Clients rely on us — not just for the particular service we provide them, but for our knowledge of ecommerce in general. They count on us for guidance.
If you’re a designer, ask yourself the number of times clients have come to you with questions about marketing or analytics. As someone who works in multichannel and product management — something that’s plainly in the operations arena — I get questions all the time on design and development.
Why? Because I’m “The Guy.” I’m the ecommerce person in their lives, and so they come to me with all things ecommerce. If you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about because you’re “The Guy” or “The Girl” to someone else. The Go-To. It means that, no matter what niche you’re in, you’re getting requests that range from, “I wanna put a talking wolf on my site” to “should I sell on Amazon?”
And yeah, this can be annoying. There’s something about being lumped into one big category that feels a tad irritating. People don’t recognize that what we do is intricate and difficult, that we’re all unique experts in entirely different sub-industries.
Because of this, because we’re perpetually busy, and because our clients need an answer now — it can be easy to direct them to solutions and services a little too quickly. We know of a group of ecommerce experts that we can refer our clients to. And so we do that.
We may not even realize that there’s a better approach. We could get to really know a group of ecommerce experts, ones we should refer our clients to.
We could develop partnerships.
In its plainest terms, a partnership means three things: you give, you get, you work toward a greater good. This sort of reads like lyrics to an Alanis Morrisette song, and I apologize for that, but these are the brass tacks in my opinion. You’ll see that everything in this post falls under this bigger idea.
Why build partnerships?
1. Good for the client
This is the definitive quality for any partnership; does it help the client? We’ll get into all the business upshots behind this — but this concept has immense value on its own.
Ecommerce is where we live. A lot of clients aren’t anywhere near as familiar with this world as we are. Being able to anticipate problems, see opportunities, and provide real solutions is going to be huge for them.
It’s the professional equivalent to giving an out-of-towner good directions. You don’t want to be that jerk who tells the old couple to keep going up Broadway, when they should turn right on 14th. Being a good human being is its own reward. Just ask the Dalai Lama.
And you can offer clients more. Partnerships work best when one party fulfills a need, or provides a service that the other party doesn’t. In other words, a good partner has something you don’t.
Here are some examples of working partnership criteria:
- Your service offerings don’t align (e.g. you’re a designer and I’m an SEO expert)
- You handle different scopes (e.g. you have a basement of $5,000 for site design, and I develop turnkey Shopify themes starting at $1,000)
- You have varying bandwith (e.g. you have a small team of developers that focuses intently on three or four projects at a time, and I have a massive dev team that handles 30 - 40)
- Your services are complementary (e.g. you specialize in Shopify Plus site design, and I specialize in Shopify Plus analytics)
This means that, even when a request isn’t in your wheelhouse, you can still offer support by extension. By teaming up, you’ve broadened the scope of what you can do for any given client.
2. Great for business
The statistics on customer loyalty and its effects on business are insane. The probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20 per cent, while the probability of selling to an existing customer is 60-70 per cent. A good referral or partnership can make or break this brand of retention.
Here’s the kicker. It takes twelve positive experiences to make up for one unresolved, negative experience. Now be honest: have you ever directed a client to a product or service that turned them off? I know I have. And I did it for all the aforementioned reasons. I was asked, and I didn’t think carefully before I gave advice. I wasn’t prepared (and we’ll get to addressing that later).
The point is: we are not the sum total of our services. We are also the guidance we give. If you direct a client to a bad experience, that becomes an extension of their experience with you. Good experience begets retention, begets hot melted Swiss (i.e. money).
3. Strengthens relationships
Sort of an offshoot of ‘great for business.’ Nothing strengthens a relationship like trust. Check out what the Harvard Business Review says about professional trust. This is from the viewpoint of a negotiation, but the lesson is still the same. Building trust means putting yourself in your client’s shoes and saying, and thinking, “what would I want if I were in his or her position?”
Putting yourself in anyone else’s shoes feels mildly unhygienic, I know, but just follow me metaphorically. If you were your client, you would want to be referred to someone you actually knew, someone who would do a good job, and someone who wouldn’t gouge you on cost. In the end, that really isn’t such a tall order.
Not to mention, when you start to work with a network of other Shopify experts, you strengthen relationships with them.
4. Time management
Your clients may not understand this, but you’re not a project manager. You don’t have time to track down, and harangue the other companies working on their project. When you have solid partnerships, you know the people you’re working with will communicate well, and carry their share of the support load.
5. Added income
Many businesses offer referral bonuses or finder’s fees for directing a client to them. Since we generate recurring revenue, our company gives a revenue share (20 per cent) to any partner that guides a new client to our SaaS. We also developed a partner portal that people can use to make referrals, check up on their clients, and monitor their subsequent payments.
Again, this is all about trust and relationships. We want the people we work with to have full visibility, and accessibility to what we’re doing. They’re helping us, they’re helping their client — they should be rewarded for that.
It should be said that this is all preemptive on our ability to help the client. We feel we’re often the best solution for someone in need of multichannel support, because we’ve got a strong platform and we offer the experience of a boutique agency. That said, if the client wants or needs something we can’t provide, we’ll refer them on to the best business for the job.
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How to build partnerships
I’ll be completely candid about my own experience. I started our partner campaign with two goals. The first was recruitment; I felt my company had a fundamental value prop — via our offering to clients and to partners. I knew we had an exceptional multichannel option for mid-level sellers due to our service and pricing model. And we were prepared to offer partners a share of our revenue for introducing clients to our platform. To me, this warranted outreach.
