Commitment & Community: People-Centric Partner Onboarding
This article is part of a compelling series that will give you practical tips on how to grow a successful partner program. By leveraging the advice of the greatest minds in partnerships, you will learn how to effectively create, structure, and build a partner program that scales revenue. If you are a startup or SMB in the B2B tech industry, this series is for you.
For this article, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Snyder, Senior Director of Channel Partnerships at Customer.io and formerly working in partner development at Hubspot, a CRM platform for inbound marketing, sales, and customer service.
Customer.io is a messaging platform that enables marketers to craft powerful automated message campaigns from scratch. With real-time data and a robust platform, marketers can automate product messaging, and connect a segmentation and automation engine to other apps to influence user behavior and maximize productivity.
When Jennifer assumed her role as director of partnerships for Customer.io in late 2022, the lean partner team had already laid the basic foundation for the partner program which began in 2022, with a dedicated pool of around 50–60 partners.
After polling the active partners for feedback, and seeing early signs of success with the launch of the partner program, it became clear that partners were having overwhelmingly positive experiences with Customer.io.
It led to their exciting consideration: could they grow their partner program further to capitalize on that momentum?
The Customer.io leadership team saw that partners were a big value add for customers and that the program had great potential to help them break into new markets. They decided to expand the team and look for an expert in partner ecosystem development, which is where Jennifer's 13+ years of experience in tech and partner program development led her to accept the role. Read the following interview to discover and take advantage of the advice coming from Jennifer herself.
Building a Strong Foundation for Your Partner Onboarding
Without proper onboarding processes in place, Jennifer believes that new partners can easily become overwhelmed or disconnected, which inevitably leads to a weaker commitment to the partnership and underwhelming results in a partner program.
Businesses wishing to establish long-term relationships with their partners should know that effective onboarding is essential to achieving success on both sides.
So, where do you start? Jennifer suggests the following steps:
Once a partner has been interviewed and signed a commitment to coming on board, the next steps are getting them certified on the software, getting them access to the partner portal, getting them a login to the PRM tools, and scheduling a business review call or GPTC (Goals, Planning, Timeline, and Challenge) call with a written document that both parties can agree on and hold each other accountable to. She learned this format from Pete Caputa, who founded the HubSpot partner program and is the founder of Databox.
"I use GPTC. Thank you, Pete Caputa. I still use it even in my daily life: Goal, Plan, Timeline, and Challenges."
The document asks questions such as:
- Do you recognize your need for help?
- Will you accept assistance?
- Are you willing to take the necessary steps to achieve your goals?
These questions are intended to help businesses and their teams set SMART goals and tie in personal and professional goals. Understanding what success means to the leadership team at an agency helps to ensure that you are working on mutually agreed upon goals that will help their businesses, as well as their customers.
Find the Right Tools
"I'm really grateful for partners like Kiflo PRM and the tools that are now available to partner ecosystem developers like myself."
The next step is to have the right tools.
While a partner program can help generate leads and sales, it is only half the job. To truly maximize the impact of your partner onboarding strategy, it is important to equip yourself with the necessary tools.
Customer.io will soon be introducing new plans in their onboarding system that include access to Kiflo PRM. There are several reasons for this, as well as numerous benefits of these partner tools that make them essential.
- First is the partner badge. Customer.io can easily share the badge in Kiflo so partners can display their affiliation with the brand. This positively increases trust and credibility with potential customers and partners.
- Second is the new agreement that partners must sign within the partner portal; this agreement ensures that all commissions are eligible for payment, thus eliminating any complicated paperwork.
- Finally, to make things even easier, the partner portal will provide partners with an easy-to-use link they can share with their sales team to register leads quickly in the system.
All of this dramatically reduces time spent on manual tasks while streamlining communication between partners and Customer.io team members.
But why Kiflo PRM?
Well, in Jennifer’s words:
"It's a great software. The user interface is superior to any other that I have had the opportunity to use or preview. Kiflo wasn't the first to market, but they do seem to be the best to market."
