How Nurturing Partners is Crucial to Untapped Channel Sales

    Table of contents:

    • Introduction: how nurturing partners is crucial to untapped channel sales
    • Top 3 best practices for effectively nurturing channel partners  
      • 1st best practice: the relationship with channel partners
      • 2nd best practice: nurture channel partners with technology  
      • 3rd best practice: ensure partners understand the benefits and requirements of the partnership
    • Why is it important to nurture channel partners?
    • How to keep channel partners engaged
      • Incentivize partner engagement with gamification  
      • Set up automations based on partner activity  
      • Partner relationship manager with a personal touch - the ultimate engagement key
    • Training and education materials for nurturing relationships with channel partners
    • When to end a channel partnership?
      • Assess partners’ behavior
      • Practice prudence and have a process to end the partnership
    • Proper nurture methods translate to higher sales and channel growth
      • Increases partner retention
    • Increases deal conversion
      • Provides better data for conversion rate optimization
      • Increases partner loyalty
    • Ben Cornett’s background in channel partner marketing  


    Paul Bird: According to Accenture only 7% of partners achieved 65% or more of their revenue targets last year. With that said, we're going to discuss how nurturing partners is crucial to unlocking untapped channel sales revenue. There are two main reasons why you want to do this:  

    1. Acquiring new channel partners to meet your channel sales goals can cost you more than retaining the ones you currently have.  
    2. How partners represent you to customers, and how they deal with them, ultimately reflects you. So, make sure that your advocates are well-equipped to represent you properly and ultimately, generate the sale.  

    Preparing channel partners for success involves taking a customized approach, consistent attentiveness and active listening skills. Work just doesn't end after partners are onboarded - it's a continuous effort. We need to pay attention in aligning our goals and practicing transparency to really create a red carpet and personalized experience.  

    Our guest today is Ben Cornett. Ben is a successful sales and marketing pro. He's got a career that spans more than 20 years. In fact, he holds a Doctorate in Business Administration from Northcentral University with his primary focus on partner marketing. And he's an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University. You could really call him the Dr of partner marketing. He's currently at Verified First with a laser focus on partner marketing efforts, and ultimately driving revenue for channel sales.  

    He's here to share his insights on nurturing partners and why it's critical, accessing untapped channel sales. 

    Top 3 best practices for effectively nurturing channel partners  

    Paul Bird: The strategic partnerships that you've built at Kount and Verified First and other places, it's much more than transactional style relationships born from necessity to generate revenue. Can you think of the top three best practices that you could share for effectively nurturing those channel partners and anything you've seen that really works best?  

    Ben Cornett: While revenue is important to us in all of those examples I gave, revenue is not the end all be all. Especially if I think about this year. This year was a weird year. Well, I should say this year and last year, 2020.  

    It's interesting with Verified First because we are a hiring platform. We're basically a technology solution that depends on hiring. COVID hit, hiring slowed down, right?  

    What happened, though, was quite interesting because our growth continued the strongest through where our clients were integrated with a partner platform.  

    So again, nurturing those channel partnerships. Did we grow revenue? No, but we grew the number of clients that were connected to one of our channel partners.  

    1st best practice: the relationship with channel partners  

    Ben Cornett: First, for the channel partner program we built, the most important thing to us is the relationship. Making sure they have a good experience, we have the right equation of partner relationship managers to partners, we have the right people in the right places here at Verified First to support them, and that we're responsive. I don't recall a time that a partner has ever called us and it took more than 30 seconds to get on the phone. So, one is that relationship, that matters most.  

    Paul Bird: Like from the Jim Collins book, right people on the bus, wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seat.   

    Ben Cornett: That's important. That's definitely a critical part of our partner platform.  

    2nd best practice: nurture channel partners with technology  

    Ben Cornett: The other thing for nurturing channel partnerships, the experience is born out of that relationship but also out of technology. We've embedded technology to make sure that the communication channel is open bi-directional. That not only are we receiving leads from partners, we're sending them leads, or deals.  

    To make sure there's full transparency; technology enables us to do that. That's really important as we nurture channel partners, to make sure there's full transparency in the process. That there's no secret, hidden objectives or goals.  

    In my dissertation research, one topic that came up is sometimes transparency is lacking. And then people are in it for different financial gains. And those financial gains matter more than everything else.  

    For us at Verified First, that's not necessarily the most important. It's really a blend of making sure the relationship experiences are good.  

    3rd best practice: ensure partners understand the benefits and requirements of the partnership  

    Ben Cornett: Number 3 for nurturing partners really comes down to making sure they understand what's in it for them and what's in it to be a true partner:  

    • We're not a partner by paper, right? We're going to go do things together,
    • we're going to take action together,  
    • we're going to build a plan together.  

