Over the years I have helped both successful companies and start-ups improve and strengthen their Channel and Strategic Alliances programs. Those companies do a great job closing deals but usually have concerns about not generating or receiving enough new business leads. Or, they develop strong relationships with one or two vendors, only to find later that a key vendor has been sending deals to a competitor. You may not have experienced this yourself, but if you have please read on.
Most traditional channel models support Distributors, Resellers, OEMs, and ISVs. Business mainly flows upwards to the main vendor. If that vendor has popular and widely used products then business can be good because there is sufficient demand. But when that is not the case your sales pipeline usually suffers.
Doing something the same way as everyone else may not be a bad approach when there is enough business for everyone and your growth goals and aspirations are aligned with your competition.
Sales Channel business is usually not the main source of revenue for most companies, but it does have the potential to become the largest and most scalable revenue source for nearly any business. Just think about the money that is being left on the table by not adopting a growth mindset and executing a new and better strategy.
In the summer of 2016 I attended the “Sage Summit” in Chicago. It was impressive to see the Sage Group’s efforts to build, strengthen, and protect their community of Customers and Channel Partners. They made the effort to foster higher levels of collaboration between the various types of partners – implementation services, consulting and staff augmentation services, complementary product vendors, etc. They had created their own highly successful Business Ecosystem, which is an excellent proof point.
When designing a channel partner program my personal focus has always been on finding the balance between promoting and protecting the business of partners with helping ensure that the end customers have the best experience possible (and have some recourse when things do not work out as expected). There are a variety of methods I have used to accomplish those goals, but the missing component has always been the inclusion of a systematic approach to seed relationships between those partners and facilitate an even greater amount of business activity.
Nearly a year ago I began working with a management consultancy run by Robert Kim Wilson, which has a business vision based on his book, “They Will Be Giants.” I will provide links at the bottom of the post for this book and other relevant resources. Kim asserts that Entrepreneurs with a Purpose-Driven Business Ecosystem (PDBE) are more successful than those without one and provides examples to prove his point. Having experienced Kim’s own PDBE I see how purpose fosters trust and collaboration.
As I did more research I have found that, especially over the past two years, there has been a lot of focus placed on Business Ecosystems and Business Ecosystem Organizers (such as Sage in the earlier example). Those findings reinforced the PDBE approach, and external validation is always a good thing.
Just as important from my perspective is that this concept applies to businesses of any size, and it is especially helpful to small to midsize businesses. The fun part for me is exploring a specific business, analyzing what they do today, and quantifying the benefits of adopting this new strategy.
So, how does this new type of Business Ecosystem work?
- The Business Ecosystem Organizer expands the overall network, vets new “Business Ecopartners,” and provides a framework or infrastructure for the various Business Ecopartners to get to know one another, exchange ideas, and discuss opportunities.
- This can become an incredible source of sustainable revenue for companies willing to invest in the necessary components to grow and support their own Business Ecosystem.
- Business Ecopartners will have access to trusted resources that can augment existing business and take-on new, bigger projects by leveraging the available expertise.
- Suppose that you have products or services that work with commercial CRM (Customer Relationship Management), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), or SCM (Supply Chain Management).
- You have seen a growing demand for functionality that relies on highly specialized technologies like:
- Cryptocurrency support.
- Blockchain for both financial transactions and things like traceability in your supply chain or IoT data.
- AI (artificial intelligence), ML (machine learning) to detect patterns and anomalies – such as with fraud detection, Deep Learning/Neural Networks for image recognition or other complex pattern recognition.
- Graph databases to better understand a business and infer new ways to improve it.
- Knowledge Graph/Semantic databases to assist with Transfer Learning and deeper understanding.
- It would not be practical or cost-effective for most businesses to build these practices in-house so partnering becomes very attractive to your company.
- This type of business can also be very attractive to a Business Ecopartner because someone else is handling sales, billings, account management, etc.
