A Discussion on How to Increase Partner Engagement

Kelly Sarabyn

Over at the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance and in collaboration with Tech Partnerships Ecosystem we had a discussion on partner engagement on Clubhouse. 

We wanted to share some of the highlights of the conversation, which included challenges to engaging partners, how partner tech can improve the partner UX, the importance of product and partnership alignment, and why partner journeys should be customer centric. 

Our CEO Cristina Flaschen and Director of Marketing Kelly Sarabyn spoke with Bader Hamdan, founder of Tech Partnerships Ecosystem and Head of Platform Partnerships at Twilio, Jill Rowley, Fund Advisor & LP at Stage 2 Capital, Rachel Collie, Director of Technology Partnerships at Unanet, and Ashley Speight, Co-founder of Channelyze.   

Read on for conversation highlights, and access the audio recording here (link only works on mobile). 

Biggest Challenges to Getting Engaged Partners

Rachel: One of our biggest challenges, and I see this a lot in the SaaS world, is a lot of barriers to entry for new technology partners, meaning how they build, access and deploy integrations. So the key for us as we get more engagement, is figuring out how we lower those barriers of entry and just make it an easier, seamless process for partners.

Jill: I think from the sales and marketing perspective, which is farther down the road, a challenge is how do you get sales counterparts on both sides, or all sides, investing in understanding each other and the joint value prop to the customer? How do you align the sales organizations - how do you get the reps on each side of the fence on the same side? 

Ashley: From a traditional channel partner perspective, the biggest challenge is that every vendor is fighting over the same partners. It is such a low barrier of entry that you have to make a compelling offer for “why us.” 

This is only going to get more and more difficult as time goes on. Supposedly, there are 175k vendors right now, and there is projected to be 1 million by 2030. 

The market is flooded with vendors who do exactly the same thing. The power comes from differentiation, and the unique selling point of each vendor.  The differentiator has to come from how you manage your partners, and how you support them, that’s often the only thing you can do.

Bader: The challenge really varies on what type of partner. Each partner type comes with its own set of challenges. 

With strategic partners, as deep as you will be with them given the nature of the relationship, there is going to be a level of complexity to drive GTM, put accountability in place, and work with cross-functional stakeholders. It’s like herding cats sometimes. 

When you look at the longer tail of partners, there is complexity from managing a longer list without the high touch. When I have a list of 20-30 partners, how do I manage them all and what tools can I use?

Ashley: It has to be a split between managed and self-serve. A human can handle at most 25 partners at a time. But they can train those 20-25 partners to become self-sufficient over time, and then swap in a new set of managed partners. Swapping partners from managed to self-serve can slowly get you to a self-sufficient channel.

Technology that Can Improve the Partner Experience 

Ashley: That’s what we do at Channelyze, we exist solely to improve partner engagement.

Previously, I could not manage all our partners successfully so we went and bought a partner portal. We did POCs with many vendors, chose one and paid about 200k. We invited 6k partners to our portal and 150 accepted. 

The reason is partners have no reason to go to the portal unless they are transacting, and if they are not transacting in the first 3 months, they are never going to go there ever again. 

There are a few technologies in the market who are doing “a single pane of glass” model where everyone is connected together. I see Chip Rodgers from WorkSpan, and they have the same model, of bringing all the vendors to a single pane of glass. 

So all partners will be there, and they can have many partners in front of them. The traditional portal model didn’t encourage partner engagement unless you were a top tier vendor, like Cisco or Microsoft.

Rachel: Our original strategy was to have as many technology partners as we could, but that was not a good model for us because we had no way to manage that. 

So what we decided to do is take an initial very tactical view at assessing whether there are enough customers for a joint technology and how do we map that forward? 

In this evaluation process, we rely heavily on Crossbeam to do a lot of that account mapping for us, to see where there are logical matches in the market. We figure out if there will be a number of customers that will be early adopters before we move forward. 

Using Crossbeam is also one of the ways we have gotten our sales team to bite on the benefit of tech partnerships. Our sales team had a very sales focused attitude, but using Crossbeam has really shown joint successes in sales can drive more business forward.

