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Strategies for Building and Managing Your Partner Ecosystem

No man is an island. This expression applies to family, friendships, and also your channel program. While partners may operate independently from one another, they come together to help build a greater ecosystem. Ideally, your partners should connect you with new opportunities rather than pitching the same audiences as your direct sales team or fellow channel participants. 

Strategically harness the cumulative impact of your partner ecosystem to strengthen your brand, broaden your reach, and achieve new profit goals. 

In this article, we’ll highlight how to build a purpose-driven channel partner ecosystem, best practices for managing a growing network, and pitfalls to avoid. 

Building an Optimal Partner Ecosystem

Determine guiding objectives for your partner ecosystem strategy

Yes, everyone wants revenue, but the goals of your partner program should be more specific. When considering what new value partners can bring, think about what hurdles you currently face or gaps in your Direct Sales strategy. Examples of goals for your partner program include:

      • Raising brand credibility amongst qualifying audiences
      • Promoting easy-to-execute integrations with popular software
      • Targeting new verticals in which you have no previous exposure
      • Maximizing marketing spending through joint promotional efforts

 

These goals should help guide all decisions when building your channel partner ecosystem, as well as the supporting training courses, sales enablement, and marketing materials. 

Set measurable goals reflective of your general objectives

Goals help you build a business case for your executive team so they understand the payoff of your partner ecosystem strategy. You’ll need this before they buy in and help you secure the resources and budget.  

They also help you find the right partners who are willing to work towards the same results. 

Examples of measurable goals:

      • Revenue goals – Assign quarterly targets for each partner based on their unique abilities. Targets can either be monetary ($750,000 in net-new revenue) or based on closed opportunities (5 accounts/month). Set a target for the entire ecosystem as well ($20M in revenue).
      • Deal size growth goals – Guide partners towards closing larger, more profitable deals.
      • New product sales – Was one of your objectives to use partners to launch a new offering successfully? Segment revenue numbers to help determine if channel program participants are effectively promoting the product. 
      • Brand goals – Measure brand awareness improvements due to your partner marketing strategy. Look specifically at new markets where your partners operate. 
      • New logo growth – Incentivize partners to sell your products to their own customers and prospects. 

 

Goal setting best practices when building your partner ecosystem:

      • Ensure that all goals for your partner ecosystem are in line with your company mission and values.
      • Set goals that your in-house sales organization can’t meet on their own, for example, growth in new territories.
      • Ensure that most goals are measurable within your partner portal. This includes deal registrations, webinar attendees, and lead generation.

Recruit strategically chosen partners for your ecosystem

Assess your current channel partner network and your objectives for the program. Where are there gaps in your existing sales ecosystem? For example, if you want to build your brand’s presence in the UK, it may be helpful to have UK-based partners. 

Similarly, are there areas in which you’ve saturated the market? A good indicator of this is if channel conflicts (or attempted duplicative registrations) regularly arise between different partners and/or your Direct Sales team. 

In such scenarios, you don’t need to necessarily turn down prospective partners that target similar audiences. However, the gaps in your ecosystem can guide the types of partners you want to actively recruit. Such insights can shape your promotional strategy and the incentives you provide to select partners. If a prospect represents a particularly worthwhile opportunity, you can even offer them exclusive rights to a specific region or business vertical. 

 

Partner Recruitment Best Practices to Keep in Mind

Before bringing any partners into your new program, make sure you have an ideal partner profile to reduce the chance of building an ecosystem full of low performers. 

A checklist can help you recruit partners that will generate the most sales. Items to include on your list can range from industry fit to culture fit. 

Checklist options:

  • Industry fit
  • Go-to-market compatibility 
  • Industry reputation and expertise 
  • Territory coverage
  • Complementary technology 
  • Cultural and value fit
  • Capabilities to learn your technology quickly
  • Sales and marketing resources to prospect and close deals
  • Overlap in existing customers and prospects for cross-selling
  • Willingness to invest in building integrations
  • Willingness to collaborate with your sales and marketing teams
  • Compatible sales cycles

Identify the partner-type that best serves your goals and ecosystem’s needs

As we explore in Adding Partner Types to Your Channel Sales Program, the provided services for your partners won’t be uniform across your ecosystem. What’s more, your program isn’t limited to a single type. Evaluate your products’ strengths and limitations against the needs of different audiences to determine if end users would best be served by simple referral partners or value-added resellers or similarly structured alliances.

