June 2014 Feature

The Rise of Concierge Services in the Channel

Opportunities and Challenges for Channel Leaders

by Hobart Swan

Juliann GrantIn today’s channel landscape, partner engagement and loyalty is key to success. And while manufacturers have been very good about building relationships with their top-tier partners, they have often found themselves lacking when it comes to meeting the needs of their second- and third-tier partners.

In this article, CCI looks at the increasing popularity of channel concierge services. The series is based on a conversation between Chris Becwar, CCI’s Director of Marketing, and Juliann Grant, Vice President of Marketing at eCoast Marketing.

Founded in 2000 with only five employees, eCoast Marketing now has over 150 full-time employees and has successfully executed demand generation programs for thousands of technology companies and their partners. eCoast was one of the early practitioners of concierge partner marketing.

 

Taxi, ma’am?

Usually, when people think of “concierge” services, they think of that nice person behind the desk in the hotel lobby. Need to get a button sewn on? Ask the concierge. Want to know where to get a good meal? Ditto. (Sure you could go stand on the curb and wave your arms around in the pouring rain trying to snag a taxi. But leave it to the concierge and you stroll calmly out the hotel doors and into your waiting cab.) Just like hotel concierges, Grant says, good concierge marketing services have the knowledge and the skills to make life easier for vendors.

“Almost every week I read about the growing interest in partner-lead initiatives, partner-level support,” Grant says. “Whether it’s Dell, HP, Cisco—and now, much smaller manufacturers—they’re all trying to drive more business through the partners. In this scenario, concierge programs serve as an interface between vendors and their partners—especially the second- and third-tier partners.”

In a moment, we’ll get into the nitty gritty of what concierge services actually do. But overall, Grant says, these services can accelerate and improve communication between vendors and partners. They can give vendors a window into what the partner community really needs, what really works, and what’s really going on at the partner level. They can help design, execute, and measure partner marketing programs. And in general, they can make it easier for a vendor to deliver better service to its partner community. And in a world where most vendors must fight ever more tenaciously to gain mindshare among partners, that’s a very good thing.

The 80:20 Rule Rises Again

The first question many vendors ask when introduced to the idea of concierge services is: why shouldn’t we just do this all in house? For top-tier partners who represent a significant portion of a manufacturer’s channel business, this probably makes sense—especially when those partners have internal marketing departments capable of planning and executing strategic marketing strategies.

But as Forrester Research noted in its 2013 report, The 10 Most Innovative Partner Co-Marketing Tactics:

“Many partners fail to develop communications strategies, market positions, or effective brands because of limited marketing prowess. They require heavy hand holding from B2B partner marketers when it comes to perfecting their traditional marketing efforts and when adapting new digital marketing techniques…”

This is precisely where concierge marketing services come into play. Because while the vendor may have the internal marketing staff to create and executing strategic plans for top-tier partners, they rarely have the head count to do the same for even a small portion of lower-tier partners.

Grant says that it really comes down to the way concierge services can help vendors support the 80 percent of their partners that aren’t producing the revenues or hitting the targets they had projected at the beginning of the year—but who, as a group, are important to the vendor’s ability to hit their overall sales targets.

Loyalty Is Built on Understanding

There are many measures for channel partner success: how closely the partner’s business plan mirrors the vendors, whether they have or are actively acquiring the expertise to sell new products and services, and the amount of revenue the partner delivers. But with so many vendors vying for the attention of so many partners, one measure has taken on increased importance: the degree to which a partner is loyal to the vendor.

Loyalty requires a certain degree of familiarity. The first way concierge services can help vendors achieve channel partner success, Grant says, is by helping them get to know their partners better.

“Vendors know their top-tier partners pretty well because they talk to them all the time,” she says. “It’s the ones that they don’t talk to all the time that are the problem. Without constant contact, vendors can lose the connection about what’s important to partners and what kind of support they need.”

Helping Vendors Get More Out of Their Partners

The foundation of partner loyalty is a vendor’s ability to know and understand the needs of its partners. Some concierge partners go to great lengths to help vendors attain this knowledge.

It is not uncommon, Grant says, for the concierge managers at eCoast to conduct surveys to assess where a specific partner stands in terms of marketing resources and the ability to execute marketing programs. The concierge manager assigned to a specific partner would administer the survey and tabulate results. The manager would then bring together the vendor’s partner manager or channel account manager and the partner to review the results. Finally, the manager would prescribe specific marketing services for the partner.

Nice, But a Little Long in the Sleeves

Grant says she does not use the term “prescribe” lightly in this context. As opposed to off-the-shelf solutions, marketing prescriptions are customized per partner. After all, she says, getting to know a partner better doesn’t do a vendor much good if the vendor (by means of its contracted concierge service) doesn’t have the capacity to treat each partner as a unique entity.

“Most concierge services are good about understanding an individual partner’s needs,” Grant says. “But some don’t actually prescribe solutions. Instead they just help implement the marketing program orders the partner has placed on a portal. The better the concierge program, the more consultative it will be. Because one size most definitely does not fit all when it comes to working with partners in the channel.”

