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Can a Customer Data Platform Improve Channel Sales?

Dec 18, 2019 | Author Ed Marsh

Tl;dr - If you've settled for an ineffective, or even adversarial channel sales relationship, don't bother reading this. But if you're a vendor wondering how to really supercharge your channel sales, or a channel partner wondering what a great vendor might be doing to drive mutual success, then check it out. Between intent data and a CDP, there's enormous potential to improve the way indirect channel and vendors go to market.

Reducing Overhead - Improving Information

In most channel sales ecosystems for complex sales, communications are either ad hoc or reports based.

Ad hoc is important when there's a specific situation or opportunity to address. It's responsive.

Reports are important to forecast, plan support, and look for opportunities to collaborate to move a deal along. They are retrospective.

This system is inherently inefficient - there's too much sales "overhead" expended on both sides. The result is that communication often loses the critical elements of context and immediacy that are important in today's markets.

This isn't a revelation. Many channel players would love to make the process more efficient and effective.

The bigger problem is that none of this solves for the prospect/customer. A "sales process" that is built around how you want to sell is almost certainly going to disrupt the buying experience, if not blow it up. 

Wouldn't it be better to support a wonderful buying experience, and figure out how vendor and channel can seamlessly collaborate to achieve that?

"The System"

The challenge is technology. Each company has their own CRM, marketing automation platform (MAP) and email service provider (ESP) among other tools. Each tracks opportunities and pipeline differently, and to the chagrin of both groups, even the sales process often isn't harmonized. 

Channel ecosystem partners are understandably hesitant to log all information twice (in their vendor's CRM as well as their own) and may be hesitant to open up all their information. They typically represent multiple vendors and have multiple projects underway simultaneously. 

Vendors invest heavily in brand and lead generation to benefit the channel partners, but often feel that those contributions are undervalued. They have too many partners to customize systems for each, and expect partners to work within those on which they've settled.

Partner Relationship Management (PRM) platforms offer some relief, particularly in lead distribution and management, as well as in certification tracking, training, and knowledge management. Still, that leaves lots of gaps in account, contact and deal management.

Accessing Information Silos

The complex sales process involves up to 10.2 players at the customer, and various marketing and sales folks at both the vendor and channel partner. That's a lot of potential conversations, website visits, form conversions, 3rd party data signals and other activity that remains hidden from either the vendor or the channel partner because of siloed data.

In the combination of the two sets of activity often lie critical insights, not to mention a fuller picture of the prospect situation which could inform mutual efforts to get the deal done. (This article provides more background on how contact level™ 3rd party purchase intent data can support channel sales.)

It's safe to assume that nobody is going to give up their tech stack or do their work twice. But what if there was a way for the channel partner and vendor to bridge these ecosystem silos?

There is.

A customer data platform (CDP) can create value in this complex situation for the vendor, the channel partner, and most importantly, for the buyer who would benefit from a vastly improved experience.


Introduction to CDPs

A CDP is basically a database that sits on top of various marketing and sales datasources. These typically include your CRM, MAP, social media, transaction history, and various 3rd party data sources. The CDP ingests data from each, builds a consolidated view (a single customer record) and often automatically cleanses and validates data in the background. CDPs are designed for use by the marketing team to improve efficiency, speed and compliance. That's the data management side - we might call it the data layer. It's important in a world with so many data sources and so many data and privacy regulations.

CDPs are much more than powerful, consolidated marketing databases. Atop the data layer sit decision and execution layers. These will monitor data for certain conditions, and then instruct your systems to execute various actions. This typically involves dynamic segmentation followed by specific outbound communications (email, direct mail,) nurturing (retargeting campaigns,) or personalized web experiences (site content and chatbots.)


Real Life Examples of a CDP in Channel Sales

For the sake of these examples we'll assume that:

  • both the vendor and partner use CRM and marketing automation platforms which capture sales activity, conversion, engagement and site visit data for each
  • data from CRM and marketing automation platforms of both the vendor and partner will be shared at the contact, account and opportunity level for objects of common interest. In other words, the only data which will be shared is related to mutually agreed objects
  • the vendor will maintain the CDP and integrate contact level 3rd party intent data, as well as other possible data sources
  • there's a strong working relationship, trust and collaboration between the vendor and partner (it goes without saying that there's no foundation for this process without that trust)
  • the channel model assigns accounts to specific partners (geography, registration, industry, etc.) and there aren't multiple partners, or even different sales channels (direct, e-commerce, indirect) working on the same accounts

Let's also stipulate that there are virtually unlimited, creative ways to use the platform. Common ones would include:

  • dynamically displaying cobranded content (e.g. with channel partner's logo and sales rep's contact details) on the vendor's site
  • include sales rep's contact details on any vendor communication in addition to the vendor's partner sales manager
  • provide real time alerts to the vendor's partner sales manager (and potentially the channel rep) for certain types of activity
  • provide enablement content and tactical recommendations, via the vendor's partner sales manager, to improve outcomes and create coaching/collaboration opportunities
  • integrating cadence/process steps for both parties - e.g. sending 3D mail from the vendor, and referencing the sales rep, when certain conditions are met in the rep's sales activity and the prospect account behaviors
  • Vendors can also decide whether they'd like to provide additional value to channel partners by providing intent data on related products and services which the vendor doesn't provide, but channel partners often do

With that basic framework, let's look at some common situations, and explore how a CDP can help. 

