The Partner Experience Weekly: Partner Ops is a Strategic Role

The Partner Experience Weekly: Partner Ops is a Strategic Role

Aaron Howerton 9 min

This week is for the Ops professional and the message is straightforward — if you’re not contributing to strategy, you’re not doing your job.


Okay there Marky Mark... I hear you.


I certainly don’t mean this to be harsh, and, to be fair; it may not be what you were hired for.


It’s not uncommon for the Partner Operations role to be seen quite narrowly as a ’manual labor’ position — someone handling a variety of daily administration tasks that keep the business running.


This is one reason I try to keep ’Partner Experience’ at the forefront of my conversations.


I might be in Operations, specifically as an Operations Architect right now, but my main driver is ultimately tied to how people experience Partnerships. For me, that means Customers, Partners, and Colleagues.


Everything we do ultimately contributes to the improvement or degradation of this experience for these stakeholders. 

If you’re not working this way now, it may prove to be a difficult transition, but it’s worth it in terms of impact and long-term career growth. This is more important as companies continue to invest in Partner Operation roles sooner and as Partner Experience starts to take a larger role in the conversation. It all starts with getting into the right mindset.


The strategic mindset

The first thing to cover is getting into a strategic mindset. I think this starts by learning how to ask good questions. Here’s a quick example of what I mean.


Request: Build a new report with this specified information from this data set, scheduled to run monthly.


  • Normal/Expected Question: When should this be ready?
  • Strategic Question: What are we trying to understand with this report?


We still need to know the deadline but we’re expanding our scope to also try and extract purpose. It feels a little awkward because it almost feels like you’re questioning the requestor, something many people don’t appreciate. I always prefer to get on a call with people to set the tone as one of inquiry and understanding.


Written communications don’t carry that to people we don’t know, and a face-to-face meeting can reduce a lot of barriers. If you’re new the company, this is an extremely good way to build rapport, establish yourself as an owner of your space, and learn about the company.


The strategic difference is looking past the request (do this thing) to understand the impact and alignment with other long-term goals (what is the thing for, and does it make sense).


  • Yes, we can buy that system to handle Partner Directory.


Versus..


  • Yes, we can buy that system to handle Partner Directory, but our Marketplace team is also looking at new tech, and this platform does both. They may have an interest in participating in the conversation. I’ll reach out to Mary and see where they’re at.


It won’t apply to every ask - sometimes a report is just a report - but the habit of asking more questions will open the door for more interesting projects and opportunities. It’s also the doorway into higher strategic awareness — if you aren’t aligning your work to top-level OKRs for the business, you’re already putting yourself at risk. You may not feel ’welcome’ to do it in when you start, but I promise it will pay dividends in your career once you get in the rhythm.


Adopting a strategic mindset is what will allow you to move UP, in the traditional hierarchical sense, regardless of where that UP sits (because at this point in time, I don’t know any C-Level Partner Ops professionals, only as high as Directors).



Where to get started: new and early-stage programs

Many companies are still waiting for 18-24 months into the partner program timeline to make that first hire, which means you’re maybe in years 3-4 of company history.


All this together means you’re in for a lot of foundational cleanup work in new or early-stage programs.


What kind of things are we talking about?

  • Reaching out to other departments to build inroads and awareness for cross-functional opportunities to enhance the partner experience for Customers, Partners, and Colleagues.
  • Pulling your team out of spreadsheets, email, and chat tools and into core company systems like CRM, Cadence Management, Project Management tools, Account Enrichment, etc.
  • Establishing base architecture for Partner Accounts, Partner Contacts, and links to Leads and Opportunities for attribution tracking (your base metrics for Sourced and/or Influenced).
  • Rhythms for inbound and outbound Partner recruitment (hint: lean into existing sales rhythms and borrow process, objects, and reports).
  • Rhythms for inbound and outbound referrals tied to Affiliate, Referral, and Integration partners, including automation where possible based on tools and budget.
  • Invoicing and Payments through AP/Finance.
  • Lead distribution and Deal Reg for Reseller programs (though, full disclosure, these programs appear to be fading in preference for Tech partnerships for early stage companies as they tend to require a lot more infrastructure to support it).
  • Project management practices for keeping cross-organizational development projects on track (it’s worth repeating). 
  • Project visibility and tracking for solution partners handling tier 1 onboarding projects.
  • Establishing initial partner tech stack for solutions like Partner Directory, Marketplace, PRM (ugh, but yes), enablement, etc.
  • If you can get it, Single Sign-On (SSO) for your external partner stakeholders. This will pay the company back in multiples down the road and save you a headache (and possibly headcount) with user provisioning.
  • Partner support general intake process to relieve the daily burden for general help items in and around partnerships.
  • Increasingly, Account Mapping support to deliver Joint Marketing campaigns.
  • Basic contracting review and execution.
  • Partner Renewals if your program isn’t designed to be evergreen (pros and cons exist there)


