Channel sales programs are like treasure hunts. Get it right and it becomes your greatest source of revenue. Get it wrong and you end up spending a lot of resources without much to show for it.
As I spoke with channel partnerships leaders and sat down to write this, it became clear why some programs didn’t work. A key ingredient, channel sales enablement, was missing.
Similar to sales enablement, channel partner enablement is the glue that keeps you connected to partners and buyers at scale. Keep reading for a deeper look into how you can build a successful channel sales enablement program.
What is channel sales enablement?
Channel sales enablement is the process of equipping third-party partners with the information, tools, and systems they need to sell your company’s products or services to buyers.
Channel partners act as extensions of your revenue teams. They generate partner sales by closing deals, expanding accounts, and taking care of ongoing support and implementation.
There are plenty of different channel partnership models ranging from:
- referral partners
- value-added resellers (VARs)
- managed service providers (MSPs)
- system integrators (SIs)
Some businesses make a killing through channel sales:
- In 2021, Shopify’s partner ecosystem generated $32 billion, almost 7x more revenue than their core business.
- A third of Atlassian’s business involves one of their 700+ sales and service partners.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Channel partnerships inherently come with reduced margins, less control, and lower visibility into the customer experience.
A good channel sales enablement program addresses these three concerns while factoring in how channel sales integrates into the company’s overall GTM. Without it, you’re setting up yourself, your partner, and their buyers for failure.
What makes a strong channel sales enablement strategy
Let’s start with what a bad channel enablement process looks like. Nodding heads on a call, drafting one-pagers, and hosting quarterly lunch and learns.
After securing buy-in internally, I reached out to our channel team to get some introductions. Then I spun the wheel–one-pagers, emails, and lunch and learns.
We didn’t get the results we hoped for because our partners had tons of other priorities. A few random touches weren’t enough to convince them to pitch our product during their customer conversations.
Pick the right time
There’s no point in developing partner enablement for a product or channel that isn’t ready.
One of the biggest mistakes in channel sales enablement is starting too early, without having a proven sales process and product-market fit. Channel partners can only help after your product or service is recognized by the market.
“It’s hard to get any traction unless you're one of the top three or four providers. Because these partners are going to be playing with all the other providers in the same category. Or at least looking at you and comparing them”.
Your channel partners’ reps are like other reps. They don’t want to sell something their buyers can’t trust. There’s an inherent risk to deviating from the norm, and the reward isn’t worth the threat of losing customers.
Learn from your channel partners
What you can start early is the process of learning from your channel partners. Typically, these are companies and people that have years, even decades, of experience in the markets you’re going after.
At GoHealth, I saw this come to life. We held bi-monthly sessions with channel partners to learn how they were acquiring customers, what their talk track looked like, and where they could use help in their process. As we developed our core product, their insights informed our decisions and sharpened our view of the market.
This also created a feedback loop and built a foundation of trust. Our partners ranged from small broker agencies to large healthcare organizations, and seeding conversations early on gave us access to behind-the-scenes knowledge.
Early relationships evolved into an ecosystem of partners we leveraged to gain access to a broader customer segment. One example was through co-marketing activities, like the press we generated from partnering with Aunt Bertha.
Connect channel partners with your revenue teams
Just because your channel partner is an external organization doesn’t mean they should feel like one.
Yet many end up being welcomed with crossed arms and cynicism. Why? Reps worry that bringing partners on their deals will cut their commissions, and rightfully so. Most compensation structures take a haircut when a partner sources or helps support a deal.
Instead of creating one-time spiffs, Darren Bibby, Principal at AlignedPartner, introduced a different approach called “compensation neutrality.”
His team created a plan to ensure the same level of quota attainment and compensation whether or not a partner was involved. That made bringing partners into deals a no-brainer for reps and led to a massive increase in channel sales.
Aligned incentives clear the way to bring channel partners closer to your organization. Invite them to company events, find opportunities to collaborate on content, and have good reasons to get together aside from lunch and learns.
Channel partners can be your top-performing account executives, solutions consultants, and account managers if you treat them that way.
Six channel enablement tips and tactics
Every company approaches channel sales differently, but there are core tenets to channel partner enablement that reduce friction and stop partnerships from falling through the cracks.
