The Journey to Building a Successful Partner Program for Your Software Business – Step 4 of 6
Step 4: Enable
Partner Enablement is one of those functions that often doesn’t get the love it demands and deserves. Enabling your partners on how to sell and implement your products is of upmost importance. Think about it. If you are skimping on enablement, your partners may never feel confident recommending your product, let alone recognizing the right use cases for selling it. It all starts with looking at where your partner segments are in their enablement journeys and creating a cohesive strategy that helps them understand why they should be recommending your product (make this is a no-brainer for them), what they should be recommending when, and how to ultimately sell and implement it effectively.
I often hear about partner enablement programs and how robust they are. In reality, when you dig deeper, these programs are often taking what the direct sales enablement teams have built for training and doing a quick “find and replace all” with “partner.” This is not the right way to build a successful program. Because a partner enablement manager is generally not the first hire when testing and building out an indirect revenue stream, the thought is that carving out a snippet of the sales enablement team’s time will suffice. This is just not true. To do partner enablement correctly, you need to start from scratch (sure, you can leverage product content and layer in the partner lens). But, when it boils down to it, partners go to market differently, care about different things, and are starting from a very different place in the learning curve when it comes to getting smart on your product. The absence of a holistic and proactive methodology to enabling your partners (keep in mind, this is an ongoing effort) hinders your ability to scale and achieve indirect sales targets. Read on for the key areas every successful partner enablement program should consider.
Let’s start at the beginning. Having the appropriate sales and technical enablement in place when onboarding a partner is key. In addition to ensuring you have joint target business plans defined, a regular check-in cadence, and the appropriate introductions underway, you must put both sales and technical enablement goals in place. These goals could be in the form of certifications or course completions, depending on the structure of your program. You should also ensure that you have the appropriate marketing and demand generation enablement in place. For example, if your partners are reselling, referring, or co-selling your product, you must provide them with the foundational collateral and marketing support to generate top of the funnel interest.
Systems and Infrastructure
When getting started, I would not recommend investing in loads of expensive technology. You should adopt a crawl, walk, run mentality for building out the systems and infrastructure for your partner enablement program. It’s okay to begin with manual tracking and even spreadsheets/shared folders to test and iterate on what is most effective. Keep in mind, in order to build the most effective program possible across your various partner types and personas, you must have the appropriate feedback loop in place. Some key areas systems/infrastructure areas to consider as you build out your program below.
- Partner portal: A portal is a great way to centralize your enablement resources and information for easy access, tracking, and version control. Ideally, you can build to world where your portal is personalized for each user depending on partner tier or type.
- LMS: A Learning Management System (LMS) is a great way to build out structured enablement tracks. Chances are you can leverage the same LMS you are using for your internal enablement for partners (at least to start). Ensure you have a system in place for pulling the data so that you can track status by partner organization.
- Train the trainer program: For higher tiered partners, implementing a 1:1, high touch train the trainer program is a great to enable large teams efficiently. Assign a technical and sales resource to go onsite and train assigned stakeholders at the partner organization so that they operate as the “go-to” in-house expert for all questions when it comes to your product. These onsite trainers can hold their own in-office trainings for new employees or refreshers when new products are released. These people are your go-to and they should be held accountable for verifying that their organizations are properly enabled on your product.
- On-demand communication/collaboration channels (e.g., Slack): Having easy communication channels in place with your partners is another potentially “low hanging fruit” way to streamline processes when it comes to enablement. Implementing real-time communication channels for partner rep and partner organization so that key stakeholders can easily communicate is a great way to maintain a constant stream of support and knowledge transfer. Building peer-to-peer community forums/discussion rooms through common platforms, like Slack, is another way to generate community. This can also be done via a portal or intranet later in your partner program’s maturity cycle.
Partner sales enablement should originate by asking yourself the question “why would a partner want to invest in building a business with me?”. Job number one is to understand the why. Making it very clear upfront that it is worth investing time in understanding how to pitch and why they should be integrating your technology into their process is key. Map it out. Show them how getting enabled on selling will make them money (consider an infographic or a case study illustrating the why and the how). Again, this is not just direct sales enablement tweaked for partners. Enable partners on selling with the following in mind:
- Scenario based selling: It’s not just about understanding the product and how to pitch key buyer personas, think about the use cases and selling cycles your partners go through and how plugging your product in makes their process easier and stronger. Where relevant, consider how this differs by industry as well.
- Selling tools: In addition to the training programs that show partner how and when to pitch, make sure you are providing them with the right tools: demo environments, white labeled pitch decks, case studies, talk tracks, etc.
- Sales certifications: Building a certification program with requirements by tier (the higher you go in terms of tier, generally the larger the partner will be, so consider having set requirements according to things like number of offices or number of employees – make sure you have at least one resource per office/per region enabled on your products) around your sales enablement is a great way to ensure partners go through the right motions.
- Specialty certifications: Giving partners the option to get certified on recognizing and pitching specific use cases or specialty products in your suite is a great way to carve out differentiation with key strategic partners. Give them the option or build these into the requirements for higher tiered partners. Specialty certifications could include expertise in one specific product area or industry solution. Have your partner marketing team create a snazzy badge that your partner can showcase on their website and LinkedIn. You want to make sure they are proud of this and have the ability to showcase the hard work it took to be recognized for being an expert - and more credible than the general pool - in a specific capacity of your solution set.
Selling may be where it starts, but it’s just as if not more important to teach your partners how to successfully implement. If you can’t trust your partner to implement high quality work for customers, you’re in trouble. It is always recommended to institute a model where you are overseeing the partner’s work and hand-holding a bit until you feel confident they have the technical chops to deliver on their own.
- Developer certifications: In order to scale, it is recommended to have a developer certification training program in place. Your program should require a set number of developer certifications dependent on partner tier or size.
- Reference implementations: Building reference implementations into the requirements of your program may be a smart way to differentiate top tiers from the rest and incentivize technical enablement. Requiring at least two reference customer implementations in the first year (depending on the complexity of your product and the model you have installed) and defining a process around what a reference customer implementation looks like will not only ensure your partner can implement without your oversight, but it will also build a “lighthouse” partner-customer success story into your joint value proposition. Use these reference implementations as an opportunity to make your partners famous. Consider building an awards program around them, specifically recognizing the technical chops it took to make each reference customer a success.
- Beta programs: Inviting partners to participate in beta programs (either through your Partner Advisory Board or on an invitation basis) is a great way to get buy-in early on from key partners on technical enablement for new product releases. Partner beta programs also provide valuable feedback so that you can tweak the roadmap as well as your technical enablement programs as you go.
When it comes to all things partner, but especially enablement, lyrics from Journey’s hit “Don’t stop believin” come to mind because, well, “… it goes on and on and on and on”. If you are a growing software company, your product suite will continually evolve with new add-ons, feature sets, and product launches. With that, you must be equipped to enable both new and existing partners at the same pace. As you grow and evolve as a product company, so too must your partners’ capability sets. This should be positioned as a win-win; partners have differentiated positioning because they know your product and you have capable partners that understand and can deliver on the value you bring customers. One last point is to ensure you have the right tracking in place to measure and celebrate the impact enablement has on partner success.