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Referral Partnerships 101

Show Synopsis

In this episode of the Partner Channel Podcast, Ali Spiric interviews Damiaan Van Zanen, the head of partnerships at Total Synergy. They discusses the types of partners Total Synergy works with and the importance of understanding partnership goals before formalizing contracts. This episode provides valuable insights into Damiaan’s partnership journey and finding the right balance between formality and informality.


  • Why it is important to understand partnership program goals before formalizing contracts 
  • How to create clear agreements that convey expectations to partners
  • What qualifies referalls as “low-touch”?

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The Script

Welcome to the Partner Channel podcast, the podcast for partnerships. In our episodes, we discuss ways to power your programs and gain actionable insights for all company sizes and partner types. We sit down with industry thought leaders to get the best tips and tricks for you, the listeners, to achieve your channel goals.

Ali Spiric:  Welcome to the Partner Channel podcast. My name is Ali and I’m the host. I’m the marketing manager here at Allbound and am joined by Damiaan Van Zanen today. He’s the head of partnerships at Total Synergy. Welcome to the podcast.

Damiaan Van Zanen: Thank you so much. It’s really great to be here.

 Ali Spiric: Nice. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and the partner types that you work with and sort of what brought you to this point in your career?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Sure. So I’m originally from Australia where I have worked across a number of small businesses in the AEC space, which is architecture, engineering, construction space and total synergy is a provider of, of technology for that space. Project management software. And in my previous roles, I worked in sort of business management kind of roles where actually ended up using a lot of partners, whether I knew it at the time or not, to help me deliver services to the businesses that I was working in. And we built a consultancy around the services that that I was actually delivering in a couple of those businesses and started delivering it to a lot more businesses with a partnerships model around that. And I was actually kind of a reseller, if you like, of the of Synergy, which is now the product that I’m selling here in the UK market. So fast forward sort of 5 or 6 years on from that, and I started with Synergy in 2017. Here I am now as head of partnerships globally. I bought the product over to the UK market and set up here and it’s something that was it was funny. I was I was talking to a few people about this at a Partnership Leaders event and it’s kind of I was doing partnerships before I knew I was doing partnerships in this role as a country manager where you’re sort of the only person on the ground.

 It’s quite difficult to, you know, to be everywhere at once and to get the cadence that you need by yourself to to get the sales cycle moving. So it was kind of a natural progression that I ended up gravitating towards getting some help in the form of referrals and, and that sort of they were all informal at the time and that sort of, you know, now we look where we are now and we’re about to talk about formal referral partnerships and, and a lot more structure around that. So yeah, it’s kind of been a natural progression towards partnerships from being in marketing, sales roles, business management roles where I guess understanding every aspect of the business has really helped me in this in terms of even customer success product. How the dev team is structured and working really helps in a partnerships role to be across all of that. And I think that sort of led me to this point now, and I’ve been in the role since August last year. So yeah, really starting to to get my feet on the ground and getting things to hum.

Ali Spiric: That’s really exciting. I think that. The history that you have is really going to prime us for a great conversation today. And I’m really glad that you opened the door to the referral conversation. And my first question is a loaded one that we could probably talk about for hours, but how do you set up a referral program?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Yeah, So and I think I don’t think I fully answered the last question either. So the, the main types of partners that we do have currently at Turtle Synergy, we have the, the usual integration or tech partners where we have an app that has an open API. So that’s sort of natural. Both partners where we’ve built to their API and where partners are built to our API, we also have referral partners and I categorize them in a in a few different ways, which I’ll come to in a bit. And then the other sort of natural type of partnership that businesses like ours have is resellers, which we don’t have any of yet, but I feel like there’s a nice pathway from referral partners towards resellers, which I might talk about a bit later because it’s something that we’re starting to entertain at the moment, which is quite nice. So how do you build a program? In my case, I like to write things down and I’m a bit systems oriented, so I went about spending the first few weeks or month even just consuming as much knowledge as I possibly could around how partnership programs look and feel and what I’m supposed to be doing in this role and partnership leaders and things like Partner Hacker and that were really great resources to help me with that. And even even the Allbound blog, you know, like I literally consumed as much as I possibly could, but it’s, I guess, preference, personal preference. I wrote everything down first and we talked about sort of what’s the first thing you need to do? 