Customer Centric Partner Journeys 

Jill: I think we really need to change the thinking of sales from “what’s in for me?” to “what’s in it for my customer?” And really shift the focus of sales from my quota and commission to my customer.

This requires teaching them that successful customers close faster, are more likely to renew and spend more, and then tying that back to providing a higher value prop for the customer. 

Cristina: I 100 percent agree. Velocity or speed to close threads that needle really well between sales’s self-interest and the customer. It is still a little self serving but it is ultimately in the best interest of both the customer and the partner. We see a lot of organizations reach a better velocity when the account is partner sourced or related to an integrated tool.

Jill: I started in marketing automation before it was called martech, before demand gen or marketing operations was even a function. 

To see the martech ecosystem go from a handful of vendors to 150 in 2012 to now over 8k. It’s so confusing for the buyer of the technology, and customers are looking for organizations who can help them understand the sequence of technology they need and how to avoid overlapping functionality. 

Bader: The customer has an ecosystem of ISVs they already work with to do what they want to do from a solution perspective. As a vendor, you have to look at that view and be intentional about whom you partner with based on what your ICP is doing. 

Sometimes the measurements of partner success are going to differ. Sometimes you are measuring influence rather than the reseller relationship of selling on their paper or vice versa. 

Having the right tools and systems in place to measure that and hold each other accountable is critical to the success of those partnerships.

Kelly: That customer lens is the right way to think about mapping out the partner experience. Ultimately you are trying to serve a common customer.

The reporting that you can show on results, whether retention or influence, and a lot of partner tools do make that possible, can not only direct your partnerships and hold them accountable, but change them over time to keep them customer centric. 

As you realize certain integrations aren’t being adopted, for example, or others you didn’t predict are actually popular, it can change which partner relationships you are investing more in. But always returning it to the lens of the customer is key.

Bader: You always have to think about how customers want to consume a solution or connector.

It could be that they want to buy it through a marketplace, it could be that they want to buy it as part of a broader solution on someone else’s paper. Maybe others want to buy from a cloud marketplace because they have a cloud commit on GCP or Azure. 

You want to enable your solution and ecosystem of solutions to be purchased in whatever the way the customer prefers from a buying journey standpoint.

Kelly: You really have to understand how your customer wants to use and buy the tools and then map that onto your partner journeys or you are not going to be successful.

Jill: I am all for customer centric and obsessed, and looking at it through the lens of the customer. I am a big believer in customer led growth. 

One of the things that is important is understanding the current landscape of the customer. In the martech world, there is these things called the Stackies by Scott Brinker, who is chiefmartech, that showcases a wide variety of marketing tech stacks.

You need to understand what your customers already have in place, and that includes what their tech stack is, what their agency landscape looks like, and who they trust and learn from, which includes influencers, analysts, and journalists in the industry. 

You should understand all the connection points, a lot of research can be done via LinkedIn, but also just googling, listening to podcasts, and uncovering more information about the actual customer. Then you can understand where partners can line up and where you can add more value to the customer’s situation.

Cristina: It is really great when you see partners aligning this way. You are not going to have a partner that can serve every one of your customers, but the more you know what your partners do really well, the more you can advise prospects and customers on the best tech stack. 

A lot of business users today are looking for the easiest, most composable tech stack that will accomplish their specific goals. The more you know about your partners and who they target and who they will be targeting the better off everybody is.

Product and Partnerships Alignment

Bader: When it comes to tech partnerships, what has worked and what hasn’t worked? The  number one point I have been talking about is product and partnership interlock is a huge must. It’s the number one imperative of success for tech partnerships. 

If you don’t have that interlock, we will all be rolling in different directions. Partnerships have a strategy, product will have a strategy, and it won’t be aligned. Partner roadmaps won’t be aligned with our roadmaps. 

This interlock should be established before anything else goes in. 

Rachel: I’m going to echo that. As the Director of Tech Partnerships, I report directly to the Chief Product Officer, and it is for the exact point you brought up, which is to get that product and partnerships interlock. 

