SaaS Channel Compensation

Channel Compensation models

Channel Compensation modelsSaaS Channel compensation is one of the hardest things that software vendors are facing today. If you have a nice traditional software business model with good software maintenance revenue and mature channel, you are reluctant to change or touch it. Let’s dive into some of the difficulties that software vendors are experiencing.

I am currently running educational sessions in SaaS channel development where my audience is given the task to present the business case of a channel partner for a given software vendor. We are using Business Model Canvas to model the business. The task that I am giving to my students is to represent the software vendor leadership team that is trying to recruit a channel partner to become a reseller. The way this is done is to present a Business Model Canvas to the channel partner management team.  If the software vendor management team can’t convince the channel partner of the benefits, then the business model is broken.  I have done this exercise with many software vendors and it is one of the most powerful ways to get the software vendor to think about the partner, not about themselves.

I have bad news for you. There are no exact rules what kind of compensation models a software vendor should have for its channel, but what is known is how to calculate whether a business can be profitable for the channel partner using different compensation models. Why is this? The biggest issue that software vendors have is that many of the processes and tasks that the channel partner has taken care of in the past, have now moved back to the software vendor. One of them is the monitoring the cloud infrastructure, provisioning the solution, upgrading the software etc. In the end of the day, it is all about roles and responsibilities that the software vendor and the channel partner have to agree on. The more the software vendor moves responsibilities towards the channel partner, the more margin the channel partner expects to get and this is very typical in the traditional software channel model. The software vendor delivered the CD or download to the channel partner, but in the new SaaS world, the instance is provisioned by the software vendor and the channel partner becomes the “middle man” between the end user customer and the software vendor. Let’s review some of the industry “standard” commission models and some implications around them:

SaaS Channel Margins

If you look at the percentages, the one that is missing is the typical 10% which is really more of an opportunistic percentage that anybody will give out regardless of business model. If you call a software vendor and tell them that you have a lead, they will pay you at least 5%, but 10% is not uncommon.

When you add an additional 10% (now the total is 20%) it adds more interest to the channel partner. The software vendor can not expect any active sales with this percentage and can’t really ask the channel partner to do any serious account management. This is mainly lead generation activity and typically there are other products that the channel partner is reselling as well.

If we add an additional 10 % (now the total is 30%), this is still too small to be able to build an organization and requires the channel partner to have many different products that they are reselling. Larger reseller with deep pockets to build and maintain an organization, 30% is doable.

When the percentage is 40% or more, the software vendor can expect investments from the channel partner and reporting responsibilities on pipeline to the software vendor channel account manager. This type of percentage is also doable for smaller channel partners that want to build a business around the solution and build a dedicated team.

The biggest surprise that most software vendors are facing when we discuss about the roles and responsibilities is the amount of additional work that the software vendor has to take on. In a pure SaaS channel scenario, the border of responsibilities are blurred and the end user customer ends up in many cases in direct relationship with the software vendor. This has been a big no-no in the past for channel partners as they have wanted to “own the client”. However, the reality is that the cloud is changing the roles and channel partners have to make changes in their models as well. This is a behavioral change that is taking place and can be compared with the changes that are taking place how software sales people are compensated. Nobody wants to change the way things were in the past, but the market and competition is forcing the change and the ones that keep doing the same thing as before, will eventually be on the loosing side. We have already seen this in many organizations.

Before talking about channel margins, the software vendor has to decide what kind of role they expect the channel partner to play and then define how much they can afford to give a way of the margin. Some software vendors have even decided that a channel is not an option in their new business model and this is of course an option if the company has the resources to build its business with its own direct sales and internet marketing methods.

 

 

photo by: woody1778a

Is the cloud killing your business?

Is the cloud kiling your business?

Is the cloud kiling your business?Cloud adoption is accelerating and it is also in the process killing many businesses. I read today an interesting blog entry “Are Cloud Vendors Cutting Out the Channel” and this article explains in great detail what is happening on the marketplace in respect to channel partners including value-added resellers (VARs) and MSPs. I remember vividly when Steve Ballmer suggested strongly a few years ago that Microsoft partners should really start adopting the cloud and a couple of years later, he stated that it might in fact soon be too late as the competition is already doing it. Pure channel partners with a business model to resell without adding any value will disappear from the markets.