The quickest way to get wins is for me, it was to get a clear picture of what I needed to have written down, formalized in a structure that I could then easily execute on.

Damiaan Van Zanen: Other people might just start and go for it sort of in, you know, build, build it and break it kind of fashion. But I felt like I needed to have, you know, the structure around having definitely having a formal referral agreement that you understand and that, you know, is going to be tight and work for you. Because in the beginning, and I don’t know if this is across the board of other people feel this way, but I felt a bit weird putting an agreement in front of someone when I knew that they were going to give me business, not having done it heaps of times. And I remember I was doing a course that that Matt Bray from SAP was talking on and he was like, you know, you’ve got to have this stuff in place. You’ve got to have your MOU, you’ve got to have your your referral agreement. I’m thinking, Oh, that’s a bit you know, it seems a bit odd to put all that sort of formal stuff in front of someone who I think is just going to give me some really good leads and we’re going to be good friends and everything’s going to be fine. But the more I got into it and the more I guess you understand what your ideal partner profile is and where you want to focus your time, it actually makes so much sense to have that and people don’t mind once, once they’ve signed the doc and and got it locked in, they’re happy to move forward and they will tell you if they think it’s too legal or they will say, what does this mean? But, yeah, I think that’s the first step is to have an understanding of what you need to have in place to make things watertight in terms of commercially. And then the rest is kind of just preference and what you, how you think it might work. So I had a very interesting MOU that I thought was great and sort of memorandum of understanding, which was sort of how we partner. And it turned out it was just way too overboard, like legal kind of speak. It was just a bit too, it needed to be way more casual. So we ended up just reverting to a like an onboarding email that said, This is how we want to play in the field with you guys. Um, so it’s kind of and that’s who we are as a company I think as well. I’ve probably got a little bit lost in the, in the, in the, I need to set this all up and make it tight, you know. Um, so yeah, I think start from just understanding what you want to get out of it, which is obviously referrals, new revenue. What’s the easiest way to make that happen? I and I know I’m talking to a partnership tech company right now on a podcast that’s run by you guys, but I don’t think you need tech to start with. And this is something that I know definitely not.

Ali Spiric: It’s not right for every time.

Damiaan Van Zanen: Yeah. And you know, you can get lost in going down these rabbit holes if I need to get all the things in place to make sure that this works. But really you need to understand how you want to work before you do all that. And it’s sort of 8 or 9 months on. We’re still figuring that out a little bit. It’s it’s becoming clearer and clearer every day. But I think there’s there’s definitely an understanding of what you want to do and how you want to do it before you start putting too much structure around it and workflows, that sort of stuff. So yeah, I hope that answered the question. I think I think it’s just about understanding what the outcomes are that you need. And and from that you can sort of put the bare bones in there and just make sure you have a couple of documents that help you look professional and make things pretty tight commercially.

Ali Spiric: Were you accepting partners before you started to formalize things with contracts and documentation and all of that fun stuff?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Yeah. And when you say accepting partners for us, that’s a very loose term. We were we were working with partners that referred us, and I had a dashboard in HubSpot that showed us, you know, what referrals we had from different companies. So I guess, yes, we had a formal dashboard for partner referrals. And that sort of, I guess was what kind of started the conversation of we need to formalize this, we need to get someone doing this full time because it’s it’s an untapped resource here and we need to, you know, find that oil on the farm and get it flowing. So, yes, the answer is definitely yes on that. And it’s I think it’s something that a lot of people probably do without realizing it. 

Ali Spiric: What was the partner feedback when you did start to formalize that and you had that contract, Did you go back to those informal partners and go, Hey, let’s make this legitimate? Do you want to do you want to go steady? Here’s a contract.

