RPA Has A Partner Channel Problem
By Joe Labbe on November 4, 2019
Today, during a call with a new KnowledgeLake partner, the person with whom I was speaking said, “Seems like we partnered up with you at the right time. You must be pretty happy about the UiPath stumble.” I must admit, when I first heard the news, the devil perched on my shoulder tried to whip up an unhealthy batch of schadenfreude. However, thank goodness my better angels won out. I responded, “While you’re correct about partnering with us at the right time, that timing has nothing to do with any potential problems at a competitor. Rather, it has everything to do with how we select and treat our partners.”
While the RPA hype machine is in overdrive, in practice, it’s still a fledgling discipline whose potential far outweighs its history of success. For those of us who’ve toiled in this domain for many years (sixteen years for me), the benefits of RPA are obvious. Yet for those new to the game, which is still most, the collection of technologies, techniques, and methodologies we now call RPA can be a bit daunting. The ROIs touted are impressive, the analyst praise is mighty, and the number of new vendors and “seasoned practitioners” entering (and often confusing) the space is growing like wildfire. And on top of it all, this stuff is supposed to be so easy a caveman can do it…assuming you have an army of expensive consultants in the cave along with you. So, if this stuff is so powerful, so easy and can be applied, well, seemingly everywhere, then why for every success story in the trades, there’s also a story about project failure rates or scaling problems? Now, add to that a stumble by the market’s most visible player, and it’s easy to see why customers might want to step back, take a breath, and reassess. Which, of course, would be a mistake.
I can’t speak to most of the specifics of the UiPath news from last week. I have no inside information. I know their tech is solid, their leadership team has always struck me as decent (based on my work with them from 2009 – 2013 at Deskperience), and I know that the value RPA delivers to customers who’ve implemented it properly (and at the right price) is real. However, since we do recruit and work with the same types of channel partners, I do feel qualified to write about the grumblings I’ve heard among its partner ranks and the customers they serve: grumblings related to the toll hypergrowth can take on the channel and the quality of work it delivers. This is important because no matter how much investment dollars an organization has, scaling a software business is difficult without a solid partner channel: Partners who know their customers and requirements best and serve as trusted guides in times of great market opportunity and tumult.
One more point before we move on. While the UiPath news is prompting my post about partner channels, the points made below are not exclusively targeted at them. I think part of RPA’s growing pains is the way in which relatively new software companies, who are experiencing stratospheric growth, are selecting and enabling their partners to deliver customer solutions. As an industry, we need to get back to partner channel basics and best practices to improve quality and results. To this end, let’s look at some of the best practices we’ve employed when building our partner channel.
Channel Building and Management Best Practices
Pick a Pro to Build and Lead the Channel
During the hypergrowth phase, everything seems easy and everyone is a genius. Deals flow effortlessly and partners want in. But you know this will not always be the case. This time WILL NOT BE DIFFERENT. As the euphoria fades and direct sales teams churn, the one constant we should be able to rely upon is our partner channel (assuming we’ve chosen our partners wisely and treated them well). Picking them wisely and managing them well starts with the person at the top. During the go-go days, there’s a temptation to gratuitously fill that spot by merely picking a good talker, i.e. a person who makes partners feel like they’re getting in on something big and everything is going to be smooth sailing. What these newly-minted alliance managers were hawking the month before they took the job seems almost irrelevant. They’re here now, telling the story, getting folks in the door, and getting paper signed…easy work. But that never lasts. The person leading your partner network needs to be a seasoned pro who understands the market, the partner mentality, and how to deal with the chaos and conflict a channel inevitably brings. Taking your partner network seriously starts by putting a serious pro in charge who’s been there, done that.
Commit to the Channel
Successful software companies do not “dabble” in a channel. If you’re going to take the time and effort to build a channel, you need to commit to that channel. This does not mean merely taking partners’ calls only when they have a deal, or only calling them to throw them a cold, crappy lead the direct sales team has already passed on. We demonstrate our commitment by doing the following:
Recruiting Responsibly. We must recruit and enable partners that are up to the task. These partners will become extensions of our brand. They will deliver services in our name and serve as a valuable set of eyes and ears in the market. Do not for numbers' sake select partners you know will fail or put them in a program that does not match their abilities just because they have a deal today. Vet and recruit the best. Be as selective at selecting partners as you hopefully are at picking vendors (which is a post for another day).
