Howdy Partners #49: Placing Customers Front and Center Through a Partnerships Lens with Sunir Shah

Sunir Shah, CEO of AppBind has observed a common problem—people often focus on their own goals rather than the company's goals. In this episode, Sunir takes us on a journey of placing customers front and center through a partnerships lens.

He shares his insights on creating win-win situations for customers and the company, aligning non-strategic roles with core customer needs, and the evolving landscape of partnership leadership. 

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  • The Partnership Pity Party. 2:14
  • What is bogging down a program? 4:53
  • The problem with disconnecting from the customer. 7:49
  • What did you do in school? 10:47
  • What bogs down channel programs? 13:31
  • How do you get the technology into the customer's hands? 15:37
  • What is bogging down partner teams? 18:16
  • How has the channel strategy changed over time? 21:06
  • Tactical tip for growing revenue through partners. 23:43


Will Taylor 0:04
Howdy partners, and welcome to another episode of The howdy partners podcast, where we help you to do your job with tactical insights from people who have done it before we are joined with Sunil Shah, who is the CEO and founder of app bind, and of course got other things on the go. But Sr, I'll let you introduce yourself. And then we'll dive into the topic today. Tell us about Sr.

Sunir Shah 0:26
I mean, a lot of people here probably know me through the cloud software Association SAS connects and I basically been doing partnerships were since I had hair 14 years ago at FreshBooks. Started the marketing partnership team their cmo larks been crazy at how difficult it's been to bring SAS to distribution. And I have a technical solution which is apt by and AWS is rapidly subscription product and allow you to sell to distributors, consultants, retailers, and I also buy drinks for people on the internet bartender. And I also invented the free links in tech. So keep pedia so I can. You can blame me for 100 years about why we use double brackets. That's entirely my fault.

Will Taylor 1:06
I love it. And I especially love the free drinks. I'm always happy to partake, whenever you're

Sunir Shah 1:12
relaxing, free drinks, that will be eye to stone. I love it.

Will Taylor 1:16
There you go. So today's topic, we are going to be talking about channel partner programs and why they get bogged down. And so New You and I have had some chats. And I love that you are the angry uncle sitting in the corner with his glass of whiskey. So you have really good opinion. That's what I mean by that. And so I know you're you're passionate about this topic. So what do you think is wrong with what most partnership leaders are focusing the conversation on in the market today based on your experience?

Sunir Shah 1:51
So partnership leaders interesting use phrase. So I would say the most interesting thing that I have come to realize it also because I've been bracing around and the investors think that they can hear us on social media is especially running up to catalyst, which is partnership Leaders Conference. It's so much partnership pity party. It's like everyone is complaining constantly, that their job is too hard. They're bad at their job, they have no authority. It's leadership's fault. And what CEOs and boards actually see is when you when someone keeps saying that their job is too difficult for them to be successful at or their, it's not being successful. It's too hard. I agree with you, it's probably too hard for you. And I think there's a lot of push to lay up. And I've been taking a lot of very active lines. I linked LinkedIn against people complaining constantly about their jobs, because I want to support my customers and like members and pitch trends and their job. And it is leading to leading to layoffs. And I don't think this is good leadership. But I also also think that I kind of starting to agree that I don't think I was a partnership persons what Chris said to me when he said of shinbone hardship leaders, I'm a CEO. I'm not an artistic person that that kind of wounded me. And by thought about as she's right. I'm not a partnership person. I'm a CX. Person who has built partnership programs. And I would say the biggest problems I've had in my career is when I have ended up in a title partnership role, which we can get into here. And there is some truth to the fact that it's hard to be in partnerships. But I don't think I also have agreed with that. I think I agree with the planning that it's hard. You can't be a partnership leader. Exactly. You need to be a leader at a company around whatever goal is revenue, customer products, that tactically may involve partnerships. It's very difficult to build a career in isolation from the customer in a company. So I think that's a leading to a lot of this conversation out there. My peers from my generation have been around too long, did not have this problem, because we didn't have partnership teams, we were from other teams doing partnerships. And we're honestly, I don't want to meet too great. Well, we didn't have these problems. That was what we had were different problems. But these are not the problems we had were much more successful, much faster. And I think this idea of building like chief partnership officer or chief ecosystem officer as a career path is a bit silly, because the CX suite doesn't just make a title at the CX level for you because there's a reason why that happens strategically, the company from that from the board and CLC X level. And I think you have to think about it from the other side of the table. What does the company need? And is it partnerships or is it market development? Those are just ideas So

