Howdy Partners #19: Approaching Agency Partnerships

Howdy Partners #19: Approaching Agency Partnerships

Multiple Contributors 32 min

Solutions, channel, many terms to describe working with digital agencies. These partnerships can produce, but how you activate and unlock your agency partners can be a maze. We’re joined by Kyle Kramer, Director of Channel Partnerships at SaaS Labs, to discuss some of the critical ways to drive agency referral success and how to think in ways agencies do.

3 key takeaways:

  1. If you’re in a tech company, don’t project your challenges and business structure onto your agency partners.
  2. Tech companies and agencies are two completely different types of companies. If you want to have empathy towards your partners, understand how their circumstances differ from yours.
  3. Learn how agencies operate, how they make revenue, and what their challenges are.
  4. Transparency and openness towards your partners will go a long way. Listen to them, ask them questions, and you’ll learn how you can become a better partner to them.
  5. Find ways to create benefits as a part of your program that clearly connect and answer the problems of agencies.
  6. Once you know your partners’ problems, you know what would incentivize them. Then, embed those incentives into your program.

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Full transcript:

Will Taylor 00:20

Howdy partners, and welcome to another installment of the howdy partners podcast where we’re going to make sure you’re no longer shooting from the hip and leave this episode, especially with some tactical tips regarding today, agencies, and the importance that they play within your partnership strategy, as well as how you can avoid some of the pitfalls. And I’m super excited to take a bit more of a backseat today, because we have two experts who have a lot of agency experience in the field. And I’m one who hasn’t worked at an agency. And so the perspective of these two here today, of course, our very own, Tom, and now we also have Kyle Kramer, who has that agency experience. Kyle, I’ll let you introduce yourself. Give us a bit of a background about your experience. And then let’s dive right into to the topic.

Kyle Kramer 01:12

Yeah, absolutely. And thanks so much for having me, guys. Yeah, so I got my career started actually on the services side and an agency right out, right out of school, I wound up starting up an agency with people here locally in Wilmington. And so and I was at that agency for six years and wound up running it for about two years. And so I learned, you know, I, that’s where I really cut my teeth. And I learned so much about that we marketed primarily for b2b SaaS companies. And we kind of carved out a niche there. That was that was like, I don’t think that we ever really planned on that. But that’s where we found ourselves. And then it was this really interesting place to be because not as many people were doing it, it was harder work. It was more technical. And it was like how do you put in an inbound marketing spin on something that’s, you know, that’s not in the b2c space and requires that, you know, that level of, of content to be written. And so it was really challenging, I learned a lot. And I always had this desire. From there to go, actually, we were doing all this marketing for all these tech companies. And so I was so interested in the software side, and the product side. And so I always knew that I wanted to go and actually worked for and then even hopefully, potentially, one day, start my own tech business. And so I think that, you know, I, after I named the agency that I ran was called Hewa phi. And I left you a phi and went to work for a tech firm called customer IO, that does behavioral email and messaging, through their their automated API, through automation through their API. And I was there for I ran the partner program there for about the last four and a half, five years. And so I got such a great experience between those two sides. Because coming into that, when they they did they customer out didn’t have a professional services team. And they and they had so many customers that needed so much help. And so my hypothesis throughout that whole time was like we should, we should do very similar, really, what HubSpot did. Let’s leverage agencies who really know our product and love our product to help our customer base. And so that’s a lot of the work that we did to build a program out there. And that’s still successfully running, I’m proud to say so that’s my history. And then most recently, I’ve me and Tom, sir, have worked together and met each other, which has been great. And we’re working on basically launching a partner program from scratch at a company called SAS lab. So yeah, that’s my background.

Tom Burgess 03:45

And fun fact, like Kyle, and I have several I would say several, but he overlaps in the HubSpot space. You know, like, like, Kyle, I started to see scratch away at my career on the agency side and our agency new UEFI whether I knew Kyle or not, and and so I now starting at SAS labs with Kyle, we just have a lot of alignment on on what channel partnerships and what are the solutions partners needs to have and what what it means to us.