1. Lead tracking

Leads are a friction point in every vendor/channel relationship. Vendors invest in generating them and often feel as though they fall into a blackhole. Channel works them in their own way, juggling various obligations and vendors. And accounting for which leads are worthwhile, which may convert to projects, and what efforts have been made to work them, requires frustrating reporting and requests.

A CDP can help.

Or course it doesn't directly manage the lead follow-up. When a platform ingests data from the partner's CRM it's easy for the vendor to manage their own reporting and tracking. Take it a step further, and the vendor's partner sales managers can monitor this progress at a granular level, through their own systems and without pestering the channel rep, to increase performance and recommend ways to stimulate buyer response. 

It enhances accountability and reporting on marketing's impact.

2. Working leads

It might often occur that a channel partner sales person is trying diligently to connect with a lead, while at the same time the lead is spending time on the vendor's website and doing more research. The details of that research (what pages, what order, what conversions, frequency and duration) could certainly help the channel rep personalize their communications. Any automated emails from the vendor (e.g. download confirmations) should simultaneously reinforce the role of the rep by name to strengthen the collaborative relationship.

At the same time, conversion by a colleague of the original lead on either the vendor or partner website, could be important not only as a 2nd lead, but also as an indication of the breadth and depth of prospect research. This could inform the outreach efforts by the partner rep, provide insights for coaching by the vendor sales manager, and trigger enablement actions by the vendor based on an increase in the lead score.

3. Target accounts & open opportunities

Everyone's shared goal is creating as complete an understanding as possible of the buying team and any activity that indicates movement around a project. That could include early signs of action by known or new contacts from a named target account or an ABM one:many type account. It could also include activity among contacts in accounts with pending opportunities.

Third party data can be really important here - but not in a vacuum. Here the CDP will play double duty. It will monitor first party data from both the vendor and partner, as well as third party intent data (potentially multiple sources.) The decision layer of the CDP will use rules to analyze activity, and then the execution layer will take some action. 

For instance, it will share first party data in both directions. Simultaneously it will look for certain "critical mass" in third-party data - and determine that critical mass based on first party factors. It might, therefore, notify the channel sales manager and push relevant signal details to the MAP as soon as five contacts with appropriate job titles appear in third party data within two weeks. If there's been a content conversion within the last month, however, it might notify the sales rep and channel manager as soon as just two more signals appear in third party data. And if there's been first party activity with both the vendor and partner, it might trigger certain action when it sees just a single signal from third part data.

4. Shared customers

You've heard the statistics. It's reported to be 5X as expensive to get a new customer as to retain one. So reorders, renewal, and up sell/cross sell are important for every company. (Your channel sales model may influence this depending on whether partners remain involved and service accounts over time.)

Intent data can be important here, both in direct signals as well as in absent and trending signals.

For instance, if email engagement rates are dropping for emails from both the vendor and the partner, that might be an important "intent" signal based on absent activity. In contrast, known contacts engaging with competitors, or taking action on topics around the web that indicate they are researching related products/services with which you could help them, could be a great opportunity for sales extensions.

5. Lost and stagnant deals

Most sales teams claim impressive win rates. Nevertheless all lose some deals, and more are finding deals simply evaporate as the status quo prevails with greater frequency.

You know from experience that some competitors are unlikely to deliver as promised. And when a project simply dies, the problem remains and may fester.

It's hard, though, for buyers who made decisions - either opting for a competitor explicitly, or opting for inaction - to come back and acknowledge their mistake. It's your job to make that painless for them to do - or even to relieve them of having to acknowledge it. 

That means more than being graceful in disappointment. In the case of competitive loss, it means watching activity that indicates the honeymoon may be over and the solution isn't delivering as hoped. When deals wither, it means tracking actions that might indicate the urgency and interest in solving the problem are rising again.

In both cases the right approach (casual) and enablement content (related to the issues you can infer are top priorities) are important to smoothly engaging here.

Vendor marketing might take a lead role in creating the engagement, and then hand it off to the sales reps (channel management and channel) once it's actively reengaged.

Training and Awareness

These are complex plays. Just as not every vendor may not have the channel model or marketing operations team to support this, not every channel partner will be skilled and savvy enough to leverage it.

This process will involve sharing valuable information - information which can be incorrectly or clumsily used. Vendor website and privacy use terms, for instance should obtain permission to share with the channel. Channel partner marketing teams must be clear that unless these leads have opted in with them, they're not to receive any mass marketing emails. A vendor's partner sales team must decide which partner companies, and individual reps will have the sales skills necessary to use the data well.

A rep who calls a prospect, for instance, and chides them for engaging with a competitor citing data received from the vendor, will likely damage the chances of winning a deal for both companies. Ultimately, companies may opt not to ingest their channel partners data or integrate systems, but route insights and recommendations from their own 1st and 3rd party buyer intent data through channel sales managers.

Create Vendor Value with the Channel

The primary opportunity with this approach, whether the CDP simply manages the vendor's data or ingests and integrates the partner's, is to increase sales. The marketing and sales intelligence of both groups, combined with the vendor's investment in 3rd party data, can substantially improve close rates and shorten sales cycles.

But there are other potential benefits. These include improving the efficiency of the channel sales process with continuous and automatic information exchange to save time preparing reports and communication overlap.

It's also an opportunity for a vendor to distinguish themselves in the battle for top channel. Providing marketing and sales intelligence from contact level intent data, for instance, empowers channel partners. This is particularly true if the vendor opts to include intent information on related products/services which it may not sell but channel partners will value.

It's time to end adversarial channel relationships and fractured buyer journey experiences.

The data is available as is the technology.

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