5 Ways Social CRM Builds Indirect Channel Relationships

The concept of social CRM has been around so long now that, if you listen to the pundits, we should stop saying it and just include it as part of CRM. That assumes most companies have fully digested what “social” means and have made plans to use it effectively — which is assuming a lot.

That said, there’s another area where social media needs to be incorporated: partner relationship management. Almost 70 percent of all sales are made through the indirect channel, sold to end customers by resellers, distributors, consultants, partners and VARs. While a direct sale involves a relationship between a buyer and a seller, an indirect sale involves tiers of relationships — and that’s what makes the use of social media much more challenging.

For that reason, a lot of channel programs ignore social media or, at best, use it as an alarm system to spot unhappy partners that may be ready to switch to new vendors. That’s a mistake, because social media can help businesses that sell through indirect channels build better relationships with partners and end-customers.

Following are five ways channel programs can be strengthened by using ideas pioneered by social CRM.

1. Create Communities of Partners

In the old days of the channel, vendors thought the best way to manage their relationships with reseller partners was to keep them all separate — communications with one had to remain a secret to the others. That’s true to a certain extent today when it comes to negotiations on prices and other sensitive aspects of the relationship. However, the days of siloed communications are over. If partners want to speak to each other, brainstorm on solutions, or compare notes about the way their vendors treat them, they can.

This gives vendors an opportunity not only to be part of these conversations, but also to facilitate them. One very practical benefit of such an arrangement for both vendors and partners is that it makes it much easier for partners with different skill sets to team up and win deals that they couldn’t win on their own. Similarly, vendor-enabled communities allow partners to identify areas where vendors can improve, something they’d be unlikely to do on a public forum like Twitter.

2. Monitor and Assist Support

One of the reasons for selling through the channel is to scale the ability to service and support products. The use of social media allows vendors to catch a glimpse of how end-users are perceiving this support.

Tracking of cases that aren’t being resolved effectively allows the vendor to step in and fix things when it needs to, and to chart which partners are providing less than stellar service to customers. Doing that allows the vendor to identify partners that may need a nudge toward additional training or the commitment of additional support resources.

3. Encourage Training and Certification

Social media doesn’t have to serve only as an alarm to point out problems with training. It also gives vendors a chance to boast about partners that are embracing training fully. Tweets or Facebook posts about partners that earn accreditations are good ways to give them public “attaboys” and to announce to potential customers that those partners are now well-equipped to provide service, support and technical expertise.

It also serves notice to the partner community that you pay attention to training and to which partners make it an important part of their commitment to the vendor-partner relationship.

4. Nurture New Co-Marketing Opportunities

Partners clamor for more opportunities and assets from their vendors to market their services. Vendors can tap into this need by encouraging partners to use social media to market themselves — not just by suggesting they do it, but by providing them with tweets, social media campaign ideas, and support from their own social media team.

For example, a vendor’s blog may include a post that can help partners articulate an important point about the vendor’s product — but do the partners ever receive information about that post, and do they get help in communicating it via social media? If vendors want their partners to carry their messages into social media, it’s important that they help partners understand what those messages are and give them help in taking it social.

5. Look for Potential New Partners

Finally, vendors should be on the lookout for partners of their competitors that are using social media to telegraph a likely change of vendor or the desire for an additional option. This is something direct sales people are starting to pick up on; when a customer is complaining about someone they buy from, it’s a great opportunity for other sellers.

The same goes for the channel: If a partner is expressing frustration on social media toward a vendor that has become difficult to work with, it’s time to research that partner, decide if it would be a good fit with your program, and engage.

Beyond Wishing and Hoping

All of these opportunities are there for the taking — but they may be tough to seize if you’re running your channel program manually or with a set of point solutions. Good PRM solutions can automate many of the tasks of listening and responding to social media without making additional demands on your channel management staff.

The key guideline for using social media for PRM is much the same as it is for CRM: Use your imagination and your knowledge of your customers — in this case, your reseller partners — to develop processes for listening, communicating and responding that make sense in the context of your partners.

“Social” means you aren’t doing this on your own and you’re not doing it in a vacuum. The killer application of social media for your channel program may well be unique to the community of partners you work with. If you identify what that is at the outset, your results will be vastly better than if you impose a set of generic processes and hope for the best.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz is director of content marketing at Relayware. Bucholtz is also a speaker, writer and consultant on topics surrounding buyer-seller relationships. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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