Episode 87: Erin DiFazio Vittal on Strengthening the Relationship Between Partners and the Field

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi, and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I am Shawnna Sumaoang. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today, I’m excited to have Erin from AWS join us. Erin, I would love for you to just introduce yourself, your role, and your organization to our audience.

Erin DiFazio Vittal: Sure. Thanks, Shawnna. My name is Erin DiFazio Vittal. And as you said, I sit within the AWS ecosystem of employees, on the enablement side. And my focus at AWS is partner enablement, and partner enablement, as many of you likely know, comes in so many different forms. The space where I’m focused today is on enabling our direct sellers, so our direct sales force, on partners and how to best be successful in working with partners.

That’s fantastic. And Erin, I’m really excited that you were able to join us today because I think you sit in a very interesting spot between partner enablement and a direct sales team, and I think a unique way in which to have to enable your direct field team. So, I’m excited to talk to you about that, because I’d love to understand: why is it so critical for your field sales teams to be able to effectively work with partners? What are some of the benefits of cultivating a strong relationship between your field sales teams and the partner organizations that you work with?

EV: Yeah. Well, it’s a big question and it’s become such an important one over the last five years. You can go back ten years, but particularly over the last five years, partners have become such a critical part of the sales motion. Particularly in technology, it’s such a disadvantage to operate without them that I think even in a baseline, as we see sales reps coming into the company, most of them have worked with partners in some way, shape, or form. Most of them have some experience in this space. Of course, that level of experience varies but I’m finding more and more, you don’t necessarily even need to sell the sales rep on the value of partner. That, in some cases, is a given. However, where you do, I think it comes down to the customer.

Customer needs are so complex today. No one solution is essentially going to solve all of their technology needs and they recognize that. While maybe they could do it alone and maybe they could develop solutions in house and take a homegrown approach, like businesses did many years ago, it just doesn’t make sense to you today. There are so many partners available, and customers really want a best in breed and that’s become very much the way that they do business. Why would I build a CRM in house when I can go to Salesforce? Why would I staff and manage my own data migration when there are partners that can do that much more rapidly and efficiently for me?

I think that because they’re so important to our customers, they become really, really critical to us as salespeople and as a sales organization. And you asked about the benefits, right? If I’m a sales rep and I really want to grow and scale my business, the best way to do that is with partners. They are an absolute extension of the sales team, allow you to grow into new markets, enter new line of businesses, differentiate your solution to the competition. I mean, the list goes on and on. There are so many benefits to sales reps. And what I consistently see and learn — always learning from the sales force — is that the best sales reps, they don’t do it themselves. They don’t operate as a lone kind of man on an island or a lone woman on an island, they operate with an ecosystem of partners. They’re really good at leveraging others around them to build their sales business. And that might be their proficiency and leveraging demand generation reps and marketing teams and you name it, but that always includes partners. Again, those that are successful are the ones that can really take those partners, make them an extension of their sales team, and really use them to expand and grow their business.

SS: I love that. And I think you’re absolutely right. The best sales reps do create their own mini-ecosystem if you will, and partner should absolutely be part of that. Now you’ve talked a little bit about the benefits, but there has to be some inherent challenges. So, what are some of the unique challenges that field sales teams might experience when working with partners?

EV: Well, I think the absolute most common and most challenging one is trust, right? [What] it all comes down to in a successful partner relationship, [is] it all comes down to trust in the end. Which is, does the sales rep trust the partner, does the partner and trust the sales rep and the company? And then you’ve got the customer as kind of the third prong to that stool. There needs to be trust on both sides there too, right? Between the partner, between the customer, and the partner and the partner. I’m a service provider and I think one of the things that sales reps struggle with is, how do I know that a partner’s going to deliver? How do I know they’re not going to screw this deal up? How do I know they’re not going to extend my deal by six months and slow me down? And that, by far and large, is what I hear most in terms of fear among working with partners and I think that’s one that you address by having two things in place.

One is a really strong partner team. You need to have that — your partner sales team has to be strong. They’re often the face of the partner and they are what gives the sales force confidence. So really making sure that those two teams work together internally is critical. And those success stories and peer learning are by far the most powerful weapon here when you’re trying to really work with the sales force to help them build trust with partners. It’s all about what have they done before, who have they worked for with before, and which one of my peers can vouch for them. So that’s a really, a really critical piece of it.

SS: Fantastic. And you already touched a little bit about how you address some of those trust challenges, but I would love to understand, how do you evaluate sort of the partner ecosystem and then build enablement programs around that to help really land it with your field teams?

EV: Yeah, that’s a good one. This really comes from the business. So, enablement as I, you, and I’m sure everybody who’s listening is familiar with, enablement really flows from the business priorities. But [who] we actually decide to enable on has to align and has to be that top down, right from the operating plan, that comes at the high level from their company. And for us, at AWS, that is always a very, very clear process. What we will do with partner enablement is align around those operating plans and those partners that the business really believes are going to drive the outcomes that we’re after. Now, that varies greatly depending on the type of sales rep that you are and perhaps the region. And I think one of the things that’s very unique about partners is the regionality of them, and that makes it tricky. So, while we can say a line on a number of partners that we want to enable on a global scale or even a national scale, that changes dramatically when I get into the regions, and I start to think about who are the regional partners.