1. Start with partner account mapping
To get buy-in from internal teams and channel partners, it’s important to size up the opportunity through partner account mapping.
Finding the overlap between your customers and prospects and your partner’s is the first step towards building a business case for pursuing a partnership.
This data helps calculate the impact a specific channel sales partnership can generate for you and your partner.
For example, if 378 of your prospects are already your partner’s customers, you could have a serious layup opportunity on your hands. By asking for a warm introduction, you can convert 378 prospects into customers! Multiply that by ACV and close rate to get an estimate of what the partnership can yield.
Of course, this just scratches the surface. Other overlaps can help you improve close rates for open opportunities, increase LTV or time to value for existing customers or grow your partner’s revenue in all of the same ways above.
It truly is a win-win scenario.
2. Figure out how your partners sell
“Know how your partners get paid and you’ll know how to help them. And this applies to creating marketing messaging and enablement content that resonate with partners.”
If you don’t understand how your channel partner sells their services and how their reps get paid, you won’t be able to help them effectively. Which means they won’t be able to help you.
That’s why it’s important to follow the money. Know their sales cycle, objections they receive, and what their inbound or outbound motions look like.
You can find this by checking out their website demo flow, shadowing reps on calls, or sending out a partner intake survey. Once you understand their customer experience, you can add to the value proposition instead of inserting your product into their process.
3. Host content in an interactive, episodic format
Most companies send out a monthly partner newsletter, but that’s mostly to check a box. What if you could co-create valuable content instead?
By sourcing insights and acting as a hub, you get the attention of everyone on a channel partner’s team. A good example is Chili Piper’s Demand Gen Chat, where the host Tara Robertson interviews top leaders in Demand Gen. A healthy amount of partners have been on the show before, and it builds rapport while promoting both companies.
You want customers asking you and your partner to work together before you even announce a partnership.
If a podcast seems like too much, you can also publish a blog post, collaborate on a research report, or jump on a webinar together. This type of content positions you both as leaders in the space and shows the power of combining forces.
Standardizing co-branded content in your channel partner motion not only allows you to test the waters and show good faith but also proves you’re investing in their success. Compare this to just sharing what’s new with your product or service in a monthly newsletter.
4. Let them try the product
Some companies fear that giving channel partners access to the product gives them the chance to reverse engineer it. Or they think they’re doing customers a disservice by giving channel partners access to the product for free.
That’s why sandboxes exist. Giving partners an instance to poke around in allows them to make use cases for their customers more tangible.
Another option is to do the heavy lifting for them. For example, at Chili Piper, we recorded short use case videos for customers and partners to show how our product fit into their work.
Today, the options are endless. You can create interactive demos, share customer stories, or even host a workshop to walk partners through how they could use your product for their internal workflows.
5. Make it easy for them to sell
Channel sales partners have a lot on their plate aside from selling your product. If you don’t make all product information easily accessible and updated, your partners will forget.
They don’t know where to find the sales deck you shared with them a month ago. It’s not even on their Google Drive.
With Dock’s digital sales rooms, your partners don’t have to chase you down for the latest and greatest. Showcase your top-performing content in a single, shareable link.
The best part is, you can duplicate these to distribute with each channel partner but still have each section sync with up-to-date content. Your channel partners won’t have to worry about sharing case studies from a year ago or linking out to a page that no longer exists on your website.
Earlier, I mentioned how one of the biggest downsides to channel sales is that you don’t get visibility into the end user’s buying experience with channel partners.
With Dock’s content analytics, you can track which content performs the best with your buyers. This information is also a great way to strike up a follow-up conversation with your partner. “Hey, we saw Company X viewed the Dock space you sent them 21 times. How’d it go? What can we do to help?”
6. Measure partner performance and process transparently
Show them the data!
I stumbled across this great blog from Crossbeam that gives you a complete 101 on channel partnerships. What surprised me was that large companies were sharing stats like:
- Highspot observed that working with partners increased deal sizes by 60%.
- RingCentral upsells 3x more frequently with partners than without.
