09/05/2017 | 28:03
How to Simplify Your Pivot; Use the Channel
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Tony Fox, Vice President of Sales and Development of Channel Partners at bswift, joins me, Jen Spencer to discuss protecting your brand by choosing the right partners, solutions partners vs channel partners, business acumen and more on this episode of The Allbound Podcast. Announcer: Effective selling takes an ecosystem. Join host, Jen Spencer, as she explores how to supercharge your sales and master the art of never selling alone. Welcome to The Allbound Podcast: The fundamentals of accelerating growth with partners. Jen: Hi everybody, welcome to The Allbound Podcast. I'm Jen Spencer, Vice President of Sales and Marketing here at Allbound. And today, I'm joined by Tony Fox who is Vice President of Sales and Development of Channel Partners at bswift. Welcome, Tony. Tony: Hi, Jen. How are you doing? Jen: I am doing great. I'm so glad to have you on the show, and I thought we could maybe kick things off with having you share a little bit about bswift for listeners who maybe haven't heard of the company before. Tony: Yeah, well, thanks, Jen. And first, I do want to thank you for inviting me on your podcast, so thanks for that. A little bit about bswift, so bswift is primarily known in various industries as what we would call a "benefit administration platform." I think we go a little bit beyond that, and we offer potential partners a great deal in terms of connectivity, so the ability to link out to different vesting class partners and giving the channel partner the ability to take back to their end user. And we really have a top-in-class decision support tool as well. So, again, benefit administration on the whole with a healthy dose of connectivity thrown in for good measure. Jen: Great. And, so, when we look at your partner program, I know that bswift has two main categories of partners. So you guys have solutions partners, then you have channel partners. So, can you just explain the key differences between those two groups and the role that they play in your sales ecosystem? Tony: Yeah, sure. So, really, we have, like you said, two different types, and the one I'd probably describe first are our channel partners. And it's really a fairly simple relationship where we reach out to an entity or they reach out to us and we end up licensing our software. It ends up acting for bswift as a distribution channel, we license our software, and then our channel partners take on the effort of selling, implementing, and monitoring the software in an ongoing basis as they deliver it to their end users. End users in this scenario are usually employer groups but can be individuals, but again, mostly employer groups. So that's a channel partnership. Aside from the distribution pathway, it also acts like, kind of a, I don't want to say free, but it really is a business laboratory. So as we further develop our software, and ours is an evergreen technology that has three full releases per year, we like to take input from our channel partners as they interface with the market, and then they bring back recommendations and suggestions for really how we should innovate going forward. So that's really a channel partnership right there. Our solutions partnership is slightly different, and really it comes down to aligning ourselves with what we call “best-in-class vendor partners.” So what we would do is identify maybe a best-in-class medical partner, for example, Aetna insurance. We could align ourselves with MetLife, Unum, or, perhaps, Guardian on the ancillary and work-type products. And when we have a solution partner, it has the effect of stocking the shelves, so to speak, for an end user employer group. So as they enter on to bswift, our channel partners have the ability to select from our portfolio and solutions partners and bring their product to their employer groups. It makes implementation much easier, it makes price negotiation much simpler, and it really just enables everything to work properly and as a whole. Does that make sense, Jen? Jen: No, it makes perfect sense, and it's definitely a true ecosystem that you've got there. And I absolutely love that concept of your channel partners being part of like a laboratory. I think that is so cool because the sales experience, is an experiment. You're constantly experimenting and trying new things, and that's such an awesome way of thinking about how your partners can help contribute to the growth of your organization. Not to put you on the spot, but are there any anecdotes? Is there any story of something that's emerged out of a channel partner engagement from your experience? Tony: Yeah, absolutely, Jen. Yeah, absolutely. And I'm sorry to talk over you there for a second. Jen: No! Tony: But I think, maybe the biggest example is more and more of this grouping of channel partners has informed bswift’s evolution in really our recent interfacing. And I'll talk about this probably a little bit later, but you have to know who your best customers are going to be. We identified very early on that payroll vendors were going to be a pretty good partner for us. Largely speaking, with the advent of the ACA reporting necessity, payroll plus Ben Admin equals compliance. So, as we began to partner with these different payroll companies, we found that, as opposed to our traditional carriers and brokers, payroll companies were much more advanced along the technological spectrum specific to connectivity. So again, we fancy ourselves very much a connectivity vendor in addition to Ben Admin. And so what we were pushed to do is really accelerate what we call our API interface. And I'm not going to remember what API stands for, but really what API consists of is a real-time data exchange which makes everything look