[Audio Insight] Why Channel Partner Experience Matters & Where to Start

ITA Group
ITA Group

Thanks for tuning in to Audio Insights—you’re listening to: Why Channel Partner Experience Matters & Where to Start.

This week’s Insight features channel and incentives expert Ellen Linkenhoker interviewed by Max Kenkel discussing partner experience, how you define it, why it’s important, what’s included in the partner experience, where you can start improving today, the value of personalization and how you can measure partner experience. Listen to the audio above or check out the transcript below.

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[Transcript]

Max Kenkel: Hi everyone, thanks for tuning into ITA Group’s audio Insights! today you’re listening to why partner experience matters and where to start. I’m your host, Max Kenkel and I’m joined today by Ellen Linkenhoker one of ITA Group’s channel and incentive expert—I would argue the channel and incentive expert. Ellen, how are you?

Ellen Linkenhoker: I’m fantastic! Especially after an introduction like that.

Max: Well, every word of it was true—even my name! But let’s cut to the chase:

What Is Partner Experience?

Ellen: Great question, let’s dive right in. Partner experience is the culmination of all those touch points and engagements the partner has with your brand, the partner portal, staff and technology solutions. I like to think of it as similar to the buyer journey. It’s just more than what you—the brand—plan for. It’s how that person—individually—experiences your brand. Or in this case, how they experienced your channel program.

How Do You Define Partner Experience?

Ellen: I see it frequently defined as the profitability and some metrics around the health of partner relationships, which is certainly part of it—but it's so much more. I like to think of partner experience as, basically, all of the partners touch points. It’s their perception of how all of those interactions with your brand and your partner program—whether they’re good, bad or mediocre—that heavily sways their brand preference and advocacy.

Max: Would you almost say it varies by partner?

Ellen: Yes. Each one is going to have a different perception of their interactions with you—just like you would as a consumer. Each person has their own (and you can certainly map and sway those) but it’s all down to that personal engagement with the brand that ultimately decides preference or advocacy.

Max: So it sounds like you're quantifying or scoring KPIs across your partner network and segments.

Ellen: Essentially—once you get down to measuring it. Absolutely.

Why Is the Partner Experience Important?

Max: I’m a channel person for XYZ Company—why do I care about my partner experience?

Ellen: This is an interesting question. I don’t know that we always did—I think there’s been this shift in, I don’t want to say who holds the power, but there’s been a shift in the relationship where it’s no longer, “What can you do for me?” Now, it’s more of a two way street. In those relationships where it’s more of a give and take, the partner experience is going to become one of the differentiators.

We recently did some research into how channel programs are evolving, and it reiterates there is so much noise for partners. This means the easier it is to do business with you—the more you speak that partner’s language and tailor things to them—that’s when the partner experience becomes the tipping point for preference. You then have a differentiation point in favor of your partner program, which is going to help you stand out from everybody else. Your partner experience is going to help you break through all of that noise.

Another big one is increased revenue, which I think everyone is after. It also ties back to the idea of being easier to work with. The easier you make it to work with you and the more clearly you can state what you need from partners and how they will benefit by doing what you want, the more likely they are to work with you—which generally equates to increased revenue.

The last one to note is that end customer positive impact is the trickledown effect: The more prepared and armed the partner is to sell your products and services the better. The more they’ll appreciate your products and services, and the better experience a customer’s going to have as well.

Max: It seems like there was a mentality in the past when vendors figured the opportunity to sell their product was enough of a partner experience. And that just is not enough anymore (and likely never was). So how do you take them to the next step? What would be included in the partner experience other than the privilege to sell my product?

Ellen: Think of the partner experience—everything about it. The recruitment. The onboarding. The enablement. The infrastructure. Everything you have in place for the partner helps how you’re measuring success. Ongoing evolution of your messaging, your communication; any interaction with brand staff or your own channel managers could be part of that experience as well. It’s so much more than just having technology or a communication plan in place, it’s how partners interact with it, how they get to things, and how useful do they find them.

There’s a distinct emotional component that’s hard to tie a measure to and can easily change based on who that partner is and what they need from you at that time. This speaks volumes to the previous point of an individual preference but you do have some control over the way partners experience your brand or your partner program while you are engaging with them.

Max: So what I’m hearing is that it’s really just like customer experience in that you segment your customers and you hit them with different things depending on which segment they fall into to maximize that customer lifetime value. So if you do the same thing with your partners you can maximize their lifetime value.

Ellen: Exactly! That relationship can be impacted to increase your goals together, whether that’s revenue, influence or anything else you’re trying to get them to do more of.

Max: Let’s talk about that what you’re trying to do more of. Where do you find the biggest wins are in this partner experience space that you can tackle in 2021?

