Identifying collaborative partners

How can channel companies identify the right partners so they can succeed? Comms Business talks to the market.

Partnerships are at the heart of the channel, and distributor, reseller and MSP success is often tied to collaborative and supportive relationships with partners. Successful channel partnerships often stem from common goals.

Thea Tanner, commercial and propositions director, BT Wholesale, explained, “The key ingredients to a successful channel partnership are common goals, strategies and expectations. By agreeing on these at the beginning of the relationship, vendors alongside distributors, resellers and MSPs can mitigate risks and maximise success.”

Tanner said that “nurturing existing partnerships is crucial”. She added, “For vendors, channel partners play a huge part in decision making. As the ones selling solutions to the end-user, they are in a unique position where they have an unrivalled understanding of the market, customer needs and emerging trends.

“That’s why collaboration between the two is essential. Partners can liaise with customers to voice their needs to vendors who can then improve solutions and offerings, leading to enhanced customer service and repeat business across the channel.”

Channel companies and their partners are also navigating relationships that were disrupted by the pandemic, with working practices post-pandemic continuing to shift.

Emily Fallon, regional vice president, RingCentral, said, “The channel ecosystem has long been built on relationships as ultimately, people buy from people. Covid had a significant impact on how relationships were upheld, and new ones were built in a virtual-first world.

“With digital communication technologies to support this process, many businesses have continued to rely on only these solutions to maintain relationships. Now, a key ingredient for successful partnerships is balancing virtual with face-to-face communication.

“As customers drive the need for increased physical interaction, channel partners will succeed if they can successfully balance building relationships in both the physical and virtual worlds.”

As such, Fallon argued that adaptability is key. She explained, “Vendors operations are being influenced by several internal and external factors, more frequently than before. As these demands continue to evolve how these vendors operate, partners need to remain agile and adaptable to help vendors meet their goals now while also anticipating their future needs.”

Building trust

For Ali Hastings, senior channel director for the UK and Ireland, Avaya, trust is the cornerstone of successful partnerships. She said, “Partnerships will always have their ups and downs but for any partnership to survive and flourish, it’s crucial that bi-lateral trusts exist between the two parties. This does not mean that both sides need to always agree, but they certainly need to respect each other’s views and opinions, hold empathy, and therefore operate from a solid grounding of mutual trust and respect.”

Steven Try, channel manager for the UK and Ireland, Snom, agreed trust is essential. He said, “It’s no secret that developing close relationships with your partners is crucial to doing good business. Some of the most important ingredients to a successful partnership are, of course, finding common ground, building trust and maintaining an open dialogue.”

He added partner programmes can be formulated to build on those areas. He said, “Effective collaboration and closer alignment can also be achieved through a channel partner programme that provides partners with the support and tools they need to deliver the best possible experience to their customers. This might include regular product training or incentives such as rebates or sales-based bonuses.”

Try underlined why regular in-person meetings are beneficial. He explained, “You shouldn’t underestimate the importance of meeting with your partners face-to-face on a regular basis either. This makes knowledge-sharing easier and shows that you’re taking the time to listen and get a real grasp of your partner’s objectives.”

Nick Bannister, vice president sales for Arrow’s enterprise computing solutions business in the UK and Ireland, added, “Successful partnerships have similar traits, whether they form part of our professional or personal life. For them to thrive they must be based on alignment of values, vision, and goals.

“How this plays out in our day-to-day is crucial – from dedicated account management, regular conversations and meetings, to strategy, plans and key metrics. By ensuring that everyone is aligned towards a common purpose, while making sure we have fun along the way, ensures that partnerships become more natural, focused, and successful.”

Ben Nicklen, CEO, Tiger, also emphasised the importance of a shared vision. He said, “A strong partnership is built on a shared vision and aligned goals. Both parties should have a clear understanding of what they want to achieve and how they can work together to reach those objectives. This shouldn’t be seen as a barrier when first interacting.

“Sometimes, you don’t truly know another organisation until you have first collaborated. Then, by experiencing its skills and nuances from an initial project, you can understand more about how two businesses may align and collaborate for a longer-term partnership in the future.”

