What if vendors pressed ‘delete’ on traditional partner programs?

I believe this will start happening within the next two years. And here are some questions that I’ve been rolling around for a while that have informed this thinking:

Is ‘partner program’ the right name for the way vendors are operating now and in the future? Have we been constrained by too many rules and barriers, with tiers and types, for too many years?

These definitions are clearly still favored, and very successful, for certain types of indirect GTM. But we also know that some vendors are trying to operate multiple programs at once—a reseller program, an MSP program, a referral program, a tech program, a strategic alliance program, a partnerships program (which is different from a ‘partner’ program!). Is it because there has been a desire to force partners to compete on an even playing field based on a single set of criteria when none of them fit all of it?

The field is becoming less and less even. The game has changed.


There is a more collaborative future ahead

What if we create a self-service experience based on choice? Opted-in incentives and motivation based on partner need, not vendor want. Of course, the ultimate want remains constant: everyone’s success through selling more. But the smaller needs are so different for each partner organization. Opting in and giving choice encourages commitment, supports growth, and celebrates collaboration. Remove the demands and prescription, and have partners identify how much of their own skin they want in the game, but don’t tell them they need to play skins before the whistle has even blown.

For decades, partner programs have been about the vendor, and what partners can do for them. But what if we could influence a mindset change by switching a single letter in the onboarding instruction that so many vendors give to partners, thus creating a welcoming partner program mantra of ‘co-sell’ rather than ‘go-sell’? For example:

“Would you like to partner with us in one or more of the following ‘co-opportunities’: co-market, co-proposition, co-build/develop, co-everything and anything that leads to the ultimate success for both of us, through co-sell?”

A simple change like this amplifies the notion of togetherness and partnership, versus the hierarchical belief system of ‘partners working for vendors’ that has been the case for many years. Unfortunately, even when vendors want partners to join their programs, there is a certain arrogance around the language. In the majority of cases, what should be an open invitation to work together, is a much more instructional event telling organizations to “become a partner” or “join our program”.

We are heading deeper and deeper into an economy of togetherness. This is the era of ‘co-activity’. The light is shining brighter than ever before and the message is being amplified louder and prouder than our space has ever been able to. So, what if instead of signing up to a one-dimensional, vendor-led ‘partner program’, organizations become part of a ‘co-existence’? A genuine, intentional, purposeful move that is the actual foundation of the partnership, and not an activity the partnership executes? For instance, what if co-marketing and/or co-selling were not the activities? What if they were the mindset, the principles around which the activities are built?

What about the ultimate opt-in: offering variable incentives and rewards? The concept of choice, where a personalized calculation of reward for input, effort, contribution, and commitment to the co-existence is the reward. Not the number of boxes ticked on a spreadsheet.

We have seen some steps towards changing the landscape of partner programs last year when Microsoft announced its new points-based program. So whilst is was a good early move to respond to the needs of partners by recognising them for more things that just revenue, it was still vendor-led ‘typing and tiering’, just in a different way. Why do we feel compelled to group and herd when we could create individual experiences? If we engage partners at their level, based on their needs, while building better experiences for them and their customers regardless of ‘type’ of business, surely that would get better results.

My prediction (don’t we just love that word at this time of year?!) is that programs will continue to evolve. It’s unlikely to be in the form of a mass exodus to break the shackles that have restricted partners for years. And, obviously, I know that traditional partner programs have been immensely successful and will continue to be. I just think that as we move on, as the economy of trust and togetherness and partnership evolves, programs are likely to see major change too.

I see openness and individual experience creation becoming a very viable alternative. It won’t replace today’s partner programs altogether, but it will be recognized as an option for vendors to adopt. It’s about choice. Having partners choose, or at least being able to contribute to the choice, will have a dramatic impact on partner experience.

Glenn Robertson

Glenn Robertson

CEO of The Channel Agency: Purechannels
Founder of Nuzoo and Viewpoint | Channel Chief | Agency Leader | CRN A-Lister