Unlock the secrets to a thriving sales ecosystem where direct and channel sales don't just coexist, but amplify each other's success. Mike Coleman, the channel chief at First Orion, joins us to share his insights into how a robust partner ecosystem can catapult your market reach to new heights. If you've ever wondered how to foster a harmonious and effective division of labor between direct and channel sales, this conversation with Mike will illuminate the path. We also take a deep dive into First Orion's innovative branded calling technology that's setting the telecom world abuzz, enhancing call center connections and creating a win-win for agents and customers alike.
As we peel back the layers of channel sales strategy, we confront the myths head-on, dispelling the fog around costs and average selling prices. The episode is a masterclass in the scalability of channel models, detailing the timing, balance, and strategic implementation that can redefine your approach to revenue growth. Mike, with his channel expertise, not only demonstrates how First Orion tripled its success through partnerships but also provides a blueprint for when and how to weave a channel strategy into your business fabric. For anyone interested in leveraging partnerships for sales acceleration, or simply curious about branded calling's impact on call center dynamics, this episode packs strategic gems you won't want to miss.
Mike's LinkedIn Profile
First Orion website
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Well, I think the way to start is, if you're, if you're looking to build a sales machine, right, you need to bring in Leaders that have experience in both what I'll call the direct and the channel side, because the leaders then can bring the knowledge and experience about how to build it, what it will cost and how soon you can expect to generate revenue as a result. And I think some of the perception is that the direct sales force and in many cases it's true is more visible. Right, it there's, there's more control over it, you have a much tighter pipeline view because you can see them and enter it into their sales force entries. And so I think that's the perception. Well, let's start there, my Assertion and the reason that we've been successful at first or honest, because they brought me, and essentially to Really get started early and to bring that experience you know to the table to really build out.Maciej:
Hello, welcome and thank you for tuning into channel voices, the podcast for future channel leaders, where we learn the ins and outs of partner ecosystems through casual conversations with channel professionals from a variety of industries, partner types and geographies. My name is Machek and I'm your host, mike Oman. Welcome to channel voices. Thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here. Lovely to have you, mike. You're the channel chief at first orient. Would you mind sharing a bit about your background and the journey that led you to the role as a channel chief at first orient?Mike Coleman:
Yes, thank you, Maciej. Super excited to be here again and happy to share a bit of my background. So I've been in the channel pretty much my whole career. I started out working at Hewlett Packard in the channel, progressed into a channel role at SAP. I started out as a channel manager at the company channel role at Samsung, a couple of interim steps there and some startups and now Then I went to a via in the channel role, channel chief, and now I'm the channel chief at first Orion, so pretty much a channel Participant. You know Somebody that was been super interested and super supportive of the work that the channel can do on behalf of quote unquote the manufacturers or the publishers. The channel, once harnessed properly, is immeasurable and that's really the excitement of how to build a channel program that can extend the reach of an organization like first or irons Well into the marketplace beyond what a direct sales force could offer.Maciej:
Fantastic. Thank you for that interesting Majority of the people that are in the channel. They speak about that. You know the massive reach that you have when you start working with partners, when you partner with other companies, be at a traditional sales channel or Alliances or whatever it may be right any shape or form of partnerships. Have you ever had a situation where People were not as receptive to the idea of channel and still believe that the direct route is the best route? Oh, Absolutely.Mike Coleman:
Yeah, all organizations have kind of that, you know, point counterpoint discussion about the value of the channel versus the value of direct right. So, and it's a healthy discussion. And I said to Charles Morgan, who is our CEO, as I was kind of in the hiring process or being considered as a candidate to run the channel, I said you'll know we're making progress. When there's chatter in the channel, which is an interesting way, right, because that means that there's channel partners that have recognized the value of brandy calling in our case, they have essentially created awareness within their customer base and now that customer that may be shared amongst two or three channel partners Is interested and you have multiple channel partners kind of vying for that business, which is really what I want it and what we're starting to really see now. And you combine that with the awareness that's being created by what is our very small direct sales force and that's typically focusing on the larger Customers, right, which tend to want to have a bit more handholding. But we found that in many cases the channel partners can do, you know, just as good a job Supporting large customers, because they supply many things that those customers need, maybe not just point solutions along the way. So it's always a healthy debate. It's always a healthy discussion between direct and indirect and I think we've built a very solid business model with deal registration and guardrails and guidelines around. When a customer is registered by a channel partner, it's the channel partners domain and the direct team knows that they should go elsewhere, and vice versa right. If they found the opportunity to register it then Then they take the lead on it and that Division of labor, if you will, has been very powerful and I think it extends our reach as opposed to kind of finding some you know overlap where they're. When there's overlap, there's conflict, a lot of cases.Maciej:
Perfect, and in terms of first Orion and the solution that you provide, that when we first started talking I needed to look it up. I did not, but necessarily I was aware of branded calling solutions. It's such a unique proposition in the market, right? Could you explain what your solution does, how it addresses challenges in the telecommunication space?Mike Coleman:
Yeah, absolutely so. When I was in that interview process and interviewing with Charles and the other leadership folks, they know, the one thing that they asked me is what do you need? And I said, well, I'd like a super bowl ad, because I wanted to tell everybody about branded calling at once. Because the challenge is, to your point, there's not a whole lot of awareness in terms of what is branded calling, and so that's our job is to use the channel to extend our reach and the awareness of branded calling into that marketplace. And so, essentially, there's a significant and serious problem In the marketplace today when companies are trying to reach customers and or prospects, they find it very difficult. Right, because Nobody answers a call, an incoming call from an unidentified number. Pretty much right, because they've been trained to know that it could be a scam Call. It's somebody trying to sell them something they don't want, whatever that might be. It's created this kind of challenge for companies that are trying to reach their customers for very legitimate reasons and for very legitimate purposes, but all of a sudden they find themselves making countless calls to a customer that's expecting their call but not answering it. And so we've found and kind of pioneered a solution which we call branded calling, essentially, and it allows the company that's making an outbound call to essentially identify themselves by the company name and the reason for the call in 32 characters. And so essentially it's a very powerful tool because it essentially gives them the chance to say I'm a big box retailer with an appliance in my truck trying to get to your house for delivery, but you're not answering, right? So I mean that's big box appliance in route would be a good example of a retailer that's trying to deliver your refrigerator but nobody answers. Now they have to turn that truck around, put it back in inventory, try to reach you again and then try to establish a delivery route. So that's that's just one example of the power of the solution, that that we've been able to kind of pioneer and now sell into the marketplace.Maciej:
That sounds very interesting and it makes a lot of sense when you, when you explained it, the, you mentioned a lot about you know extending that reach, trying to get to everybody so everybody knows about branded calling, what it is, what it does and how first Orion could, could help these companies. What other key responsibilities and goals are for for the channel team at first Orion?Mike Coleman:
So interestingly enough, in this kind of a fairly new, emerging solution, if you will, there's three things we have to do as a channel organization, and that is to create awareness within the marketplace and within the channel community about the solution that solves a real world business problem that every one of their customers is dealing with it's trying to make outbound calls Then we essentially have to educate them. Once we've created the awareness, educate the reseller, the partner channel, as to how do you sell this right and how does it, how simple is it to implement, such that they can feel comfortable positioning it within their customer base and or prospects, and then ultimately creating the call to action. How do we get from awareness, through that kind of education differentiation cycle, to a point of revenue where we generate a profitable revenue stream with an annuity factor? Right for that channel partner, solving a problem that their customers already have In a way that's creating some. It's a reason for those partners to reach out to those existing customers or new ones with something that those customers likely haven't even heard about, don't know that it exists, and with a solution that's as powerful as we've described, it's resonates really well with that customer base and it creates value for the channel partner in the minds of the customer, right, because they're bringing them something new. It's a real world problem they're dealing with. One of the ancillary benefits we found, which was really interesting, was some of those customers that have large call centers that are making lots of outbound calls. Sure, the turnover rate in those call centers for those agents is very, very high. A portion of the turnover kind of reason is because they're measured on success, right, meaning being able to reach a customer, a solve a problem, sell them something, whatever the. You know that the success metrics are. And when they do reach a customer, when the answer rates you know are low to begin with them, when they do reach a customer, they spend the first 30 seconds trying to convince that customer they're not a scammer Right, trying to sell them something that they don't need or want, whatever it is. And so we found that when they use brand of calling to say such and such a bank fraud detection, right on the outbound call, so that when that customer answers they know it's their bank and the agent is calling them because there's a suspected I don't know inappropriate transaction on their credit card Right. So now the agent has a much better success rate of reaching a customer, solving their problem, fixing the issues whatever it might be, and less time trying to create the sense that it's real and it's not some arbitrary person impersonating the bank, you know, trying to get information out of you. So it's interesting. The turnover rate we've seen has gone down, which is an ancillary benefit of brand of calling, and the success slash, traction or however you want to quantify it for those customers has gone up as a result of this brand of calling solution.Maciej:
Do you have any white papers available that talk about a little bit about this and maybe has some statistics on on the subject? We certainly do magic.Mike Coleman:
We have a wealth of information on first Orion dot com, which is our essentially our website portal, and we have a partner page which, essentially, as an authorized reseller or partner that's interested in becoming authorized, we'll have access to a very deep and rich database of Referenceable accounts we've had. We call the ROI analysis of the what we call the five success metrics. So we ask a customer what are the three to five success metrics for your outbound calling campaign? And they'll say something like our answer rates have to improve, our talk time Needs to improve. Our decline rates, you know, go down. Our call back rates go up because even with first Orion, when somebody doesn't answer, it says whoever that company was in their call log tried to. So now their call back rates go up. So they define that success metric on the front end and then we measure the analytics, which are very rich, the kind of the success of the metrics that they define as critical, and so we have that published in a certain section as well. We have lots of conversations and stories and guidance that we offer to those partners to help them sell on our behalf.Maciej:
There is obviously the overall strategy of first Orion as a company and what you were, what you are aiming to achieve. But what role do partnerships and partnerships and collaborations, what role do they play in that strategy? If you could elaborate a little bit on that.Mike Coleman:
Sure. So our strategy, as I mentioned, is to create that awareness within the channel community about this solution, which really has two different flavors. One is the 32 character text string, which allows you to define who's calling and why in text, but we also have a solution that includes the logo. So we have a solution called engage. Now it's an SDK based, where you have to have an SDK software developer kit on your app, right, but it allows the company that's calling you if you have, for example, their app on your phone it will come through with the logo of the company that's calling and the reason for the call. So it's a very powerful kind of imaging process as well. So when we were working on a non SDK version of that as well, and so that's the future right of calling, where not only can we identify now with the 32 character string For these partners to be able to share that with their customers, now we can add other things on top of that, like, for example, the, the ability to add a customer's logo. In addition, we have some other things that are very unique to first Orion, and one is called paired. So it's a paired solution that comes with our informed product and essentially it requires an API integration, but it's a very simple solution where, essentially, the outbound calls we define as an A number, meaning the number you're calling from, and B is the company number you're calling. So when A calls B, this API integration detects that A is calling B and so essentially we're eliminating the interceptability of that for a spoofing purpose. And only when A is calling B in what we call a time to live, which you can define as 30 or 60 seconds, will the branding traverse the call. So companies, especially banks and financial institutions that are really worried about their calls being spoofed or intercepted, this is a very unique solution that essentially enables them to ensure that when that branding traverses the networks and speak, it's only when A is calling B that because they've told us they're calling that number. Otherwise the call will go through, but it won't go through with any branding. We've also added another layer of solutions, if you will, if you think about kind of the stack, and it's called century and we're actually able to block outbound calls when we've detected that it's being spoofed by what we call bad actors, and so that's a really interesting solution that many banks and financial institutions are embracing insurance companies and such because they have a challenge with spoofing where companies are calling allegedly on their behalf and they're not, and extracting information, money whatever from those customers because they think so and so is calling. So we've added lots of different layers, and so that's the value stack that we offered to the channel partners that they can then sell to their customers and prospects.Maciej:
Perfect and in terms of your channel overall, just looking back at last year, 2023, how did channel perform for First Orion?Mike Coleman:
Exceptionally well. We effectively tripled the revenue over 2022, which was just a wonderful stat to be able to share, and we've branded well over a billion and a half calls in 2023, which is just amazing. And obviously, with that trajectory, we're expecting to brand significantly more than that here in 2024. So the channel has done really well. We've expanded the team, we've added quite a few different channel sales reps, we've incorporated quite a few new channel partners into the First Orion family. We're actually recruiting a few others selectively. So at this point, and we're really starting to build that momentum within the channel community, the awareness, the differentiation, and then we co-sell with them, where our teams will actually help them sell the solution for the first couple of deals so that they get the handle and get the feel for it, and then at that point then we've trained the trainer, if you will, and off they go.Maciej:
Right and interesting. You said interesting. I suppose it goes hand in hand. When you have results like this, you do hire more people because there's going to be more demand, there's bigger plans. If you tripled it last year, I'm sure the board members are asking for more, as it usually is Never enough. So when you started at First Orion, how big was the channel team versus what it is now?Mike Coleman:
When I first started. We've doubled the team since then and I'm coming up on two and a half years. So we've doubled the team and tripled the revenue and we expect that trajectory to continue this year.Maciej:
And with hiring people specifically for those channel roles. How do you approach building a high-performing channel team? What qualities do you look for when you bring in new team members? When you scan through CVs that make onto your desk, what is it that you look for?Mike Coleman:
Another great question. As you can see, it's kind of an art and a science.Maciej:
So the science, definitely the definition of the channel, isn't it?Mike Coleman:
Yes. So the science side of it is that we look for people that have deep channel experience, have solid kind of ecosystem relationships with existing partners, existing vendors, if you will, publishers, whatever you say kind of in that ecosystem. They have a good network of existing customers that they've been working with through those channel partners. But we look for that as a starting point because it's for us as a fairly small company growing quickly, we don't have the luxury of training those folks in terms of what a channel is. So we look for folks that come with great experience and we found quite a few folks that have been great additions to the team. So that's kind of the first thing we look for. The second thing we look for is really the cultural fit, because first, orion is a very I'll call it a familial family. It's we kind of nurture and support and really help folks become successful from a channel perspective and need to be a really good cultural fit within the organization. So obviously that's really important and we cherish the culture that we've built and we want to make sure we maintain that, and so the cultural fit is critical. Then we need somebody that I the way I look at it is that has kind of a diversified background that understands technology, understands the selling process, understands empathy as a good listener to their partners, to their customers, understands that a channel partner has to be profitable right, because it can't all be about us at their expense, right. That's a recipe for disaster. So we're very careful to make sure that those folks that we interview are mindful of that, have a good history of success in that channel organization, mindful of the fact that it is a give get kind of thing where we give them a product to sell, we get revenue, but we also have to give them a survivable margin right and a profitability base that makes sense. And we have a solid channel partner program that we've built, channel portal that we leverage. We have the guardrails in place to keep them kind of the channel partners, comfortable with the fact that they can share with us their prospects and their pipeline. Once they register it, it gets protected in Salesforce and such. So I think we've built what I consider to be a really solid kind of foundation to support the success of the folks, the channel folks that we've hired, and I think that's been a really good, solid recipe for success in 23. And certainly in my career, those lessons continue to persist as you move into this year and beyond.Maciej:
So when you talk about, you're looking at people who do have existing relationships with partners, etc. That sounds to me that you are still in a partner recruitment mode. You still need more partners.Mike Coleman:
We do. We do Well, to your point earlier, we've tripled the business from 22 to 23,. But it's never enough, right? The quotas we've just been assigned are significant. I always say that we need as many oars in the water as possible to row this boat. The channel oars for us are incredibly powerful. As I mentioned, we'll be selective in the recruiting but at the same time, we're still very much interested in embracing channel partners that are interested either in learning more about our solution, those that have already learned about it from others that want to get in on the opportunity, and those that haven't even expressed interest yet. That we meet at. We attend a lot of trade shows and a lot of partner events. In those conversations and in those meetings we find, to your point earlier, there's a lot of supporting vendors that aren't competing with us but they can leverage, especially CCAS, cpas players. They can leverage the power of a branded call because their call center solutions rely on people answering the phone the other end, right, we've partnered with folks in that ecosystem as well that have helped propel us and we help propel them.Maciej:
Looking ahead, this is where we are. We finished 2023. It is January. You've received your quotas. You're hiring people. What is the most exciting thing for you as the channel chief at First Orion? When you look to the future, what is it that excites you the most?Mike Coleman:
The thing that drew me to First Orion was the fact that we have an absolutely new and exciting solution that solves a business problem that every company making outbound calls has. And my excitement and my challenge is to get the word out so much broader and wider into the ecosystem, because the more people that know about it, the more they can embrace it and represent us into their customer base. It brings real value to those channel partners. We've had a couple of partners at a recent event that they've invited me to speak at their Chamber of Commerce event in Harrisburg, pennsylvania, believe it or not, because they were so excited about the solution. They wanted to tell all of their channel Chamber of Commerce friends, so to speak, that this solution exists to create the awareness. It's a really interesting ecosystem. That's what I'm most excited about is without a Super Bowl ad budget, I need to leverage the channel partners to create that awareness. We have quite a few channel events coming up IT Expo, where I'll be a speaker at IT Expo. Channel partners, where we'll have a presence and hopefully a speaking spot. Those to us, those speaking spots in those channel events, are super powerful because it's a one to many where I can tell the story once, and then people come to the booth, which is really a powerful message for us and that's part of our strategy going forward this year.Maciej:
I asked you earlier about. Do you have situations where people don't necessarily agree or have some reservations? That channel is one of the best way, if not the best way, to get to market. But, from your experience, what are common misconceptions that you would have heard about the channel?Mike Coleman:
Yeah, that's a great point. I've heard that through every company I've worked for. I think the biggest misconception is that there's a perception that channel is expensive. It's not. So my job is and I call it the fully burdened cost model where, if you think about it, what would it cost us to hire a direct sales rep? What kind of a ramp do they have in terms of coming up to speed? What does the prospecting cycle look like for them? How long will that take? How much do we have to pay them in commissions? How long will it take them to get to speed, if you will to revenue? And so we have to model that in a very honest way. It says okay, here's the cost of a direct sales force, direct sales person, etc. Let's compare that to the channel where, in my world, it's an off-payroll sales force but based on we have kind of a wholesale model and a referral model. So they're different in certain ways. But anyway, the commission rate that we pay and or the wholesale rate that we offer, is a very competitive base, if you will, with which the partners can kind of make money. And we factored our cost into those. I'll call it base statistics, and so when you show that to the leadership. I think it becomes pretty obvious. The other factor that well, I guess I should say it was an assumption that what we call ASP, or average selling price, would be lower from a channel partner than it would be from a direct sale, and I think we've proven that it's not. In some cases we actually have a higher ASP and in some cases we're about flat, but it's definitely not the perceived notion that the channel is very expensive and delivers revenue at a lower average selling price. And so I think those are some of the myths that we had to dispel, and I think we've been successful at that so far.Maciej:
I'm glad that you haven't only just given me the misconceptions, but also how you have, in the past, overcome these. That's really great. Thank you for that. And then I always ask this question nobody gets off the podcast without hearing this question. Mike, what is the one thing you wish you knew before you started your career in channel?Mike Coleman:
Yeah. So another really interesting question and I've given that some thoughts since we kind of prepped. So I think the answer is I wish I knew earlier the power of the channel, how much fuel I would have had to put into the machine to get it started, and then the speed with which you can deliver through a channel partner network ecosystem is incredibly powerful and what an extension it is. And so we've proven that out time and time again. But earlier in my career I didn't realize that that was as powerful as it was, and part of the challenge was to have to prove it ahead of revenue, to say to the leadership look, we're going to invest as we are now. We're building a channel program. It doesn't start out with zero dollars, right, there's got to be a funding mechanism in place to support the build. We need tools, things that we put in place, and we need to hire reps that you'll come with experience, and so I think all of that has been a successful formula investing ahead of revenue, knowing that when you kind of invest ahead of revenue, you pour fuel into that machine, you get a benefit. It may be a slight delay, but you see reasonably significant awareness, pipeline build and activity over a fairly short period of time. That then proves to the leadership that this channel thing is gaining traction. It's building momentum and, generally speaking, it generally in my case it's always paid off and been very successful. When we look back on it we're like, wow, we should have done that earlier.Maciej:
When do you think a company should start about thinking of introducing channel into their go-to-market strategy? Just as a follow-up question to this, because there's so many, I suppose it depends who you speak to and what stage the company is at, but they kind of try to push it out as long as they can before they start thinking about channel. Is it at the scale-up? Is it really from the get-go, from a startup type of motion, or from your experience, from what you have seen, when do you think is the right time?Mike Coleman:
Well, I think the way to start is, if you're looking to build a sales machine, you need to bring in leaders that have experience in both what I'll call the direct and the channel side, because the leaders then can bring the knowledge and experience about how to build it, what it will cost and how soon you can expect to generate revenue as a result. I think some of the perception is that the direct sales force and in many cases, it's true, is more visible, right, there's more control over it. You have a much tighter pipeline view because you can see them entered into their sales force entries. So I think that's the perception. Well, let's start there. My assertion and the reason that we've been successful at First Derigne is because they brought me and essentially to really get started early and to bring that experience to the table, to really build out an ecosystem that could be as powerful, if not more powerful, than a direct machine and, with a bit of faith and support and understanding of the way that the channel works and operates and the power that it can bring when harnessed and fueled properly. I think it's best to start maybe with both points of direct and the enderline, so that you can at least measure the success of both. For early stage companies, sometimes you don't know what you don't know and you don't know if the channel is going to really be successful or direct is, or both or neither. I should say Right. You also have to have a product that's interesting to the channel ecosystem right? If you're just selling another widget that they already have 10 of with a different color, you know that's not really going to resonate with the ecosystem because they already have a solution that they can meet their customers needs. For us, we're bringing something so unique and so interesting and so easily understandable that it's easy for them to either introduce us to their customers with faith that we're going to represent them well, which we certainly do or, once they get comfortable enough, they do it themselves. It's so unique and interesting and easy to implement, which we didn't really talk about. All you need to do is register the outbound phone numbers with our solution called free caller registrycom. Essentially, once you register them, we vet those numbers to make sure that your company owns those numbers right and that you're not trying to be somebody you're not. Once those numbers are vetted and we attest that they in fact are owned by said company, then we allow you to kind of access our portal and in that portal, as a partner doing it for the customer or the customer doing it kind of after the partners introduced them to it, then they have access to the portal where they can actually in real time look at the essentially the outbound call and what it will appear as if when it lands on that B number or that cell phone right, and they can actually decide how do I want that 32-character text string to look? Now, of course that has to be vetted too. The carriers rely heavily on us to make sure that nothing inappropriate is being entered into those 32-character string, which is a big responsibility for us and something we take very seriously. But assuming the numbers are registered properly, the businesses are vetted and the branding is vetted by us and by the carrier so that it's OK, they can actually start essentially A-B testing it too. They may say big box retail appliance in route or big box delivery in route, or they can play with it to see what. Maybe that can tweak their answer rates or their successful delivery rates. We have one of our best examples is a blood donor company called 448. They actually run call centers for companies like the American Red Cross that essentially are looking for blood donors. People don't answer the call when it's a blank number. Now they have a great example, which is one of the reference accounts that you'll see on our website, where there was an unfortunate accident on Thanksgiving evening of last year in one of the cities in Texas multiple trauma patients transported to the hospital. Turns out many of them were O-negative blood type. The hospital was running out of O-negative. They called the call center that our partner runs. They put out an immediate call to their known donors in that zip code saying XYZ blood centers, o-negative, urgent. And the response they got because that call was identified by the blood center and O-negative urgent was significant and the CEO talks about that in some of the testimonials that we have there. So it's a great way to kind of put the humanness into it a little bit, to explain how powerful the tool can be and how in real time it essentially can be utilized and the success that our partners have generated as a result of that Fantastic.Maciej:
Thank you, mike, for coming onto the show. Thank you for introducing First Orion to us. Thank you for educating me, especially on the branded calling solutions, what they are and why are they so unique, but also for telling us about your career in the channel, how you run the channel today, what the plans are in terms of your channel at First Orion. It's been very educational for me. Thank you very much for joining. I hope I'll be speaking with you soon again.Mike Coleman:
I appreciate the opportunity Magic. Thank you for having me and we'll certainly be in touch and connect next time as well. Thank you very much. Thank you.Maciej:
And that's a wrap for this episode. I do hope you found it valuable and, if you did, please make sure to subscribe and leave a review. You can also follow Channel Voices podcast on LinkedIn, twitter and Facebook, or just visit Channelvoicescom, where you can send me a message or leave a voicemail. All of the links are listed in the show notes and, once again, I appreciate you tuning in today Until next time. Bye.