Providing the right materials for your partners’ success

Just because you carefully curated your partner network doesn’t mean your ecosystem is complete. It’s your responsibility to arm them with the proper training and supporting materials, never losing sight of your guiding objectives.

Marketing Specific to Different Branches of Your Ecosystem 

You’ll need partner marketing content that’s relevant to each partner’s segment, industry, geography, and customer base. Partners selling to SMBs won’t find value in content targeted toward enterprise companies. Partners in Europe can’t pitch to their prospects using case studies of American customers. 

Marketing collateral:

  • Ebooks 
  • White papers 
  • Product overviews 
  • Email copy and social media messaging
  • Co-branded templates
  • Customer case studies 

 

Sales collateral

Partners will need sales guidelines and content to attach to their deal registrations within your partner portal. By centralizing all sales content in one place, you can measure which resources drove the most sales.

Sales collateral: 

  • Partner-specific pricing guidelines and discounting strategies
  • Deal registration and lead management in your partner portal 
  • Training for their sales team and sales engineers
  • If needed, automated approval processes for discounts, contract amendments, and legal support 
  • Reporting and dashboarding to track their opportunities and forecast their revenue targets 

As is true for marketing, don’t treat your sales collateral with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Support the various branches of your partner ecosystem by building unique materials that speak directly to individual audiences’ needs. 

Support and guidance

Align each partner with an account executive that understands their regional and industry requirements. To reduce the burden on your partner manager, build access to your customer support team directly into your PRM.

 

Managing your partner ecosystem as it grows

As your partner ecosystem grows, you’ll need processes that allow you to manage at scale. Without effective processes and guide rails, your partner manager will soon become overwhelmed supporting dozens, or hundreds, of partners worldwide.

 

Use a partner portal to provide real-time solutions regardless of the time-zone or program size

Your partner relationship management (PRM) software is the best place to provide the resources your partners need to succeed. This includes marketing content, sales collateral, deal registration, and contract or technical support.

A tool like Allbound enables you to serve unique platform experiences based on the user’s language, industry, and experience levels. Behavior-based notifications and the search bar will automatically direct partners toward relevant next steps. Features like Co-Branding produces standardized results without a wait-time or your direct involvement. 

In short, the right PRM lets you balance program and process uniformity with the right amount of customization for the ultimate partner experience.

Expand and integrate your technology stack to better serve and manage your ecosystem’s strategy

The PRM technology that underpins your partner portal is foundational to your channel partner ecosystem, but it shouldn’t be the only building material you utilize. Other software which can support your program and its participants include:

  • Account Mapping Software – This technology will make the above-mentioned task of minimizing overlaps airtight and up-to-date. Deploy this technology in conjunction with your Direct Sales team to ensure it reflects the current state of the continuously evolving ecosystem.
  • CRM – Just because you have a PRM in place doesn’t mean that your sales ecosystem wouldn’t benefit from a CRM (and vice versa). A first-class CRM can improve the behavioral analysis and management of existing customers, improving important partner program KPIs like the SaaS renewal rate. Optimally, your PRM and CRM should seamlessly integrate for real-time data sharing. 
  • Sales Enablement Tools – Equip partners with a suite of helpful software that can assist with scheduling and hosting virtual meetings, marketing campaign management, and more. 

Regularly audit the technology stack with which you power your partner ecosystem. Evaluate whether there are tools that offer overlapping capabilities, ones that are underutilized, or ones that simply fail to evolve as swiftly as their competitors. 

Templatize and systemize communications and processes 

Don’t let the earlier recommendation to strategically tailor content to specific audiences be an excuse for messaging inconsistencies and unintended management disparities. It’s paramount that partner experiences and taught tactics reflect your program’s guidelines and proven practices, no matter who the CAM may be or where they’re based within your ecosystem. 

To further aid in cohesion across your ecosystem, build templates to guide account managers and partners, alike. While we encourage you to view some of our most popular templates, the following are particularly helpful in managing ecosystem communications at scale:

      • Partner Pitch DeckMake sure that your company puts its best foot forward time and time again by crafting talking points prospective partners care about the most.
      • Partner Scorecard –  All members of your partner ecosystem should be held to the same standards and have transparency into their measured performance. Equip CAMs with this template to help them systemize such conversations.
      • Channel Partner Welcome KitMake your partners comfortable with their decision to join your growing ecosystem with a formalized, well-crafted welcome that clearly illustrates the immediate next steps.
      • The Ultimate Partner Journey TemplateA well-defined partner journey gives program participants a clear vision of what’s to come and helps you earmark partners’ progress with established milestones. 