Enabling Them for Success. Once we’ve selected a partner, we need to set them up for success. Enablement and training programs must be established that teach the new partner how to:
- Identify relevant opportunities – do not let them treat RPA as the hammer that makes every project look like a nail. Apply RPA where it’s a fit and delivers unique value. RPA applied to the wrong use cases or customers not prepared to play are doomed to fail.
- Sell the product – partners need to clearly understand how to market and price our offering. However, despite our best efforts, there will be slip-ups. Don’t let pricing slip-ups sour early deals. That’s not a good way to start the relationship. But, if they do slip up—unless they are trying to cheat the system—it's probably our fault for failing to enable them properly. Don’t fight over it, eat the difference, and retrain the partner. Remember, the true strength of a partnership is revealed during the hard times, not the good. The skin-in-the-game thing goes both ways.
- Deliver solutions – partners need to embrace our methodology when working with our offering. If they have other ideas on how to implement our solution, we should either incorporate their good ideas into our process or find another partner. If you want consistent success, this is non-negotiable.
- Support the solutions they deliver – Since RPA is often sold and managed in production by end-user groups, it is critical that the partner remediate automation issues quickly and completely. The partner must be well trained on how to either perform or instruct others how to perform the Production Manager role since deficiencies in this area is the number one reason why RPA initiatives fail. RPA Production Management as a managed service is a great opportunity to drive additional value from a deal and expand use within a client. Providing a managed service is a great way to stay close to the customer. We don’t want ring and run partners.
Compensate Them Well. Great partners are worth their weight in gold, so show them the gold when they earn it. And by gold, I don’t mean just giving them good margins on deals. I also mean passing them good opportunities they are particularly well-equipped to deliver upon, giving them on-going training at our expense, and remaining flexible to help them be competitive in every serious deal. Again, if you’ve recruited and enabled them properly, they are doing the heavy lifting so make sure every deal they consider is worthwhile.
Be Honest with Them. Regarding our offerings, we should serve as the sole source of truth for partners. Our partners are making representations about us to prospects and customers, so, it is crucial we give them the full and honest story about the breadth of our offering, any shortcomings that lie within, and a realistic understanding of the product roadmap. Most partners are willing to work with us around the landmines. They just need to know where they are.
Arbitrate, But Remain Impartial. It is inevitable that conflict will arise in the channel, be it with our direct sales force or competing partners. While we will not able to please everyone all the time, we should be prepared to act decisively while giving everyone a fair shake. To this end, we should do the following:
- Make it clear how to register deals and commit to the registration rules.
- Do not play favorites. Support each partner equally in a deal and only pick a side once someone has a clear advantage.
- Split deals along areas of expertise where possible, but don’t invite too many chefs into the kitchen.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Clear, substantive, and frequent communications are the key to keeping a partnership on track. These conversations are important because they allow you to informally address:
- offering changes that better enable partners to sell, deliver, and support
- address industry trends
- quash rumors that can spread like wildfire among the ranks (remember, your partners talk to each other all the time and they’re often talking about you).
As you can see, I strongly believe an organization’s partner channel should reflect the vendor itself. Those partners should: pursue the kinds of opportunities where the vendor’s offerings fit best (be they revolve around industry or technological domains), implement solutions in a manner and method that are poised for success, and support the solution in ways that make the solution durable. Unfortunately, hypergrowth breeds the kind of hubris where even the rules of market gravity are questioned. That’s not good. And if that hubris spreads to our channel strategy, we’re going to end up with a lot of unhappy customers. If RPA and its cousins, intelligent automation and digital transformation, are to succeed in the long-term, software vendors need to send forth a network of partners who are happy warriors, up to the task, and know we’ve got their back. Unfortunately, in the RPA space, some of us have forgotten that precept—hence the current trough of disillusionment.
KnowledgeLake provides content management solutions that help busy organizations intelligently automate their most important document processes. Since 1999, we've created award-winning, Microsoft-centric solutions that have helped thousands of companies around the world focus on their mission rather than their mission-critical documents.
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