How to Build an Engaged Channel Partner Program From Scratch
Like most big decisions in life, there’s rarely one single perfect moment to get started with building a channel partner program.
An organization could continue on without a formalized partner program for years, working with different resellers and referral partners on a one-to-one or ad-hoc basis. That’s what many, in fact, do.
But there are a lot of challenges with a piecemeal approach to channel sales.
It can be extremely time-consuming to manage so many moving parts manually and it’s nearly impossible to scale efficiently without the right systems in place. Spreadsheets are great for some tasks, but not as well suited for wide-scale relationship management.
Whether you’re starting to develop a partner program framework from scratch or re-imagining your current channel partner strategy, there are a lot of steps to building an engaged partner program.
Assessing: Choosing the Right Moment to Build a Partner Program
Working with partners to increase market presence and promote your product or services comes with a lot of far-reaching benefits. These strategic partnerships, also sometimes known as indirect sales, allow you to leverage their connections to improve reach and drive revenue far more quickly than simply expanding your internal sales teams.
How do you know when it’s time?
A common question partner managers ask is ‘How many partners are needed for a program to be worthwhile?’
Some say that “around five” is a good number to start with, but the right time to build a channel partner program is less about the number of partners and more about the investment in those relationships.
How much time do you spend emailing and managing partners? Are you looking to grow and, if so, how are you recruiting and onboarding partners? How are you sharing resources and marketing collateral to support partners? Do you have a way to easily track engagement and other leading indicators of success?
The way we started was really looking at the vision of where we wanted to be. And the second thing was listening to our current partners to see what was working well and what we needed to improve.
– Fernanda Pires, Partner Marketing Manager with Hootsuite
Organizations often formalize their partner program at the same time that they first implement partner relationship management (PRM) software. Developing a partner program framework is much easier with tools that facilitate automation and reporting insights from the start.
But sometimes, channel managers will focus on recruiting and growing a program first before finding the right technology system.
Either way, you’ll know it’s the time to reassess your channel partner strategy when you find yourself struggling to scale or efficiently leverage partner relationships.
Getting executive and internal buy-in
Knowing it’s time for improvement and then obtaining the buy-in needed to start are two very different things.
The first step to getting a successful partner program off the ground is obtaining executive and company-wide support for the program as a whole. Build a business case or deck to present to stakeholders that tells a story of how the new and improved partner program benefits the company as a whole, as well as each individual department.
Each stakeholder – CEO, CRO and department heads, for example – will have different objectives, so focus on selling the benefits specific to each audience. Having internal champions for the overall program is key.
Your pitch deck should include:
Look outside of your company for examples of success stories to share. Organizations that improve their partner programs, for example:
Can increase partner engagement by
Drive up deal registrations by
I’m a firm believer in getting buy-in and alignment from every team at the company that you know partnership motions are going to impact. What I tried to do was really outline the benefits that partnerships would have on each team.
Planning & Designing: Laying the Foundation For a Successful Partner Program
You’ve got buy-in and now it’s time to start building your program. Laying a strong foundation from the start with processes and KPIs in place for each stage of the channel partner lifecycle – from signing to selling – fosters scalable growth in the long term.
Setting goals and KPIs
Clarity around why you’re investing time and resources in channel partners will inform your goals and KPIs throughout the partner journey. It will indicate the best performance and engagement metrics to keep an eye on.
A good way to think about this is by lifecycle stage
Ensuring that your program is partner-centric from start to finish sets the foundation for successful collaboration. It also creates an exceptional partner program that drives measurable results. Build these goals and metrics into your overall channel partner strategy.
Be very clear-eyed about ‘here’s where we are,’ ‘here’s where we want to be,’ ‘here’s what we can build for right now’ and ‘here’s how we are going to make that transition’… And from a values perspective, never lose sight of the customer.
– Katie Lambert, Senior Team Manager, Partner Go to Market at HubSpot
Choosing the right tools and technology
The right partner tech stack improves every one of these partner stages with software and tools to automate, optimize and scale sustainably.
With channel sales, there comes a tipping point when having a partner-facing portal and relationship management system becomes necessary. When you do invest in a PRM, it’s important that you choose the right tool to meet your needs.
Think about the following areas where support might be beneficial.
Executing: Recruiting Partners & Setting Them Up For Success
Once you have a solid base in place, it’s time to start recruiting new partners and nurturing existing ones with your improved partner program framework.
What makes a good partner?
Finding the right partners is foundational to the success of a channel sales program. After all, a great partner program is made up of great partners.
Go into partner recruitment with a plan of what you’re looking for by creating an ideal partner profile (IPP). What this looks like will vary from organization to organization, of course, but consider criteria like: customer base, company size, geographic reach, industry verticals, reputation and outreach practices.
Use these same criteria and IPP to evaluate the current partners you have in your ecosystem. Quality over quantity holds true even in the partner space – having fewer partners who engage and sell more is better than having larger numbers of partners who aren’t contributing.
