Why agencies hate working with software companies & what you can do about it.

Why agencies hate working with software companies & what you can do about it.

This is a presentation I gave to the CSA members who were struggling to get agencies to buy into their partner program.

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This presentation will help your team understand agencies, their needs, and how to "get into business" with them as their true partner.


  1. My background
  2. nomenclature & Definitions
  3. Relationship segmentation
  4. Move from transactional to relational
  5. Review the data from a year of agency interviews
  6. Partner types to focus on during PMF stages
  7. ecosystem viability and pMF tests
  8. Cold outreach
  9. partner personas
  10. developing 'circles'

About me: 

2006-2012: I ran my own digital marketing agency.

2012-2016: Lead marketing teams for three platforms managing their stacks and marketing agency contracts.

2017-2019: Operated as a consultant for tech startups on growth and GTM strategy while also running a marketplace that matched tech companies with Marketing Automation experts.

February 2019: I launch Partnerprograms.io to show agencies how to grow with tech partners.

Part 1: What to know about agency partners.

To enable partners, you first have to know what their interests are.

Definition of a "Partnership" (according to Wikipedia): A partnership is an arrangement where parties, known as business partners, agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests.

- The keyword is "Interests."

Agencies are not interested in commissions and are not in the business of selling software.

But let's sidebar that conversation for now...

We use this motto with conviction; "The people are your partners." And it's true. While terms of a contract can tie to companies together, the actions that benefit both parties are executed by people. And those people can be impactful on a number of unanticipated levels.

So, before we even present any strategy, we have to get to know who these people are and what types of partners they can become.

The "partners" we are referring to in this presentation:

Agencies or Consultants: Experienced individuals or 'agencies' who are trusted to analyze, advise, and help a company with anything difficult choices, campaigns, strategies, product developments or implementations.

These third parties can be helpful and aligned with your brand in one of these core practices:

  1. Referral and Implementation Partners: Those who are active in your program under its terms - either approved experts, or receiving benefits for referring.
  2. Content Partners: Those who are not great at sales, but are savvy and can publish great content with an influential voice and extend the reach of your brand / program. They may never refer anyone.
  3. Reselling: Those who hold the contract - are billed for the software, can resell effectively, and typically those in the agency or consulting roles.
  4. Co-selling Partners: Anyone who can give you the correct decision maker > supply an introduction >> and assist in the close. These are typically consultants or agencies who are great salespeople.

Understand how agency-tech relationships are segmented:

Agencies may never use your product for their own benefits. Or, they may start as users and become resellers or referral partners. Finally, they may use your solution for their gain, but never have a reason to recommend it because their clients cannot benefit from it and they are not in the business of helping their competition by recommending your solution to other agencies. Backend solutions like Pandadocs, Asana, Harvest... may always struggle enabling agencies as referral partners. In our experience, this is the most difficult aspect of the partnership for most CEO's and partner teams to understand and wrap strategy around. They have power users who have referred, and some consultants who help their clients by integrating their tool in a process, but they struggle to reach the type of referral partnerships scale that tools like HubSpot, Klaviyo, Shopify and Webflow will always have because they are implemented and optimized by the agency, but paid for by the clients.

  1. Agency use: These are tools that the client never see's, logs into, or knows the agency uses. Any white labeled tools are an example.
  2. Either agency or client can use: These are tools which agencies typically use and so do their ideal clients for the same purpose. CRMs and SMM tools are great examples.
  3. Client use: Tools which the agency typically does not need/use (or possibly is often priced out of) for internal use.

When your team understands this use, you can start to strategize with empathy around their relationship to your product.

Agency partner FAQ's

Answers you need to have on the first calls:

  1. What are you offering them today, this week, this month that will contribute to their goals?
  2. When and how does the agency partner get referrals (or traffic / leads) from you?
  3. Where is the agency required? Where in this relationship are their billable hours?
  4. What sales training and co-sales support is your team going to provide?

The overall goal should  to gain partner buy-in is to:

Move from transactional to relational:

"Partnerships" are not based on comp. That's called an employee, contractor or affiliate.

