5 Tips for Starting a Channel Partner Strategy in 2020

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“Two heads are better than one.” 

“It takes two to make a dream come true.”

“Two can play that game.”

These are all sayings that can work just as well in business as they can in any rom-com.

As the digital landscape continues to expand, companies are looking more and more towards channel partner programs that allow them to divide and conquer their respective markets.

Whether an organization decides to sell a separate product as an adjunct service; sell their own product alongside a similar business for added exposure and maximum distribution; or outsource a portion of their sales to a company that offers complementary products, there are several ways a business can benefit from this modern-day spin on the good old-fashioned “partnership.”

Yet though the advantages can be astronomical, a channel partner program takes loads of research and meticulous planning if it’s going to see any kind of success. 

Curious about reaping the rewards but not sure where to start? That’s where we come in. 

Here are our top five tips for building a channel partner strategy in 2020 (and beyond). This list speaks mostly to businesses looking for partners that will sell for them, but the theories and principles should still apply, no matter the type of partnership involved. 

1. Make sure your own house is in order

As tempting as it may be to start hunting for partners the second your business gets off the ground, slow down. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and then take a cold, hard look at exactly where your business is right now at this very minute.

Remember, the best candidates for channel partner programs are businesses that can already boast a strong foundation. Before you hand your product over to a third-party representative, your product/service and business model should be tried, tested, true, and entirely viable. You should also have a serious handle on your market as well as a good sense of your projected growth.

Once you engage in a partnership, you’ll be expected to train your partner in how best to put your product forward. And as if that weren’t enough, you’ll also be required to bring your own team into the fold by creating a company-wide, partner-friendly culture.

Just think of the trouble you’ll run into trying to support and sustain a partner program if your own infrastructure is less than secure. You’ll be leaving yourself vulnerable to embarrassment if you pitch to a partner before your company is ready, and this would effectively doom the partnership before you’d even gotten your foot in the door. 

So instead of getting ahead of yourself, make sure you do an honest self-assessment. Got some roadblocks holding up your production rollout?

Clear your path and then start researching potential partners. Still struggling to find the right audience for your product? Revamp your marketing and sales strategies before looking into a partner channel. Keep in mind your overall mantra when it comes to partnerships should be: “walk before you run.”

2. Get to know the playing field

Business standing on its own two feet? Cool. Now hit the books. (Not literally, of course; most of the background research you’ll be doing will likely be online or by phone.)

As with any major business venture, it’s wise to do your homework before making any big decisions. When it comes to partnerships, a helpful place to start is by imagining what an ideal partner would look like.

Consider:

-What kind of company/product/service would complement yours best?

-What specific strengths can your product offer a third party?

-What specific weaknesses are you hoping a partnership will help you tackle?

Next, it’s time to begin evaluating potential partners. As customer success expert Lincoln Murphy suggests, candidates who are ready, willing, able, and who––perhaps most importantly––align with your system of values should be at the top of your list. For each possible partner, be sure to take their temperature on things like company goals, ongoing challenges, and inherent value.

Use your imagination and think about what a partnership between you and the candidate might look like. Will the market be interested in a collaborative effort from your two companies? Are your respective teams capable of building and maintaining this kind of business alliance? Will one side be pulling more weight than the other…and are you both okay with that? Get some answers via news outlets, market research, and one-to-one interviews. If (and only if) a partnership candidate meets your criteria, you can start putting pen to paper.

3. Learn to compartmentalize

Here’s the thing about partnerships, though: You can actually have more than one. If several different candidates can offer your company added value, you can build a partner “ecosystem” by onboarding them all. Think about how much brand recognition and revenue you can build when you have an expanded network of third-party helpers to champion and disseminate your product.

If you get the chemistry just right, it may feel like the best party you’ve ever been to (you know, the type of get-together where everyone contributes to the conversation, everyone gets something to take home, and everyone ultimately has a good time).

But an advanced ecosystem requires lots of organization, as well as an uncanny ability to compartmentalize. If you find that more than one potential partner fits the bill, consider implementing a tiered system of partnership, in which you accept a number of partners while ensuring each partner is given duties and responsibilities commensurate with their level of experience, with the size of their consumer base, and with the value they can provide.

While some big-name partners may command a lot of your time and attention, some may simply call for minimal––yet actionable––involvement (think link exchanges, guest posts, etc.). Bear in mind it’s possible to be loyal to many partners at once, but remember to scale your activities according to how much each partner is able to give you in return.

4. Have a clear game plan.

Found a partner (or partner ecosystem) that suits your business? Excellent! Your next step will be to build a solid plan of action. Some things you’ll need… 

Strategies for open communication: When it comes down to it, the success of your partnership is entirely dependent on how good you are at communicating your ideas, goals, and best practices to your partner…and how good you are at implementing their feedback (you know, listening).

Digital platforms for communication (internal messenger solutions, file-sharing sites, sales enablement platforms, Skype, etc.) will help immensely here, as will a designated “partner manager,” who can spearhead talks between your company and your partners and help ease any pain points.

A definitive list of “must-haves” and “must-dos”: And this goes for both parties. Set up a meeting with your new partner(s) to decide what your overarching financial goals are, what demographics you hope to target, who will contribute what (and when), what you’ll need to get started, and how you plan to regroup and reassess should things go wrong or technical updates be required.

Sales training tactics: Acquiring a new partner is almost like acquiring a new sales team. Make sure your partner is armed with all the content, tips, and training they’ll need to showcase your product in the best possible light. Remember: Some of the people you’ll be dealing with may not be well-versed in buyer journeys or sales funnels.

Instead of being frustrated by this, use the opportunity to flex your mentoring muscles—share as much information as you can with your partner and give them pointers on how to optimize sales materials and get the most out of your brand messaging.  

A finger on the pulse of market trends: Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but… knowledge is power. Your ability to support your partner will only be as good as your ability to stay on top of industry news. Keep as up to date as you can on happenings in the market, shifts in buying behavior, and recent success stories.

It’ll be useful to stay one step ahead of your partner on these matters, especially if they come to you with questions or concerns on how to sell your product effectively.

Hang tight, we’re almost at the end…

5. Get comfy. This may take a while. 

Sorry. We made you think there’d be an obvious conclusion to all of this, when in fact there isn’t. Well, not immediately, anyway.

If you remember nothing else from this carefully prepared list of tips, remember this: Partnership payoffs take time. We’re not just talking about the time it will take to get the whole operation up and running. Nope, that’s not even the half of it. What we mean is that channel partner programs can sometimes take a year or more before they start bearing fruit. 

Does this timeline feel a little long? Consider that investing in a channel partner program adds an extra step (or five) to the customer’s journey. Partners enable you to reach a wide range of new consumers, but this type of expansion means your product/services will take extra time to get into your customers’ hands—and any actionable feedback or impact on your ROI will take a little longer to make its way back to you.

Don’t despair about the timeframe, though. Instead, make a concerted effort to stay on your partners’ radar. Enlist in the aid of your partner manager to keep the lines of communication open and facilitate check-ins. Whenever you can, remind your partners that you’re still here, you’re still working hard, and your product still has a lot to offer.

Partnerships are all about driving growth. And growth takes a lot of focus, cultivation, and TLC. Settle in and let your partners know you’re in this for the long haul. We think it will all be worth it in a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of way. Besides, we’d take long-term gains over short-term gratification any day of the week.

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