Tl;dr - Sales Channel is an important part of many go-to-market models. Strangely, though, the use of data and marketing automation that's common with direct sales teams is rarely extended throughout the channel ecosystem. Intent Data could be an easy way to begin that process. Vendors can share their intent data with channel partners automatically or in a curated model managed by channel sales managers. The opportunity for improved results and strengthened collaboration are significant.
Sales Channel - An Evolving Ecosystem
In 2003 travel agents found themselves in existential crisis. Facing "disintermediation" by online sites, the traditional agents' sudden irrelevance absent a monopoly on privileged travel booking information, seemingly doomed the entire industry. Years of relationships and business asset value evaporated.
Travel agents were just one example.
More than five years ago OpenView Partners joined the discussion with an article on whether SaaS and technology sales channel was "dead" or "underutilized."
More than two years ago Salesforce.com announced it was time to blend CRM (customer relationship management) and PRM (partner relationship management.)
Today, not only are travel agents surviving, but they're "thriving." Channel sales ecosystems across industries - from B2B to B2C and from industrial to SaaS Software - remain vibrant and critical to vendors' growth plans. Even in the intent data space one must respect Bombora's success in building an impressive network for resellers and partners including Everstring, DiscoverOrg, and recently, Engagio.
Generally, however, while vendors have become quite savvy in their use of technology, content and digital tools to attract prospects, to provide value throughout their buying journeys, and to understand those journeys, that technology and savvy haven't been extended throughout the channel ecosystem. That represents a large opportunity.
Why Sell Differently Directly?
Each company that uses intent data does so according to their own specific goals and requirements. Generally they alert sales teams to activity in both target accounts and companies with pending opportunities. Marketing teams use data in various ways for PR, demand generation, ABM, competitive marketing and marketing intelligence - and one of their important goals is to monitor overlap in their own first-party data and the third-party intent data. Success teams always want rapid notification of existing customer activity that might indicate churn risk or up/cross sell opportunities.
Companies build workflows, alerts, and segmentation to ensure that the right internal team members receive and act on the important intent signals and sales intelligence - from their own 1st party data as well as 3rd party. These dynamic notifications enable direct sales to interpret and quickly adapt to complex buying situations.
With precious few exceptions there are not analogous alerts and notifications for channel sales - for either first-party or third-party purchase intent data.
In my experience there are three reasons.
- Lack of alignment between parties - Vendors and the indirect stakeholders in their channel sales ecosystems often have different priorities and perspectives. In the software space, for instance, often channel partners derive much of their revenue from related services. They may not even need to sell the software to gain a new client. Further, they typically work with multiple vendors. Too often channel relationships are transactional. Interactions are primarily for tactical project coordination, and training is focused on what's necessary to sell and implement the software. Exchange of information tends to be attenuated and often reactive.
- Mindset within companies - In most companies there's a small channel sales and marketing team. That's reasonable - after all the premise of a channel ecosystem is to operate independently and efficiently. That might help push relationships out closer to the end users. It also means it's often an "after thought," and worse it might actually be in conflict with the company's direct sales team which is normally larger, higher profile and better resourced.
- Data management, insights and exchange capability - There are often technical limitations. Somewhere at the intersection of distrust, indifference and effort, there's frequently limited exchange of real-time information. Leads may be pushed out via a PRM and occasionally updated. Efforts to harmonize or collaborate via CRM systems rarely succeed. And first party data is typically closely held by each, and often not carefully tracked by indirect channel partners.
In a future article I'll explore how a customer data platform (CDP) can be used to overcome the 3rd challenge.
But while we're together now, enough preaching. Let's talk about ways to leverage 3rd party buyer intent data in channel sales ecosystems, and how doing so can help with the 1st challenge - alignment. (Mindset is a different challenge; one that's really up to your CEO to manage. Balancing investors against the end user customer, channel customer, and internal sales teams is complicated.)