and feel more cohesive with where your partner is in the market, if its a payroll company, or the brokerage, or even with an enrollment firm. So that's an example of how payroll companies on the whole push us to accelerate our API timeframes, and we're going to be releasing a full API published spec in our August release of this year. So that's a perfect example of how channel partners have pushed us to do something, maybe outside of our normal pathway. Jen: Awesome. And bonus definition for everybody, API stands for "Application Program Interface." So, "Oooh, ahhh." Tony: I feel like you got points on me for that one. That's fine. Jen: The information that's in my head...the technical information about web services and APIs that I have in my head from over the course of my career is baffling to me, as somebody who got a degree in English. Tony: Whenever Jeopardy releases a technology-type of episode, I'll make sure we getcha on it. Jen: All right, all right. Well that's really cool, thank you for sharing that example. Let's talk about a couple other things. You've been working to grow bswift’s channel program for the last two and a half years or so, but when you look at the course of your career, you've been collaborating with partners even in a more traditional direct sales role. So I'm curious, what do you feel you've brought with you as an individual contributor that you've applied to helping scale a channel partner program? Tony: Sure. Now, Jen, that's a great question. Without too much back-patting on my part, I think what I bring to the bswift spectrum is really an understanding of, maybe the broadest possible concept at the benefits industry. As I mentioned before, it's not just brokers and it's not just carriers that comprise the, call it the benefit administration spectrum or the universe. Really, you have to understand that payroll companies are in there. Brokers naturally have a very strong presence within that, but you also have things like PEOs and large-scale enrollment firms, and other types of entities that are firmly connected to the employee benefit sphere. My understanding of that enabled me to come into bswift and really understand what our channel partners need. Now, we have been a very successful company prior to me coming onboard, but what I think I brought was in addition to understanding what we offered, I know why we offer that. And I know why it applies very well to a distributed system. So again, for example, when you have a channel partner, it's one person selling on your behalf. I understand how that works, I understand why that works, and I understand the profit motivation of the different folks within the employee benefits universe. I think that's really what has led this to be a pretty good fit both for me and bswift. Jen: You've kind of hit on this business acumen that you have. So, you understand the impact that the solution has on the end user, the customer, what it can have on the partner’s business. We're seeing this more and more where channel professionals have to understand the entire business, all the challenges, all of the different levers to pull to increase efficiencies in revenue. And, yeah, I think you've really articulated very nicely how you've been able to kind of translate that over into this channel program at bswift. That's great. Tony: Yeah, Jen. There's another thing, too, and it kind of goes back to the earlier question you talked about. And if you understand the business as a whole, you're able to utilize the feedback you get from that business, as that kind of laboratory scenario, like we talked about earlier. If you don't understand the industry on a whole, you're not going to understand the small little bits and pieces that come back to you and really how they fit into the bigger whole. If you are a software company dealing with the employee benefits industry and you don't use your channel partnership distribution as a lab, I think you're fooling yourself. I think you're really passing up on a massive amount of potential information that can inform your development process. Jen: I'd love to see more and more organizations treating their channels that way, and maybe we'll get some feedback from listeners. If anyone is doing that, we'll want you to reach out to us. We'll share some information at the end of the podcast because I'd love to hear more stories just like that. Speaking of kind of thought leadership and new ideas, you'd written a blog fairly recently called "The Unexpected Benefits of a Channel Partnership," and one of the benefits in that blog that you state is "simplify the pivot," and I really love this philosophy. So, if I'm looking to engage in a partnership with another organization, how might the partnership help me simplify the pivot? Tony: So first, I feel I should probably apologize in advance if I've coined a new corporatism, "simplify the pivot." I figured that's worth at least thirty points in a great corporate-phrase buzzword game. So, my apologies in advance. But by definition, a pivot is changing the way you do business. It doesn't mean you have to move away from what got you to the level of success where you are. So let's use an example, maybe, a broker, or an enrollment firm, or a payroll company, when you become a partner with a successful channel partnership organization, in a broad sense, or bswift in specific, what you should be entering into is a certain level of market expertise, a certain level of operational expertise, and, without using the word "expertise" again, really knowing how the process works. What it can do if you're a channel partner, and let's say you're a broker, it can ramp up your learning curves, it can help your investment, because we all know that distributed software systems are not free, it can help your investment pay off