- Other Business Ecopartners could leverage your products or services for their projects and engagements, thus becoming another source of revenue.
- By leveraging this network your business can essentially compete on imagination and innovation – something that could become a huge source of differentiation from your competition.
Value realized from this New Business Ecosystem model:
- These new sources of business and talent can become a real competitive advantages for your business.
- This becomes the source for Sales Amplification because your business is extending its reach and expanding its growth potential – directly and indirectly.
- The weighted (based on capabilities, capacity, responsiveness, and Ecopartner feedback) Business Ecopartner network model could lead to exponential business growth over time – and that is a winning strategy for any business.
It is interesting to see people in Sales and Marketing still focusing on features, performance, cost, and even value without creating linkage to what that means to a company from a business perspective. Once you understand what you are really selling, which means why people really buy what you are selling, it is possible to connect with prospects in a meaningful way that can increase your win rate.
There is a sales adage from the 1940s (source) that asserts, “No one wants a drill. What they want is the hole.” That basic understanding of why people and companies buy is still often lost in sales and marketing messages today.
Several years ago my team and I were selling a new Analytics Database that was truly different, but our message was identical to every other database vendor – “70% – 100% faster than every other product.” It is nearly impossible to differentiate your product with a non-differentiated message.
I flipped the messaging to focus on business needs. We created a weekly webinar focused on Why Fast Matters. Query response time is important, but being responsive to business customer requests is often more important. What if they did not need to wait a week or two to have new indexes created or a month to have a Star Schema updated? They could just run queries as-is, maybe wait a minute instead of a second or two, and have what they need then and there. That message resonated and we sold the first 50% of that product globally. When the Australian team began using our messaging their sales also increased. Funny how that works.
Effectiveness is all about results, and efficiency is all about achieving those results with the least amount of time and effort. This doesn’t mean that we are looking for a lazy approach to find a win. Rather, it is about identifying repeatable patterns of doing the right things that circumvent unnecessary activities, time spent, and associated costs. Being good at qualification doesn’t mean that you will be good at closing, but it is tough to become a good closer without having sufficient “at-bats” that good qualification leads to.
The way to help yourself understand what you are selling is to view things from your prospect’s perspective. What struggles are they likely facing? Where are the greatest opportunities to help their type of business? Are you analyzing data to attempt to assess their unmet needs? Your insight can become a huge differentiator, especially if you can teach them different and better ways to do something (ala the Challenger Sales Model).
What is the difference between your prospect company and its main competition? This analysis requires a general understanding of their vertical and more specific understanding of the prospect company, it’s history, and 2-3 of their main competitors. It also requires an honest understanding of how your company and products compare to the competition so that you can play-up your strengths and limit your investment in areas where you are less likely to win the business.
Now that you have identified an area where you believe there is a good fit the next step is to develop your target list for that profile. Much of the information you need can be found in Corporate filings (10-K and 10-Q filings for public companies, and Form 5500 filings for companies with a 401(k) plan – especially useful for private companies), websites like Owler.com and SimilarSiteSearch.com, and from social media sites like LinkedIn.com and Facebook.com). Then search for people in areas that are most likely affected and look for titles that are likely Stakeholders or Decision Makers.
The next item to focus on is messaging. Below are a few examples from my career –
- Analytics & Big Data – The focus here is often on data volume, the currency of the data, speed of queries, cost, maintenance, and downtime. Those things become important later in the sales discussion, but initially, companies want to know what problems your product or solution will solve.
- Some of my fastest deals sold because I demonstrated ways to make better decisions faster and/or identify problems before they were had the chance to become major problems. Avoiding problems and unplanned outages were key parts of the messaging.
- In one case I was able to close a significant deal in less than three months by focusing on how a company could provide five years of transactional data for their customers to use to make purchasing decisions in less time than it took the current system to analyze six months of data. Their sales increased after implementing the revised system. Helping their customers make better buying decisions faster was the winning message.
