• Channel sales leaders must sharpen their business acumen and align their actions with the company’s strategy to gain internal support
  • Today’s buyers and solutions are changing, making it imperative to increase the rigor around recruitment and determine whether current partners are the right ones
  • Channel sales leaders must become trusted advisors to other company leaders — e.g. by providing peers with the data and insights they need to succeed

Let’s face it: Channel sales leaders don’t have it easy — especially compared to their peers in direct sales. First, channel sales leaders are tasked with driving sales through companies that do not report to them directly. However, the bigger challenges tend to come from within company walls. Executives and boards often have little understanding of indirect channels, little interest in learning about them, and minimal respect for the value they can deliver. As a result, quotas are increasing, but channel sales leaders constantly struggle to obtain the attention, resources and respect they need to succeed. Do any of the following situations resonate with your own experiences?

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  • Problems with the C-suite. Channel sales leaders operate with limited budgets and outdated tools, but they are regularly challenged about whether partners are necessary and worth what they are paid.
  • Problems with marketing communications and sales enablement. Channel sales leaders are often challenged about the sales and demand generation prowess of the partner community, yet partners (and employees) are usually the last group to receive training and communications.
  • Problems with product management and product marketing. Partners can sell alternative or even competitive offerings, but products are too often released without a compelling business proposition or the tools partners need to sell them easily and effectively.
  • Problems with direct sales. Even when channel sales leaders are able to get rules of engagement and deal registration in place, management often turns the other way when a direct rep bad-mouths a partner or takes a deal away from the partner that initiated it.

Six Steps to Earning a Seat at the Table

How can a channel sales leader navigate past the negative perceptions of channels? How can you stand on equal footing with rest of the organization’s executive team? How can you earn the respect of the C-suite and the rest of the organization?

During my years as a Forrester analyst and as a practitioner before that, I have worked with some of the best minds in channel sales. The following is practical advice they have shared with me, and that I have learned through observation and experience:

  • Align your strategy and actions with the those of the company. One of the best ways to boost your value and the value of indirect channels in the eyes of the company is to ensure that channels are perceived as part of the solution, not part of the problem. Channel strategies (and partner joint business plans) are too often built in silos. Make sure your team’s goals and objectives — as well as those of your partners’ — are aligned with the those of the company. For example, if the company’s strategy calls for a focus on customer experience, include this in the channel strategy as well (e.g. measure and reward customer satisfaction at the partner level).
  • Get your data in order and quantify results. Channel sales leaders need to do a better job of speaking the language of the C-suite and board of directors. Those individuals are less concerned with increasing market share and growing sales and more concerned with building a repeatable, predictable, quantifiable and profitably growing sales engine. This means it is critical to arm yourself with the data necessary to go beyond reporting traditional top-line or quota attainment, and to quantify the value of the channel sales ecosystem. One must-have metric is partner-initiated (not just fulfilled) revenue. Channel leaders struggle when their company leaders believe that partners aren’t generating net-new business for the company but are merely capitalizing on opportunities generated by their own direct sales or marketing efforts.
  • Put more rigor around partner selection, prioritization and engagement. Shame on the channel sales leader who still considers the number of signed partners an important KPI. This is why so many companies derive 80% of their revenue from 20% of their partners, which feeds the negative perception of channels. The right strategy is to focus on quality, not quantity, by employing a more disciplined partner recruitment process and prioritizing resources and investment with partners that not only are performing but also have growth potential.
  • Build and enable the right team. One of the biggest challenges channel sales leaders face is the low regard others have for channel account managers. In many organizations, channel sales has become a dumping ground for well-liked direct sales reps who are underperforming. The result is a channel sales organization that is less than 100% effective. To turn this around, channel sales leaders must focus on populating their team with the right individuals who have the right mindset and competencies, and going beyond standard sales training to include topics such as effective sales coaching and conducting joint business planning sessions. Update tools and processes with an eye toward freeing channel account managers from mundane activities so they have time to invest in the activities that will elevate their value to partners.
  • Market your budget to the CFO. Even for proven best practices such as implementing a partnership relationship management system or creating an inside channel account management team, budget requests by channel leaders are often denied. Often this is simply because these requests are pitched incorrectly. In these scenarios, the CFO is your customer, so you have to understand that role’s needs and concerns and address them accordingly. If you enter into the discussion with hard data on the expected ROI, payback period (break-even) and total cost of ownership, the CFO will more likely approval the request.
  • Become a valued and trusted partner. One of the most challenging and most important steps to getting the coveted seat at the table (and increasing channel sales) is to establish yourself internally as a trusted and valued business partner. This requires collaborative, authentic partnerships with all key leaders, particularly the leaders of direct sales, marketing and product development. This doesn’t mean cozying up to them. It means taking a genuine interest in better understanding their goals and objectives, and how channels (and you personally) can further their success.

What steps will you take? Please share your ideas!