From my position, I can know what is on the roadmap, and I can be an advocate for the roadmap and our tech partnerships. There is a bit of friction on the sales side, but for our technology partners, who need access to product and resources, it really has been a great marriage thus far.

Kelly: I have seen a fair split reporting to product and revenue departments. But one of the worst things you can do is put a lot of go-to-market, co-selling, and co-marketing effort behind a really crappy integration. 

Because ultimately you’re just driving people to a bad experience, and you’re not going to get the business benefit. It’s going to come out that it is a poor experience. 

To Bader and Rachel’s point, it is table stakes to have that alignment in place or you are going to be losing customers and you’re going to be spending a lot of GTM resources to lose customers and increase churn, rather than what integrations should be doing, which is decreasing churn.

Jill: When I was there, one reason partnerships at Marketo and Eloqua didn’t work out is bad integrations. 

Eloqua, for example, didn’t integrate well with Microsoft CRM, and not many systems did integrate well with Microsoft CRM then in the early 2000s. Same thing with Oracle, Eloqua did not integrate with Oracle very well either. 

When you do partnerships based on a small number of customers who have that system and it doesn’t extract out to a larger ICP, that is not a healthy partnership, and it will lead to attrition and bad feelings. 

And if you are making the sales organization invest time in building relationships on the partnership teams where it is not actually a good partnership, that is bad. 

Bader: I agree 100%. If the integration sucks and there is no propensity to buy, then who cares? When you are partnering, you have to ask the tough questions of “Why does this matter and who is actually going to care about buying it? What problem does it solve?” 

But also you have to consider the experience. How does it actually work? Does it make customers’ processes more complex? What is the support process? Who do the customers go to for support? 

All of these need to be well thought out from an experience perspective before you build.

Partners as Customers

Jill: One of things I saw happen at both Eloqua and Marketo is doing partnerships for the wrong reasons, and that was to get that partner as a customer rather than as a true partner. When you bring a partner in because you want them to be a customer, it creates bad partnerships.

Bader: We have a ton of partners that are also customers. They are embedding Twilio in their product and we are going to market together. But you need to be adding value. 

They want to know how we are going to market with them. This is the same for cloud providers, many vendors want to know, now that I am building on top of you, how are you going to help me go-to-market? That GTM conversation is critical if you are a customer and partner.

Kelly: The customer partner relationship when it goes well, it can go really well. Jill’s point is completely valid, and both relationships have to be authentic and have value on its own. If it is really just a guise to make a sale, it is never going to work.

But if you can have that dual relationship, there can be a lot of synergy there. With tech partnerships, you know the product better, you understand it, and can help you evolve together over time. 

To circle back to alignment with product, you really need alignment not just your own product team but your partner product teams. Because an integration can be really great and robust out of the box, but as products evolve and APIs evolve, you have to make sure you’re evolving with your partners and your customers’ tech stacks.

Partnerships Reporting to the CEO     

Jill: One way to help with alignment, and I saw it at Marketo and Eloqua, is the head of partnerships reporting to the CEO. That was really early thinking by those companies. 

Having partnerships in the same room with the heads of other functions is key. The partnership leader should report directly to the CEO.

Bader: We are in the decade of the ecosystem and if 76% of decision makers are saying business models are changing due to ecosystems, you need that leader at the table as well.

Jill: And do it early. Have the partnership leader sit at the table from the beginning. In the decade of the ecosystem, you are co-building from the start. You need to consider how your organization fits into how your ecosystem already operates. That’s just so important as an early stage software company today.

Kelly: I agree, and want to add that if you aren’t thinking that way from the beginning, you are accumulating tech debt. Trying to build interoperability from a product perspective after the fact is so much harder.

Bader: Always build with partners in mind.

Jill: And as it relates to the customer. What are they using already, what do they need, and what are the gaps that you can fill? 

When you’re co-building, you should continuously be thinking about what your customers already have, what they need, and what the gaps are that you can fill.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here (link only works on mobile). For more great events on partnerships and ecosystems, check out Tech Partnerships Ecosystem and the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance.

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