How to Shift Into a Partner-Led Sales Strategy
More and more organizations are prioritizing a partner-led sales strategy this year – and with good reason.
Particularly in today’s economic climate, with fears of a possible recession spurring businesses to tighten belts and scrutinize budgets, partner sales are a welcomed change of pace.
Now more than ever, finding ways to lower customer acquisition costs and drive healthy sales are a must. Partnerships can be a powerful channel to achieve those goals, especially when organizations focus on partner-led relationships.
Taylor would know. He’s a long-time guru in the partnership space – just check out his LinkedIn page where he’s grown a huge following as a thought leader in all things partner-related – and brought partner-led success to numerous major companies throughout his career.
With his help, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide on how to shift sales strategies to better leverage your partnerships, whether you’re just starting out with a new partner ecosystem or you’re looking to make your current program more partner-led.
What does “partner-led” mean?
A partner-led sales strategy is an approach where an organization not just collaborates with partners, but prioritizes those relationships as the main driver of growth.
Partners take a leading role in identifying leads and closing deals while the organization, in turn, invests in their partners by giving them the necessary resources, tools and training to succeed.
Partner-led sales accelerate customer acquisition, expand access to new markets and driver revenue.
The Power of Partnerships & Partner Sales
Time and time again, we’ve seen hard data illustrating how shifting to a partner-led sales strategy drives business growth faster than anyone could have predicted.
When telecommunications technology company First Orion recently decided to scale up their partner program, for example, they saw channel-sourced revenue increase by 50 percent in one year.
Powell Software, an organization that develops digital workplace solutions to improve employee experience, dove head-first into developing their partner-focused network. Now, their revenue is 100 percent partner-sourced.
Incorta doubled down on partnerships and quickly saw a string of successes including making the Gartner Magic Quadrant for B.I and being recognized as a DBTA 100 Companies That Matter Most in Data for 2022.
These are just a few examples of many showing just how powerful a partner sales strategy that puts partners first can be and the results that are possible.
The Partner-Led Mindset
Maintaining a partner-first ecosystem is an ongoing commitment.
It’s not set-and-forget-it. Rather, it involves continuous innovation to create the best possible partner experience and ongoing nurturing to sustain relationships.
The partner ecosystem is competitive, with other companies likely courting your partners and trying to convince them to prioritize their solutions over yours.
Essentially, the partner-first mindset boils down to making your partner’s job easier by providing better opportunities for them, an easier way of doing business with you, and the support needed to be successful.
So, how exactly do you shift gears and follow a more partner-led sales strategy?
Take Stock of Your Current Partner Sales Strategy
The first step to shifting to a more partner-led sales strategy is to take a true, deep look at your current sales strategy and present-date partner program.
Without knowing exactly where you’re at, it becomes impossible to identify areas for improvement or opportunities for growth.
Are you just starting out with a few informal partnerships? Or do you already have a robust partner program and portal with a number of different partner types, tiers and incentive structures? Or are you somewhere in the middle?
These are the key steps to evaluate your partnership program:
- Review your partnership goals and objectives:
Your partnership goals should align with overall business objectives for the company. If you don’t have solidified goals, now is the time to get them down on paper.
That could include, for example, goals around revenue targets, market share, customer acquisition costs or retention rates.
- Assess your current partner sales process:
What does your current partner sales process entail? How do you support partners and at what stage of the sales cycle are they being involved?
Analyze the conversion rates at each stage of the partner sales funnel and identify any bottlenecks.
Consider areas where partners can be particularly effective, like lead generation, qualification, nurturing, closing or follow-up.
- Analyze your customer base and audience data:
Dig into the data about your audience and customer base to glean insights about their behavior, preferences and needs.
This can be a good opportunity to solicit feedback and information from your partners about their customer base to better understand patterns and trends in your audience overlap, and use this information to inform your sales strategy.
- Evaluate your channel sales team:
It takes people-power to run a successful partner program. Of course, staffing will grow alongside your partnerships. Most organizations start out with a channel manager or similar role.
You don’t need to hire a new team right off the bat, but think about what roles would be the most beneficial as you expand. Partner operations, for example, can be one of the biggest areas for growth for new and existing channel sales programs.
- Take note of your competition:
There’s no need to be a copycat but it does pay to at least review your competition to know what they are offering in terms of partnerships and how they are leveraging channel sales.
This can allow you to differentiate your partner program and attract top performing partners that will lift up your partner sales initiatives.
Partner Data & KPIs
As you start to develop your partner-led sales strategy action plan, it’s important to have a roadmap for measuring success. And that means knowing what partner KPIs to monitor, so you can adjust as needed.
Here are some of the most important metrics to keep in mind:
The partnership metrics you choose to measure will need to align with your own specific objectives and initiatives, of course, but they should help you paint a clear picture of what is working and what needs improvement.
This kind of data-driven insight is crucial as you shift into a partner-led sales strategy and get buy-in from the rest of the organization.