    All of that goes into us, at Verified First, successfully nurturing our partners.  

    Paul Bird: It gives you that mindshare with the partner when they know that you are considering the priorities of their business, and vice versa.  

    This is something I did early on in my career was to travel, visit a bunch of channel partners for a technology company where I was managing the channel out of New Jersey. The first thing that I would try to do is establish, where's your business going? What's key? And try to have that alignment to be more of a true partner, just like you were saying. So those are three really valuable best practices.  

    Ben Cornett: You think about the whole idea of partner programs and there are a ton of organizations I've been associated with or seen that as they think about their partner programs, it's like, oh, we got this logo that we can put up on our website, therefore, we're - you don't see my air quotes - “therefore, we're partners.”  

    "The reality is true partners, I think it's kind of like a marriage. I've been married for almost 25 years and it's my wife and I. We roll up our sleeves, we have our differences, we have our things we like to do together, and we have our goals, and we set very solid goals together. I think in a partnership in business as well, at least in my experience in the B2B market, if you're not committed, like a marriage, it's probably not a good partnership, quite frankly."

    I think those three items I just shared are probably ways to make your partnership marriage strong.  

    Channel partner engagement

    Why is it important to nurture channel partners?  

    Paul Bird: Why is it so important? If you look at your channel, and you've got different partners at different stages of their maturity level, we typically see the 80/20 rule applying to channel programs where 20% of your partners are generating 80% of your business. So why is it important to nurture all of those channel partners right from the start?    

    Ben Cornett: It's a true statement. 80/20 is a rule that stands in the partner world as well, at least that's been my experience.  

    But some of the biggest deals I've seen come through, across my career, not just at Verified First, are with partners that we kept a relationship going. Sure, they didn't send us, over a period of a year, 100 deals and those 100 deals add up to X dollars each.  

    We get that one relationship that we kept going and we kept warm, and we've nurtured it, and

    "we've taken care of the partner, to where they're comfortable. And all of a sudden, they realize that they can trust us. Then they turn on the fire and they submit a deal that's a million dollars"

    or a million and a half and it makes a lot of difference to get them to submit those kinds of deals. Because a lot of partners, at least in my experience, are somewhat hesitant to do that.  

    It's easy to send the smaller deals over. The bigger deals, it's harder because you're still building that trust, you're not sure if it's going to be transparent. So the whole nurture process, even if it took us a year or two years, sometimes it's worth it. It's that one deal that makes a difference.  

    How to keep channel partners engaged  

    Paul Bird: If you could give some advice to people that are struggling to keep partners engaged and capture their attention. You talked about communication and getting somebody on the phone within 30 seconds if they're requiring or needing something from Verified First. But when it comes to partner engagement over the long haul, so you can build those relationships, and eventually, start seeing those larger opportunities, do you have any suggestions, recommendations, things that you could share?  

    Ben Cornett: We're pretty proactive at Verified First and we have been at other companies, or at least the team I've been around has been, of making sure that it's clear who owns a book of business, it's clear who manages that book of business, they have clear relationships, and they're reaching out frequently.  

    Incentivize partner engagement with gamification

    From a marketing end we use a lot of pretty intriguing automation and gamification to really keep our people engaged with content.  

    Set up automations based on partner activity

    Currently, we have a really, really strong automation process that connects with our partner portal to Salesforce. Then we use Pardot as our marketing automation tool to trigger all kinds of notifications based on the last time we saw our partner in our partner portal, last time they registered a deal, the last time maybe their partner manager changed and we want to make sure they know that, new content that came in: when they see it, how often they see it.  

    Then every time they haven't been engaged very often, we try to encourage behavior by offering different gamification values. So a points system where they can get gift cards for a number of different activities they want to do or things they want to buy.  

    Partner relationship manager with a personal touch - the ultimate engagement key

    That seems to work really well, but automation is only part of the equation. Really, I think the magic happens on our partner relationship manager team. Picking up the phone, making the phone calls. You mentioned a bit earlier, you used to travel and visit partners and get face time. We can't do that today. We're locked down in this world where we're all virtual.  

    There's a couple of pros and cons of that. But the pros have been, we get to know our partners a little bit better, we're seeing their kids and we see that they have a dog in the background. Our team at Verified First does a really good job of taking note of those things. All of a sudden you get a BarkBox delivered to your door. Or we take note that you love cooking in the conversation. All of a sudden, you get a HelloFresh gift box.  

    So there's different things we can do to drive engagement. But, at the end of the day, I think it's a blend of everything coming together and a really well-rounded team working well.  

    Paul Bird: I love that you are being so proactive and timely and communicating with your partners to really build the relationship.  

