In this episode of The Ultimate Channel Sales Podcast, we bring on Ben Cornett (works with channel partners in a partner marketing capacity, currently directing Verified First’s partner marketing division) who shares his insights on why nurturing channel partnerships is so important, as well as best practices and tips on how to use these insights to uncover untapped channel sales.
Preparing your channel partners for success involves taking a customized approach, consistent attentiveness and active listening skills. Your work doesn’t end after partner onboarding - it is a continuous effort. Pay careful attention to:
Ben tells us there are two main reasons why nurturing partners is crucial:
Listen to the episode to hear the rest of Ben’s advice on how you can make the most of your channel partner efforts.
Read the blog: https://www.magentrix.com/articles/blog/How-Nurturing-Partners-is-Crucial-to-28-5-2021
(2:08) Ben Cornett’s background in channel partner marketing
(6:01) Top 3 best practices for effectively nurturing channel partners
(10:37) Why it's important to nurture channel partners
(12:10) How to keep channel partners engaged
(15:18) Training and education materials for nurturing relationships with channel partners
(17:53) When to end a channel partnership
(20:29) Proper nurture methods translate to higher sales and channel growth
Paul Bird 00:05
This is Partner Relationship Management (PRM): The Ultimate Channel Sales Podcast.
According to Accenture only 7% of partners achieved 65% or more of their revenue targets last year. With that said, today we're going to discuss how nurturing partners is crucial to unlocking untapped channel sales revenue.
There's two main reasons why you want to do this. Acquiring new channel partners to meet your channel sales goals can cost you more than actually retaining the ones you currently have. 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 really involves taking a customized approach, consistent attentiveness and active listening skills. Work just doesn't end after partners are onboarded - it's really a continuous effort. So we need to pay attention in aligning our goals and practicing transparency to really create a red carpet and personalized experience. So let's dive into this discussion.
Our guest today, 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. So 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 with us today to share his insights on nurturing partners and why it's critical, accessing untapped channel sales. So welcome to the show, Ben. It's great to have you.
Ben Cornett 02:01
Yeah. Thanks, Paul, and good to be here. Those are kind words. I'm looking forward to our chat today.
Paul Bird 2:06
Absolutely. So I gave a little bit of your background, but you've definitely had an interesting career thus far. Maybe you could share a little bit more about you and tell us about what you're doing at Verified First.
Ben Cornett 02:21
Sure. I got exposed to the whole idea of business development/marketing, I don't know, about 20/22 years ago. And that career started kind of interesting, I fell into it, right.
As I fast forward my career over a number of years and getting to the more recent times. 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. So the likes of Black Knight and Encompass and other loan origination platforms in the US. And 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. Kount is where I was first introduced - I think, Paul, that's when we first met.
Paul Bird 03:21
Yeah, it is. That's a while ago.
Ben Cornett 03:23
Yeah, it's a little while ago.
But anyway, at that time, my role was to try to take and capitalize on some of our partners in the ecosystem. You know, Kount is an anti-fraud solution for card not present payment fraud.
And 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, you have 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. And today, here at Verified First - I came to Verified First about two years ago. At Verified First they're basically a 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 really 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.
But I know that's a lot, Paul. I gave you my background, maybe a little bit more than you wanted.
Paul Bird 05:41
No, that's awesome. A lot of things I already knew, and a few things that I learned more.
That strategic partnership that you've built at Kount and Verified First and other places, it's much more than a transactional style relationship that's kind of 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 06:14
Yeah, I think while revenue is important to us in all of those examples I gave you, 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. COVID hit.
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?
Paul Bird 06:40
Ben Cornett 06:41
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.
I think really Paul, one thing, the first, I guess you asked for three, one is 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 07:33
Like you say - the Jim Collins piece: right people on the bus, wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seat.
Ben Cornett 07:39
Yeah, exactly. And so that's important. That's definitely a critical part of our partner platform.
I think 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.
Paul Bird 08:08
Ben Cornett 08:09
And 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.
It's really interesting Paul, because in my dissertation research, one topic that came up in the research is sometimes the 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 the most important necessarily. It's really a blend of making sure that the relationship experiences are good.
Then number three for nurturing partners, I think it really has to come down to making sure that 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. And so all of that goes into us, at Verified First, successfully nurturing our partners.
Paul Bird 09:06
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. And 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 09:39
Yeah, it's interesting Paul, you think about the whole idea of partner programs. And, I mean, 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 25 years, almost, 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. And I think those three items I just shared are probably ways to make your partnership marriage strong.
Paul Bird 10:34
That's great advice, Ben.
Now, why is it so important? I mean, we talk about if you look at your channel, and you've got different partners at different stages of their maturity level, right? 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 11:03
You know, 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 I'll tell you that 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. And then they turn on the fire and they submit a deal that's a million dollars or a million and a half and all of a sudden, 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 that 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.
Paul Bird 12:08
Oh, absolutely, completely.
If you could give some advice to people that are struggling to keep partners engaged and things like just capturing their attention. You talked about the 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 that 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 12:40
Yeah, 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.
But I think from a marketing end - at the end of day, I'm a marketing person, that's where my mind's at - we use a lot of pretty intriguing automation and gamification to really keep our people engaged with content.
Currently, we've got a really, really strong automation process that connects with our partner portal to Salesforce. And 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.
And then every time that 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.
And, Paul, 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.
Paul Bird 14:05
No, we can't.
