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3 Companies on Building Their First Partnerships Team (And Hiring From Within)

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Highspot observed that working with partners increased deal sizes by 60%.

RingCentral upsells 3x more frequently with partners than without.

95% of Microsoft’s revenue flows through its partners. 

You might be reading these stats and thinking, “I need partnerships!” — and we agree. Prioritize partnerships, and you’ll accelerate the growth of your company and bolster the work of your entire organization. But the path to establishing your partnerships function — or even your first co-selling motion — is often unclear. The upside? Even before you launch an official partner program, it’s likely your sales and marketing teams are already working with partners. 

We spoke with partnership leaders from PayFit UK, Close, and Trengo about the events that led to their companies hiring their first partnerships teams and the results that followed. Spoiler: All three companies made internal hires from the sales team. 

If you’re a CEO, read on to learn how to identify partnership advocates among your go-to-market (GTM) teams, nurture your early day partner motions, and establish your first partnerships team. 

If you’re a sales professional, read on to learn how to level up your sales motions with partners, advance your career, and become the first full-time partnerships leader at your company (Did you know the average compensation for partnership professionals is $167,141?). 

What to expect: 

Story #1: How an AE at a CRM software company pitched working with partners 20% of the time and now leads partnerships full time

TL;DR: 

  • In December of 2019, an account executive (AE) at Close began working with affiliate and services partners on an ad hoc basis. These partners reached out to Close’s sales team to understand if Close was a good fit for their clients and to learn how to integrate its CRM software with their clients’ tech stacks. The AE observed that affiliate and services partners could help him meet his prospects’ needs and that collaborating with these partners during the sales cycle resulted in not only closing the deal but also bigger deal sizes. 
  • In October of 2020, the AE made the case to work with more affiliate and services partners, and the leadership team agreed that he would work with services partners 20% of the time and establish their official affiliate partner program. 
  • In December of 2020, the AE transitioned to a full-time partnerships role as Partnerships, Senior Account Executive. 
  • In April of 2022, the AE became the Senior Partnerships Manager. Now, he’s focusing on growing Close’s affiliate and services partner program, launching their tech partner program, and enabling the customer success (CS) team to work with services partners on satisfying custom development needs for their growing customers. 

Before Hiring the Partnerships Team

Before Close hired its first partnerships role, a number of prospective affiliate and services partners reached out to Close’s sales team about using the CRM software and its existing integrations for their clients. As more affiliate and services partners reached out, James Urie, the Senior AE at the time, fielded the requests and became the go-to expert and advocate for these partners. These prospective partners often asked questions like: 

  • Can you hop on a call this week and help me solve a specific problem for a client? 
  • Can you hop on a call to show me how to do XYZ with your software?
  • What integrations do other partners like us use for their clients with your CRM software?
  • We’re bringing Close a lot of business, do you have an affiliate program or a partnerships manager?
  • What is the process for us to do sales as a service for numerous clients? Can I get listed on your site as a Close partner? How can I access our mutual accounts to toggle between them and view relevant activity?

As Urie began answering these questions more frequently for prospective partners, he began assuming the role of an interim partnerships manager. Urie’s colleagues began directing all questions from incoming affiliate and services partners to him. Thus, working with partners became a natural part of his sales cycles.

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“I started having so many of those conversations on the sales side, I essentially became that point of contact by default,” says James Urie, Senior Partnerships Manager at Close. 

He adds, “[Our affiliate and services partners] needed a dedicated point of contact to enable them and be an advocate for them internally at Close.”

The volume of incoming affiliate and services partners and the need for a structured process helped Urie begin to make the case for a dedicated role for working with partners. When he pitched the idea to his leadership team in October of 2020, they suggested that he begin working with services partners 20% of the time while managing his typical responsibilities as a Senior AE the remaining 80% of the time. Also at this time, he began establishing a process for working with affiliate partners (e.g. how to manage affiliate partners and incentivize them to generate leads on an ongoing basis).

By taking the opportunity to work with partners 20% of the time, Urie generated more ecosystem qualified leads (EQLs), increased deal sizes, and hit his quota faster with the help of partners. These proof points helped Urie transition to partnerships full-time in December of 2020 when he became the Partnerships, Senior Account Executive. Less than two years later in April of 2022, Urie became the Senior Partnerships Manager.

