If you’re a sales development representative (SDR) or account executive (AE), there may be more career opportunities at your disposal than meets the eye.
A typical career in sales might look like this:
SDR becomes AE. AE becomes enterprise AE. Enterprise AE becomes Manager of Sales. Manager becomes VP, and so on.
Now, consider this:
SDR becomes partnerships manager, then Senior Partnerships Manager, then Director of Partnerships, then VP of Partnerships.
No, this isn’t an alternate universe. This is a real career trajectory that could be yours if you choose it.
If you enjoy many aspects of your role in sales but wish you could focus more energy on relationship-building, developing strategies for growing pipeline and generating revenue, and getting your hands in projects that impact marketing, sales, and product, then a career in partnerships might be for you.
Did you know: There’s more than 270 unique partnership titles on LinkedIn. Below are just a few of the partnership roles you should consider exploring. What to expect:
4 Entry-Level and Mid-Level Roles for Transitioning From Sales to Partnerships
We’ve compiled four common partnership roles for making the jump from sales to partnerships. For a complete roundup of partnership roles — from entry-level to the C-Suite — check out our guide to partnership roles and job titles.
#1: Partner Manager
Partner managers are often the first hires by partnership leaders. And sometimes, a partner manager can be the very first partnerships hire — building the partner program from the ground up and growing into a leadership role.
Partner managers source and onboard new partners, work with existing partners to drive ecosystem qualified leads (EQLs), and serve as a conduit learning where their internal sales team needs help and how partners can support them. Sometimes, partner managers wear many hats and also manage partner marketing, partner ops (or “ecosystem ops”), and partner sales.
Partner managers often assess who to partner with and how by using a partner ecosystem platform (PEP) like Crossbeam. Through real-time account mapping in Crossbeam, partner managers can vet partners quickly and determine if they should build an integration, co-sell, and/or co-market together.
In sales, mapping accounts typically means determining who the stakeholders are within a potential customer account and which of them could influence closing the deal. In partnerships, account mapping helps you determine which partners could have the most influence on your prospects, opportunities, and customers for accelerating sales cycles and growing accounts.
In the example below, you’ll see a high overlap count between your customers and your partner’s customers. This signals you should build an integration to improve retention and increase your product’s “stickiness” among your customers. You can also co-sell with your tech partner to sell to prospects who would benefit from using both of your solutions and your integration.
Below is an example of the key criteria for a partner manager role at Digital Asset, a financial technology and services firm.
Explore a partner manager role if you like:
- Building relationships with internal and external stakeholders and problem-solving together
- Learning about different tech and services companies to understand the value of their products or services and how they benefit customers
- Thinking strategically about how to impact the business on a large scale, through repeatable co-selling motions, long-term co-marketing campaigns, and building integrations that make your product a no-brainer for new and existing customers
- Learning what your customers want from internal stakeholders, external stakeholders, and directly from your customers
#2: Partner Account Manager (PAM)
Partner account managers (PAMs) oversee a portfolio of partners to manage the relationships and plan and execute partner motions. A PAM provides dedicated support to the partner to ensure their business needs and your business needs are meet (e.g. if you each expect a minimum amount of EQLs when lead swapping).
For example: You might check in with your partner and their sales reps to understand how the co-selling process is going, which deals have and haven’t closed with the help of your sales team, and why. You might also check in with your sales team to understand how often they’re touching base with your partner’s reps, how helpful your partner’s reps have been, and which deals have or haven’t closed and why. In this role, it’s your responsibility to ensure the quality control of the partnership and that the partner is meeting your goals (and vice versa).
Implementing MBO bonuses, sales program incentive funds (SPIFs), or cash gifts can help you incentivize your sales reps to work with partners when they’re just starting out. Below is an example of tying activity-progress-revenue (APR) scoring to management by objectives (MBO) bonuses from Shipware.
Below is an example of the key criteria for a partner account manager role at Pigment, a business planning platform.
Explore a partner account manager role if you like:
- Focusing on driving results with a handful of partners and internal teams rather than growing the entire partner program
- The account management layer of your sales role and want to transition that skill to partnerships
- Tracking metrics like number of net new leads and sourced-revenue against partnership-specific goals
#3: Channel Account Manager
A channel account manager focuses on identifying and growing channel partners. Channel partners serve as a middleman between your team and the customer. They can help accelerate sales cycles, close deals on your behalf, and grow existing accounts through indirect sales, product implementation, and customer support services around your product. Channel partners include agencies, system integrators (SIs), resellers, and more.
A channel account manager sources, onboards, and activates new channel partners to meet specific quarterly or annual lead generation or revenue goals. They focus on top-of-funnel lead generation (as opposed to “channel sales” which focuses on deal-closing).
Below is an example of the key criteria for a channel account manager role at arcserve, a data protection solutions company.
Explore a channel account manager role if you like:
- Focusing on driving results with a handful of partners and internal teams rather than growing the partner program itself
- Love prioritizing top-of-funnel activities that help generate high-quality leads from partners
- Exploring a variety of methods of indirect sales that can help support your sales development representatives (SDR) and build pipeline.
#4: Partner Operations Manager
A partner operations manager establishes, manages, and scales a partner program’s Ecosystem Ops. Ecosystem Ops is the repeatable set of practices for working with partners and external stakeholders. This includes:
- Setting up automated systems for tracking attribution for partner-sourced and partner-influenced revenue in a customer relationship management (CRM) tool like Salesforce
- Establishing onboarding workflows for new partners (An example: WP Engine’s 7-stage “bow-tie” funnel)
- Establishing a means of communication between internal and external stakeholders, like creating Slack Connect channels
Below is an example of the key criteria for a partner and alliance operations manager role at Cognite, an industrial DataOps platform.
