Partner Sellers Thrive in Ambiguity

When hiring for sales positions in partner ecosystems, it may be tempting to think that sales skills are always transferable. They often are not.

The reason why those skills don’t always transfer has more to do with the differences in environment and sales dynamic than the skills themselves. Partner solutions have complexities and orchestrations which require more fluidity and trust than many traditional sales environments.

The legacy approach

Most experienced sellers come from legacy environments that have self-contained sales cycles. Meaning that one business works with the customer through the entire sales cycle. Within that sales cycle, sellers may be used to doing business one of two ways - as a guide or an assembly line.

Guided approach

Guided environments are where sellers are a part of every step in the sales cycle. They prospect, assess needs, recommend products, quote pricing, close the sale, and then follow-up for future business.

The seller guides the customer through every step of the sales cycle and seeks to establish a relationship. They often become that customer’s single point-of-contact. A lot of hardware sales have a guided sales approach.

It’s hard to find sellers that can master every step in guided sales, so the customer experience can be inconsistent from one seller to another. Some may be great at prospecting, while others are stronger in their product knowledge. The advantage of guided selling is the relationship that can be established with the customer because the seller is there at every step.

Assembly line

Assembly-line environments are similar in that they have a multi-step sales cycle, but sellers will specialize in one or two steps and then hand the customer off to another person or team. This allows for sellers to become a micro-master within the sales cycle and creates a lot more consistency.

The drawback is that customers can get lost in the process, and sellers may only care about incremental steps forward in the sale. This is in contrast to finding the right solution for the customer. There is also a lot more data needed to track each step of the assembly -line, which creates more administrative overhead.

So what is the better sales background for partner sales, guided or assembly-line? The reality is it could be both, it could be neither. Both of these selling schools have something in common that is often radically different in partner sales, and that is a rigorous sales process.

What we can learn from the legacy approach

The sales process, whether executed by one person or many teams of people, structures how business is done. In many ways, it frames the rituals and thus the culture of the sales environment.

There is usually rigorous onboarding and enablement for every step in an established sales cycle.

Sellers can learn things like:

  • How many dials are needed per hour.
  • Where to look up product specifications.
  • The questions are most effective.
  • Where to download presentations.
  • The tools that show the best ROI.
  • The systems to use to generate quotes.
  • How to use talk-tracks to close deals.

Everything has been figured out and is either programmatic, systematized, or tribally available.

Sellers that thrive in sales environments like this become great at execution. They have resources that support their customer-efforts and are incentivized and celebrated for achieving key performance indicators.

Embrace the chaos in partner sales

Imagine a seller coming from one of these established, structured sales environments and stepping into a partner ecosystem that, by its very nature, has a highly dynamic sales process. One where a customer could be in any phase of another partner’s sales cycle. One where roles and handoffs may not be clearly defined. One where the sales process is determined by the combination of partners that are involved and the solution they are trying to put together - a solution that may have never before been created.

In partner sales, a seller isn’t always in guide or assembly-line mode. It’s way more fluid than that. And it has to be. A seller may get a prospect from another partner who is mid-way through their solution architecture. That type of sales conversation is very different than working with a blank-slate prospect alone or co-selling with a partner from the beginning.

In fact, if we ignore the sales phase and solution nuance and just think about partner combinations within a given ecosystem, just 5 partners can come together in over 200 different ways. If partner combination dictated the sales process, it’s already unwieldy for the traditional guide or assembly line to apply.

Chaos is seller kryptonite. Many successful traditional sellers wash out quickly in partner sales because they may not have had the chance in the past to build some critical competencies necessary in partner sales. There is one, in particular, that should be a key focus in hiring a partner seller - and that is dealing with ambiguity.

According to Korn Ferry’s Lominger Competency Model, those that are skilled at Dealing with Ambiguity:

  • Can effectively cope with change
  • Can shift gears comfortably
  • Can decide and act without having the total picture
  • Aren’t upset when things are up in the air
  • Can comfortably handle risk and uncertainty

Traditional sales processes try to remove as much ambiguity as possible. That’s why there is so much data tracking. Any unknown factor that is introduced in traditional sales is automatically perceived as friction.

Magic happens in the ambiguity

Successful partner sellers have the opposite mindset. The ambiguity of introducing their ecosystem partners to their customers is the magic that opens opportunities.

It requires a lot of trust and alignment between partners and an attitude and flexibility that says:

No matter what, we can figure this out!

Those that struggle with ambiguity tend to avoid criticism or risk. They can get overwhelmed if there aren’t structures and controls in place. Many tend to be perfectionists and love checking things off of a to-do list.

When hiring partner sellers, make sure there are conversations during the interview that probe for a candidate's experiences with ambiguity. Learn about the specific sales environment they are coming from - the systems, processes and structures that were in place.

Find out if candidates got comfort in having the structure or saw it as a hindrance. This can give some clues as to what type of a sales environment works for them and if partner selling might be out of their comfort zone.

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