With partnerships, as with much in life, what you get out is a function of what you put in. Properly equipping your partners to succeed, and to further your success in turn, is critical to a profitable partner program.
By clearly understanding who you need to enable, what you need to provide and how you’re going to deliver it, your alliance and channel partners will have the means and the motivation to help you grow.
Once you understand the high-level dynamics of a partnership, there are three primary groups you’ll need to enable, each with their own view to the partnership, requirements of it and motivations for actively engaging in it.
These are the individuals that carry the flag for the partnership, from the executive whose ink is on the agreement, to the business unit, functional (i.e Sales) or geography leads who will be held to account for the partnership’s ultimate success or failure. They need to understand the vision of the partnership, the value to their customers and and the metrics by which progress and success will be measured. The specifics can vary greatly from a strategic alliance or joint venture to a channel partnership, but assuring sponsors can answer these three questions is crucial to long-term success.
In technology partnerships, you’ll need to pay particular attention to two marketing groups, each representing its own set of levers and leverage: Product Marketing and Field Marketing. In the case of an alliance with a platform technology provider such as Intel, Product Marketing will care about your ability to exploit their product features and differentiators. In the case of a channel partnership, it will be more about demonstrating a better combined solution.
Field marketing, on the other hand, will typically be more concerned with advancing programs specific to products or territories they support. They’ll need to understand how they can reach their target audience and hit their metrics through and with your sales and marketing teams.
Sales is where it begins and ends for most partnerships. From the VP of Sales to a front-line account manager, they want to know how you help them create more opportunities, win more deals, beat their competitors and get paid. Depending on the partnership, this could mean helping them close a gap in their solution, answer a competitive threat or reach a new customer or market segment. Most of all, any true sales professional you encounter will want to know how you help them make more money. If you want to leverage your partner’s sales team (and why wouldn’t you?), you must connect the dots between what you offer and how they get paid.
In order for stakeholders to act with enlightened self-interest, they’ll require information and insight, support to overcome challenges and process to act in a manner consistent with the goals of the partnership.
Arming your partners with the right information and the right amount of it speeds their understanding and accelerates what matters most in a sales-driven partnership: getting to market together. You’ll need to help them rapidly understand the mandate and measures of success of the partnership, your product, how it’s marketed sold and, in the case of a channel partnership, precisely how they’ll be compensated for doing so.
Depending on the nature of your product (B2B versus B2C, high-volume and low price versus low-volume and big ticket) and the type of partnership (ecosystem partner, channel, systems integrator), the form this information takes will vary. Examples of specific deliverables include:
- A high-level pitch deck for the partnership
- Partner-ready product “cheat sheets”
- Co-branded marketing collateral
- Prospect qualifying questions
- Common sales objections and how to overcome them
- Competitor “battle cards”
- Case studies featuring common customers and joint solutions
- A single slide showing how individual sellers retire quota and earn commission
While you can and should repurpose the content you’ve developed for customers, don’t make the mistake of recycling it. Successful marketing and sales people won’t have the time or inclination to decipher and translate your stock slide decks and other content. Make it easy for them to understand with clear language that is meaningful to them. One of the worst things you can do in a new partnership is to waste your partner’s time or demonstrate that you don’t value it.
To the degree that your company has formalized sales and customer support resources and infrastructure, you should look at how to extend those services to your partners. In the beginning, it may simply be a single point of contact (the partner manager, if one exists) known to the partner as their go-to person. This individual will serve to translate and bridge between partners and the existing support resources you have. As your partnerships grow, however, so too will the resources required to support their growth.
As you do for prospects and customers, you’ll need to determine how to provide partners with pre-sales product technical support and post-sales customer support. In practice, this can range from dedicated technical specialists in the field, to insides sales (phone-based) support, to fully web-based and self-serve. Again, the scale and approach will vary based on the type of product, partnership and average deal size.
By whatever means you do so, from a founder with an always-on mobile phone to a dedicated channel support team, you’ll need to plan to address these issues to insure that lack of support doesn’t impede partner engagement and sales.
