Closer than ever: how the pandemic is impacting B2B go-to-market partnerships

12th April 2021

Despite the enormous human cost of the pandemic, the restrictions imposed by this terrible virus have delivered some unexpected innovations.

Businesses have been working together in new ways to provide services to consumers – one example being China’s largest retailer, During the lockdown in China it worked with DJs and performers to organise virtual events during which, with a single click, consumers could get their favourite drink delivered to their door.

In the business-to-business world I’ve also seen businesses collaborating in new ways which could prove to be a boon for many firms, one of which is the way partner organisations go to market.

In complex sales of software, services and infrastructure, we’ve traditionally seen a range of suppliers collaborating to service a single client. A typical partner ecosystem supporting a large technology vendor like Microsoft could include global systems integrators, advisories and ISVs (independent software vendors). In the current environment, with clients needing to quickly implement new operational strategies, and much of the associated sales and deployment process happening remotely, the partner ecosystem has rapidly evolved its approach. I spoke to Oskar Nilsson, GTM Lead, GSIs & Advisories, Microsoft Middle East & Africa, to find out what’s changed and what the likely future impact will be.

How have clients’ and partners’ expectations changed since Covid?

I’ve only been in my current role at Microsoft for eighteen months but have already seen real change over that time due to the pandemic. Given the urgent need for us to come together as partners and bring solutions to market for what are often critical services, we’ve started proactively aligning much earlier in the process than we would have in the past. For example, I’ve been in countless brainstorming sessions recently which have involved technology specialists, business strategists, designers and creatives all around one (virtual) table, to rapidly define, design and recommend solutions to customers.  In a time of crisis, this is not only what’s expected from us, it’s also what’s needed. In order for digital transformations that would historically have taken several years to be delivered in just a few months, the ecosystem of partners around a customer must be tighter and more integrated than ever before. It’s incredible to see how quickly silos can be broken down and partnerships evolve for purposes far more important than business and revenue.

What does great go-to-market look like and how has it evolved?

The foundations haven’t changed: we have to make sure we have the right technical expertise and capabilities lined up and that our sales teams understand what we’re taking to market before we launch. Such alignment and integration between sales and marketing was always important, but at a time of a pandemic, where solutions need to go to market quickly, this is even more crucial.

What I’ve also seen personally over the past year, since we’ve been working more closely with advisory firms, is that the market now expects us to add deep industry knowledge as standard, alongside our technical expertise. Management consultancies and business advisories bring insights on market movements and trends, while our alliances are developing impactful joint solutions, so together we harness the best of both worlds. We package up our joint propositions to fit the industry and market context in which those solutions ‘live’. By connecting the insights from the advisory firms to more tangible technology-led solutions, the proposition’s value can be realised more quickly by the client. Together we speak not only the language of the CTO but that of the different business area leads too.

Are there changes in the way you’re communicating with clients?

We’re all working from home, which doesn’t just mean we’re working from a different location, it means our working day probably looks a little different. We need to be mindful of that in how we plan our communications. Early on in the pandemic we were running a lot of live webinars, but we quickly saw fatigue set in and we switched to on-demand content that people can access at a time that works for them, rather than having to interrupt dinner with the kids or whatever to watch something in real time. Deploying the right message at the right time via the right channel has never been more relevant.

The pandemic has also impacted on the decision-making unit at board level: both in terms of which CXOs are involved in decisions and the way they communicate – previous structures and meeting cadences are being bypassed in the name of agility and urgency. We’re adapting our marketing communications to favour this new reality, where a broader range of personas are likely to be inputting at pace into purchase and deployment discussions.

Thinking about the future, what will you and your partners be doing differently?

What’s crucial is working out how we effectively roll out our new joint propositions once the initial offering has landed in the market. That may mean working with a specialist ISV, for instance, but what’s really important is how we deploy our teams in an integrated way to accelerate projects. Customers want to benefit from our joint strategic minds, if you like, so that’s an area we’ll be continuing to put resource and effort behind.

We’re continuing to focus on integration between marketing and sales; and deploying a more connected pre-sales journey so our customers can feel the benefits quicker. We need to continue accelerating the journey from demand generation to deal closure through joint showcases, workshops and solution development sessions.

How are you feeling about the year ahead in terms of partnerships?

I feel like the positive side of the pandemic is we’ve grown closer as partners and I’m very optimistic that this is something that we will continue to build on.  I also think we’ll play an even more important role both as orchestrator and platform going forward.

My thanks to Oskar for sharing his insights into the changes in the B2B partner go-to-market approach. Certainly, we’re seeing a shift in the market as a whole in terms of what clients expect from technology vendors and their partner ecosystem, and how that ecosystem is prepared to switch up its operating models in order to respond. And if that means problems are solved more creatively, people are working together more effectively, and new technology is being deployed more rapidly – then long may the positive ramifications of this era of disruption continue.

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