Will Taylor 04:18

I am excited in Cali, you mentioned the internal services side, which I do have a question about later. But I want to start with the primary thing that most tech companies get wrong when working with agencies. What is that to you based on your experience on both sides? And also from your conversations with others? What’s the thing that most tech companies get wrong working with agencies?

Kyle Kramer 04:43

Yeah, it’s a really good question. I would say like the broad statement is that I see it time and time again. We’re a tech company or and potentially even the partner program there will have this tendency to basically Project the challenges and issues that they’re facing at any given point or in a year on to the agency, and it’s like, Oh, you guys are are dealing with all these same things, right. And so I think that like, the two, because it’s two different, it’s just two different businesses and the way that they run, that’s a really big mistake to make, if you look, think about a tech company, they’re really high growth, they’re typically funded, they’re typically working with higher margins, 8080 to 90%. And they’re, and they’re also, most companies that are highly funded, are looking at some type of exit strategy, whether it be 510 15 years down the line, whether it’s an IPO, or an acquisition. And so that’s like, that’s very much the mentality that you see, in this space in tech. And I think it’s flipped that over on the agency side couldn’t be more different, right? Like, typically agencies aren’t funded, they, it was, you know, one or two people who started working, and then they got so much work that they hired one more person, and then that grew, and then that grew. And it’s, and it’s very grassroots, and then, and it’s a lower margin business. And so, you know, if you have an agency that’s making 15, any I mean, if 15 to 30% 30%, like amazing, then I mean, that just changes the whole, that changes the way that you hire, right, people are then trying to hire more junior people and train them up. And so the challenge is that an agency owner or, or really just an agency faces, it’s so the dichotomy there is so different than what a tech company faces. That’s, that’s the problem that I see happen most often. And so that like, that spreads, spreads and shows itself in different ways, but I think that the biggest thing is, is just, it’s almost like this lack of empathy when it comes to the challenges that an agency are facing. And, and then with that lack of empathy comes solutions that are disjointed or not connected to what agencies really need help with. So we see that see that a lot. And I think that that’s one of the things that we try to do is, is really put ourselves in the agency shoes. It’s like, okay, they’re not they’re not in tech or not, they’re not dealing with a high margin business, what are the challenges that that they’re actually happening, and if you, if you spend the time you talk to these agency owners, you hear it time and time again, it’s like, we’re, we’re really hungry for new leads, because it’s like all, it’s pretty much more word of mouth, from referrals in that space. And then hiring hiring is a constant challenge, because it’s, it’s, there’s two ways to go. It’s either someone with a ton of experience, but it’s really hard to find agencies or agents, it’s really hard for agencies to afford those folks because of the margins. And then the flip side is is like we’ve got it, we’ve got to do a ton of training. And so it’s like, how do we accomplish that, and not take a loss there. So there are very, very unique challenges to the services businesses that agencies live in. And missing out on that is what I see tech firms do a lot.

Tom Burgess 08:05

Yeah, and what I’d add there, it’s, you know, for someone that Kyle and myself who, you know, Kyle mentioned, like we are, we’re at SaaS Labs, we are really revamping, or just or building a program with live people that understand what channel partnerships is. And so for us, you know, as we look at something like the IPP, which, you know, we’ve talked about on an episode before, it’s really, it’s more, it’s more tangible for us to understand the pain points, because we’ve been there. So when Kyle talks about, you know, like your net, like an agency’s next hire could be solely based on signing X client, right? It’s much more about that, that margins, how can we run, you know, if you lose a client, you might be in, like, in some heat, like, we just hired someone. So it’s a lot different than SaaS. And I think one of the one of the biggest things that I’ve seen in the three years that I’ve been in SaaS from the agency side, is that you don’t take the time to truly get to know your agency’s partner, your partner’s business, which is understanding, you know, what are their true pain points? What are their go to market strategies like you, you could, you could easily have a plan in place to know like, okay, you know, we’re in the HubSpot ecosystem, or the Pipedrive, ecosystem, Marketo, whatever it may be. So your product alignment is there. But you are just going based on how a partnership program has been established and setting the tone versus like, no, no, let’s take a step back. Let’s get to know our top partners understand, like where they’re headed, and then you start to recognize you can develop the services and the go to market plans around that. So to what Kyle said, it’s, it’s being assumptive versus you know, just listening and asking the right questions to like, go to market properly.

