High Tech’s New Challenge: Hearing Voices (of Channel Partners)

Erik Long and Will Carter

This is the first in a series of articles examining voice of the partner (VoP) programs that high-tech companies use to get feedback from their channel partners, and these partners’ customers in turn. Future articles will examine what channel partners think of VoP programs, and what you can do to accelerate yours.

The statistics are startling: One in four global reseller partners has “fired” a technology vendor in the past year, while in North America that number jumps to one-third, according to a survey of 170 value-added resource partners in 2013.*

Voice of the Partner

Partners point to many reasons for severing ties, ranging from a lack of vendor-provided leads and channel conflict to poor service and support, and misaligned business goals. To make matters worse, vendors often do not notice these transgressions and are left to figure out what went wrong after the breakup.

To thrive in this rapidly evolving vendor-partner ecosystem, vendors need to listen to their partners closely, react quickly to partners’ needs and measure their satisfaction with what’s most meaningful to them.

The information and data obtained from partners must be converted into insight, and that insight must be turned into action at every level of the vendor organization—in a holistic way—to formulate a unified channel partner program.

But this level of channel partner understanding and engagement among high-tech companies remains elusive. We’ve found that voice of the partner (VoP) programs, which are designed to solicit feedback from channel partners, have become key for high-tech companies to understand their partners and build effective partner programs.

A comprehensive VoP program enables a company to align the right benefits and program elements with the right partner profiles, managing partners across their various life stages, as well as aligning the capabilities and tools to manage these channel partners effectively.

What is a VoP program?

A VoP program uncovers the drivers of satisfaction and preferences of channel partners, converts that data into meaningful insights about the partner community, and facilitates the integration of those insights throughout the business as part of a larger, customer- and partner-centric strategy.

Effective VoP programs leverage various means to engage a range of channel partners. Such programs should solicit feedback from channel partners via phone, face-to-face meetings or online surveys, and then track each partner’s survey responses over time. For example, Microsoft captures partner feedback via traditional surveys, in addition to cross-geography partner advisory councils (formed by members of the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners).

Next, channel managers should listen to and observe partners through media that are continuously updated, such as social media, communities, Web usage and transactional data. For instance, the well-known SAP Community Network, the official social network for SAP users, taps into a rich vein of stakeholder information (2.5 million users post more than 3,000 messages a day) that can lead to enormous insight.

Why is VoP important?

At its most basic level, an effective VoP program bridges the vendor-partner disconnect. Poor support from vendors can cripple partners struggling to remain competitive. The race for recurring revenue and blurring of direct and indirect channels, coupled with growing outside forces, such as social media, Big Data analytics and new technologies such as cloud computing, have skewed traditional sales relationships and channels. Many vendors are still stuck using support models that tie to the more traditional reseller business models.

A VoP program can help answer important vendor questions: What do our partners think of the current experience with us versus our competitors? How satisfied are our partners and what drives that satisfaction? What should we do to increase partner satisfaction, and what pain points do we need to remove?

To capitalize on increased demand for IT as a service, partners are transforming their business models to capture recurring revenue streams. Partners need help transitioning from their traditional business models.

With competition getting tougher by the day, high-tech companies have little room for error. They cannot leave sales on the table because their channel partners aren’t doing their jobs—or aren’t able to.

Edison Peres, Cisco’s senior vice president of worldwide channels, summarized the situation when speaking to global channel partners at a meeting in April: “This is the first time, in the history of all the transitions that [Cisco and its partners] have gone through, that our actual business models are being challenged."

Channel partners depend on strong support from their vendors. Meanwhile, vendors need to manage a growing array of partner business models that require new ways to engage partners across the sales process. Without a clear understanding of the drivers of channel partner satisfaction and how these drivers vary by business model, many technology manufacturers will be left out in the cold as the resellers choose to partner with only the strongest players.

How does a VoP program work?

VoP begins with a strategy that articulates the program’s vision and objectives, and outlines how the program will work. Vendors must then design and develop the feedback and partner engagement mechanisms of the program, identify secondary and transactional data sources to be integrated, conduct structured and unstructured data analytics, and develop appropriate reporting capabilities. Finally, a successful VoP program requires an operating process that allows the program to run on a day-to-day basis and get the VoP feedback and insights to the right place in the vendor organization at the right time.

A lesson in listening

A $6 billion global provider of storage and data management solutions had an inconsistent approach to gathering feedback from its global partner programs; some partners complained of “contact fatigue” due to over-surveying, while others were never surveyed. What’s more, qualitative feedback from partners was rarely used to measure satisfaction, and there was no way to tie customer feedback to partner feedback.

To solve this inconsistent and fruitless approach to gathering and analyzing feedback, the company engaged in an integrated partner listening program that gathered feedback from multiple sources, such as total partner experience surveys, partner councils, events, executive briefing center surveys and partner business reviews, in addition to common approaches to gathering feedback from customers, resellers, distributors and technology alliance partners.

The data identified key drivers of partner satisfaction and opportunities to improve the total partner experience. As a result, the company completely overhauled its VoP program and prioritized key initiatives based on partner feedback. Today, partner satisfaction has significantly increased, and analytics confirm that high partner satisfaction correlates with financial performance.

What’s next?

Successful companies in this new vendor-partner ecosystem will listen to their partners, understand partners’ preferences and understand what drives partner satisfaction and loyalty. But that’s just the first step.

About the Authors

Erik Long is a ZS Principal based in the firm’s Chicago office. His expertise includes the application of customer insights and analytics to a range of marketing issues including market segmentation and targeting plans; value proposition and brand positioning; and Voice of Customer programs and customer experience. Erik has helped clients across various B2B and B2C industries, including high tech, consumer packaged goods, retail, financial services, health care, and travel and hospitality.

Will Carter

Will Carter is a Business Consulting Manager based in ZS's Chicago office. Will's expertise in B2B and B2C marketing includes Voice of Customer programs, customer insights and customer experience analytics, marketing strategy, opportunity assessment, qualitative and quantitative customer research and market segmentation. Will has helped clients in many industries, including high-tech, telecommunications, health care, hospitality, professional services, industrial products, education, and advertising and media.

The next article in this series will show how to leverage insights and analytics for building a VoP program, including how to link various data sources and use market research and analytics to understand the drivers of satisfaction. Later, we will also present original research examining channel partners’ views of VoP programs.

*Global Reseller Survey 2013, Interasys Networks Inc.

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