In addition to providing the right content and support, having well-defined processes in place is essential to operating a successful partner program. This is how you grease the wheels of your partner program and manage the costs of operating it, making clear how and when the resources and support you make available are to be utilized.
Depending on the type, scope and size of partnership or partner program, you’ll want to consider developing processes for the following:
- How and when a partner engages product and sales support (not too early to prevent self-sufficiency or too late to lose deals)
- How a partner registers a lead (what qualifies and what doesn’t)
- How you jointly manage pipelines (cadence and quality)
- How you jointly deliver customer support (first-line support, help desk, support ticketing systems)
- How you manage the partnership itself
- Escalation (per-deal discounts, channel conflict, alliance governance)
Of course, not all of the above will be practical or even necessary for early-stage companies. Even enterprise technology providers operating large-scale strategic alliances overlook some of these areas, but doing so can and will act as a drag on the performance of their partnerships as they grow. Where you do invest in processes to support your partnerships and partner programs, they should be designed to be clear, readily available and practicably enforceable.
After the who and the what comes the how, which is about finding the most effective ways to deliver knowledge, support and processes to your partners. Whether in person, by phone or video conference or delivered on the web, the following are a baseline of approaches.
Primarily intended for sponsors, the kick-off event is used to create initial momentum for the partnership. While there’s nothing wrong with a dinner to celebrate signing the agreement, the real kick-off is about communicating with clarity the purpose and success metrics of the partnership, assuring alignment among stakeholders and setting the partnership in motion.
As in other areas, the primary nature of the partnership (alliance or channel) will dictate the relevance and specifics of product training. It’s most important when a channel partner will be directly representing and selling your software. Consequently, the more complex the product, the more competitors you have and the larger the deals which are at stake, the more you’ll want to focus on delivering excellent product training. In the case of an alliance where the focus is on selling with rather than selling through a partner, the stakes aren’t as high, so the requirements aren’t as great.
Examples of partner product training range from five-day instructor-led sales “boot camps” to on-demand web-based video. What matters is that the content and format serve the purpose of equipping your partners to carry out what you’ve asked them, whether that is take a deal from prospect to close or know just enough to recommend and refer.
Whether your joint pipeline is comprised of opportunities you’re working together or leads originated and owned solely by your partner, a deep and accurate understanding of the pipeline is paramount. The way this is typically achieved is through standing calls (bi-weekly or more) among the partner managers to review the pipeline in detail. The tools could be as simple as a spreadsheet or as sophisticated as a commercial Partner Relationship Management (PRM) system. What matters is that you methodically update, share and review your joint pipeline, holding each other to account for performance. This is the lifeblood of a sales-driven partnership.
As your business evolves, keeping your partners current is just as important as keeping your own employees up to date. Changes in product, pricing, competitive landscape and sales tactics are all areas in which partners need to be in the know. In order to have them act as an effective extension of your marketing and sales teams, educate them as if they were.
This could mean including select, strategic partners in the very same webinars or in-person events that you offer to your own staff. Or it could mean customized content delivered through a dedicated partner portal. Whatever the approach, what matters most is that it’s timely and effective.
Quarterly business and annual strategy reviews
To assure your partnerships are on track and performing, those that carry significant strategic or revenue importance should be formally reviewed on a regular basis. As a general rule, quarterly business reviews (QBRs) and annual strategy reviews are the norm. QBRs serve to measure and manage the pace and performance of the partnership as determined by the success metrics you’ve defined. Annual strategy reviews focus on refining the vision, making strategic course corrections and, in some cases, deciding when it’s time to wind down a partnership altogether.
One size does not fit all
An alliance that opens the door to a few more multi-million dollar deals, the channel that activates a hundred new enterprise sales people, and the affiliate program for a hundred-dollar product each present very different ROI and risk/reward calculations. So while the principles and general approaches remain the same, you should invest first and foremost according to the revenue projections the alliance or channel provides.