After Hiring the Partnerships Team

As a result of hiring an internal advocate from the sales team to launch Close’s partner program, getting buy-in from the sales and CS team has been a non issue. As a previous member of the sales team, Urie can educate Close’s AEs and SDRs on the value of working with partners to generate EQLs and close deals. 

“With a service partner, you can go and close a much bigger deal with a more sophisticated tech stack because you have these folks in your back pocket to go in and tie it together in a pristine way that works and that’s not going to break,” says Urie. 

For example: Urie’s sales team received an inbound lead from a company in the home services industry. Typically, Urie’s sales team wouldn’t be able to close the deal with this particular lead because they had a unique tech stack specific to the home services industry that Close’s CRM software did not integrate with. By bringing in a services partner, the partner was able to integrate Close with the rest of the prospect’s tech stack and the AE closed the deal. Now, Close’s sales team can sell into other customer accounts within that same vertical with the support of the services partner. 

Additionally, since Urie had worked with services partners to fill product gaps for his prospects, he already understood the value that services partners could bring to his CS team. Before working with services partners, Close’s CSMs wouldn’t have been able to satisfy bespoke integration requests from customers since they did not have the technical expertise to develop custom integrations, and doing so on a customer-to-customer basis wasn’t scalable. Now, CSMs can connect their customers with services partners who can integrate Close’s CRM software with any number of tools in their customers’ tech stacks. 

As a result of establishing its first partnerships team, Close has: 

  • Increased deal sizes by working with more services partners to satisfy custom integration needs
  • Improved customer retention by offering custom development work through its services partners that enables customers to use Close’s CRM software for more complex use cases with any number of tools 
  • Expanded its ideal customer profile (ICP) to include customers in new verticals that they can now sell to thanks to the technical expertise of their services partners, who integrate Close with the customer’s unique tech stack 

“Our sales team and CS team can have easier conversations. We convert a better customer because they can have better integrations in their tech stack,” says Urie.


Story #2: How a payroll software company’s AEs pitched their “better together” story well before they had a partner program

TL;DR: 

  • In May of 2021, the leadership team at PayFit UK observed an influx of EQLs from its sales team’s relationships with tech advisors and from its existing integrations with HR solutions. This led to the transitioning of an AE on the sales team into a partnerships manager role. As a result of onboarding its first partnerships role, the team at PayFit UK observed that deals influenced by partners closed at a higher rate than any other sales channel. 
  • In May of 2021, the Head of Growth and the Country Manager made the case for PayFit UK to invest in hiring a Senior Partnerships Manager to oversee the partnerships strategy and a Partnerships SDR to source and onboard new partners.
  • In April of 2022, they hired a third member of the partnerships team, the Senior Partnerships Manager.
  • After hiring its three-person partnerships team, PayFit UK’s advisory and tech partnerships have accelerated the growth of PayFit’s newest regional office, boosted EQLs, and continue to produce a higher conversion rate than any other sales channel. 

Grace Thomson, Senior Partnerships Manager, at PayFit UK, joined the payroll software company in April of 2022. Thomson says the partnerships team was born from a need to nurture the organic growth of their existing advisory and tech partners and manage incoming EQLs. In a previous role, Thomson transitioned from a position in marketing to the partnerships team.

Before Hiring the Partnerships Team

PayFit UK’s product team owned the development of PayFit UK’s integrations with HR solutions. The leadership and product team quickly observed that buyers seeking their payroll solution often needed an HR solution as well. As a result, PayFit UK’s sales team closed more deals when a tech partner/integration was involved.

 “It was almost reverse engineered,” says Thomson. “They did the thing to create the partnerships first, [integrations], and then the results started flowing, and there was a light bulb moment.” 

She adds, “The early wins were around co-selling opportunities.”

The product team launched a small but mighty tech ecosystem focusing only on HR integrations. This hyper-focused strategy made it easier for their sales team to understand the value of their integrations and communicate that value to prospects. 

