In 2015, more than 70% of revenue generated in the US came through indirect sales and marketing channels. 70%! And that spans all vertical markets—from technology to finance and retail to real estate—and businesses of all sizes.

Companies are no longer waiting until they're multinational corporations; even early-stage companies that have their sights fixed on growing fast and far are developing indirect sales ecosystems, working with partners to expand their reach.

Could a network of partners be your ticket to accelerated growth and market expansion? If so, where do you start? How do you build a solid partner ecosystem and ensure it's functioning as it should?

Building a successful partner program

Creating a network of partners and resellers who are ready and eager to sell your product or service is not easy. Think about it, you're essentially asking these people to work on your behalf for free (until they sell something) to expand your brand in a cost-effective way to new regions and prospects. It takes work. But it is possible. And potentially lucrative.

So how do you do it? Well, it starts with identifying and recruiting the right partners. And we're not talking about the traditional 80/20 rule, in which 80% of your channel revenue is driven by only 20% (or less) of your partners. In today's economy, where everything is being "SaaS-ified" or sold in a subscription model, the margins to maintain 80/20 just aren't there. The goal today is to focus on building targeted, mutually beneficial partnerships with similarly aligned partners:

  • Find partners with complementary offerings. It could be a product or a service, but it must complement your offering in some way.
  • Make it a win-win relationship. What will your partners get out of the relationship? What are their goals? Understand they, too, have a business they are trying to grow. So beyond increasing your bottom line, what will you provide them in return? How will you help them make money?
  • Expand your sphere. Consider partners who might bring vertical, topical, or service expertise you don't already have. Say you currently serve the retail market, but your product would also serve the hospitality, corporate, and financial services markets. Collaborate with partners who already have a customer base and expertise in those verticals.
  • Determine partner types. What kinds of partners do you need to scale your business? There are affiliate, referral, alliance, service, and technology partners; think about which type will help drive you towards your end goal and expand into new markets.
  • Get contracts, systems, and processes in place. You must have a solid contract between you and your partner to dictate procedures should things unravel. Systems and cohesive processes for onboarding, training, reviews, etc. will also help ensure the program runs fluidly.

Designing and building a foundation for engagement

For partners to achieve success, you have to get them—and keep them—engaged. And the best way to do that from the start is to empower them with the knowledge, tools, and resources in your sales and marketing arsenal.

Keeping partners up to speed on your brand and the evolving details of your products or services is often the most challenging part of growing a partner channel, simply because you have to transfer knowledge to others who don't work for you, near you, or sometimes even in a similar way as you.

What's the solution?

Access. Access to marketing content and sales resources. Access to people and processes. Access to culture and thought leadership. And sometimes even access to data and competitive insights that you otherwise keep confidential.

With that knowledge, partners will be more equipped to guide the customer along the path to purchase.

Keeping partners engaged

Once you've got the partners, how can you ensure you stay top of mind? How do you nurture partners who are engaged with your brand, culture, and products? As with any relationship, it takes nurturing and attention. Because... partners are people, too.

The following four Cs will help set you and your partners up for success:

  1. Content: This is a core part of keeping partners engaged. Think beyond marketing- and sales-enablement tools. Content should include a mix of thought leadership, sales best-practices, webinar and conference invitations, e-books, and more. Sharing knowledge will help them reach their goals and grow their business.
  2. Collaboration: Establishing trust with partners is a must, and collaborating with partners throughout the sales cycle improves success for all involved. Phone calls, quarterly business reviews, coaching, and delivering relevant content all help build a solid relationship. Do not relegate this important piece to automation or tech tools alone. Face-and voice-time is key.
  3. Customer success: As they say, it's more cost-effective to retain a current customer than to acquire a new one. So help partners reduce churn by making customer success a priority and something that's baked into your culture. What does customer success look like? It will vary for every brand, but in the end it's all about ensuring your customers are happy and their needs are being met. It's also about keeping in regular communication so you can anticipate and possibly act on any future needs that may arise.
  4. Culture: A strong culture is mission-critical. When brands have a strong sense of purpose and core values guiding them, and they take a stand for something, stakeholders (customers, partners, employees, etc.) are more bought-in. Extend your purpose, vision, and passion to your partners. Get them involved in it. Appreciate, empower, and celebrate them. People want to do business with great people—those they know, like, and trust.

And, finally, don't forget about accountability. You can't put all of this work into developing a partner program without holding your "volunteer sales team" accountable. Create scorecards, leaderboards, or analytics dashboards based on partner performance. Show them how they measure against other companies in your industry or market. Guide them to success based on hardened, reliable business intelligence.

* * *

A successful partner program requires an investment of your time and attention, but when executed properly, it can supercharge your organization's growth.

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image of Scott Salkin

Scott Salkin is the CEO and a co-founder of Allbound, a channel sales platform that helps companies lower customer acquisition cost and increase total lifetime value.

LinkedIn: Scott Salkin

Twitter: @scottsalkin