7 Tips for Building an Effective Co-sell Program

February 3, 2021

Building and scaling a successful co-sell program is challenging because effective co-selling requires engagement between partnering field sales teams. We’ve seen many companies establish co-selling programs where their smaller partners pay for an elite co-sell status with the promise of access to their field teams. What we’ve learned from this type of partner program is that co-selling cannot be claimed as a status or a partner tier and it cannot be purchased. 

Co-selling is truly an act between trusted field teams with something to gain on both sides of the equation. Thus, only a few companies partner well or know what it takes to co-sell effectively. 

Why Do So Many Co-sell Programs Fail?

According to an article by Harvard Business Review, 60% to 70% of alliances fail within their first year. The reason why many co-sell programs fail as they begin to scale is because most companies look at co-selling as a status or partner tier for their partners to reach. It isn’t until they reach this coveted status that they are considered co-sell ready. However, co-selling is much more than a status. You can’t slap a label on a partnership and expect your sales teams to engage and co-sell together. 

As we said before, co-selling is an act that is done with your most trusted partners. You have to work together if it is going to be a profitable partnership. Like any relationship, co-selling requires effort from both sides. Many companies fail to recognize this, so it’s no wonder that the majority of co-selling programs fail.

In order to succeed, enterprises need to do seven things well: 

  1. Only select top partners to co-sell with
  2. Sell to the same buyer
  3. Build trust with your co-sell partners
  4. Hire a great field engagement team
  5. Share success stories
  6. Compensate both sides of the partnership
  7. Hire salespeople who know how to partner well

1. Only Select Top Partners to Co-sell With

For co-selling to really work, you need to look within your ecosystem and identify your top partners. Top partners have two main characteristics: 

  • How much potential revenue they are already bringing to the relationship 
  • How much potential revenue they could bring to the partnership in the future

Right now, companies only identify top partners by looking at how much revenue has been generated in the past. This is understandable because up until recently, there really wasn’t a great way to identify potential revenue. Luckily, there’s a new way forward. Now, companies can look at potential revenue based on their prospect-customer overlap. They can quickly identify this overlap by using a Partner Ecosystem Platform.

2. Sell to the Same Buyer

Focus on the partners that are selling to the same buyer within the organizations your sales team sells. If buyer alignment isn’t there, the leads are less likely to convert to closed opportunities. 

It’s much harder for sales teams to strategize and sell together when they are talking to two different buying teams in the organization. However, it works if, for example, you are selling to a department that needs to gain budget from the department that your partner sells into e.g. you sell to HR, and your partner sells to finance.

If there is true buyer alignment, we’ve seen co-selling partnerships take off immediately. By simply doing a pipeline map through a Partner Ecosystem Platform, you can see:

  • All of the pipeline your sales teams are concurrently working
  • Where you and your partner have the same customer and could add value by selling together   

3. Build Trust with Your Co-sell Partners

Trust starts at the top. CEO to CEO engagement must happen for a successful co-selling relationship. If your CEO doesn’t have access to your partner’s CEO, this will be a point of failure in your co-selling partnership. You will always have limitations on how fast you can scale or if you can scale the partnership. 

If you aren’t granted access, it means the CEO deems your company as too small to drive value for the larger partner organization. If this co-sell program is a pay to play model, we would say buyer beware. Don’t jump in and pay to play right away, work on building the relationship and figuring out how you can be viewed as a top partner that gains CEO to CEO access.  

Once you have CEO to CEO engagement, the entire organization has to be all in on this relationship from the channel teams, field engagement teams, and field sales. After everyone is bought in, successful revenue outcomes happen.  

The next step is to make sure your program has the budget to invest in a field engagement team especially if you are the smaller partner in the partnership.

The field engagement team is critical to:

  • Building trust 
  • Accelerating sourced opportunities
  • Leveraging sales opportunities between two partnering sales teams
  • Mitigating channel conflict  

4. Hire a Great Field Engagement Team

In order to grow your co-sell program, you need to hire a team that focuses 100% on field engagement across your co-sell partnerships. It will take a team of Field Engagement Managers to collaborate with your partners’ sales teams and bridge relationships on each side. 

Sales teams are focused on closing their own sales. It’s difficult for sales teams that haven’t worked with co-sell partners in the past to start co-sell relationships. A good field engagement team will help them understand that partners widen their opportunities and drive more pipeline. If worked wisely, co-sell partnerships can be the single largest lead engine for a sales team.

Field Engagement Managers can focus on:

  • Building and maintaining trust 
  • Coaching partnering sales teams to better understand their partner’s products
  • How to work together in a complex sales process 
  • Identify where the low hanging fruit lies in the account mapping data
  • Who to bring together on each sales team to drive pipeline
  • Keep channel conflict at bay 

Field engagement managers need to coach their teams to be brand ambassadors; offering value from their partners to their customers. Great field engagement teams can move mountains in co-sell relationships. If they have access to a Partner Ecosystem Platform, they are truly able to mobilize their field sellers around key accounts with their most trusted partners.  

5. Share Success Stories

Every salesperson loves their name in lights! Field engagement teams or partner managers (if you don’t have field engagement teams yet) should be talking with the salespeople that are winning with partners. 

Success breeds success. Teams that constantly share partner wins, large and small, will start to cultivate a partner-led sales culture. Sales teams will jump on board and want to find their co-sell win. This is how you move your culture from a traditional sales model to a partner-led (co-sell) sales model.   

6. Compensate Both Sides of the Partnership 

In a co-sell partnership, both sides need to be compensated well. If you are brought into a deal and end up with a small bit of compensation, how likely are you to really hunt for more deals to bring your partner in? Not likely. Sales teams won’t bring their sales partners into co-sell motions if it isn’t worth it.  

Co-sell compensation can be expensive. However, it is much cheaper than hiring an army of salespeople. If you can expose a salesforce of similar size, i.e. your partners, to help bring your sales teams into opportunities, congratulations you’ve just doubled your sales team without hiring fully burdened employees.  A co-sell program is the smarter, more cost-effective strategy.

7. Hire Salespeople Who Know How to Partner Well

Companies need to hire salespeople that will fit into a co-sell program. Your salespeople need to embrace a different way of selling because they are going to be co-selling with partners. They’re no longer solely selling on their own. It is important that they embrace a strong partner mindset

Co-selling requires a different approach to sales. This type of salesperson needs to be able to work their own book of business as well as: 

  • Have a collaborative mindset
  • Work closely with their partnering sales reps  
  • Be a great relationship builder 
  • Send leads to their partners
  • And they need to be a closer 

A traditional Lone Wolf transactional salesperson doesn’t work in a co-sell model. Keep this fact in mind when bringing on new hires. The person may have a great resume, but are they willing to be a co-sell team player?

Final Thoughts

To build a successful co-sell program, you must identify top partners, build trust, hire great managers and salespeople, share stories of wins and keep your team motivated to co-sell. You can drive revenue with each of your partners if you stick to these strategies.

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