What Are Some Big Wins to Tackle This Year?

Create a partner experience portal.

Ellen: It’s so easy to get wrapped up in how giant things feel to change or impact. And sometimes that makes it hard to get started. I do think there are a few ways that you can tackle the partner experience that feels easier to take on.

And while it may seem obvious, let me just say: Doing something is going to be better than doing nothing. If you just make it easier to log in, that’s a win. If you make payouts quicker, that’s a win. If you give them choice, instead of just cash all the time, that’s a win.

Some of these smaller things can make a big impact.

But if we’re talking about what you can tackle this year that still feels manageable, there are some slightly bigger things that you could take on. One of the big ones is the partner experience portal. Unlike a partner portal, a partner experience portal pulls all of the disparate infrastructure information together in one easy to navigate portal. So if you have those things all over the place, this can be a good one to take on. Essentially it’s kind of like an air traffic controller, who helps partners know where to go.

If you’re a science fiction fan it's a bit like a Stargate SG-1 portal. Each time a partner logs in it queries their profile, status and specialization and it’s dialed in to the right planet or destination to send them to. When they get there and they log in, it’s all tailored to them. They have only their promotions, only their enablement, only their training. It has their status in their program, their next task to do to help them achieve that next milestone—it’s all in there, all tailored to them. It pulls everything in together and is basically a living breathing page that can simplify and make your partner experience clearer.

Max: Let me make sure I understand: I am a partner of XYZ Company again. Typically, I’ve got to go get marketing materials from one website, see my purchase history on another website, and I’ve got to go to yet another website to order—all of these keep adding up. But what you’re suggesting here is kind of like an aggregation site where I can get into all that stuff with just a click as opposed to logging out logging back in logging out logging back in. Is that a good way to say it back to you?

Ellen: You got it.

Max: What’s another low hanging fruit listeners can do to make some basic upgrades to how a partner can get ahold of you? What would be the next step?

Map the partner journey.

Ellen: Another thing that you can do to start to tackle the partner experience is map the partner journey. This is a fantastic foundational piece that you should do when you start making changes to the partner experience.

You kind of have to know what you’ve got today to know what to tweak for tomorrow. Start with onboarding, then work through enablement and ongoing touches. How are your campaigns and promotions getting rolled out? What does support look like? How often do you touch the partner account? Basically it’s a bit like an audit, but from the partner’s perspective. I’d also encourage doing a focus group or survey—those in depth interviews can actually pinpoint some really easy wins for you. And in my opinion, they’re worth every penny.

Max: When you talk about that focus group you're talking about, you know, maybe 20 interviews or some 15 to 20 interviews with all types of partners—few of your best, a few of your middle, a few of your worst to get a feel of what would make their lives easier. This is an opportunity to really hear from the horse’s mouth.

Ellen: Spot on—it’s worth far more than a best guess.

How Do You Work Personalization Into a Partner Experience?

Max: Once you get that personalization—that feedback—then what?

Ellen: Personalization is similar to that partner journey. It’s interwoven into the experience.

I have mentioned our research earlier, but it also pointed towards personalization being one of the things that would increase partner effort, partner revenue, partner time and resources. Essentially, the study revealed that the more relevant and tailored you can make things to that person in your partner program, the better experience they’ll have—unless of course they’re getting sent the wrong things, which hopefully isn’t the case or the data issues you’re facing. They’re going to have a better experience the more you can personalize or tailor or make it relevant for them.

If you wanted a tangible example, think of an MSP who also do their own implementations. You could also show them, if they just completed a deal, the best steps to implementing this. Or you could offer them touch points that we recommend after leaving the client with their fresh install.

Or if it’s a manufacturing partner, and they just purchased a bunch of bulk products to get your discount or rebate on the back end—their sellers have to sell it now. Well they’re not selling bulk, they’re selling to a person, and they serve mostly (let’s call it) government work so they try to sell into government entities with this product that you can tailor that to them by offering very tailored and customized enablement, or maybe its messaging or it’s a very specific promotion you have for this type of product that you know is generally purchased by government workers. It’s about making everything more accessible so they don’t have to wade through all of the noise inside a partner program—it’s good stuff, but it’s not great for everyone, which is the key takeaway here.

Max: Sure, just make it easy, right? Make it easy for people to do business with you, that’s what I’m hearing through and through. Okay, let’s say that I take these steps with my partners. How do I know these improvements are working for our partners? What am I looking for to prove effectiveness?

How Do You Measure the Partner Experience?

Ellen: Oooh! Hitting me with the tough questions. This is a moving target. And I think that you find it even in CX. But I’m not dodging the question at all. I will absolutely give you actionable measurement items, but you must understand this is so subjective you can’t just take the same measurement that somebody else is using. This is going to be tailored to you.