Prior to hiring the partnerships team, PayFit UK’s tech partners: 

  • Generated new leads and referrals for PayFit UK’s sales team
  • Influenced higher conversion rates when a customer could use PayFit UK with any HR tool in their tech stack 
  • Helped build brand awareness for PayFit’s newest regional office in the UK through integration listings on their tech partners’ websites 

“Particularly with payroll, there’s a never-ending debate about whether it sits in HR or finance,” says Thomson. “We need to bring ourselves via integration into both ecosystems.”

Additionally, as PayFit UK’s tech ecosystem expands, they’re able to improve retention by integrating with HR solutions that vary in functionality and complexity. As their customers grow, they can continue to use PayFit UK with their maturing tech stack.

Prior to hiring the partnerships team, PayFit UK’s sales team also received requests from inbound advisory companies and consultants who were interested in recommending and implementing PayFit UK’s software to their clients. These advisors often worked with clients who were seeking a more efficient and integrated tech stack to accommodate their growing team and evolving business needs as they scaled. 

This presented an opportunity for PayFit UK’s sales team to work with advisory partners on closing pre-qualified opportunities, which led to higher conversion rates. Oftentimes, a client working with an advisory partner is already looking for an HR solution, and the advisory partner can vouch for PayFit UK’s software. As a result, PayFit UK’s sales team engages the opportunity further along the funnel and can focus on demonstrating the value of PayFit rather than pitching the solution to a new prospect. 

After Hiring the Partnerships Team

PayFit UK’s leadership team saw this success as a signal to invest in its first partnerships team across its global offices. As a result of the investment, PayFit UK has observed: 

  • An upward trend in partner-sourced revenue from leads coming in from tech and advisory partners 
  • An upward trend in partner-influenced revenue from opportunities interested in adopting PayFit UK’s payroll solution alongside its tech partners’ HR solutions
  • An increase in EQLs from tech and advisory partners
  • Improved brand awareness for its UK office through word-of-mouth via its advisory partners and integration listing pages on its tech partners’ websites 
  • A boost in the number of partners in their tech and channel ecosystem, due to its hiring of a partnerships SDR for sourcing and onboarding partners

Additionally, PayFit UK’s partnerships team has established an enablement program for educating their advisory partners on their payroll solution and enabling their own AEs and their tech partners’ AEs for co-selling. 

“The integration is just the first step,” says Thomson. “The presence of an integration is not equal to a partnership.”

She adds, “When our partners win, we win. It’s really important that our AEs can articulate why [our tech partner] is a fantastic HR solution.”

#3: How the sales and marketing team at a customer engagement software company tested out an affiliate program — and necessitated the hire of a two-person partnerships team

TL;DR: 

  • In mid 2020 Trengo’s marketing and sales team tested out working with affiliate partners to generate EQLs. 
  • As a result of this experimentation, Trengo observed a boost in monthly recurring revenue (MRR) and decided to hire its first partnership roles in September of 2021. Ultimately, they hired a Senior Partner Manager to lead the partnerships strategy and oversee tech partnerships and a more junior Partner Manager, who was previously an SDR on the sales team, to oversee their services partners. 
  • By 2022, the new partnerships team had increased revenue from partners by 180% and observed a 75% conversion rate for deals sourced by partners.

Before Hiring the Partnerships Team

Before Trengo hired its first partnerships team, the customer engagement software company’s marketing and sales team explored working with affiliate partners to generate leads. As a result of this work, they observed a significant boost in MRR. However, without an official partnerships program in place, results from the interim affiliate program began to trend downwards. It was at this time that the leadership team decided to invest in hiring its first partnerships role to oversee its affiliate partners. 

Ultimately, Trengo decided to hire not just one role, but two. They transitioned one of their existing employees from an SDR role on the sales team to a new partner manager role. They also hired a Senior Partner Manager to oversee the big-picture strategy.

