You were super excited about a new channel partnership when it first started, and it seemed like your partner was too – for a short period. But now, what looked like a promising partnership has all but fizzled out. What gives?
Keeping partners engaged is imperative to a successful — and mutually beneficial — partnership. When your partners begin to disengage, it’s a sign that there’s likely a larger underlying problem.
It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong when a new partner isn’t responding to your emails, your check-in meetings are being canceled, or you’re not getting any updates. Is it the partner engagement activities and opportunities you offer? Is your partner platform difficult to navigate? Or is it a reflection of your underlying partnership model?
This comprehensive guide covers the seven must-have elements in a successful channel partner engagement strategy so you can diagnose problems before they escalate, better support sales and marketing initiatives, and create a stronger channel partner program from the start.
First, Why Do I Need a Strategic Partnership Engagement Framework?
The value of retaining customers is clear, and that same principle applies to the return on investment that comes from keeping partners engaged over the long term.
Recruiting, training, and onboarding new partners take time and resources from your team. Once you’ve brought the right people and organizations into your community, you want to keep them there. So, you need to give them reasons to stay.
The ROI of Keeping Partners Engaged
The channel sales space has shifted in the past few years to become much more partner-focused, rather than vendor-focused. Resellers and referral partners have more options than ever as the channel sales space has expanded. They have the ability to be choosy.
So, how do you set your partner program apart? By focusing on building a relationship that benefits both parties through effective partner engagement activities – whether that’s with a competitive commission structure, promising co-marketing opportunities, or an exceptional experience being part of your community.
The return on investment of keeping partners engaged can be huge. The longer you work with partners, and the more you support them, the more effectively you can work together and identify key opportunities for collaboration – not to mention the larger deals and increased sales that come from effective partnerships.
That all doesn’t happen by accident, though. It takes thoughtful planning to create an exceptional partner experience that drives success for both of you.
Think of these elements as baseline engagement rules for business partnerships.
Engagement Strategy #1: Find Answers Based on Partners’ Opinions and Actions
Why do partners disengage? While this article is here to provide general best practices and ideas to inspire strategies, there is no universal answer shared by all programs. Therefore, the best advice we can give is to consult directly with your partners. Strategies for gathering their input include:
- Channel partner satisfaction surveys – Questions can include their thoughts on the portal layout, what materials they’d want produced, points of confusion or contention, and how they’d rate their meetings with points of contact.
- Train your channel account managers (CAMs) to collect feedback – As we’ll explore further down in the article, your CAMs play an essential role in maintaining partner engagement. Coach them on how to gather information and, more importantly, what to do with their newly acquired intel.
- Exit interviews – We’ll be the first to admit that getting a disengaged partner to agree to an exit interview may not be the easiest of tasks. However, if you express a genuine desire to improve your program and that you respect their opinions, you may be surprised how many former partners agree to participate.
Keep in mind, not every piece of feedback at your fingertips will be outright vocalized by partners. Their behavior itself can give insights into how your partners prefer to engage. That’s why tracking how they interact with your partner portal is so important.
For example, if you see that the asset partners pin the most to their dashboard is a video, you may want to shift your content strategy to incorporate more videos. On the flipside, if you introduce a new learning track to the onboarding process and you see engagement fall-off once partners reach this step of the journey, you’ll know why.
Engagement Strategy #2: Strengthen Partner Onboarding
Onboarding shouldn’t be a pain for your partners (or your team!). Think of it as the building blocks of creating a strong, activated partner community that attracts and retains top players. Actions you can take to improve new-partner engagement:
- Streamline processes – There’s a balancing act to creating curriculums: Too few training courses will leave partners unprepared, but too many will discourage participation. If you’re finding poor engagement rates from onboarding partners evaluate if any lessons are unnecessary or if there are better ways with which to share the information.
- Equip partners with easily accessible materials – and dDevelop checklists, documentation, and videos to share with partners in addition to any meetings you may have. Ideally, these would be shared in a searchable content library that serves only the most applicable assets. For example, your Italian partners shouldn’t have their dashboard cluttered with Spanish documents.
- Set clear expectations upfront. Help your partners understand what you’re looking to accomplish, what you need from them, and how they’ll benefit.
- Check in regularly throughout onboarding so your partner knows they’re not alone. Make yourself available to answer questions and provide insights where you can. Reach out proactively to share advice and helpful resources when possible.
Remember, at this early stage, you’re making a first impression that will help determine whether partners think your program is worth their while. It’s important to show clear signs that you’re investing in their success and that you have established processes and infrastructure.
Engagement Strategy #3: Thoughtful Channel Partner Training With the Right Tools
Similar to onboarding, it should be easy for your partners to learn about your product and how to sell effectively. With the right partner training software and channel sales technology, self-education doesn’t have to be a difficult or arduous process.