Damiaan Van Zanen: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Do you want to walk down the path and hold hands together and do some business? Exactly. So we have a couple of different types of partners that we’re very comfortable sort of putting them in these boxes. I guess we got the formal ones that just sign the agreement and you always have the ones that just sign the agreement, you know, the e-signature, send it back in 30s and they’re like, Yeah, we’re done. Then you got the ones that want to obviously look at the different clauses because they’re they’re worried about what that might look like for them in terms of working with other providers or vendors. And then we have people like we were talking about before who just want to be software agnostic and don’t want to sign an agreement at all. So we have formal referral partners. We’ve got and if I look at a referral partner in our business, we’ve got tech providers, even I don’t have too many of them, but we have tech providers that we have a formal agreement with because they are in a position to refer us a lot of business and they were requesting to have more out of it. And so we’ve got them on partnership referral agreements. We have service providers.

 So a lot of people call these agency partners, but for us, it’s service providers who can who operate in our space and act as business coaches or or accountants or, you know, training consultants, things like that for the customers in our space. So we have the same sort of ICP and ideal customer profile. And we we sort of go, okay, you guys work with the same people, we work the same people. You’re delivering a message to them. That’s how they should work. We have tech that can help them do that. You should refer some business to us and often they want that agreement in place in a formal way and they’re happy to get that 10% referral fee or whatever it may be that you come up with. We have a few that are on a little bit more than that, but it’s it’s kind of like, uh, what, what is it that you want out of it? And some of them say, I don’t want the commission, I want to give that as a discount to a customer or things like and others say, I don’t want to even have an agreement in place. As I said, they want to be that informal referral partner. And we have a couple of them as well who just who just want to be software agnostic.

 And I find that I have to work a lot more on those ones in terms of managing the relationship to make sure that they understand the product, because I know deep down that they’re probably looking at competitor products as well. Probably the reason they don’t want to sign an agreement. And so I have to make sure that our product sticks out in their head and that we still get those referrals. So while I’m not having to pay any any commission to them for referral, I have to spend a bit more time, which gets tricky when you’re the only partnership resource in a business. And I mentioned it before, but it’s something that I’ve definitely realized is is an interesting point. You can find partners anywhere in your business and we even have referral partners that are customers. So obviously there’s the whole piece of doing your refer a friend or, you know, customer referral campaigns. But we have a couple of customers who, you know, prolifically refer us new business and asked us if there was anything we could do on that. And so we said, Yeah, sure, we’ll put you on a standard referral agreement, which obviously is so interesting.

Ali Spiric: I think it’s it’s interesting to think about the different paths that there are to referral partnerships. To your point with the customers that just love you so much that want to send that business your way, I think that’s a really common use case and probably why a lot of people start with referral partnerships. You and I were talking about the fact that folks think that referral partnerships are quote unquote low touch. How do you feel about that?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Um, look, I think yeah, it’s it’s definitely the first and easiest or the low hanging fruit, if you like, in a partnership program. It doesn’t require any dev resources. It doesn’t require you to build a marketplace and then, you know, and spend any capital on that. It’s quite easy to go out. To find them. However, often you’re dealing with small businesses and lots of them who are only bringing in a number of smaller referrals, some of them bringing in bigger ones. It depends what end of the market you operate in as well, I’m sure. And we’re talking more sort of the SMB or mid market here. But it’s it was something that I soon realized pretty quickly that you have to understand really what your IP is, what your value proposition is with the type of IP that you’re working with. So your ideal partner profile and, and it’s quite easy to get distracted with people who say they want to be a partner if they’re especially if they’re inbound on your partner form and you go, oh yes, we get we get some great traction here. People are coming in and finding us and that’s great. So partner acquisition seems easy. However, all of a sudden you’ve got 3 or 4 partners who you have to really, really work on and they’re not going to give you much more than 1 or 2 referrals in six months and you want more than that. So it’s kind of like where do you focus your time? It’s really understanding who your ideal partners are and knowing exactly what the value proposition is so that you can easily walk down the path with them. You know, you don’t want to be dragging them down the path. You want to be easily walking down with them or skipping even, You know.