The good news about being an early hire is also the bad news - these companies often have little established in the way of deep-standing rhythms. You’ll get to build a lot which means you’ll get to learn how to build influence, develop concepts, secure buy-in, and drive projects across the entire organization.


Where you’re headed: Existing programs

The problems that plague partnership operations don’t tend to change much from one industry to another. They also tend to grow into larger versions of the same problems due to a lack of resourcing.


Operations can be industry-specific. In this case, the industry is "partnerships."


Things may vary, but there’s a consistent rhythm to the challenges. Call me on this if you disagree — seriously. We could have a call, record it, and share it with an entire group of people I am 100% sure will eat it up.


In the meantime, here’s a short list of things you might face coming into companies with existing, longer-standing programs.


  • Advanced Opportunity modeling that includes multiple partners with multiple roles and co-selling support with deal visibility and engagement.
  • Multi-region deal registration and partner territory management, with a clearinghouse for internal approvals.
  • Support/automation for lead distribution to partners based on regional alignment, lead quality, and ICP.
  • Support/automation for deal registration along with definitions around what constitutes a ’deal,’ support for partner engagement, and rules of engagement for internal distribution to Direct for co-selling.
  • Quote support for creation, approvals, and payouts.
  • Advanced partner enablement and onboarding with no-touch, low-touch, and high-touch models tied to programs, levels, and strategic partner focus.
  • Demo-environment spin-up, maintenance, and support in conjunction with product teams.
  • Expanded operations team to support a variety of key functions not yet automated or supported by other teams. This could include system ownership for things like PRM, a support team for daily issues, deal reg and quote teams, and more.
  • Advanced contracting support (via process mostly) that includes multiple stakeholders, partner levels, and redlining for global alliance/strategic level partners.
  • For the love...Single-Sign-On (SSO) if you don’t already have it in place.


This list is not comprehensive and if you’re already ahead of me in the space you can likely identify a host of nuances and crevices I left unexplored. Write me.


Tell me.


Let’s shed some light on the dark places and share some knowledge.


The wrap-up

What truly makes all of this strategic is having an awareness that your decisions today will have an impact on the decisions your team faces next year.


The strategic view on this isn’t to say...


"Wait that creates a problem later!"


but is instead to say...


"I hear you saying you want to do this and that (of course, be specific) for these reasons. That will likely create this problem later which we’ll have to solve if you ever want to go this other direction (which we know we do based on these program roadmaps - i.e. the larger strategic business direction). We can resolve it now with this much effort by comparison and be ready for the next phase, or we can take the stated approach and be prepared to re-work things down the line, which could add this much additional effort when we get there. When do you want to slow down, now or later?"


To be clear, the value is in being able to do four things well:


  1. See the challenge.
  2. Communicate the challenge.
  3. Put the org to the question of addressing the challenge now or later.
  4. Deliver.


And be prepared to hear "We’ll circle back to it later. We’ve got to get this live ASAP." It’s common for the strategic ops mindset to be overlooked, unfortunately, even at higher levels. I’ve known COOs that prioritize delivery over quality due to ’business constraints’ that ultimately leave their team handling more manual work.


Still, my conviction is that over time you’ll build a reputation for awareness that people will listen to because the challenges you predict will come true and you’ll be able to handle it.


Me wishing that into existence for us all..



Bonus tips:


  1. Track your completed work in a personal file.
  2. Ops projects tend to proliferate and it’s easy to lose track of everything you do, thus, lose track of what you’re really capable of. Write it down as you go - you’ll appreciate your effort when it counts.
  3. Any time you build something, include a way to track it.
  4. Metrics are the name of the game when it comes to understanding and measuring impact.


Prefer to listen? Check out the podcast version of this post.


Listen to the arguement for a strategic mindset and circle back for the other details!

Aaron Howerton 9 min

The Partner Experience Weekly: Partner Ops is a Strategic Role


Partner Managers: If you're not contributing to strategy, you're not doing your job.


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