard their partners and deliver – communication is a key factor.
John Andrews, vice-president of global channel at Keeper Security, says a key takeaway from working with partners globally “is that communications need to be frequent but not overwhelming, transparent (even when the message is difficult) and deliver a value that will make the partner’s objectives more achievable”.
Taking feedback is critical, he adds, “but what stands out even more is delivering an impactful programme and execution plan from that feedback, making the partner’s business more successful and becoming mutually beneficial to the long-term relationship”.
“The single biggest failing of vendors has always been to have ‘nice’ discussions with partners with no deliverables, ultimately resulting in unproductive outcomes and finger pointing. This creates the proverbial rocking horse effect: lots of movement but going nowhere,” says Andrews.
Brent Owens, EMEA sales and partner enablement director at Vertiv, says it’s important to keep an eye on the longer term. “Too often, vendors snowed under with deadlines and targets will look at partner feedback on a case-by-case or project basis and gather the information they need in that moment,” he says.
“Instead, vendors should take a more strategic view and consider the feedback as part of the big picture, which will only contribute to improving relationships.”
The same goes for “equally busy partners”, which might “make assumptions that the vendor already knows and understands their concerns or that other partners are already giving similar feedback. By not communicating openly and honestly, both parties could miss opportunities.”
Brent Owens, Vertiv
Partner councils and advisory boards are popular with vendors to get feedback from their partners. “An ideal scenario is arranging a meeting with your top 10 to 20 partners, preferably at a sunny, neutral location,” says Tanium’s Robson-Frisby. Feedback sessions can be more effective if an impartial third-party moderator can collect anonymous feedback.
“Partners sometimes feel more comfortable speaking honestly in this setting,” he says. “In some ways, I see this as a test. If most partners prefer to speak to a third party rather than directly with the vendor’s channel team, it usually indicates that time needs to be spent strengthening partner relationships.”
As anyone who has been on stage will say, feedback can turn into a squalling, howling noise that makes you want to cover your ears and turn the PA volume down to zero. So, how do you make sure it’s the ‘right’ feedback?
Snow at 8x8 Feedback says: “The most important thing is not just to get feedback, it’s to actively do something with that feedback so partners can see that you are listening to their concerns. They may not always like your answers, but you must show that you are prepared to address the issues.
“If you can demonstrate that you have taken a partner’s concerns on board, understood the issues and put structure in place to address them, it says, ‘We hear you, we’ll support you and we are committed to this partnership’.”