Will Taylor 5:00
what is actually bogging down a program then? So it's you know, there's the lack of buy in is the narrative right now and we need more executive buy in. But let's say in practice in an organization that maybe they have buy in, or that's not even like something that they're worried about, what are some of the main reasons that programs are getting bogged down?

Sunir Shah 5:20
Okay, well, first, I have to say that if you're in the revenue, revenue generating function, selling people in persuading people is a core skill. So this is another reason why it doesn't dove well when you complain to your buy in. Because when the executive side of the table, which is I live in now, here's that they just think that maybe you don't have the skill set to pandals. This responsibility, like we agree with you that you're you are having a hard time. That's what you're, you're broadcasting constantly. So I want people to reframe the conversation, I think more empathetically as if you're selling to other person, you're like, you have to serve the customer. And there's two customers to the company, there's the actual customer or the company, and if you're an employee, that's also your boss, and you have organizational buy in the nanosecond after you're hired, right, they hired you, because they wanted you to be successful. You know, very few companies are pathological. They truly, most companies truly want you to be successful, they're excited about hiring you, they want to see you do great things they want to support you, and then you're getting bogged down. And you can take that personally. Or you can take that professionally. I will tell you, when one thing I learned in my journey up the ladder was that the CEO is always freaking out, they're the most anxious person with the company as they should be. And most companies because most companies are losing money, right? And so they can't reveal that to staff. But if you take it on your self, to treat them like a customer, and your job, or client doesn't mean you're a contractor, it's talking about channel as how they think clients, your job is to bring that area of the business under control for your boss, so they don't have to worry about it anymore. And that being a bring it under control may mean making it successful and making revenue, or it'd be maybe coming to the realization that there is no market demand for this and cutting it and so that you can go and work on another market development action, which may not be partnered with it. Right? There's there's not very many people who have the same level of skills the founders had when he started the company. If you develop that kind of lean startup attitude, while building the next business line, the next business learning company, you'll do well, even if there may not be enough opportunity to that company, they're going to still love you and help you find another job. But if you sit there in this kind of fear of being fired, that you need to be in partnerships, you need to make partnerships work at all costs. That's neurotic in a way. I mean, that's, that's misaligned to what the what the market is telling you, you're talking about your Inner Inner Sears, and you're like looped in your own fear, you're not reaching out to the rest of the company, you're not engaging with your boss, you're going to have difficult problems. And I think a lot of the conversation is heading this way. I do think, you know, speaking of the goal of partnership leaders, which I think is admirable, I mean, they don't ask a Christian tire, or trying to be positive, but that kind of distortion of making partnerships thing, by itself, disconnected from customer demand, may cause problems, you know, and I think it's really important to remember that we only do partnerships, because the customer needs that partner to advance to our buyers journey, and thereby is dirty. And it's only that we serve the customer, and that they need to work these other work with these other companies that we do partnerships is that you know, you have to be rooted maniacally in the customer, and that everything comes from there. And so I think I realized that I've never actually started in partnerships, I always started on the customer side. And then because naturally every market is structured, with lots of companies involved, you need to have a part, you end up with a partnership strategy, just because it's efficient and necessary.

Will Taylor 8:49
So it sounds like the reason that a program gets bogged down is because it starts to become more of a business efficiency function than it does a customer value function. Is that a good? A good summary?