Will Taylor 09:56

Yeah, that’s interesting. And then that makes me think about it. When a tech company tries to build their own services, not only are there challenges with the way investors perceive that, because the revenue appears differently, it’s, you know, a one off project or, you know, it’s not the SAS model, it’s completely different in terms of the actual business function. And so the challenge, I think a lot of companies face is one, like you mentioned, they just simply don’t understand that model, but then to, they may even try and actually do it themselves and then end up failing. And that not only burns the bridges with the potential agency partners that they already have, but then it’s kind of like, as a startup, you need to use your time as efficiently as possible. And so you’re, like crippling yourself, essentially, at that point. And so what are your thoughts on let’s say, this internal services program is already developed within an organization? Or maybe there’s even conversations about, hey, why don’t we just do this ourselves? I’ve have come across two of those situations, individually, where you know, there already was that service program. And then you can see partners come in, or agency partners were there. And then they say, Well, why don’t we just do it ourselves? Tell me your thoughts on on that. Like, is that a good idea for SAS businesses? And even if it’s not, and it’s just happening to a partner manager? How can they navigate that conversation? What are your thoughts? And then what’s the way that you would recommend someone could navigate through those conversations?

Kyle Kramer 11:29

Yeah, it’s really good question. And like, you know, one way to quit to quickly build empathy for an agency is to try to start internal services department, right? Because that that changes that changes the whole, it changes the whole everything, right, the whole conversation of like, is this a loss leader? Or is this something that we actually want to produce revenue? Or are we just trying to retain customers? And so those are a lot of the conversations that honestly, so. So here’s my experience, at customer EO, we actually the team there decided that they wanted to start out a professional services team in tandem with what we had already built on the agency side. And there was definitely some conflict there that we that we figured a way around. Because I because I did at the time, I think we all did really bleed, looked at it and believed in it as an experiment to see how we could how we could roll this out, we had different level of technical knowledge, both internally and externally, internally with that agency ecosystem. And so there were some unique cases, especially on the sales side, where it made sense for us to get more hands on in theory. And so we actually, so we went about that. And, you know, it was pretty serious experiment, we, you know, we hired three people to run this team and started running projects and working with the seals sales seem very closely to pull in deals and understand, okay, this is more technical scope, they could use some professional services as as an add on. And we ran that for about two years. And, you know, going back to your question, like, Is it is it right or wrong? You know, I think the crappy answer, is it, it depends on the company. For Customer Oh, we learned that it wasn’t the right, the right move for us because of how diligent and how we had to be to make it work well, and how, how much we didn’t know as a company about what it took to run services. Right. And so, it’s, it’s so interesting, because it was very interesting to see it happen. Because coming from the services side, you know, we just made a lot of the mistakes that new agency owners make, like, scope creep was like a huge thing that we just weren’t really, you know, we weren’t really set up to, to, like, really flesh that out in a way, because we just didn’t know we hadn’t done it. And so you know, we will write out contracts and then push kind of seven, it’s like, you know, this was supposed to be done six months ago. And here we are, we’re, we’re on our third meeting this week. And so that that became, that became a real challenge for that team. And so what we, what customers wound up doing is we actually, we wound up sunsetting, that team, we moved the three people that we hired on that team over to be on the sales team. And, and they were more consultative engineers that we would bring in and help close deals. And then they what we did, which was really cool, was we actually started to lean on our Agency Network much harder. So we, as part of that sunsetting, we were really doubling down on growing our agency network. And so we actually led with that we, when we were trying to recruit new partners, which was, hey, listen, we had this team internally, we’re sunsetting it we need more help from agencies who know and understand our product. And so we’re looking for people to learn this product, and then be available to take work from our client base. And that was a hook because people were like, oh, so what you’re telling me is you guys need to have customers who need help. And this tool, if we know this, and we can become experts in this, we can do that. And so that was our that all 2021 That was our primary acquisition strategy. And our outreach method was openly Talking about kind of like how we, we rent we had this team, we’ve sunsetted it. And now what we’re trying to do is, is really lean into our agency partners. And so that wound up working phenomenally well. And obviously, there’s kinks to work out, right? It’s like, how do we make sure that the communication between sales and the partner and those engineers is all really locked solid, but it those things take time and work from from the partner managers, but we were able to establish a really good rapport there, and, and honestly, some some absolutely amazing, amazing agencies who, frankly, they can do the work much better than than we knew how to internalize. So,

