Establishing partner tiers early on is a game-changer. It can help you define the rules, set expectations, and encourage better work from your partners and from your own team.
But, alas, developing partner tiers takes time — and lots of research.
We can only imagine how much you’ve got on your plate, so we went ahead and did some of the work for you. Plus, we chatted with industry experts from Zapier, Twilio, and Bullhorn to hear about their experiences — their successes, their learnings, and everything in between — to help you skip ahead in the discovery phase.
As a partner manager who’s interested in putting a layer of logic behind your partner program, we’re giving you a friendly push to go from thinking about partner tiers to getting started. Use the information we’ve gathered to make your plan bulletproof in the eyes of your leadership team.
In this post, you’ll learn about:
And you’ll get three checklists so you don’t miss a beat:
- Tiering Criteria to Consider
- Potential Expectations for You and Your Partners
- Additional Questions to Factor In
If you don’t know where to start with developing your partner tiers, Cody Jones, Head of Partnerships and Alliances at Zapier, says to identify what your company can offer that’s unique and competitive.
“The real value of Zapier is we help our SaaS partners close more sales because they now connect with everything, and our partners typically see around a 40-50% reduction in churn of their users that are using their product with Zapier,” says Jones.
That’s why Zapier created a partner tier program that helps their partners grow and improve their integrations within the Zapier platform — which, in turn, improves the Zapier marketplace.
Jones suggests, “Go work with your most successful partners. Figure out what they do. Figure out a way to create a program around the things that make them successful. Create those as the requirements for ascending tiers.”
Benefits of Partner Tiering
Benefit #1: Crystal Clear Partner Expectations
If you’re worried that tiering your partners will hurt your partners’ feelings by putting them in a corner, don’t.
According to our 2021 State of the Partner Ecosystem Report, 41% of partnership professionals say they have “a ‘preferred’ partner program or equivalent.” (Get the 2022 State of the Partner Ecosystem Report here.)
Hanna Daboul, Partner Manager at Bullhorn, says, “I think people like rules, I think partners like rules. Where do I fit, what do I get?”Your partners like to know where they fit into your partnerships ecosystem. Is your partner strategic — contributing to a high percentage of your pipeline revenue? Or do you have more of a hands-off relationship with the partner — where the success of an integration lies in their court?
Partners who can only invest so much in the partnership — because of their budget, the size of their team, and other resource limitations — will likely appreciate the extra layer of documentation and clarity around what’s expected of them and what you’re offering in return. If it turns out they’re looking for more out of the partnership, you can chat about how they can level up to the next tier.
Tiering your partners will remove personality and subjectivity from the decision-making process, freeing your mental capacity up to focus on strategy.
Through partner tiers, you’re also setting expectations for your own team. As your partnerships program grows, you’ll want to consider the workload your team can handle for the amount of partners you expect to be in each tier. It’s simply not sustainable to go all-in with year-long co-marketing engagements, for example, for all of your partners — especially as your program scales.
“Our tiers are primarily partner-facing for that reason. They give us trackable milestones and standards for what partners are and aren’t eligible for at different tiers, giving them something to work towards ,” says Daboul.
In order to figure out what exactly those all-in efforts should look like for your most strategic, top-tier partners, Cody Jones, Head of Partnerships and Alliances at Zapier, says you should look to your partners for the answer.
“For us, we’ve found at Zapier, our SaaS partners want exposure more than anything else, and so we’ve built that and baked that into our program at certain tiers. They get a very valuable reward when they’ve done what we’ve asked of them,” says Jones.
Jones’s team has built co-marketing initiatives like integration announcements on Zapier’s product blog, social media shoutouts, and inclusion in Zapier’s “popular zaps” list into their most strategic tiers.
While other tiers involve more automated benefits, such as access to integration health data and a dedicated page in their app directory, co-marketing campaigns are more manual and resource-intensive. When Zapier’s partners do more work, those partners unlock rewards that require more work from the Zapier team.
Zapier has over 3,000,000 subscribers, so co-marketing is a big win for their partners. What’s unique to your company that could inform partner expectations and rewards for your top tiers?