Sunir Shah 9:03
Yeah, I would say it's become disconnected from the customer. That's what I would say. And it becomes about sustaining the team internally, it's it becomes an internal goal, rather than an external market goal. You can't get bogged down if there's market demand, because the market will make you do it. But if you're not focused on the market, you're focused on your own self, then you get then you strip yourself. And I think a lot of programs are just focused on preserving themselves rather than thinking about nimbly, you know, where can we do more for that customer? You maybe what there's maybe I could be wrong, but I'm kind of pushing in that direction. Like, let's recenter on the customer. By the way, this is why I love near bound as another story. You know, it's just chefs kiss, you know, such a perfect camping campaign genius. I took Isaac's gauntlet it's like challenge me I'll find your best team in the world. I will challenge him I will fight you. You are the best team in the world. Screw you guys.

Will Taylor 10:00
I love it. Being a part of that team, I have to only say thank you and be humble. So we'll leave it there on on your bound. Okay, so with that, then tell me the story that you and I chatted about where you're like, talking about integration partnerships, where it seems like and I might miss be misrepresenting your words here. But you tell me, it seems like there are some teams that are building integrations just to build an integration and try and gain some BD opportunity, rather than, like you said, focus on the actual customer value. What would you say about that? And like, why would you say that is happening? From like, an integration building and relationship standpoint?

Sunir Shah 10:47
Yeah, I mean, this is kind of how humans are, right? So if you do, I mean, I don't know if what you guys would do in school, have a computer science degree, a master's degree just in business classes, so I kind of ate a lot of stuff. And so one of the things I loved about business was organizational behavior, and design and structure. And one of the things you have to understand is that if you give someone a role, they don't care about the company's goals, they care about their goals. And if you give them a goal, they're just going to focus on that, whether it makes sense or not. So if you have a team focus on doing integrations, they're gonna do as many integrations as they can, because that's what's the metric. But it's not driven. It's not rooted in the customer's needs. And so one of the things that we were good at just to tell a story, that might, I was very, very good at FreshBooks, at promoting our integrated partners to our customers. So everyone, of course, told everyone about that. And we had an inbound sloughed of people integrating with us long after I left, it continued happening, because we had the reputation. But one of the weirdest ones I saw, and I love live chatting, even through our competitors at Ola, they're a great company. But they built an integration with FreshBooks. In the chat widget, why there's no customer use case here or demand, they just wanted a logo in our app store. And I just couldn't wrap my head around it, the product was good. The brand was good, the integration made no sense. And you know, I always say, Well, I said back then that we have to make a win win win, the customer has to win the most. And then if they win, then when you win, and I win by making more revenue, because they have all the money, the customer. But what happens is, you end up with this, I need to just do all the integrations in order to get more logos up where I get more blog posts. Well, it's like, you might get a sugar high, but there's no, it doesn't fit the market to meet need. If you're not seeing the market need eventually the market wins all the time, you can't beat the market, like the market wants what it wants, and you just do what it wants. You don't do what it wants, you just waste money. It's not that complicated. If you don't do what it wants, you miss the opportunity, you just do what they want. It's not that complicated. I think we forget though. That's why and I think also that if you have a lot of people in, in non strategic roles doing having this kind of level of latitude, and you don't let you don't have a culture of connecting them to the core customer needs, like the core customer teams, you can end up quite astray quite very quickly. Very, very quickly. So.

Will Taylor 13:05
So it sounds like a good summary of that is, again, more of a we're doing this business thing, because it's a business thing. And I have an objective to it and to achieve it KPIs associated with it. So I got to do it. And I'm just gonna squeeze the square peg into a round hole. Doesn't matter if customers use it or not, because that's on them or on a

Sunir Shah 13:28
yacht being, you're not being paid. So customer sees it. That's right. Yeah. And that said, I mean, we want to have a career where no one cares what you do, right? Like, it's a rather fight to say, I've asked guys tell the story asked the CEO at Fresh Books to fire me, because my job is useless. I didn't mean fire fire me, but like, kill this whole thing I was doing for like years, like this is absolutely a waste of time, and it's an albatross, but you have to be willing to do that. Right? Because no one's ever gonna get rid of someone who's willing to like optimize the company. You know, if you want to be a leader, you have to like, realize that the job like the work comes and goes. The market and the company opportunity is God, you know, so you just serve, you know, king queen, and God's customer, you will always be okay. My opinion. Let me the opinion. It's not opinion, but I think we forget it all the time. Right.