A couple of the ones I always like to see are engagement levels.

Are you seeing more use of the things you’re tweaking?

Another great one to measure partner experiences is to ask them! Have them fill out a survey.

Maybe you could even get to a partner effort score.

Like on a scale from one to 10 that asks something like, how easy was this for you? Did you find what you were looking for? What you found, did you find it effective? Did you use it? You can be a little bit creative as you identify what points you want to ask those ads.

Another way you could measure partner experience is, do you see an increase in deal registration?

Do you see an increase in sales?

That might take a little longer to see because this is not like going out to buy a lip gloss, you know like, this is something that’s going to take a little time to see the outcome of, so you have to be invested in it.

You could measure improved lead gen or if they’re using the materials.

One of the best recommendations I can make is establishing baselines for the things that partners care about, which you could certainly have uncovered in those focus groups such as, how quickly can I find what I need? How long did it take to get that quote or support? How often do I get paid out? How are you helping me generate leads?

Another common measure that we use a lot in customer experience is lifetime value, which I mentioned a little bit earlier—and is often anchored in retention and growth.

Are partners sticking around? Are they consistent? Are they growing?

There are a number of different things that you can measure. And I like to always step back and say, “How can this measurement look more like points mapped along that journey we just talked about?”

For instance, let’s say at this stage it’s the end of onboarding, what signals a good partner experience? Mark that down, take a baseline. At the next milestone that you’ve mapped on your journey (maybe it's making the claim or filing the paperwork on a completed sale), what metric shows success? Keep doing that, along all the points in that journey, and then tally it all up along the path. You can even come to a final score at the end, a total PX score if you will and—you can even think of it like a little NPS score for partners.

My big suggestion here is don’t just pick one thing to map a partner experience score to or to measure, because you won’t be able to understand the nuances of where to work on the experience. Without some level of measures across their journey, across all those interactions, you’re going to have a hard time prioritizing the smart things to fix. And each of those measures is probably going to be different.

Max: Yeah, I mean even the first one you said about engagement levels and are you seeing more usage of the things you’re tweaking. I mean, depending on how robust, or how ill fated, your current solution for partners is, seeing usage decrease might be the right metric if it's cumbersome for them to find stuff on a website. Now all of a sudden it’s one click away and they get through that experience faster. I get what you’re saying when you say it’s nuanced and it kind of depends. From my knowledge of these types of solutions too, year one is absolutely about engagement and when you revamp this stuff are the revamps working? Are you seeing that uptick in usage and utilization or speed to market? Then on the back end—year two and beyond—you can really start to tie sales increases to that and some of that partner lifetime value. 

Where Can Someone Start if They’re Just Getting Into This?

Max: If I’m a channel manager that’s been doing the same thing for my partners for 20 years, how would I even start?

Ellen: This doesn’t have to be crazy. You don’t have to have a big internal project or a massive budget. Ideally you would invest something here, but you certainly can just pick a few things, then start prioritizing that partner journey.

If you’re going pick one thing to work on next, pick the partner journey, map it out—even if it’s not complete or hire somebody to do it. Start here.

Start with segments. Start with that journey map. Know your audience.

These are the foundational components that will get you moving on the right path.

Even making baseline things simpler, faster, clearer, automated is going to make a difference for you. I don’t want you to feel like this is overwhelming or if your partner program is so old that you’re just not sure where to start. It might be the perfect time just to dig into that journey map and that’s where I would always point people to start first. Definitely reach out to me if you’re not sure where to go first.

Max: Well, that makes a lot of sense. So let’s recap what I learned from you today.

Key Takeaways for the Partner Experience & Where to Start

Max: You should treat your partners differently depending on what partner they are, and how they’re with you—much the same way that you would treat a customer differently. You should also weave in some of those customer experience best practices, about personalization, ease of use and interactions.

But the biggest thing that I heard from you today is if you’re thinking there might be an issue with your partner network—or that it could be improved—put yourself in their shoes and dig into the data to understand what it's like to do business with you. Then you can start checking things off as you make it easier to do business with you. If you take this approach, it sounds like we'd have a pretty good partner network here in short order.

Ellen: Absolutely. The only thing I’d add because I'm a data nerd at heart is take a benchmark and measure something.

Max: Yeah, of course. No data no proof. Well thanks Ellen. If you guys have questions you can reach out to Ellen or drop us a note on the contact us page. Ellen, any last thoughts?

Ellen: Thanks for tuning in, hopefully talk with you soon on another audio insight. Thanks everybody!

Max: If you have questions for Ellen, reach out.

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