Most companies focus only on partner-sourced pipelines. They don’t bother to see how partners influence deal size, onboarding, retention, or expansion. In reality, this is where partners have the most impact, and the data can be found in your CRM. Create a custom field on the account where reps can add “partner was involved” or not.
The reality is, “You won’t know how much value a partner will bring right away— just like hiring a new rep. But by creating enablement that’s centered around their business needs, you can help your best partners shine over time,” said Karl Kaiser, Channel Partnerships at Cin7.
Showcasing quick wins across your sellers and channel partners builds momentum. It reminds everyone why they’re working together and makes it easy for partners to see how they’re contributing.
When a channel sales leader hosts their next SKO, give them a reason to share good news about you with their team.
Channel sales enablement tools
Partner adoption is the most important criterion to consider when purchasing channel sales enablement tools.
There’s tons of overlap between solutions, and many don’t fall into the bucket of “channel sales enablement”. Yet all of them share a common goal: to make the lives of partner account managers (PAMs), channel marketers, and channel reps easier.
Partner onboarding and coaching tools
A smooth channel partner onboarding process makes it easy for partners to get up to speed on your product, process, and sales cycle.
The challenge is that we’re competing for limited time and mind space. A simple, plug-and-play onboarding experience is the only way to get channel partners to pay attention.
Another way to use Dock workspaces for your channel partners is in the partner onboarding process. You can create simple checklists to follow and put key resources in one place to refer back to.
Plenty of channel partnerships get lost in a slew of emails and documents. With a single destination for product and sales content, it’s easy to eliminate friction and keep the ball rolling. On the backend, you can create templates and update these workspaces on the fly as you get feedback from partners and their customers.
Other sales enablement tools, like Highspot and Seismic, are built for (1) sharing content and (2) training enterprise sales reps through a learning management system (LMS). They offer coaching and co-selling capabilities that can be repurposed for basic channel management functions, but also come with hefty price tags.
But here’s why those tools fall short:
In B2B buying, the buyer champion carries most of the sales burden. They have to convince internal stakeholders, research the market, and walk their internal team through complex deal stages like proof-of-concept projects or security reviews.
Therefore, sharing content with buyers via attachments and links often only serves to slow down the buying process rather than speed it up.
With Dock, channel partners can simplify this process for their buyers by providing a single shared workspace for sales content, resources, collaboration, and communication.
Channel marketing and analytics
Channel marketing is a great opportunity for co-branding content, running campaigns, and reaching new customers.
Some companies even give channel partners market development funds (MDF) to spend on acquiring new customers through marketing strategies like paid campaigns. The problem is that these activities are often hard to track, and require your channel partners to have the right messaging and content at their fingertips.
Dock’s Content management platform equips your partner reps with content to help them sell. If you’re in product marketing or sales, you know how quickly content can go stale or get buried on your website. There’s also the issue of measuring how assets are performing.
Dock improves discoverability for channel partners and also makes it easy to share content. On the backend, your product marketing team can create an organized library of shareable sales content.
Then, the channel partner rep just has to search for the asset and click ‘share’ to share a trackable link with a prospect.
Combine this newfound power with Relevize, an amazing solution for your channel marketing strategy. Most channel teams know the pain of competing for internal resources to launch demand gen activities with their partners. Relevize puts this process on autopilot by enabling partners to launch paid ads and follow up with new leads.
Partner relationship management
Partner relationship management (PRM) portals serve as one place for partners to manage deal registrations, track commissions, and forecast channel sales.
These tools streamline redundant work for partner managers, like logging deals and distributing leads while giving partners a portal for seeing performance.
Some of the big ones include:
Partner ecosystem platforms
Partner ecosystem platforms (PEPs) give companies a way to share data bidirectionally, which paves the way to vetting potential partners and executing co-selling motions.
You can compare lists of prospects and customers through account mapping to see if there’s a solid overlap and strategic opportunity. These platforms often integrate with PRMs, CRMs, and other tools to enable automated outreach and advanced reporting.
Enable your channel partners with Dock
No matter what tools you decide to use, channel sales enablement is equal parts people, process, and technology. A good strategy aims to solve the three pains that come with channel partnerships: friction, controls, and visibility.
The reality is there are three players in the game of channel sales, not two. Your company, your partners, and their buyers.