How to Set Yourself Apart from the Partner Pack

When your products and services are essentially the same as your competitors,' how do you create differentiation?

Kris Blackmon, Head of Channel Communities

March 19, 2019

6 Min Read

No matter how partners structure their marketing messages, the truth is that most of them sell very similar solutions and bundles. There are few agents that don’t offer UCaaS, DRaaS or SD-WAN — many from the same vendors. Finding a competitive differentiation in such market conditions can challenge even the most successful of partners, especially those smart enough to step away from the race to the bottom that selling on price is.

At the Channel Partners Conference and Expo in Las Vegas next month, a panel of experts will talk about ways that partners can set themselves apart from the pack. “5 Ways to Capture Customers’ Attention,” part of the marketing and technology conference track, sponsored by Nextiva, will explore ways of creating differentiation that don’t require a complete rethink of business models or sales structures.

We sat down with moderator Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst of COMMfusion, as well as two of our esteemed panelists – Telarus co-founder Patrick Oborn and Chris Shubert, VP of partner experience at Nitel – to get a sneak peek at what tips and tricks the panel will give attendees.

Channel Futures: How have partners traditionally differentiated themselves from their competitors, and why must it change?


Telarus’ Patrick Oborn

Patrick Oborn: In the past, partners have relied heavily on relationships to endear themselves to their clients. All things being equal, customers prefer to work with people they like and know.  The problem now is, all things are not equal. The swim lanes between telecom, network, IT, and cybersecurity have all [been] removed, and customers don’t need friends. They need someone who can “own” the entire ecosystem, understand how everything works together, be familiar with new technologies that will give them a leg up on their own competitors, and have the skills to design, source and implement the entire solution. In the past, each swim lane had a winner. Today and in the future, there will be one winner and everyone else will be on the outside looking in.

Hear from these and 100+ other industry-leading speakers at the Channel Partners Conference & Expo, April 9-12, 2019, in Las Vegas. Register now!

Chris Shubert: Most partners have relied on being a source for the best price. This works when the products are simple and easy to understand — voice, internet access, basic hosted PBX. In the increasing complex tech landscape, price is nebulous. So many solutions can look similar on paper but have widely different feature sets and thus huge price differences. Also, the more powerful the application, the more potential for it to do harm implemented or sold incorrectly. (for example, you skimp on UCaaS and you can cripple your company)


COMMFusion’s Blair Pleasant

Blair Pleasant: To be honest, a good portion of partners haven’t differentiated themselves because they didn’t have to. They had relationships with existing customers and were successful at taking orders and selling based on features and price. Today’s environment requires an understanding of customers’ needs and selling based on business outcomes. The technologies we use today are rapidly changing, and customers’ needs and demands are changing. Workers are mobile, the workplace is more collaborative, and there are more options than ever for customers to choose from. Just selling a phone service or service isn’t enough. Partners today need to understand customers’ pain points and their business goals, and identify the right solution for that particular customer.

CF: What is the biggest challenge to developing a competitive differentiator?

PO: The biggest challenge is complacency. The residual nature of this business gives people – and companies – a false sense of security and masks over their errors or lack of vision. Making a change to a business model is hard, trying to adjust and disrupt the market creates discomfort, and with residuals still coming in from easy sales made years ago, all …

… urgency is lost. To be different, agents need to find religion and dedicate themselves 100 percent to getting smarter, to add value in more ways after the sale is made, and to stay engaged.

BP: There are different ways in which partners can differentiate themselves, and finding the right strategy or approaches that make the most sense can be difficult. Some partners are finding success by focusing on specific vertical markets; others are standing out from the crowd by selling end-to-end complete bundles, while some are focused on offering the best possible customer service and support. Once you identify your approach, the biggest challenge is getting the right people on board to ensure success.


Nitel’s Chris Shubert

CS: Fear — To be competitive, you have to dare to be different. Try new things. Not every one of them will work, but when you hit on that element that defines your culture, product, or strategy, it is worth it.

CF: Can partners implement a differentiation strategy easily, without too much interruption of current sales strategies, product development or business models?

PO: Yes, partners can layer on additional value to their existing business with no interruption to their current strategies. One tiny change that will revolutionize their business is asking the question “why?”  No company IT manager wakes up one day and says, “I think I need to upgrade my network from 100 Mb to 1 Gb” just for fun. There is always a reason, and once that reason is known, there is a huge chance that the agent can sell more than just one 1 Gb circuit. Medical doctors never write a prescription just because a patient asks for it. They run tests, ask lots of questions, and then write a prescription. Agents need to look and act more like doctors if they want to look different to their clients and attract more like business.

BP: Depending on which strategy they choose, it’s possible, but it will still take work. Partners need to evolve their skill sets, and they can do this by hiring the right people or training their staff in the needed skills. This can be as simple as helping sales people ask customers the right questions and identifying customer needs before trying to sell a specific product or service, as well as training staff to sell based on business benefits and outcomes rather than features and functions.

CS: I think so. Not every differentiation strategy requires a complete rebrand of your company.  It can begin with something as simple as a new marketing piece or video. Also, I am a big believer in betas. Test the waters with small trusted groups. Does your message resonate? Is it compelling? Can it be delivered consistently? If the answers are yes, you may have yourself a winner. All of this can be done while conducting business as usual. Once you find the element that is your differentiator, you simply start tagging it to everything you do.

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About the Author(s)

Kris Blackmon

Head of Channel Communities, Zift Solutions

Kris Blackmon is head of channel communities at Zift Solutions. She previously worked as chief channel officer at JS Group, and as senior content director at Informa Tech and project director of the MSP 501er Community. Blackmon is chair of CompTIA's Channel Development Advisory Council and operates KB Consulting. You may follow her on LinkedIn and @zift on X.

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