Growing your firm using a network of partners is a tried and true method to grow with minimal cost. Partner relationships are fragile compared to hiring a traditional salesforce. After all, partners do not have long term investments and agreements used in the franchise world. If a partner is discontent or sees a more valuable opportunity elsewhere, your program may start to erode.
Set The Foundation For An Effective Partner Program: Vision
Whether you are looking to grow your current partner program or start a new program, vision is the critical foundation. For the best results, your vision sets your program apart from others. Remember that your partners always have the option to leave the program or make it a low priority.
What Is Your Vision For The Firm?
In 3-5 years, how will your company transform as a result of interacting with your partners? Your vision will likely include product, financial measures and partner engagement. For example our software product will grow new capabilities from an app marketplace, grow 10% in revenue annually and engage partners in an annual conference. This long term vision will then inform your next steps on how to design the details of your program.
Tip: Minimize the use of vague terminology and feel-good phrases that could be used by anyone in your industry. Your vision should be distinctive.
How Do You Align With Your Partner’s Vision?
Partners come in different shapes and sizes, so it will be difficult to appeal to all of them. Rather than guess what your potential partners want from the program, go out and talk to them. The tools and techniques of the lean movement can be helpful here. To prepare for the discussions, use resources such as Lean Customer Development: Building Products Your Customers Will Buy by Cindy Alvarez. For example, a small firm may have a limited brand presence in the market. In that case, a national brand may attract by partners eager to enhance their reputation by association.
Tip: Your research should cover two distinct segments – companies that already participate in a partner program and non-partners who might fit your plan based on other criteria.
Ideas From Industry Leaders
Two technology giants are well known for their successful partner programs. Let’s explore those programs in depth to identify how the firms have developed these programs over time. While both of these examples come from the software industry, the examples can be transferred to other industries.
Salesforce.com Case Study
Salesforce.com has invested heavily in growing through partners. Consider the different ways that the firm engages partners to grow together:
- Marketing and Lead Generation. Through the Salesforce App Exchange website, Salesforce.com partners receive leads from prospects who are looking for help with Salesforce products. The platform also includes the capability for clients to leave reviews about their experience.
- Salesforce has a large catalog of certification programs covering different job roles such as developer, administrators, and architects. These certifications enable partners to deliver projects with confidence.
- Partners have several avenues to connect with each other. The annual Salesforce conference in California draws over 100,000 attendees and includes a variety of programs dedicated to partners. Also, the company has an online community
- Product Enhancements. Salesforce partners and software companies have the opportunity to create custom software apps such as Mailchimp for Salesforce (email marketing) and Docusign for Salesforce (an e-Signature service).
As with any other business strategy, a deep commitment to partners does require some trade-offs. For example, there is a constant concern about competing with partners. For instance, Venturebeat pointed out that Salesforce is competing against its analytics partners. If you are perceived to be directly competing against partners, that move does not support partner enablement.
The Microsoft Approach to Partners
Microsoft’s approach to partners has commonalities with Salesforce and distinct elements. In contrast to Salesforce, which is focused on the business market, Microsoft sells to companies and individuals. In the past, Microsoft largely relied on retailers to sell products such as Office. Microsoft enables partners to become successful using several methods. For the end customer, working with a partner often makes sense in cases where configuration, consulting and other support are needed to obtain the most value from the products.
- Recognize Successful Partners. The need for recognition, especially by peers who understand your achievement, is practically universal. Microsoft has capitalized on this need by offering an extensive award program. For example, Microsoft offers several types of partner awards such as Country Partner of the Year Ward, Public Sector Awards, and Competency Based Awards. Individuals can also seek out the “MVP” (Microsoft Most Valuable Professional). Many Microsoft partners promote these awards on their websites and other materials.
- Focused Online Communities. An online community of Microsoft enthusiasts has some value. For partners, there is, even more, value in specialized groups for market research and prospecting. For example, if a partner focuses on Microsoft Project then joining a group like Microsoft Project User Group would be worthwhile.
- Technical Support. Microsoft partners rightly take pride in their technical knowledge. However, enabling partners to thrive means offers technical help. At this time, Microsoft enables partners by supporting Dynamics, Office 365 and Azure.
- Gamify Certification Training. Signing up to earn yet another technical certification may not be appealing. What if there was a way to encourage your partners to do just that? Microsoft’s partner levels (g., Silver and Gold) offer one way to do that. After all, if your partner earns silver and sees gold next on the list, they are likely to keep on engaging. This ladder of certifications is also a way to help partners stand out from each other in the marketplace.
Introducing The Partner Toolbox: Ways To Enable Your Partners’ Growth
With the groundwork in place, we can turn our attention to the tactics you can use to enable partners to become more successful.