Ali Spiric: I like the skipping, that that paints a good picture in my head. So you mentioned referral partners that bring in 1 to 2 referrals over the course of six months. What is the number that we want to go for? Is a successful partner, one that brings you one monthly? I know in a perfect world it would be a metric ton within a month. But when we’re talking about the early stages and just setting up and having to be choosy with the partners that you work with because there is just one of you, what is a successful partner look like?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Honestly, it depends. But I think for us, it’s kind of in the beginning it was anyone who’s referring and then the next month it’s anyone who’s referring more than 2 or 3. And then it’s the next month it’s anyone. So it grows and we have a dashboard, a report on, on on our HubSpot dashboard that gives us, you know, the active partners. So it’s like, what referrals have they. Have they given us this quarter last quarter, etcetera. And so it’s giving me a good indicator of who the current active partners are. And you might have 20 partners on your books and maybe only 8 or 9 of them are currently active. And that tells you where you need to spend some time potentially as well in terms of managing those partners or the ones that aren’t quite as active. Why is that? Is it that they’re not their best IP, Not directly someone who’s going to give you much value over time? Or should we? And you have to ask the question, should we be spending time on on the ones that are producing and double down on that. Um, so it’s, it’s kind of I don’t think there is a right answer for what is the number we’re looking for. Every business is different and we operate in a space where we have sole traders using our application and we have companies with 500 plus staff using our applications.

I know which referral I would like. And so, you know, if I say I get one referral of of the top end, then I have to get 500 of the other ones to make it. So, you know, it’s the number of referrals or it’s more about the size of the deal and what they’re bringing to the table. But, you know, I think and we can talk about this a little bit as well, but a lot of the referral partners, yeah, they’re not that interested in the commission because if on the small end of town, that’s not going to move the needle for them, but what they are interested in is some co-marketing opportunity and some value there, which means that they can actually get more customers from our customer base and our prospect base. So we do webinars and things like that with with the partners that are active. So rewarding them in other ways than just commission and a a partner agreement. And that goes for informal and formal partners. 

If they’re willing to to to play with us, then we’ll do some co-marketing efforts and that helps them in turn. And it helps us because it means we have great content as well.

Ali Spiric: Yeah. Think that’s really cool to think about rewards in ways that are outside of just here’s some coin in your pocket. But I think that exposure is a really good point and something interesting that I think could be an entirely different conversation in and of itself.

Damiaan Van Zanen: Yeah, definitely, Definitely.

Ali Spiric: Earlier in this conversation, you mentioned that you’re a planner and you like to document things and write it down. Did you find that planning your next steps was helpful for you, or did you find that as things came in, we had to sort of deviate off of that path and it wasn’t able to be executed exactly as it was planned?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Yeah, I think for the most part it was. I had to be comfortable with the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to do on day one or day, you know, 365 necessarily what I ultimately what my utopia was for the partner program. You know, I, I had to be comfortable with that pretty early on that I know what I want to get to. And we mentioned about the reseller piece, like, I would love to be able to set up a bunch more resellers and things like that. We’re having conversations at the moment, but it’s, it’s kind of like, can I make some of my referral partners that are really going well and starting to understand our product? Can I turn them into a reseller where there’s much less of a of a touch from our team and, and they’re bringing in more, more, more revenue for us. So I think, yeah, it’s, it’s kind of like your, your focus has to just be on which partners are going to move the needle in terms of pipeline and revenue, which is exactly what the exact team want from your from your partnership program and step by step go from there and I think that’s so once I had everything written down, I had my little mind map which showed me, you know, where what I need to get done and the things that I need to focus on just how my brain works.

 I it was pretty clear that I had to just focus on the things that were going to enable my partners and and get them upskilled in terms of what we are selling and how we’re selling it and that I wasn’t necessarily able to do much on the tech side of that. I had to do most things manual, but that’s okay. And we we sort of moved forward at a pace that was comfortable at that point and we’re starting to run now kind of thing, you know, So it just sort of happens, I think, you know, and there’s obviously market factors and things like that that that that mean that things can ramp up quickly or the opposite. But I think if you have a good understanding of where you want to be in the line that you want to be on, if you do deviate by either the company’s decisions or path or market factors, then you you can easily pivot a little bit just and still stay sort of roughly on the on the the glide path of where you want to go.

