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The ultimate guide to partner relationship management

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Partner relationship management refers to the acquisition, retention, and support of sales partners, commonly in fields like IT and SaaS. Industry insiders use the acronym PRM almost exclusively to describe supporting technologies, which you can read about at Why Your Partner Sales Program Needs a PRM Tool. However, here we aim to arm you with insights into creating a solid foundation on which your company’s channel program can flourish.

Chapter 1: Partner Relationship Management Strategies for Each Stage of Their Journey

A beginner’s mistake is to dump materials into the laps of new partners and to regard them as activated, fully ready to sell and operate autonomously. As is true of any relationship, partner management has various phases and general ups and downs; it’s crucial to map out tactics specific to each stage.

Managing Partners During the Recruitment Stage

You should have three goals when managing partner recruitment:

  • To define your preferred channel partner (or ideal partner profile)
  • To create strategies for engaging priority prospects
  • To lay the groundwork for attracting partners at scale

Defining Your Ideal Partner Profile (IPP)

Much like finding the right spouse is essential for a healthy marriage, targeting the right channel partners is a prerequisite for the relationship to thrive. Vet candidates by asking yourself:

  • Does this company have a strong reputation amongst my target audiences?
  • Does this company have access to new audiences I want to actively target?
  • Does this company have an established track record of success?
  • Do this company’s products supplement or integrate with our own?

With time, you will accrue data related to your existing partner roster. Identify characteristics your most successful program participants share and use these to further refine your ideal partner persona.

Create Strategies for Engaging Priority Prospects

In an ideal world, your latest channel management team hire has dozens of existing connections on which they can call. However, that strategy that can only carry your recruitment so far, and not every hire will bring with them a hefty Rolodex. Tips for growing industry connections for channel newcomers include:

  • Making a video introducing themselves and the company with the clearly stated intention of becoming more involved in the industry-based community
  • Following channel leaders on social media and gradually fostering a digital rapport
  • Join related slack communities

When sending recruitment emails themselves, keep in mind:

  • If you have a preexisting relationship with the recipient, start with a friendly message rather than jumping straight into the pitch
  • Consider focusing your first email around relevant, high-value content (like a template, white paper, etc.) so you start off the relationship by providing value
  • Personalize the message as much as possible and include selling points specific to their product and audience

Test various partner recruitment tactics to create and affirm hypotheses about which yield the greatest response rates.

Laying the Groundwork for Attracting Partners at Scale

Accelerated program growth relies on prospects coming to you rather than solely vice versa. Begin the process by creating a web page highlighting your partnership program, complete with details of ” why us ” and an enrollment form. Place the page within your site’s main navigation for the best results.

Other ways to raise awareness about your partner program can include:

  • Highlighting the program and partner case studies in email newsletters – Casting a spotlight on specific partners’ stories makes the promise of profits more tangible and creates an overall more exciting read.
  • Designating MDF (marketing development funds) towards your most profitable partners – When a partner runs an ad or promotes integrations at an event, prospective customers aren’t the only ones paying attention. Their competitors are, too. With this in mind, turn partners into your program’s most prominent advocates by partially sponsoring their promotional efforts.
  • Sponsored posts on social media – Create messages that reflect the voice and priorities of specific audiences and deploy targeted social campaigns on business-minded platforms like LinkedIn.
  • Tell your audience about it – It’s no secret that podcasts skyrocketed in recent years and have remained a steady source for brand awareness. Join top channel podcasts and tell your story!
  • A few podcasts to join are:
  • Channel Journeys
  • Channel Voices
  • The Partner Channel Podcast
  • Changing Channels

Additional Pro Tips for Managing the Recruitment of Partners

  • Document what questions prospects frequently ask and create materials in anticipation of future inquiries.
  • Conduct a competitive analysis to compare the quality of messaging and any known compensation packages.
  • Target your partners’ competitors. Not only does this help you find like minded program participants, but it can spur established partners to increase their output.

To fully understand how to maximize recruitment results, we suggest reading Nine Tips to Find and Recruit Channel Partners and Building a Channel Partner Recruitment Plan.