- Embedded Products – While many companies focus on APIs, features, or cost per unit, I would focus on how the product I was selling made things better and easier for Customer Support and Customer Satisfaction. Things like stability, lack of maintenance required, data integrity, performance over time, messaging when something abnormal or concerning was observed, etc.
- I sold a $1.1 million deal in less than two months to a medical device company by focusing on the life of those devices often being 10-15 years and how their customers need to be assured that the results will be the same from machine-to-machine, even if one of those machines is much newer than the rest of the machines. Consistency over time was the winning message here.
- After being approached by a Defense Contractor for a relational database product for a new Flight Simulator system I changed the discussion to the complexity of flight control systems, the need to correlate 30+ operational systems in real-time, and the importance of taking a verbal command and translating it to specific commands for each system. That led to the sale of a NoSQL product that was ideally suited for this complex environment. The idea of letting our software handle the really complex work helped win this deal.
- Consulting Services – This is not contracting or body shop services (commodities), but true Business and Technical Consulting services that were high visibility and high impact. In these cases expertise, experience, and having a track record of success in different but demanding scenarios provided confidence. Often these were multi-phase engagements to first prove our value before making a large commitment.
- In a bid against two well-established competitors, we won a deal with a large Petroleum company that was nearly $500K. The proposal included information that we uncovered about the system and use case and later verified with the prospect, a section on our people and some past projects, and then a high-level project plan with firm-fixed pricing. We won the bid and I later found out that our cost was $50K higher than the largest competitor and more than $100K more than the other competitor. The customer told me that, “Your proposal demonstrated the understanding of who we are and what we need, and that confidence provided the justification to select your company and pay a premium to have the job done right the first time.”
- My first million-dollar deal was with a company that we demonstrated our ability to solve problems. They knew they needed assistance but were not exactly sure where. I created a “Pool of Days” concept that provided flexibility in the work performed (task, deliverables, and scheduling) but had minimum monthly burn rates and an expiration date to protect my company. This led to many other deals of this nature with other companies. Flexibility and the ability to accommodate changing needs without introducing significant risk or additional cost was the winning messaging here.
As you see from these examples the common theme is helping companies solve their specific business problems. Even in cases where technology was central to that message the focus was always on better results for that prospect and their customers. Value is important but the results matter even more for most purchasing decisions.
Nobody wants to be responsible for taking a chance on a new vendor and be responsible for a high-profile failure. Helping instill confidence early on makes a huge difference and following-through to successful implementation results in happy customers who become great customers and provide important referrals.
It all starts by selling what you know you can do from a business perspective for your Prospects needs to make their lives easier and business better, rather than selling what you know you have from a technical perspective where you are far more likely to get lost in the noise of the messaging from most of your competition.
I’m sure that everyone has read articles that state some “facts” for managing your “sales pipeline” or “sales funnel.” Things like needing 10x-30x of your goal at the start of the process, down to needing 2x-3x coverage at the start of a quarter to help increase your odds of achieving your goal. Now, if it was only that easy…
First, what are you measuring? The answer to this question is something that anyone with a sales quota should be able to succinctly answer. For example, are you measuring?
- Bookings – Finalized Sales Orders
- What happens when Sales Operations, Finance or Legal pushback on a deal? You have a PO, but has the deal really been closed?
- Billings – Invoicing Completed
- This includes dependencies that have the potential to introduce delays that may be unexpected and/or outside of your control.
- Revenue – In-depth understanding of Revenue Recognition rules is key.
- How much revenue is recognized and when it is recognized varies based on a variety of factors, such as:
- Is revenue Accrued or Deferred? This is especially key for multi-year prepaid deals.
- Is revenue recognized all at once – such as for the sale of Perpetual Software Licenses? (even this is not always black and white)
- Is revenue recognized over time – such as with annual subscriptions that are ratable on a monthly basis?
