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Channel Matters Blog > March 2014 > 5 Tips for Managing Cross-Cultural Channels

5 Tips for Managing Cross-Cultural Channels

by Geoff Wright
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What separates a channel partner in London, England from one in Billings, Montana, from one in Shanghai, China? Times zones, certainly. Language, too. Some would even argue that language separates the Partner in the UK from the one in the US even though they both speak English. (As does the Shanghai partner, most likely.)
Did you know, for instance, that to “table” something in the United States means to postpone the discussion indefinitely, while in the U.K., it means to introduce the topic? It’s one of those hardly noticeable differences in language that can cause some interesting misunderstandings on a conference call.
I would argue that the biggest difference between these three partners, the one that causes the most problems for channel organisations, is culture. However, I’m not so much talking about societal-culture issues such as length of the average workday and whether people take their laptops on vacation with them. I’m actually referring more to their channel culture.
Put simply, channel culture encompasses the channel’s expectations for how things should work and answers questions such as:
How much assistance can I expect from my vendor?
What kinds of tools will they make available to me, and what will I need to provide on my own?
Can I expect to have a local contact, or will I need to work around time zones?
Will I own the relationship with my customers, or will my vendor also maintain contact with them?
The closer the vendor’s answers match what the partner expects from a vendor, the more satisfied the channel partner is likely to be.
Like societal cultures, channel culture adapts over time and is influenced heavily by experience. For example, channel partners in the United States expect more from their vendors because they are used to getting it. Partners in other regions don’t expect as much direct support, but on the other hand, they often expect more autonomy.
5 Tips for Avoiding Cross-Cultural Challenges
Partner channels can be a great way to open new markets or expand coverage in existing markets. Here are 5 tips to help you avoid cross-cultural challenges.
#1 Do your research. Before opening a new market to channel, research channel programs offered by other vendors to understand the norms in that culture. Speak to as many partners as you can to see what they value most in a channel program. When we do competitive program reviews for our clients, it is amazing how unaligned the vendor’s focus and the partner’s needs can be. A little due diligence up front can go a long way toward avoiding problems later on.
#2 Ask for their input. In my experience, channel partners universally dislike it when vendors roll out new programs without asking for input. It’s not that they expect programs specifically targeted to their unique needs. Outside of the US, partners are pretty accustomed to making do. However, a great many mistakes can be avoided by including partner representatives from every region in your channel advisory boards.
#3 Account for the little differences. Understanding the little differences can also help you develop stronger relationships with channel partners. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen US-based vendors send out everything from program information to brochures formatted for US letter-sized paper to their partners in Europe. When an organisation doesn’t take the time to reformat their materials for A4 paper it sends a strong message to channel partners in the rest of the world that this vendor “doesn’t understand them.”
#4 Hire someone who knows the culture. It’s one thing to create programs that take into account differences in channel culture, but you also need a representative who understands these differences and can work in the local culture on a day-to-day basis. While it’s great when they can be located in-country, especially as it helps overcome any societal-culture issues, channel culture is more about a state of mind than a physical location.
#5 Let them have their way. One of the most frustrating challenges for channel account managers, especially in geographies where the partners are accustomed to more autonomy, is that partners tend not to follow the vendor’s proscribed way of doing things. To this day, I remember what a manager very early in my career told me. “Geoff, pick the three things that all must do the same way, and leave the rest up to them.” While the number of items may not be the same in every situation, I attribute much of my own success to that piece of advice, and I’ve seen it work for my clients. I hope it works for you.
Are you a channel manager or channel leader, working across cultural boundaries? Let us know what strategies have worked for you. You can add your comments below or reach out to me at

Last modified on 3/26/2014 11:50:46 AM
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