I have recently talked to quite a few channel partners and the common message that I heard was that the markets are getting tougher and having a business without having a specialty or vertical experience might in fact kill the business sooner than later. I am seeing this also among software vendors that are refusing to adopt the cloud model. There are thousands of new pure SaaS entrants that want to be new market leaders in their domain and many end user organizations are refusing to go with the old-fashioned model where IT departments are the only part of organization that will be buying software and services. Based on the blog entry today, Tiffany Bova from Gartner concludes that many IT consumers are now “front-office buyers” from departments such as sales, marketing, finance, and human services. These departments are bypassing the centralized IT and this type of “uncontrolled” buying pattern will continue going forward in my opinion.

Microsoft management has been vocal to its partner network that every partner should by now be looking at cloud transformation and Kevin Turner (Microsoft COO) expressed his concern during Microsoft Worldwide Conference in Houston (July 2013) that only 3 percent of the company’s channel network was actively selling cloud services and this included products such as Windows Azure and Office 365. These numbers will change with time and I am convinced that there will be many partners that will experience the pressure the hard way. If the channel partner starts too late with the transformation, it might become irrelevant and have the wrong type of personnel with skills that do not match what the market wants. I am sure that somebody reading this blog will not agree with me, but I have seen already now quite a few channel partners that do not know what to do going forward. There is a real need to reboot the business model and rethink how the company will be surviving in the future.

I forecasted a couple of years ago that Sony will not survive the competition of e-books and devices due to many factors, Amazon Kindle being one of them.  A few days ago, I read that Sony will be exiting the business. Sony had its own e-book format and I was one of the ones that spent hundreds of dollars in books, which now will be converted to Kobo Android devices. I have no intention to buy any new devices. The reason I am sharing this is that even large organizations are forced to change the business model every now and then and consumers make wrong bets on the horse that they should be riding.

When I look at the global markets and what is happening around us, the change has accelerated in software domain and it has taken many by surprise. I would not be surprised that we hear bad news from many large industry dominant players in the software space that the transformation into new generation solutions has failed and consumers and businesses have adopted technologies that are more nimble and easy to use. It is very dangerous to ignore the trends and even more dangerous to think that market leadership means anything without hard work to maintain it.

What can we learn from SolidWorks Channel Program–Conclusions

This is the final blog about the case SolidWorks and the channel program and success that that David Skok describes well in his series of blog entries. SolidWorks grew their revenue from $135M to $400M in 5 years and one of the key elements was the channel. In my first blog entry, I described SolidWorks VAR development program, in my second blog I discussed the means how to grow your sales with the channel and in my third blog, I discussed about scoring your channel partners.

When I reflect back on the SolidWorks growth with the situation today with a strong cloud drive, I will draw some conclusions of things that are still valid when building your channel. Lets look at what David Skok concludes in his summary of SolidWorks channel program.

The fallacy of thinking that Channel gets too much money

ISVs tend to forget, that the ISV do not finance the building of the channel partner from a cash flow perspective. If the channel partner hires a couple of sales reps and technical people, the sales of the solution better to work. According to Skok, ISVs fall very easy to the trap thinking that channel partners take too much money from the transaction and that it really should be the ISV that owns the customer relationship. But is it really this way? I hear this more and more from ISVs moving to the cloud where the ISV wants to move the customer relationship to itself and let the channel partner to become more or less the lead generator. I think this is a dangerous proposition from the ISV side specifically in the enterprise side as most end user organizations still expect to have support from the organizations that know the locals and these locals also kind of “own the relationship”. What was interesting that some of the competition had the direct sales force compete with the channel and this is never a good way to grow the business.

SolidWorks took the channel as the route to market, believing and investing in the channel. This investment meant that the SolidWorks had to believe that the channel would bring the needed growth and that SolidWorks had to gain trust in the channel. Without trust, there is no channel. Some organizations have even thought that the channel is loyal to the vendor, but that is just a dream. The channel is loyal as long as they make money. End of discussion.

Building a channel requires hard work – there are no shortcuts to success

The management team picked the strongest and most experienced senior managers with strong operational experience to build and develop a channel. This team had not only seniority, but were also experienced operationally. If the channel person has never sold anything, how do you expect the channel to believe in this person? I would not. I mentioned this in in my previous blog posts that I got reminded this in my younger days when becoming CEO in young age. The SolidWorks VAR channel managers became coaches to the channel, helping to build the business.

