How to Be the Perfect Partner: An Agency Perspective

How to Be the Perfect Partner: An Agency Perspective

Josh Wagner 8 min

How do you define a partner?

The partner world can seem a bit like the wild west. Some organizations have folks dedicated to partner development, some leverage key members of the sales team, others simply have executives take the reigns. What I’ve found consistently is the lack of a blueprint to run a successful partner program.

As a long-time sales leader at agencies, I’ve found myself thrust into our partnerships many times - formally and informally. I’ve looked high and low for an instruction manual, but in a world where it seems there’s a playbook for everything, partner programs are noticeably absent.

I feel a bit like I did when I left the hospital with my first child… left to figure it out on my own. Sure, there are people you can lean on, but there certainly isn’t a definitive guide.

Stand out with qualification

Like the parenting advice you seem to get from random people, I’m going to give you some advice to stand out in the sea of partner people.

Successful partnerships come down to a single word: Qualification.

I’ve come up with 3 key qualification criteria:

  1. The partner in question MUST solve a common problem for your customers
  2. You must know specifically how you are going to drive success for YOUR PARTNER
  3. You must know specifically how the partner is going to drive success for YOU

Tip: Don’t connect AEs (yet)

When establishing a new partnership, avoid the urge to immediately start connecting your AEs with your new partner AEs.

This will not be fruitful because there is no trust built yet. Inevitably, it will turn into a list-sharing exercise that will bear no fruit.

Instead, recommend you run a pilot to build some trust between the organizations. That never starts by connecting sales with sales. Start by connecting Sales with Customer Success. You and your new partner each identify a top AE and top CS individual. The goal here is for each of you to serve up an existing customer who has a need. This way salespeople are not competing with one another on a new business deal, rather they are being leveraged to help your CS person solve a problem you have uncovered.

This way each organization gets access to a new prospect for them and each gets the opportunity to test the partner hypothesis with a "friendly."

AE to AE co-selling is really hard, it requires a lot of trust and a mature partnership, consider it a measuring stick for the tiers in your program.

Find the common customer problem

The first critical component of partner evaluation is to determine if the potential partner solves a consistent problem for your customers. Nice-to-haves are just that—nice. They don’t move the needle and aren’t worth the time.

Shift Paradigm is a services-based business. Our business is focused on outcome-based results. If we don’t create positive outcomes, we don’t earn repeat and referral business. Partners in our world have to enable outcomes for our customers. Together, we must get shit done.

Examples: Bizible and Drift

One of the most common problems we solve for our customers is visibility into marketing performance. The common MarTech issue of not providing ROI is an absolute killer for the vendors we support and we’re in an all-out battle to destroy the MarTech issue of buying tech and then being unable to quote revenue lift from the implementation of that tech.

To solve this, we started a partnership years ago with Bizible. Bizible (acquired by Marketo) provides a solution to create this visibility consistently on top of core platforms the majority of our customers leverage, making them a natural partner for us.

Likewise, Drift understands the need for revenue recognition and created a calculator (check it out here) for their clients to understand what type of return they can look forward to in both time savings and beginning the conversation earlier in the consideration phase.

Tip: Pains list

Make a simple bullet list of the top 3-5 most common pains you solve for your customers. Then use those to proactively look for potential companies that can help solve those problems for your customers.

Let’s say you’re Marketo. One of the most common pains you solve is creating a central repository of data for the Marketer. Well, that requires well-structured and clean data to be really effective. Your partner evaluation would start with companies like Lead Genius, DiscoverOrg, or ZoomInfo.

How will you drive success for your partner?

The second component is based on knowing how to give before you get.

If the first criteria of a partnership are met, then there should be no problem referring them business. That’s why they want to partner with you; they want access to your customers. If you skip the first qualification, the rest is a moot point. But, if you’ve qualified well, then your next objective is understanding how to get the partner solution in front of your customers.

Example: Shift paradigm

I know that in order for our partners to get referrals from us consistently, we must achieve buy-in from our delivery team. Our delivery folks are in the trenches with our customers day in and day out. If they believe a partner solution will make life easier for the customer, referrals will flow.

It’s up to me to arm our delivery team with the ammo they need to understand and validate the problem.

This is often easier said than done. Executing this requires persistence and diligence. It requires eavesdropping on calls and keeping partner solutions top of mind. In case you haven’t seen it, there are thousands of MarTech vendors. Keeping our preferred stack straight requires concerted effort.

Once my team understands the problem and solution, it’s also my job to ensure the referral process is easy. If our partners make referring deals hard, it can sour the relationship unnecessarily.

Tip: Referral ownership

Think about what group in your organization has the most to gain by making a referral. Hint: It’s probably not the sales team.

The Sales team has an incentive compensation plan to sell your product, it’s hard enough to sell your own product or service, much less someone else’s. Look at your Success Team or Professional Services team who is responsible for the long-term relationship and making the customer sticky. Maybe you even have a customer marketing team!

Most partner referral programs have rev share or referral spiffs attached to them. Share them with the team members who make referrals. The extra cash (even if it’s small) can be a big deal to folks who don’t have variable comp plans.

Partnerships: What’s in it for ME?!

The answer is referrals, right?

Possibly, but referrals aren’t the only answer. Let’s not beat around the bush, your success is likely tied to revenue, which is likely tied to your compensation.

I’m not one to refuse a referral, but if you think of this as qualification criteria, you need to know specifically how to get right-fit referrals.

Example: Shift paradigm (again)

I don’t start with the referral, I start with the ability to create services around the partner.

If the partner solution has a natural services lift attached to it, there is a far better fit for us as a service-based business. The ability to create service offerings around the partner solution opens a ton of doors for me to generate revenue beyond the original referral.

This all sounds so kumbaya, right?

But partnerships aren’t always easy. I know that software sales reps traditionally don’t like to co-sell with service partners. “It’ll slow down my deal!” they claim.

Try to identify who in the organization is going to be the friendliest, because of pain in their day-to-day. I always start by asking for access to the partner Customer Success team as the entry point. From there I can get some early traction with my message and work my way into the sales organization.

Tip: Measurement

How will you measure success in your role? Chances are your compensation plan is tied to something that is important to your organization. Referrals aren’t the only way to make your number. What can you get from the partnership that will move the needle? Maybe it’s a rev share, the ability to create a new offering as a white label, or maybe a flood of qualified referrals does the trick.

Look at your comp and align how you pick your partners based on whether they can help you meet your goals.

Conclusion: Partnership qualification

Ten years and three kids later, I’d say I’ve learned a thing or two about raising my children. I may even offer a bit of advice to a friend now and then.

Ten years in an agency and a ton of partner trial and error have helped me formulate this set of qualification criteria too - which ultimately saves me time for the kiddos.

Josh Wagner 8 min

How to Be the Perfect Partner: An Agency Perspective

The partner world can seem a bit like the wild west. Josh Wagner gives you some advice to stand out in the sea of partner people.

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