During challenging economic times, it can be difficult to receive funding for strategic initiatives you know you need to prioritize. However, there’s tons of ways to keep your partner program competitive in 2023 by thinking outside of the box.
Kate Caday and Ryan Hasson – leaders of ecosystem strategy and automation at Spur Reply – (virtually) sat down to discuss some simple ways to optimize the partner experience without incremental investments.
Kate specializes in initiatives related to SaaS and cloud ecosystem management, partner and alliance strategy, incentives and program design, and organizational assessment and transformation. She’s helped clients such as Microsoft, VMware, and other Fortune 500 technology firms meet and exceed their strategic and transformational goals.
Ryan is passionate about building optimal partner experiences in which he can leverage the best channel platforms to support a client's partner program and strategic goals. He has helped a wide variety of industry-leading clients with projects related to platform automation strategy as well as the configuration of platform modules to align with industry best practices.
Kate and Ryan overview ways to improve your partner communications, pressure-test and refine your digital experience, optimize your partner relationship management (PRM) system, adopt a lifecycle mindset, and re-evaluate your partner segmentation model. Check out the video and transcript below.
Transcript of the conversation
MIKALA FLYNN (WEBINAR HOST): Hello everyone. Thanks for joining our webinar. We are excited for today's discussion on how to boost partner experience and engagement. I'd like to first introduce our speakers for today. We have Kate Caday, our leader in ecosystem strategy and transformation, and Ryan Hassan, our leader in ecosystem automation.
As a heads up, if you have any questions during today's webinar, feel free to ask them in the Q&A section of the chat. We will answer your questions during the Q&A portion of the webinar. Any questions that we don't have time for in today's session will be answered in a follow-up communication post-event. With that being said, let's get started. Kate, I'll pass it along to you.
KATE: Excellent. Thanks, Mikala. Well, thank you so much for joining us for today's webinar on improving partner experience, particularly during these tough economic times when it's really difficult to get extra resourcing or budget to drive the projects that you want to get done.
Ryan, I know a lot of my clients are having a hard time coming up with the funding to, you know, make the changes they know they need to make. Are you seeing that as well?
RYAN: Yeah, absolutely. It seems like we're starting to be involved in conversations earlier in the cycle which I think is good, but also is a testament to how much longer that budget process is taking in the funding process [compared to] I would say a year, year and a half ago.
It was pretty common to [have] maybe a four to six week duration from obtaining funding to a project starting and going through that whole process and now it seems like it's closer to two to four months, if it happens at all. So definitely seeing that extended.
KATE: Man, yeah, we're seeing transformation projects get pushed out too, for sure. Well, so before we dive into top tips, you know, I'm first off curious to hear from you as one of our key partner experience experts, why does partner experience matter? I mean, particularly given how tough it is to, you know, just close a deal these days.
RYAN: Yeah, that's a great question and it's the hot topic around the industry as well right now. Experience in general is driven by both the strategy and automation elements. “Both” — which is why I say or dare I say, Kate, why we are partnering here today. There's your “dad joke” for the day.
But you know, both play a really critical role in partner retention [and] back-end customer retention as well. And just having that stability — it reduces the need to backfill, reduces the need for recruiting costs, partners stay with clients longer, you know, it's expensive. It's time-consuming to recruit and to onboard new partners and to have to go through the process of proving to them that you're able to simplify their sales cycle and provide them with a better experience than others.
The channel and the ecosystem world is so small. So, we need to remember that word travels fast. It gets around. Employees will move from company to company. Partner contacts move from company to company. There's plenty of opportunity for the partner experience to be discussed around the industry whether it's from the partner perspective [or] the client perspective. Companies want to be and should be set up for success when those conversations are being had.
I relate it to when you're shopping for yourself online. You're looking at products, services, you're looking at the reviews, you're looking at comments…maybe you're looking at what's most recent. What's the five-star? What's the one star? And you're using that information to make a decision.
And companies should be doing the same and targeting those five-star ratings to set them up for success. All that to say, ultimately that partner experience is going to help support and stabilize and drive growth into companies’ channel-driven revenue.
KATE: Such great points you made there, Ryan. And I really love you brought that competitive lens to it too. That's something that I know I kind of overlook at times for sure. Well, with that, let's dive into our top five tips. This first one is low-hanging fruit.
