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Outreach Etiquette: How to Start an Agency Partnership the Right Way

This agency expert shares pro tips on partner recruitment.

In this article, PartnerStack agency partner and founder of In Social, Jess shares her hot takes on:

  • The dos and don’ts of partner outreach
  • Questions to ask yourself when engaging with partners
  • What a smooth partnership should feel like

Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various guest contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of PartnerStack or its editorial team.

Meet Jess, Founder and CEO of In Social

Hey, I’m Jess, the founder and CEO of In Social, a seven-year-old Canadian-based Shopify Expert digital marketing agency that employs more than 20 people today. I started In Social after working for another digital agency and realizing that I could do it better myself. We hire and support those from all walks of life, backgrounds, ethnicities and gender identities, because, to me, humanity should be at the heart of a business.

Within the first seven years of running In Social, I’ve brought amazing people onto my team and worked with seriously cool clients (some featured in GOOP, Vogue, Shark Tank and even one who hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner). In Social is also proud to be one of the top partner agencies on PartnerStack (I’m still waiting for my top partner badge, though!).

Not only do I run In Social, I also oversee business development and I’m the sole person responsible for partner relationships. I seek them out, research partnership platforms and connect with the partner managers to see if we’d be a fit. 

As an extremely busy person, this means I do this all with limited time. I believe SaaS and agency partnerships are key to the success of both businesses — and I prefer to do this as efficiently as possible. 

I have always been a huge fan of PartnerStack (and encourage all my partners to join, if they’re not already on here) because it makes my life easy. It’s easy to submit leads, grab a referral URL, track the closed deals and get payouts (which translates to dollar signs). 

I value ease and efficiency when it comes to my partner relationships, but authenticity, mutual benefits and finding the right fit are also important to me.

That’s why PartnerStack asked me to write up this little guide — the how-to (and how definitely not to) win over an agency partner. 

Related: Everything you should know about outbound partner outreach.

Don’t come on too strong, do come on with authenticity 

In 2023, people are smarter, more self-aware and have a stronger sense of what they're looking for. Whether you’re looking for a life partner or a successful partnership, the first impression sets the tone so you have to get it right.

It’s the same thing when you send out a cold email and tell an agency they are one of the top agencies out there. Unless they truly are and have awards to prove it, they know you are trying to butter them up. And honestly? That should make you suspicious. 

I’ve heard it a number of times — an email that begins, “I heard In Social was one of the best agencies in the Shopify Ecosystem. We should partner!”. It’s a glaring red flag that you’re saying this to everyone and that I’m just an email merge field in your automated campaigns. Listen, it’s not like it may not be true, but it feels like an empty compliment and doesn’t provide a solid reason to partner. If you can’t reach out with something authentic from the get-go, your email will quickly end up in my trash.

I’m not saying cold outreach can’t be effective — it can be, if done right. Sucking up may not land, but if you reach out with some value to add when you’re pitching partnerships, it may. This leads me to my next point.

Do your research ahead of contacting a potential partner

Look up who you are reaching out to, not just to get some speaking points for your cold outreach, but to see if you actually would be a good fit.

Ask yourself: Does the person you’re emailing have the authority to make partnership decisions? Better yet, does the person you’re reaching out to have the time to make partnership decisions? Just because I’m the person building these relationships at In Social, doesn’t mean the CEO is always involved at other agencies. In fact, people think I’m crazy when I say I’m the one doing the partnership work when in most agencies there is a person designated to handle their partnerships program. 

Once you figure out who the person you’re reaching out to is, find out if you have someone or something in common. The best emails I’ve gotten are from people who know people that I know. If I can see on LinkedIn that you know my friends who work at ReCharge or Gorgias, or someone who used to work at another agency, I know that you’re not just some hired gun to shoot emails out at unsuspecting victims. If you are actually a person in my network, I will 100% give you my time. 

Also think about this: does it even make sense to reach out at all? The amount of software I’ve been pitched that falls 1,000,000 miles away from the managed services we actually offer or the things our clients do is part of why I’m writing this guide — why would you waste either of our time?

If the agency doesn’t offer a managed service that your software can improve (make more efficient, automate, or bring better results) or they don’t have clients in the vertical your software focuses on, you should not reach out. It’s not a good look. 

If the software can help some of our managed services, l move on to my next step.

Trust in your network

As mentioned above, if I see that someone who has reached out to me is in my network, I will give them my time. 

Not just because talk gets around and I don’t want to be known in my network as the woman who’s too busy to reply, but because I value our mutual connection with people I trust and respect.

Once I find a connection in common, I’ll reach out to that person and check in on their credibility — is this partnership manager legit? Have you used the software they’re shilling? If the person comes recommended, I’ll move ahead.

Do make promises you can keep and show your value

Let’s say you hooked one — an agency partner manager wants to know more about what you offer! Tell them. But don’t lie just to get them on a call. 

Most of the time, I’ll reply to that outreach email with some questions before committing to a 15-30 minute call. In my world, those minutes could be given to a potential client (and potential revenue) so blocking off that time is only for something I deem worthwhile. After all, time is money.