Make Accountability a Priority
The next point Jennifer emphasizes for partner onboarding is accountability.
The moment the contract is signed, Jennifer and her team set up a kickoff call and quarterly business review. The primary reason for this urgency is to ensure accountability for all parties involved.
"I believe accountability is a two-way street."
Customer.io places a strong emphasis on a 90-day onboarding plan. In addition to ensuring mutual accountability, this also gives partners the time to qualify leads, clarify processes, and go over expectations.
"For me, the milestones within the 90-day onboarding plan represent both parties' accountability.”
This also allows for direct partner feedback, which can help Customer.io determine whether expectations are being met on both sides and make improvements to the program.
But with accountability comes compliance.
“Once partners have committed to the program, they have a set amount of time to comply. We expect partners to reach the milestones in that 90-day window, or let us know if they feel they will need more time”
Complying with the customer's partner program during the 90 days entails milestones such as, "Have partners signed their partner agreements in Kiflo? Have they downloaded their partner badge?” Or, have they scheduled and committed to their quarterly partner meetings? If a partner is not meeting these milestones, it might mean that this partnership is not a current priority.
If multiple attempts to initiate contact with a partner are unsuccessful, Customer.io's team will determine whether to release the unresponsive partner from the partner program.
This brings us to the next point.
Learn to Let Go
Jennifer truly believes in the importance of honoring the fact that prospective partners have their own journeys and that your company may not be a part of them.
“We understand the importance of not closing the door on future opportunities. Some partners who do not meet our current partner needs may be a good fit in the future. Even if a partner has left our partner program, unless it was for a negative reason, we will always keep the door open for a conversation. As we continue to expand our program and their agency evolves, we welcome the opportunity to work together again.”
Customer.io aims to keep opportunities open as much as possible while also finding diverse partners with varied expertise in different industries, verticals, geographical areas, and languages.
This demand for diversity also requires transparency and dedication from both sides. The company expresses full transparency with potential partners by being honest about the status of demand.
"For example, when there are enough partners to fill demand in Dubai (such as 3 out of 4 partners accepted), we strive to be transparent about informing the fourth applicant that we are unable to welcome them at this time. However, we will keep their application on file and reopen the conversation as the partner program continues to grow.”
Being selective ensures that existing partners receive the necessary attention and care they need. A great partner program is not just about numbers, it’s about choosing the right group of partners and having a great internal team to support them across departments.
Structuring a People-centric Partner Onboarding Process
As we all know, when entering into a new partnership, all parties must understand their roles, expectations, and responsibilities. And having an effective onboarding process in place contributes to this understanding.
However, far too often, rather than being carefully planned, this process is left to chance or numbers. And the structure ignores the fact that the partners are people, resulting in a partnership dead end.
So, how can businesses prioritize developing strong people-centric onboarding processes that establish clear goals?
It Starts With Your Team
"A partner ecosystem thrives when it's internal and external."
A company needs to embrace your partnership vision and support its development. Without full leadership and cross-team support, it’s difficult for a partner program to thrive.
The key is to show the progress of the partner program and how it is helping other departments win.
Lead With Kindness
Jennifer read The Power of Kindness by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Kovaearlier early in her leadership career and believes that while kindness in partnerships is crucial, it is equally important to recognize the value of dedication and reciprocity within each partnership.
For example, if partners only expect leads from the Customer.io partnership team but never bring in opportunities, this is not equitable. Leaders must encourage all parties to participate in providing mutual value and support.
By doing so, they are both investing in laying a solid foundation for their working relationship.
At its core, it's about contributing mutual respect, understanding, and teamwork—all tenets of accountability—to ensure all partners benefit from each other.
Make it Equitable
The next step is to give equal value.
Jennifer is excited to announce the recent launch of their new Partner-Led Onboarding program as well as a few other exciting enhancements to the Customer.io partner program that will be shared at their upcoming Partner Kick-Off.
