7 Steps to Building a Successful Channel Partner Program

7 Steps to Building a Successful Channel Partner Program

1,983% boost in annual revenue, 1,000% user base growth within six months with no upfront costs. Can this be true? These are actual results a startup Ringadoc got from their partner program.

In today’s environment, if B2B organizations are going to make it, they need to grow. Partnerships can be a big help.

Chris Samila, Partnerships Manager at Optimizely shares: “We saw building and supporting a partner ecosystem as a massive opportunity. Early on, the agencies kept getting in contact, wanting to engage, and there was no clear way to do that. So we started building out the partner program.”

Now Optimizely has a rich partner ecosystem consisting of 150+ solution partners and 60+ technology partners. The benefits are significant:

  • accelerated growth
  • higher brand awareness
  • increased revenue
  • presence in new markets and verticals

It does take work, but is it worth the effort? The answer is a resounding Yes. However, to reach this level of success you need a sound partner strategy that takes into account the latest changes in the technology landscape and people’s mindsets, and leverages them.

3 Factors That Affect B2B Partnerships

In a nutshell, there are 3 forces that influence B2B partnerships today:

1. Technological factors.

As companies look to digitally transform their businesses, their focus is shifting towards solutions that deliver complete business outcomes. This creates a unique window of opportunity for strategic partnerships.

2. Social factors.

With the buyer’s journey becoming digital, partners are increasingly offering a mix of services that cross cloud platforms and apps. This brings to the forefront the importance of winning partner mindshare and loyalty.

3. Economic factors.

B2B tech partners are now targeting business leaders instead of IT. In this light, high quality business training becomes as critical as product training.

These 3 forces are important for partner strategy. Go against them – you will struggle. Go with them – you will win.

This post takes you step-by-step through the process of building lasting and profitable relationships with channel partners.

Step 1. Selecting Partners

It all starts with choosing the right partners.

According to Tai Rattigan, Head of Partnerships at Amplitude: “The most important thing is to be able to qualify an opportunity – inevitably there are going to be a lot of people who will want to partner with you, but you have a limited amount of time.”

To focus on cultivating the right relationships, we need to define the ideal partner profile.

Who Is Your Ideal Partner?

Customer success guru Lincoln Murphy talks about the ideal customer profile. We can use Lincoln’s framework to select the best partners. For each partner candidate, we would ask these questions:

  • Are they ready? (do they have the resources to invest in the partnership?)
  • Are they willing? (will the partnership help them reach their goals?)
  • Are they able? (is there a technical fit? a competence fit?)
  • Do we have similar values? (is there a culture fit?)

This is where research comes into play.

Marj Koppelaar, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Mirakl: “I do a lot of research into the company to find out what they are trying to achieve. Are their clients matching up with ours? Are their goals aligned with ours? Do they have the skill set they need to for a successful implementation?”

Tai Rattigan from Amplitude is looking to answer these questions In his research: “What are the potential partner’s key objectives? Where is the company trying to go? Will the partnership help them get there?”

Tai succeeded in finding an ideal partner for Amplitude. Will Mahony from Five Agency talks about their partnership:

Will Mahony:

“We decided to partner with Amplitude because we view them as the leader in the product analytics space.

A few of our clients were already using their platform or had expressed interest so we were familiar with the value they bring to the table. More importantly, Amplitudes mission really aligns well with Five’s, which is that we want to deliver measurable value through everything we build.

Being metrics and business outcome focused throughout a product’s lifecycle is important to us, and using Amplitude allows us to measure and achieve our goals in that regard.”

To track down partner candidates with the highest success potential, look for agencies that are comparable to your current best partners, or ask existing customers who they work with. Then match your requirements against partner teams and prioritize partners who check the most boxes.

For detailed instructions on how to recruit top priority partners, read this value-packed article by Katrina Razavi.

Important note: ideal partner profile is not set in stone. Chris Samila from Optimizely shares his experience: “As the product matures, ideal partner profile may change. For us it used to be independent consultants, then teams, and it keeps evolving.”

Step 2. Discovery

At this step we are looking at what the potential partner is already providing and what the customer’s ideal outcome is. If there is a gap – can a partnership help fill this gap?

Talk to your potential – and existing – partners to get a feel for what matters most to them. Some questions to ask are:

  • What is important to you in a partnership?
  • What are the major growth drivers of your business?
  • What is your unique value proposition to the customers?
  • What are you struggling with?
  • Who are your best customers?

Helen Curtis from Coterie Marketing recommends getting a potential partner on a phone call and evaluating the big picture together:

  1. What will our biggest hurdle be?
  2. Is there market appetite for our joint offer?
  3. Can we really stand out in the market?
  4. Do we have the right information and skills to deliver this?

The result of this conversation should be complete clarity regarding the opportunities and challenges the partnership will bring.

HotJar is planning on launching their Agency Partner Program in the future, and they are already doing their homework. They sent out a survey to their email list asking:

  • What are your biggest challenges, frustrations, or problems in using Hotjar on clients?
  • What are some Agency partnerships that you’ve found to be valuable? Please be specific in what delivered value.
  • What are some common frustrations or challenges you’ve encountered in past partnerships?
  • What is the single most important benefit you’d like to see in a Hotjar Agency Partner program?