Ali Spiric: Yeah, that makes sense. So you mentioned that you wanted to start your reseller program. The next question that I have I think applies both to starting a net new partner program, but also expanding into a new partner type. How do you set realistic goals with leadership? So when we go, we’re starting a partner program, I’m sure our bosses go, Oh my God, we’re going to be rich. But what does that look like before the the rich part kicks in?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Yeah, look, I think it’s from the very beginning, from day one in the program, expect unrealistic expectations. Um, that that’s just purely because people in the business haven’t done partnerships before. And you know, I hadn’t formally done it before I started, so I didn’t know. Um, and.

Ali Spiric: So you also thought you were going to get rich quick?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Yeah, you hope. Anyway, um, but you know, I pretty, pretty quickly in the first week or two realize that this is not going to happen quickly. And I think I mentioned that our program is really hitting its stride in its fourth quarter of being live, you know, So I think that’s a that feels like a win for me. It’s it’s I’m very happy now that it is doing that. Obviously there was a few quarters where I’m like, oh man, what’s happening? What are we doing? But it’s it’s one of those things you just got to stick to it and, and hope that you have the backing. And I think you mentioned sort of how do you set the expectations? And I think it’s about involving the exact team from day one in the process. You can’t build a partner program in a silo. Definitely can’t. Um, I mean, I think I saw something on LinkedIn the other day. Brian Williams, um, from Hockey Stick Advisory, said something about this as well. But I think it’s, it’s pretty important to, to bring the exact team in really early and make sure that you’re across all aspects or all teams of the business that partnerships will touch and which is everything really. Um, so yeah, I think having the buy in early gives you support naturally.

 Ali Spiric: Yeah. What were some of those metrics that you would show to leadership to go, This is working even though it’s still building? Were you measuring partner engagement? But that’s pretty vague, so probably not. But what was that measurement?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Yeah, conversion of partnerships. So like is a partner or a partner acquisition? I guess because we didn’t necessarily convert someone that was an informal partner, but partner acquisition either informal, formal, you know, whatever they may be. And then that, that metric that I mentioned, which was, you know, how many referrals are we getting? Like I said, it’s obviously for us, we want referrals at the higher end of the market. But I think just getting referrals shows that things are working because it means that we’ve got a process that can be followed and it’s very you can’t push, it’s not it’s not like a hard sell. You know, you can’t do a hard sell on a partnership. It’s it’s a relationship that you have to work on over time. So it’s not like I can push my partners for bigger deals or push my partners for more deals. It’s I need to know what they’re capable of based on what I understand their, their profile is. And then if I’m not happy with that, then that’s fine. I just know what that partner provides. Then I need to go looking for a partner that’s got an IP that’s more closely aligned to what I want and so that it really comes down to partner acquisition. And and then the metrics that you can talk about with the exec are pretty clear. It’s as I said, it’s all about pipeline and and then revenue. But I think pipeline is a good one early on because you can show that you’re getting referrals and then you can almost say, well, you can look back and say, why is it isn’t the pipeline converting? If we’re getting a bunch of pipeline and it’s not converting, is it our sales process? Is it that the partners don’t know the customer profile well enough, or what’s the purpose? What’s the reason of that? So definitely pipeline is something that early on should be considered, but I wouldn’t expect revenue to come in the first, you know, couple of quarters at least.

Ali Spiric: Yeah. Is there a realistic timeline to see your first close one or do you think that varies a ton? I know you mentioned that you were just picking up now and in the fourth. I mean, I’m not.

Damiaan Van Zanen: I don’t feel qualified to answer that, but I think I think, you know, if you if you can hold your exact team’s expectations long enough until you get that first revenue, then you’re doing well. And I think ours came in like the start of the third quarter, so sort of six months later. But that also completely depends on your length of sales cycle and and many other factors. So it’s it’s it’s got to be just expectations set early on. And that involves, you know, being very clear to the relevant people in the in the head of each team what you’re doing and what you expect to do based on that. So yeah, yeah. 

