The partner portal has long been an integral part of how channel partners engage with IT vendors.
But with an increasingly diverse partner ecosystem - comprising VARs, cloud and managed service providers, ISVs, consultancies and more - combined with a move towards digital platforms and processes, are today's partner portals failing to offer channel firms what they need to grow their business?
One of the biggest complaints levelled at traditional partner portals is that they haven't evolved in line with partners' needs. They aren't updated regularly enough, or it is difficult or time-consuming to find the information a partner needs quickly.
"Vendors set out with good intentions, but this 'push' of content and tools frequently reflects the vendor's needs and not the partner's," says Robin Wolstenholme, marketing manager at Liferay, which provides a software platform for portals and websites.
Wolstenholme says it's important that partner portals provide value to partners, otherwise they will find other channels to get what they need.
As an example, he said: "A sales rep that can log in and use your tools to self-serve a valid quote for their customer will be more successful than one that has to search a partner marketing repository just to find a generic PDF pricelist."
Another issue is a failure to update content regularly, says Dave Taylor, chief marketing officer at partner relationship management software vendor Impartner.
"What if you went to a news website for five days in a row and the content on that webpage was static and never changed? What are the chances you would keep using that website?" he asks. "And yet companies that sell through the indirect channel do almost quarterly updates to their content. Do they anticipate their partners are going to be interested in coming to their portal to see content changing four times a year?"
Taylor describes the partner portal as "the face of your company to the partner community".
"That's your front door, it's your handshake to your entire partner community. When your partners log in in 2018, they have an expectation that the experience is almost a consumer-grade experience, and very personalised. Rather than just seeing a flood of generic program information, they see what's specific to them."
What do partners need from a portal?
If a vendor is building a partner portal in 2018, "it should reflect the urgency that today's technology market places on channel sales and the impatience we all have as consumers today", says Wolstenholme.
"It must enable partners to make decisions and do business, [so it needs to] provide self-service tools to register deals, get a quote, raise a pre-sales support ticket accessible in one place," he says.
He adds that the portal "doesn't need to be a work of art, but it should be fast, reliable and provide relevant and personalised content and tools".
Additionally, Impartner data shows 83 percent of partners today access the company portal on a mobile device. Therefore, the portal must be able to work on any device and operating system, so sales reps can access the information they need on the go.
Of course, delivering on these goals is more complex for global IT companies that have to serve sometimes tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of partners. The content must be personalised depending on the partners' region, language, tier or the brands and products they represent.
This, says Wolstenholme, can lead to a patchwork of disparate portals and websites, each serving a different purpose or group of people, which quickly becomes unmanageable, leading to outdated content and a disjointed user experience.
According to a published case study, HPE worked with Liferay to overhaul its partner portal after realising that partner interactions "were dispersed across several disjointed portal experiences, scores of online tools and all with different login steps".
"The goal is flexibility and agility to respond to customer needs," Jesse Chavez, VP of worldwide channel strategy and operations at HPE, said. "This includes easy and quick access to information, pricing, incentives and special programs. Secondly, to address the specific needs of our partners with better quoting tools, approval processes and turnaround, product support and access to sales accelerators to drive more sales."
Ultimately, vendors need to ensure their partner portal is enabling partners to attract and retain customers and build a profitable business. They must do this through regularly updated content that's tailored for the partner and easy to access wherever they are and the ability to provide a customer quote quickly and accurately.
"The best portals have a predictable cadence of proactive communication and information coming from the vendor so their partners can react and respond accordingly," says Estelle Johannes, director of member communities at CompTIA.
"Each partner has its own business to run. Each partner is unique and so are their needs. Vendors that understand this - by making their products and services the easiest to sell - are the vendors that partners are most likely to choose."
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