Label partners to reflect the diversity of your program’s ecosystem

Build a system for organizing partners into different classifications, keeping in mind that program participants can belong to multiple groups. Why do such classifications increasingly matter as you build and manage your partner ecosystem?

      • Partner labels let you drill down into the data – There’s value in measuring the engagement and pipeline of your partner ecosystem on the whole, but you’ll also need to quantify performance metrics for individual groups. For example, do partners who serve supply chain management needs underperform compared to other branches of your ecosystem? Such knowledge empowers you to build focused strategies for improved ROI.
      • Labeling helps your PRM software serve content specific to partners’ needs – Partner management software lets you automate which partners view which materials based on the pre-established labeling of both participants groups and content. 

Keep in mind, a partner’s grouping shouldn’t be limited to their company’s demographics; it should also reflect their progression and value. This is how partner tiers can play a big role in efficiently managing your ecosystem. Establishing clear levels (and qualifying terms) lets you swiftly assess the number of activated, profitable participants within different branches rather than just a general headcount. What’s more, it systemizes how your account managers allocate the marketing budget and divide their time. After all, as you continue to build and diversify your ecosystem, you’ll need a system in which the most valuable relationships naturally take priority. 

 

Strategic pitfalls to avoid as your ecosystem grows

      • You never secured executive leadership buy-in – If they aren’t fully sold on the value of a partner ecosystem, you’ll find your program understaffed and under-resourced. Make sure they understand and agree with how you will measure success.
      • You forget that your partners work with other vendors – Continually show your partners that your ecosystem gives them access to new customers, extends their market reach, and provides complementary technology to their own platform. Your partners may be working with your competitors that have their own ecosystems. Don’t allow your company to fall out of favor. Collaborate on requests that make your partnership a slam dunk. Remember that this partnership should make both companies money.
      • You didn’t set clear rules on territory for partners and your Direct Sales team – If you build your ecosystem without the input of your sales leaders, you’ll create conflict and miss out on effective ways to co-sell. Don’t set commission in a way that dissuades your reps from bringing partners into their deals. Motivate your sales organization to promote your partner ecosystem by offering SPIFFs and other incentives.
      • You ignore ideas and feedback from your partners – They are speaking directly with their customers and can alert you about any obstacles in the way of your mutual success. This is particularly true if your partners have experiences with audiences with which you’re less familiar.
      • You fail to properly train partners on how to sell your products and are overly ambitious about their capabilities – Ensure that your partners already have the technical capabilities required for your products. If no one at their company knows how to implement a key function of your platform, they shouldn’t be part of your partner program.
        For partners who do have the capacity, make training programs compulsory. Require certifications that can be taught through online courses. Treat new partner onboarding like you would new sales hires. Provide them all with an equal opportunity to learn.
        If one of your products is especially complex, it might not be the right product to sell through your partner network. Your sales reps will have to handhold the partner through sales transactions. This isn’t scalable.
      • You let partners’ bad behaviors slide, jeopardizing the whole ecosystem – Hold partners accountable when they break rules, don’t follow important procedures, or neglect to register their deals. Be prepared to remove partners from your ecosystem whose behavior reflects negatively on the integrity of your business and brand. 

Key takeaway about building and managing partner ecosystem strategy 

Building a partner ecosystem requires a thoughtful strategy and a lot of collaboration. But with the right tools, your ecosystem can grow your market reach, help your customers address important technological gaps, and create a powerful lead generation machine. 

For more reading which can further assist with building and managing your partner ecosystem, we recommend:

Squash the Squabble: How to Manage Channel Conflict – Even within the most airtight partner program, conflicts are bound to arise as your ecosystem evolves. Learn strategies for managing related issues to minimize the fallout and salvage relationships.

The Ultimate Guide to Partner Relationship Management – There are two primary determinants in the success of your partner ecosystem: the technology you deploy and the strength of your management strategies. This guide will help you assess your techniques in order to build profitable, lasting relationships.

Channel Sales Training Courses & Learning Opportunities – Just as your partner ecosystem progressively builds, so should your industry knowledge. Stay abreast of shifting best practices and burgeoning opportunities with these training courses. 

 

    Ali Spiric