Tom Burgess 15:38

yeah, yeah, it’s tough because you, when you talk about professional services, from a SaaS standpoint, you need to recognize that you’re essentially bringing in a revenue model, much like an agency, where margins are going to be thin, you’re hiring, you’re hiring around, you know, necessity, or just based on capacity and stuff like that. And it’s, it’s tough, because when you depending on where you come in, if you’re a partnership professional, that’s something that might be out of your control. At the same time, you still have control over what you you put in front of your partners. And so, you know, for me, if I look back at you know, my Vinyard experience from both the agency side and working at Vinyard, but also, like, as I look at SAS labs, you uniquely, you need to recognize and be humble to the fact like, there are, regardless of whether you have professional services or not, there are some things that agencies are just going to be better at completing, and especially when you’re talking about partners, that are referring business in as almost a secondary sales model, right? Like I would, I would look at any agency, and we’ll talk about how you build around partnerships as an inbound funnel. But for the most part, you’re looking at customers that are already customers established from your service partners. So what you then put on the line from an agency is trust rapport, like, Can I can I trust this, this team at at, you know, X SAS company, to to execute what we’re what they’re putting in front of our customer. And it it, it becomes very money becomes very hard to, like, build that development. So all that say, you know, when I approach services, what I actually love to lead with is like, what are you doing well already, because here’s the thing is that you could have have a professional services team that helps you implement a product, or helps you integrate products, or, and that’s, that, to me is like about it, maybe it’s more technical. So I think that’s where a lot of sass professional development teams come into play is like when they truly know like the dark depths of a product. Like that’s, that’s where it’s important, but a lot more of like that surface level, like how can I implement this product? How can I build strategies around it? That’s where I love to help delight agency partners is that like, Listen, you know, we might have this team established, I don’t want to lean on them. Like I’d rather put this this service back in your hands? Do you have an appetite for it? Yes, or no, if you do great, You are the closest person, you’re the close, the agency is the closest relationship to that customer, you need to lean on that. And so all that to say, like, whether you have professional services or not, it’s never a bad thing to start talking about, like what’s better than the other because I would almost lean towards the agencies. And honestly, sometimes they can do it cheaper.

Will Taylor 18:39

Yeah, I was just thinking that where it’s like, where does it actually fit? Where’s that line for the internal services versus agency services. And I think you’re right there, where it’s if it requires deep custom development, where only really your team knows how to do that, and there’s, it doesn’t make sense for any agency to really know that that’s where it could make more sense. And then outside of that, for servicing the surrounding strategy or for implementing the software agencies are a better fit. And so let’s say I’m, you know, a new agency partner manager, or I’m building a program from the ground up, and I know your team is starting to develop this. What’s the priority? What should I focus on? I know, a lot of the questions when this kind of program is brought up in organizations is, should we try and get a bunch of agencies? Should we, you know, test with 10, and then try and enable further. And of course, there’s always going to be in the back of their mind, well, we need revenue. So how do we actually get that production going? What are your thoughts on the strategy of, you know, how do we or what do we prioritize? And how do we move forward in the interaction to get closer to revenue? What are your thoughts in terms of the advice side of what you should start with?

