Guest Column | December 15, 2015

Stop Reacting: How To Become a Differentiated Channel Partner Through Proactive Customer Experience

Will Carter and Brandon Mills, managers at ZS

By Will Carter and Brandon Mills, managers at ZS

The truth can hurt. But as channel partners, you must face the fact that you need to change the way you do business to be successful in today’s IT landscape. 

IT customers are increasingly in need of solutions, not products — and they often want those solutions delivered in a cloud-subscription or “as-a-Service” model. Combined with the ever-decreasing margins on traditional resale, your success (or failure) will be based on your ability to provide services that retain existing customers, drive recurring revenue, and attract new customers. 

The customer experience (CX) is often the best tool you have to differentiate yourself in the market. You must get ahead of your customers and deliver innovative experiences that meet or exceed their expectations. If you fail to do so, other channel partners (and, very likely, vendors) will step in and change the game, rendering you irrelevant. 

Take, for example, a large VAR that has appeared on CRN’s Solution Provider 500 list. It was blindsided when a multinational information services company that had been a customer for more than five years decided to take its entire business elsewhere. The customer felt that the incumbent partner wasn’t able to deliver excellent CX in a cloud services model. Despite having exceptional products and services that could continue to meet its client’s needs, this VAR lost all of the business when the client’s chief information officer decided that a smaller, more nimble solution provider would be better able to develop a comprehensive hybrid cloud strategy.

Many partners lack a systematic approach to designing and managing CX, and instead rely on old-school, informal and reactive tactics (e.g., gathering after-experience feedback from customers). While we certainly suggest you continue to utilize voice of customer (VOC) programs to collect customer feedback, consider these three ways to further elevate your game and differentiate your business through a proactive CX.

  1. Co-Create With Customers. The shortest path to a successful CX is the path traveled together.  Too many IT channel partners guess what their customers want and then invest resources to make corrections after they get customer feedback. This is the definition of reactive CX! 

Think about the last time you revamped your sales process or constructed a customer engagement plan. If you are like most B2B companies, you spent more than 80 percent of your time thinking about “internal plumbing” and, at best, included a few customer touch points throughout the process. How different would your final solution be if you brought your customers in at the beginning, and kept them at the table throughout?

There’s a lot to learn from B2C industries that have used co-creation methodologies for decades. These companies have started to migrate from what began as product co-creation to experience co-creation. If the idea of experience co-creation feels too daunting, start small. Bring together two to three of your “friendliest” customers and focus first on a very small part of their customer journey. Over time, you will gain comfort with design-thinking principles, and you will realize the benefits of jointly constructed experiences that elicit customer support and satisfaction from the outset.

  1. Collaborate With Strategic vendors. IT customers expect to have a seamless experience throughout the customer life cycle, no matter if they engage with you or the vendor — and no matter how they engage (e.g., face-to-face, online, or on the phone). As a result, there is no longer a single “owner” of the end-to-end CX in IT.

For IT channel partners, there has historically been a lack of collaboration, and often conflict, with vendors when it comes to “owning” the CX. The irony is that you are likely quite aligned with your vendors when it comes to the desired end state of CX design — and realize that happy customers are valuable to both of your businesses.

Therefore, it will benefit all parties to find opportunities to work together more effectively, and to do so with greater transparency. Make better use of marketing, sales, and support content provided by your vendors to help create the consistent experience that you want for your customer. Collaborate with your vendors on strategic account plans to proactively identify growth opportunities and mitigate the risk of churn. Better partner with your vendors to gather and share end customer insights to influence proactive planning. These are just a few examples of ways you can collaborate more closely with strategic vendors to start creating a proactive (vs. reactive) CX.

  1. Leverage Data Analytics. Over the last few years, we have all heard about the massive opportunity Big Data represents for improving customer experience. But the challenge is in unlocking that potential. The volume and velocity of data on IT customers can be overwhelming, coming from traditional and digital sources both inside and outside of your company. 

Even businesses that have been able to identify the right data to capture across multiple channels (and have managed to integrate it all on the back end) struggle to turn that data into actionable insights that can positively impact CX. By finding ways to more effectively leverage the IT customer data available, you can transition your business from reacting to customer needs to proactively predicting and managing the experience.

Analyze the data you have today about the CX to identify indicators of customer intent, such as readiness to buy (e.g., new purchase, upgrade, renew) and potential service issues (e.g., customer satisfaction, remote monitoring). When you identify these indicators, you can establish procedures to notify the right people in a timely manner so that they can proactively engage the customer and ensure a positive CX.

You should also leverage predictive analytics to optimize allocation of marketing and sales efforts, more accurately forecast performance, and proactively identify opportunities and risks within your customer base. All of this enables you to more proactively meet the needs of your customers and provide them positive experience.

IT channel partners realize that the world is changing. Current practices are not sufficient to maintain (and grow) business in the future. While good services and offerings will remain table stakes, the companies that surpass all others will be more defined by experience excellence than product/service excellence. To start moving toward experience excellence, you must change your orientation from reactive CX response to proactive CX design and delivery. 

Will Carter is a manager at global sales and marketing firm ZS in Chicago and is a leader within ZS's customer experience and voice of customer practice. Carter’s specific areas of expertise include B2B and B2C customer insights and customer experience analytics, voice of customer programs, marketing strategy, qualitative and quantitative customer research, opportunity assessment, and market segmentation.

Brandon Mills is a manager at global sales and marketing firm ZS in San Mateo, California, and is a leader in ZS's high tech practice. Brandon helps clients execute multichannel go-to-market strategies to drive marketing and sales effectiveness across the end-to-end B2B buying journey.  He has over seven years of consulting experience, delivering data-driven actionable insights for leading global organizations.