Making Chicken Salad Out of Chicken Sh*t: When Partnership Expectations Don’t Match Reality

In 2017 I worked for one of the ABM market leaders and pioneers at Madison Logic. We had an opportunity to join pre-Adobe Marketo's relatively new pay-to-play partner program, "Accelerate." Jumping in was no small decision, as it meant a $200k annual investment and me putting my ass on the line to convince our executive team to take the risk.

Taking risks

Having achieved relative dominance at the time, Marketo's market penetration at the mid-to-enterprise level far surpassed any of its competitors, so we carefully weighed the positives and negatives and decided to commit.

The program promised concierge access to their sales and customer success (CS) teams, co-marketing opportunities, and executive engagement. Following a slow rollout, minimal lead flow, and very little attention from the Marketo CS team, we realized that the reality of the program was far less spectacular than its promise.

This reality, of course, left most of the partners disgruntled, angry, and in the mood to rebel and made my decision to champion this program look, let's say, less than ideal.

With my reputation and ass on the line and almost a quarter's worth of data, I took a step back, evaluated the program, not based on what we thought it should be, and considered the opportunity for what it was.

While the "concierge" service and marketing programs never materialized, we had direct access to the Marketo CS and sales teams, which allowed us to get to know the people on those teams and understand their individual and collective motivations and perspectives. Rather than bemoan the negative, we took advantage of this access to develop meaningful engagements, strong relationships, and a foundation of trust with the people and teams who owned ML's most valuable target accounts.

Flipping the script

Instead of walking in with my hand out, immediately asking what they could do for me, I took my time to genuinely get to know several of the most team leaders and individual team members. I started asking, "How can I help you?" instead of, "What can you do for me?" It didn't take long before I realized they were just as frustrated with the program as the ecosystem partners. The Accelerate program directly and dramatically impacted every team member and was imposed upon them without their consent or consultation. To make matters worse, they were now dealing with a slew of disgruntled partners whose expectations were exponentially higher than their ability to deliver.

Once I had that perspective, I shifted my approach and attacked the program from an entirely different angle. I took my time to fly out and meet them where they were, to learn what motivated them, listen to their frustrations, and offer to assist them in any way I could. When they mentioned a problem with a joint account, I would connect with the ML team handling that account or tap my network and introduce them to someone who might assist. If they were struggling with bandwidth to deliver something they'd committed to doing, I'd offer to do as much of it for them as I could.

Unlike most of the other disgruntled partners in the program who were constantly demanding to know where their leads were, I embraced the "give to get" mentality and, in doing so, helped ML rise above the vitriol and actually accomplish something outstanding. By understanding the perspectives of the individuals on the teams and adopting a "give to get" posture, it wasn't long before we saw a substantial uptick in net-new inbound leads and significant account growth within some of our most important accounts.

As the result of regular conversations, consistent (but not persistent...i.e., "pushy") follow-up, and frequent trips around the country (and a few to Europe) to meet the Marketo teams where they were, I established meaningful relationships. Those relationships were borne out of a sincere desire to go beyond getting to know their list of accounts and to get to know the people managing those accounts.

Building trust

I want to take a moment to emphasize one word in the previous sentence, sincerity. You see, sales and CS professionals have very well-honed bullshit meters and can see it coming a mile away. Yes, all parties know there's a value exchange occurring, but that value exchange doesn't have to be, and in my opinion, it can not be transactional; it must be relational.

Years later, I'm still in touch with many of the people I met during this time, and I am proud to say that several of them are friends to this day.

By establishing genuine trust and understanding, the people on these teams felt safe sharing key account details with me that they held back from the rest of the disgruntled partners. This level of trust allowed me to identify an incredible opportunity to endear ML even further and to create direct connections between Marketo's top customers and executives and our sales and executive leadership.

In my regular discussions with CS team members, I learned that Marketo would not provide them with any budget to entertain their top customers at the upcoming annual Marketo Summit event. Rather than lament that this meant fewer opportunities to access influential target account decision-makers, I saw a chance to fund several small Marketo CS "customer appreciation" events.

After clearing it with Marketo leadership, I approached the various CS team members I knew and offered to fund, plan, and execute multiple "customer appreciation" happy hours throughout the city of San Francisco over the two main days of the Summit. Not only was this idea well received, the excitement and appreciation for what we were offering was almost palpable.

Over the course of those two (exhausting) days, I coordinated five happy hours (four on the first night, one on the second) at five different locations. The result:

  • Hundreds of Marketo customers interacting with ML leadership
  • Direct connections with the decision-makers at some of our largest target accounts
  • Over $1m in pipeline created

As a bonus, Marketo's CEO, CMO, and COO showed up at one of the events where their top three CS people hosted their most important customers (Verizon, American Express, Comcast, etc.). The then Marketo CEO, Steve Lukas, even gave an impromptu speech praising ML and our capabilities to those same clients.

No excuses

By viewing the Accelerate program for what it was and not what it was supposed to be, we accomplished something extraordinary. Instead of that $200k investment turning into a potential disaster, we turned it into a huge positive, resulting in over $1m worth of closed/won business and more than $3m in pipeline. Our success via this approach far surpassed the results of any of the other partners. It was impressive enough that Marketo invited me to speak on a panel at the following year's Revenue Kickoff to help other Marketo partners succeed.

None of our successes excused the sad reality of the program's execution, but that didn't change anything for me. I'd championed this program, convinced ML to commit almost a quarter of a million dollars to it, and owned the responsibility. There's an old saying, "You can have excuses, or you can have results, but you can't have both." We shed the excuses and pursued results, and in the end, we delivered where others failed.

Key Takeaways:

  • Perspective is vital to building strong partner relationships. By sincerely taking an interest in people, you will learn about their goals, motivations, and frustrations, and you can use these things to help them so they can help you.
  • Don't be a bullshit artist. Take a genuine interest in people, get to know them, and you'll accomplish a lot more than if you go in with your hand out, and you might even make a few friends along the way.
  • Remember to give first, get later. The more you give, the more you'll get...this applies to pretty much everything in life.
  • "Should" does not exist! "Should" is a land of myth and legend, and "is" is the reality you're facing. Deal with "is" and let "should" reside in the next Marvel movie. When faced with unfulfilled promises, take a step back, look at what you have in front of you with a fresh set of eyes, and identify the's there, but you might have to look hard to find it.

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