Navigating the Evolution to a Channel-First Model

Adopting a channel-first strategy helps teams deliver consistent customer experiences with integrated services.

Natalie Billingham

August 30, 2023

4 Min Read


Natalie Billingham

Today’s sales landscape has gone through a whirlwind of changes. Chief among them is the evolution from simple transactions to establishing long-term relationships with trusted service providers.

This new environment underscores the importance of channel sales leaders who possess regional market knowledge and strong connections with their partners, as they play a vital role in driving the company’s continued sales growth — especially in an uncertain macroeconomic context.

Partners now expect streamlined, automated and personalized experiences which support the needs of their customers to drive successful business outcomes. To thrive in this changing environment — with data as the new currency — requires an evolution of a channel-first model which enables vendors to relate to partners and customers as individuals, not markets.

The Evolving Role of Channel Sales

The business-to-business sales landscape is experiencing a radical upheaval as customers seek fewer isolated purchases but expect long-term connections with a consolidated pool of select vendors. Making a measurable business impact has never been more crucial.

Whilst point product sales remain important, the goal should be delivering bundled solutions which map to agreed requirements. I hear from my many conversations with customers that they’re looking for partners who can be trusted to reliably build, deliver and secure their digital experiences while allowing customization and integrated services.

In this new era, it’s crucial for channel leaders to possess in-depth knowledge of regional markets and their growth potential. In a world where IT becomes more intricate and central to the way we conduct business, we need collaborative vendor-partner agreements that ask questions, such as: “How can we grow together with our partners? Where’s the opportunity? What activities do we need to plan?”

Building a Sense of Trust Within the Partner Network

Most vendors are now in favor of streamlining their products and partner agreements to ensure there’s mutual understanding. This approach facilitates collaboration and enables partners to provide valuable input in numerous areas, including during the product development process. This can result in tailored solutions for customers, greater joint innovation and clearer realization of the benefits of partnership.

Involving partners in this process fosters a sense of ownership and trust. For instance, at Akamai, we formed a Partner Advisory Board to gather crucial feedback from partners. The board addresses the importance of ongoing dialogue with stakeholders. The keys to trust are transparency, credibility and fairness, all of which must be at the heart of developing a channel-friendly culture.

In addition, consistency in communication and effective messaging drives trust within the partner network. My advice to our sales teams is always to over-communicate our plans with partners to show what direction our business is heading. This dialogue is always a two-way street: we engage the channel with our new products and services while discussing our partners’ strategies. In channel sales, as in any business relationship, communication must be a constant effort for all stakeholders to be in sync.

Using Data Effectively

In today’s landscape, customers are increasingly able to conduct their own research and product comparisons. When entering a sales conversation, it’s important to come armed with a series of questions you feel your customer could ask and have answers ready that are supported by data. This demonstrates both transparency and a willingness to form a relationship based on facts.

Channel partners differentiate themselves by providing additional value through services or bundled products and assuming the role of trusted advisors. Guiding customers towards vendors with robust portfolios, vision and strategy is a core part of the partner’s role, particularly in economically challenging times marked by cost-cutting and vendor consolidation.

Guidance must be supported by performance and customer insight data in a budget-conscious environment where margins are slim. Vendors now prioritize delivering the right combination of products at the right time, aiming to meet customer needs precisely.

Performance data also plays a crucial role in evaluating the success of a collaboration. Through data, all parties can gauge whether they’re achieving their shared objectives and hold each other accountable.

Investing in Channel Relationships

Lasting business success is generated by building enduring relationships based on transparency and trust. Treat your channel partners as an extension of your sales team and invest the same amount of effort, content and resources toward them.

Through open and honest discussions facilitated by data, channel teams can make suggestions for improving performance. If you invest in the relationship correctly, your partners become more dependable and will have a steady hand in maximising your business’s coverage and sales pipeline.

I strongly believe that adopting a channel-first strategy that enables dynamic partner growth will enable channel teams to deliver consistent end-customer experiences.


Natalie Billingham is vice president of sales and managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Akamai Technologies, where she is responsible for go-to-market strategies, direct and channel, for Akamai’s business across EMEA. She has more than 20 years of experience in sales via business services such as Exodus, Savvis (later CenturyLink), and NTT Ltd. She is on the board of directors of the Akamai Foundation and is a founding member of the Akamai Women’s Forum employee resource group in EMEA. You may follow her on LinkedIn or @Akamai on X.

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