Aligning Partner Actions with Vendor Goals

Concierge services can be seen as a single—though very important—step in the maturation of a vendor’s channel program. The overarching goal for vendors should be to help partners from the top tier on down learn how to create and execute intelligent, strategic marketing plans. Acquiring those skills, Grant says, can require a lot of up-front hand holding.

The need for this kind of coaching is becoming clear, she says, as many vendors are building out their portals to give partners the ability to choose ready-to-implement online marketing programs.

“In my experience,” Grant says, “when you get on the phone with a partner and learn that they’ve just ordered package X from the portal, you often discover that the package doesn’t address the goal they’re trying to achieve. They think they know what they need… but they don’t.”

In other cases, she says, vendor-created programs simply don’t fit a partner’s customer base. “So then you get these disconnects where a partner will say, ‘That’s all well and good. But a program like that is never going to fly for my customers.’”

Grant says that concierge services are designed to help both the vendor and the partner understand what realistic goals for that partner might look like. And since part of their job is to understand the vendor’s long-range plans, concierge managers can work with the partner to develop campaigns that will reach their goals—and that the vendor will be willing to fund. Concierges must always keep the vendor’s needs at top of mind, she says, while helping partners learn how to develop strong, strategic marketing plans.

“The approach we’re trying to take at eCoast is to become more service oriented; to put the right things in place to achieve the right partner goals—and the vendor’s goals as well. Because, honestly, what’s the point of running a channel program where the partners don’t have the tools to succeed—or where their marketing efforts don’t align with what the vendor is doing? Then nobody’s happy, and what’s the point of that?”

Most Partners Know They Need Help

At the end of the day, Grant says, pre-packaged plans from a portal can’t help but be tactical (for example, executing a tele-prospecting campaign to a new list). What benefits partners more is helping them develop strategic approaches to their marketing efforts.

Grant offers the example of a partner who wants to hold a local event. With the support of a concierge manager, she says, the partner can create a plan that will support and build on the success of that event. Without such help, the partner may be more inclined to take a kind of rifle shot approach to the event, executing a one-off program not tied to continuing activities.

“Many partners understand their shortcomings in this regard,” Grant says, “and have told us that they’re more than willing to let someone else step in and take control. But they want to feel confident that things are happening on their behalf. This requires ongoing partner communications throughout the program, not just at the beginning—but as the campaign progresses and problems must be brainstormed, and then at the end when it’s time to measure the results and report them to the vendor. That is the job of the concierge.”

Teaching Partners to Think Long Term

Most vendors want their partners—all of their partners—to get better at running their businesses. And many of them see the investment in concierge services as a means to this end. But as Grant says, many vendors fall victim to the “if we build it, they will come” fallacy.

“When some vendors are starting a channel program, they’re just so excited and think that every single partner is going to want to participate. But the reality is that you will rarely be the only company the partner is engaged with. No matter how great you think your partner program is, the partner simply may not have the time to participate in it.”

For overworked partners, a vendor’s program may represent just another portal to learn, another set of assets to wade through. Providing online digital marketing tools is great, Grant says, but that means the partner still has to own the execution. And the problem is that most partners don’t have the bandwidth to do it.

“If a partner is able to execute a marketing program at all, the odds are that it’s going to be tactical and not strategic. And, unfortunately, when you’re operating marketing at a strictly tactical level, it’s usually going to fail.”

Concierge programs, Grant says, are all about making sure that partners start to think and run their businesses more strategically. That translates into a superior partner experience—and vendor channel marketing dollars spent more intelligently. Concierges can help channel program managers successfully meet common program objectives such as partner participation, pipeline generated via programs delivered, number of leads generated, individual program execution results and rolled-up results, and last but not least, ROI for every dollar spent.

Don’t Spread Concierge Services Too Thin

As we noted in our 2014 white paper, Key Scorecarding Practices for Channel Success: Top 10 Scorecarding Metrics, most vendors work with hundreds, if not thousands, of partners. Very few vendors have the capacity to deal one-on-one with more than a handful of their partners. The same is true of concierge service providers. Vendors must carefully select a small subset of partners that hold promise of delivering good ROI from the concierge investment.

When considering which partners to team up with a concierge service, Grant says that it’s important to seek out those partners who have proven themselves capable of executing marketing programs to the fullest extent possible given the partner’s experience and staffing.

Yes, Grant says, concierge programs are more expensive than partner portals—and by no means replace them. But in this age of personalization, partners want to feel like they are being treated as individuals too. Rather than seeing concierge services as another cost center, vendors would do well to think of them as a necessary investment that will pay off in increased partner revenue and loyalty.

“Concierge services can help vendors expand their ability to get more out of their channel partner communities,” Grant says. “Once a vendor has selected the partners it wants to focus on, it’s up to the concierge to act as a liaison between the vendor and its partners, and to take responsibility for the overall success of subsequent marketing efforts.”