a lot more quickly. Now, you have to partner with somebody who has a good product and a good process to go along with it, but your partner also needs to be able and willing to deliver on your organizational expertise. They can know how they're doing it and how to do it successfully. If bswift doesn't pass that on to each and every one of its channel partners, again, there's an opportunity for success there that we've missed. Jen: So, if I'm an organization... I think these are really good pearls of wisdom, but if I'm an organization that's just embarking on building out my channel partner program... I'm just trying to kind of wrap this all up together, thinking about this idea of experimentation, the idea of the benefits that partnership can bring. I guess, can you maybe summarize for us what you think some of the most critical elements are that a channel leader should consider? You know, really put yourself in the shoes of someone who is really just getting going, starting from scratch. Tony: Yeah, it's funny. I think probably the two biggest pieces are, you have to understand your audience...and again, these are going to sound strident, they've been repeated a couple of hundred times, but the fact that they're basically synonymous with channel partnership and there's something to that. You have to understand who your audience is and who you sell to, and you have to understand why they should want your product. So, along the lines of who you sell to, benefit administration is a perfect example of as you grow a company and as you grow your channel partnership line of distribution, early on in the process, you want to get ink on paper. You want to get contracts signed. You want to focus on your immediate top-line revenue. Over time, and as you move away from that immediate urgency to get revenue in the door, you're going to find that there are partners that are better suited to tell your story, than some of those early ones, the ones that you just kind of signed in a mad rush. And maybe they're better at operations and deliverables, and they're going to lessen your chance of brand damage. Because if you damage a brand in the market place to your third-party, you don't have a lot of recourse, and it's very difficult. Probably another facet to that, I call it “over-targeting”, or being so specific in your perceived market that you kind of ignore the rest of the ecosystem to use your word. And, for benefit administration, the perfect example is focusing so heavily on the brokerage market that you ignore those, I would call them tangential partners, like enrollment companies, and payroll companies, and PEOs, and carriers that need to set up exchanges. The universe is a big thing, and you don't need to focus, or really, over-focus on just that brokerage group. So if you understand what you have and why a certain group wants it, it can come in upon you when you're developing a channel partnership system to mentally try to broaden that out as much as possible. The more targets you have, statistically speaking, the more you're going to land. Jen: No, that makes perfect sense. Tony: Does that make sense, Jen? Jen: Absolutely. Even in your final point there about keeping those options open for the type of partner, it's still grounded with, "Okay, but who is your buyer?" Right? Who is the person who's going to benefit most from using this product? And as long as that's consistent...I mean, there's new technologies, there's new categories, there's new types of companies that are being created every day. And so, to your point, if you kind of keep your head down focused on this one type of entity, like a broker, you might miss out on other complimentary solutions that could be just as beneficial, if not more, to helping you achieve your goals, so yeah, I agree. I think it's a great strategy to keep in mind. Tony: Yeah, and it's funny, Jen. One thing you hit on there, kind of reminded me of this. You see what your competitors are doing in the marketplace, and obviously, you need to know what your competitors are doing. I don't think you should feel obligated to follow what they're doing. For example, a lot of benefit administration companies start by heavily trying to penetrate that up-market, in that 10,000, 20,000, those big brand name clients. Having said that, there are also newer arrivals on the Ben Admin stage that have done very well in that small group exchange stage. You have to understand that when you have a potential market or a potential industry that's so deep and broad, there's going to be room for a lot of other people at the table. And your goal is just to make sure you definitely have a seat at the table and then maybe knock over a couple people that are sitting to your left and right. Jen: Right, sounds good. Tony: Unless its too aggressive. Jen: Well, we'll let all of our listeners decide what's too aggressive or not. I think everyone's going to have a different threshold for that. I'd love to know from you, what do you think is the most exciting thing about working in indirect sales? And the reason why I'm asking that question is because, well, I think we could really go backward and say, okay, no kid grows up going, "I want to be in sales." You know? And certainly no kid grows up saying, "I want to be in channel sales." It's not something we go, "I can't wait until..." There's not necessarily a degree that you can get in it in college, but yet, here we are. Right? My day 100% revolves around indirect sales. What do you think is the most exciting thing about doing what you do? Tony: Well, I think aside from seeing one of your channel partners land a big one or really kind of hook into a fourth gear or something like that, I mean, that's going to excite most people because that's more revenue in the door. Everybody gets excited by