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How to Power Up Channel Partner Relationships

As a recognized global communications leader that enables millions of customers to transform their businesses and their lives through innovative technology solutions, CenturyLink offers network and data systems management, Big Data analytics and IT consulting, and operates more than 55 data centers in North America, Europe and Asia. The company provides broadband, voice, video, data and managed services over a robust 250,000 route mile U.S. fiber network and a 300,000 route mile international transport network.

Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) represent one of the most important channels and fastest growing routes-to-market for CenturyLink. An ISV develops and sells software that runs on top of one or more of CenturyLink’s cloud-based platforms. Companies like Microsoft, Lexis Nexis and SAP produce unique business applications that support diverse customer needs across multiple industries.  CenturyLink and their ISV partners leverage joint strengths and deliver powerful business solutions to customers that neither one of them could do independently.  It’s a symbiotic relationship.  And with a clear go-to-market strategy, the relationship can unleash incredible growth for both partners.

Enter industry veteran Gahn Lane.  In his position as Vice President of Independent Software Channels at CenturyLink, Gahn was charged with forging alliances with ISVs to accelerate and expand growth. Bill Hurley, CenturyLink’s chief marketing officer, stated publicly that within three years, ISVs would be the single strongest go to market path for CenturyLink. Gahn needed to formulate a strategy to increase revenue from the ISV channel and launch a new partner program that would engage and motivate ISVs to accelerate results in the marketplace.

Even though ISVs were considered an important channel, CenturyLink had no official channel program in place.  Gahn was entering a sales environment heavily skewed towards selling to ISVs rather than selling with ISVs. Over 99% of ISVs were engaged by CenturyLink solely as customers, not as partners.  This was leading to missed business opportunities and tepid revenue growth, despite growing demand for partnerships in the market. Oftentimes in their ISV client meetings, Gahn and his sales team fielded requests to explore routes to market via partnerships. While partnership strides were made in some one-off cases, the lack of a formalized program structure had become a significant barrier to entry.

While CenturyLink’s value was clear in direct sales scenarios for their customers, the story and strategic positioning for ISVs as partners was less consistent and not well developed. “It’s really going to be about making sure they understand the full strength of the brand,” according to Gahn.  His first step was to articulate better the ISV partner story and generate alignment on how the partner program would meet the needs of a very diverse group of ISVs. He also had to assure that the program could scale.

To make matters worse, he was facing a very short runway.  Gahn only had four months until the company’s next annual ASCEND Partner Conference… and he was staring at a blank sheet of paper.

Gahn knew that he had to start by getting the story right for ISVs.  ISV story development was rooted firmly on gaining insights from the marketplace, which comprised primary research conducted via one-on-one interviews with dozens of ISVs from both East and West regions of Gahn’s sales team.

Key CenturyLink executives and stakeholders were also interviewed. The insights gained from market research formed the foundation of CenturyLink’s ISV partner story and value proposition as well as laid the groundwork for the go-to-market (GTM) strategy and various partner engagement models. In response to feedback from existing ISVs, the name “ISV” was also changed to “software vertical” to better reflect the target audience.

In formulating the channel strategy, Gahn knew that he needed to focus and prioritize on the key industries and functional markets (products, services & solutions) that would offer the most Immediate revenue lift.   He also knew that the CenturyLink story would be heard by customers in the context of all of the competitors in the space.  Strong brands like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Verizon and Rackspace already owned significant share of mind with the ISVs and their end customers.  Gahn had to be sure that the CenturyLink story would stand out in the crowded field of cloud-based IT services. He worked with his team to develop a framework for evaluating strategic fit so that he knew the scarce sales and marketing resources could be focused on the channels where CenturyLink could shine and the partnerships would yield the greatest returns.

Once the target list of software channel partners had been identified, Gahn developed a positioning “tear sheet” to help his indirect sales team understand the complexities of the competitive battleground and how to win against the entrenched competition.  This matrix could then be applied to develop specific strategic account plans for each of the target software channel partners they would be approaching.

Specific solution bundles and offers could then be created to differentiate CenturyLink and help the channel partner to sell more products to their target customers. Several potential partnership arrangements were analyzed to determine how best to meet the wide variety of software company business models, sizes and objectives. Gahn recognized that distinct messaging would need to be created for each of these types of partners with their unique behaviors and motivations in mind.   For the “Sell-To” partners, CenturyLink needed to make a deliberate and strategic shift from messaging centered on benefits and features of products and services to a focus on the benefits of a partnership with CenturyLink.For the “Sell-With” and “Sell-Through” audience, he needed to spotlight “what’s in it for them.”  This required a transformation from “we need to convince/sell” mindset to “this is the path to profitability”.

Communications across all of these channels needed to be simple, clear and fully aligned with the CenturyLink Systems.  Gahn recognized that if partners can’t get important information about CenturyLink solution specs, stock availability or delivery schedules, not only is it inefficient, it jeopardizes the relationship.  Vibrant channel relationships require streamlined channels of communications.  And, sharing of key enterprise resource planning (ERP) data across channels is a critical success factor. For example, if SAP is your ERP System, using SAP B2B Portals enables you to more efficiently manage information exchange between you and your channel partner, like configuring solutions, submitting requests for quotations and managing customer delivery schedules.

With the requisite targeting and messaging tools; marketing programs; and partner support systems in place, Gahn was ready to roll out CenturyLink’s inaugural Software Alliance Program. Roll out involved ensuring that the proper people, processes and platforms were implemented. A new dedicated team under Gahn was established to engage partners and support and grow the Software Alliance Program. This team produced a suite of marketing and sales enablement assets to support the program launch at the 2017 ASCEND Partner Conference.

The CenturyLink story for software partners resonated and the strategy worked.  Under Gahn’s leadership, CenturyLink ramped up channel sales and won deals in the market with their software partners by focusing on making the ISV and the end customers the heroes: simplifying sales enablement, expanding their profitability and helping them accelerate the growth of their businesses by opening up new routes to market.

Depending on the nature of your industry and the complexities of the Customer BuyWay for your products or services, powering up a channel strategy has the potential to have a significant impact on the growth of your business.  It’s a great way to interrupt marketing as usual.  Furthermore, you can scale the business in a highly efficient way by leveraging your partners resources and engaging them to tell your brand story.

Ideally, they will make your story a part of their own brand story.  However, in order to consistently generate outsized returns, you must give your channel partners a reason to care, a reason to listen and a reason to engage with you.  When properly enabled and empowered, your channel partner will help you reach far more customers.  They, in turn, will give the end customer give the end customer a reason to buy and a reason to stay.

If you’d like to learn more about how to power up your channel relationships, get a copy of my new book: Marketing, Interrupted.  In the book, I share the stories of business leaders across a variety of industries who are driving significant transformation within their company on behalf of their customers and channel partners. You’ll explore the challenges marketing leaders face and discover how they are approaching transformation in a very different way – sometimes in ways that seem counterintuitive, or even a little crazy!

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