Truth or myth: High-tech vendors have little power to influence the customer experience when selling through channel partners?
For high-tech marketing and sales professionals who think that this is a truth, shame on them. High-tech vendors can, and absolutely should, influence their end customers’ experiences when they purchase products or services from a channel partner. I’m not saying that it’s easy, since the partner often “owns” the customer relationship, and in many cases, vendors have limited engagement with the buyers and users of their products or services. However, in today’s hyper-competitive IT market, vendors must protect their brands and deliver on their value propositions regardless of their channel strategy.
So how can vendors influence their end customers’ experience when selling through channel partners? Vendors should proactively assume the role of the “CX conductor” by collaborating with and enabling their channel partners to build stronger end customer relationships.
As many partners invest in new capabilities and shift their business models to focus more on integrated solutions and “as-a-service” offerings, what will truly differentiate them from their competitors is the customer experience that they deliver. More sophisticated IT channel partners are becoming less dependent on the profit margin that they generate from hardware or software sales. Their primary goal is to maximize profitability by attaching their services to vendors’ offerings and by generating recurring revenue streams.
To boost their profitability and valuation, partners must provide a positive customer experience that will lead to strong customer relationships and increase stickiness for their services. The responsibility for delivering a superior customer experience should be shared by vendors and their channel partners. Vendors who help their partners deliver CX excellence will increase brand preference, capture market share, and build both customer and partner loyalty.
To become a successful CX conductor, high-tech vendors must be able to do the following:
- Co-create with top strategic partners. It’s critical that vendors and top partners are aligned on how to best meet end customers’ expectations throughout their lifecycles. End customers demand a positive, seamless experience when assessing their needs, researching, purchasing, implementing and using a solution, regardless of whether they engage vendors or partners. Unfortunately, many vendors and their top partners don’t share a common view of the end customer journey. Their collective understanding of customer needs and preferences is incomplete or inconsistent as a result of a lack of collaboration and transparency due to perceived channel conflict.
The irony of this misalignment is that vendors are quite aligned with their partners when it comes to the goal of improving CX. After all, happy customers are valuable to both vendors and partners. Vendors should collaborate with a few top strategic partners to co-design the ideal customer experience in different buying scenarios. Over time, vendors will realize the benefits of jointly constructed customer experiences that elicit customer satisfaction from the outset.
- Empower the masses. Vendors may have the best products, their marketing team may develop the best campaigns, and their channel sales teams may have great relationships with partners. However, vendors will struggle to enable the vast majority of their partners to deliver a positive customer experience without the right enablement and incentives. Presenting a clear vision of success through CX excellence isn’t enough. Vendors need to help their channel partners get there. Smaller partners, many of whom are capital-constrained and struggling to shift their business models, are often unable to invest in the tools, processes and training necessary to provide a superior customer experience.
First, vendors need to ensure that there’s a shared understanding of what a superior customer experience “looks like” and how achieving CX excellence will drive value for their business. Vendors should share customer feedback and demonstrate the correlation of positive customer satisfaction and business results. Second, vendors need to provide tools and training to enable their partners’ sales and service teams. Finally, vendors should reward partners who provide a superior customer experience, either with a “carrot” (for example, financial incentives and recognition), or a “stick” (such as program requirements).
- Optimize through analytics. Vendors have a tremendous amount of data that can help them play the role of CX conductor. Unfortunately, vendors often get caught looking in the rear-view mirror when it comes to how they use channel data. Vendors typically are too focused on measuring customer satisfaction, and not focused enough on identifying satisfaction drivers. Most vendors have dashboards and Excel spreadsheets that show how partners are performing against their goals, or how much of their market development funds they’ve used, but they lack the predictive insights that can help proactively ensure a positive customer experience. Vendors should provide analytics to their partners that help drive a positive customer experience, analyzing aggregated customer data (for example, firmographics, product usage or behavior) to identify customer preferences, growth opportunities and indicators of readiness to engage (such as a new purchase, an upgrade, a renewal or services issues).
- Enable with technology. Technology is the CX conductor’s baton. Whether it’s managing key customer touch points, enabling partners to deliver on a shared CX vision, or proactively improving CX through analytics, no process will be uniformly adopted by partners unless it’s embedded with technology. Partners have traditionally been enabled through the partner portals, but vendors are increasingly providing them with customized microsites or dedicated apps that make it easy for partners’ sales reps to deliver the desired experience to their customers.
A siloed approach to managing customer journeys won’t be sufficient to maintain and grow business in the future. Continuing to do so will foster further channel conflict and prevent CX excellence. Rather, high-tech vendors must embrace the role of the CX conductor and more proactively develop a CX vision that’s shared with their partners in both design and delivery.