If you rely on a channel partner—a brick-and-mortar store, a dealership, a distributor, or an independent sales force—to sell your products or services, you already know that disruption is headed your way. We’re witnessing unprecedented changes across industries, including the purchase of auto dealerships by billion-dollar private equity firms. Remember how taxi companies never saw Uber coming?
There’s an Uber coming for your channel partners, too.
But it doesn’t have to spell the end. There are some practices you can adopt today that will keep you in business—together—for a long time to come.
“Those brands that can balance their direct and indirect execution while ensuring consistent customer expectations through distributed and localized marketing will have outsized success in the market.” — Forrester
1. Bend over backwards for your partners
If you’ve let your channel operate on autopilot, repeating a cycle of introducing products, selling them wholesale to your partners, then walking away until you need those partners again, now is the time to rethink that strategy. Of course, co-op programs exist (but many funds go unused due to process complexity, according to SproutLoud) to keep channel partners on your side, and ostensibly your brand offers them some marketplace cache. But if you aren’t helping them help you, you’re missing a huge opportunity to create a mutually beneficial partnership.
To do this, you’ll need to treat them as your first and best customers. Communicate with them constantly, and follow through on your promises and commitments. How? Dedicate a team or call center to them. Channel partners do not thrive on neglect—and leaving them in the dark or disappointing them can lead to toxic resentments. People who should be your biggest advocates will start complaining about you—or worse, favor another brand over yours when selling to customers.
Follow the golden rule. When it comes to your channel, you can’t over-communicate and you can’t be too available. Become a resource they can trust and talk to, just like any great salesperson.
2. Talk (and listen) to their customers
Let’s start with listening, because the “C” in this B2B2C equation is your customer too—the one for whom you’re designing products and solving problems. You need to know what matters to him to make sure your brand is inspiring enough to drive him to your channel (for some companies, this idea represents a shift away from designing products just to keep up with their competition). Do the research. Do the outreach. Do the focus groups. Do the surveys. Shop your own channels (go undercover!). Shop everyone’s channels. Find out who’s doing through-channel marketing well, and apply those lessons. And find out who’s about to disrupt your industry.
In this environment, you can’t afford to “set it and forget it” on your channel partners.
3. Maintain your brand experience
You know the telephone game? It can happen to your brand as soon as your products hit the showroom floor or ecomm grid if you don’t manage the experience through clear, consistent marketing designed for your channel partners.
This is why your dealer portal or marketing engine is so critical, but all too often the maintenance and upkeep of it is put on the back burner. Now's your chance to make it a robust resource, one that your partners bookmark not only for marketing materials, but for business and thought leadership. Turn your sales training videos into something more exciting (there are no rules anymore!). And make sure every channel partner, no matter how long you’ve been working together, knows what your brand and product stand for. That may mean more frequent re-education, via an email campaign (yes, you can target campaigns directly to your channel), direct mail, or hosted events.
Don’t neglect content syndication across the web, either (especially if you sell on Amazon, Wayfair, The Home Depot or another aggregator of brands), because customers will compare your products from site to site. Any experience with your brand name on it should be consistent and memorable.
4. Help yourself help them
Through-Channel Marketing Automation is a topic for many more blog posts, but no conversation about being a great partner is complete without it. Yes, you’ll still need to ensure a great brand experience, solid awareness campaigns, and an appropriate cadence for touchpoints, but once you automate your efforts with a service like Hubspot or Pardot, you’ll sleep easier knowing all your marketing is working harder and more efficiently for you and your partners.
The bottom line? Your channel partners are your best customers. Treat them accordingly.