How Sprout Social Built and Enabled A Partner Program
Sprout Social is a company that truly focuses on their customer. Their agency partner program showcases this by providing Sprout partners with the tools, resources and reach they need to grow their businesses. How does the Sprout program support partner efforts to provide value to clients, minimize time and resource spend and increase revenue? We sat down with Sprout Social’s Director of Channels Kelly Marberry, Channel Account Manager Buck Flather, Manager of Partner and Program Strategy Luke Reynebeau and Director of Marketing Strategy and Operations Tara Robertson to learn more about their unique approach to building and enabling a partner program.
Sales Assembly: How was Sprout Social able to build such a great partner program?
Tara Robertson, Director of Marketing Strategy and Operations: Said simply, it’s the voice of the customer. Our Agency Partner Program was ideated and created from direct feedback and data from what and how our customers were using our product and what they said they needed to be successful. Our continued iterations and improvements on the program have come directly from feedback from those same customers and new ones who are entering the program every day. We continue to take the voice of the customer very seriously and believe that what helps us stand out in the market is that we have always been, and will always continue to be, a customer-first organization.
Kelly Marberry, Director of Channels: Sprout did an amazing job of listening to our prospective partners before they even created the Agency Partner Program. Without taking the time to survey and really listen to our customers, we wouldn’t have built the model we did. Taking the time to look from the eyes of the partners was critical to this program’s success.
Luke Reynebeau, Manager of Partner and Program Strategy: Our commitment to providing value to our channel partners is critical. We’ve never viewed channel partners as a distribution method, and that will continue as we develop and iterate on our partner solutions. It’s what we can both bring to the table to create a better experience for customers that drives the creation, management and innovation in our channel and partner programs.
Sales Assembly: How does this focus on creating a strong partner program directly impact Sprout’s overall success?
Kelly: There are so many ways that our partners have helped Sprout grow and succeed. When customers are using or selling your product as a representation of their own brand, everyone has more at stake. Our agency partners are building their own businesses and each time they do that Sprout grows with them, creating a direct-growth relationship. Our partners have also helped to make our product better which helps us succeed. These partners care deeply about our product. In fact, our product team routinely tells us that the feedback from partners is richer than any other customer.
Buck Flather, Channel Account Manager: We turned a segment (Agencies) that historically had one of the highest churn rates into the lowest at the company. We did this by building a program that gives our agency partners resources (such as sales coaching, marketing assets, collaboration opportunities, etc.) to grow their own business.
Luke: Working well with partners is all about complimenting each other’s strengths. We provide scale and reach to some of our agency partners that don’t have the infrastructure or brand equity needed to find and acquire new customers. They are then able to focus on the personalized consultation, coaching, strategy and marketing services they provide to their clients day-in and day-out. We do what we do best, and free them up to do the same. That also means we grow together. When done right, channel and partner programs expand the pie for an organization rather than cut in to anyone else’s potential, whether they be other internals sales folks or teams on the partner’s side.
Tara: Being great at delivering in a particular channel or partnership means providing real value and meeting real needs. Partnering often comes from the acknowledgement that when you go to market together, everyone can succeed and grow together. For our agency partners, that means providing them the tools, resources, functionality and scale they need to deliver world-class services to clients all while freeing them up to be consultative, strategic and growth-focused for their clients and themselves.
Sales Assembly: What are the top 3 best practices that made Sprout so great at creating this partner program?
Luke: 1 - We prioritized the customers’ needs, both short-term and long-term, over any short-term gains in client acquisition or revenue. 2 - We doubled down on continuing to provide value post-conversion. Whether it be through training or providing community, we are just as focused on wow-ing a customer that purchased a year ago as we are on the one that is purchasing today. 3 - We invested in our team’s education. We’re focused on making sure those that work with our channels and partner programs are passionate about meeting the unique needs of the partner segments and prepared with the resources our partners need to be successful.
Kelly: 1 - We listened to our partners’ needs. 2 - We built a model that is mutually beneficial. 3 - We didn’t just build a product and pricing model. We put an entire community and engagement strategy around the program.