A little prep work like this can go a long way, especially for a new Partner Program.

Step 3. Setting Goals and Outlining Commitment

I asked 10 executives from digital marketing agencies what, in their opinion, are the most critical pieces of a successful partnership. And #1 was… clear and measurable goals. Here are a few quotes from my interviews:

“It’s understood that in a partnership, each side has their own vested interests. Good partnerships are transparent about those interests, and are built upon the understanding (and reality) that the success of one partner contributes to the success of the other.”

Echoing that:

“Both parties need to know what the expectations are, how you are defining success, and what contributions (on both sides) will help you get there.”

On the flip side, their biggest frustrations with partnerships were the following:

  • “Partnerships by hand-sake only, with no formal plan and nothing formalized to track success against”

  • “1-sided relationships”

  • “partnerships that go just one way.”

Helen Curtis recommends to create, in collaboration with the partner, a clear written plan – a 1 page document with a set of objectives, specific view of the target market, strategies and tactics, who’s going to do what, the resources both parties have committed, and a realistic view of the ROI.

Once everyone is on the same page, the next step is to outline the commitment for both parties 12 weeks out:

  • What is the partner going to do?
  • What are you going to do?
  • Are the commitments realistic?
  • Do you have everything to deliver them?
  • Are there any potential barriers?

Lastly, you agree on how, and how often you will communicate, and how you will track what is getting done. A collaboration tool like Basecamp, Trello, or Huddle can be helpful here.

Step 4. Facilitating Introductions

The partnership is under way – now it is time to invest in relationships. Ideally, there would be a dedicated resource – Partner Manager – to facilitate introductions between teams and help them foster relationships.

Chris Neumann,CROmetrics:

Chris Neumann:

“Getting to know the Optimizely salespeople personally was critical to our success.

We work together closely to close deals, so knowing them has allowed me to build trust with them that we will deliver for the customers.”

Partners can be a source of valuable product feedback – connect them with product managers and engineers for feedback from the front lines.

Often you will find that a lot of internal negotiation and positioning of the partner program is needed to make sure your organization is willing to work with the partners.

Jeffrey McInnis, Strategic Partnerships at Qubit:

Jeffrey McInnis:

“When you’re getting your partner program off the ground, it can be challenging to get your own organization to work well with partners.

Your company needs to consider partners when making decisions.

Advocate for your partners so your colleagues understand their point of view.”

Step 5. Enablement

“If you don’t put it in, you don’t get it out” applies in partnerships.

Companies can empower channel partners in 3 key areas: technical training, building industry expertise, and sales training.

Technical Training.

The partners need to be experts in your products.

Chris Neumann, CROmetrics:

Chris Neumann:

“You need to make sure the partners are able to use the product for free so they know what they have to sell.

Lots of companies mess this up – people call me and ask me to help them sell to my customers, but then they don’t allow me to use the product.

How can I help them sell something that I don’t understand how it even works?”

Bob Ruffolo, CEO of Impact, shares his experience of partnering with Hubspot:

Bob Ruffalo:

“We received a lot of support when we were starting out.

It took a long time to get fully up to speed, but we were willing to put the time in, learning about the inbound marketing methodology, of how to actually do it, learning how to sell it.

The hardest part was finding the right people who can do the work.”

Once the partners are trained, keep them up to date with the products, give them access to new functionality early, so when it hits the market, they are expert in it from day 1.

Industry Expertise.

Timely and relevant industry information shared with the partners consistently, can put them at a sizable advantage over the competition.

Chris Samila from Optimizely:

Chris Samila:
“I look at content through the lens of the partner – what would be useful for them that they can take and brand for themselves?

An example of a useful piece of content for our solution partners would be a report “What leads to a winning experiment?”

Great place for the Challenger Sale approach: know more about the market than the partners do and help them grow, educate them on what they don’t know they don’t know. To do that, you have to be on the very cusp of what’s happening in different industries, keep your eyes open and inform the partners about the trends.

Jeffrey McInnis from Qubit:

Jeffrey McInnis:

“I read a lot of content on LinkedIn. If it’s relevant for your industry, chances are one of your contacts is sharing it.

You can also set up Google alerts for certain terms.”

Sales Training.

Since B2B tech partners are now selling to business leaders, partner enablement program needs to include strong business training.

Tai Rattigan from Amplitude:

Tai Rattigan:

“You almost become their sales manager.

You are consulting the company on how to improve their business, helping them set up new service offerings on top of your platform. Often account managers who don’t have much sales or business development experience, end up doing sales.

If they don’t know how to manage the pipeline – you need to guide them through it.”

Many companies are struggling to figure out: How much should we handhold? How much should we invest in bringing partners up to speed?

80-20 rule says that a few of your partners provide most of the revenue.

Some vendors take this rule too far and only focus on the larger players while providing no support to their mid-tier and smaller partners. They don’t realize that enablement of smaller partners doesn’t have to be messy and time-consuming. This is where the same 80-20 rule can come in handy – we focus on the most valuable and effective content, and offer it in a structured way.

