2021 Predictions for Building the Best Channel Partner Programs

By: Ellen Linkenhoker
building best channel partner programs

If there’s one thing I have to keep from 2020 it’s our newfound appreciation for the fundamentals of partner programs—communication, engagement and simplifying the ways to work together.

The past year also taught us quite a couple additional lessons, like:

Weathering & Overcoming

  • Failing forecasts
  • Budgets under scrutiny
  • Examination of the value of programs
  • Leaner channel teams

Recognizing & Acting On The:

  • Partner’s appetite for learning
  • Shift to digital and social selling
  • Importance of supporting each other
  • Need for clear direction
  • Virtual engagements

The most successful partner programs of 2020 tackled these lessons head on, invested where it counted and paved the way for a fresh start in 2021.

What Does 2021 Hold for Those Who Want to Build the Best Channel Partner Programs?

After a year of so much change and evolution (thanks COVID-19 and your pandemic bulldozer), we’re all left with an incredible opportunity to innovate even further on our channel partner programs.

That’s why I’ve put together six focus areas we predict the best channel partner programs will adopt in 2021 to continue to flourish.

  1. Partner Journeys
  2. Partner Experience
  3. Skills Development
  4. Smaller Niche Partner Segments
  5. Program Alignment
  6. Personalized Engagement Programs

The Partner Journey Will Become a Reality

The partner journey is the culmination of all the pieces of infrastructure, planning, strategy and learning that’s been invested into program development over the years. It's the how and the why behind all the infrastructure channel leaders have put into place.

How all these pieces fit together holistically from start to finish is where we see investments being made. How does your PRM, Enablement, Portal, TCMA, MDF, Incentives, Communication, Channel Manager Interactions, Recruitment, Onboarding, etc. fit together for partners new and existing?

Mapping out these partner journeys will allow you to overlap how desired partner-customer interactions can help you reach your end goal of greater market share, increased sales, higher retention rates, improved customer satisfaction, and adoption of new technology and services.

Plus, how you examine and craft the partner journey will be a stand-out opportunity (and differentiator) for partners to work with your brand and engage inside your partner program.

Don’t believe it? Hear what some of our clients had to say:

“Our partner network was growing 15–20% a year, and we wanted to understand that journey— what partners are seeing the most success and why? How can we understand more about what successful agents are doing to achieve success, and then help all growing networks do the same?”

“Without a doubt our program is an extremely critical part of how we connect with agents and partners. Ultimately we’re after increasing engagement. We have a large population of partners. This program allows us to reach every level of production. There are new agents, established agents… we can reach and provide extra support at every level of the journey. We just couldn’t do it with sheer man-power. Doing this strategically, operationally, and consistently is the key. This is helping us increase sales and optimize where we spend time and money. But it’s so much more than just a sales program.”

A Partner Experience That’s More Than a Partner Portal

A strong 43% of global B2B marketing decision makers rank improving customer experience as a top priority in 2019, while 39% are looking to improve the partner experience. This shift is due to the changing relationship between vendors and partners.

Partners and vendors alike are realizing there is a lot more choice in who to work with and what they value most out of these relationships.

Additionally the customer’s experience and journey has required that partner program elements become more nuanced and move past traditional goals and requirements to move up tiers. It’s become a relationship where both parties, the vendor and partner, must find value.

This focus on the partner experience means moving past just how partners access information inside a portal. Instead, the focus should be on how channel programs treat partners. Much like employees and consumers, B2B companies will see an increase in the efforts to recruit, onboard, activate and ultimately accelerate these relationships so vendors can achieve their KPIs and ROI expectations.

The partner experience will require better positioning and value propositions to your partners—one size doesn’t fit all. You'll need to remove the barriers and complexity in your programs. Ask yourself, “How easy is it to participate and find value?”

Simplify Programs Through Consolidation & Alignment

New research being published soon (here's your sneak peek) shows that one of the most challenging aspects of vendor programs is the difficulty to participate, qualify, or advance.

Confusing and complex earning criteria will be a thing of the past, and targeted engagement efforts will reign supreme.

Almost a sub-section of the partner experience, I predict we will see an effort to streamline how programs operate. Consider the following:

  • Business units all running different promotions
  • Partners with countless options for promotions
  • Program structures that are unclear
  • Benefits that don’t apply to the partner’s needs or values
  • Confusing earning criteria for spiffs and promotions

If this sounds like your program, the disjointed nature of it will quickly come under scrutiny. Partners are participating in so many vendor programs. If yours is cumbersome to navigate and understand why wouldn’t they engage somewhere else?