Conduct an audit of your partner comms.
I cannot tell you how many times I've interviewed partners over the course of projects who have complained about the sheer volume of communications they're getting from their vendors [such as] automated emails, newsletters, product updates, reach out from their account managers, etc.
And while it's well-meaning, it's just really easy to lose a signal for the noise when you've got so many comms coming in. And then when you actually need to get your partner's attention, particularly for those lower touch partners or their scale partners, it can be tough to get their ear. I think one of the pieces too that we always hear from partners as well is, “Don't forget you're not the only vendor we're working with.”
So partners do play that really key role where they're pulling together multiple vendor solutions in order to make something that works for their customers, which means it's not just your stuff they're getting, right? Multiply that by ten… 20 times. So, in order to help improve that piece, we recommend taking time to run an audit on five things.
First off, the number, timing, and value of your partner newsletters.
Partner newsletters can be super valuable if they're well curated and not really starting say like quarter end or regional holiday. However, they can be too fluffy for partners to really get value out of. So just [make] sure that those are up-leveled and targeted as appropriate.
The second is just keeping an eye on the number of content creators and approvers.
So, can anyone send your partners anything whenever they want to? Without that governance piece, the volume of comms can easily get out of control. So, protect your partners in boxes with more of a structured comms calendar.
Speaking of out-of-control volume of automated emails, that's piece number three.
Are your systems calibrated to send emails for absolutely everything? So, status updates are sometimes more powerful in a dashboard or as a reminder that pops up within the partner portal — not as an e-mail.
However, some automated notices for instance, [such as] confirming that you submitted proof of performance and it's been accepted for a market development funds (MDF) claim, might be beneficial to receive via email. Not that emails are always bad or automated emails are always the worst — just keep an eye on those.
But they're only useful if they're sent to the right partner contact, which leads to point four — contact hygiene.
Great contact hygiene can spare a lot of frustration. So periodically take time to make sure that you have the right contacts aligned to the right role or persona into your system — into your customer relationship management (CRM) system. And by that, I also mean not just your partner account manager’s (PAMs) e-mail autofill, right? So, it's great if you have account managers who are working with the right folks within a company. If that never makes it into the actual record, then you don't have that knowledge [and] contact preserve going forward.
And then, finally, just making sure that the comms are aligned to partner care-abouts.
Depending on the level of automation you have within your platform, you may be able to better target your partner comms to the right audience. So, for instance, making sure you're not slamming partner sellers with an invite to an engineering field day.
All right, that's tons about comms. But speaking of automation, Ryan, can you talk us through how to evaluate and improve your partner's digital experience?
RYAN: Yeah, for sure. Thanks, Kate. There are definitely some things that, you know, you could take advantage of internally without a high spend to drive an improved digital experience.
So tip number two is if you have an active partner portal, take the time to pressure test it.
Complete your own internal assessment. Determine how user-friendly it is from the partner's perspective — and we'll call that out as a key element to keep in mind. Take and review the assessment from a partner's perspective.
If you are a partner, [ask yourself] ‘How does this work for me?’ Don't solely take it from your own internal administrative perspective. Ultimately you want to see a blend but take this assessment from the partner's point of view. We've seen a number of portals where the focus is more on what the client wants to see versus what the partners do.
So when I think about an assessment…start at the beginning. Pretend to be a partner. Create a test account. Go through the application process. Confirm any workflows or communications [including] emails that go out work as expected. [Make sure] they have the content that's expected. [Make sure] they set timing expectations and provide an understanding of what those next steps look like.
All these are a really good start when it comes to your partners’ digital experience [so they can say], “Great. I know what's next. I don't have to worry about it. I’ve got the timeline. I know what to expect.”
Once you're in, assuming you approve your own application, of course, continue to navigate around the portal. Look out for broken links and out-of-date information or events. Is the navigation too confusing? Is it easy to find? Does it take too many clicks to get to where you want your partners to go?
What does it look like in terms of recommendations and calls to action? Having specific steps called out for your partners to actually go do something, whether that's register a deal or download an asset, [or to] take some training…having that popping right in front of them is really important.
[It may] seem like little details but they really can have a good positive impact on how partners perceive that digital experience, how often they want to go back, and how they talk about it. Think back to the [earlier discussion] on five-star ratings. So test all the elements of the experience. And this includes integrated external platforms [such as] asset libraries, maybe training, incentive management platforms, and partner relationship management (PRM) system integrations.