Managing Partners During the Onboarding Stage of the Relationship

If recruiting partners is the equivalent of online dating, onboarding is the first meet-and-greet. Obviously, this is very important! Get your partner relationship started on the right foot by:

  • Creating an organized system for sharing content and next steps with partners – Ideally, channel managers would introduce partners to the program by equipping them with a welcome kit and walking them through the portal. Some PRM software, like Allbound, will automatically abridge the user’s library and reachable features based on their location, experience level, and partner type. This way, new partners won’t need to sift through the same document translated into five different languages to find the one specific to them.
  • Defining a clear training sequence – Multi-step learnings will naturally build upon themselves and reference earlier readings, so make sure there’s a clear execution order. Portals are beneficial in this regard, as they can point users towards the recommended “next step” based on past actions. If you choose, you can even keep more advanced training locked until partners complete preliminary ones.
  • Pairing independent learning with personal support – Your training materials may be unparalleled and your portal cutting-edge, but channel managers will still need to nurture human relationships with onboarding partners. Meetings are opportunities to see if partners have questions or confusion and gauge their overall satisfaction.

Additional Pro Tips for Managing Relationships With Onboarding Partners

  • Document what questions onboarding partners frequently ask and create materials in anticipation of future inquiries.
  • Keep an eye on early-stage engagement metrics (like portal logins) and collect general feedback to discover possible improvements within onboarding procedures and management.

Dive deeper with 7 Steps to Successfully Onboard Partners in which you’ll learn about such topics as balancing educational needs with participant satisfaction, cultivating strong portal experiences, and how to measure results.

Managing Partners by Helping Them Secure and Close Deals

The onboarding stage is far from the last time you’ll need to manage partners throughout the relationship. The window between registering and closing deals is when they’ll need your support the most. To proactively manage partners at this particular juncture, consider:

  • Consider participating in the sales conversations if the registered deal is a partner’s first. This will increase the likelihood of winning the prospect’s business, the partner gets to witness lessons in action, and you show extra willingness to invest time in the relationship.
  • Create playbooks to counsel partners on how to handle common scenarios. As your partner program grows, you can’t give individualized attention to each generated sales prospect. Therefore, create game plans to help partners manage conversations with different types of customers. Be mindful of the order of materials, frequently asked questions, and any insights you may have into the audience. For example, if you know that customers from a specific region tend to take their time more than others, forewarn partners about the longer sales cycle and the best way to approach it.
  • Be in regular contact with partners to hear their feedback and frustrations. There’s a significant difference between learning about theoretical situations and experiencing them firsthand. Therefore, ensure partner managers are especially available to answer partners’ questions and help troubleshoot any unforeseen barriers.

Managing Partners for Better Engagement and Retention

Revisiting the comparison between partner relationships and romantic entanglements, consider retention as life post-wedding. It’s the job of channel leaders to keep the spark alive! Tactics include:

  • Introducing elements of gamification and goal-setting – Bring out partners’ competitive spirit with sales competitions (with rewards, of course). Additionally, set up partner program tiers, so program participants have an additional reason to reach “the next level.”
  • Regularly produce fresh content related to industry learnings – Money shouldn’t be the only reason partners stay engaged with your program. Diversify your value by granting exclusive access to new studies, templates, and networking events focused on your partners’ goals outside your products.
  • Promote star partners on your site – The recipients of such honors may think twice about jumping ship after earning such “free” PR. Tales of other partners’ successes may inspire other partners to strive for similar results.

Bonus: Managing Partner Abandonment or Disengagement

Sometimes partners communicate precisely when and why they decide to leave the program, but it’s common for them to simply disappear into the night. While both scenarios are disappointing, they are valuable opportunities to gain new insights into your partner relationship management strategies.

Ask exiting partners for a 15 minutes conversation during which you pick their brains on how to improve your program further. Ideally, this conversation does not occur with their usual direct contact, as they may not feel comfortable telling the individual that they were part of the problem.

Before such meetings, examine the individual’s past portal engagements to see their achievements and interactions. This will help shape your questions, as someone who failed to complete onboarding should not be queried the same way as someone who successfully registered a prospect.

During such talks, never get defensive or try to rationalize. For example, if the partner complains about a lack of support when closing deals, don’t retort “. . . but you never even clicked on our playbooks.” Instead, consider why they may have failed to take this action and ask about issues accessing relevant content.

Not everyone will be willing to talk directly with a member of your team. In such a scenario, request that they complete a quick survey. Ask a fair share of multiple-choice or rating-based questions, but also grant the opportunity for open-ended answers.

Individual talks or survey results may spur ideas. When combined with others, they can illuminate patterns and grant greater appreciation for why partners leave the relationship.

Chapter 2: Relationship Management Principles to Reinforce Throughout Your Ecosystem

While some management activities will vary based on partners’ current states, some general best practices will always apply.