Making it easy for partners to work with you, participate in revenue generating activities, and find the support and value they need is the direction the best programs will take.

The Untapped Power of Reinforcing Training & Skills Development  

The impact of the pandemic and growing digital transformation initiatives are forcing entire workforces to change the way they do business—this goes for partners, too.

Generally described as skill development, this can include upskilling, reskilling, cross-skilling, developing new skills and more.

In order to change a workforce culture, a blend of disciplines like engagement, recognition and retention paired with behavior-based incentives will be the go-to route. In fact, some of the skills-development process is the un-learning of habits, which is an ideal area for incentives to play a role.

Research has consistently demonstrated that humans only retain about 10% of any new skill they learn, unless they’re regularly practicing it. So all that effort we’re pouring into skills development probably isn’t going to be remembered if they’re not using what they learned in their day-to-day interactions right away. Reinforcement can encourage partners to actively use specific training and incorporate lessons into their day-to-day interactions

Training must be an element to any partner program or incentive effort going forward. Here’s a quick look at the power of reinforcing training and skills development:

A client of ours, a telecommunications company, wanted to motivate their dealer sales representatives to increase sales, improve product awareness, build long-term loyalty, and instill the importance of training and certification in their team.

To do this, we helped them put together a tiered training reinforcement program. As an independent dealer channel, we couldn’t mandate participation, but we could use rewards to encourage active engagement.

The approach was simple:

  • Enroll all dealer sales reps in a sales incentive program with rewards for sales of eligible products
  • The dealer sales reps who completed a series of product training and quizzes earned more rewards for each sale:
    • 150% greater rewards for each sale by completing pro-level training
    • 200% greater rewards for each sale by completing master-level training

The results?

In the first year of this training reinforcement program, the client saw an incredible outcome:

  • 15% increase in overall sales in a stagnant market
  • 280% more product sales for reps who completed pro-level training than those who did not

Smaller Niche Partner Segments

According to a recent Forrester report, there have been notable shifts in the types of partner program incentives vendors offered in the past four years. The numbers are staggering.

Forrester notes a whopping 571% increase in incentivizing non-transactional referral partners; a 200% increase in recognizing electronic reseller/retailers and a 124% increase in service provider eligibility. Conversely, they note a 23% decline in the inclusion of volume resellers in their channel incentive programs, which is likely attributable to the shift away from hardware sales as the foundation for channel businesses.

This means not only do you have new partners coming to the table and trying to work inside a program that was probably built for your VARs, you’ve also got a number of new roles who need help understanding how to represent, implement, sell, and grow your products and services.

This in turn prompts creating or revamping programs that focus on service and technician support roles, marketing teams, account management and growth teams, etc.

These new partner types and roles are trying to understand how to get the most out of their relationship with your brand inside your partner program—because it’s what they have. Capitalize on this and create their own tracks and segments for enablement, training, rewards... the list goes on.

Can you make room for more types of partners—more people who need different things—and continue to make it relevant for everyone?

The only scalable way to do this is with sophisticated segmentation, flexible or custom portals, and a team that can keep up with the work it takes to fill that portal with the tools your partners need.

Related: That can be the tricky part if you have a lean channel team, so the question then becomes, how can you prioritize the segments to tackle first? Answer: Analyze your data and work with an expert. Connect with us today.

Personalized Engagement Programs

Personalization will revolutionize partner programs by providing customized learning experiences for every partner, appropriate promotions and rewards based on their role, and tailored offers, materials and support based on the customers they serve down market.

This prediction is the outcome of all the things listed above. Use segments to target the ideal partners with the appropriate enablement that aligns to the buyer's journey—and make it intuitive and easy.

The Year’s Only Just Begun

We’ll continue to explore and share future articles and white papers about what personalized engagement programs and incentives looks like to help you in your journey for the best partner program.

In the meantime, be sure to check out our ultimate guide to channel partners

Ellen Linkenhoker
Ellen Linkenhoker

Ellen Linkenhoker is the Channel Partner Solutions Lead for ITA Group. She drives the insights, strategy and evolution of the organization’s channel solution while offering advisement for client engagement and incentive programs. She’s worked as a practitioner in technology, software and service companies as part of the channel and as a vendor. She is an award-winning marketer and navigates all things channel, marketing, incentives and engagement, including pioneering thought leadership on channel partner ecosystems and the partner experience.