Will Taylor 14:16
Right. So going back to what bogs down programs. Clearly, it's, it's a misrepresented or rather misaligned focus. What would you say are the top three factors that influence slower growth growth within a program? And this could be from a market perspective, from a board perspective from like a competency perspective of the actual person running the programs? What are the top three factors in your mind?

Sunir Shah 14:46
Let me talk about channel programs, because that's where I've been focusing my last few years integrations, I can talk endlessly. That's mostly engineering resources and customer feedback and demand. I mean, that's pretty much product management is the number one problem of integrations Simple, but on channel, it's much harder because you actually have to sell to someone else. So what Eutelsat the number one problem in channel and distribution is that we've moved to subscriptions as a as a business model. And I say this all the time, and it's a bit abstract, but you have to think about it from the customer just needs to get on with their life, they literally don't care about any of this, right? They just work, they're worried about their own business or their own lives, and they need to move forward. And they need this problem solved. And there's technology to solve that problem. Half the time, they will solve it internally with their existing resources. And half the time they don't have any technical experts in house, they will hire someone else to do it. The issue is, how do you get the technology into the customers hands. And with subscription, it's very difficult because you have to create the account, you have to share the login, you have to get a bill, you have to pay it to transfer control that account. If you want those margins, they have to be paid, there has to be technical support, and implementation. Now, some of that stuff sounds like what a service company can do. If they can't even get the technology. It's difficult, like I always use this plumbing analogy is everyone's probably sick of it's true. If a plumber went to fix your bathroom, they're not going to send you to go buy your own pipes at the hardware store, you're going to fire that plumber, get a real plumber, you know, but in software, and then software licensed software, that still is $300 billion of that market is still driven that way, it's still dominated by this hover model model, that is basically almost all software sold, it's only Austin SAS is broken it. So that's number one. Number two, what happens as a result, partners have to refer plants because they can't physically commercial off the shelf, your software. And as soon as as a referral, then you're in, you're in a warm body problem. And the warm body problems, I think what we're all seeing. So this is where a customer has to talk to a salesperson. So now you have a salesperson, that's a warm body, and the partner made a referral. So that's two warm bodies. And now you have a conflict between partner and salesperson that needs to be met as you end up hiring a partner manager. So you have three WARM BODIES, right. So that's already a lot of warm bodies for sale, your margins are going down. Already customers already annoyed having to deal with all this kerfuffle to just get something, then because it's a referral. The partner is not as motivated to do support implementation training, because they didn't, they're not managing the account the customer and talking to the company directly, and your success team has taken it over. And so because success is involved, partner doesn't know what to do, they're less motivated, even more so to bring your technology to the customer. But meanwhile, your success team. It's not because they're malicious, they just busy, like they want to bring a partner involved in trying to partner up to support the customer when they can just deal with this customer right away. So they just do that. Right. And but then, of course, the client doesn't care about your success team. So they call the partner up, because it's there. They're the ones responsible. And so now the partner has to do support, and they're not trained. So they owe you they need someone to help them immediately with support. So now you need a you need to they could escalate a support path. Now you've partner success, right. So eventually, the partner team ends up with a completely parallel structure to core revenue. So you have a marketing partner, marketer and acquire partners, you have a partner salesperson to handle sales or partner success to handle success. And you've duplicated the revenue teams. But the partner team is not touching the customer. Normally, like the core customers lives in core teams. And what you've done is created this entirely isolated team over here, dealing with the fact this other team over here is being interrupted by partner sales. And this is what's bogging down the teams is that no one at the higher level has seen that, hey, maybe the customer needs this kind of way to buy from us. Can we programa ties this and fold the program into the core revenue teams. So that they know how to sell better serve the customer better when someone else involved, which is how I've basically, when I was successful. That's how I grew those teams. And when I was unsuccessful, I remember at FreshBooks, they folded all that stuff back into a partner team and moved it to its separate team. The CRO did that. And then everything collapsed. All the KPIs for the internal teams collapsed, because we were driving them all. But you know, it worked for like a month or two. But then we were we were involved in the team six. So once you're disconnected from the customer, you can't serve the customer doesn't make any sense. needed if you want to, even if you want to go acquire partners, you have a partner acquisition goal in the partner team makes sense. But if you're not connected to customer demand flow, right, it's like it's clipped to clinical, it's isolated from customers, you know, you're talking to a partner about potential customer opportunities, but there's no customer around you. Right, you know, all the best partners we had were actually at like a conference or event where we were like, all working the same customer together. And then we were like, oh, we should hang out and do more because we're actually working on the same opportunity in person. You know, that's how we met them. And I think so what's bogging down? A lot of partner teams is isolation. This is what I kind of like, you know, listening to near bound versus partnership leaders, the two views like the contrary views of how to move forward from, you know, where my generation, and I kind of like near bound like that a billion times more, because it's about using the core teams, and expanding out, you don't even need a team, you just need to partner eyes. Some of the existing flows, which makes sense, partnership is mostly a tactic. Most of the time, it can't be a strategy. But if you'll know when it's a strategy, the market will make it a strategy for you. It's like, if it's not in the meantime, like I guess blog strategy is not it. You don't use C as chief ecosystem officer too much a guest blog trade trade, that doesn't make any sense, or even integration strategy, right? So I think just focus on like, Don't isolate the partner and the partner team from core revenue, like, try to fold it in so that it's aligned to customers, it's aligned to internal organization. Otherwise, you're gonna end up fighting internally, which, like, no, and no customer cares how you're organized internally, this, you're just, you're just diffusing them and their sales will go down. This doesn't make any sense. I think that's a lot of what's happening has happened in the last cycle. Maybe?