1. Sell The Benefits of The Partner Program
Explain how your partner program drives positive business results for the partners. Once again, Microsoft’s approach is instructive to consider. Their case studies library shows numerous examples of partner companies earning more. For example, CRM Partners grew organically and by acquisition by focusing on Microsoft partners. The business case for joining a partner program may be clear in the abstract, but it is much more valuable to specify the details. Periodically interviewing partners for case studies is an excellent way to keep your partner program grounded in reality.
2. Seek Feedback and Act On It
Many of the world’s leading companies carry out annual employment engagement surveys, and the same process adds value to partners. This is an advanced strategy to use only after your partner program has been underway for at least one year. Use a combination of quantitative measures (e.g., on a score of 1-5, how satisfied are you with Acme’s partner program?) and qualitative measures (e.g., “What aspect of working with us is most frustrating for you?”). For survey methodologies, look into adapting proven systems like Net Promoter Score. Once you receive the results, identify one or two ways to improve the partner experience.
Tip: Offering a small incentive such as a draw for an Amazon.com gift card is an excellent way to encourage your partners to complete the survey.
You might assume that channel partners will do all the heavy lifting when it comes to sales and marketing. If you want to stay competitive with other opportunities, you will need to offer marketing support. For example, you might offer run a website like Salesforce.com’s App Exchange that provides leads. Alternatively, you may offer marketing collateral assets such as white papers and case studies about your product. You may also offer a list of preferred service providers such as Microsoft’s listing. Finally, look for ways to make it easy for partners to come together and compare notes.
By increasing the skill of your partners, you will help them to become more productive. Training is especially valuable in two scenarios: rapid expansion and significant product development. If your industry is growing rapidly, partners will need support training their new staff. In these cases, training is an excellent way to add value to partners. For the best results, combine several training options include informal options (e.g., a monthly “office hours” session for partners to ask technical questions) and formal options (e.g., certifications, webinars and traditional seminars).
Tip: Your training offerings do not have to exclusively relate to your firm’s products and services. You might also hold sessions on topics such as project management which will help your partners to become more effective.
5. Encourage Partner Loyalty
If partners depart from your program in significant numbers every year, you have a problem. Assuming your partner program is essential to your success, loyalty and retention elements are critical. Take a page from consumer oriented companies that stimulate loyalty through discounts and points programs. For example, consider offering partners a 5% discount on your product after they have been an active partner for two years. For additional insight on the loyalty programs, read “The Loyalty Leap: Turning Customer Information Into Customer Intimacy” by Bryan Pearson.
6. Recognize Partner Success Through Award Programs
Awards and honors are an underrated strategy to engage partners and connect them to your brand. As noted above, Microsoft has long been a successful player in recognizing the achievements of its partners. Fortunately, you do not need to be a multi-billion dollar company to launch a successful award program. To engage partners through awards, provide recognition they can take to the bank (i.e., get your partners in the press). Finally, make it easy for your partners to share the news – provide graphics and badge icons for them to display on their websites.
What goes into a successful award? Generally speaking, there are two components: tangible and intangible. The tangible aspect is an item of value such as a cash bonus, a gift card, a case of wine and so forth. The intangible component – which may be equally if not more valuable in some cases – speaks to the psychological benefit of recognition. To maximize the intangible reward component, carefully think through how and when the award is presented to your partners. Whether you choose to present at an evening gala style event or a less formal event, make sure you include a short speech that highlights the partner’s specific accomplishments.
7. Become The Trusted Advisor To Your Partners
Beyond the product they sell for you, partners have a variety of business needs. Once you have the foundation for an effective program in place, look for further ways to add value to your partners. If your partners are nearing retirement age, you might organize a succession planning webinar for your members. Alternatively, if your partners are in high growth mode, then they may appreciate your support in hiring qualified staff by hosting a partners-only job board. Ask yourself what questions your partners have and how you can support their growth further.
Investing in trusted advisor programming for your partners is a long term strategy that is best suited for established partner programs. If you launched your partner program is new, we recommend deferring this program to the future.
Resource: For additional ideas on adding value to your partners, check out “Networking With the Affluent” by Dr. Thomas J. Stanley. Do not let the age of the book or some of the examples stop you – there is gold to be discovered in that book.
8 .Reduce Partner Friction
Do partners find it easy to do business with you? If your partners have to complete paper forms and other processes to get work done, you are likely to frustrate them. If partners find your website and other resources difficult to access, engagement will suffer. To proactively address this issue, consider appointing a staff position dedicated to partner relationship management.
Final thoughts on partner engagement
Attracting, growing and retaining partners is a proven way to grow your business. As Microsoft and Salesforce.com show, you can achieve tremendous growth by working with your partners. However, these programs require strategy and investment to succeed. Recognize that your partners
In the comments section below, share one example of how you have engaged partners successfully in the past year.
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