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When you are just starting out, you aren't going to have the benefit of an enterprise sales team to pull in big clients. The best way for your company to grow is to make use of partnerships that will help you sell your product. These partners become like salespeople that you don't have to pay. But that's ultimately the wrong way to think about them, and the wrong attitude to have if you want to forge those types of relationships. I was recently on the SaaS Marketing Show podcast to discuss how we've managed to forge strong partnerships that help UpContent grow without having huge sales team ourselves. We certainly recommend you check that podcast out for a longer form take on how we accomplished that, but this post will cover some basics that were discussed in the podcast. We hope it will give you an overview of the types of things you should be doing as a small company wanting to play with much bigger partners.
Let's talk quickly about what we do at UpContent, so the rest of the discussion will be easier to follow. UpContent is a content curation service. This is a new term for many people, who confuse content curation with content licensing or creation. That's not what content curation is. As Scott says in the podcast:
"Our focus is helping organizations find relevant third-party articles and use them in a non-licensed way."
What this means is that we provide a platform to sales, marketing, and hr teams to find content that matters most to them and then share it, both internally and externally, to the audiences it will also matter to. The benefit of sharing this content internally is that it helps your team to understand the markets you are in or markets you are courting much more in-depth than they may have before. Sharing externally signifies to potential customers in those markets and industries that you understand their business and share their interests. Using content in this way allows you to forge relationships with the appropriate people within those industries and convert those into meaningful business relationships.
Unlike companies that are selling expensive ERP software or other high-dollar items, we couldn't afford a costly sales process to grow our business with. The ROI just isn't there. Many business are in this boat and let the small size of their teams or lack of financial resources become an excuse for why they aren't growing. But understanding how to build relationships with much larger companies allows you to have a virtual sales staff that is much larger than the one on your payroll. The key to that is working with companies your customers are already using.
Many business owners will look at a small team and think of how limiting it is. But small teams provide one really huge advantage when it comes to forging relationships. When your team is still small, people in decision-making positions still have very close ties with both your customers and your partners. This is important for a few reasons. The first is that both of those relationships need cultivating if your business is going to grow. The larger your company grows, the harder it is to have that direct involvement from management.
"[Building relationships with potential partners] is about using the customer as that golden key to get in."
So why is direct involvement so important? As Scott says in the podcast, when decision-makers have a close relationship with customers, those customers become like a key that can unlock potential partnerships. When you know what tools your customers are using, and how they are using them, you can leverage that to forge a partnership with the makers of those tools. Once you have a large enough base of your customers telling you that they use the product of a certain company, you can go to that company with concrete examples of how your two products work together.
But the important part is that you don't want to go to the sales people. Instead, you want to go to the customer success team. If you can say to that team, "Hey, a lot of our customers are using our product to be more successful in your product by doing X, Y, and Z." then you are going to get their attention.
Building a relationship with a potential sales partner is a lot like building a relationship with a potential spouse. You don't jump in first thing and propose marriage. First you have to meet the person, go out for dinner a few times, and so on. Going directly to the sales team and expecting them to pitch your product is like asking for marriage before you've been out on a date. Going to the customer success team first allows you to begin forming the type of relationship with your new partner that will get their sales team ready to look at you as someone they should work with. It's the job of the success team to find problems users are having and help them solve them. If you can show them that your product does that, then you'll be making their jobs easier. Asking the sales team to push another product is putting more work on them. They won't be willing to take on that work until it is very clear to them how doing so will help them close more sales.
"We try to treat them like our boss."
The statement above from our CEO describes how we view our partners. We just said that the goal when approaching the customer success team is to explain how you can make their life easier. The same goes for when you work your way up to the sales team. They aren't selling a product for you, you are helping them do their job. This should apply at all phases of the partnership. Your pitch shouldn't be, "Hey, we should do X, Y, or Z." because you wouldn't tell your boss what they should or shouldn't do. Instead, you should come to them and explain that you've been thinking of a few different options and ask something like "Does that make sense?" This more humble approach is more likely to get an answer, and more likely to put them into a more open, honest, and reciprocity-oriented mindset as well.
The best piece of advice anyone can give you in business is to learn from the times you fall on your face. We certainly had missteps of our own when first starting out trying to build these relationships with larger businesses. One of the worst things you can do is just go to them and ask if your product can be included on their app list. They'll agree readily (its no skin off their back) but being on a list of hundred of other integrations isn't going to bring in a lot of revenue for you. Worse, it'll be an integration and app listing that you'll have to maintain despite the lack of revenue that it is bringing in. If you decide it isn't worth it and let the integration languish, you've ruined any chance of a future partnership with that company. The reason is simple, if you approach them about working together, and they see your existing implementation on their app list has been neglected and isn't creating a glowing customer experience, they aren't going to take the relationship to the next level. This is just one example of many things that can go wrong, but the moral of the story is to always be careful not to make things harder on yourself by trying to take the easy way out.
Your customers pay you in dollars. Your partners pay you in customers. Both of them are paying you. They are the boss. This is very important because keeping each of them happy is what feeds the cycle of growth. If you tell a success team that your product will really help their customers, but you aren't trying to keep your mutual customers happy, that success team is going to stop recommending you. If you aren't helpful when a partner reaches out for assistance on something, or make it clear that you are only interested in making money for yourself rather than solving their problems, they are going to stop recommending you.
The happier you make the customers that a partner recommend to you, the more likely you are to move up the tiers of partnership until you get more direct help from their sales team. Not only that, but the more likely they are to remember you when the time comes. It's one thing to get to a very reactive place with a partner. One where they recommend you if a customer mentions the specific need you serve. It's another level to get to a proactive place withe them. One where they are actively pitching you as a solution to a customer's problems. You don't get to that second point unless happy customers are coming back to them and making them feel like rock stars for recommending you.
Check out our other blog posts for more on marketing, content curation, user stories, and more.