Driving ROI

The channel ecosystem thrives on shared successes between partners. Delivering a return on investment (ROI) is a core component of that. For Warren Playford, head of sales, Agilitas, the business strategy must be built around a shared understanding.

He said, “In a world where technology is getting more agile, selecting the right Channel partner is essential. Partnerships between businesses have always been important. However, to succeed in today’s competitive, ever-evolving digital age, it is vital to have the right partnerships to develop ongoing solutions that drive both ROI and growth.

“A successful partnership needs a unique formula for success, and it is important to understand the key elements of a partnership in order to ensure that both parties are maximising their potential. Establishing a strong partnership involves transparency, trust, and a unified aspiration for success. Moreover, for the cooperation to be effective, there needs to be a mutual understanding in terms of brand values and culture, a critical component of any business strategy.”

Those shared values are essential for long-term success. Marianne Calder, VP of partner sales in EMEA, Genesys, explained, “Shared values lie at the core of every successful partnership today. Only by working with like-minded partners, can a business hope to achieve both mutual understanding, and the support needed to reach both short and long-term ambition and success.”

To get off on the right foot, it is important to take the time to understand the perspective of partners. Andie Walton, head of marketing at full fibre provider ITS Technology Group, said, “Actively listening to what partners have to say, and then being in the position to be able to act on it takes relationships to the next level in my opinion. Nothing ever stays the same. Being agile and responsive, and remaining purposeful and relevant are vital.”

If this is done right, the feedback loop can build strong foundations for future growth. Walton added, “Being given feedback, whether it’s on your service, product set, or the way an issue has been handled is a gift. Plans can be refined, and roadmaps tweaked, designed to help partners grow their own business and win more – their success is ours.”

Martin Ryder, channel sales director, Northern Europe at Vertiv, also highlighted the importance of feedback. He said, “The real challenge for both vendors and partners is investing in and developing relationships that create an environment of trust and honesty with a mutual desire for both parties to succeed. Vendors should take a strategic view and ask for regular feedback, which will help to improve relationships, and partners should treat vendors as stakeholders in their long-term objectives.”

Successful partnerships are a two-way street, with collaboration and support on both sides. Howard Malloy, SVP, MD Europe, Ensono, said, “Partnerships are the fuel of the channel industry and directly impact the success of distributors, resellers, and MSPs. Successful partnerships are built on several key ingredients; mutual collaboration, support, and a coherent shared vision, to name but a few.

“But when it comes to the critical factor in a successful channel partnership? In a word, collaboration. This involves active communication, knowledge sharing, and aligning goals to create a mutually beneficial relationship.

“The benefits of a collaborative partnership are numerous; increased efficiency, access to a broader range of resources and expertise, and the ability to deliver more comprehensive solutions to customers. Without collaboration, a partnership is doomed to fail.”

Opening up

So, how can channel companies make their existing partnerships more collaborative? Hastings, from Avaya, pointed to the need for partnerships to involve collaboration at all levels, rather than a top-down approach.

She said, “My single biggest ask for any of my partners would be to open access to their teams at all levels and functions. Often a partner will have a vendor manager and the vendor a partner manager, however that needs to be the starting and facilitating point, but the best way to fully collaborate is across many facets of their business.

“As an example, sales meetings should be held together, forecasting sessions, technical reviews, events, marketing activity all should happen peer to peer. Our best partnerships are where our partners access the length and breadth of our company and vice versa!”

Nicklen, from Tiger, agreed with the importance of close collaboration. He said, “Many companies share their plans and strategy internally, but it’s not always extended to the partnership community. Understanding the goals of your partner’s business helps you look for ways to offer support — whether that be growth, culture, or development.

“I strongly believe in the mantra that a partner’s team is an extension of your team, that they represent both you and them. Ensuring that the companies know about each other, their values, culture, successes and challenges ensures there is a positive understanding of how the partnership can work and improve. Sharing information is key. You need to be confident enough to ask questions, get to know each other and always be on the lookout for referrals into each other’s business.”