- Thank you Cory Snyder for the words here!

Let's review some data on partnering with agencies.

We surveyed over 200 agencies and collected 31 answers, and over 1700 data points to learn who/how/why they partner... Read the full report here >>

Most agencies partner with at least one of their tools.

Finally, it's crucial to understand what agency partners Are concerned with:

We learned a lot about the value of smaller agency partners...

Finding "Program-Market Fit."

Organic demand > PMF >> formalizing

What to focus on at this stage:

Co-selling Partners: Anyone who can give you the correct decision maker > supply an introduction >> and assist in the close. These are typically consultants or agencies who are great salespeople.

Content Partners: Those who are not great at sales, but are savvy and can publish great content with an influential voice and extend the reach of your brand / program. They may never refer anyone.

Referral and Implementation Partners: Those who are active in your program under it's terms - either approved experts, or receiving benefits for referring.

Reselling: Those who hold the contract - are billed for the software, can resell effectively, and typically those in the agency or consulting roles.

Ecosystem viability

First, get the team to understand the criteria necessary to NEED a partner program.

1. Your ideal prospects (not partners, actual customers) are going through a major adjustment.

2. There is a lot at stake around the decision to implement you or a competitor.

3. Your prospects are involved with an agency or consultant to advise them on this transition.

4. And finally, your product should solve a MATERIAL need.

Now, before you do any cold outreach, look at your users and find out who has what pain points:

Do you hate selling? Do you struggle to sell more/faster/larger deals?

Do you like creating inbound through content? does your team generate great content?

Are you a savvy software implementor? do your clients come to you for tech expertise?

Before you do any outreach...

To beginning your program:

  1. Poll your users to get an idea of where you can help agencies. Those who struggle with sales, co-sell with them. If they create great content, co-market with them...
  2. Define IPP's based on services, known partnerships, and tech stacks. Focus on what the partner sells now, and Who they currently partner with. Focus on what the partner sells now, and who they currently partner with.
  3. Pull a list of targets, research their services and non-competitive partners. Focus on what the partner sells now, and who they currently partner with.
  4. Find a partner you "sell well with". A SaaS these agencies know of (and use) that is not a competitor and works in a funnel or workflow with your solution.

Now that you have targets and a co-marketing partner

Create your partner incentive structure

First, determine who, when and how you will funnel referrals to the agencies. i.e. An implementation partner qualification program.

What is your referral commission - and how are you going to track it?

Can you create content / events / promotions which help them in any way?

What level of support are you going to provide each partner type, and is that required, white labeled, direct...?

Co-marketing partners to co-selling partners

Step 1 = In a Google Sheet or Airtable, define the data segments you have with total rows (i.e. closed lost opp's = 450).

Step 2 = Then define the partner persona who are also after that segment.

Step 3 = List out co-marketing campaign types, with the reach and target audience.

Step 4 = Approach the partner prospects with the first "ask" of collaboration.

Step 5 = Create the first co-marketing collaboration.

Step 6 = After recording, but before you publish, reach back out to the partner with a request they email it to their lists.

Step 7 = Publish the first collaboration.

Step 8 = Send all content links to the partners/instructors.

Step 9 = Reach back out and mention that you use an account mapping tool (Crossbeam or Sharework.co, both have free accounts). Request a call to strategize co-selling.

Step 10 = IF they agree, proceed with account mapping - looking first at overlap, then creating an agreed upon strategy for outreach.

Full strategy here >>

Outreach strategy for each segment

What's important at this moment is to get the most out of the collaboration by making their connections/followers/fans yours and eventually convert them to channel-sourced revenue. Many partner teams will stop at simply posting the content. We urge our clients to take the next steps and make the most out of every collaboration (so long as it is truly valuable).

Enrichment - Enrich a dataset of Lookalike agencies to the co-author of the content you created. Use Ocean.io to find LAL's based on a URL.

Publish collaboration - You've just published a co-marketing campaign with your partner who speaks to this audience. Now it's time to leverage that to get onto calls.

