Building a B2B SaaS partner program: Our 8-step process
Tell us about your biggest fans (other than your mom).
If you’ve created a SaaS platform that people love with great customer service to match, you’ve probably already collected a fair amount of raving fans who love your brand.
If this is your case, you’re in the prime spot to start a SaaS partner program.
Wondering if the effort is really worth it for your brand? Chew on this: In one survey of B2B buyers, 61% of respondents said colleague recommendations were the #1 factor in their final decision.
And more sales and marketing leaders are leaning into this method. A study by Crossbeam found that 36% of companies expanded their partnerships team during the pandemic, developing clear roles to manage and grow their B2B partner programs.
But, how exactly does a partner program work? How can you decide if it’s the right move for your brand, and where do you start?
We sat down with James Urie, who’s currently managing our Partner Program here at Close. He gave us some insider tricks based on his experiences and the mistakes he made early on, as well as ideas on how to start an early-stage SaaS partner program.
Let’s dig into:
- What is a partner program?
- How to build your own SaaS partner program in 8 steps
- B2B partner program examples you can learn from
Want to watch the whole interview first? Check it out here:
What is a SaaS partner program?
Referral partners can be powerful helpers to grow your brand awareness. If you’re a SaaS startup trying to make some noise in a big market, developing a partner program may be exactly what you need.
Who can be a referral partner for your SaaS brand?
While there are plenty of variations on the partner program idea, here are the main ones you can focus on as a SaaS brand:
- Current customers who love your brand: These are your product evangelists, your raving fans. They love using your product and often recommend it to their friends and colleagues. They may not be your biggest partners, but rewarding them for something they’re already doing naturally will help incentivize their referrals.
- Complementary businesses in your space: These might be consultants, coaches, or agencies who encourage their clients to use your product to accomplish an end goal, or maybe even include your product as part of the services they offer.
- Integration partners: When your SaaS product has smooth integrations with complementary tools, adding these folks to your partner program will be beneficial for them, for you, and for your customers.
Why we decided a partner program was worth the effort
As we dig into the lessons we learned here at Close, you’ll quickly see that a partner program takes time and effort to set up well. So, is it worth it?
James, who currently runs the partner program, spoke with the head of partnerships at Zapier to get some insights early on. She told him that, when a SaaS partner program runs well, it should generate 30% of your revenue.
At that point, our partner program was bringing in less than 4% of revenue. But after less than 12 months, James was able to grow that to 10%.
All this, considering that James only spends about 20% of his time on partnerships.
So heck yeah, it’s worth it.
Now that we have that clear, how do you actually build a B2B partner program?
How to build your own SaaS partner program in 8 steps
Here are 8 steps you can take to build your own SaaS partner program and grow it over time.
1. Decide if a B2B partner program is right for your brand
Is it the right time and place for your SaaS company to start a partnership program?
Here are three questions to ask yourself:
First, do you have product-market fit? If you’re a brand-new startup without a clear, stable direction in your product, it’s probably too early to consider a partner program. On the other hand, if you have product-market fit and are ready to step into the next stage of growth, a partner program can be an excellent way to support those efforts.
Second, do you already have brand evangelists in your customer base? When people are already recommending your SaaS product organically, this is a good sign that a partner program will work.
Finally, are there businesses in your customer base that could benefit from recommending your product to their customers?
James Urie explains how this worked with the Close Partner Program:
“When I inherited this program, we had so many agencies and consultancies living within our ecosystem that were already incorporating Close into their services.
So, I started to stoke the fire with those relationships. I tried to understand how they were using Close, how it was incorporated into their offer, and how they service their clients. Then I got them into the program as well and got them paid.
They were very happy about that. An additional stream of revenue is fantastic, but that also warms up the relationship. I helped them solve problems that they might not have known how to solve otherwise in Close. So I could actually help them be more successful in their business by having clear communication with them, helping solve additional problems.”
If the answers to the three questions above are YES, then you’re ready to start a partner program.
2. Identify who is going to take the reigns
Companies running some of the top partner programs in the world have entire teams dedicated to managing and working with these partners.
But what if you simply don’t have the bandwidth to hire someone for a partnership role?
Your partner program will grow over time—so, it may not make sense to have someone running partnerships full-time right from the get-go.
Instead, think about who is in the best position to nurture these existing customers and enable them to promote your product better.
While partnerships are generally thought of as a marketing strategy, there are solid reasons why your sales team may be more successful when taking the reins on this.
Here’s how James explained it to us:
“Partnerships are very sales related. It's nurturing relationships, it's managing relationships, it's problem solving with the tool or the service that you have and it's going out and then securing new partners. That aligns with a lot of the fundamentals of sales.