Weaving Contact Level Intent Data Through a Sales Channel Ecosystem
There are two goals here. First, to help you and the channel close more business, more efficiently. Second, to build trust and mutual value. With those in mind, there are three basic playbooks for using intent data with the channel.
- Target account sales - Notify channel sales and management when 3rd party data indicates someone from a mutual target account is taking action that indicates they might be in market. An important byproduct of this will be the necessary step of collaborating on legitimate target account lists with action plans and justifications.
- Proactive activity alerts on pending projects to sales people - 6.8 member (and growing!) buying teams are challenging complex sales teams and resulting in more deals lost to the status quo. Knowing who's active on a team, where they are in their buying journey, and what each is doing can help to sell effectively. Share that info proactively!
- Customer retention and up/cross sell - If your industry is one where channel partners continue to earn commissions over time, they'll share your interest in reducing churn. Similarly if a current customer appears to be in market for an additional product/service which you can provide, your partner will likely appreciate being involved.
Obviously there are some preparatory steps required.
- Training - You'll have to train channel on how to interpret and use the data so they don't overreact or contribute to a creepy prospect experience. Here's a tip - instead of sending raw data, use workflows to send templates which incorporate suggestions on how to interpret the data. Consider adding contextually appropriate recommendations for questions, approaches and enablement content. And copy both the channel manager and channel partner sales team. Alternatively you might batch information for your channel managers so that they can personally debrief and chat with sales reps about what you've observed and how/whether to react tactically. This can foster more cooperation.
- Include channel in customer communications - In certain cases you'll want to prompt your channel managers to reach out with emails directly, and copy the channel sales team. This will depend on the specifics of your model (e.g. who owns the transaction and the relationship) but could foster collaboration if the channel sales team might traditionally have been excluded
- Track relationships - Your internal systems will have to track relevant details. It won't be enough to have a spiral bound notebook page or excel file that lists active projects. You'll have to use your CRM and marketing automation to track which accounts and which deals involve which partners - even which partner sales rep is involved
- Make channel one of the team - Build channel sales employees into your workflows for email, SMS or even voice bot notification of certain activities
Pick a Pilot (Partner and Rep) To Test
This will take some work to perfect. And, realistically we all can think of folks from our sales channel past who would surprisingly resist any effort to help. So it's best to start small with a couple folks who are enthusiastic partners and who embrace your sales process. Experiment with them. Test workflows and notifications. Make sure they're timely and relevant, but not excessive. Have your channel managers very involved early on.
A Simpler Model
This may sound complicated. Maybe you're in an industry where marketing automation and other tools aren't as common.
Here's a simple playbook. Harvest third party intent data and then share it directly with your channel. You'll need to make assignment decisions - by territory, industry, or partner status. Maybe you just send them a list of active prospects in their territory.
A slightly more refined approach would be for your team to nurture the prospects with custom audience retargeting, letting the conversions trickle out the bottom for routing to the appropriate channel partners.
And Then Imagine
Now set back and dream for a moment. What if you and your channel partner shared first party data for accounts and contacts of mutual interest? What if they knew when they visited your site, converted, or even which emails they opened repeatedly or clicked? And what if you could coach them on how to use that knowledge to sell more for both of you?
Now, let's get even more crazy. What if you had insight into their first party data? Many might not have much - perhaps just CRM notes. But it would be something. Combine that with your first party data and with third party data, and imagine the power.
If you saw a channel rep had a call scheduled in a few days with someone regarding an active project, and a colleague just visited your site while three others just appeared in your intent data, wouldn't it be amazing if you could push them that info in advance of their call? Or maybe via your channel sales manager who could coach on questions to ask?
In a future article we'll talk about how a customer data platform (CDP) might compliment or replace many of the functions of a partner relationship management (PRM) platform. PRM would still fill some important functions including an ecosystem learning management system (LMS) and repository for sales enablement content to which you'll want to control access (e.g. battle cards.)
It's an interesting future to consider!