Promotions - Promote the collaboration on all channels. Give that some time to collect viewers. Then start 1:1 outreach.

Linkedin connections - First, connect with those you have enriched or have received from the co-selling share. Wait a few days, and then share the link to the collaboration asking if they found it valuable.

Email and call requests - Emails can begin at the same time - making sure you are using copy that's all about an intro call to discuss alignment on a new program which supports their sales and lead generation initiatives.

Here is a perfect example of a piece of a valuable content that was done by an agency partner of ours after being introduced to our client Smith.ai, and allowed to use the product for free: https://smith.ai/blog/how-to-track-smith-ai-live-chat-in-google-ads-google-analytics

And now the partner team at Smith.ai can use this to convert like agencies to his who would need to see the product in action by an agency like theirs in order to fully-grasp it's value.

So the recommendation to Smith's partner team is the same: 

  1. Publish
  2. Enrich a list of lookalike agencies to the authors.
  3. Connect with them on LinkedIn.
  4. Promote the resource again.
  5. Manually perform outreach to the new audience with the resource link.
  6. Cold email with offers to do something similar.

Here's a cold email to an agency that received a positive reply.

Here's a cold email to an agency that will almost never receive a positive reply:

Do's and do not's of cold outreach:

Do: Hyper segmentation: Segment by their vertical (ecomm, b2b, local), current partners, and target client size (SMB, mid market, enterprise).

Do: Offer value right away: This means in your first email have a specific offer of bringing them value that has nothing to do with your product.

Do not: ask to partner: In the first emails, you are not trying to get someone who does not know you to partner. This first sequence is about what you and your content/budget/audience can do for them.

Do not: Sell your product: The biggest mistake is a product pitch in the first emails and calls. IF the agency is interested, they will research your product on their own.

Finding partner "Circles"

As you create more circles within your ecosystem, your program will begin growing organically.

To better-understand the agencies inside these circles, let's look at some persona's and their experience with partnerships.

Agency Partner Persona:

Alex, CEO of Old North Collective

Size: 10 employees

Clients: Retail, Hospitality

Annual revenue from partnerships: ~$80,000

Services: Netsuite, SuiteCommerce, and Bronto implementations.

Partners: Netsuite, Pendo, FullStory, Bronto, BigCommerce

Position: Alex has recently put his agency on track to become a top Netsuite partner and double-down on mainly providing implementations and support for their businesses. therefore, integrations with Netsuite are all of interest.

Their experience: They believe the investment in Netsuite is worth it because of their ecosystem, but will only look into other tools when necessary Or if they are fully-supported in the process.

Agency Partner Persona:

Ashley, VP of Partnerships.  at Hawke Media

Size: 200+ employees

Clients: Any Statups, Any SMBs, Enterprise, Consumer Brands, B2B eCommerce, D2C eCommerce, Local Retailers

Annual revenue from partnerships: unknown

Services: PPC / SEM, SEO, Social Media Management, Content Marketing, Graphic Design, Videography, B2B Lead Generation, Email Marketing, CRO

Partners: https://hawkemedia.com/partners

Position: If we're going to leverage a tool, we're going to want to work closely with them to ensure we have the support as a partner and not just a customer. This is imperative because we do a lot of business with each marketing technology. When we look at new partners, we look based on individual clients needs one at a time as they come in. However, we get a ton of inbound and of those, we choose who to consider based on larger strategy/goals of our services.

Why they choose not to partner: Lack of alignment all around, Remaining unbiased / agnostic, Clients needs change too frequently.

Would they be good partners FOR EARLY-STAGE programs?

Ashley / Hawke Media: 

yes: They will inspire faith by adding a quality logo and backlink.
no: but they have over 100 solutions partners.
no: And they do not work on clients operations or backend.

Alex / ONC:

yes: Knows his clients backend inside/out.
yes: Alex is looked to for operational guidance.
yes: He also works on customizing larger sites, ecomm and consumer brands.