After Hiring the Partnerships Team 

KaraLynn Lewis joined Trengo as the Senior Partner Manager in September of 2021. Now, she is the Partnerships Lead, overseeing Trengo’s partner program strategy. Immediately upon joining Trengo, Lewis evaluated which existing partners were most effective and where they should invest in expanding their partnership efforts.

crossbeam-karalynn-lewis-trengo-partnerships

Lewis launched Trengo’s official partner program in six months, which now includes tech, services, and affiliate partners. Lewis knew that the affiliate partner program could become a self-serving partner function requiring little oversight from Lewis or her partner manager. To set the affiliate program up for success, Lewis evaluated all 140 of Trengo’s existing affiliate partners and: 

  • Removed affiliate partners that were dormant or underperforming 
  • Identified 75 existing affiliate partners to continue forward with and enable 
  • Identified partners within that group of 75 who were better suited as services partners (think: they can provide technical guidance to their clients around using Trengo’s customer engagement software) 

Then, Lewis guided her partner manager in nurturing their existing services partners and onboarding new ones. Now, Lewis is focusing on Trengo’s strategic partnerships, building out its tech ecosystem, and growing the partnerships team.

On growing their services partner program from the ground up, Lewis says, “It’s a really big asset to have a partner network that are professionals in this space that can offer assistance to our customers and then, of course, build their businesses around that.”

As a result of investing in a partnerships team, Trengo has observed: 

  • A 75% conversion rate for leads sourced by partners 
  • An uptick in revenue from partners by 180% 
  • An increase in monthly recurring revenue (MRR) 
  • An increase in the average selling price (ASP) 
  • Shorter payback periods for customers who were sourced by a services partner 

“Partnerships have had a positive impact on all of these sales metrics,” says Lewis. “You can show the numbers and the results speak for themselves.” 

How to Transition From Sales to Full-Time Partnerships 

Attn sales professionals: 

If you love the idea of amplifying the efforts of not only your sales team but also your CS, product, and marketing teams, then working in partnerships is for you. 

If you love relationship-building, out-of-the-box problem-solving, and creating value for customers that improves the customer lifecycle, then working in partnerships is for you. 

If you know in your gut that partnerships outperform outbound sales, we hear you. 

And if you like tacos, sunshine, and surfing, then partnerships — and our Supernode 2023 conference — is for you! (Join hundreds of GTM leaders from partnerships, sales, CS, and more at Supernode 2023 in San Diego: Register and get more info here, and check out last year’s conference recap.)

Below, you’ll get advice for initiating sales motions with the help of partners and making the switch from sales to partnerships. 

Read the Crossbeam blog. Many of our readers have credited the Crossbeam blog and a bunch of other Slack communities, articles, and podcasts (like Partnership Leaders, Cloud Software Association, and SaaS Ecosystem Alliance) for launching their partner program successfully and even getting promoted. These resources share actionable tactics from partnership professionals at all career levels that can help you drive the best results faster and become an indispensable part of your team.

Work with affiliate and services partners to start. As a member of the sales team, you’re more likely to engage with affiliate and services partners before engaging with tech partners (think: integrations). Affiliate partners may reach out to you with ecosystem qualified leads (EQLs are leads qualified by your partners) as they come across clients who may benefit from using your software. 

Services partners may also reach out to you with questions about how to implement your software for their clients and about integrating it with their clients’ tech stacks. As an AE, you already have knowledge about your software and your prospect and customers’ needs. You can answer your partners’ questions to the best of your ability, and you can direct them to more technical experts on your team if necessary.

Both affiliate and services partners can have a direct impact on the sales cycle, making it easy to show the value of working with these partners and, potentially, for you to take the reins to launch your company’s partner program. Later on, when you’ve assumed a partnerships role, you can start exploring growing your tech ecosystem and improving revenue and retention via integrations.

Consider the big picture. Working with affiliate and services partners may show great return in the beginning (like accelerating the sales cycle, closing more deals, and bigger deal sizes), but think about where else your partner program should focus in order to drive the biggest impact long-term. The “stickier” your product is (think: it works seamlessly with your customers’ tech stacks), the longer your customers will stay. As your customers mature and expand their tech stacks, having the right integrations means they can continue to use your software with any variety of tools. A few articles and stats about the value of launching your first tech ecosystem and developing integrations with tech partners: 

Keep in mind: Your leadership team may have a specific vision in mind for their partnerships program, but it’s up to you to determine where the most potential lies. Learn the market and present your findings to your leadership team to make sure you’re investing in a partnership program with the greatest return on investment (ROI).

