Comms Business explores Partner Relationship Management software solutions and the impact they are having on the Channel.
In many ways, particularly since the pandemic, automation and digital transformation have come to the forefront across many industries. Businesses are looking for methods of making life easier during uncertain times, and the Channel itself is no exception to this trend.
One key area within the Channel where automation is showing potential to increase success is within the management of the partner relationships themselves. Partner Relationship Management (PRM) software is a steadily growing market, predicted by Forrester to reach $679m by 2023.
Many will see the emergence of PRM software for managing the partner ecosystem as simply an adaptation of CRM (Customer Relationship Management), geared toward the Channel. For Kenneth Fox, CEO at Channel Mechanics, it’s less simple than that. “I think PRM is much more complicated than CRM systems,” Fox told Comms Business.
“Obviously, CRM was where it all started and that was where you had your direct sales team, they managed the opportunities and the end customers on CRM. In the world of PRM, you’re now obviously either one arm or two arms removed — depending on whether it’s one tier or two tier.
“One of the areas we do a lot of work on is building that bridge between your PRM and your CRM: you don’t give a partner access to your CRM… but you still want to show them ‘these are the opportunities, here’s the status of that opportunity’. It’s around the automation of that integration between your PRM and your CRM.”
Channel Mechanics was founded in 2010, with a mission of transforming channel programme execution. Headquartered in Galway, Ireland, the company has since branched out into the UK and the US following the success of its ChannelIT software, which aims to remove some of the traditional barriers to increasing revenue for vendors selling through the Channel.
“The reason we started the company back then was, with the advent of cloud technology, it provided a perfect vehicle for a multi-tenant environment, which is what we do,” Fox said.
“The Channel was crying out for a much more automated platform, every vendor was doing it one by one for themselves, so we developed a solution that works for everybody.”
He described the platform as being designed like a triangle, with the vendor, reseller and distributors at each point.
“Each persona has got a different view of the world, sees and does different things, and as a result we designed it that way with the ease of doing business at the front and centre of everything we do,” Fox explained.
“A lot of the time, vendors are more inward-looking, they’re focused on themselves and what they’re doing rather than focused on their partners and how to make life easier for [them]. Typically, a partner will work with between seven and 12 vendors, so you can imagine time is money — the easier you make it for that partner to work with you, the better chance you’re going to have of winning their end business.”
From a vendor perspective, the process of onboarding and training a partner can be automated and simplified through PRM software. This is a benefit especially useful to vendors at a time when many companies are transitioning to the cloud or offering purely cloud products, Fox said.
“A lot of the changes are around that transition to cloud, and the programmes that vendors use to engage or try and win partner money share are becoming more and more complex. We see a huge amount of incentivisation of the Channel, especially since Covid — inventivisation of training, of deal registration, of closing business.
“In many ways, the change to the PRM systems to support all of those moving parts is really complicated, you’re actually getting nearer the end customer. If you take things like renewals, which we do a lot in the area of, it’s helping partners win that renewal business because renewals in the world of SaaS have never been more important.”
Channel Mechanics works with a range of channel businesses including global network provider Extreme Networks, and vendor Mitel. Rather than being viewed as a supplier-vendor relationship, Fox said Channel Mechanics treats the companies it works with as collaborative partners, operating in a similar approach to that of the Channel itself.
As a born-in-the-cloud company, he believes that Channel Mechanics has many qualities that allow it to stand out from its competitors, some of whom may be trying to grapple with the cloud transition.
“We’re all steeped in the Channel, we’ve all worked in the Channel for a lot of our lives, so we really understand why you need a PRM in the first place… what the ins and outs are of channel programmes, what works well for your partners and leading with the partner, putting the partner first, it’s really really important,” Fox said. “It’s not direct selling, it’s indirect selling and a lot of people think it’s one and the same when it really isn’t. The way you motivate a partner to sell is very different to the way you motivate your internal sales team.”
Fox added that the company is very hands-on, supporting customers with adapting the platform and helping vendors to drive adoption of their programme into their partner base. This includes everything from webinars to creating video content and how-to guides.
Another PRM company making waves in the Channel space is Allbound, which is based in Atlanta, USA, and has since crossed the pond with UK headquarters now set up in London.
Allbound’s managing director for EMEAA, Meshach Amuah-Fuster, believes that selling through the Channel has become more desirable in recent years for several reasons, creating more demand in the market for effective PRM software.
“I think Channel, historically for the last 20 – 30 years, has been a bit of an afterthought for organisations,” Amuah-Fuster told Comms Business. “I think the main reason is because there’s a stigma, whereby if you don’t sell direct, other organisations might dilute the message … But I think the limitation to that is scaling, and actually the most successful companies are the ones who leverage the Channel effectively: HP, Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft…”
He described a ‘paradigm shift’ in thinking which has been observed in the last couple of years by Allbound, with more companies embracing the Channel strategy. A recent report from the company revealed a surge in Channel sales, with 75 per cent of organisations surveyed reporting Channel sales as a priority for their business in the upcoming years. This has inevitably led to a rise in the number of companies seeking PRM solutions.
One reason behind this shift is inevitably linked to the fact that we’re living in the most interconnected time we’ve ever experienced, Amuah-Fuster said. “You could have a partner, an MSP or a VAR, irrespective of where they are geographically — so I think that’s the first thing, logistics,” he said.
“The second thing is obviously a recession or global pandemic forces a lot of organisations to stay grounded, they can’t fly and see partners and historically a lot of partners would ‘entertain’ and do things like that to stay in people’s good graces. I think what’s happening now is organisations are having to be held more accountable… and leveraging a portal is the number one measure for accountability.”
Companies are starting to realise the benefit of leveraging other organisations to help them sell, he added, and not having to generate your own IP is an advantage for many businesses who prefer to resell or add value to someone’s existing product.
Allbound’s differentiator compared with other PRM companies, Amuah-Fuster said, is its focus on engagement which he described as the ‘number one driving factor for channel success’.
“We see the success in engagement and that’s why everything we do in the portal is based around that,” he explained. Allbound’s own research showed that, for partners who engaged and took actions such as regularly creating prospect pages — a landing page for customers to view documentation, marketing and collateral — there was a positive correlation between that behaviour and how successful the company was from a Channel standpoint.
“That was quite surprising to us, we thought it’d be more things like how often they co-brand documents, but that was one of the biggest tell-tale signs,” he said. As well as operating as a LMS (Learning Management System) and a CRM tool for partners, a PRM system like Allbound’s is also a PI tool for reporting. “It shows you who’s logging in, when they’re logging in, how often they log in, who’s creating prospect pages.
“PRM is a basic concept for a real problem — for people who don’t know that this actually exists, they’re still leveraging traditional methods of manual training and doing web conferences, tick boxing exercises to see they’re proficient, or manually distributing content via email,” Amuah-Fuster added.
“Very manual processes, and when I ask organisations ‘what are your KPIs for measuring Channel success, they always say ‘X amount of opportunities for Y amount of time’. That’s not really a KPI, that’s more of an outcome to KPIs. KPIs should be how many partners are engaging with the product, how many are downloading content, how many are sending them out, how many are logging into your portal… Because once you optimise that, the opportunities just come. And when the opportunities come, the revenue comes — so just focus on the short-term, and the long-term will happen.”