Will Taylor 21:12
Yeah. And so why do you think that change happened? So like, what's different today versus, you know, the traditional channel programs from five plus years ago? What, why do you think this is more popular, and facing these challenges that it sounds like organizations didn't necessarily faced before?

Sunir Shah 21:31
It's interesting when you say five plus, that's a lot of pluses, plus 10. So there used to be, and there still is, this idea of a channel chief, enlightened software. And it doesn't make sense to build a dedicated team there. Because you won't be your your plot, your company revenue risk is so tied to the channels, which are just should just distributors and retailers and other kinds of go to market opportunities that each require a high surface area focus people, because so many percentage of revenue will be coming through just to you more. And I think some of what we've been doing now in SAS is trying to like copycat what's happening, and certainly in some cases, it makes sense, like AWS, if you're driving or driving, driving a lot of revenue through AWS, you're going to have a dedicated AWS team. With a lot of channel partners, agency partners that size, you're going to want to serve them in a very specific way, because if did they have different needs than direct customers, but I think also there's been a push to me, SAS has negative gross margins, almost universally, right? It's not a greatest category of software technology, ever. And so there's a push to like find revenue from places. So there's a lot of experimentation in the investor, side of things, CEO side of things to find another revenue opportunity. He's like, Well, there's people making money this way, go, go make channel partners sell our stuff. But if there's been no customer demand, you might have trouble, right? And so, but there have been made, you'd like your you've been given this task to make magic at a nothing. And I think a lot of that is in putting this team in isolation. So it doesn't disrupt core function, because it's an experiment, that might also be some of it, as well. I think also, some people have this idea that partnership should be equal to sales and marketing, and success, which is appealing, it was appealing to me that the the idea of these focus partnership teams has not don't feel like they're doing as well as the other teams that come from, like, my peer group came from product, or marketing or sales as their core place. Those two, those were doing a lot better. And so I think this desire to make a secondary track was was, there's meaning to that. But if you leave the customer behind, and on the journey, you will be debt. Price. That's

Will Taylor 23:50
truth. Agreed. So let's wrap up with one tactical tip. So let's say you know, I'm a partner manager, I'm a VP of partnerships. I just listened to everything you said. And, you know, I don't want to leave it on a grim sentiment or too cynical of a sentiment. But like, let's say, That's my reality. And I don't want to leave my organization. What can I do today? What can I start doing more of that I'm probably not doing that can help me get closer to, you know, the ethos that you were just talking about? Where it should be focused on the customer? What is that tactical thing that you would advise someone to do?