Tara: 1 - Hands down listening to our customers and not relying on best practices. We easily could have tried to create a channel program built on the same reseller model we see time and time again. However, that model would have failed for our team. Doing the research and listening to our customers allowed us to create a program that wouldn’t just bring growth but also the right value to our customers. 2 - Sharing successes and failures with industry colleagues. We try to be as transparent as possible with both our customers as well as peers in the industry. We had the luxury of not being the “first,” so we were able to learn from other businesses as we grew and iterated. Along with that, however, we quickly found that in Martech there are loads of other mentors and industry peers. When launching our program, we also created a “partner channel program mastermind” where we collaborate with other partner channel experts worldwide on challenges, successes and general questions as they pertain to growing our programs. This has helped us build a community of experts in this area and hopefully given us all the opportunity to learn and scale to be the best we all can be for our customers. 3 - Customer first, always. People often ask me, “How do you get your agency partners to resell your software?” To which I reply, “You don’t.” The reasoning behind this is that before you can ask for the sale (or the resell), you need to earn and gain the trust in your partners. When businesses think of revenue first, they are losing sight of the customer and the problems you need to help them solve. For us, our success has not come from just growth. While growth is obviously awesome, if we aren’t able to provide value and support our partners in a way that allows them to grow, we aren’t building a mutually beneficial program. So the important thing for us with success is to always put the customer first. When the customer comes first, the growth will come after.
Buck: As Tara said, we had the luxury of not being the first to build a model/program like this, so we were able to learn from others and focus in on what they did well to build something truly special. 1 - Many partner programs require the agency to resell the service or software to participate. We allow the partner and end client to choose what works best for them. 2 - We’ve built the program as “all-inclusive” as possible. An example of this is our Partner Directory - the only requirement for a partner to be listed in our agency directory is that you pass the Sprout Certification test. This is unlike most other programs and was something that our CEO was adamant about. 3 - We’re giving our partners access to additional tools and resources like Bambu by Sprout Social, Slack and Facebook to help them better collaborate and give them the tools to market their own agencies, helping them grow.
Sales Assembly: Where is Sprout trying to improve in terms of building a Channel Program?
Kelly: A Partner Channel program is never done. There are always ways to improve your partners’ experiences. We’re looking at our reseller model to understand if it’s motivating enough, adding more events so our partners can meet each other and learn from their peers and continuing to iterate on how Sprout can market and highlight the amazing work that all of our partners do.
Sales Assembly: How can marketing and sales better align around partnerships and channel programs?
Luke: I’ve seen channel programs that have been fruitful and mutually beneficial, and I’ve seen ones that have started on the wrong foot and never recovered. My perspective is that the ones that get it right are the ones that put real value-creation for all parties front and center. And that requires real alignment between an organization's marketing and sales teams. Typically a business development lead or channel chief will sit within the sales organization, but marketing acumen and close alignment with the processes and go-to-market strategies of your marketing team will help you find the right partners, articulate the value of partnership to prospects and better align the expectations with new channel partners on which you can build a healthy pipeline with mutual benefit on both sides of the relationship. Marketing has a responsibility to their sales counterparts to step up and be active in the process to find the right channel partner prospects, and support them in a way that scales.
Sales Assembly: How should one go about getting started creating a partner program of their own?
Tara: When people ask what our success can be contributed to, I can easily point to one thing: we have been very fortunate that our entire executive team believe in the potential for our partner program. Because of our approach to putting the customer first, we were given the time to appropriately research and dive into the why, what and how we would get started. So, simply put, do your research. Don’t just dive in and create a reseller program without knowing your partners and what a mutual relationship could and should look like. For us, this broke into both quantitative data collection (how partners were using the app, general demographics, geographies, etc.) and then qualitative research. The qualitative component was really what brought us the golden nuggets that helped us shape a program that would work. Only when you have that insight will you be in a position to launch a program that will work for your company. All customers are unique, their needs are unique and the way we can solve for them is unique. We’re constantly continuing to research and learn as a driving force for our program. Regardless of how you go about this, I promise it will be the best thing you’ll ever do!