revenue. I think, maybe on a smaller scale, when we talk to a channel partner, and maybe even in the discovery phase or when we're contracting or something like that, and you just hear the penny drop, and you just hear it click with that channel partner and...I'm trying to remember what my intro to psychology class back in college called it, I think it was a cognitive flash. That “aha!” moment. I love when I'm talking to somebody on the phone and they say, "Whoa, that makes a lot of sense, Tony. So you mean not just A, B, and C but maybe D through R." And they start to see that scope expand, and they start to see maybe it's not just software. Maybe it's a way of realigning how their entire business model reports on the business model itself, for example, on a brokerage. Or maybe they perceive a way, if they're a broker, to drive new broker of record letters. Or if they're an enrollment firm, maybe they see a way to lessen their operational investment on a medium size client by using our divisions support tool. It's really just when what you offer just absolutely clicks with somebody, that's what kind of gets me excited about stuff because I know that we're not a mature industry quite yet, although we are getting there. Eventually, it's going to be a mature industry. And the more that we can kind of form that discussion as we go, both through our product and our discussions with people, the better off bswift and Aetna, our owner, are going to be. So that's what really gets me going, is when they kind of get it. Jen: I love it, I love it. Because I know the feeling. I can certainly empathize, and I'm sure a lot of our audience can as well. This has been so much fun, and before I let you go, whenever we do the podcast, I have people answer some more personal questions so we can get to know them a little bit more. So, are you ready to answer just four simple questions? Sound good? Tony: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. Jen: Okay. So, first question for you is, what is your favorite city? Tony: Well, I'm born and raised in Chicago, so it's difficult for me to say anywhere but Chicago. I will say that recently I've become acquainted with the charms of Manhattan. I'm a big city guy. I like the excitement. I like the energy. I like the buzz that a big city brings. So, if I had to live somewhere other than Chicago, it might be Manhattan or oh gosh, pick some island off the coast somewhere because if I'm not in a big city, I probably want to get away from it entirely. Jen: Great, sounds good. Okay, next question. Are you an animal lover, yes or no? Tony: I'm absolutely an animal lover. I have two dogs, I have a Border Collie and a suspiciously tall Dachshund, and they take up a lot of my day. So, they're awesome. Jen: A suspiciously tall Dachshund. Really? Tony: Yeah, yeah... Jen: Just a tall guy? Tony: Yeah, my wife and I only buy from shelters, but they said that she was a Dachshund mix, and she ends up looking a lot like a small German Shepherd, so I'm thinking whatever they use for their DNA might be slightly lost. Jen: That's great. Next question for you, Mac or PC? Tony: I'm a PC guy. Without divulging too much of my age, I will say that decades ago at the University of Illinois, Macs really weren't a thing. I guess that the Apple IIe and the Apple IIc were starting to come on. Jen: Yeah. Tony: I was born and raised on a PC, and I started learning computers before Microsoft even existed. So, I've been a PC guy, I'm going to be a PC guy. It's just the way it works. Jen: All right. Sounds good. And my last question for you is, let's say I was able to offer you an all-expenses paid trip, where would it be to? Tony: As long as it's not within the United States on business, you could tempt me pretty much anywhere. It's funny, there's this TV show, and I forget what channel it is, but it's called "Alone." And the concept is that they take a bunch of survival experts and they kind of dump them on different parts of the globe, and they're expected to kind of make their way to their life for approximately two months and all that good stuff. The last series of episodes were in Patagonia, South America, down in...I want to say it's in Argentina, it might be Chile. And it was starkly beautiful, and I would just love an opportunity to travel down there with my wife. Maybe do some hiking. Maybe do some fishing unless there's some weird disease I don't know about, and just generally do the "get back to nature" thing. I do love that. Jen: Very cool. That's awesome. Well, some other time I'll have to have to tell you about my trip to Pucon, Chile, which is at the very, very, very bottom of the country. Let's just say, I was the only individual who exited the bus with a rolly suitcase. Everyone else had a camping backpack and I had a suitcase on wheels, but it was good fun. Tony: That's hilarious! Jen: Give you a sense of who I am. But thank you so much. Thanks for sharing your insights with us today, Tony. It was so great. If anyone listening would like to reach out to you personally, what's the best way for them to do so? Tony: I think probably the best way to reach out to me would be through LinkedIn, initially. I'm Anthony Fox on LinkedIn, and I'm currently at bswift so I should be easy to find. And I would welcome any questions for, "Hey, how about an opportunity?" That would be great too. So, feel free to reach out to me whenever. Jen: Perfect. Well again, thank you, and thanks everyone for tuning in. We'll catch you next week with an all new episode of The Allbound Podcast. Tony: Thanks, everybody. Announcer: Thanks for tuning in to The Allbound Podcast. For past episodes and additional resources, visit the resource center at allbound.com. And remember, never sell alone. #NeverSellAlone
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