Ben Cornett 14:06
We're locked down in this world where we're all virtual.
And I think 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. And we take note of those things, 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 kind of a blend of everything coming together and a really well rounded team working well.
Paul Bird 14:43
I think that's awesome. If you see a dog in the background.
I have seen more dogs on Zoom and GoToMeeting calls. In fact, I was just on the phone with somebody yesterday, where I think the first 10 minutes of our conversation revolved around his new beagle. And the beagle got up on his lap and I think he got the most attention, he was the center of the world for a few minutes. It was great.
But I love that you are being so proactive and timely and communicating with your partners to really build the relationship.
So what about things like training, I mean, 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 15:37
Yeah, I think there's definitely a play there. I don't know if I would call it a big play. And 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. So as co-sellers, we really wanted people to understand the value of Kount and why we can reduce fraud and increase sales. Because through our technology at Kount, through the technology developed, 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, Paul. 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. And so just blocking chargebacks isn't the solution to get you the most sales.
So we found the secret sauce in there. And 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.
Paul Bird 17:27
Ben Cornett 17:28
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.
Paul Bird 17:45
It really does sound like you've got a great strategy around communication with partners, driving engagement.
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.
Ben Cornett 18:14
Paul Bird 18:15
What do you do when the nurturing efforts don't work out and it's time to part ways?
Ben Cornett 18:20
Yeah, that's a good question. That's a tough question for me, Paul. I'm an overly optimistic optimist. So, for me, I don't want to ever give up, but there are times.
I mean, 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, right?
Paul Bird 18:51
Ben Cornett 18:51
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. And if we're just spending our time spinning these wheels, on people that don't respond, or, quite frankly, don't care...
Paul Bird 19:25
Ben Cornett 19:26
Yeah, you kind of have to have a time where the partner relationship manager has to make that call that is not effective for their time. And, 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. And, if they don't re-engage over time, we'll send them a cancellation of partnership agreement. But, that's where it's different than marriage, at least in my opinion. Marriage, you're married, and you're committed.
Paul Bird 19:56
Ben Cornett 19:56
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, maybe 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. And so that's why my overly optimistic optimism says to always keep going.
Paul Bird 20:21
Always keep going but no BarkBox for the partner that isn't engaged. [Laughs].
Ben Cornett 20:28
[Laughs]. Yeah, there you go.
Paul Bird 20:29
So, 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?
Ben Cornett 20:52
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. And that means that they're somewhat engaged and we haven't had to go through that process a ton. So that helps.
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, Paul, are somewhere north of 50%, which is really strong, really healthy.
Paul Bird 21:35
Wow! That is a very, very strong number.
Ben Cornett 21:38
Yeah. It's kind of interesting. I had a conversation with one of my colleagues yesterday, he said, 'I think that number should be around 80%. So let's go 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. And 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 at Verified First, or the opportunities that are created, come through our channel program.
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. And 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 22:44
Those are amazing results!
Ben Cornett 22:46
Yeah, nurture is everything.
Paul Bird 22:48
Now that is remarkable results in a really short time, not to mention with COVID, it kind of impacted the economy quite a bit. And, 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 23:19
Yeah, I think it would be unfair to say there wasn't a dip, right? 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.
Paul Bird 23:57
Ben Cornett 23:58
You think 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. And it's really interesting, 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. So it's pretty amazing, just a great team and great leaders at Verified First.
Paul Bird 24:36
Well, that is really great. So if somebody wants to learn more about Verified First and what you offer, or they'd be interested in learning more about your channel program, how can they get in touch?
Ben Cornett 24:49
The easiest is always to give us a call. Our number is on our website at verifiedfirst.com or you can give us a call at 888-670-9564 of course that's US. So 1-888-670-9564 or just hit our website. You always can email email@example.com you can call Paul and he'll call me. I mean, we're connected pretty well, Paul, I think you'd be able to get a hold of us.
Paul Bird 25:18
Absolutely. Everything, but smoke signals. Too much time inside, can't see them anymore.
Any final thoughts? Any suggestions that you would recommend when it comes to driving that nurture strategy within your partner strategy?
Ben Cornett 25:35
No, 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. And they really are people that genuinely care about not only that success personally, but in their life as a whole.
And, 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. But nonetheless, I think it's allowed us to connect deeper and those deep connections are all the success when it comes to nurture.
Paul Bird 26:15
Well, I'm looking for this whole pandemic to end. I'd like to be able to get out to Boise, play a round of golf with you and maybe have dinner and a few drinks.
Ben Cornett 26:27
Yeah. Well, I hit around a golf yesterday, Paul, so I'm getting ready for you.
Paul Bird 26:31
Alright. Well, the snow has just gone away here in the lovely city of Toronto. And I did dust my clubs off and put them in the car over the weekend. So I'm looking forward to finally getting out and having that little white ball disturb a perfectly wonderful walk.
Ben Cornett 26:48
Yeah, there you go. That's golf for you. Right?
Paul Bird 26:51
Well, thanks so much for coming to the show. Ben. It's been a pleasure talking with you.
Ben Cornett 26:56
Paul Bird 26:56
All right guys, thank you for listening to The Ultimate Channel Sales Podcast and please don’t forget to join us next time where we’ll have Steve Kazan on the show to discuss 4 best practices to lay the foundation for a successful channel partnerships. For more information, please visit channelsalespodcast.com.
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