A Beginner's Guide: Making Partners Your Biggest Asset to Telling Your Story

SolarWinds' Jeff McCullough offers channel marketing tips to suppliers and how to use them to increase market share.

April 22, 2022

5 Min Read
The Beginner's Guide

By Jeff McCullough


Jeff McCullough

One of the greatest values vendors can bring their partners is business development, and one of the greatest benefits partners bring their vendors is customer engagement. Where these two forces align to create pipeline is in channel marketing, which is essential for growing market share at scale and creating loyal customers. But channel markets also have their own ecosystem, which requires a management plan suited for everyone involved — including vendors and partners.

Without guidance and engagement, partners can miss the market opportunity you’re trying to create. And they’re not just selling your solutions — they have to navigate a confusing thicket of ad hoc incentives and inconsistent programs, leading to misunderstandings and missed opportunities across dozens, sometimes hundreds, of vendors. The good news is there are some great strategies your partner sales teams and marketing teams can use to win the day.

Build Partner Trust with Your Program

Effective channel management requires a trusting, long-term relationship with each partner so they can serve and satisfy your mutual customers. However, this is impossible if there isn’t business buy-in for an effective channel sales strategy. Only then will you have success creating value for your partners by developing profitable, predictable and simple processes designed to engage with industry-leading technology distributors, resellers, global system integrators and managed service providers.

Making the partnership work is easier said than done because channel partners are independent businesses with their own goals. You’re in a symbiotic relationship, and your partners don’t report to you — they’re an indirect sales force. You can’t hire, fire or promote individuals at the partner company, either. Your relationship is with the company, not with any particular salesperson. Therefore, you must be aligned with each other and have the same vision for your strategy.

Because the relationship is unique, channel management requires you to work closely with distributors, resellers, global system integrators and managed service providers. Your goal is to create a predictable, profitable and simple program to extend partner pipelines, solution portfolios and the customer footprint.

Though your management of this external salesforce is indirect, it’s highly effective: partners tend to be closer to the ground, which puts them in the position of knowing the customers at a higher level.

Channel Management Strategies

The relationship takes work, but channel management is worth it. Below are a few of the top factors I’ve earmarked for an effective, mutually satisfying relationship with your channel partners.

  • Let your tiers do the talking: After you’ve made sure you’re aligned with your partners and you both want the same things, your behavior must be transparent and consistent. Partner tiers (or membership levels) help partners understand where they fit right now and, more importantly, where they can go with focus and collaboration. These tiers tie to benefits and entitlements. There’s no guessing needed. You define your partners’ development journey through your program design.

  • Invest in partner certification programs: Training programs should be readily available and economical if not free, and companies should stand by this training through a certification process. Having certified professionals in every partner business ensures deep technical knowledge of the product is readily available and partners can effectively maintain and sell the products independently. Additionally, certification allows your partners to differentiate themselves from the competition.

  • Build community with your partners: Robust partner programs include community creation. Though user groups are common, partner communities sit alongside those user groups and create their own value-added network. Bringing partners together virtually or in person creates opportunities for them to learn from each other and learn from your company’s global leadership team, sales and technical experts. Additional, ad hoc meetings with channel marketers and customers should also occur, helping reveal what the end customer wants.

  • Take the extra step toward community: In addition to events and gatherings, have community forums and blogs your company supports and moderates. Partner portals can be packed with every resource the partner needs to sell your portfolio, including campaign assets, sales decks, social media assets and website materials. For example, at SolarWinds, we have a community called THWACK, where IT pros, customers, and partners can discuss issues in our forums. Marketing teams are your best friend in building these groups and platforms.

  • Treat channel partners as members of the same team: Though it’s true channel partners don’t work for you, they’re after the same goal: securing new customers and maintaining relationships with present customers, too. As the relationship grows between you and the channel partner (because you listen to them and meet their needs), include them in strategy meetings and closely consider their input — after all, they are your partners.

Though channel marketing is a different way of selling, it’s also effective in increasing market share. Take the time to learn how it’s done as the benefits are limitless.

Jeff McCullough is vice president of worldwide partner sales at SolarWinds, where he brings over 20 years of experience in IT channel sales and senior management, with a focus on enterprise sales, strategic alliances and business development. He most recently served as vice president with Park Place Technologies, leading the launch of the company’s new channel program, and previously worked at NetApp, Quest Software and HP. McCullough holds a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and is a graduate of executive education at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School. You may follow him on LinkedIn or @solarwinds on Twitter.

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