In my follow up, I’ll ask some more questions to really make sure the partnership has potential. Some questions I ask include:

  • General questions about the software to compare it to our current tools and determine if it can address pain points 
  • If they have a one-pager with a breakdown of the tool
  • If there’s a free demo account or sandbox to poke around in
  • If there are minimum requirements to become and remain a partner

If you lie or serve up half-truths just to try and sell me? You’re not going to close the deal. I ask those questions upfront to save us both time. There’s nothing you can say on a call that will sell me on your SaaS if the answers you provided were false. 

If the answers to these questions are what I’m looking for (and they vary depending on the SaaS), I’ll book a follow-up call to learn more. Once we’re on a call, I’ll put your answers to the test and get you to show me exactly what you told me your software can do and what you offer. 

It’s in this call that we’ll be able to determine how the relationship could be mutually beneficial for us and lay the foundation for next steps.

See more: How to become an ecosystem led company in 2023.

Access to SaaS is nice but not essential

I’m not naive, and I know that a lot of agencies are only interested in partnerships that pay a nice commission, but that’s not our vibe at In Social. We value partnerships with SaaS companies that can truly help us better our business or the business of our clients. 

While I don’t say no to commission-based payouts (and thank you again, PartnerStack for making it so easy!) I care more about working with a partner as if we’re one in the same. 

When we are having issues with a piece of software we’re using on behalf of a client, we value the ability to reach out to the software’s support team and get hands-on service to fix the problem. Most of the time, these issues we’re working through are on client time and dollar (or they result in unbillable time for our company, costing us money). The more hands-on support we can have from our partner, the more valuable the relationship is for us. 

We also appreciate having that pipeline to the software — because our clients do, too. Clients absolutely love it when we say, “Let us talk to our friends at this company to get this resolved.” It makes them feel that by choosing us as their agency, they are benefiting from our network.

Our network of partners actually exists in Slack channels because about ninety per cent of our SaaS partners have shared ones with us. Most are specifically to help troubleshoot client issues — but they are also open to chat about leads before reaching out, talk through strategy in getting a client to upgrade their SaaS plan or share valuable information. 

And while I said it isn’t required, we really do love getting access to the software for free — either for our agency use or for brands we’re building. This isn’t just because it’s a nice gesture in exchange for us bringing you business. It actually allows us to play around with and test the software without having to mess with a client’s account. Honestly, I think all SaaS companies should be giving free access to their agency partners.

Sure, getting free software is nice and we really appreciate it, but it’s not a deal breaker for us. If we’ve gotten this far in the exploration the only deal breaker is in the next point.

Acknowledge that a partnership should be mutually beneficial

The reason I ask partner managers what’s required of their partner is because I have met my fair share of SaaS companies that act as if they are the be-all and end-all of their niche. I personally cannot stand the arrogance. 

To me, SaaS and agency partnerships have a mutually beneficial relationship. The SaaS business provides a service (and hopefully good support) to the agency to do their job better. The agency both brings clients to the software and manages services to keep them from churning. This mutually beneficial arrangement puts both sides on equal footing. 

So when I hear that a SaaS company has demands (see below for more on that) in order to become a partner, I immediately drop out of the conversion. 

To clarify, I am not talking about certifications — getting certified in a piece of software is a valuable point of entry to ensure the agency using the software knows what they’re doing. I am talking about so-called offers to partners that I’ve been given that literally made my jaw drop. 

I’m not going to name names, but one partnership I was offered required my agency to pay for our own account on the platform before we could be considered, while another said we’d have to straight up pay a membership fee to be a partner. We’re bringing you leads, but you’re asking us to also pay you for the privilege? 

I am also not a huge fan of a requirement to bring new leads — something that a lot of partnerships are now leaning into — for two reasons.

One, we are not a “salesy” agency, and we feel icky trying to push software and additional costs onto our clients. We just won’t do it. We bring up the software organically, when the time is right, and when we feel it will actually bring ROI for our clients. After all, our recommendations are a reflection of our expertise. 

Secondly, we may not be bringing a ton of new leads, but our managed services are what’s keeping a client on your software. You’d be surprised just how much pull an agency can have over a client’s software choices. In fact, we’ve recommended and made some big software moves the last few months for our clients. We have a lot of power. So that monthly recurring revenue should be more than enough value to your bottom line. 

A good relationship is a mutually beneficial one, with no one being more important than the other. Show me that we can do great things together and you’ve got yourself a new partner!

A final rant (or plea) for better agency partnerships

If you’ve read this far, I thank you and I apologize for what may have come off as a rant. You’d probably be ranting, too, if you received five emails a day pitching partnerships that offer no actual value. 

I wanted to write this because I have always found partnerships to be a mutually beneficial endeavor. Yet, too few partner managers see that way. Many just see a quota that they’re trying to fill to get their next promotion.

As an agency owner, I see partnerships as a way for two organizations to come together to support one another scale and get better at what they do together.

For the SaaS companies that don’t see it that way, well, I’m just not that into you. 

Looking for what else is new for ecosystem-led companies? PartnerStack's Research Lab is here. Have you checked out PartnerStack’s new data initiative yet?

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