It was not easy for the VAR team and the pace was challenging to keep up with and some of these people still had other things to do besides being coaches. According to Skok, one of the learning’s was to understaff the VAR team and reward the success and this also led to a behavior where the VAR managers invested their time to relevant tasks.

The management needs to make a commitment to lead by example. If the management “walk the walk”, how can you expect the line management to do it? Lead by example is the key and this has applied at least in my career. The collaboration between the top management and the VAR team was ongoing with immediate access for discussions and reviews. That is a powerful concept and unfortunately many organizations forget this. Management stare purely on the amount of calls and not asking the right questions why something does not work. If you have a broken model, how can you expect to work in the future?

Building a channel is a road that requires ongoing reviews, changes in direction and deep understanding of the target markets. If the ISV does not have this touch, how can one expect them to lead the channel partners to success? I do not think it will ever work.

The question that we have to ask is whether you need to be a large ISV to afford this type of channel program that SolidWorks created. The answer according to Skok is that the team does not have to be big as long as they are dedicated and know what they are doing. You also have to pick the measurements that you want to track, metrics that apply regardless of geography and culture and this helps everybody to get aligned and speak the same language.

You have to have a long-term view on your channel partners

You should take a long-term view on the channel partner. Do not create “incentive of the month” kind of initiatives. This drives the wrong behavior in your channel partner. Your channel partners should be strategic and this will always require a long-term view.

Would the SolidWorks VAR Channel model work with cloud business?

In the beginning of this blog entry, I said I would reflect if the VAR channel management will change anything when building a channel for cloud VAR channel partners. The answer is no. The same basics will apply, but what needs to change is to get alignment between the ISV and the channel partner and this should be done by comparing the business models side-by-side, looking at the drivers for both sides. In the cloud business, there are multiple new factors that will change and one of the biggest factor is revenue model and this could be a prohibiting factor for the channel partner. Building an organization from recurring revenue streams in the beginning could be challenging and it is also challenging for the ISV.

This concludes the series of blog entries of SolidWorks, a successful ISV that was able to create  strong channel.

A Case Study – Creating a VAR Development Program

This blog entry continues on my first blog entry where I concluded that the channel does not work for the ISV, it is the ISV that has to ensure that the channel has the tools to become successful with the solution itself.

In my second blog entry I highlighted a case study of a successful ISV that was able to grow its business by doing the channel development by identifying an impactful approach where the VAR channel felt that it was a win-win situation for both sides.

In this blog entry I am high lightening the VAR development program (Phase 1) that SolidWorks created for its channel and as I stated in my previous blog, this program was almost like a mini-MBA where the ISV wanted to facilitate and help its VAR channel to run its business more effectively. The program that David Skok highlights in his blog entry as phase 1 of the development program is divided into two main areas: Business Management and Sales Management.

VAR Channel Program-001

From the picture above, the channel assessment was reviewed from these two perspectives and each of these perspectives are divided into smaller components that have relevance specifically when running a VAR business.

Cash is king as they say and I have also experienced this as an entrepreneur. What ISVs tend to forget is that somebody has to fund the activity to build the funnel of the solution that the ISV wants to sell. So lets review the typical steps that we expect to happen when an ISV signs up new channel partner:

  • The ISV wants to ramp up the activities immediately once the deal is signed, which means that VAR technical and sales team needs to be trained and educated of the intransiences of the product and learn how to take objections from the target prospect market segment.
  • The ISV expect the VAR channel marketing team to dedicate resources to start building the funnel and sometimes forgetting that there are other products that they might have in their portfolio.
  • The ISV Channel Account Manager puts effort in getting things going as he/she is the one that will have the pressure of getting first deals going and to ensure that he/she meets the budget.

With all of the effort that has been put into the joint effort, the VAR finally signs its first deal and now everybody can be happy. On top of this, the deal is very sizable and this makes the VAR a bit nervous as there are some financial risks that it now has to carry as it carries the paper with the end user organization.

The project starts, everybody is working hard on getting the client happy but sudden and unexpected issues comes up in the implementation. The customer tells the VAR that it is unacceptable and they will not pay until the software has been fixed. The VAR tells the customer that they do not have the means to fix it as it is the ISV that carries that responsibility. The customer tells the VAR that that is not their problem, the responsibility is with the VAR as that is whom they bought the solution from.