Enable your partners early with helpful resources, insights from other partners you’ve worked with, and access to your team and partner management software. Other content like case studies, white papers, and surveys with hard data, for example, can also all be beneficial for understanding your unique value proposition.
Whether you provide video demos or training documentation, make sure the training is concise. Rather than overwhelm participants with long training courses, divide learnings into multiple sessions. Your partner engagement platform or partner portal can direct users to the next lesson based on the completion of prerequisite exercises.
A thoughtful training program and the right series of initial activities arm your partners with everything they need to know to be successful.
“It could be introductions. It could be giving them data and insight about your product or about your service that they may not have known that would be valuable to them in their conversations and their customers. It could be finding relevant articles, information, sending them,” says Marco DePaulis on the Partner Channel Podcast. “Just going, “Hey, just thinking of you thought you would really appreciate this or your customers would appreciate that. People just want to be thought of. People like to know that they’re heard and they’re seen.”
Engagement Strategy #4: Invest In Your Channel Account Managers’ Skill Sets
As important as your PRM tools might be, the human-to-human component of partner engagement has the ability to make or break partner relationships. Therefore, when confronting lackluster program engagement rates, your channel account managers (CAMs) should be the first team members you consult. If your CAMs have no insights into why partners don’t engage, that could be part of the problem.
As the personal face of your partner program, your CAMs should come across as warm but professional, as well as knowledgeable, trustworthy, and easily accessible. Take into consideration:
- Your CAM response rate to partner queries – If a partner emails their point of contact with a question, how long does the partner take to reply? If it’s more than one business day, it may be a sign that your CAMs are overcommitted, either managing too many partners at once or consumed with menial work.
- Your CAMs’ understanding of their partners – We all have that friend that only talks about themselves, never pausing to ask questions about others. Don’t let your CAMs be that friend! Not only should they be asking partners thoughtful questions about their experience, but they should also be taking notes so they can harken back to those same points in future conversations.
- Your CAM’s familiarity with the industry, the products, and program policies – Your partners are smart people with years of experience in their field, and would prefer to talk with someone who can say the same. While your CAMs don’t need to have PhDs, they should be given time in their work day to further their industry knowledge so they can come across as knowledgeable.
A high-performing CAM can benefit their partners’ engagement rates in three ways:
- The partner comes to trust their expertise and value the relationship, passing this goodwill toward the program as well
- Capable CAMs can swiftly help partners overcome hurdles that would otherwise discourage engagement. They’ll know when to handle issues themselves and when to escalate them (and to whom)
- CAMs can collect valuable insights into ways to improve the partner experience, sharing such observations with leadership to influence change
Improving partner engagement by investing in your channel management team means two things: actively bringing aboard the right candidates and giving them the bandwidth and opportunity to strengthen their capabilities.
Engagement Strategy #5: Alignment to Ensure Mutual Success
Successful partnerships have to be built on mutual goals and prospect alignment. After all, you’re in it to win it together.
Don’t leave your partners wondering what the benefits are for participating. Be upfront about your shared goals and how you can work together to reach them. If you sense growing disinterest within your partner, revisit your shared goals and adjust accordingly.
Remember to give in order to get. Many partners expect to see some benefits come to fruition before they’re ready to start working hard to help you. Create early opportunities to win together. Something as simple as sharing a relevant lead early on can have long-lasting benefits, both in terms of your relationship and your partner’s confidence in you.
If you’re struggling to get traction with a partner, explore opportunities to collaborate in different ways, either on new products, marketing campaigns, or bundled services.
Engagement Strategy #6: Creative Incentives and Inspiring Sales Rewards
Compensation and commissions are one form of motivation, but they don’t need to be the only ones. Be creative with the incentives you offer partners – there are many ways to inspire and reward the behavior you’d like to encourage.
For example, offering market development funds (MDF) can help partners acquire leads. A point system for completing certain activities can bring out some people’s competitive side and encourage them to complete learning tracks or training.
Or, if you aren’t seeing the activity you want from a partner’s team, consider implementing new and creative SPIFFs. These time-sensitive sales incentives – like prepaid cards, merchandise, increased commissions, or other rewards – can be a driving force to land a big sale. While not always an option, SPIFFs can be a fun strategy to get partners and their teams engaged.
Get to know your partner’s team to find out what they care about so you can tailor incentives to their interests. And be sure your benchmarks for rewards match your goals.
Partner Engagement Strategy #7: Fresh Partner Content Provides Fresh Value
Your partners are busy people who most likely juggle multiple relationships. Hold their attention with regular reminders of the revenue they could generate and exciting brand or product developments.