As you do that, watch and make sure there's a consistent look and feel. Make sure it flows well. Does the user have to log in multiple times or is it seamless? How simple or difficult is it to navigate back to the home portal from the other sessions and platforms?
As you work through this assessment, just write those problem areas down. Think about what some possible solutions might be. Take time to prioritize as well. It can be really overwhelming to try and attack changes to a portal all at once. Prioritize it.
For example, if you're going through some program strategy changes [and you know] you need to incorporate some additional geo segmentation, you might want to prioritize that versus renaming a section or replacing an image on a page.
So take those priorities and take the time to create your plan of attack on those phase one, phase two, and phase three [changes].
After you complete the assessment, we go into our third recommendation here and that's to optimize the usage of your PRM platforms.
So what does that mean? What exactly goes into optimizing?
There are a number of things — a number of easy steps to take. The first step is honestly just to confirm that you have an actual portal owner assigned within your organization. This [makes] such a huge impact. We often see that this particular role is either missing or it's an added responsibility to someone that already has a full-time job. And that's a lot to do. In order to ensure that partner experience, content, events, [and] assets are always current and relevant, you really need to have direct ownership and governance around the portal maintenance and ownership.
Next, take some time to review your agreement with your platform providers to understand what you have licensed. Compare that to what you're actually using and what you saw as you were going through your assessment.
In a lot of cases, we find companies not fully utilizing the tools that they have licensed or purchased. And with that… there are opportunities to explore. What other efficiencies could be gained by using those unused elements? Or at a minimum, the potential for cost savings when it's time to renew the license if certain modules aren't fitting into your requirements and processes.
So continue to keep the licensing portion in mind. Connect with your account manager, channel sales manager (CSM), client success manager, and/or platform provider. Talk to them about any latest updates [or] what their features roadmap might look like. It's something that should be done on a regular basis anyways. But this is a way that you can help make sure that you're driving efficiency into your portal management process [and] that you're using the latest functionality.
Talk to them about your wish list. Please don't be shy about your wish list. Let them have it. Your ideas — ideas from our clients — are really what drive a lot of the functionality, enhancements, and features that the providers are implementing. So please don't be shy with the asks. Keep those going. Your CSM — or your account manager — should also be able to support any training for you [and] be able to facilitate that.
I know a lot of providers don't have training on how to use their platforms [and] it's typically pretty general but reach out to your contacts there and ask for something more specific to what you're trying to drive. Take advantage of that time that you can secure with those providers and ask for those additional training and working sessions so that you can understand something more specific to your processes in your program and how the portal can support you there.
And then, the last of these pieces here is I would just recommend doing some research.
Explore other partner portals. Explore sites of peers and competitors in the industry. You'll find plenty of ideas on what you like and what you don't like. Take some time on LinkedIn. Follow these platform providers and see what they have to offer. Keep track of their posts. But also, look for LinkedIn groups that are sharing ideas and thoughts that align with your goals. That might be beneficial.
There's a lot there to this partner experience. I just threw a lot out there at y'all and all of it can really be summed up by thinking and saying that ownership and consistency in maintaining that relevant, current content takes effort. It takes time. But it also drives usage of the platforms and the digital experience that partners want to return to. And it helps drive and facilitate your program strategy.
As it relates to the strategy, Kate, I know I certainly turn to you for strategy questions from time to time. You've always got great ideas about exploring those strategies. So, when you think about that, what are a couple of those key elements that you would recommend diving into?
KATE: Totally. And Ryan, thank you so much. So many helpful pieces in there. I feel like I need to go listen back and take notes myself.
RYAN: There's a lot.
KATE: No, it's great stuff. So, speaking of strategy, this next part's about to get a little bit more esoteric. So, hang with me here for the last two points.
Let's talk about the partner experience at each step of the life cycle. Have you really taken time to consider what partners are experiencing as they move through the life cycle with your company?
There are two different life cycles I want to talk through. Let's start with customer life cycle and we'll hop over to partner life cycle. Understanding your own company's unique customer life cycle is a must-do. So that's a basic first step.