Kyle Kramer 19:57

Yeah, so I mean, we are We’re in the throes of doing this right now. And it sounds like you guys on a previous podcast talked about developing an IPP. And I think that’s really the best place to start, right is going going, if you’re fortunate enough to have agencies who you’ve worked with, even in an informal way, starting there, because it’s like, they’re, for some reason, they’re already incentivized. And so that’s, to me a lot of time a leading indicator behind what’s actually going to make your program tick. And then utilizing so and kind of what we’re doing right now, behind the scenes is utilizing the partners who we’ve worked with informally, and getting down and dirty with them to figure out what makes them tick. Why why are they recommending this product today? What do they like about it? And then, and probably most importantly, what are their challenges? And how can we build a program that that, you know, supports those challenges in a way where they’re like, they get value out of the things and and they’re designed in a way that are very prescriptive to what we know, that people in this industry face. For me, right. Now telephony, which is just called a product that we’re building a partner program for. It’s a telephony product. And it’s a new space for us. And so I think that like, sometimes, the knee jerk reaction can be like, okay, you know, let’s come in and just set up, like, the things that everyone else is doing, right, it’s like, let’s shut up, set up rev share, and let’s set up like a certification, let’s set up, you know, whatever, whatever the most common things are. And I think that, that those might be the right things. But they also might not be and and I think prioritizing them, is the name of the game, I think one of the hardest things for any partner manager to do is is connect their program to revenue, especially at the beginning. And so becomes this very hard game of like, how do we run it lean enough to get what we need to in place, so we can show a little bit of traction and be like, endpoint to a number point to a customer and say, See, it’s working. And so to me, it all goes back to developing the IPP. So you can run it lean enough, you know, what the main challenges are, and then you can create, you can phase out a program that’s prescriptive to those that if nothing else, your existing partners find a ton of value? And that’s what I would say.

Tom Burgess 22:17

Yeah. Well said, I think it’s, it goes back to the first question, which is, you know, what, what do a lot of tech companies get wrong? Which is you are, it’s hard not to think, you know, six months a year down the road and, and recognize, you know, what you need in place, do we need tiering? Do we need certifications do we need, you know, like, these levers to pull or based on commissions like that, those are all great things to consider. But at its core, if you are establishing a program around agencies, you need to understand who they are. And so that’s, that’s easy, say hard do because for Kyle and I, we have that experience, so we know what to hear for. And to be frank, like, we’ve hopped on calls with a couple of agencies, and they’re like, Oh, you guys have worked at an agency before like, great, it just immediately calms the the understanding of where we’re heading. And that’s not that’s an that is a pipe dream like that, in most partnership scenarios. Like, unless you’ve worked at an agency, that will never happen, regardless, having the right conversations to say like, Hey, here’s what we’re, it’s all around transparency, like Kyle and I, in what, who, and who we’re talking to, we are never like, Hey, we’re gonna promise you X amount of revenue and X amount of lead shares, what we’re saying is like, we need your help in getting this off the ground, and your input is vital to how we scale and by them recognizing that they know that their input can help shape what we do and in, in, in their sense, that that is a large chunk of pie that at some point will be real. So once again, going back to the IPP, that is that is one thing that you establish upfront. The other side is like understanding what your program is versus what it isn’t. And that takes a lot of understanding of like, what is the sales team doing? You know, what’s, what’s our revenue margins? Like? What are we pushing product wise? How? What’s our, what’s our, like? plg? Like, how does product lead growth fit into, like, positioning for agencies? It’s, it’s really easy to say like, we need to implement tiering we need to implement certifications right away, but your way, you’re putting the cart way before the horse. Just get to know your agencies, what are they pushing, like what I’ve learned from talking to some of the agencies at Sauce Labs, was that there are so many tech ecosystems that we have potential gains in and in one thing that I want to state is like as you’re developing the IPP, one of the most important pieces and Kyle and I literally talked about this today is what tech ecosystems are we going to Put our chips into write like, where are we going all in? Because you start to develop this primary goal, right? Your IPP is developed around, you know, x values. But then how does that fit into something like a HubSpot? How does that fit into Marketo? How does that fit into Pipedrive? You have to develop these subcategories where you know, we can win based on what we’ve heard. And, you know, maybe this is more of a secondary push, right? Like we think we have claims here up against our competitors up against just the market in general. So where are we going to head? And that’s, that’s, that’s one of those things that you can’t, there’s no perfect science to it. But once you know that, like there’s value there, go with it. And if you fail, great, go to the next one. If you don’t, and you win, awesome.

