Enabling Service / Consulting Partnerships

Zak is VP of Partnerships at Formstack, a workplace productivity platform, where he’s built a team that manages hundreds of consulting and integration partners, responsible for 30% of the company’s new business. In this guide, he lays out the key components of partner enablement, and outlines how to create power-users and advocates at partner agencies and consultancies.

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Questions covered in this guide

What is partner enablement?

Setting up partners to be successful – with your company and your product. There are several “tracks”:
  • Product enablement – setting up power users (at your partner organizations) to be able to use the product, implement it, and build demos.
  • Sales enablement – setting up partners to be able to engage in sales conversations.
  • Marketing collaboration – enabling co-marketing.

Why is it valuable to invest in partner enablement?

There’s a “ripple effect” to investing in partners – partners allow your business to make a multiplicative impact in a market. Investing in partnerships and partner enablement creates a ripple impact that then increases the growth rate, the number of advocates, and the overall growth trajectory for your business. 

Enablement is the foundation for partnerships – you need to give and add value to the businesses you partner with in order for a successful and durable partnership to exist.

What types of partners does this toolkit apply to? How do you find the relevant service partners in your field?

These tactics work for service providers of all shapes and sizes – enablement is important for consulting partners who use your product themselves and/or help shared customers with your products. This includes businesses like:
  • Consulting firms
  • Solution implementers
  • System integrators
  • Agencies

Who owns partner enablement, and who should be involved?

You want a centralized partnership team that draws on cross-functional resources – partnerships are cross-functional by nature, so the people you build the team around need to be cross-functional, with diverse skills – marketing, sales and product. They need to be able to engage across all functions and – most importantly – add value for partners.

How do you get started with partnerships?

Start the team with a cross-functional leader – partnership spans all departments in an organization. To build a partner motion and community, you’re going to need someone that’s comfortable working across all those departments.

As you build a partner community, look for what already exists – find a consultant that already uses your product and supports your types of customers, and then you can build a foundation around that persona. They can also give you insight for how you can identify other potential partners that fit a similar profile. 

One partnership person might be able to manage 25-30 key partner accounts, or potentially 100+ in a one-to-many model – if you’re expecting to be hands-on and active with your partners, one person can manage 25-30 key partner accounts. When talking about broadly supporting a partner network that you are not as hands-on with, you could support a 100 or more partners as one individual launching a new program.

A new partner program leader might target $1M+ in revenue – if you can show the business that you’re generating a million dollars in annual recurring revenue, that’s a big motivator for leadership to keep investing more in partners. 

What are the main activities that support partner education and certification?

Train the first power user at your partner’s company – identify a power user who’s going to learn the product. Do things with a purpose and have a certification process where you build a use case that’s either for the customer or is representative of what you’d want to build for the customer. It’s coaching them through building a demo. 

Offer 1:1 training to build a use case – a person on your team could meet with the partner in a series of two one-on-one meetings and provide training to prepare them to build their use case. Then they’ll meet back with them to close the loop after they’ve had time to go off and prepare a built demo that represents how they are envisioning using our product in a specific scenario.

Help the power user spread the word across their team (repeatedly) – in consulting firms it’s very common to have lunch and learns where you share products and use cases to get questions answered. And if you’re at a point where you’ve got a power user, and now they can showcase the product, then that’s going to further generate that ripple effect of getting more awareness out across more of the organization. That peer-to-peer education is very impactful. Then it’s rinse and repeat, where more of the team wants to go through that process to learn the products and then become certified.

Develop a partner community – a way to further peer-to-peer learning in these types of use cases. This is where the ripple effect comes into full effect, when partners lead to more partners, and partners are helping partners. It also allows you to build a further identity with your partners that will lead to more and more loyalty to your products. 

Set a foundation for referral relationships – this is the right foundation to build partnerships on and can be reached through collaboration and communication. You want to help each other and collaborate around problems. 

What are the main activities that support partner lead flow?

Make it easy to jointly prepare for a prospect meeting – it could be as simple as an email, Slack channel, or Zoom call. Understanding the customer’s situation that’s taking place to create a joint initiative that has a success plan and a solution for the customer. It’s not just leaving the customer to go learn about us from our website. It’s proactively bringing solutions together.

When you launch, have activities on both sides – especially with key partners or in conjunction with a product release.
  • Joint announcement
  • Joint blog posts
  • Mutual enablement sessions
  • Joint events and activities
  • Virtual event – like a “mega” webinar where there are different types of speakers on both sides. 
  • Social media
Co-market for a win-win
  • Listed on each others’ website – this is foundational pieces like a partner directory, getting listed on each other’s websites, and having a partner interview series. 
  • Mutual marketing activities featuring partners e.g. podcast partner interview series – showcasing partners, documenting their stories, and then feeding those partners into our own marketing program making it a win-win.