- Is revenue based on work completed / percentage of completion? This is more common with Services and Construction. Combining contracts, such as selling custom consulting services with a new product license, can complicate this.
- Are there clauses in a non-standard agreement that will negatively affect revenue recognition? This is an area where your Legal team becomes an invaluable contributor to your success.
- Cash Flow – Is this really Sales forecasting?
- The answer is ‘no’ in terms of Accounting rules and guidance.
- But, if you have a start-up or small business this can be key to “keeping the lights on,” in which case the types of deals and their structure will be biased towards cash flow enhancement and/or goals.
- How much revenue is recognized and when it is recognized varies based on a variety of factors, such as:
My advice is to work closely with your CFO, Finance Team, Sales Operations Team, and Legal team to understand the goals and guidelines, and then take that one step further to create policies that are approved by those stakeholders and are then shared with the Sales team to avoid any ambiguity around process and expectations.
So, now the hard part is over, right?
It could be that easy if you only have one product that is well established, has a stable install base, has no real competitive threats, where the rate of growth or decline is on a steady and predictable path, and where pricing and average deal size is consistent. I have not seen a business like that yet but would have to believe that at least a few of them exist.
Next, what are you building into your model to maximize accuracy? Every product or service offered may be driven by independent factors, so a flat model that evenly distributes sales over time (monthly or quarterly) is just begging to be inaccurate. For example:
- One product line that sells perpetual licenses may be dependent on release cycles ever 18-36 months.
- A second product line may be driven mainly by renewals and expansion on fairly stable timelines and billings.
- A third product line may be new with no track record and in a competitive space – meaning that even the best projections will be speculative.
- And finally, there could be Services associated with each of those product lines and driven by an even greater number of dependent and independent factors (new implementations, upgrades, implementing new features, platform changes and modernization, routine engagements, training, etc.)
Historical trends are one important factor to consider, especially because they tend to be the thing that you have the greatest control over. This starts with high-level sales conversion rates and goes down to average sales cycle, seasonal trends, organic growth rates, churn rates, and more. Having accurate data over time that can be accurately correlated is extremely helpful. But, factors such as Product SKU changes, licensing model changes, new product bundles, etc. increase the complexity of that effort and potentially decrease the accuracy of your results.
Correlating those trends to external factors, such as overall growth of the market, relative growth of competitors, economic indicators, corporate indicators (profits, earns per share, distributions, various ratios, ratings, etc.), commodity and futures prices (especially if you install base tends to skew towards something like the Petroleum Industry), specific events, and so forth can be a great sanity check.
The best case is that those correlations increase your forecasting accuracy for the entire year. In all likelihood what they really do is provide valuable inputs that allow you to dynamically adjust sales plans as needed to ensure overall success. But, making those changes should not be done in a vacuum, and communicating the potential need for changes like that should be done at the earliest point where you have a fair degree of confidence that change is needed.
There will always be unexpected events that negatively impact your plans. Changes to staffing or the competitive landscape, reputational changes, economic changes, etc. can all occur quickly and with “little notice.” That is especially true if you are not actively looking for those subtle indicators (leading and trailing) and nuances that place a spotlight potential problems and give you time to do as much as possible to proactively address them. Be prepared and have a contingency plan!
Forecasting accuracy drives confidence, and that confidence leads to having the ability to do things like getting funding for new campaigns or initiatives. Surprises, even positive ones, are generally disliked simply because the results were different than the expectations and that begins to fuel other doubts and concerns.
Confidence comes from understanding, good planning, helping everyone with a quota and the teams supporting them to do what is needed when it is needed to optimize the process, and then to have an effective approach to determine whether deals really are on-track or not so that you can provide guidance and assistance before it is too late.
It may not be easy, but it is the thing that helps drive companies to that next level on a sustainable growth trajectory. In the end, that is what matters the most to the stakeholders of any business.
