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How to make channel sales work

To be effective in channel sales, you have to be a great project manager, able to influence without formal organisational power and operate effectively at every level in an organisation. Read on for advice on how to succeed

Channel sales is probably the toughest job there is in sales. You don’t get to hire the salespeople on your team. You’re liable to be seen as an outsider until you’ve proven your value and earned the trust of your partners. You’re definitely going to be seen as the competition by some direct salespeople in your own business.

You generally don’t have access to all the resources you need within your partner organisations and you have to work hard to build trust and relationships, which can be spoiled by one stupid decision or miscommunication by your management. You’re often divorced from the partner’s executive management team so escalation can be tricky or nigh-on impossible.

Sadly, you will find yourself, at some point, protecting those relationships you’ve worked so hard to build and grow from the idiocy of your finance director deciding to cut costs by not paying commissions. Or you’ll find yourself playing the role of rent-an-adult in territorial disputes between partners, clashes of personalities and conflicting interests between your direct salesforce and your partners.

All this, while you carry a hefty target and you’re under pressure to recruit more partners and gain market share.

To be effective in channel sales, you have to be a great project manager, you have to be able to influence without formal organisational power, and you have to be able to operate effectively at every level within an organisation – sales, marketing, technical, operations, finance, legal, implementation, customer service, and executive.  

Frequently, channel professionals are more akin to cat-herders than salespeople.

You have only two critical functions:

  1. Recruit the best partners.
  2. Get the best out of them.

Being able to sell through a channel of third parties from a range of corporate cultures requires outstanding people skills, exceptional organisational and strategic planning capability, a highly attuned sense of commercial reality, and the ability to prevent and neutralise conflict.

“To be effective in channel sales, you have to be a great project manager, you have to be able to influence without formal organisational power, and you have to be able to operate effectively at every level within an organisation”
Marcus Cauchi and David Davies, Sandler Training (UK)

Let’s face facts – partners really don’t care about what you want or why you are selling. They don’t care about your revenue goals, your expected profit margins, or how much product you need to shift each month to meet quota. They care about themselves. They care about what they want and what they need to be successful. They sign up to your partnership programme for their reasons, not for yours.

Accordingly, your approach should be partner-centric. It must be all about them – about how your products and services solve a problem profitably in their world, how you help them win and keep clients. So, what do your partners actually need?

To understand their business needs and the personal drivers of the leadership and salespeople, you will want to work closely with your partners to engage them and get them on your side. You have to help them believe how what you offer is in fact what their customer needs. Your products need to add value to their portfolio and you have to teach them how to sell them – after all, you are the expert – but so often, all the training is around products, not sales.

You have to help them fill their sales pipeline, disqualify the non-prospects quickly and close good business, consistently. If you don’t, they’ll drop you and move on with your competition. You have to provide them with the tools and resources they need to succeed. 

We have created 11 videos to help you deal with the most difficult challenges channel managers face in designing, recruiting, onboarding, growing and keeping a profitable sales channel with fully committed, loyal partners. Watch them here.

If you want to explore a fresh approach using battle-hardened tactics and strategies that work in practice that help you take control, read and implement the lessons from Making channel sales work, the latest book by Sandler on effective channel sales.

This was last published in May 2019

Read more on Channel Partner Programmes

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