As the invoicing relationship of the solution delivery is between the VAR and the end user organization, the VAR runs into issues as an invoice has already been issued from the ISV and they want to get paid.  This puts the VAR management to sweat and now they really understand the consequences of this and need to do something about it.  The ISV wants to get paid, but the channel partner has not got paid yet. Worse than this, the software included bugs that the VAR can’t do anything about and has to wait for a fix. The ISV still wants to get paid, no matter what as its view is that this issue has nothing to do with them. I am sure you get the scoop of the vicious circle.

If the ISV is reasonable, they will work with the VAR and the end user customer to get it right, but unfortunately I have seen cases where the VAR has really run into a wall. I can’t imagine how that feels as I run my own business every day and have to consider risks and rewards when conducting the business. In large organizations with huge cash piles, this might not be a problem, but for the majority of ISVs, SIs and MSPs, this could be a huge issue.

The scenario above describes some of the areas where the VAR has to pay special attention when running its business. The number one in business management side is cash flow and how to manage it when dealing with ISVs and purchase management overall. I have run companies with high growth and one of the most pressing issue seems always be cash flow. People want growth, but with growth you need cash flow. Sales in your books does not mean that you have money in your bank account. Having lots of receivables might feel good, but you can’t feed your family with receivables.

The second area is “Sales Capacity” where typically small VARs become the victims of their own success. Skok concludes that a typical successful VAR is where the business owner is number one in sales, but one person does not scale up to grow the company. There needs to be more than one to scale the business. If the owner becomes the gatekeeper, then that becomes the bottleneck for the growth for both the VAR and the ISV.  What a VAR needs is a strong sales manager that can scale the sales, follow and create processes and the owners should keep away from that (my observation).

Also, what is typically undervalued among VARs and ISVs is market research and what sales people tend to use as an excuse for poor sales is that the “market segment is saturated’. Good research includes information about market size, market share, historic customer growth rates and sales coverage etc..

According to Skok, one of the most difficult task that VARs are struggling with is the requitement. I can really believe this. The key for success is to build an interview process to identify the right candidates and even if you become good at this, you will still fail. I have.

What an ISV might see with its channel is that VARs are hiring new employees, but there are more leaving the company that coming in. So what will happen is that the VAR has new people that are learning “the ropes” and then the ones that have learned are leaving for different reasons. The VAR ends up having a situation where the skills don’t meet the demand of the market.

One key thing that is often ignored is to ensure that the employees have a good view of their professional development,  like sales people having strong  product training, presentation training, and  sales management training.

And finally, and probably one of the most difficult tasks: how to manage and review the pipeline that everybody presents to the management. How should the VAR and ISV ensure consistency in the pipeline? One of the key things for both ISV and VAR is to create a standardized view on the pipeline, not based on each and every sales persons personal definition which is typically biased to his/her own preferences.

The question is what kind of deliverables can an ISV and VAR expect from both Business and Sales Management exercise? The way Skok defines them is in following way:

VAR Channel Program-002

It is obvious that each one of these need to be worked on and each ISV will have to estimate how much to put effort into this exercise. Also, what something might work for one organization, could be very different for another.

The next phase of this case study I will discuss about the way that the case study ISV segmented and categorized its VARs and their ability to grow. Stay tuned for more.

Do you know how to work and build a software sales channel?

If you are a software business, sooner or later you have to consider a sales channel for your growth. It does not matter whether you are in traditional software business or considering a cloud business, you will probably end up having a channel in some shape or form. Some cloud solutions might be simple enough to be able to deploy without a local consulting practice getting involved in the delivery, but most enterprise level software solutions will still require a middle-man that knows the end user client and is able to do onsite consulting. There is no substitute for local support and partners that have access to an ecosystem that the software vendor would never have access to.

Is your current organization capable of supporting a channel?

Building a sales channel will have to fit into your strategy and my recommendation is to use some type of strategy framework (like Dr. Osterwalder Business Model Canvas) to identify how each functional area in your company plays in a possible channel scenario. Do you have the right people supporting the channel? Is your product strong enough for a channel and do you have the right skills to penetrate new geographical areas that could possibly include other language versions of your product? Do you know how to manage 24/7 support if you sell cross different continents?  Does your current management and operations understand international business? How does your current software/solution delivery model aligned with a channel sales model? Does your product support the correct compliance rules of the geographies that you are going to address?