That chimed with the view of Karen Winter, head of partnerships and growth at Tollring. She explained, “The key is to foster collaboration across all levels within both organisations. This involves genuine peer-to-peer engagement and dedicated account management teams that will help generate the joint identification of new product opportunities as well as combine strategies to ensure customer retention.”

Regular catch ups will deliver benefits for both sides of the partnership. Try, from Snom, said, “From a vendor’s perspective, reseller or distributor partners are the ones who are having conversations with end customers day-in, day-out, so they need to feel confident that they are armed with the right information to answer customer queries, and the right tools to support the end user.By creating regular points of contact between vendor and reseller, you can not only build a solid, trusting relationship, but also create a business environment that runs smoothly and efficiently.”

Tanner, from BT Wholesale, added, “The key to any relationship is transparent communication. Regular meetings must be prioritised to discuss worries, ensure goals are still aligned and that challenges are addressed. Coupled with meetings, businesses should embrace UC tools such as instant messaging, video calls and virtual workspaces to ensure real-time interaction too.”

Identifying the right partners

When a distributor, reseller or MSP is looking to develop new partnerships, it is important to identify the right partners for the future. RingCentral’s Fallon explained this can look like the steps you might take before making a hire. She said, “Identifying good partners is similar to making a new hire. Vendors should look for partners who will push their business to grow and develop, meet business targets and align with their culture and values.

“Good partners will have a clear understanding of the needs of a vendor’s customer base, and in-depth knowledge of the sector they operate within. This is crucial as a partner needs to be able to adapt to and respond quickly to any developments, for example supporting with new product releases, and the developments of new technology within the business, something that can only be achieved through strong market understanding.”

Ryder, from Vertiv, added, “There are a multitude of considerations to bear in mind. Some are obvious, such as working with vendors that have a proven track record at delivering best-in-class products, and just as important, a service network to provide fast response and maintenance services.”

For Playford, from Agilitas, channel companies should evaluate if they have common ground with potential partners. He said, “Choosing the right partner involves more than just finding a service provider with whom you share common goals. It is essential to ensure both parties have similar values, objectives, and strategies that are aligned in order to make sure there is a synergy that allows for effective cooperation. Through collaborative partnerships, companies can enjoy a better ROI by building systems of best practices.

“The success of any long-term collaboration depends on a reliable two-way partnership and the ability to remain transparent throughout the process. The right Channel partner will understand the needs of a business and be able to provide solutions that are tailored to those needs.”

This is not always a straightforward process, and channel companies need to invest in taking the time to ensure the partnership will be fruitful.

Walton, from ITS Technology Group, explained, “Over and above the usual chemistry meetings, commercial alignment, and due diligence checks, identifying good partners isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. There needs to be deep understanding of each other’s goals and ambitions. There are any number of attributes that can result in a good fit for channel partners.”

Walton pointed to access to products or vertical markets, enabling a go-to-market, or access to skills that aren’t available in-house as a few areas that could be important to consider. He added, “Identifying [priorities] at the outset means that plans can be forged together, implemented efficiently, and the right tools put at the disposal of the partner to help them add value to their own business propositions.”

Preparing for the future

What is clear is that, despite the variety of benefits on offer in today’s channel partner programmes, shared values will remain the core of long-term partnerships.

Calder, from Genesys, said, “All partnerships must be rooted in consistent values, strong transparency, and joint focus on driving towards a skilled, diverse ecosystem. With changing consumption models, new partner types are needed to address the evolving needs of buyers both for today, and for years to come.”

With big changes on the road ahead, trust and continued learning will also be important in 2024 and beyond. BT Wholesale’s Tanner said, “Each channel partnership is unique, but they are all based on a mutual understanding of trust and an eagerness to learn.

“As the channel readies itself for huge changes such as the PSTN switch-off and a new era of mobile connectivity in the form of 5G, distributors, resellers and MSPs must have an appetite to learn about new offerings and the innovative technology that underpins them.”

This feature appeared in our September 2023 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.