If you haven’t decided whether to use partners for customer success in your SaaS business, my post “When should SaaS Startups Use Partners for Customer Success?” will help you answer that question and answer when and where to use them. Assuming you do want to use partners to support your customer success effort, which partners should you use? If you are currently using partners to sell your SaaS products that is a good place to start but don’t assume that all sales partners will make good customer success partners.
The most common area to use partners for customer success is professional services for on-boarding customers. Using partners in this area makes sense because this is one of the areas where a customer may want significant onsite support for complex on-boarding and therefore partner geographic proximity often matters. Partners can also help alleviate the usual workload variations inherent in on-boarding, too many or too few customers on-boarding in a certain time frame. A significantly sized professional services organization can also be challenging to manage especially when you are scaling other parts of your business.
The first area to understand for partner selection is to make sure that your prospective partner has the baseline technical skills that you need. Without the baseline technical skills in whatever tools and programming languages you require for on-boarding and technical support there will be limited value that a partner can add and it takes time and effort for them to add new baseline technical skills. They should also be willing to invest in training on your product for basic configuration and also for customizing if needed.
Their standard implementation methodology should either fit with your on-boarding process or they should be willing to tune it to fit with your process. You’ve invested time in developing a process that you know is successful for on-boarding your customers and you want all your customers to have a consistent and positive experience.
Industry expertise is also something that partners often bring to the table as a key skill-set. Make sure that their industry expertise is aligned with your markets and that you understand the level of that knowledge.
For your early partners you’re not likely going to have a full program for supporting and managing partners. Make sure that your prospective partners are comfortable working with you as you grow the business. Creative methods such as working on a couple of on-boarding projects jointly can work in the early period. You may also want to have a pilot program with a couple select partners to mutually try out the program.
Now that you’ve selected your first customer success partners you need to think about how to get them up to speed and how to manage the relationship for the long term. This includes understanding and defining mutual responsibilities, on-boarding the partner, defining the communications process, partner training and measurement of success. Remember that some of your customer success partners may also be sales partners and this needs to be kept in mind for the above selection process.
- Mutual Responsibilities
You need to have a mutual understanding with the partner about responsibilities with the customer. Is the only responsibility on-boarding or will the partner also provide some customer support or customer relationship services? What will the partners role be in up-selling? It’s important that both you and the partner understand that it is a partnership and that means sharing of information that may be helpful.
- Partner On-boarding
The second area to think about is how the partner is brought up to speed or on-boarded as a partner, not to be confused with customer on-boarding. This process will typically include the execution of a contract, simple or complex, introduction to a person who will provide support to the partner and an explanation of the communication process. The partner should also know about all of the tools that are available to support customers and the partnership. For example, a partner should be able to look at customer support tickets for their customers even if they don’t resolve support tickets.
- Communication Process
Third, there needs to be a secure way to communicate and exchange documents and information. Often this is some type of portal but if not, there needs to be a way for partners to communicate in a secure way to get answers on a variety of topics. Functionality of the portal would typically include supporting documentation or playbook for how to onboard customers, answers to support questions and detailed product information. In more mature organizations there may be certification requirements for the partner on the product, and there may be certification of individual developers or other partner technical staff. This type of information is typically on the portal.
- Partner Training
Ongoing training is a key component of a customer success partner program and is needed in all the areas that a partner participates. This would include technical training on the product, business training on the product and on-boarding or implementation methodology training. Typically, the training would not include basic customer relations or baseline technical training such as specific operating systems, programming languages or integration tools.
Along with the required training a customer success partner is often required to perform certain customer activities alongside the vendor. For example, they might have to successfully do two customer on-boarding projects before doing on-boarding by themselves.
It’s important to have a method of measuring partner success. Ideally these are mutual measures and information is shared. These measurements are dependent on the specific responsibilities but might include on-boarding success metrics, retention metrics and up-sell metrics.
Given that you’ve selected an appropriate partner and provide them with a partner on-boarding approach and ongoing management you can have a long successful relationship with your customer success partner. The key is to remember that it is a partnership, that it will evolve and that communication and measurement is important.