Ali Spiric: The transparency is definitely super important, knowing that you’ve gone through this and you’ve built a partner program, is there a secret to early success or if you could go back to day one, you, what’s the piece of advice that you would give yourself?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Um, probably. Don’t be too hard on myself in terms of expecting that revenue. It’s. And I think. I’m very happy with the the outcome now. But I think at the beginning I was really wanting more in terms of and expecting more really. And it probably it probably meant that my expectations that I set with the exact team weren’t that realistic either. So we were all sort of wanting more. But we got there and I think it’s important to just make sure that you you do the due diligence on what you want to get out of it and then work towards that. Um, you know, with expectations as open as they can be.

Ali Spiric: I like that. That’s really good advice. So I think there are a couple context clues in this podcast for anyone listening that might tell them that you’re not from America. It’s not the accent, I swear. But the subquestion to building a program is is there a difference between working with partners in the US and Europe or really Europe is simplifying it? There’s so many different countries in there. Yeah, yeah. I think it’s easy to just call it a region. But have you found differences with working with partners in any different country or have you found that the process can be copy and pasted a little bit?

Damiaan Van Zanen: I think you can copy and paste it. You just have to have a different expectations. And there’s that word again in terms of what the response is and the work you need to do in each in each region. I think. So my role is global. I have partners in ANZ, so Australia, New Zealand, UK, Europe and in the USA. Um, now having sold in all of those regions as well, I can tell you that it’s way easier to sell in the USA than anywhere else. And UK is quite difficult I find, and Australia and New Zealand are kind of in between now. Um, it’s I think, similar for partnerships, to be honest. I’m not sure what the reasoning is. I can make some assumptions, but it’s I think in the UK it’s, it’s harder to get that initial conversation than it is in the USA where you say to them, Let’s walk down the path and hold hands and go skipping to make more money together. Um, it seems like there’s a little bit of a standoffish approach in in EMEA slash UK. Um, and I think that just requires you to really clearly define the value proposition. When you do have those initial conversations, it’s probably just, you know, something that people are not as used to maybe over here. But I think once the value proposition is clear, then it’s everyone in business wants to make more money and it’s kind of the same story. So I don’t think there’s anything you have to do wildly different other than just really be clear on what your value proposition is and it’s just the messaging and how you how you deliver that.

Ali Spiric: Definitely. Damien We’ve come to a really sad point in the podcast and that means that we’re near the end. Is there anything that you think we should have touched on or that I should have asked you that we haven’t?

Damiaan Van Zanen: Um, I think to wrap it up, I guess we’ve sort of touched on this a little bit, but really in terms of focus when building out your program and if you’re really basing it on the referrals side of it, especially in the beginning, then I think having that focus early on and not being someone that jumps down rabbit holes and goes chasing things, you know, it’s really important to understand your ideal partner profile and your value proposition and to make sure you focus on that type of partner when you start doing partner acquisition and then onboard them. Well, because once you’ve got those good ones, they’re the ones that you want to focus on in terms of your effort. If if you’re like me and there’s only one of you, then it’s going to become pretty busy pretty quickly and you really want to make sure you have that focus to get the results that you need. But at some point, obviously the system will work for for you and you’ll end up being able to grow your team and have people to help you. But I mean, I’m not there yet. Hopefully soon. 

That would be my key takeaway is really focus on what you want to what you want to do in terms of who you want to partner with and how. So that everything’s really clear.

Ali Spiric: That’s some really good advice. I hope that the listeners can walk away with this today knowing that they can do this and that it is digestible and that success will come and it’ll take some time and it’ll be busy, but it’s ultimately so rewarding.

Damiaan Van Zanen: Absolutely. And the partnership community is amazing. So, you know, reach out to people and if anyone has any questions, I’m really happy to to help out. You know, I’ve had some great help along the way in the last year and, you know, very happy to do the same.

Ali Spiric: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for being our guest today, Damien, and thank you to you, the listeners, for tuning in. We’ll see you soon.

That’s all for this episode. We’d like to thank you for taking the time to listen in. If you like what you heard, we’d love the chance to take the talk to LinkedIn and continue the conversation. If you want to stay up to date with all of our new episodes, subscribe to our series wherever you like to listen to podcasts.

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