Salespeople are relationship people. And with a partnerships program, a lot of it is very relational. So it can work for a lot of different people having sales manage it.”
Whoever ends up managing the early stages of your partner program, make sure they’re getting the support they need from other customer-facing teams, such as Success and Support. That way, they can still manage the rest of their regular duties while giving proper attention to your new partners.
3. Create a compensation plan
It’s time to decide what kind of incentive you’ll be giving your new partners.
Of course, money is the most common (and often most motivating) incentive. So, decide what kind of compensation your partners will get:
- One-time payment for each new referral
- Recurring percentage of revenue brought in by referrals
For example, the Close Partner Program offers a 10% to 20% recurring commission on every new paying customer you send our way.
But remember—money isn’t the only way to motivate your partners.
Depending on the type of partners you have, other incentives could include:
- Special discounts for the customers they bring in
- Extra training or support for their referrals
- Increased promotion of the partners and the services they provide
- Co-marketing or lead generation opportunities
To find out what really appeals to your new partners, ask them! Find out what their priorities are, and align your incentives accordingly.
4. Build your process for tracking and paying partners
James admits this is one of the early mistakes we made when building out our partner program.
“In the beginning, a big point of friction was the tech we were using to manage the program. Tracking was pretty easy, but the payouts were very difficult.
We were handing a big workload at the end of every month to our finance team, and they were pinging partners via email to get details from them to figure out how to pay them. It was not scalable at all.
And then we moved to PartnerStack, which makes managing the affiliates, adding leads, the referral links, all of that stuff really easy. But most importantly, it took the payouts off the shoulders of our internal finance team.
All that we need to do is go through and audit it on a monthly basis, make sure that everything lines up, and then basically give the green light to our finance folks, and then the payment will be issued automatically for us.”
Before you start accepting and paying out new partners, build a process for tracking and payments. This should include:
- A simple, obvious way to sign up for your partner program
- Having an affiliate link for partners to use
- Having a clear space where you track new partners and manage those relationships (like a CRM or dedicated partnership platform)
- A clear payout process
Of course, before you have real proof of concept, some of this may need to be more manual. But even before you start, you should have a plan in place for growth. Know which tech you’ll need, and set a clear milestone that will signal the time to switch to a dedicated partnership software, like PartnerStack.
5. Set up an insightful application form
To help filter out jokers without wasting your time, your application form should ask clear questions that give you real insights.
First, your website should have a landing page that promotes your partner program. It might look something like this:
Once a new partner decides to sign up, use a form to sift through applications and know which new partners deserve your full attention.
This is especially important in the early stages of your SaaS partner program, since the person managing the program will probably be juggling multiple responsibilities.
Here’s an example:
A good partner program application form should include questions like:
- What type of business do you run?
- Are you a current or previous customer of our product?
- How well do you know our product?
- Have you ever been an affiliate for a product in this space?
- How do you plan to promote our product?
- Why did you choose to promote our product to your network?
That last question is part of our partnership application form here at Close, and James explains why he added it:
“I have a ‘reasons’ field of why they chose Close as a partner, and it’s a required answer. So it's a free-form text field, but typically 90% of people put a really thoughtful response in that field of why they're using it.
And so that really is my go-to of if I want to accept them into the program or not. And that gives me a lot of insight. People will give me nuggets of gold that I wasn't even thinking about, and how we pitch and position Close can be based on those responses.”
6. Be a resource for your partners
A successful partnership program is based on how successful your partners are at bringing you new customers.
And it’s your job to give them the resources they need to be successful.
Some brands offer their partners marketing collateral to use, such as images to post on social media, embeds for their websites, or other assets to help draw in new referrals.
But in SaaS, all of that is secondary to the support you give partners on a product level.
For example, if you have consulting agencies and coaches in your partner program, are you helping them with extra training or content to help their clients be more effective with your product? Are you helping them through specific issues or giving them insights that will help them use your product better?
When your brand is a resource for your partners, they’ll feel comfortable coming to you with issues or challenges, trusting you’ll have relevant solutions that can help them do their job better.
7. Identify your best partners and amplify those profiles
When looking for your most productive customers, you create an ideal customer profile. So, why not do the same with your partners?
“Once you have a few partners to take a temperature on, see if there is an ideal partner profile that you can create and then nurture just like an outbound sales process,” says James.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to find your best partners:
- Who are my ‘biggest fans’?
- Which partners are referring the highest number of new customers?
- Which partners are referring higher-quality customers?
