A question that is often asked when starting to scale a SaaS startup or small SaaS business is when should I consider using partners for customer success and what role should they play? The answer to that question is dependent on the type of product, the type of customers and the stage of the business.
In general, if you are still exploring product/market fit it’s too early to be using partners for either sales or customer success. When you are exploring product/market fit you want to have a close relationship with your customers without potential filters or delays in the communication. However, once you achieve product/market fit and you are looking to scale the business it’s time to at least consider partners.
Typically the question is first asked about sales partners and whether to use partners for the sales process is a somewhat different question than deciding to use partners for customer success. However, there can be substantial synergy with a partner involved in both sales and customer success and so it is important to consider your plans for both when you develop a partner strategy.
Let’s consider the most typical situation for SaaS partners, developing a referral sales partner channel for your SaaS product. In this situation the partner has access to potential customers for your product, usually participates in some type of joint selling process and the partner receives some type of referral compensation for successfully closed sales. The partner usually has some type of continuing relationship with the customer as do you as the SaaS provider and it’s important to work together toward mutual success.
At a minimum if you are setting up a sales channel you need to have a shared understanding and agreement for customer success responsibilities including:
- Customer retention
- Customer questions and problem resolution
The first area where you may want a partner involved in customer success is customer retention. At an absolute minimum you want to be aligned with your partner such that they don’t do anything to conflict with your customer retention strategy and actions and vice versa. Customer retention relates pretty directly to answering customer questions and resolving problems and you want your partner to, at a minimum, understand your support processes.
In a more complex relationship, the partner may be more active in customer retention and resolving customer questions and problems. This may be through contributing content to knowledge centers or resolving customer support tickets. You want to consider having a partner help with customer questions and problems if the partner has substantial industry knowledge.
If your product on-boarding process is not self-service, is well defined and takes a significant amount of time then you should consider using a partner for some of the on-boarding work. This model is often used when your product is some type of platform that applications are built on, it is an enterprise level application or it has integrations with other applications. However, having a partner significantly involved or responsible for your on-boarding process can be complex and might include overhead such as a partner portal, partner training and other resources and effort. It will also likely require some level of governance such as certification and measuring on-boarding/implementation quality. If a partner is involved in on-boarding/implementation they would typically have involvement in the ongoing customer relationship and helping with retention and customer satisfaction.
Because of the complexity and cost of partner driven on-boarding/implementation approach it may be beyond what a startup is willing to invest. In addition, a startup may not have a well-defined on-boarding process yet. For these reasons, this approach should only be used in earlier stages of scaling after careful consideration of the costs and benefits.
Partner involvement in up-selling makes sense for most sales partners and can be compensated in a similar manner as the original sale. If a partner has a good ongoing relationship with the customer for the SaaS product and for other products and services, they are in a good position to be able to identify up-selling opportunities for your product.
There is typically not a lot of added value in having partners involved in renewals for referral type sales partners and this should only be considered if there are special circumstances where this makes sense.
Customer success partners can also be used even if they are not also sales partners. Although not common, there are circumstances where this may make sense. For this to work successfully the partner must derive enough value from the customer success relationship, typically complex on-boarding/implementation, to make the partnership worthwhile to them.
The value that a customer success partner typically brings to the relationship is significant customer and industry knowledge. For an on-boarding/implementation relationship they would also typically bring technical expertise, project management expertise and geographic coverage. This can be of great value as your SaaS business is growing and save a lot of investment in developing this expertise yourself and geographic coverage yourself.
So back to the question of when to look at including partners in your customer success model.
- Consider sales/customer success partners after product/market fit is achieved and when you are actively scaling the business.
- Consider the customer success model when starting to use referral sales partners and understand and align the responsibilities.
- Consider using partners for on-boarding/implementation only if your product is a platform, is an enterprise application, has a on-boarding process which is not self serve and takes significant time and effort.
Customer Success partners can be a strong lever for managing growth and profitability but the trade offs between investment and value should be carefully considered especially in the early stages of scaling. On-boarding/implementation partners require even more careful consideration.