And then, think about how your partner is engaged to drive customer outcomes throughout that customer life cycle that you've established. So just check out this example of a customer life cycle. This is generic here. Every company will have its own. We like to use something that looks like an infinity loop or like a cycle diagram because that really gets to the fact that it's not just a point-in-time relationship where you're trying to get somebody to buy something and then you touch base with them again at renewal.
Rather, it's an ongoing relationship and partners can be really key across the entirety of this lifecycle…or even the primary customer relationship manager. Have you identified how you want your partner ecosystem to drive customer acquisition on the left half there as well as customer value realization on the right half?
And then, [think about] what resources your partners will need at each stage in order to be successful. If you haven't tried mapping key partner contributions and then the resources required from you by each customer lifecycle stage in order for them to be successful, try building a heat map. Just identify areas where you might have resource gaps.
Next, the partner life cycle…every partner life cycle also is unique just like customer life cycles. To define your partner life cycle with your company, just start by creating a framework of stages spanning from recruitment and onboarding all the way through scaling and deepening their practice with you. Note that what partners need at each stage of the life cycle depends on their value motion — that is, how they uniquely provide value to end customers.
Once you build your partner lifecycle framework, map your current touch points and resources that help move partners from stage to stage. Now I want to pause there for a moment — not just what they need within each stage. That's key too. But also, what does it take for partners to build and deepen their practices with you — to build and deepen engagement? If you have multiple partner types or volume motions in your ecosystem, it might be worthwhile to conduct this exercise for each key partner type in your ecosystem.
And then as a final step, try pinpointing where automation is or isn't in place to help move partners through the lifecycle so they don't have to go searching for the next step on how to grow with your company. That can help guide your next steps for partner experience optimization.
All right, tip five, we're almost there. Let's talk about partner segmentation.
When was the last time that you revisited your partner segmentation approach? Do you know who your top performers are beside the big volume resellers, for instance?
If you feel like that's a little fuzzy, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. Partner segmentation really helps drive what you as a vendor measure and reward as key behaviors in your partner ecosystem. Segmentation can also play a key role in offering partners a more personalized digital experience. That's why it matters so much for partner experience. As partners diversify their business models and adapt to more dynamic environments, many are adding increased and differentiated value.
So if this sounds like a next step for you, consider revisiting as a first step the metrics that you use to drive segmentation within your ecosystem. I'm going to give a couple of example scenarios that we see pretty often.
So, let's say you're an independent software vendor (ISV) and you're pivoting your portfolio from licensed software to software-as-a-service (saas) solutions. Have you integrated customer success-related metrics like retention rate and churn or customer satisfaction into your standard partner segmentation metrics?
If you struggle to translate a cool product to an actual solution for a business need, do you have visibility to partners with specific vertical focuses and expertise in building those strong use cases? Or have expertise in say, a specific customer segment and they have imminence in the market with that segment?
And a third scenario…let's say that you're relying on resellers but the results are lagging. Are you measuring not just the revenue volume overall, but also the revenue growth and momentum year over year? Are these partners actually deepening and growing that volume that they're reselling year over year?
Those are just a couple of common scenarios we've encountered with clients…we’ve given a couple of ways that you can integrate some updated metrics to really revisit your partner segmentation and then help build that into the digital experience and overall partner experience.
All right so now that we've run through these top five tips, we're hoping that you've been able to take one idea or two of how to improve partner experience and engagement even without additional budget or resources.
So now it's time for questions. What's top of mind?
MIKALA: Great. We have a few questions and feel free to ask more as we're answering the current questions.
Ryan, we'll start with you. How do we make sure we are creating a differentiated experience?
RYAN: That is a great question. [It’s a] common question. I would say some of the things that really help portals stand out and that digital experience stand out is that it's easy to navigate and calls to action are right there [and are] easy to see [and] follow.
You're kind of guiding the partner through a positive experience for them while also having them accomplish what you want them to accomplish whether it's training or deal registration. Things like that — relevant information that is specific to that user role.
So that's another big one — being able to leverage segmentation. So maybe somebody that is a developer doesn't necessarily log in and see a bunch of marketing or sales information and vice versa, right? So be able to personalize it for them and just make sure as I talked about earlier, make sure that you are consistently updating and maintaining information.
Outdated information is a common problem that we see. So the more that you can keep your information relevant and up to date, the better off you are. And quite honestly, I would say for the last piece here, it starts at the beginning. Have a simple but effective partner application and onboarding experience. Make it easy for them to go through the application process while still collecting the information that you need and that you want.
