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No Channel Team? No Sweat. Your Sales Reps are Channel Managers in Disguise

If you have a fun house mirror at your desk because, really, there should be ten of you, we see you. 

You’ve got a ton on your shoulders and not enough buy-in to pass the responsibilities around. In our 2021 State of the Partner Ecosystem Survey, we learned that managing the sales team’s execution of partner strategies was the second biggest conflict for partner managers — only after the challenge of getting more headcount. 

What if there was a two-in-one strategy for both empowering your sales team and getting headcount? Maybe your so-called channel managers already exist within your organization in the form of your outbound sales team, but you have yet to activate them.

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Greg Unruh, Director of Partner Strategy and Channel Sales at Shipware and Consultant at Partnernomics, says he’s inherited a team of 20 channel sales managers by matching his outbound sales reps with his partners’ sales reps, also known as role-based partner pairing

As a partnerships team of one, Unruh relies on members of his sales team to support and accelerate partner-influenced-deals in Shipware’s channel partnerships program. When Unruh joined the shipping SaaS company in 2019, he implemented role-based partner pairing as one of a number of efforts to maximize partnership resources. 

“At my last company, we were about 70% direct sales,” says Unruh. “By the time I left, 70-75% of our opportunities coming in were channel. Everyone in the company had embraced this process of role-based partner pairing.” 

Before you get new results, you’ll need a new workflow. Here’s how to get your outbound sales team excited about channel sales — with tips for measuring and rewarding their success. No hiring necessary (for now).

Workflow Adjustment #1: Make Channel Sales Part of Your Team’s Internal Sales Huddles 

Whether your company has a daily sales huddle, a weekly standup, or another means of touching base, make channel sales part of the conversation. Better yet, give your sales reps something to brag about. 

In his experience leading partnership programs full-time and as a consultant, Unruh noticed that sales teams focusing on direct sales had little to report on during the latter half of their AM/PM daily sales huddle. Each sales rep would commit to making upwards of 40 calls in a day — but by the end of the day, they typically would have made very few connections.

Shortly after Unruh joined the team at Shipware, he made “partner pairings” part of his sales team’s daily outreach sequence. To get things going, he paired each sales rep with anywhere between 18-22 sales reps from various channel partner companies.

When he’s ready to assign a new pairing, Unruh sets up a meeting between the two sales reps and himself. Unruh introduces the two reps, answers any outstanding product-related questions, and then guides them in setting up a meeting cadence. 

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Example email used to initiate the first meeting between two sales reps.
Image courtesy of Shipware

A pairing between a Shipware sales rep and an Authorize.Net’s sales rep, for example, may have a bi-weekly cadence for the reps to check in with each other. Meanwhile, a pairing between that same Shipware sales rep and a sales rep from Optimove may have a weekly cadence. 

With pairings across partner teams, the Shipware sales reps have various opportunities to connect with multiple partners in any given week. From these conversations, they receive updates about deals their counterparts are working on, get direct introductions to accounts they’re prospecting, and discover new leads.

The result? More success stories in the afternoon huddles — and more excitement around that success throughout the team. 

Workflow Adjustment #2: Ensure Quality Control Among Your Pairings 

Pairing your sales reps isn’t like sending your kids to space camp for a month and hoping they come back with “NASA” written in their “20 Years From Now…” journal. You must monitor your team’s relationship with your partner’s team and hold both parties accountable for regularly accelerating each other’s deals. 

Unruh has established a scoring system in Salesforce to ensure each pairing is successful and that his partners’ sales teams are holding up their end. 

“What I tell the rep is, ‘I’m going to pair you with this person, and I give you the subjectivity and the freedom to score that rep,’” says Unruh. “I give them a scoring mechanism from zero to four. Four means, ‘Hey, this is really active, this is a great partnership, we’re on a weekly cadence with one another.’”

When one of his reps gives their counterpart a score of zero, Unruh unpairs them. The unpairing sparks a conversation with the corresponding partner manager about why the pairing wasn’t successful. Unruh and his partner may discuss why the rep wasn’t responsive or engaged and if there’s a way to fix the issue. The conversation may lead to additional training opportunities for the sales rep. 

While working on a solution, Unruh may place the partner’s rep into a marketing nurture sequence to keep them informed about product updates and maintain some level of communication. 

Alternatively, a content sequence can sometimes revive an unresponsive sales rep on its own, which can lead to a re-pairing. Unruh stresses that, before repairing, it’s important to make sure the sales rep is ready — through conversations with the partner and their rep. Otherwise, you may be swapping a “good cycle” for a “bad cycle” if you’re managing many channel partners and only have so many sales reps to take them on.

As for the rep who gave their counterpart a poor score? Unruh rematches them when a new pairing becomes available. 

“I often tell junior or new sales reps, ‘You’ll never see a rep make President’s Club that doesn’t effectively leverage their partner pairings.’ It’s the force-multiplier to duplicate yourself and extend your reach within the markets you want to penetrate. Work smarter, not harder,” says Unruh. “Conversely, there’s a common denominator to those that don’t make President’s Club, and that is their lack of engagement with their partner pairings.”

Workflow Adjustment #3: Create Content Touchpoints to Foster Engagement Between Pairings

In addition to having your sales reps set up their own cadence for communications, you can use partner enablement content to provide your reps with conversation starters. 

Unruh implements a 90-day biweekly partner content sequence for his sales team to use when reaching out to their counterparts. These updates are usually blog posts or partner newsletters, which may include product updates, company updates, or educational resources.

“The whole point of this process is to stay engaged and top of mind with each partner through this multi-touch engagement approach,” says Unruh. 

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Excerpt from Shipware’s August 2020 partner newsletter.
Image courtesy of Shipware

Workflow Adjustment #4: Reward Your Sales Reps for Channel Sales Activity (At First)

You shouldn’t just rely on “excitement” among your sales reps to incentive them (and you don’t have to). Unruh measures and scores his sales team’s partner-related activity through Actions Precedes Results (APRs). Each activity, including number of meetings, educational webinars or demos attended, number of phone calls, emails sent, and so on, receives a score. The culminating points help Unruh understand who is hitting their quota for partner-related activity and who isn’t.

“When I see a rep that is below their target, the first thing I look at is their APR score and activity. The next thing I look at is to see what percentage of that APR is allocated to partner outreach versus cold calling,” says Unruh. 

Early on in the process, Unruh tied APR scoring to management by objectives (MBO) bonuses to incentivize partner-related activity. 

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Unruh stresses that the goal isn’t to motivate your sales reps solely through monetary bonuses but rather to encourage a change in behavior that trains your sales reps to become channel-minded. Once your sales team begins to see the effects of their work, these types of bonuses become irrelevant. 

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Who would’ve thought? You can grow your partnerships team overnight.