Content is king, after all, and an effective content strategy will help you both train your partners and keep them engaged in your activities.
For example, create a partner-focused newsletter that lauds noteworthy wins. Highlight new battlecards from your portal’s homepage. Or promote a new study proving your product to be the best in the market.
The key is to communicate with your partners with a regular cadence of fresh content. Older content may be outdated or no longer relevant, so don’t forget to update materials when needed. At the same time, make sure you have content that covers all stages of the partner journey to meet their needs at specific times.
Engagement Strategy #8: A Way to Celebrate Wins in Your Partner Community
Sometimes, a little momentum is all you need to start generating more success.
If you feel like a partner is a great fit, but haven’t seen any deals come through from them yet, try reaching out with a warm lead. This is a great way to build excitement and help your partner see the value of working together. A small win can lead to a snowball effect of success.
Celebrate each accomplishment, big or small, with your partner and internal team. Share new prospects with the team and send out emails or announcements for more substantial achievements.
In addition to the news, share what the win means for both of your teams. For partners, it can be motivating to see the success other partners have within your channel program.
Engagement Strategy #9: Provide Partners Value Outside of Revenue
Yes, partners get a portion of the sale when they close a deal. But that shouldn’t be the only reason they log into your portal. Other strategies for encouraging ongoing partner engagement include:
- Exclusive access or early access to materials of value, such as industry survey results
- Free or discounted trainings for helpful skills not specific to your product
- Networking opportunities
- Invitations to exclusive events like industry roundtables
- Promotion of their brand through joint marketing efforts
- Product discounts
Engagement Strategy #10: A Healthy Competitive Outlook
Stay informed of competitors’ partner engagement strategies. If a competitor offers a significantly more generous commission structure than your own, expect your partners to drop like flies.
Other factors that may draw partners towards a rival include a shorter onboarding period, better sales enablement, access to marketing development funds, etc. Your partners ultimately want to make the most amount of money with the least amount of work, so keep your offering competitive.
Engagement Strategy #11: Channel Partner Engagement Starts with the Right Partners
Slumping partner engagement can be the symptom of many issues. When seeking the root cause, don’t forget to assess the relevance and readiness of the partners themselves.
Gone are the days of bringing in a hundred partners in the hopes that a few of them will be the right fit. Instead, it pays to be strategic about how you spend your energy in recruiting and activating partners who will be engaged from the start.
And finding the right fit doesn’t just mean thinking about how a partner meets your channel sales strategy and criteria. Flip the perspective to consider how you fit into their world and align with their goals, too.
Use patterns to highlight commonalities between partners that thrive and those that don’t, and use these observations to revamp your program criteria. After all, if data suggests that prospects of a certain size or from a specific industry are less likely to succeed, you can focus your recruitment strategies toward partners more likely to engage.
Audit Channel Partner Engagement With the Right Channel Sales Tools
Once you have a few successful partnerships, you’ll start noticing patterns in the partners you work well with versus the ones that disappear after a few months. In addition to examining trends, you can use lost deal interviews to explore what went wrong and how you can improve.
For example, if you know that the most successful partners are typically onboarded and enabled within three months, you can begin using that as a baseline for measuring your other partnerships.
Similarly, if your top partners typically have five or more stakeholders involved, you’ll know to loop in more people from your new partner’s team early on in the relationship.
By regularly auditing your channel partner engagement, you’ll be better able to pivot your strategies and activities to meet any potential issues proactively. When partners begin falling in the “danger zone” of disengagement, it’s time to take action toward improving the relationship.
How a Partner Platform Can Help Eliminate Engagement Issues
The right channel sales tools – like an effective Partner Relationship Management (PRM) system – can help eliminate channel engagement issues before they escalate. PRMs simplify incredibly complex relationships and track engagement across platforms, team members, prospects, and more.
Use your PRM system to monitor existing partnerships and shape future strategies. Build dashboards to measure important engagement metrics like content consumption, the number of deals referred, amount of revenue driven, and stakeholders engaged.
Keep track of your activity with partners in one database to make collaboration with partners on sales and marketing activities seamless for your entire team. And automate key functions (like onboarding and deal registration), freeing up your time to focus on the big picture.
Allbound is the #1 PRM according to G2Crowd, having helped companies like CloudCheckr grow their partner engagement by 1,400%.
Building an Engaged Partner Program From Scratch
You have your partnership engagement model down pat and know what strategies are best suited for your goals. But how do you execute and start building a program for partner organizations from scratch?
Where do you begin? How do you design a framework for scalable success? Who else should you hire as the program takes off? Whether you’re starting to develop a partner program or re-imagining your current channel partner community, there are a lot of steps to take.
We dig into where to start, how to scale, and much more in our new guide to building a partner program.