November 11, 2022
By Bob Layton
Two years into the paradigm shift caused by the pandemic, innovative IT and cybersecurity vendors are embracing the evolution of “channel” into “ecosystem.” Customers are increasingly seeking trusted technology advisers, especially when it comes to security, and dependable communities to guide their decisions. They’re tired of being in a funnel.
For all its tragic devastation, the pandemic slapped a lot of sense into businesspeople. One overarching “aha” moment was that business — whether B2B, B2C, B2B2C, what have you — is about people. Decision-makers and big-ticket buyers at the largest enterprises are still people with hierarchies of human needs and a hunger to feel a sense of purpose in their work.
That’s the backdrop against which the partner ecosystem has risen, and not so much to replace channel but to augment the concept of doing things better together for customers as a trusted network of people and organizations.
But … simply renaming your channel an ecosystem doesn’t make it one. Slapping a new label on an old concept isn’t transformation. Ecosystems offer multiple benefits, and building one requires adherence to best practices — for example, around trust.
As Ronald Reagan memorably advised during 1986 arms control negotiations with Russia, “Trust, but verify.” In ecosystem terms, that means verifying that every organization in any ecosystem under construction can meet bedrock baseline requirements. Here are four must-haves to make an ecosystem work.
#1 – Ecosystem members share their customer relationships.
It’s a measure of trust that ecosystem members get together, share what they know and team up to generate enhanced ecosystem value to offer the end customer. Hesitation to share in specific circumstances raises trust issues, which puts an ecosystem out of balance.
In the ideal partner ecosystem, members’ field sellers know one another, show up at the same events, and promote the entire ecosystem’s value to the same customers and prospects.
This might sound and feel strange to many companies, but ecosystem thinking is the future. An ecosystem must be greater than the sum of its parts, or it’s not worth the trouble to create it.
#2 – Ecosystem members collaborate in creating products and services.
This goes to the very essence of the value of an ecosystem. A real-life illustration is best: My company was recently introduced to a major distributor through an ecosystem partner. We collaborated with the partner and said, “Let’s develop a joint service that we deliver together in the distributor’s product catalog, create a SKU for it, and decide who supports customers on the first, second and third levels of support.”
So, we did. Again, what we created is better and stronger than what we offer separately.
#3 – Ecosystem members are willing to form joint value propositions.
While the second requirement was about a relatively static ecosystem product (one or several SKUs), the third requirement is a dynamic marketing strategy and orchestration of marketing motions in which the ecosystem organizes itself around the customer’s experience.
If, for example, your ecosystem supports fire companies, every member must help develop and deliver the same marketing message: “If you fight fires, our ecosystem of companies will take care of your needs. All of them. We’ve got your back.”
#4 – Ecosystem members execute a governance model and business plan together.
This is where trust is crucially important. Members of an ecosystem must hold one another accountable for executing a business plan agreed to by all. And of course, the road to that agreement — the negotiations that result in, “A will do this, B will do that. X will be responsible for delivering continuous value to the customer, supported by Y and Z delivering on-demand value” — will put growth stress on ecosystem cohesion. Still, when the members reach the other end in universal agreement, they’re all stronger.
Governance models may differ across ecosystems. It could be the number of new customers the ecosystem attracts because it’s an ecosystem. It could be the number of new leads or the increased demand the ecosystem creates. It could be the number of new logos from particular vertical segments attracted by the ecosystem’s value proposition.
Crafting the business plan and the governance model that glues it together with verification, not trust alone, is a challenging exercise, a literal stress test. But what comes out of it is an ecosystem that’s a bonded band of siblings.
The Customer as the Sun
Ecosystems resemble the solar system, with the customer as the sun. Every member of the ecosystem has the same goal: to delight the customer and the people who make up the customer organization.
And just as the solar system planets move closer and farther away from one another as they revolve around the sun, ecosystem members generate changing gravitational fields among themselves as they move into greater and lesser proximity.
At any given time, some members collaborate on products and services, others share customer relationships and others concentrate on executing their part of the governance model. Those relationships shift from member to member over time, but the bond of gravity holds them all together. All ecosystem members are focused on continuously reinforcing the value proposition of the entire ecosystem as they keep their faces turned to the sun.
Bob Layton is chief channel officer at eSentire. His 20-plus years of channel experience includes stints at Digital Defense, Centre Technologies and Alert Logic. You can follow him on LinkedIn or @eSentire on Twitter.
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