It won’t come as any surprise to you that we’re big advocates of channel training. Whether it’s the thing your incentive program is centered on or just something to supplement an existing points program, channel training and (also called channel enablement) has consistently proven its value as a performance improver across all of the industries we deal in.
So today, let’s spend some time with channel training: why you should be doing it, how to do it right, and how not to do it. But let’s swerve onto an entirely different topic for a second.
There’s a lot we can learn moving forward from the COVID-19 pandemic that’s made this year like none other in recent memory. Here’s one thing: how absolutely, completely done are you with all the messaging about “These uncertain times” and “these unprecedented times?”
At the outset, that kind of phrasing felt like an appropriate way to approach a delicate topic. Times were, after all, quite uncertain and very much unprecedented. But the more that messaging appeared, something about those words started to feel kind of empty, even stale. Originally meant to evoke empathy, that messaging had quickly been reduced to a cliché.
It’s like when you repeat a word over and over until it becomes a meaningless clump of consonants and vowel sounds. “These uncertain times” has become a bit of an in-joke for my family after having seen the 900th car commercial evoking that now-bland phrase. Starbucks telling me times are uncertain quite simply does not make it any easier to get through the day, especially when all I really want to know is whether I can still use their bathroom for free. (Hold all your freeloader millennial jokes about me for now – we’re coming back to them in a bit.)
And here we see one of the problems of being a modern marketer. The general audience, particularly its younger generations, want and expect authenticity. One 2017 survey found that 86 percent of it is respondents felt that authenticity was an important factor in deciding which brands to support, and that number is even higher for millennials at 90 percent. 30 percent of millennials surveyed also reported that they’d unfollowed a brand on social because they found its content to be inauthentic.
While that survey focused on consumers, we can easily extrapolate it to the B2B world. It’s understandable why authenticity feels so important now. The constant barrage of messaging that hits us from all forms of media can get overwhelming, combined with the suspicion that everyone’s trying to steal our data, and the more we see it the more primed we become to recognize what feels sincere and what doesn’t. The line in marketing between genuine and phony is awfully thin. And like Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, we here at HMI strongly dislike phonies.
Sorry for the digression. But the “these uncertain times” example perfectly demonstrates the difficulty of marketing “authentically:” how do you “authentically” target a customer who is already suspicious, and reasonably so, that your ultimate goal is their wallet? Your customers – in the B2B world as well as B2C –are more knowledgeable than ever about your brand and your products.
This is one of the many reasons we recommend channel training for B2B manufacturers and distributors. First, if you haven’t at least considered incorporated training and enablement elements into your channel incentive program, what are you even doing with your life? Channel enablement and training allows your partners to become your top salespeople and brand ambassadors down the line.
Figure out what behaviors, information, or skills your partners need help developing, not only to sell more of your product but to better their own business as a whole. Maybe it’s increasing knowledge and operation of your product; maybe it’s developing their skills as salespeople. Consider offering rewards for engaging in webinars, eLearning modules, and even in-person training sessions (except maybe not that last one right now).
Second, channel training is often a unique and creative way to foster connections and actually deliver that elusive authentic messaging to your customers. Often when we or others discuss channel training, we emphasize the mutual benefit to you and your channel partner. You’re essentially growing your businesses together. Acknowledging and encouraging that growth is an easy and completely honest way to go about your marketing.
Here again, we should point to the influx of the younger generations of workers: a 2016 Gallup poll found that millennials are more hesitant to fully endorse any particular brand, less attached to their current employment and more expectant that partnerships will be mutually beneficial. 87 percent of millennial respondents said that they valued opportunities for professional development. More recent studies have also communicated this trend, with a 2018 survey by LinkedIn finding that its respondents would be less likely to leave a company if it offered opportunities for career training.
The picture is clear: millennials want and expect their own professional development needs to be met at their chosen place of employment, and they value messaging that affirms partnership over transaction. As millennials increasingly fill the workforce, you may start to see these kinds of expectations more and more in your channel partnerships. Companies in your channel may be looking for ways to develop their company culture in a way that benefits everyone involved.
Implementing an incentive program with a channel training apparatus may be just the key here. The beauty of an enablement initiative is its directness: participants know exactly what they’re getting out of it, how it benefits you, and – most importantly – how it benefits them. There’s no ulterior motive, no bland these-uncertain-times messaging that automatically throws up a red flag for those of us who are tired of the same old generic nonsense.
Alright, last research report I’m going to throw at you. Forrester’s 2018 Customer Experience Index found that a key determinant of a successful brand was its ability to provide customers with many “emotionally positive experiences” relative to negative ones. Note the operative word, emotionally positive: these experiences weren’t necessarily connected to saving money or time. While B2C businesses are constantly trying to appeal to a mass of people, B2B companies that work through channels are in an easier position to develop these emotionally positive experiences, whether through salespeople who are more accessible and helpful than a website or through channel training or both.
As we always say, bring it all back to the return on experience. Between economic downturn and reduced person-to-person contact, companies have had to get creative with how they connect to their channel partners and keep their incentive program participants engaged this year. Customers don’t want to feel like a partnership is about nothing but the transaction, a trend that will only increase as millennials take over more of the workforce.
Our current market landscape demands authenticity, but how do you demonstrate your authenticity when everyone’s trying to do the same thing? We hope the answer is clear: if you’re already using a channel incentive program to capture mindshare and increase your brand recognition, incorporating channel training offers you yet another way to connect with your partners and help each other grow, even in these… don’t make me say it.