Partnering with agencies & consultancies: Five partnership experts hash things out

Last year I had the pleasure to sit down with a star lineup of partner managers at Catalyst 2022 in Miami. I had a set of three questions and invited each of them to answer them based on their unique perspectives and experience. It turned out to be a super informative (and fun) half hour, with a healthy mix of agreement and divergence. I’ve summarized it here, and outlined what I saw as the highlights of the discussion. You can watch the full conversation here.

The multi panel

The five-person panel team was drawn from all over the SaaS world, which made for a lively and enriching conversation. To my immediate left was Ashley Scorpio, nationally recognized 'Amazing Woman in eCommerce’. Next to her was Marco De Paulis, Director of eCommerce Partnerships at Ryder Ecommerce by Whiplash. His experience straddles agencies and tech partners, and he’s grown partnership programs for organizations that are now publicly traded. Eric Griego brought an injection of tech expertise as head of Yotpo’s Enterprise Alliances Team. Last but certainly not least, Jennifer Kijek added invaluable insights garnered through her deep experience in eCommerce. She’s currently the VP of Strategic Alliances at Fēnom Digital.

Question 1: How are agency partnerships different from tech partnerships? 

The consensus on this question was that agency partnerships are significantly different from tech partnerships, and that you can’t use the same playbook to handle both. But what makes them so different, and what do those differences mean? That’s where things got interesting.

Where to begin with stakeholders

For Marco, the major difference is the number of stakeholders you need to engage. In an agency, there are more of them, and it’s not always clear which ones you should prioritize. Staff turnover is another factor that complicates the job of a partner manager: when people leave your partner organization, you need to reestablish rapport with their replacements. 

But the silver lining to that cloud, as Ashley explained, is that agency partnerships tend to provide better access to key stakeholders and decision makers than tech partnerships. That’s because agencies tend to have deeper, ongoing relationships with their clients, and they’re able to exert influence in your favor. 

Different selling motions and priorities

In Eric’s view, the main difference is in the selling motions. Tech to tech partnerships are highly product-driven. Each party stands to gain from the “better together” effect, where the two are able to benefit from the more powerful story they can tell as a team.

With agencies, a SaaS solution is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, and tech partners should focus on figuring out how that solution fits into their offering as a whole. And unlike tech partners, agencies are concerned less with how amazing your SaaS solution is than how it makes their customers’ lives better. Customer success, as Jennifer emphasized, is their north star.

Ashley gave some counterintuitive advice: everyone should be open to agency partnerships, even other agencies. This kind of partnership can be a conduit for deal flow. For example, a prospect who isn’t right for you could be ideal for your partner, and vice versa.

Question 2: Confession time: what’s the biggest mistake you made building agency partnerships?

The panel acknowledged that, more often than not, you have to grow your team to keep up with a growing partnership program. If you don’t have enough people power to maintain all of these new relationships, they can fizzle out. Worse, you can lose credibility in the eyes of your partners if you aren’t putting in the work it takes to sustain them. The result can be a downward cycle of, as Marco put it, “churn and burn”. 

Automation to the rescue?

According to Marco, the key to avoiding this outcome is developing a repertoire of templated, repeatable processes. Partner managers love all the people-oriented and relationship-building parts of their job, but these also need to be scalable. And automation, as we know, can be key to that. 

Failure to set realistic expectations 

Eric brought his tech perspective to the issue of setting expectations as a software company, especially when partnering with agencies. For an agency, billable time is key, and tech partners must be sensitive to that. Tech platforms should do everything they can to enable their agency partners to sell consulting services.

On a related note, Jennifer discussed the importance of being sensitive to how seriously agencies take practice development. Agencies don’t take implementing new solutions lightly, and while they do want service revenue, they want it in “a carefully curated way”. 

Mistaking partnerships for “vendorships”

Ashley rounded up this discussion with the soundbyte of the evening. We’ve all seen tech companies approach agency partnerships in a highly transactional way, and Ashley summed this up succinctly as “vendorship”. Many sales teams (understandably) want to drive revenue by getting agencies to license their software. That may drive deals in the short term, but it’s not the way to create lasting partnerships. Why does that matter? Because the client base of an agency partner can yield even greater gains over the long haul, and being a valued, invested partner is the best way to leverage that. 

I often say that cutting partnership teams is a strategic mistake. I think Ashley’s point is an object lesson in why the partner function needs its own team, rather than being left in the hands of sales. 

Question 3: What recommendations would you give fellow partnership leaders scaling their agency partner programs? 

Most of the panelists’ answers to this one centered on the role of relationships. If you know me, you’ll know that that’s exactly what I like to hear. Jennifer summed it up in another standout soundbyte: “We all like to work with people we like.” 

She went on to underscore that partnership building takes time. If you want to partner successfully with an agency, you need to understand their verticals and where your value proposition fits in. Marco agreed, and linked his answer back to what he had said earlier about moving too fast. His advice, which I agree with, was to figure out your internal processes first. Start small and iterate. Aim to create repeatable processes, and once you get into flow with a few partners, you can replicate the steps you’ve taken. 

Change begins from within…

This launched us into a really interesting and fruitful tangent about looking inward. Eric noted that top-down buy-in is critical to success for partnership managers. No matter how creative you are, and how effectively you engage with other organizations, you’ll be stuck spinning your wheels if your own organization isn’t bought in. 

Achieving the ultimate “win-win-win”

Ashley picked up this thread and spoke about the importance of reflecting internally on previous successes (and failures). In her view, it’s vital to understand how the partner function relates to others within your organization, especially customer success and marketing. You want your partners to understand that you are their champion, and that you’re evangelizing for them, both externally, and to your own colleagues and clients. 

That’s how she believes you can create what she calls a “win-win-win” (that needs to become  a thing), in which agency, tech and customer all get maximum value. This is a great insight, because it’s a reminder that a strong partnership ecosystem creates value and impact that extends well beyond the two parties to a particular partnership. If it’s done right, a thriving partnership ecosystem is an environment in which everyone wins - and that’s exactly the kind of thinking that will make the decade of the ecosystem a time of prosperity and growth. 

The right way to do account mapping

On a practical note, I really liked what Jennifer had to say about account mapping, because it was a super valuable point: don’t just call everyone - that betrays a lack of strategy. Instead, focus on figuring who is doing the solutioning within your partner’s organization. They’re the people you really need to reach out to. 

Key takeaways for your partnership gameplan

Here were some of the main themes that came up again and again in the course of our conversation:

  • Agency and tech partnerships each are different. They come with their own priorities and motivators, and you can’t approach them in the same way.
  • You can’t be everything to everyone. You’ll need to prioritize which stakeholders to focus on, and automate wherever you can in order to scale. 
  • Internal buy-in is critical. Progress will be very difficult without it. This is especially true for agency partnerships. 

As you can probably tell, I was really energized by this encounter. It’s exactly the kind of conversation that will drive the world of partner management forward and help us all to contribute to the rewarding work of building winning ecosystems.

Hope this was of value and to see you at next year's Catalyst conference. In the meantime I recommend joining Partnership Leaders. They’re the ones who organized this amazing conference and have so much more up their sleeve when it comes to connecting you with fellow executives.

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