CRM’s Frayed Ends

The buyer-seller relationship we most often think of is one in which all the responsibility is loaded on the seller. The seller convinces the customer to buy from it, then provides support and further marketing to keep the customer loyal.

Not every selling relationship works this way, however. When both ends of the sale have a responsibility, things get a little cloudier and more complex — sometimes, too complex for conventional CRM.

Consider sales through indirect channels. The relationship doesn’t end when a vendor on-boards a channel partner; in most cases, the partner has some responsibility to the vendor. Of course, the baseline measurement is revenue, but there are some other areas in which vendors may make demands on their reseller customers.

For example, whether you sell software, insurance or bicycles, you probably want assurance that your partners know how to sell and support your products. That means training up front, but it also requires ongoing training and certification of partners. Growing your ability to reach end customers through a broad web of resellers is great, but unleashing a mass of uneducated resellers on an unsuspecting public is a bad idea.

Partner Education

Inept resellers can hurt your brand. An end customer who has a rough go of it with one of your resellers is unlikely to think, “I need to go and find another reseller who sells that vendor’s products.” Instead, the customer will probably conflate you and the partner, viewing you as one and the same. That’s why it’s critical to ensure that your partner is a well-trained and educated standard bearer for your brand.

There have been numerous occasions in the past when channel programs have focused on acquisition of new partners with little consideration of their competency. The outcome is almost always the same: End customers get poor service from the resellers, the resellers blame the vendor, and the result is a diminution of the vendor’s reputation with the channel and the end customers.

Hand-in-hand with reputation is the ability to provide service. Part of the value of the channel is that it allows you to scale your market without scaling internally at the same pace. When it comes to support, that means that your channel will pick up much of the responsibility for providing service. Again, education is critical in doing this.

Are your partners keeping their service staff up-to-date on the latest from your educational programs? Can you track their progress through these materials and certify that they are well equipped to support your end users? At times, a better question to ask is, “Are you providing your partners with educational programs for service?” If the answer is no, your channel program has real problems.

Partner Motivation

Because they want to sell your products, partners are also going to market them to their customers. However, they need help to do it right — and to do it in a way that’s consistent with your messaging. If you don’t provide them with the tools to do so, they’ll make up a message on their own — or they’ll just ignore you and go with a company that makes itself easier to market.

The solution is the creation of tools your partners can use in their marketing efforts — but how do you understand how partners are using those tools, or your return on investment in these tools? Understanding this in a direct sales situation is relatively easy. When partners come into play, visibility becomes significantly more murky.

Offering marketing tools and educational support are critical parts of your channel programs, and keys to keeping your relationships with your channel partners healthy and fruitful. But can you track your partners’ completion of training materials through CRM? Can you analyze how the use of marketing tools by partners translates into increased revenue? Can you issue certifications and accreditations? Probably not.

Channel sales differ from direct sales, but they’re related. Similarly, the technology needed to manage customers and partners is related, but it’s necessarily different. If you’re trying to manage the channel with a CRM application, take an honest look at your efforts.

If you can spot holes or areas that require manual intervention to unify sales data with data about the activities you require of your partners, it’s probably time to look for purpose-built channel solutions.

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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