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Channel partner account manager role is due for a refresh

As change continues to sweep through the IT industry and channel ecosystem, vendors need to evolve the functions of partner account managers to keep up with the times.

Adapting to the pace of change has become a moving target in the tech world, and the IT channel is not immune. In the past five-plus years, the IT landscape has rapidly transformed thanks to trends such as the proliferation of cloud computing, emerging technologies and the rise of different buying and selling behaviors. The traditional channel ecosystem, at the same time, has seen the advent of new partner business types like born-in-the-cloud businesses, digital consultants and master agents. Taken together, these market dynamics have promoted the retooling of channel partner account manager roles.

Partner firms are demanding more from the vendor engagement process than ever before. Channel consultancy PartnerPath believes vendors must transition partner account manager (PAM) functions within the next five years to focus less on managing partner programs and more on forging strategic business partnerships, said Diane Krakora, CEO.

In fact, the job title needs a makeover as well, Krakora said. She proposes revising the title of PAM or channel account manager to partner development manager (PDM), because "the position is more focused on managing and helping partners with strategic business management and investment decisions."

As the channel ecosystem shifts, the PAM role must become useful to a broader swath of partners, added Carolyn April, senior director of industry analysis at CompTIA. She pointed out that, generally, only a limited number of partners in vendor partner programs receive access to PAMs or dedicated accounts managers. Vendors typically offer PAM access to large channel firms that invest the most resources into the alliance and meet certain sales quotas, she said.

"It's only when [partners] reach the higher rung [of the partner program's tiers] do they have a dedicated PAM," April noted. "It's presented as a benefit as you move further up the program tiers."

Thom DeVosThom DeVos

The channel partner account manager role is growing in importance and impact. The PAM shoulders the burden of ensuring partners and their subagents are educated on the evolution of the IT market, digital transformation and how to adopt data-driven decision-making processes, said Thom DeVos, vice president of client services at channel strategy consultancy JS Group.

Krakora likened the changing role of PAMs to becoming a "proactive quarterback" in the vendor's channel relationships.

Modern skill sets for channel partner account managers

PAMs today must have senior executive skills, a deep understanding of partner business models and a strong background in building team relationships, according to a PartnerPath whitepaper on the subject. Modern PAMs, or PDMs as PartnerPath calls the role, are more proactive and strategic in their partner recruitment efforts, the report states.

Diane KrakoraDiane Krakora

"The future PDM helps to understand … prospective partner's business model [and determine] where they can play or grow with that vendor," Krakora said. The PDM should support that solution provider's engagement with the vendor, she added.

Modern PAMs must have business skills to assist channel firms that are shifting business models from transactional revenue to recurring revenue and moving to cloud business, April agreed. "Also, as partners are making commitments to new tech offerings, a PAM should understand [those offerings] as well," she said. "And, if a partner is specializing in a specific vertical and needs help getting there, a dedicated PAM should understand that."

DeVos said that while PAM roles need to adapt to the changing industry, he isn't yet seeing a lot of movement on that front. However, if PAMs don't understand buyers' preferences and priorities today and the move to services-oriented business models, "the old saying, 'My customers know me and my partners know me,' isn't going to be relevant anymore," he said.

Carolyn AprilCarolyn April

Echoing Krakora and April, DeVos said that while a few years ago PAMs were very involved in the day-to-day of sales, "now they have to be much, much more of a business strategist and digital advisor and be involved in the highest levels in channels." PAMs must advocate for their partners and inform their executive leaderships about what they are seeing and hearing in the field. That way, they can understand what the partner's strategy is "and move the business forward in a scientific and strategic manner," he said.

How vendors use PAMs today

Josh LewisJosh Lewis

Data analytics platform provider Alteryx has 21 channel managers who work directly with approximately 250 active partners. Josh Lewis, vice president of global channel sales at Alteryx, said he tends to align PAMs with large sales teams or regions. As the company moves into a new country, Lewis said he typically deploys a PAM to help with regional market expansion, along with a direct seller and a pre-salesperson.

Alteryx engages value-added resellers and referral partners. "The majority of our partners are providing professional services around the Alteryx platform as well as end-user training," Lewis said.

Alteryx's partner account managers are not assigned to work with one partner type exclusively. For its recruitment efforts, Lewis stressed that Alteryx is seeking a small number of partners that best fit its go-to-market strategy, rather than forge more transactional relationships with hundreds of partners.

"'Go deeper with a critical few' is our mantra," Lewis said.

Hans Georg UebeHans Georg Uebe

At SAP, meanwhile, PAMs are known as partner business managers (PBMs). "The name [already] gives you an indication on what has been changing in the last five years," said Hans Georg Uebe, global vice president of ecosystem development at SAP. The company's indirect business has been growing significantly in the last few years, which means the size of the SAP partner channel "has grown massively."

SAP's PBMs aim to help partners to acquire new business while at the same time manage their installed bases, Uebe said. "This has broadened the scope of the PBM significantly but also makes the job more interesting."

SAP has three different tiers of PBMs based on the partners' main business model, he said. Those tiers align with partners in the midmarket, which includes value-added resellers, born-in-the-cloud firms and managed service providers; traditional service-focused partners; and intellectual property-centric companies and ISVs.

The software giant has invested in automation to provide its PBMs easier access to the data and processes they need, Uebe said. SAP has also changed how PBMs communicate with partners by moving toward automated communications and virtual learning.

PAMs at Alteryx have access to the same kinds of communication channels with partners that they have traditionally used, but the tooling has improved significantly, Lewis said. "The channel portal of the past wasn't very compelling. We're implementing a new one … that's state of the art," he said. "It's about trying to build the community and build self-service ease with better apps and communication, because we're a fast-growing company and we need to scale, and systems are a key leverage point for us."

Krakora said the communication tools that vendors use with partners use are typically at mixed levels of sophistication. "Vendors that really invest in the channel and are channel-centric offer the best tools for PAMs and partners in [a single] pane of glass," she said. By contrast, vendors that are not channel-centric will use multiple systems. Those vendors also lack self-service functionality, which is what partners usually want today, she said.

How partners can best work with PAMs today

Communication, of course, is critical, and partner account managers need to ensure they have a symbiotic relationship with their partners, April said.

"The PAM needs to be working for [the partner] and not just driving revenue for the vendor," April said. PAMs need to ensure "the partner feels … invested in the relationship with the PAM and that there's something in it for them," she said.

Even though business models have changed significantly with the move to the cloud, vendor-partner engagement itself has not changed, Uebe observed. "We still see the personal relationship of the PBM to the C-Level of the partner as a key driver."

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