As an aside, there are myriad of rules, regulations, and guidance statements provided by a variety of sources that apply to each business scenario. I am neither an Accountant nor an Attorney, so be sure to consult with the appropriate people within your organization or industry as part of your routine due diligence.
Today I ran across this article that was very good as it focused on lessons learned, which potentially helps everyone interested in these topics. It contained a good mix of problems at a non-technical level.
Below is the link to the article, as well as commentary on the Top 3 items listed from my perspective.
The article starts by discussing how the “problem” being evaluated was misstated using technical terms. It led me to believe that at least some of these efforts are conducted “in a vacuum.” That was a surprise given the cost and strategic importance of getting these early-adopter AI projects right.
In Sales and Marketing you start the question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” and evolve that to, “How would customers or prospects describe this problem in their own words?” Without that understanding, you can neither initially vet the solution nor quickly qualify the need for your solution when speaking with those customers or prospects. That leaves a lot of room for error when transitioning from strategy to execution.
Increased collaboration with Business would likely have helped. This was touched on at the end of the article under “Cultural challenges,” but the importance seemed to be downplayed. Lessons learned are valuable – especially when you are able to learn from the mistakes of others. To me, this should have been called out early as a major lesson learned.
This second area had to do with the perspective of the data, whether that was the angle of the subject in photographs (overhead from a drone vs horizontal from the shoreline) or the type of customer data evaluated (such as from a single source) used to train the ML algorithm.
That was interesting because it appears that assumptions may have played a part in overlooking other aspects of the problem, or that the teams may have been overly confident about obtaining the correct results using the data available. In the examples cited those teams did figure those problems out and took corrective action. A follow-on article describing the process used to make their root cause determination in each case would be very interesting.
As an aside, from my perspective, this is why Explainable AI is so important. There are times that you just don’t know what you don’t know (the unknown unknowns). Being able to understand why and on what the AI is basing its decisions should help with providing better quality curated data up-front, as well as being able to identify potential drifts in the wrong direction while it is still early enough to make corrections without impacting deadlines or deliverables.
This didn’t surprise me but should be a cause for concern as advances are made at faster rates and potentially less validation is made as organizations race to be first to market with some AI-based competitive advantage. The last paragraph under ‘Training data bias’ stated that based on a PWC survey, “only 25 percent of respondents said they would prioritize the ethical implications of an AI solution before implementing it.”
The discussion about the value of unstructured data was very interesting, especially when you consider:
- The potential for NLU (natural language understanding) products in conjunction with ML and AI.
- This is a great NLU-pipeline diagram from North Side Inc. in Canada, one of the pioneers in this space.
- The importance of semantic data analysis relative to any ML effort.
- The incredible value that products like MarkLogic’s database or Franz’s AllegroGraph provide over standard Analytics Database products.
- I personally believe that the biggest exception to assertion this will be from GPU databases (like OmniSci) that easily handle streaming data, can accomplish extreme computational feats well beyond those of traditional CPU based products, and have geospatial capabilities that provide an additional dimension of insight to the problem being solved.
Update: This is a link to a related article that discusses trends in areas of implementation, important considerations, and the potential ROI of AI projects: https://www.fastcompany.com/90387050/reduce-the-hype-and-find-a-plan-how-to-adopt-an-ai-strategy
This is definitely an exciting space that will experience significant growth over the next 3-5 years. The more information, experiences, and lessons learned shared the better it will be for everyone.
This should be the goal for any business, regardless of the products you sell or the services you provide. The idea is to create a mutually beneficial relationship that motivates people to want to continue working with you, despite the availability of competitive products and/or the possible concerns or objections of others (e.g., those pushing for a “Corporate Standard” involving another product.)
The best part is that this concept applies to all companies and all Product Life Cycle stages. Whether your company is on a rapid growth trajectory towards ‘Unicorn status,’ your offerings are mature and may be viewed as ‘less exciting,’ or your products are on the decline and you are seeking the ‘longest tail’ possible – this will help. At each phase, there are credible threats from competitors that seek to grow through the erosion of your business.