Sunir Shah 24:28
Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of answers, as you know. So I put up a diagram on partner, which you can check out the most important question, you should start asking yourself if you're thinking about growing revenue through partners, is first. Well, there's three questions. What is the position of our of our product to the market? And what is the position of partners product to the market and how does our position make the partners positioning better? That's a positioning statement. Second, whereas in this, we're in the customer journey, does this partner impact that could help core revenue teams hit their KPIs and try to align programmatic programmatically this partner type to the underlying teams. And then third, is ask yourself when a partner has a customer? What does it take for that customer to become our customer? And how painful is it? Now, it's, it is amazing to me how many people haven't cannot answer that question at all. They don't even know how billing works for a company that's like, well, they can't if you don't know how someone gives you money, then you may not understand that they physically tried and failed, and therefore give up on the sale, which happens more than you think. Because I run a billing company for channel and I know that they that this is a huge problem that customers simply give up, because it's so frustrating. Giving you dollars, it is like it is like you could 5x your revenue from channel, if you just took the pain away, I'm just letting your partners commercial off the shelf product, get rid of the one bodies, I know what people like their warm bodies, like the people, I feel bad for them. But it's not. You can't run a business that way, you have to think about efficiency, doing things good for the customer first, and then you can bring in people to optimize that not just throw bodies at the customer customers don't want to talk to bodies, they want to get on with their lives.

Will Taylor 26:24
Right? So it sounds like even like number two and three, its focus on the buyer. What is the buying stream for them? You know? Are they buying the CRM and then your technology? Are they buying the services? And then your technology? Where are you in that process? And then also, what does it feel like to actually engage? And I like your framing of the warm body problem? Because then you think, oh, yeah, there are more people engaged. And that's more emails, that's more delays in responses, that's, you know, opinions getting in the way. So thinking about that, and using that as perspective, but then also, in using that to inform what you're actually doing, I think is stellar to be obsessed with the customer and what their experience is like, because they're the only person that matters, not just just your number and producing KPIs that might not actually have business and customer impact.

Sunir Shah 27:18
Sorry, I'll give you one analogy, just to wrap it on your mind. Remember, the customer is not your direct customer by you directly. So imagine you're buying a complicated saying like a furnace for your house contracting is universal when doing for 12,000 years, like get, you know, read a book guys. It's happening all the time. If you If If your furnace manufacturer started asking you about the number of BTUs square footage, the natural gas, flavor in your house, all the stuff that they would ask. Let's see, I have no idea what they're talking about half the time, they started asking us a homeowner all this stuff, you would just not buy that face. Right? And I think is that what you're doing in your channel is by involving your salespeople with a customer when they don't know what they're doing? And is that necessary? Can you simplify? And so it's good to look, there's a little diagram, but just think of your customer, and how they actually buy your stuff when they come from a partner, and how difficult you're making it and how easy you could make it. You know, obviously I would recommend using App bind because that's what we built it for. But it doesn't matter. It's the same problem everywhere. You can make it easier, make it easier for the customer to give you money. Basic business, that wisdom from business. I that I just like

Will Taylor 28:36
Yes, yep. You're sharing wisdom. I'm always appreciative of the wisdom that you share sincere so we will wrap things there. Thank you so much for sharing that wisdom. Very good analogies, very good perspectives. And also, of course, as always, with our podcast, tactical takeaways. Thank you again for another episode of The howdy partners podcast and thank you, Samir.

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