Consistency + Transparency = Reliability

Nothing turns off partners like a program contact who doesn’t fulfill commitments, throws regular curveballs, or is generally inaccessible. Therefore, create a detailed framework for how channel partner managers should interact with partners, including:

  • Keep communication to the same forums – limit jumping between email, Slack, Jira, and your PRM. This especially applies to sharing assets, as partners won’t know where to access key materials.
  • Maintaining regular meeting cadence – Schedule semi-regular meetings with firm agendas shared in advance. Regular (digital) face-to-face goes a long way to upholding partners’ enthusiasm for the relationship and understanding their unique circumstances.
  • Don’t treat channel managers as interchangeable – If you switch a partner from one channel manager to the other, make the transition as smooth as possible by having a formal introduction and, ideally, having both attend at least one meeting together. New managers should enter the conversations with as much historical information as possible so the partner doesn’t feel like the relationship is back to square one.
  • Create uniformity amongst management processes – Consistency doesn’t only apply to how an individual manager interacts with their partners, but also to how procedures vary from one person to the next. Use templates as much as possible to guide your managers toward optimal communication, including those for pitch decks, welcome kits, scorecards, and example meeting agendas.

Your PRM can help maintain consistency across processes by templating MDF requests and co-branding.

Chapter 3: What (and What Not) to Automate Within Partner Relationship Managements

Step one of managing partner relationships is to lay the groundwork for your program, and step two is to put strategies into action. This brings us to step three, which is to put together a plan for scalable growth. While you will have to weigh many options (new markets and product offerings, etc.), a non-negotiable for sustainable growth is the use of PRM automation.

Automation enables you to maintain (or improve) the partner relationship even as your roster accelerates in number. Management activities you can automate include:

  • Material sharing based on language, industry, and customer classifications
  • Unlocking content and portal capabilities based on task completion
  • Recommended actions for training or selling based on past portal interactions
  • Co-branding enablement and parameters
  • Email notifications if performance exceeds or falls below predetermined thresholds
  • Guided onboarding through multi-step training and quiz completions
  • Blocking duplicative deal registrations to lessen conflicts
  • Data-sharing with your CRM and other similar tools

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can successfully automate all elements of partner relationship management. Activities that should remain human-driven include:

  • Prospective partner vetting
  • MDF approvals of templated requests
  • Content translation for new audience regions
  • Data interpretation to identify strategic hypotheses
  • Emotional connections with partners

Chapter 4: How to Conduct a SWOT Analysis of Your Partner Relationship Tactics

Similar to how a company should regularly evaluate internal operations and employee productivity, channel leaders should scrutinize their own relationship management procedures with a critical eye. Use these 13 partner program KPIsto answer such questions as:

  • How likely is a partner to finish onboarding?
  • How likely is an onboarded partner to generate a lead?
  • What is our rate of closing partner leads?
  • What is our program’s overall abandonment rate?
  • How often do partners interact with our portal?
  • Do the above metrics dramatically differ based on partner type?

These numbers alone aren’t enough to complete an analysis of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). However, they can raise questions that you can work with partners to answer. For instance, in addition to inquiring with partners about their overall happiness, you can ask meaningful questions like “was the onboarding discouraging at any point?” or “what elements detailed within our playbooks resonate the most with prospective customers?”

Based on partner feedback gathered through conversations and anonymous questionnaires, you can create a SWOT report which guides future partner relationship management decisions.

Chapter 5: Prepare For Common Partner Relationship Management Scenarios

We wrote this guide to help readers ask the right questions and take initial steps towards cultivating a thoughtful approach to partner relationship management. However, in some ways, we only scratched the surface. To further your understanding, we recommend reading:

  • 8 Strategies to Avoid Channel Conflicts With Partners – This guide helps readers anticipate and avoid common sources of partner dissonance and provides tips on minimizing relationship fall-outs.
  • Guide to Increasing Channel Partner Activation – Addressing channel leaders who struggle to maintain partner relationships beyond the onboarding stage, this article helps readers identify underlying issues and targeted management solutions.
  • 7 Elements of a Successful Partner Engagement Plan – Worried that program participants have short life cycles? Find inspiration to better engage partners to ultimately strengthen the quality of interactions and extend relationships.
  • How to Manage Channel Partners Remotely – Remote work environments and multinational relationships can create hurdles like differing time zones, digital connectivity disparities, and reduced opportunities for in-person networking. This eBook illuminates how such circumstances can affect your partner relationship management tactics and how to best respond.

Stay on top of industry news, technology updates, and channel partner management best practices by subscribing to the Allbound newsletter using the form below. Receive notifications whenever there is a new template to make your job easier, a new podcast guest to inspire fresh ideas or a practical how-to guide to help you achieve your partner relationship management goals.

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