    Training and education materials for nurturing relationships with channel partners  

    Paul Bird: What about things like training? You're a SaaS solution, you're offering these background checks, I'm sure that there is a little bit of ramp-up time for your partners. Does training and educating people through content play a big role in your strategy on how to nurture your channel?  

    Ben Cornett: I think there's definitely a play there. I don't know if I would call it a big play. I only say that because at Verified First, at least, nearly all of our training is about the sales opportunity and when to bring up the conversation about our integration.  

    So we do use sales training quite often. Not only face-to-face Zoom meetings, or GoToWebinar, or whatever the training method is. But also, we do have different training mechanisms to help them understand how to submit a deal to us and things that we've automated. But to say it's a big factor in that relationship, I don't think it's huge.  

    Back at Kount, that was different. At Kount, we were co-selling together. As co-sellers, we really wanted people to understand the value of Kount and why we can reduce fraud and increase sales. Through the technology developed at Kount our payment processors can leverage a way to open up the sales funnel as big as they can without being hit with a fraud risk.  

    A lot of chargeback providers offer insurance. And that insurance, basically if you get charged back, you're all of a sudden just paying a premium and they block the transaction. The reality is, there's a high false-positive rate. So just blocking chargebacks isn't the solution to get you the most sales.  

    So we found the secret sauce there. Being able to educate our partners at Kount on why that matters - it's good for them because they’re payment processors, they let more transactions through, they make more revenue. And it's good for us because every time we would stop fraud, it's a win. The reality is, there's a balance of a percentage that you have to be a little bit willing to take risk in that space.  

    But overall, I think that at Verified First, training is a part, but, again, I don't think it's a huge part of our success, today anyway. I think it's probably something we'll develop over the next year.  

    When to end a channel partnership?  

    Paul Bird: At the start of today's show, we talked about the cost of generating new partners versus keeping previous partners and just engaging with them. From your experience, when is it time, very much like that marriage, to call an end to the partnership?  

    "So, the partner is no longer engaged, or this isn't a two way street anymore. What do you do when the nurturing efforts don't work out and it's time to part ways?"

    Ben Cornett: That's a good question. That's a tough question for me. I'm an overly optimistic optimist. So, for me, I don't want to ever give up, but there are times.  

    Assess partners’ behavior

    Right now we're going through an experience with one of our partners on one of our webinar events that we're co-promoting together. When you're having a problem with a broken link, or something's not working, or the email didn't perform the way it should have, that they promised to send, and they just go dark.  

    They blackout, they never respond, they don't pick up the phone. Then you start to raise those red flags, and say, okay, let's try to get someone and nurture that relationship a little bit more carefully. When you see that over, and over, and over, you tend to start to rely on partners that do respond, because at the end of the day, we're trying to grow revenue. We're trying to increase profitability, and the valuation of our company. If we're just spending our time spinning these wheels, on people that don't respond, or, quite frankly, don't care...  

    Practice prudence and have a process to end the partnership

    You have to have a time where the partner relationship manager has to make that call that is not effective for their time. We actually go through a process to let our partners know that things aren't working. We give them a chance to re-engage, if you will. If they don't re-engage over time, we'll send them a cancellation of partnership agreement. But, that's where it's different from marriage, at least in my opinion. Marriage, you're married, and you're committed.  

    I know, there's reasons for out, but I don't ever see a reason for out. I think that it's a two way street and, sure, if you have someone that's not willing to work, maybe that's your signal that it's not working. But I tend to think there's usually always a way. It's something that's not understood somewhere or miscommunication somewhere. So that's why my overly optimistic optimism says to always keep going.  

    Channel partner marketing

    Proper nurture methods translate to higher sales and channel growth  

    Paul Bird: If we look at the proper methods that you've seen for how to nurture these partnerships and get them translated into higher sales, what do you think the impact can have on an organization's growth if they really take these tips that you shared with us today? Any idea of what kind of impact that can make?  

    Increases partner retention

    Ben Cornett: Well, I know, for Verified First, I can't share too much of the exact details and numbers. But I can tell you as we've nurtured our partners - I think we just let one of our partners go for the first time in a year and a half. So our partners stick around. That means that they're somewhat engaged and we haven't had to go through that process a ton. So that helps.  

    Increases Deal Conversion

    But that also increases sales because that partner is here. One of our requirements is we get so many leads every quarter or deals submitted in our portal and that generates higher sales.

    "Our deal conversion rates coming through our partner portal are somewhere north of 50%, which is really strong, really healthy."

    Paul Bird: Wow! That is a very, very strong number.  

    Provides better data for conversion rate optimization

    Ben Cornett: Yeah! I had a conversation with one of my colleagues yesterday, he said, 'I think that number should be around 80%. So let's audit who didn't convert and understand that we're handling them right.' Because he thinks we're better than we are, which we're pretty good. As a sales and marketing organization, we're really good actually.  