Zapier’s partner tiers. Image courtesy of Zapier
Benefit #2: Accountability for Your Team and for Your Partner’s Team
Having tiering documentation in front of you makes it real, right? Let your partner know what you’re expecting of them and what they can expect from you in return — and have it in writing.
Tiers will give your partners the fuel they may need to get their side of the work done and prove their value as a partner. If they know you’re waiting on them for webinar date confirmations or the attendee list after the webinar ends, they won’t want to disappoint.
Is your partner in the gold tier responsible for a specific percentage of pipeline or co-marketing deliverables? With tiering specifics to refer back to, they know they need to deliver — and if they don’t, it may lead to a partnership reevaluation.
It also works the other way around. With tier documentation, you have something to refer to that explains why you can’t give your partner something or that pushes you to get your side of the work done.
Your tiering system can give your partners the opportunity to graduate and get even more benefits if they play their cards right. On the flip side, if your partners fall short, they can face demotions — falling from the gold tier to the silver tier.
Cody Jones of Zapier says, “If they drop a tier because they missed something and we now have their attention and they’re willing to work with us, I’m going to do whatever I can to make that partner happy.”
So while your partners may not want to get demoted, a demotion could trigger a more constructive conversation, which could lead to a better partnership.
Twilio’s tiers for technology partners. Image courtesy of Twilio.
Jones says their partners receive monthly and quarterly updates to show them how they’re performing and what they can do to improve.
These reports include:
- Realtime notifications about features and bugs
- Monthly status updates, including monthly users, bugs, and improvement recommendations
- Quarterly updates that include updates about how their partner is performing and if they’ve ascended or descended in tiers
These consistent updates help motivate Zapier’s partners to improve and maintain the health of their integrations throughout the year — making Zapier’s integration marketplace an even better one with each quarter that passes.
“Every quarter, you have the ability to work and do your best work and try to ascend a tier. Conversely, you can slack off and potentially descend tiers,” says Jones. “Nothing grabs their attention quite like a tier change. That can be both a really great surprise or a rude awakening for our partners.”
If your partnerships program is fairly small, you may decide to rely on one-to-one updates. If your partnerships program is large, like Zapier’s 2,000+ app ecosystem, it may not be sustainable to check in with each partner on a one-to-one level.
When thinking about mobility within your tiers, you should consider how your team can communicate “promotions” or “demotions” in a way that’s scalable for the long-term and helpful to your partners. Zapier’s updates run on automation through tools like Looker.
Think about the kind of time your team can dedicate to partner tier communications and the kinds of tools you might need to automate some of the workflow.
It can only benefit you to have your partners ascend your tiers. For instance, promoting growth among your partners can help you get your brand included in your partners’ global marketing campaigns, more partners bringing in tier one opportunities for your funnel, or more strategic partners for possible acquisition opportunities in your ecosystem.
Here’s another example of partner tiers from Zuora, a subscription management solution.
Zuora’s partner tiers for ISV partners. Image courtesy of Zuora.
Benefit #3: Clear Documentation to Back You Up When Your Partners Don’t Meet Your Expectations
If you have a meeting on Zoom to talk about who’s responsible for what throughout the life cycle of your partnership, a lot can get lost in the weeds during the weeks and months to come. You may want to have those agreements in writing to avoid any sense of ambiguity — unless you rely solely on trust (which is okay, too).
The earlier you define these terms, the better.
One way to maintain alignment is to include your partner’s tiering and their expected investment at the time of signing your partnership contract. That way, if your partner doesn’t deliver on their end of the deal (what happened to that webinar that guaranteed 50 ecosystem qualified leads?), you have the documentation to prove you’re not crazy — or even to back you up if you decide to exit or reevaluate the partnership.
Drawbacks You Should Consider
Drawback #1: Developing Tiers is Time-Consuming and Resource Intensive
Since building partnerships is often a long game, putting in extra effort to build out processes for the work you’re already doing can be hard to justify — not only to leadership but also to yourself.
In fact, partnerships get complicated around the 100-employee mark, when partner managers start to have more trouble getting buy-in from leadership and also when they could really use a great partnerships management system like partner tiering.
On top of that, in our Partner Playbook, we learned that it takes 9-12 months for a typical partnerships organization to get to cost-neutral — meaning you may be contributing more money towards partnerships than you’re earning in exchange for your investment.