- Which businesses in my ecosystem can really benefit from using my product alongside their services?
- Who’s better at promoting my product within their networks?
When you know who your best partners are, you can identify patterns that will help you discover which partners are more likely to be successful.
After that, build out an ideal partner profile, and use it to identify people within your customer base that have a higher potential for success as partners.
8. Track your growth and upgrade your team and tech accordingly
Tracking the growth of your partner program is essential to measuring success and reporting back on whether your efforts are really worthwhile.
One of the key metrics you’ll want to track is what percentage of your revenue comes from the partner program.
A good goal for this would be 30%. So, track your efforts and see how quickly you’re growing towards that goal.
As you grow, choose specific milestones that will signal the right time to upgrade your team and your tech.
For example, define how many partners the team member in charge of the program can handle effectively. Then, once you hit that milestone, it may be time to consider hiring someone to handle partnerships full-time or shifting some of that team member’s other responsibilities elsewhere.
By setting clear goals and milestones, you’ll be able to grow effectively and build a program that works from the ground up.
B2B partner program examples you can learn from
Looking for some cool examples of companies doing their SaaS partner programs right? Let’s check out these awesome B2B partner program examples and what you can learn from them:
We may be somewhat biased, but we’re pretty proud of the partner program we’ve built here at Close.
Our partner program is mainly set up for referral partners, current customers who love our product and want to promote it. These partners get 10% recurring commissions on the paying customers they refer to us.
For sales consultants, coaches, and other service-based businesses in our partner program, we offer a free listing on our Close Experts Directory, giving them more visibility to the services they provide.
Productivity platform Monday has set up a partnership program that has grown over time in popularity because of their constant innovations.
Within the program, there are 5 different models:
- Channel partners
- Referral partners
- Tech partners
- Strategic alliances
- Academic partners
Each model has its own set of requirements, support, marketing and sales materials, and processes for commissions. Some models give you free access to a partner community and an online certification program to master the platform.
Email marketing tool Moosend gives its partners a lifetime recurring commission of 30%, which is quite generous for the SaaS world.
Their program gives partners a variety of marketing resources, such as banners, images, social posts, and more to promote their product.
Arguably one of the most well-known partner programs in SaaS, Typeform presents its partners as teammates working together towards a common goal.
Typeform has three models for their partner program:
- Agency Partner Program, for marketing agencies that want to offer Typeform’s capabilities as part of their services. This model gives agency partners a discounted subscription, agency-focused benefits and content, and 20% commission on new subscribers, as well as a spot in Typeform’s Agency Directory.
- Product Partners, for other software businesses building integrations with Typeform. These partners get listed on Typeform Connect (their app marketplace), plus the possibility for co-marketing, a dedicated integration how-to page in the help center, and shout-outs on social media.
- Affiliate Program, for current customers who want to refer and get cashback. Partners get 20% recurring commission, plus marketing materials to help spread the word.
This B2B partner program really highlights the importance of knowing your audience and what they care about. When you have enough partners to segment them into different funnels, you can tailor your offerings to what really matters to each profile, as Typeform has done.
Aircall’s partner program is built into tiers, depending on how much effort their partners want to put into the relationship.
They’ve set up different partner ‘plans’, built almost like a pricing page, that tells you exactly what kind of partnership you’ll have with the company:
As each program puts a different load of responsibility on the partner, each program also offers a different level of support from Aircall. While all tiers get a monthly revenue share of Aircall licenses, the higher-tiered partners have access to a dedicated account manager, early access to product updates, and other perks.
This SaaS partner program from project management tool Teamwork offers commission tiers, meaning the more you refer, the more you earn.
The tiers start at 10% commission and can grow up to 40% when you refer more than 50 paying customers. Partners in this program also get free resources to use and a dedicated affiliate manager.
Sales and marketing automation platform Keap has a partner program that is built on the foundation of supporting business growth.
They also offer different types of partnerships, called partner tracks:
They have a separate program for consultants and agencies looking to add Keap into the services they offer to clients. These partners get recurring lifetime commissions as well as a listing on the Keap Partner Marketplace, while regular referral partners get a set amount of $250 for each referral they send.
Building your own SaaS partner program? Start small
When it’s done right, your SaaS partner program will engender more loyal customers and brand fanatics that are incentivized to spread the word about your product.
But when you’re starting from scratch, remember to start small.
The partner program examples we’ve discussed above show you what’s possible with the future of your program. But don’t feel like you need to implement all these ideas and strategies from day one.
It’s easy to overcomplicate the process. Start simple, and you’ll build a better foundation for a partner program that can scale effectively over time.
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