Before there was Amazon or any of the other online marketplaces, most manufacturers had two choices for sales, direct and channel partner sales. Smart companies tried both approaches and either stayed with both or made the decision to concentrate on one of them. There are advantages and disadvantages to using both strategies. Direct sales teams require a substantial investment in talent, training and technology, but they are focused on your brand. Channel partners and distributors work independently and usually offer more than your product line, maybe even competitor products, but your investment is relatively low.

So which sales strategy is the right one for your company?

That depends on a number of factors including:

  • Buyer preferences and history in your market
  • Local knowledge and proximity to end-users
  • Channel partner brand awareness and reputation
  • Previous relationships with buyers and companies
  • Your brand awareness and reputation
  • Your business strategy and sales effectiveness
  • Your budget for direct sales and marketing

Let’s assume that, like many manufacturers, you have decided to use channel partners as a primary conduit for sales. Cisco, for example, sells directly to only 30 enterprises worldwide, representing only a small portion of the company’s installed base. The lion’s share is sold by its 60,000 partners worldwide who generate more than 85 percent of Cisco’s revenues.

Are your channel partners performing as well as Cisco’s?

There are three common challenges to working with channel partners, and here’s where Marketing can help.

1. Channel Partners Don’t Understand the Value of Your Products

They’re focused on building relationships with customers and rely on them to know what they need. It’s not so much a matter of helping them find the best solution, rather to close repeat sales and keep the pipeline open.

In B2B, especially industrial manufacturing, orders can be very large and sales cycles can take months, even years. The best sales reps act in a supporting role, providing timely information that helps their prospects and customers make informed decisions. To do that well, they need the latest product information and collateral and, most importantly, they need to know the value proposition and best fit for each of your products. Unfortunately, most channel reps would rather work on relationships, not upping their product knowledge on a regular basis.

How can marketers help?

  • Build a bridge with your reseller and distributor sales teams. Create an easy-to-use online resource that provides them with co-branded brochures, spec sheets and value statements they can share with their prospects and customers.
  • Keep them informed with weekly newsletters and blogs about product advancements, big sales wins, ideas for improved selling and additional support resources.
  • Host events, both in-person and online, to promote new products, answer questions and provide two-way feedback.

2. Channel Partners Don’t Understand Modern Selling

The world of B2B selling has changed forever. Some of the more telling statistics include:

  • 50 to 90 percent of the B2B buyer’s journey is complete before a buyer reaches out to sales
  • 67 percent of the buyer’s journey is now completed digitally
  • By 2020, 80 percent of the buying process is expected to occur without any direct human-to-human interaction

Channel partners may not be willing to invest in continuing education to bring their sales reps up to speed on modern selling techniques. Sales reps themselves may resist change because it requires a significant time investment and training on digital sales tools they may have never used before.

Resellers and distributors may not be willing to invest in the digital marketing platforms and content required to rank highly in search engines and offer needed online support for the buyer journey. Even if they are willing to build a robust online presence, your products may not be featured or even accurately represented.

How can marketers help?

  • Build channel partner locators and co-branded web pages on your site that feature your products and make it easy for searchers to find a partner that fits their needs.
  • Assist channel partners with SEO and demand generation campaigns for your products and their prospects.
  • Offer workshops, CRM tools and other online resource pages that partner sales reps can use to quickly and accurately choose the right solutions for their needs, better manage the sales process and close sales more efficiently.
  • Dedicate a team specifically to support channel partner sales by providing lead data, sales rep notices of lead activity, feedback on sales performance and sales content for each stage in the buyer’s journey.

3. Channel Partners Aren’t Accountable for Sales of Your Products

The truth is, high value channel partner relationships are rarely easy to find and still harder to grow. Relationships that work are built on a solid foundation of trust and alignment of goals and processes. Start with understanding your own requirements for a good partner, then apply those standards in the vetting process. Some things to look for include:

  • Experience in selling and supporting your products or similar products
  • Commitment by both parties to support the relationship, regularly communicate and provide honest feedback to continuously improve results
  • A service level agreement that spells out the roles and responsibilities of both parties
  • Consider using partner relationship management (PRM) software to track sales and manage all of your channel partners in one system. Learn more about some of the best PRM solutions here.

The Bottom Line

If you want your channel partners to perform as well as Cisco’s, some strategic thinking may be in order. Your best partners may well be your best chance to grow revenues and reach your goals, but they will need to be with you on that quest. The more you can do to help them with both sales and marketing, the faster they can increase revenues from selling your products. Your best partners will embrace your offer to help and participate themselves in getting the word out, improving sales performance and developing great client relationships. Your “other” partners? Well, maybe it’s time to move on.