And I think that’s where making sure that you have all three levels of enablement, the global, the national, and then the regional view is really critical in this space. It’s not enough to just whitewash over partners from a broad perspective, you have to drill down into who are the folks that are being the partners that we’re investing in, our top partners, and the ones that our customers are using on a regional level.

SS: I love that. Now I want to shift just a little bit, because I think the business world, well, some organizations, it’s always been predominantly run virtual, I’d say it’s becoming increasingly so just given the current climate of things. I’d love to hear from you — what are some of your best practices for delivering enablement programs remotely?

EV: This is such a good one. And like you said, so timely. I think we’re still figuring this out. It will be an ongoing discovery process, but without question, we’ve just become very reliant on interactivity and engagement and thinking about enablement from that perspective.
So, as we are remote — it’s a struggle for every adult learner. To digest information and to apply it to their job and to pay attention. Every one of us suffers from this challenge when we’re forced to learn remotely. So, I think leveraging technology in the space is just so critical. Thinking about building in breakout rooms to engagements, where you’ve got virtual training involved. How do you separate your groups or your attendees into small groups and really simulate that interactivity that can happen in small groups if you’re in person – and breakout rooms are a great way to do that.

Putting your audience in that seat of actually having to stand up and participate and get involved in an exercise is a critical component of enablement, always. I think making sure that you don’t let that one slip just because we’re virtual is very important.
And then I think the on-demand learning is the other side of this equation, right? Where you’re not necessarily in a classroom setting or a virtual classroom, but you’re in the on-demand e-learning space. And so much of that, again, is the interactivity of what’s available. Is their gamification available? Are there knowledge check questions? Are there ways you can engage your learner?

In the end, those specific engagement activities that you take the time to build in make all the difference between something that I think kind of just falls flat and something that maybe sticks a little bit better.

SS: I love that, and I think those are great ways to address the training component of it.
Now I want to talk about the communication and collaboration elements, because I think even if we weren’t in the current scenario we are [in], often direct sales teams and partner counterparts, they don’t sit in the same office. It’s important to be able to facilitate collaboration and communication between them. I think the unique challenge with what we’re faced with right now is now everyone is remote and trying to communicate and collaborate effectively virtually. How do you ensure that you are still able to help your field teams and partner teams collaborate and communicate with each other effectively in a virtual environment?

EV: It’s a great question. Because as you called out often with the partner and a sales rep, one of the challenges, is that you don’t sit next to each other. You never likely will sit next to each other. You have to keep that dialogue going. And I do think that focus on the dialogue, whether you’re living in a world where we can meet regularly in person or not is critical.
And that means that there is some regular cadence that happens between the partner, the sales rep, and the partner sales lead. And so that might look ten different ways, depending on the deal, depending on the sales reps that are involved, depending on the type of account that you’re dealing with.

But some level of continuous agreed upon cadence is a really critical part of the deal. I also often hear discussions about some of the really basic things that are required. So, when we go out, we kind of go in front of customers. Everybody thinks in terms of, okay, I’ve got to get an agreement with my customer on next steps, and I’ve got to get them aligned on ‘we’re going to do XYZ’ by this date. And that’s how I successfully move the deal along and move on to the next stage. And the same is true with partner activity. You can sit in a room with a partner and have all of these exciting conversations about possibilities and things you can do, but if you never get to the ‘who’s going to do what’ on X date and that dialogue and can keeping that conversation cadence going — it becomes waste of time. And I think that’s all too common, is that everything sounds great and looks great, but we never get to those next steps. So that’s a really important piece.

And I know during current times, where we’re struggling to get together with our partners. Many of our partners, many of our customers are in challenging situations that becomes ever more important, and the ability to really say to the customer, look, we recognize, or the partner, we recognize you’re going through a challenging time. Here’s what we’re doing for our customers. Here’s what we’re doing for partners. Here’s what our partners are doing for customers during this time. And just making sure everybody’s really keyed into what their new normal looks like and you know what they need to keep things moving.

SS: I think that’s a fantastic advice, Erin. And thank you so much again for joining us. I have one final kind of closing question. I would love to understand how you are going about measuring the impact of your enablement programs have on partner efforts within your organization.

EV: This is such a good one, and it’s maybe the most important one. It’s just, how are we thinking about that impact? And it comes down to three different ways that I’m thinking about it. One is the increase in our partner opportunities and so this may be called a number of different things depending on the company, but really thinking about what we’re thinking about is ‘how are we driving partner opportunities and increasing that number?’ And this could be very specific. So, if we’re going to drive a campaign around a different customer problem in a series of partners, we’re going to look at what we’ve done before and after that enablement campaign, in terms of increase in opportunities.

And the second one is increasing the confidence index. When we’re thinking about sales reps and their confidence or their trust in working with partners, that’s another really important element. Which is how confident are they? And that’s something that you can measure on a biannual survey and really get a pulse check and an honest pulse check from your sales reps in terms of how they feel about going to market with partners in the partner community.

And then lastly, I think is always the engagement, right? Are we getting engagement in our enablement? So, as we’re delivering our enablement sessions, do we have an engaged audience? Do we have participation? Do we have Q&A, or is it dead silent? If it’s dead silent, it sends us a message too that we missed the mark in some way, shape, or form. Or we’re not getting that result that we’re looking for in a given breakout session or whatever it might be.

So, those are the three ways in which I’m thinking about impacts around enablement.

SS: Those are perfect. Again, Erin, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. I greatly enjoyed our conversation.

EV: Likewise, thank you.

SS: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there’s something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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