Love your channel. Feed your channel. Help them get rich. But don’t let them block you from having a regular and robust dialogue with your end use customers.
A very significant percentage of B2B commerce is conducted through third party channels: Distributors, VARs, SIs and OEMs. A well developed channel ecosystem, properly supported and managed should, over time, become a major asset and differentiator for its manufacturer principal. Often the company with the strongest channel wins.
Strong partners also wield considerable clout however. They, almost by definition, have naturally closer relationships with end users than do their principals. They will often seek to build on and then leverage this control over the customer to their advantage. Up to a point, you should be OK with this: you want your channel to have great relationships with your shared customers.
But you make a serious mistake if you allow your channel to be your only connection to your customers. If this happens, whether by lack of focus on your part or by allowing your partners to elbow you aside, you lose.
- You lose the ability to deliver your story, your positioning and other key messages, clearly, accurately and with maximum impact.
- You lose the ability to establish credibility and authority with your customers as a thought leader capable of articulating a vision for how the forward trajectory of your business can help theirs.
- You lose the ability to engage your customers in your innovation process. (I wrote about this here.)
- You lose the opportunity to hear, directly and unfiltered, the “voice of the customer” — what they think about you, what’s working, and what needs improvement.
- You lose the ability to establish human relationships with the very people will determine your future success or failure.
All together too much to lose.
Thoughts of this came to mind recently in a discussion with another tech CEO. He was explaining the current problems he and his team were tackling. They sounded like they were related to the sort of “losses” I listed above.
I asked, “How often do you, personally, meet with your top end user customers?” His hesitation alone told the story, but he went on to answer, “hardly ever… our (SI) channel is very powerful, they pretty much keep us out. Further, we’re only a relatively small part of the solution that our customers’ actually buy.”
I pointed out the perspective shared above, and suggested that, even in cases such as his where your products comprise only a fraction of the total solution, it is possible to create and sustain a meaningful dialogue with your end customers.
I suggested a few specific ideas:
- Develop a narrative that is centered on exactly how the distinctive characteristics of your products have impact on his business, expressed in his terms.
- Expand that narrative by developing and articulating a vision as to how your future products will enable your customer to create strategic advantage in coming years.
- Aim high: find out what your customer’s CEO cares about and is working on. (A visit to their web site, and some time on Google should make this pretty straightforward.) Make sure your narratives link to these C-level issues.
- Then, as CEO of your company, reach out the theirs, and suggest the benefits of a one hour meeting to share ideas about his goals can be furthered by what you’re enabling today, and tomorrow. If you’re small and the customer’s large, you may get pushed down a level or two. That’s OK. With the CEO’s blessing, a meeting with middle management can be very effective. But try to secure participation by the most senior business owners possible.
- Suggest that such meetings should be held no less frequently than annually, given your pace of innovation and other dynamics in the business.
- Finally, involve your channel partner in the meetings, so that they don’t feel cut out, and you present a coherent and aligned message.
I know from personal experience over many years that these approaches work. Try them, you'll see.