Recruiting the right partners
From there, it’s a matter of recruiting these ideal potential partners. Have a clear pitch of the value of partnering with your organization – this could include the commission structure or compensation, co-marketing opportunities, your brand reputation, ease of working together and exceptional partner portal experience.
A strong partnership is not just transactional. It’s a mutual relationship that benefits both parties; something that’s crucial to keep in mind as you build these relationships and partnerships.
It’s common to want to partner and integrate with as many other organizations as possible early in the program launch. While it’s important to gain momentum in the early stages, it ultimately pays off to have a thoughtful approach to how you evaluate and recruit the right type of partner.
Consider three key questions as you recruit partners and bring them into the fold:
Question 1: What gaps does this partner fill? What do they offer that your organization doesn’t? That could be anything from integration to a different audience base.
Question 2: How will this partnership impact customers? You want relationships that offer more value and delight customers.
Question 3: Are there enough joint customers or overlapping audiences to make this partnership worth the investment?
Setting the stage during the signing process will ultimately lead to great success later in the channel lifecycle as your team can focus their time and resources on the partners who offer the best return on investment.
“We want to make sure that we’ve got joint customers before we go out and look at prospects – but joint customers who will be wanting to use the integration.
If there are no customers we can tag as early adopters, it’s really difficult to sell internally that this is a partnership where we can dedicate resources
Onboarding and offering ongoing support for partners
Once you’ve attracted the right partners, a seamless onboarding process can help retain them while also setting your organization apart from other vendors.
Onboarding goes far beyond signing necessary paperwork: it’s an opportunity to build a foundation of engagement and set partners up for long term success. Start with a warm welcome – like with a channel partner welcome kit – and a kickoff call to continue building rapport and personal connection.
At this point, it’s crucial to not lose momentum. Direct partners through a thoughtful training program, including demos and case studies, and consider rewarding the milestones they hit along the way. It’s important to track new partner engagement to spot any problems ahead of time to course-correct.
You’ll also need a central place to store your resources and marketing materials so partners can easily access them during their own outreach.
Those resources could include:
Arm your partners with everything they need to help meet your common goals and make it as easy as possible for them to participate in your program.
Scaling: Growing Your Channel & Engaging Partners
Growing a channel can be broken down into two main parts: expanding your team internally with new hires and scaling from the partner side.
Expanding your internal team
It’s common for a partner program to initially be launched with a team of just one or two employees. Once the program is off the ground and proving successful, a typical next step is to start looking to hire additional team members.
Let’s say the first hire was a leadership position like Head Of Partnerships or Head of Partner Marketing. After a period of time – which could be anywhere from years to a matter of weeks – a good next hire would be someone who works with partners on a day-to-day basis.
That might be a channel sales manager, for example, who wears many hats managing resources. Or it might be a partner success manager or perhaps a partner development representative, depending on the needs of the company. The positions should ideally both support partners on a regular basis while also working closely with sales representatives and account managers to ensure they’re also engaged.
This extra employee-power can be a great opportunity to bridge any gaps between the partner program and other departments, particularly the sales team, by demonstrating exactly when and where a partner can add value. From there, additional future hires can also include partner account managers, partner revenue operations staff and partner marketing.
Successfully expanding the internal partner channel team draws on many of the same key principles as launching the program: demonstrating the value of partnerships, tying it into the larger organizational strategy and getting internal buy-in.
You have to build alignment, that’s the important thing. Start with the C-Level and work your way through Sales, marketing and CS. You really need to sell internally what partners can do and how they can help grow the organization.
– Brandon Lytle,
Head Of Partnerships at Field Nation
Leveling up your partner engagement strategy
Partner engagement is one of the best leading indicators of partner-generated revenue coming down the pipe.
Knowing which partners are fulfilling their onboarding and training requirements, engaging with the community, posting on social media and consuming content will all give a sense of how a partner is engaging. Likewise, realizing early on that partners are disengaged can prevent a host of issues before they take root.
An effective engagement strategy is key for retaining your best partners and nurturing a two-way relationship that’s mutually beneficial. There are countless ways to engage your partners but, at its very essence, it comes down to creating a good partner experience.
Some of the most successful strategies include:
Keeping partners engaged is an ongoing process that takes thoughtful consideration and effort. But it’s one that is well worth the effort and pays dividends for years to come.
Measuring & Evaluating: Knowing What’s Working with Partner Metrics
Measuring and reporting on partner activity is an important part of building a thriving channel partner program. Revenue is the ultimate KPI and so tracking your active sales pipeline value and partner-driven revenue is fundamental. But keep in mind that profit is a lagging indicator of success.
Partner performance and engagement metrics give insights that can help strengthen all stages of the channel partner lifecycle and drive growth. It can also indicate if you’re recruiting the right kind of partner, offering sufficient support and focusing your efforts on opportunities with the most potential.
Some of the most important partner program KPIs to measure include:
The easiest way to keep an eye on these indicators and measure partner activity is with a PRM software like Allbound that allows you to automatically track channel performance metrics.
From there, leverage these insights to strategically optimize, drive improvement and confidently demonstrate the impact of your team.