For example: Rather than continuing to grow Trengo’s affiliate program by the numbers, Lewis actually halved their existing affiliate partners and launched tech and services partner programs. The affiliate partner program became a self-sufficient program that Lewis knew would generate leads on a consistent basis. 

Additionally, Lewis identified some affiliate partners who would better serve as services partners (think: guiding mutual customers in using your software throughout the customer lifecycle). She developed Trengo’s services partner program and reassigned some affiliate partners to the services partner bucket. Now, Trengo has an affiliate partner program, a services partner program, and a tech partner program.

“That way every [partner] is in the area they should be and where they have the most potential to grow,” says Lewis. “Of course, affiliates do add a lot of value, but they don’t necessarily need the same program or resources as the services partners do.”

Pick and choose which results to observe, and be selective about which stakeholders to share the results with. Partnerships is a long game, and tracking an integration’s impact on metrics like retention and churn becomes easier with time. In the beginning, focus on metrics like: 

  • Your close rate for leads sourced by affiliate and services partners (EQLs). Tip: Segment your customers to look at commercial deals, which typically have shorter sales cycles than enterprise deals. Use this data to start!
  • Any small boost in revenue from deals influenced/sourced by tech or channel partners that you can replicate over time 
  • The number of integration requests from customers 

When making the case to transition from sales to partnerships full-time, generate a handful of wins with your affiliate or services partners and share the data with your leadership team. If and when you move into partnerships full-time, share wins with your GTM teams to motivate them to co-sell and co-market with partners. To get further investment from your leadership team, consider sharing anecdotal data or metrics around deals closed with partners. Focus on leading indicators of success that can help predict future outcomes from your partner program. 

“In partnerships, managing expectations about how long it’s going to take is key, and that’s where market and experiential knowledge comes in, so you can say, ‘Okay, this is what you can expect in a year,” says KaraLynn Lewis at Trengo. “[Otherwise,] if you’re only measuring the results from a quarter or two, that might even be license to kill the [initiative].”

She adds, “If we can ramp up the services partner program within a year and we see a quarterly amount of revenue growth, we should be able to replicate that with another partner manager with a delay of X months for onboarding.”

For example: Lewis used PartnerPage to track incoming customer requests for integrations and custom development work. By showing the leadership team “X amount of development requests” in a two-month timeframe, she was able to make the case for investing in a services partner program. Now, Trengo’s services partners can help their small to mid-sized customers who don’t have existing development resources to customize their product usage and leverage Trengo’s customer engagement software any way they’d like as they focus their efforts on scaling.

As your partner program matures, you should uncover lagging indicators of success and gather data around how your ecosystem impacts metrics like retention and churn (like how customers who have adopted X integrations stay longer than those who don’t). 

Set the right expectations. Your sales leader cares about revenue — a difficult metric to track in the early stages of launching a tech ecosystem in particular. As you begin co-selling with new tech partners, you’ll need to take a thoughtful approach to ensure you build trust between your sales reps, your tech partners, and your tech partners’ sales reps. Otherwise, not only will your co-selling motions fail, but you’ll damage the internal and external relationships essential to the success of your partner program.

We recommend rolling out your co-selling motions with each individual tech partner in five phases for the best results (More in our ebook “No Opportunities Lost: The Crossbeam Guide to Co-Selling”). This means focusing on driving integration in the beginning, then using proof points from your early adopters to get your AEs and your partners’ AEs bought into the value of your tech partnership. Proceed with co-selling thoughtfully, and communicate about your plans with your sales leader so they don’t expect your SDRs to reach out to your partners’ AEs for warm introductions when neither party is set up for success just yet. 

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The 5 Phases of Co-Selling, from the “No Opportunities Lost” e-book

Becoming a partnership leader also requires a shift in mindset as you focus on relationship-building, filling product gaps, and the big-picture strategy for your partner program — rather than hitting quota. 

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Curious to learn more about starting your career in partnerships? Our State of the Partner Ecosystem Report shares insights on common partnership programs, salaries, key performance indicators (KPIs), and more. 👇

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