For example, Enterprise customers now have the option to include partner-led migration support in their plan’s features.
Amplify Partners' Voices
To motivate partners to be community leaders, Jennifer believes it is important for the onboarding process to be constantly evolving and easy to understand.
She explains how, for instance, she and her previous team at HubSpot created a one-to-many training program for partners in the style of a monthly partner meet-up, complete with quizzes and boot camps.
This approach successfully motivated various group members to actively take part in the partner community by learning from other partner leaders, allowing them to take ownership of their presentations, and find their voices.
Jennifer seeks to apply similar techniques at Customer.io to build an exceptional partner ecosystem where everyone feels valued and can work together toward achieving success.
"We become their community leader and give the first few presentations. Then we help partners find their voice so that they can suggest topics they’re experts on and volunteer to lead group presentations. I'm excited to bring this format to Customer.io this year.”
But what Jennifer wants is to help build a partner ecosystem that can serve as a model for companies to follow—one that will ensure fair and equitable opportunities for all partners while also holding them accountable for reaching goals.
The Importance of Community in Partner Onboarding
The importance of developing a strong sense of community during the partner onboarding process cannot be overstated and must be demonstrated from the beginning.
With that said, Customer.io is currently developing community resources across departments to assist partners in finding and answering customer questions, gaining visibility, and taking on various opportunities.
For instance, if one of their partners achieves an outstanding feat, they strive to celebrate this and congratulate them on their success.
"Partner success should be celebrated! That’s community!"
Creating a strong sense of community should be a continuous process that adapts to change.
Key Takeaways: Jennifer’s Advice for Creating Meaningful Partner Onboarding Programs
“Create accessible documents.”
The first piece of advice is to have a documented process that is easy to follow and understand.
"Don't rely solely on word of mouth, as not everyone learns in the same way. For important documents, consider providing printed copies for those with visual difficulties or other learning challenges. Keep accessibility in mind; everyone deserves the right to learn. Additionally, be open to feedback from your team and partners regarding their preferred learning styles."
“Be an ally and a champion.”
"Be an ally as well as a champion. Partners function almost as an extension of your core team. Treat them with respect. Don't push them so hard that you destroy their business in order to meet a quota."
"Create community from the beginning."
Creating a community should be a priority right from the start. Jennifer encourages her team to communicate their best practices and ask partners how they prefer to interact with and learn about the business.
"Take the time to get to know your partners and listen to what they want in an ideal partnership relationship!"
Another way to encourage community is by having an open dialogue between partners and giving them a format to do so. This can prove quite useful as it often helps both parties discover new opportunities by making the most of their complementary skill sets.
"If one agency specializes in one area and you specialize in another, it might open up the door to new opportunities!”
“Document goals and decide how you’ll stick with them.”
Document goals, timelines, plans, and challenges. Asking partners how they want to be held accountable for goals gives them an opportunity to let you know how they prefer to communicate and ensures that meetings are productive.
“Offer them freedom and space to discuss what they need help with. Remember that each situation is different, so remain flexible and reassess goals every quarter. Consider external factors that may affect goals or timelines, such as economic instability, and use open-ended questions to foster understanding rather than criticism. For example, instead of pointing out when someone hasn't achieved their goal, ask where they think they can realistically land given the set of circumstances. Accountability conversations should include a human element; stay compassionate and understanding when things get difficult.”
Make it Happen for You: How to Grow Your Partner Program like Customer.io
If you want to grow a partner program like Customer.io, it is essential that you have a strong leader in partner ecosystem development and the proper tools to structure, automate, and scale your program.
A Partner Relation Management (PRM) platform allows you to:
- Organize your program with tiers
- Coordinate training, onboarding, and certification processes
- Trace leads
- Build a knowledge base to provide instant answers
- Collaborate with partners on a shared pipeline
- Get full visibility over partner activity
- Measure partner performance
- Track commission and payouts