The evolution of the channel partner – Control the narrative to increase your sales

By Johnny Carpenter, Vice-President Sales, EMEA, iland.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped many of the ways channel companies typically do business, including their sales and marketing strategies.

At the same time, the disruption of traditional business technology environments has thrown customers very much out of their comfort zones as they were forced to accelerate digital transformation programmes and take a very different view of which technology products and services they needed to support the new shape of their organisation.

As the world begins to return to a more even keel, but changes to workstyles and locations begin to look permanent, there is a huge business opportunity for the channel as companies implement long-term technology programmes to bed-in the new normal. Competition for that custom will be intense, however, so how do channel partners lift their heads above the parapet and develop a robust strategy to drive sales growth?

Out of change comes opportunity

This old adage takes on immediate relevance as we adjust to business conditions post-pandemic. There is a strong sense of urgency as customers work to improve resilience, re-engineer their business and procure the technology to support this.

However, to capture this growing demand and translate it into sales, channel partners face strong competition. The days of waiting for the customer to come to you with a problem and selling them an off-the-shelf solution are long gone. Now, by the time a business has decided it has a problem and defined its solution requirements, it is already planning to go out to multiple channel partners to get competitive quotes. This immediately puts partners in a reactive position. It requires a lot of work and - because the customer has already decided what they want - there’s limited opportunity to add value and really show the customer what you are capable of. Plus, in the case where the customer has gone out to three different partners, there is only a 30% chance of winning the deal.

In this scenario, a race to the bottom on price is the result. Customers view the partner as transactional and make their buying decision based on price, not value. For the industry as a whole this is bad news; ultimately, nobody wins and it is unsustainable. The change channel partners must make is to evolve from ‘order taker’ to ‘trusted advisor’. This means creating a proactive strategy to control the conversation with the customer, gain mindshare and thereby insulate the relationship against the competition.

Proactive problem-solving

So how do we go about doing that? The answer is to get ahead of the customer’s priorities and tell them about the problems they need to solve before they identify them. If you are the first to inform a customer about an issue they need to address, you put yourself in the prime position to be the trusted advisor that helps them to solve it.

A good analogy here is car tyres. If I have a flat tyre, I’ll fix it straight away because it risks my safety and ability to go about my business. But if I decide I might need some new tyres, I’ll shop around at different suppliers, taking up a lot of their time in the process. The channel partner needs to be the one informing the customer that they have the technology equivalent of a flat tyre and advising them of the best way to fix it.   

Building the narrative – knowing the market

The good news is that right now customers are very receptive to advice. The experience of the past year means many businesses are embarking on projects that weren’t in their roadmap until recently. Whether that is providing remote office technology for home-working employees, implementing new security systems, or migrating more workloads to the cloud, there is a lot going on simultaneously. In unfamiliar territory, businesses want suppliers to advise them on what has worked for others and provide assurance that they are doing the right thing.

Analysing every potential customer and targeting them with bespoke advice probably sounds pretty impractical, and it is. But with knowledge of the common challenges and trends in the market and a campaign-based marketing approach – which solution vendors will be more than keen to support  – channel partners can start conversations with customers on the issues they are more than likely to be facing. These conversations need to include questions that get customers thinking about urgent issues they need to address that might not have been on their radar.

Take the current wave of Microsoft 365 adoption. Many companies are doing it, but how many have got back-ups in place? Being the first to ask that question or point out that there is a vulnerability there creates valuable opportunities, because this is something that needs fixing quickly – there’s no time to shop around. The same is true of ransomware protection: the pandemic has prompted a surge in attacks and once businesses are aware of this, the imperative for a fast, effective solution to ensure business continuity.

When you are the one raising these issues with a customer, you put yourself in the prime position to propose a solution. You are creating a one-to-one sales opportunity with them, rather than clamouring among a crowd of competitors. You are able to advise the customer what they need, rather than simply having to try and deliver what they think they want. This consultative approach builds a relationship that quickly becomes stronger and leads to more opportunities.

Controlling the narrative is the best way to capitalise on the undoubted market potential in the coming year and increase sales. Below are five tactics partners should adopt to shift from order-taker to trusted partner.

  1. Be proactive: build campaigns that address current challenges and take them directly to potential clients.
  2. Stay current: monitor the market for rising trends and share them with customers to continue the conversation.
  3. Offer advice outside the sales pitch: share insight and experiences to show potential customers you have the expertise and track record to be trusted.
  4. Engage with vendors: work with them to identify common customer pain points and build solution examples to offer clients before they even know they have a problem.
  5. Keep questioning: in every customer engagement ask questions that open up new avenues for discussion. What are the issues they haven’t even thought of yet?

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