The questions above are just the beginning of the questions that the software ISV has to respond to when entering new markets. Each of these markets could potentially lead into additional complexities that the software vendor did not know at the time of decision making of the new market. However, the potential resellers in these markets will eventually ask the questions and you’d’ better be prepared to have the right answers.

Do you have a robust channel program for your prospective resellers?

Do you have a good and profitable program for your channel partners? We are seeing a transition from traditional software business model to cloud model, but the foundations of channel rewarding will still stay the same. If the channel does not see enough of an opportunity to invest in your software solution and in its sales, you are out of luck in trying to convince the reseller or distributor prospect to take on the product into their solution portfolio.

There is no success without showing success yourself. As an ISV (Independent Software Vendor), you have to show how to make money to convince the channel that it is worthwhile to put effort into the sales of your software solution. This was something I learned very early in my sales career as a young CEO of a US-based software company. One very experienced reseller on US West Coast asked me bluntly how many deals I had personally closed when I approached him to resell my software solution.  Had I said none… the discussion would have been very short.

My recommendation to all ISVs, regardless of the software domain, is to demonstrate your own sales success before trying to solicit channel partners to replicate your success. It is naïve to think that a pure channel sales model would bring you success. It has to be a combination of direct sales and channel sales that bring either success or failure in your efforts. If somebody claims otherwise, ask them to provide evidence of a model with only channel sales as revenue source.

Having a channel sales strategy could become very effective specifically in cases where an ISV wants to broaden its sales to new markets/geographies. Typically, the ISV has already some experiences in its own native country of the sales and the sales processes and what it takes to become successful. This is also a basic requirement in trying to get others to sell your solution. The success in local ecosystem should be easier and also become the “beta site” for any other markets. If you can’t demonstrate success in our own backyard, why would you be able to do it in a remote geography?

Do not underestimate the resources a reseller has to invest in selling your product

In many of the cases, software vendors forget that setting a reseller or distribution business will require the very same resources as the ISV would have to have in its own sales operations. If you have pre-sales resources in your organization, it is to expect to have the same requirements for your reseller. If you have a need for inside sales force, the same requirement will apply to your reseller partner. In cases, where the solution requires solution delivery, the reseller has to provide resources in solution delivery or create a partnership with a local partner organization that enables a successful delivery of a solution.

Do you know how to reward your channel?

How much should you pay your sales channel when closing deals? How much commitment do you expect your resellers to put on your product? It still amazes me to find software vendors (ISVs) that assume the distribution channel to be OK with commissions such as 10% with the assumption that the distribution channel will invest in the sales of the product. How many companies do you know that can live with 10% and create an organization to support the ISV’s product for 10%? I do not know any. Many reseller partners expect commission ranging from 30 to 50 percent to be able to create an organization that delivers a solution and promotes the product. If the commission is 10%, we are typically talking about referrals, where an opportunity name is given to the software vendor and the vendor is running with the sales effort without any interaction from the organization that gave the referral. What the ISV tends to forget is that there are tens of other solutions that the very same reseller community gets solicited on and therefore your value proposition and attractiveness has to appeal from get-go.

The cloud will change the channel models sooner or later

There will be new rules in software channel sales when working in the cloud era and I will be addressing these in later blog entries. Jeffrey M. Kaplan from THINKstrategies makes some predictions of what is going to happen in 2011 in the cloud era and one of the key elements will be the implementation of new channel programs with new channel partners that will compete of the same space as the more classic resellers that we have seen in the more traditional software sales business models.

I would like to emphasize that it is unrealistic to expect the channel to disappear, but what every software vendor in the cloud arena needs to figure out is to create enough value proposition to channel partners (like resellers and distributors) to be able to build a solid and profitable business. The componentization of the software and new models of software consumption will have ever lasting impact on software ecosystems.

I have to say that this new cloud era excites me tremendously as we get to see new exciting innovation and new business models from new players.  Some players are trying to eat into more established vendors such as BranchOut trying to take on Linkedin as a new way of business networking. BranchOut uses the huge database of Facebook to build a new view to business connections. I expect this type of new innovation to continue and Facebook to also become a greater platform for other social functions besides “connecting” with friends.