Several years ago I was responsible for two product lines in two major geographic regions (Americas and APAC/Japan). Our attrition rate (“churn”) had traditionally been slightly below the industry average. We began seeing an increase in churn and a corresponding slight decrease in organic growth. Both were indicators that something needed to change.
After discussions about tactical approaches to address this, our small leadership team agreed that this was a strategic issue that we needed to address. The result was an understanding that we needed to create ‘Customers for Life.’ Everyone agreed with the concept, but due to a variety of differences (culture, who our customer was – end customer vs. channel partner, buying patterns, etc.), we agreed to try what was best for our own businesses and share the results and lessons learned.
My approach was to focus on developing strong relationships that fostered collaboration and ultimately led to growth and success for both parties. The basic premise was simple:
- People tend to buy from people they like, respect, and trust. Become one of those people for your customers.
- Helping companies achieve better outcomes leads to greater success for both our customers and us.
How did we do it? It was a systematic process that included the following:
- Develop simple profiles for each customer (e.g., products used, date of first purchase, size of footprint, usage and payment trends, industry).
- A minimum size – based on either the size of the product footprint, annual amount spent with us, or size of the company, was used to prioritize companies and organizations having the greatest potential impact.
- Make contact multiple times each year, and not just when you wanted money.
- These “out of cycle” contacts turned became very important.
- Ask questions about key initiatives, milestones, and concerns.
- The responses were documented, and that helped seed following conversations and demonstrate an interest in what they were doing.
- Request meetings to understand how they are using our products and get a brief update on what our company has been doing.
- Meeting people face-to-face is always good.
- Learning more about their business, systems, goals and challenges created opportunities to really add value.
- Look at what they were doing with our products and offer suggestions to do more, do something better or more efficiently, call out potential problems and offer suggestions and discuss best practices. Often, I would have a technical expert follow-up and provide an hour or two of free assistance relating to those findings.
- Look for opportunities to congratulate them.
- It demonstrates that they are important enough that you are paying attention.
- Google Alerts made this easy.
- Regularly ask our customers if there is anything that we could do to help them.
- They would often reciprocate, which led to an increase in references and referrals.
- Continuous Improvement – Analyze the results and refine the process as needed.
As I met with our Customers and Channel Partners I would explain what ‘Customer for Life’ meant to us, and the potential benefits to them. Prior to the meeting, I would check to see if we had (or they wanted) an NDA in-place so that they could speak freely without having concern that this information would be shared with potential competitors. It was a good step towards developing trust and helping them feel comfortable in disclosing information that would help us understand their situation.
Prior to the meeting, I would spend an hour or two researching the company, their history, major events for that company and within their industry, and identify their top 2-3 competitors. This is where my consulting background really came in handy. Showing interest and understanding created credibility and ask relevant questions, which allowed conversations to progress to substantive issues in much less time. From there I could focus on specific points that would add the most value to that specific customer.
Over the course of two years, my team and I helped our customers innovate by providing different perspectives and ideas, modernize (e.g., move to spatial analytics to get a more granular understanding of their own business, or cloud-enable their systems to increase responsiveness to their business and control costs), improve their systems and grow their businesses. We also received feedback that helped us improve our products and a variety of processes – something that benefits all customers. Collaboration and success created strong relationships with many of those customers.
From a business perspective our customer churn decreased by 50% over the same period, and organic growth increased slightly more than 20%. We had achieved our objectives and improved our bottom line. The concepts behind Strategic Account Management, Voice of Customer, Customer Loyalty and Customer Success had blended into a practical approach that was not burdensome and provided a great ROI.
One of my biggest lessons learned was that adopting this mindset and creating a repeatable process is something that can be done anytime, and really should be done sooner than later.
Every day that you are not creating your own ‘Customers for life’ there is a good chance that your competition is.