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.
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.
Edit: Added category and tags
A while back I wrote a post titled, “To Measure is to Know.”
The other side of the coin is that what you measure defines how people behave. This is an often forgotten aspect of Business Intelligence, Compensation Plans, Performance reviews, and other key areas in business. While many people view this topic as “common sense,” based on the numerous incentive plans that you run across as a consultant, as well as compensation plans that you submit as a Manager, that is not the case.
Is it a bad thing to have people respond by focusing on specific aspects of their job that they are being measured on? That is a tough question. This simple answer is, “sometimes.” This is ultimately the desired outcome of implementing specific KPIs (key performance indicators) and MBOs (Management by Objectives), but it doesn’t always work. Let’s dig into this a bit deeper.
One prime example is something seemingly easy yet often anything but – Compensation Plans. When properly implemented these plans drive organic business growth through increased sales, revenue, and profits (three related items that should be measured). This can also drive steady cash flow by constantly closing within certain periods (usually months or quarters) and focusing on models that create the desired revenue stream (e.g., perpetual license sales versus subscription license sales). What could be better than that?
Successful salespeople focus on the areas of their comp plan where they have the greatest opportunity to make money. Presumably they are selling the products or services that you want them to based on that plan. MBO goals can be incorporated into plans as a way to drive towards positive outcomes that are important to the business, such as bringing-on new reference accounts. Those are forward looking goals that increase future (as opposed to immediate) revenue. In a perfect world, with perfect comp plans, all of these business goals are codified and supported by motivational financial incentives.
Some of the most successful salespeople are the ones that primarily care only about themselves. They are in the game for one reason – to make money. Give them a plan that is well constructed and allows them to win and they will do so in a predictable manner. Paying large commission checks should be a goal for every business because with properly constructed compensation plans that means their own business is prospering. It needs to be a win-win setup.
But, give a salesperson a plan that is poorly constructed and they will likely find the ways to personally win with deals that are inconsistent with company growth goals (e.g., paying commission based on deal size, but not factoring in profitability and discounts). Even worse, give them a plan that doesn’t provide a chance to win and the results will be uncertain at best.
Just as most tasks tend to expand to use all time available, salespeople tend to book most of their deals at the end of whatever period is being used. With quarterly cycles most of the business tends to book in the final week or two of the quarter – something that is not ideal from a cash flow perspective. Using shorter monthly periods may increase business overhead, but the potential to significantly increase business from salespeople working harder for that immediate benefit will likely be a very worthwhile tradeoff.
What about motiving Services teams? What I did with my company was to provide quarterly bonuses based on overall company profitability and each individual’s contribution to our success that quarter. Most of our projects used task oriented billing where we billed 50% up-front and 50% at the time of the final deliverables. You needed to both start and complete a task within a quarter to maximize your personal financial contribution, so there was plenty of incentive to deliver and quickly move to the next task. As long as quality remains high this is a good thing.
We also factored-in salary costs (i.e., if you make more than you should be bringing-in more value to the company), the cost of re-work, and non-financial items that were beneficial to the company. For example, writing a white paper, giving a presentation, helping others, or even providing formal documentation on lessons learned added business value and would be rewarded. Everyone was motivated to deliver quality work products in a timely manner, help each other, and do things that promoted growth of the company. The company prospered and my team made good money making that happen. Another win-win scenario.
This approach worked very well for me, and was continually validated over the course of several years. It also fostered innovation, because the team was always looking for ways to increase their value and earn more money. Many tools, processes and procedures came out of what would otherwise be routine engagements. Those tools and procedures increased efficiency, consistency, and quality. They also made it easier to on-board new employees and to incorporate an outsourced team for larger projects.
Mistakes with comp plans can be costly – due to excessive payouts and/or because they are not generating the expected results. Back testing is one form of validation as you build a plan. Short-term incentive programs are another. Remember, without some risk there is usually little reward, so accept the fact that some risk must be taken to find the point where the optimal behavior is fostered and then make plan adjustments accordingly.
It can be challenging and time consuming to identify the right things to measure, the proper number of things (measuring too many or too few will likely fall short of goals), and provide the incentives that will motivate people to do what you want or need. But, if you want your business to grow and be healthy it is something that needs to be done well.
This type of work isn’t rocket science, and therefore is well within everyone’s reach.
My son is playing basketball this year (previously he played football and soccer), and recently we went shopping for new shoes. Each store had pictures of Michael Jordan. I used to love watching MJ play with the Chicago Bulls. He was the epitome of skill and professionalism. To this day he inspires me.
Some people are just naturally talented, but even they need to work hard to achieve their full potential. Hard work is an important aspect of being the best of anything, but it takes more than that. It takes doing things in a manner that allows you to continuously improve, as well as a positive mindset and a commitment to success. Once people reach that level of high performance their job begin to look easy, and they may even appear to be “naturals” – just like Mike. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Most of my career changes have been unplanned. Opportunities presented themselves, the job seemed interesting, and before I knew it I was fully immersed in something related but different. The potential reward outweighed the real risk.
Many of these things have not come naturally to me. Each time I have focused on understanding the requirements for doing the job well, then looked for examples of exceptional performance, and finally created a systematic approach that allowed me to measure performance and identify areas of improvement on an ongoing basis. From then on it was analyzing my results, thinking daily about even the smallest improvements, and then trying to do even better the next day.
Good enough was never good enough. Introspection can challenging so one thing that I have done is to take time to celebrate wins and intentionally focus on remembering how that feels. In times of stress or frustration those memories can be motivational and help you back on track quickly.
Sales has been a large part of my consulting management jobs since the mid-1990’s, but it wasn’t until I owned my own company that this became a true priority. I ran across a good book, The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle. Back then Chris Lytle had “MAX Training,” and a large part of their focus was increasing your “level” with regard to Prospect and Client relationships. The training was good, and was complementary to systems like Miller Heiman.
What each of these systems do is help you prepare, plan, and then execute to the best of your ability. And just like basketball, it takes practice to master. But, with mastery comes success and the illusion that something is easy (or that you happen to be very lucky). The Seneca quote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” is so true.
Regardless of the system used, what is most important is that you are trying to be the best at is to look at both positive and negative examples to see what you can learn from them. There are lessons to be learned everywhere! Understanding what makes it good or bad helps you improve as part of an ongoing process of improving.
Incorporating new tools and techniques into what has already been proven to work will help you improve your game. Going back to the sports analogy, this could be part of what made Michael Jordon so good. He would see something interesting, improve it, and then make it his own.
For example, I get a lot of really horrible sales calls and email. The people have obviously not done any preparation, do not know anything about me or the company I work for, and often remind me of why I stopped listening to them by referring to the number of times they have tried contacting me. On the other hand, there are some really talented sales professionals who have done their homework, understand their products and the competition, and have an understanding about why what they are selling should matter to me – and are able to articulate that quickly and confidently. I speak with them and occasionally buy from them. And in either case I provide my team with real life examples of both good and bad sales techniques.
So, think of the best example of whatever it is you do, and see what you can do to become more like them. This isn’t about imitation, but rather about uncovering the secrets of their success and learning from them. And, have some fun doing it!