    But that conversion is really interesting. So every deal I can get come through translates to higher sales. When you think about the growth of our business, I don't know the exact number, but somewhere  

    "around 60% of the deals that we get or the opportunities that are created at Verified First, come through our channel program."

    Increases partner loyalty

    When I started at Verified First two and a half years ago, that percentage was like 30%. So we've really grown the value of our channel partner program. Then when COVID hit, we found that those clients stuck. They stayed with us for longer and we didn't have so much turn.  

    It's really interesting because then our whole organization now set a goal for clients not using one of our partners. It's time to put them in front of our partners and help them use us through one of those partner platforms.  

    Paul Bird: Those are remarkable results in a really short time, not to mention with COVID, it impacted the economy quite a bit. There were a lot of businesses that did well, especially in the tech sector, but there's a lot of service businesses that really hurt. So I can imagine, as a hiring tool to perform those background checks and other things, that you were strong through this tough period. That's quite something.  

    Ben Cornett: It would be unfair to say there wasn't a dip. The fact is that our business outside of our partner ecosystem dipped quite a bit. But we had such a robust partner program and a lot of our clients were connected to those ecosystems already. There's a lot of investment that goes into having an applicant tracking system, or HCM or HRIS, and the employers are invested in a platform. While hiring dipped in some areas, like you said, Paul, hiring actually increased another's.  

    Thinking about healthcare alone. I get to interview the head of Prestige Care, which is in the Pacific Northwest in the US. They're an assisted living, skilled nursing facility program. I'm surprised I get him on the phone to have an interview because he's going through massive hiring and massive scales to keep up with the turn that's happening in the healthcare industry.  

    So while, sure, it went down, we rebounded fairly well, pretty quick, and still had a growth year in 2020. It's pretty amazing, just a great team and great leaders at Verified First.  


    Paul Bird: Any final thoughts? Any suggestions that you would recommend when it comes to driving that nurture strategy within your partner strategy?  

    Ben Cornett: I think it's just to be authentic. Everything that I've mentioned, if there's no, 'I really care,' and 'I'm authentic,' it's kind of wasted time. I think that our partner relationship managers have super deep, really strong relationships with all of our partners. They really are people that genuinely care about not only that success personally, but in their life as a whole.  

    This world today of COVID has got us to know our partners better and sure, we don't go out and have dinner and play golf and do those things we all love to do, as often. Nonetheless, I think it's allowed us to connect deeper and those deep connections are all the success when it comes to nurture.  

    Ben Cornett’s background in channel partner marketing  

    Ben Cornett: I got exposed to the whole idea of business development/marketing about 20 - 22 years ago. That career started interestingly, I fell into it.

    Recently, I was head of partner marketing for a company called Docutech out of SouthEast Idaho here in the United States.  

    In that role, my primary function was really to help build more document generation out of partners, they call loan origination systems. The likes of Black Knight, Encompass and other loan origination platforms in the US. So that grew.  

    Then, shortly after that, my wife and I moved back close to our hometown here in Boise, Idaho at the Capitol, and I took on a partner marketing role at that time. I head up the partner marketing team for a company called Kount. My role was to try to take and capitalize on some of our partners in the ecosystem. Kount is an anti-fraud solution for card not present payment fraud.

    Our challenge, at that time, was trying to keep up with our partners that were trying to sell our solution at Kount. Really, in that experience, I was trying to pull together a partner program that would give the content that our partners needed because we would sell with them into the deals.  

    We were co-selling with them into these large enterprises like Wish and Staples and up in Canada, The Source. They're all using our solution through their payment provider. So we really needed to fold that into a single platform to be more effective, and of course, to nurture our partners a little bit more effectively.  

    I got to lead that up and then just this year, Kount announced an acquisition with Equifax.

    Today, here at Verified First - I came to Verified First about two years ago - they're basically your background screening, technology company. We're a SaaS provider. Kind of like Docutech and Kount, we resell our solution within a partner ecosystem, within a platform, we're connected. It's like you go to McDonald's, you get a Coke, worldwide.  

    We want to make it so when people are in an HR or talent acquisition platform that we're there. When they go there, they see us as a solution for being their background screening, drug testing, and verifications provider. So as a result, we're growing that partner ecosystem. Again, structuring it so it brings the maximum value to our organization and best experience for the users, for our partners first. That's my role. And then making it really good to make sure our mission is accomplished.  

    Our mission is to make companies great, by helping them make effective hiring decisions. And background screening, verification, employment and education, drug testing, are kind of the initial processes to make sure you're hiring the right people, so you have the best experience.  

    Connect with Ben Cornett on LinkedIn.

    Connect with Paul Bird on LinkedIn, book a demo with him, or contact him via email

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