From first recruiting and enabling partners to taking your partner program global, discover which advanced channel growth strategies you should develop at each maturity stage with our resource: Advanced Channel Growth Strategies Based On Current Milestones
Figure Out Your ‘Why’
You’ve audited your sales strategy and you’re ready to lean completely into partnerships, putting partners front and center.
But first, a question.
Why are you prioritizing partnerships?
Of course, you want to drive revenue and increase sales. But for partnerships to be truly successful and take flight, they require more than just the desire to sell. If you just wanted to sell more, you could simply hire more salespeople, right?
The value of partnerships goes deeper.
It allows you to better understand your customers and break into accounts with a warmer introduction and personalized context for a more compelling sales conversation.
With integration partners or value-added partners, you can offer a better product or service more tailored to your customers’ needs.
And partnerships allow you to scale your business more easily than direct sales, sourcing a vast pipeline of prospects through your ecosystem for continued and sustained business growth.
Just as important as figuring out your why in partnerships is making sure those reasons are closely aligned with the rest of the organization.
This is a step that doesn’t necessarily take a long time, but its importance cannot be overstated. Knowing why you’re prioritizing partnerships is foundational to success in the long run.
As you’re thinking about your partnership goals, it’s important to make sure they are also in sync with company-wide objectives and initiatives.
A Note About Acknowledging Negatives
While it may sound counterintuitive, don’t just focus on the positives, particularly in the current economic climate: Selling is becoming more challenging.
The latest Revenue Recap report by Bravado, for instance, looked into the sharp decline in sales in the tech sector. Only 23 percent of sales reps surveyed hit quota in Q4 2022, compared to 53 percent in Q4 2021.
Your organization may be the exception, but acknowledging the reality of the market is one more motivator to add to your list of ‘whys.’ And it can be a powerful one when building your case to leadership.
“That’s a very daunting question because it’s guiding them to the idea that [the current strategy] is not going to work – everyone is struggling. It’s really framing the idea that if you don’t do something different, it’s going to get worse.”
And that makes moving to a partner-led strategy more important than ever.
Get Internal Buy-In
Being partner-led requires a company-wide shift. Partner-led is a strategy that’s built into every department and becomes embedded in the company culture, so everyone needs to be on board.
Start from the top down. Selling partner-led to leadership requires thoughtfully and strategically building your case to show that this pivot towards partner-led is needed and the benefits will outweigh the costs of change.
And that requires navigating the political landscape of your company.
“You do have to play the political game and what that means is really challenging the status quo and the current opinions of leaders that may have found success in their roles through more traditional means,” said Taylor.
Internal alignment – especially between partnerships and departments like sales, marketing and RevOps – is also paramount for overall success. Coordination and cooperation from the beginning make for a smooth journey and also facilitates executive buy-in.
Bring in stakeholders from each department and truly listen to their pain points and goals. Having internal champions for the overall program is key, but each of these stakeholders will have their own objectives.
3 Steps To Convert Sales Reps To Partner-Led Champions
If you’re not sure where to start, begin with a single department or even an individual within a department. That relationship can give you important information about what’s working and point to a champion for your cause.
Just like with selling a product or service, having a happy end-user singing your praises can go a long way in converting others. It gives you a success story you can leverage. That’s what Taylor did at one of his previous companies, with great success.
“The top performing sales rep was the one who engaged most with the partner team,” he said.
He wasn’t just exceeding his quotas, he was also closing deals faster at a larger rate. And he had much less prospecting.
“So, we got them to advocate for us by saying, ‘Hey, other salespeople, this is what we need to do.’ Or ‘Hey, manager or director, this is what’s working, so we need to roll this out to the rest of the team,’” Taylor said.
“That one specific relationship is really key to creating that success story.”
In broad strokes, here’s what to do:
1. Find that one sales rep who is open to your idea (that may take some strategic conversations about the value you’ll bring)
2. Focus on helping them hit their numbers and sales targets with partner assistance – engage them with what they care about
3. Highlight that data-backed success story in your business case
When you’re having those initial conversations with a potential champion, focus on the benefits specific to their pain points. Talking points to showcase your value could include, for example:
Sales can leverage partners to bring in more highly qualified deals that close faster.
Customer success can provide more value with partnership contributions and see increased retention.
Marketing can share costs and expand reach.
Build your business case or deck to present to stakeholders that tells the story of how leaning into channel sales with a partner-led program benefits the company as a whole, as well as each individual department.
At this point, it’s also critical to set realistic goals and expectations – especially around longer term output versus short term wins. Partnerships are an investment to bring in new customers and retain existing ones, but that value isn’t always immediately apparent without the right framework of expectations.
Partnerships are powerful, but are rarely a source of quick overnight revenue. Establish a timeline for goals and make sure to track progress at each step of the way.
Building Your Case With Data
A big part of making your case and getting internal buy-in, as mentioned above, is having visibility into the metrics to measure progress and success.
The metrics listed out under the Partner Data & KPIs section above are a good place to start. Work closely with other teams to ensure cross-departmental alignment on these metrics and goals, so everyone is on the same page come reporting time.
Data that may be particularly valuable for other departments include:
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Make sure as you’re tracking these data points, you’re looking at them both in terms of trends month-over-month – or other time frame that suits your purposes.