Explore a partner ops role if you like:
- Tracking the success of the sales process
- Developing processes for working with internal and external stakeholders
- Analyzing tools and processes to understand what works and what doesn’t, launch new tools and processes, implement integrations, and align new processes with the workflows and needs of various stakeholders (think: “co-designing” with stakeholders)
Additional entry to mid-level partnership roles to keep an eye on:
If you’d like to plan ahead and map your potential career in partnerships, you’ll find an extensive list of partnership roles by seniority, from the manager level to the c-suite, here. You can also view these six partnership team org charts we’ve compiled from companies in B2B SaaS.
The Benefits of Transitioning Into Partnerships From Sales
Your sales knowledge will make you a better partnerships leader. As a former AE or SDR, you have a superpower: You understand the sales team’s perspective. This makes it easier to communicate the value of co-selling with partners in your sales team’s terms and get them up to speed on working with new partners quickly.
Additionally, many of the key performance indicators (KPIs) of partnership roles are similar to those of sales. The most common KPI in 2023 for partnership professionals is partner-sourced revenue (revenue generated from deals sourced by partners). Other popular KPIs include “partner-influenced revenue“, “opportunities sourced by partners”, and “leads generated by partners”.
You can advance your career faster. As an SDR or AE, you’re competing with any number of other internal SDRs or AEs to achieve your goals, hit your quarterly revenue quota, and get promoted. In partnerships, you may be the only one in your role or one of few. Rather than competing, you’re collaborating with internal stakeholders and partners to help your sales team and other go-to-market (GTM) teams hit their goals. As long as you’re hitting your goals, there’s room to advance as your partnership team grows.
In a given SaaS company, the partner org is typically newer than the sales org — meaning you’re likely to have more of a say in building out the partnerships org and partner program and rising the ranks faster. Furthermore, as part of a partnerships org, you’ll have the opportunity to specialize in strategic partnerships, tech partnerships, or channel partnerships after testing the waters in each.
You can also fast-track your total compensation earnings. Take SDRs for example. According to a Pavilion State of Sales Development report, most sales leaders expect SDRs to move onto other roles in less than two years.
And the majority of SDRs move on to AE roles.
According to Comparably, the average total compensation for SDRs in the US is $75K and for AEs in the US is $111K. The average total compensation for a “partner manager” role in the US is $134K (source: State of the Partner Ecosystem survey). To note: This includes partner managers with tech, channel, or strategic partnership focuses.
Additionally, job hopping is common in the partnerships world. In 2021, more than 50% of partnership professionals switched jobs, and in 2022, 45% switched jobs. Many partnership professionals move from company to company for better total compensation packages, better opportunities, and the excitement of building another new partner program from the ground up. Using the evidence of their partner program’s success, they ask for more.
An SDR may have the most to gain when moving into partnerships. They have the opportunity to earn more earlier and advance to a leadership position faster than they would if they transitioned to an AE role. For example: When Trengo built out its now two-person partnerships team, they hired a Senior Partner Manager in 2021 to lead the overall strategy and their tech partner program. Then in 2022, they hired an SDR from within as a Partner Manager overseeing their services partners. As a new team like this grows, the first hires could have the opportunity to grow into more senior positions.
However, AEs can also advance their careers quickly when making the transition. Alex Richards, previously an AE at TalentPop, transitioned to a Director of Partnerships role at Aventus. While at TalentPop, Richards observed that the leads he received from a particular partner were almost 100X more likely to close than his cold leads and in just 34% of the time. These results and his passion for partnerships led him to work in partnerships full-time.
Additionally, at Close, an AE first pitched working with partners 20% of the time and then transitioned to a full-time role in partnerships. That AE launched the partner program at Close and is now the Senior Partnerships Manager.
You can see average total compensation for partnership roles across seniority, geography, and gender in the 2023 State of the Partner Ecosystem report (launching February 14, 2023).
You’ll build up your manager skills by working with partners. Many entry level partnership roles (including partner managers) involve management responsibilities. While you won’t be managing internal stakeholders, managing external partners will provide you with managerial level skills that can be transferable to other roles in the future.
You’ll expand your network and opportunities. The best AEs build lasting relationships with their customers. They don’t just talk about the value of your product; they also go on runs with their customers, talk about their favorite movies, join each other’s podcasts (think: social selling), and, yes, guide your customers to better business decisions. If you love that aspect of sales, you’ll love partnerships even more.
Partner people love meeting with others in their field on Zoom and in real life (through conferences like Crossbeam’s Supernode and Partnership Leaders’ Catalyst). They love sharing what’s working and what’s not with the intention of educating and learning from other leaders in the space. They invite each other to their headquarters for meet-and-greets with their teams, they speak openly about what’s working and what’s not, and they love celebrating and supporting the entire partnerships community. 💪
They help each other drive more revenue through their partner programs all while becoming great friends. How does that sound? Is it time to consider the transition from sales to partnerships?
Curious to learn more about what it’s like working in partnerships?
For statistics on the salaries, KPIs, workstyles, and more of partnership professionals, download the 2023 State of the Partner Ecosystem report.
For a 101 lesson on partnerships, plus real tactics for account mapping, co-selling, co-marketing, and building integrations, download the Partner Playbook.
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