Twilio’s Tayler Hickey says, “You need someone to dedicate time to soliciting internal and external feedback to create tiers. It’s kind of like being in the production of a television show. You don’t know the stuff that goes into every little facet, and these guides provide the roadmap for how to build successful partnerships together.”
(See “every little thing” that goes into your tiers using our checklist at the end of this post.)
“Gold Partners” featured in Twilio’s partner showcase. Image courtesy of Twilio.
Tiering your partners sounds really nice — but for some, it’s more of a pipe dream than a reality. For many partner managers, they’re running the production solo and just don’t have the time to build out partner tiers. And even if you have other partnerships people on your team, it can be difficult to get buy-in for a project that takes time and resources to develop and that won’t show its value until much later.
Tip: Map out how structuring expectations for you and your partners will deliver results, what those results will look like, and how they’ll improve your company’s sales and strategic placement in the ecosystem. Will your tiers drive more users or customers to your platform? How? Will they guarantee more ecosystem qualified leads in your pipeline? Put in the work to conduct predictive analysis and uncover trends that exist through your current partnerships.
Drawback #2: Partner Tiers Aren’t a “Set it and Forget it” Initiative
Just because you’ve launched your partner tiers doesn’t mean you’re set for the long haul.
Cody Jones says that the first version of Zapier’s partner tiers focused on feature updates and bugs, but they’ve recently adapted their tiering strategy to help their partners excel within their respective categories. For example, how does the functionality of your partner’s CRM integration with your platform compare to other CRMs?
“We’re finding that now that we’ve got our foundational stuff in place, we can start to customize by category and bring in more specific messaging that’s far more effective and motivating to our partners,” says Jones.
Rather than prioritizing general suggestions like, ‘Here’s how to embed Zapier into your website to drive more adoption,’ Zapier establishes benchmarks according to the performance of their most strategic partners.
“How do all the CRMs work with us like Salesforce works with us, and how can we distill those learnings into suggestions and improvements,” says Jones. “You’re a CRM. Did you know that other CRM partners are doing x, y, and z to grow and ascend tiers?”
Zapier also adapted their strategy to level the playing field between their biggest partners and their lesser known partners. To do so, they made a switch from measuring raw growth and net new customers to measuring percentage of growth.
As your partnership program grows, your partners’ needs will become more nuanced. Revisit your tiers to adapt your strategy in a way that’s scalable, sustainable for your team, and continuously beneficial to your partners.
Tip: Consider your first tiering structure as a benchmark to build on. As you gather feedback from partners and analyze trends, perhaps through case studies with strategic partners, think about how you can adapt your tiers to help more of your partners succeed in a way that’s catered to their specific needs and industry.
Drawback #3: If You Don’t Build in Room for Mobility, Your Partnerships May Go Stagnant
If you’re putting your tiering program out into the world, you’re likely pretty excited — but are your partners?
From the get go, you should gather intel about what your partners value from your company ahead of time so you can build those components into your tiering program at launch. Then, continue to get feedback from current and new partners on what’s working and what’s not. Your partners don’t have to be one hundred percent satisfied in their current tier as long as there’s room for growth.
Do your tiers offer mobility from one tier to the next for those partners that want more? Do you offer enough deliverables on your end to make the partnership worthy to them? Do your tiers allot the appropriate amount of communication between your team and your partners’ teams in order to foster a positive relationship and achievable results?
Here’s an example of rewards by tier from Xero, an accounting software company.
Xero’s points-based partner tiers. Image courtesy of Xero.
Tip: Check for mobility roadblocks that prevent your partnerships from growing and benefitting from your partner program. For example, is the number of partner-sourced leads you’re asking your partner for unrealistic? Are your partners moving up in tiers, or are they only moving down?
Track how your partners move up or down in tiers to evaluate the causes and identify possible trends. If your partner’s tier isn’t working well for their needs, figure out if it’s a “tier problem” — meaning you need to evaluate the tiering requirements for possible modification — or a “mobility problem” — meaning you don’t provide enough room, resources, and support for growth.
For us, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks by a long shot. And, really, the biggest downside is that partner tiers can’t build themselves.
