Channel automation becomes table stakes for partnership success

Automate manual processes and adopt human-centric approaches to drive channel scale.
Written by Forrester Research, Contributor

Channel professionals want to talk about expanding their partner programs and building broad ecosystems, but the truth is that many of their basic program and channel management processes are still painfully manual and error-prone.

Before accelerating their channel program, they need to apply basic automation technologies to get their front- and back-end systems to a future-ready state.

We have seen significant strides in the past two decades around sales and marketing automation. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Salesforce, triggering cloud transformations by line-of-business executives to modernize and manage the direct sales process in a more scientific way.

Around 10 years ago, marketing automation technologies such as Marketo, Eloqua, and HubSpot empowered marketing leaders to operationalize campaigns and tactics. Marketing became more predictable, scientific, and less of a leap of faith.

For several reasons, channel organizations have been laggards in automation. We estimate that over 80% of companies (in all industries) run their indirect sales in a silo -- completely separate from sales, marketing, and other lines of business. In many cases, the channel organization has its own sales, marketing, finance, and operations groups inside, collaborating little with other divisions.

These organizations suffer from constrained access to data, manual processes such as quarterly business reviews, ad hoc channel account manager interactions, and programs that run on spreadsheets. There are very few end-to-end workflows to support the partners' journey.

Channel leaders generally know the linear partner journey from recruitment to onboarding, enablement, incentivizing, co-selling, and co-marketing. Because of the typical program's manual overhead, however, few can identify points of friction along the way and don't have effective feedback mechanisms for improvement.

There is also a lack of end-to-end transparency in partner interactions. Channel managers' knowledge of their partners tends to be very limited. They usually track transactional information and occasionally some business intelligence, but a partner's interactions from owner/principals, sales, marketing, and technicians across numerous touchpoints remain elusive.

Partners respond over and over in surveys that manual processes slow them down. Managing upward of 10 different vendors can be overwhelming and lead to hiring dedicated resources just to maintain the partnership and get paid.

We have written extensively about the rapidly growing channel, including new shadow channels that specialize by the buyer, subindustry, geography, size of customer, and specific solution area. Managing these large numbers of new partners, many of them non-resellers or non-transacting partners, inside newer ecosystems, puts additional pressure on automation.

There are heightening growth expectations with partners, as many direct sales and marketing strategies aren't providing the required returns. Improving efficiency and driving new levels of innovation within the channel is increasingly being demanded by senior executives and board members in many organizations. This is the quintessential act of doing more with less.

The ability to partner for differentiation by leveraging channel data is vitally important. The growth of ecosystems is reliant on getting the right data to understand new engagement models and drive better partner experience. Investing in new digital tools to take advantage of expansive channel data and support the partner journey is becoming table stakes in the race toward channel automation.

We publish the annual channel software tech stack infographic and blog that includes more than 100 companies that compete across six categories for investment to improve partner relationship management (PRM), channel incentives and program management (CIPM), channel data management (CDM), channel enablement, channel finance, and through-channel marketing automation (TCMA). It is currently a $1.32 billion market, growing quickly and attracting significant interest from private equity investors.

One of the first targets for channel automation is marketing through, to, and with partners, expanding TCMA activities to drive additional customer demand and more top-of-funnel activity. In the "Forrester Data: Marketing Automation Technology Forecast, 2017 To 2023 (Global)," TCMA has the highest expected growth rate, at 25%, compared with the five other marketing automation technologies.

Before accelerating channel strategy and scale, we recommend that channel leaders apply basic automation technologies to get their front- and back-end systems to a fit-for-future state. Partnerships are a key ingredient for brands to better influence the new buyer through every stage in the buying journey, and new processes and workflows are critical to scale effectively.

The traditional resell-focused program that was built on gold/silver/bronze-type pyramid tiers will no longer cut it.

This post was written by Principal Analyst, Channel Partnerships & Alliances Jay McBain, and originally appeared here

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