From there, you’ll be able to put together reports that tell a story about the state and value of your partner ecosystem.
To tell this story in a compelling and cohesive way, make sure your reports include:
Hold regular check-ins with your executive team and leadership from other departments to stay on top of any company-wide goal changes that might be reflected in the channel.
Monthly or quarterly meetings are recommended as a minimum to ensure continued alignment between company goals and channel metrics.
Pinpoint Where You Provide Value
The value you provide to partners, in general, can be broken down into two camps: filling in the gaps of something you’re strong at that they need (sales or marketing, for example, or access to your audience) and your joint value proposition that can provide unique insights.
What that looks like will be unique to each organization and relationship, but essentially it’s the strategies and tactics – modern business acumen – your collaboration provides.
In terms of direct support, however, the most common way to provide sales and marketing value to your partners is by helping them with leads and co-marketing materials.
In the early stages of a partner program, the infrastructure may not yet be there to provide that level of support. And in more mature partner programs, your partners may prefer other forms of support.
That’s why soliciting feedback and listening to your partners is always so crucial. A partnership is like any other successful relationship in that regard.
Some easy ways to provide value upfront, without much effort or cost, can include:
Making introductions between your partners and others in your network
Sharing data or insight about your products or services that would help partners in conversations with their customers
Finding relevant articles, guides or other content that would support them in their efforts
Checking in to see where they most need help
It’s also beneficial to run regular partner satisfaction surveys to dig into your partner’s thoughts and opinions about what would best help them succeed at each stage of the partner journey.
Consider asking questions like:
Overall, how satisfied are you with our partnership?
How profitable are we to work for?
How easy is it to sell our products?
Do you feel like a valued member of our partner community?
How supported do you feel working with us?
How motivating are our program incentives?
Do you believe in the quality of our product/service?
Do we provide all the learning resources you need?
What’s the biggest hurdle in completing training and learning tracks?
What new materials could we provide to better support you in sales interactions?
Do you have any suggestions or anything else you’d like to share?
Of course, you can’t overlook the benefits of co-marketing for partners. How you do so will depend on your specific goals and partnerships, but there are some underlying best practices that tend to lead to success.
1. Define your goals for your joint promotional activities
2. Build a co-marketing agreement
3. Emphasize personal, human connection in your marketing efforts
4. Run a variety of initiatives from webinars to partnered content to in-person or digital events
5. Create a plan to track and measure co-marketing campaigns
Providing Value Internally
Of course, providing value with your partner program internally will also be a priority.
While direct sales and channel sales are often seen as different ends of the spectrum, they can work hand-in-hand together for everyone’s benefit.
Partners can assist direct sales achieve their goals in a number of ways, including:
By making warm introductions and strong connections built on trust that sales can later leverage.
Launching new marketing initiatives
Co-marketing can be a powerful tool to generate buzz in new, untapped market segments.
Partners can help test out sales strategies and playbooks to see which are most effective with closing deals, and then share those insights for scalable growth.
As you’re shifting into a partner-led sales model, make sure to highlight the value this will bring to other departments.
Create a Partner-Focused Community
As you grow and scale, creating community and connecting people becomes a more important way to add value for a large number of partners at the same time.
From fostering a vibrant online community to hosting in-person events and training, there are many ways to bring partners together that can really make your program stand apart from the rest.
That’s something Bryan Williams, Founder of Hockey Stick Advisory, can’t emphasize enough. He recently shared advice about how partner managers can kickstart their community initiatives on our podcast.
“There’s an opportunity to rally together and to share learnings and what’s working and what’s not,” he said.
Some ways to create communities that bring together partners effectively include:
Building community where your partners already are – whether that’s Slack, Discord, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, WhatsApp groups or other digital spaces
Provide valuable, engaging content that your partners can use. This could be anything from best practices, case studies, webinars to thought leadership pieces or podcasts.
Create opportunities for partners to come together around an event like a webinar or panel discussion. There are a number of partner-focused conferences that are great examples of events that inspire and engage.
Use digital tools that facilitate communication and collaboration.
Start with building micro-communities – perhaps bringing together just a few of your most engaged partners in a group conversation – and grow from there.
Attend other community members’ events and conferences, too.
Beyond the benefits that creating community brings to your partners, it also gives you a competitive edge.
“Fundamentally, if you’re able to establish that community and [your partners] continue to focus their efforts in your community and be engaged, then they’re spending time with you and not your competitors,” said Williams.
Become Partner-Led With the Right PRM
Pivoting to a partner-led sales strategy takes time, effort and resources, but the benefits can be significant.
By building a partner program that puts your partners at the center, you can drive better results, increase loyalty and create a competitive advantage for your business.
Using a PRM system helps streamline the process of going partner-first by giving you the tools to better manage your partner relationships and coordinate sales.
Everything from onboarding and training, to co-marketing and avoiding channel conflict, to dealing with commissions and improving transparency is easier with software that lets you leverage the power of automation.
The right PRM tool makes taking your partner program to new heights possible so you can play to your partners’ strengths.
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