Before you get started with developing your company’s partner tiers, you can map accounts with your partners to get a pulse on which partners you should be prioritizing for strategic growth. Of those partners, which opportunities might be getting lost? For example, you share 50+ prospects with a partner, but you have yet to see a single introduction or co-selling motion.
Setting rules in place to establish what you expect from your partner, what they expect from you, and what will happen when your partner meets those expectations can help to accelerate results — more sales, more customers, and so on.
You can use Crossbeam for free to identify those opportunities and inform your next steps. For example, do you have a particular group of partners that share a large number of opportunities with your company? Use that data to build a structure around co-marketing and co-selling processes within one or a few of your tiers. Using data like this can help you build the framework for your tiers more purposefully — and can help you get buy-in from leadership.
And now, everything you should factor into your new partner tiering program:
Your Partner Tiering Checklist
Consider this your cheat sheet. Take what you need, and adapt it for your unique partnerships strategy. We won’t tell the teacher.
Tiering Criteria to Consider:
How do you decide which partners belong to which tiers? Check out these factors to decide:
- Does the partner fit into your ideal partner profile (IPP)? In addition to shared customers, would they help you access new ecosystems and markets?
- What is your partner’s reputation in the industry? Would an alignment with their brand be strategic? What is that partner’s market valuation?
- Does your partner have an impressive track record with VC funding, in the press, customer case studies, customer reviews, and so on?
- How many shared customers do you have with your partner? Do shared customer case studies exist that reflect positively on your partner’s brand?
- How many shared prospects or opportunities do you have with your partner?
- How essential is your partner’s product to your platform?
- How many shared customers or users do you have with your partner?
- How many of your customers, and how many of your most strategic customers, want to use your partner’s product?
- Is your potential partner able to commit to the requirements asked of them in a specific tier?
- Have you noticed trending searches within your website’s internal search engine or on Google for integrations between your product and your potential partner’s product?
Twilio’s revenue requirements by tier. Image courtesy of Twilio.
Potential Expectations for You and Your Partners:
What kinds of expectations do you want to build into each tier — for your partners, yourself, and your extensive team?
- How much pipeline do you expect a gold tier to bring in versus a silver tier?
- Will you incorporate certification requirements?
- What is the revenue share for partners in each tier, if applicable?
- Will you include partners of a specific tier in a public-facing showcase or other partner network?
- Will partners receive invitations to partner-only events and communications, like partner-only roundtables and a partner-specific newsletter?
- Will you incorporate built-in hours for ideating or evaluating specific projects? Will these hours include time from your marketing team, your sales team, and your dev team?
- Will you include brand recognition on your company website and other collateral? Do you expect your partner to do the same for you?
- Will you incorporate social media posts, blog posts, and other promotional asks?
- Will you incorporate co-hosted webinars and specific requirements around promotions and lead-gen lists?
- Will there be asks around joint case studies with shared customers?
HubSpot’s tiering requirements for solution partners. Image courtesy of HubSpot.
HubSpot solution partners dashboard. Image courtesy of HubSpot.
Additional Questions to Factor In:
Don’t forget to ask yourself these important questions.
- What do your partners want most? Bake those rewards into your tiers.
- Will you build the tiering requirements into your initial partnerships contract, a second tier-related contract, or will those requirements rely on trust between you and your partner?
- If your partner doesn’t fulfill their tiering requirements, will you demote them — manually or automatically — from their current tier to a lower tier, or will it prompt a more formal partnership reevaluation?
- Should you have “subtiers” (or a “tier” below your “tiers”) for more of the plug-and-play, hands-off partnerships to encourage developers to build on your platform?
- What should the revenue share be for partners in each tier?
- Will you pay your partners up front or later?
- How do your marketing, sales, and development teams fit into your tiers? How much is required of them? Can they manage the workload considering the time, people, and resources they have?
- Will your tiers be public-facing (like Zapier’s), only partner-facing, or only internal (to keep your team and your partnerships roadmap on the right path)?
- Is your tiering competitive with your competitors’ tiers? Do you offer a better revenue share, a better co-marketing investment, or product development investment?
Have we missed something on these checklists? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.