Will Taylor 25:46

Nice. And yeah, I can say from my experience, not being on the agency side, one of the most valuable things that helped me was learning how the agencies operate, like we talked about today. So in terms of a summary and a tactical takeaway from today, one, learn about agencies, whether that is through your own research or through a conversation with an agency, ask them about how their business works, and how they deal with clients, and you know what their business challenges are, so that you can really paint the picture of how they operate and how they make revenue. And then you can understand how you can collaborate and really have a strong partnership. And then also, it sounds like from the advice today, one of the tactical takeaways is, you know, you have your IPP, then use that to guide where you’re going to focus your efforts. And I’ve had many conversations with folks building an agency program where, you know, there’s so many opportunities, so many agencies, but if you choose a tech ecosystem, you’ve then immediately funneled down your focus into this specific area, where you can have much more clear messaging that will be relevant to that agency, and you’ll be able to paint the picture better for them. Because a lot of the challenges that agencies find is, there’s so many tech companies, they’re all reaching out to me for, you know, this partnership. And, you know, they all have the same value prop of, you know, this revenue share. But if you stand out by showing that you understand their business, and also understand the ecosystem that they play in and how that actually aligns with their goals and your goals, then that’s going to be a much stronger partnership. So we’re just coming up on the end. But I would love to hear, you know, is there any other color to add on those tactical tips? Like, what’s one thing that was really helpful in terms of a thing that people can action today? What are your thoughts on what people should do?

Kyle Kramer 27:31

I mean, well, yeah, I think you I think you nailed it, I think it’s it’s an it doesn’t even have to be overcomplicated. Right? It’s as simple as taking the time to really get down and understand what are those challenges? And is there a way to create benefits as part of the program that that succinctly and clearly connect and answer those challenges? And whether it’s lead generation or its training, or its hiring, whatever those things are? Like, you know, if you notice common threads, it’s like, is there something that we can put forward as a benefit here? That’s like, Yep, we’re solving this for you. I think that in combination with what Tom said, which is, which is just making sure that the outreach messaging, it’s getting harder and harder, right, it’s just more clouded. There’s more partner programs. And so it’s like, what is the value prop and I think going and, and using a tech ecosystem as a way to, to dive down and talk to specific challenges is a great way to do this. It’s like, Hey, listen, we know that our product slots in perfectly with this CRM, or whatever other piece of tech that that integrates with your product. And, and we know these, these are the challenges that we solve, and it’s like, how often does this come up for your clients? Does it ever and then it’s like, oh, it never does? Okay, great, then we’re probably not a great fit. But that’s usually not the answer. The answer is, is Oh, my God, we hear this all the time. And All right, yeah, let’s, let’s see, maybe this will be a solution. So I think that type of messaging to break in the door is is is only can you it can only really be done if you go down at tech ecosystem, kind of narrow lane. So

Tom Burgess 29:10

yeah, awesome. In in, we hear it all the time. Like even if you’re working with partners that are working with competitors, like most of the time, these agencies are going to put be as transparent and prescriptive as possible. And if you know you have leverage in certain aspects of your product, I think one of the key things. takeaway for me, for new partner managers, or someone like starting in an organization where this is established or is not or not, is understanding what other products you have integrations with that already work really well, because that is like those are your paths to understanding like, hey, the products will work on its own. And you’ll hear that from your agency partners. You’ll hear that from all your partners. So capitalize on that because it’s starting to solve the work that you already need to do. So now you can focus on some more of those revenue generating activities.

Will Taylor 30:00

Amazing. Kyle, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us and our listeners. And thank you listeners for another episode of howdy partners.

Kyle Kramer 30:09

Thanks for having me.

Multiple Contributors 32 min

Howdy Partners #19: Approaching Agency Partnerships

We're joined by Kyle Kramer, Director of Channel Partnerships at SaaS Labs, to discuss some of the critical ways to drive agency referral success and how to think in ways agencies do.

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