Marj Koppelaar from Mirakl recommends:

Marj Koppelaar:
“Aim for an enablement process that is standard and add custom layers as needed. The partner’s sales team need to have a clear understanding of what you do, value points, pain points.

Make a cheat sheet for them – 1 page with all the information. Follow up with the partners and ask them what has worked very well, what we should be doing more of, what we should avoid, what are success stories.”

High return, high productivity of the channel – that’s what we want. However “As you sow, so shall you reap.”

Investing in partner enablement pays handsome dividends. Ideally, we would be doing it in a scalable way and leveraging what we already have. For instance, product marketing assets and internal sales enablement assets make great partner toolkits.

Step 6. Sales Support and Account Management

Worst case scenario in the partner’s’ eyes: “lack of transparency and lack of deal flow and lukewarm leads that never turn into anything.”

Best case scenario: “the company is bringing us leads and keeping us up to date with the product. We have forged real win-win partnerships with us, where we do business development together. They send us referrals and we do pitches together.”
There are a few key things we can do to make sure our partners’ experience is closer to the best case scenario:

  • always give the partners a heads up, share information about the prospective customer and help tailor the pitch to this particular customer.
  • identify roadblocks partners face and provide strategic recommendations, make sure that the company is providing the required support.
  • work hand in hand with the partner to make customer success a continuous process.

Now comes the million-dollar question: How do you keep bringing in partner influenced revenue when so much is out of

your control?

Different partner managers have their unique approaches.

Jeffrey McInnis from Qubit:

Jeffrey McInnis:

“Focus on what is in your control.

Do the right behaviors with the right frequency and, if the strategy is sound, you will hit your goals.”

Katrina Razavi, Director of Business Development at Shippo:

Katrina Razavi:

“This is the fun of partnering up with folks – you have to think outside of the box and try new initiatives you haven’t done before.

Look at others in the space who are successful – what are they doing? How are they gaining traction?

Do those things, talk to executives at those companies, figure out how to replicate it.”

Chris Samila from Optimizely:

Chris Samila:

“Create your own luck, pay attention to the trends, be in constant communication with the partners, always touching base.

Keep a large network if you can. If you come across something really cool, share it.”

Tai Rattigan from Amplitude:

Tai Rattigan:

“Be entrepreneurial when running a portfolio of customers. Be ready to switch hats, not just doing sales.

One day – a marketing event, next day – a pitch, next – a demo.”

Marj Koppelaar from Mirakl:

Marj Koppelaar:

“It’s important to have a commercial mind.

You need to get the training right, but the goal should always be revenue.

Keep the eye on the bottom line, not just logistics and administration.”

Step 7. Evolving the Partner Program

Even if things are working, there is always room for perfection. By taking ownership of the program and making an honest commitment to never-ending improvement, we can take things to the next level.

Valuable ideas can come from partner feedback. Surveys, 1-1 interviews via phone or Skype, in-person chats at events can help evaluate the health of a relationship and tease out process optimization opportunities.

We can enrich our research by collecting feedback from everyone involved in the partner program – partners, customers and our own teams.

Federico Menapace, Director of Partnerships at Segment:

Federico Menapace:

“When challenges with partnerships come up, we need to look at the root cause, not the symptoms.

The root cause is usually the absence of a human relationship.”

Federico is planning to conduct Partner NPS surveys to measure partner satisfaction across the entire relationship.

When it comes to process improvement, Tanusri Jammalamadaka, Global Technology Partner Program Manager at Adobe is an advocate of constant iteration.

Tanusri Jammalamadaka:

“I create a product canvas and see what the loopholes are.

Some of them are related to partner onboarding process, providing access to resources, etc. I have been working on creating a totally new experience for partners via the partner portal.

These partners are all developers and they don’t have the time to call support or help desk. Even finding marketing guides should be simple.”

Pilot new tools and processes for one channel partner, incorporate feedback and learning, then roll it out to other partners.

The best practices you learn from your most successful partners can prove invaluable to all the partners in your ecosystem. A word of caution here – in partnerships trust is everything, so only share with other partners what’s ethical to share.

At every stage of the partner program evolution, keep working to raise awareness internally of the value partners are bringing to the company. Share stories of how the partners are helping customers realize the value of company’s solutions. Be a champion and evangelist for the partners, their voice in discussions with product and engineering teams.

Conclusion

You will get maximum juice out of your partner program and your partner development resources, if you avoid the most common mistakes.

Mistake 1. Partnership that goes one way.

Instead: Have a written plan with a set of goals, resources committed by both parties and a realistic ROI. Define who is going to do what in the next 12 weeks and track progress.

Mistake 2. No Buy-in.

Instead: Facilitate introductions, help the partners build relationships with internal teams. Consider the partners when making business decisions.

Mistake 3. Poor training.

Instead: Offer comprehensive product training combined with business training. Keep the partners up-to-date with the product and the industry trends.

Bottom line – to really cement good partnerships you need to be willing to invest in them.

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7 Steps to Building a Successful Channel Partner Program