And then make sure that once they're in, you give them some guidance — maybe through an onboarding journey or something — on how to start and where to go. I would say those are some of the differentiators to focus on.
MIKALA: Awesome. Thank you, Ryan. Kate, we have a question for you. Our segmentation has been by partner type, but we are seeing that is less relevant today. Do you have a preferred model?
KATE: Yeah. That's a great question. So when we think about partner segmentation, I'm going to start with that partner type piece that we hear about in the industry. A lot of companies that have been around for a long time have really defined routes to market. So [they’ll say], “Here's our resellers” and “here's our distributors” and “here are our original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)” or “[here’s our] original design manufacturers (ODMs)” and “[here’s our] our builders” and as you think about those routes, they're really rigid. That's the issue. Because we see a lot of partners who have evolved their business models so they're actually doing multiple things. They're monetizing in different ways.
And so you end up having [partners say] things like, “Well, we are a systems integrator (SI), but we also resell” or vice versa…or, “We are a managed service provider (MSP). We also drive consulting services as well.” [We’re seeing] these interesting combinations of things where partners are looking for how they [can] better serve their customer base and they're also looking for how they can get higher profit margins, which often means a lot of partners who used to just transact are not really moving into the services business and building robust services practices.
So, we see that evolution. What does that mean for partner segmentation? We often recommend that people take a less rigid approach to partner segmentation where partners don't just have to fit in one track and be one type or one route. And also, again, don't put your partner program into these rigid, route-based paths either where partners have to end up enrolling in multiple programs or multiple tracks just to get served well by you as a vendor.
Rather, you like to talk about value motions and there are different words for talking about that in the industry. But in general, you have partners who build, sell, service, [and] deliver. Builders are partners who are building those initial solutions typically wrapped around your product. Sellers resell. And services’ value motion is delivering services whether they be consulting services or post-sale services that help customers fully realize value. And then deliver is typically thinking about how you actually get that product out, which typically is talked about as the cloud, so hyperscalers.
So when you think about those four key value motions and you realize that partners can be mapped to multiple value motions, then you start to have a less rigid means of tagging and engaging with your partner or segmenting and engaging with your partners. So that's how we like to think about it. Hopefully, that helps a little bit. We could have a whole webinar on value.
MIKALA: That was great. I think we have time for one more question and if there are other questions we didn't get to, we will send out the questions as well as the answers in a follow-up e-mail. I’m just wrapping up with a question from Tim.
Partner experience can be very subjective relative to ROI. What tracking metrics do you recommend targeting to show core value?
RYAN: Wow, that's a great question. When I think about maybe from the digital side of things, as I mentioned, [you are] really trying to drive the self-service capabilities home for your long-tail partners.
So think about what the growth of your long-tail partners looks like as it relates to usage of the portal, for example. Whether it's training and certification completion counts or even just asset downloads, all of that — that's where I think one important step would be…being able to measure that self-service piece through the long tail partners.
It definitely gets a little more complicated and grayer when you get into the larger partners that are handled a little bit more directly. But again, you’ve got the revenue counts. You can sometimes correlate between user logins and usage information or usage data from those portals. It's hard to identify one-to-one that the portal is directly responsible for this partner increasing by X percent.
Your teams absolutely have something to do with that as well. So that would be probably on the larger scale [and] a longer discussion as it comes to what the platforms are doing for you and how you want to expect your partners to engage. But that is a very, very good question for sure, and hopefully at least a start to an answer.
MIKALA: Thank you, Ryan. That is all we have time for as far as questions today. Keep an eye out for a follow-up e-mail in the next day or two. Ryan, I will allow you to close us out.
RYAN: Yeah, thanks. As Mikala said, I hope you all enjoyed learning a little bit more about why partner experience matters and how you can boost it without spending a lot of money. If we weren't able to respond to your questions, we will certainly get back to you in the next couple of days. If you are interested in more detailed conversations or want to learn more, you can reach out to Kate or me on LinkedIn. You can e-mail us or you can obviously visit spur-reply.com. We've got plenty of resources there for you as well. I want to thank everybody for your time and for joining us today and hope you have a great rest of the day.
The transcription has been edited for clarity.