Agency Partner Persona:

Connor and the Aptitude 8 agency

Size: 10 employees

Clients: Mid-Market software

Annual revenue from partnerships: ~$50,000

Services: CRM implementation

partner Status: Salesforce, Hubspot Diamond, Outreach.io, InsightSquared

Position: Their business is built around Hubspot and  Salesforce implementation. And ancillary tools are being referred to, but not implemented, resold or "pushed".

Their experience: Portals are useless. Add-on tools do not know how to co-sell. Add-on tools do not have a trained POC for them to send referrals to.

Agency Partner Persona:

Gabi and the Trujay agency

Size: 21-50 employees

Clients: Mid-Market - Enterprise software

Annual revenue from partnerships: ~$100,000+

Services: CRM Implementation / Integration, API Integration Support, Data / Analytics

Tech stack: HubSpot MA/HubSpot CRM, Xero, Asana, Klipfolio, IntegrateHQ, PandaDoc, Dedupely, DiscoverOrg, ZoomInfo

Position: HubSpot Solutions Partner - Platinum Tier

Why they have not "partnered"  with most tools: We prefer to remain unbiased / software agnostic,

Dealing with Partner Managers is a headache. The program setup is just too complicated.

How to enable agencies like these:

Step 1 = Show how you help them earn new business

At this level, these agencies need to know exactly when and how to achieve "implementation partner" status. Have a clear roadmap, tiers and timeline for getting the agency partners into the round robin (or exclusivity over a region/type) implementations system. Make that the focus of initial calls/pitches.

Step 2 = give them something tangible to sell

Agencies won't sell ancillary tools. They may recommend it, but they won’t “sell” it. Show them a complete build using your tool they can sell as a package.

Step 3 = Instill trust in sales support

Nothing looks worse then when the client gets bounced around after being referred to a partner. Make sure the partner has a POC who understands the playbook and is there for sales support..

Step 4: get them into a 'circle'

Now that your team knows who/how to enable, we need to add stickiness to our program.

Circles are better than rows - This is an analogy used in churches to articulate that speaking to the entire congregation who are sitting in rows is less impactful than getting everyone into small groups so they can share with one another what they have found valuable in the church/religion...

This is a perfect analogy because as people who must find and spread the use cases of the product in a partnership sense, we have to go into the ecosystem and get those various partner types together to showcase to the rest what the true value of the partnership is.

And we cannot do that through one-sided newsletters, presentations, lunch and learns, product demos...

Circles are inherently sticky. Here's what they're made of:

A. Your solution.
B. Another saas which adds value.
C. An agency partner who can implement your solution in this context.

Comprehensive service to offer their clients: Your partnership offer is now something tangible for their clients in the form of a relevant service ready to sell.

Now, the target agency partner is selling a new service to their clients which includes your software and your support.

ideal partner agency conversion: In our experience, agencies will take on software in stages and become better partners based on the end goal of the service revenue.

Do you have your head around it now?

Do you understand Program-Market Fit?

Do you have run successful co-marketing campaigns that snowballed into co-selling routines?
Are partners are on course to offer new services on your solution?
And, or, partners are submitting for referral credit regularly?
Are partners eager to submit their product feature needs?

90-day plan - Here is what to do in your next 90 days

January - Poll your agency users for what they are good at. Use this data + your integrations to create your persona's WITH how you can help them / work with them closer. Join our enablement mastersclass ;) and also build out your use case classes showing agencies how to setup, sell and support new services on your solution.

February - Find those tech partners you sell well with, generate some content with them + an agency in your or their network. Start outreach tests with the data you enriched beginning with LinkedIn, using that content.

March - Using the 'Circles' you've formed, start a co-selling routine in a free Sharework or Crossbeam account. Use the courses + collaborative content as hooks.


More great resources for tech companies

The questions I get asked most about partnering with digital agencies, answered:

The questions I get asked most about partnering with digital agencies, answered:

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How to convert a new top-tier agency who brings you a user-referral to a formal Partner

How to convert a new top-tier agency who brings you a user-referral to a formal Partner

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The Upwork strategy for Agency Partner Acquisition

The Upwork strategy for Agency Partner Acquisition

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