Every partner’s marketing should be unique – let the partners bring their own unique spin into how they position the product and the customer problems they are focussed on. 

How can you help your partners be effective sellers of your product?

If you’re part of their offering, put the work in up-front – to figure out how you’re both talking about that offering. This could be reseller relationships or those may be technology partnerships where our product is being used along with their product. It’s going to be a different kind of selling motion than a consulting/service partner. 

If it’s a co-sale, zero in on where there’s a fit and they should bring you in:
  • For which verticals – always start by aligning, fitting, and identifying the verticals the partner is most focused on, and which ones your product is a good fit for.
  • For which use cases – these are use cases that the partner sees with their clients, and that your product fits for.

If it’s a co-sale, get involved early – the earlier the better. Prime partners to bring you in at the point where they’re preparing to present their solution to the customers.

How should you handle co-selling details like rev share and contracting?

Most companies start with referral relationships – it’s a natural way to have relationships because most companies want to like you, want to collaborate, and don’t need to be in the middle of a transaction.

Reselling is a more advanced level of partnership – let reselling evolve for partners who want to package you as part of their go-to-market motion. You don’t need to force reselling on partners if it doesn’t fit their business model. 

Partner incentives could be a referral fee or a discount, based on the business volume – based on the amount of business we’re doing with the referral partner or reseller, you might offer a 10-30% referral fee or discount, with the % increasing as the amount of business grows. 

Many consulting firms aren’t interested in referral fees – ask if referral fees are of interest to a prospective partner. If it is, you can say, “We’ve got a program that is a great way for us to invest in partners.” I like to put it as “we’re going to keep investing in you as we do more and more together”. If they’re not interested in that, that’s okay – consider it an optional aspect of the program.

What should you build to be able to provide responsive support to your partners?

When partners do reach out, it’s usually important and urgent – partners are looking for expertise and rapid response, so if we’re enabling them in the right way, when they do reach out, it’s pretty important and urgent. Instead of pushing back, embrace that they reached out and work to help them. 

Show you care by responding quickly – they want to be responded to quickly, even if it’s just getting an email response back incredibly quickly, ideally within minutes.

Give your partners access to expert resources – give partners access to the people at your company who are on the front line, know the products, and understand the urgency (e.g. in product or sales). 

There are lots of ways to interact with partners (more scalably) – utilize Slack channels or priority support forums where partners can more easily reach you. Have it where the support ticket can be tagged as a “partner” ticket and it’s routed to tier-two support. 

How do you measure the success of a service partnership?

Key metrics:
  • Number of (or revenue from) opportunities and pipeline sourced via partners
  • Number of (or revenue from) wins or joint customers that came via partners

How do you choose which partners to continue to invest in?

You’d be hard pressed to find a partner that isn’t worth the time – consultants also value their own time, so they don’t tend to waste yours. The only time I can imagine that happening is if a partner just refused to collaborate. You can establish this in an initial call by simply asking what that firm is hoping to get out of the relationship with your company. 

Develop and focus on a partner persona that really thrives – it is easier to scale partnerships if you can design your team and processes around the type of partners you serve most (but keep some flexibility to help different partners when they need it).

How long does it take to ramp up a service partnership and start to see real results?

3-6 months – depending on your sales cycle, I’d allocate three to six months to get some wins with a new partner and build momentum. We find that quick wins are very possible, but there are also times where you need to ‘seed’ your capabilities with the partner, and give them time to find relevant customer scenarios and opportunities. 

If the partner fits your profile, but isn’t taking off, intervene – definitely try new things. We go back to the drawing board and try different techniques and see what we have to change for that partner to succeed. 

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Have the right cross-functional team – that understands your products and adds value in every interaction with partners. And map the right cross-functional resources to tap into; so much of what you are doing is about scaling and feeding into marketing programs, or leveraging materials produced elsewhere in the company that are going to be included in your enablement efforts.

Measure the impact you’re having to win continued investment – so you can continue to show leadership what the impact will be of continuing to invest in partnership resources to scale your partner team and program as you go. 

What are the common pitfalls?

Partners get busy and disengaged – you have have a great initial meeting, but then they go quiet. Make sure you get that follow-up meeting on their schedule. You’re always fighting the clock and fighting time. 

Don’t lose track of word-of-mouth impact – it’s tricky (but valuable) to track the impact you’re having when you do a lunch and learn with 35 people and you’re planting a seed for them to think about your product and recommend your product down the road. Stay in touch with partners to learn about their referrals, and also come up with ways to identify partners referrals (trackable links, dedicated web pages, in-app questions, questions by sales reps, opportunity reviews with the sales team). 

Don’t overlook the need to over-communicate your results in varied formats – you can never communicate enough, and in different ways, around the successes you are having. Communicate in varied ways (posting little wins along the way to Slack, sharing emails, sharing call recordings, sharing monthly & quarterly results and trends).

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