The second was to broaden my professional network. This notion was brought on by a client who asked me what he should do about an aspect of his business –—and me having little idea what to tell him. It was then that I realized I never wanted to be in that position again. I always wanted to be able to give a client the best guidance possible.
I’ve laid out a pretty meticulous step-by-step process. Here’s exactly what I did:
1. Learn the landscape
Here’s a breakdown of all the categories and subcategories that entail the Shopify process:
- App Dev
- Shopify themes
- Original sites
- Product Catalog
- Shipping + Fulfillment
- Content marketing
- Social media
*Quick note: This is the most underused, undervalued aspect of online retail. Some of the most common questions you’ll get are, “should I sell on X?” or “should I do Y?” When clients ask these, they’re best-served consulting with a strategy expert.
Once I had this list together, I went to the Shopify Experts directory and started to research different companies. Shopify breaks their experts down into the following categories: setup, designers, developers, marketers, and photographers. This made it easy to start segmenting potential partners.
And that’s what I did. I used sites and services like Capterra and G2 Crowd to find well-reviewed companies, then started reaching out to them via email, phone, and LinkedIn. The nice thing about this is it can be done when you have free time (which, I know, isn’t often). But in doing this preemptively, it meant I wouldn’t be scrambling later when a client needed a solution.
About half of my outreach was done through LinkedIn. I searched the name of the Shopify Expert, and found a contact within the company. A few of the larger companies actually have an individual or team dedicated to partnerships, and/or business strategy. But with most experts, I reached out directly to a founder, co-founder, director, or c-level executive.
When using LinkedIn, I kept it brief and conversational. Something like, “Hey, I’m a fellow Shopify Expert reaching out. I visited your site — you’ve done some awesome work.” I didn’t use templates — just spoke directly to what I liked about the company. Once initial contact was made, I set up a call to discuss our partner program, and the possibility of working together.
If I couldn’t find or reach a contact, I sent an email out to the company contact. Here’s an example:
I personally wrote each email, and generally laid out what drew me to their company. While the content and verbiage were different email to email, I made sure to hit three major points:
- Not a competitor — I wanted to make it clear right off the bat that, although we were both Shopify Experts, we weren’t in competition. In almost every case of outreach, our services were complementary.
- Value prop — I wanted to define what we offered the partnership. It can be tempting to direct the email toward the company you’re reaching out to, but they’re already aware of their own value and offering. I wanted to be sure to give them clear reasons for engaging — namely our service and a financial incentive.
- The only commitment is a discussion — I wouldn’t make any sort of decision without a substantive conversation and some follow up. I expected the same from other Shopify Experts.
Speaking person-to-person is really what clinches the relationship. I’ve found two things will inspire confidence in a company. The first is personal experience; when someone can walk me through the actual process of working with a client, articulating problems and defining solutions, I trust that more than general claims.
The second is defining what sets a company apart in their particular landscape. Most of the Experts I talk to have had an experience with one or more of our larger competitors. When I can clearly say this is how we’re different, and give examples of that, they see the value right away.
When I found a business I clicked with, I put them on my list next to their area(s) of expertise. I also asked them to join our partner program via our portal. There’s a level of trust that comes with working together. It’s actually why we created the partner portal — to bolster that trust. Our program has its own contract — one that plainly states our terms and conditions. If there’s going to be any sort of referral fee or revenue share, any money changing hands at all, I’d strongly recommend a written agreement between partners.
Otherwise, a partnership becomes a living thing after its inception. You gauge its success as you communicate and work together. More on this in “Auditioning.”
3. Understand client needs
When you have a new client, run them through this list and anticipate where they’re going to need assistance. Bringing a partner in on the ground floor makes the whole project easier to manage. As a result, things get done much faster. I know when we come in on a project, clients are ecstatic to see their final site already pre-stocked with their inventory.
As you continue working with different partners, consider each project a sort of audition. Within a short amount of time, you’ll be able to refine each partner’s skill set, and the ideal client for each one. Treat it like fantasy football — start scoring partners for coming in on-time and under budget.
Types of partnerships
You don’t have to be besties with every Shopify Expert you work with. As I see it, there are three levels that you can take
1. Referral relationship
According to Small Business Trends, 85 per cent of small businesses get their customers through word of mouth. Referrals. That alone is a great reason to drive some new relationships. A referral relationship requires one big criteria — trust — and very little maintenance outside of this. Again, using a financial incentive, like a finder’s fee or referral bonus, might be the difference between you and another qualified business.
2. Partnership lite
Most partnerships will likely fall into this category. When you actually call someone a partner, there should be some loyalty present there. There should be a give-take. If you have a partner you’re constantly sending clients to — yet you notice you’re not receiving any back, there could be an issue there. This is the equivalent of dating a person who never calls, texts, or stays at your place. If you’re the one making all the moves, the person who has to get up every morning at 5:30 AM to schlub home and get ready for work, then you should probably move on.
This sort of partnership can be defined by occasional co-marketing efforts and campaigns. Maybe you run a few offers in tandem throughout the year. Send out a few emails together. It’s nice, but it isn’t that serious.
3. True partnership
A true partnership means all the things we’ve discussed. Trust, give-take, certain co-marketing efforts. Maybe you even have their name tattooed on your site. I believe this should only occur if you’ve found the ultimate company occupying their site. If you’re willing to send all your clients in need of a certain service to one place, you’d better be sure they deliver.
I’ll give you two examples at either end of the partnership spectrum. I recently made contact with a great designer named Matthew — he helms the Australian firm SeventyFour Design. One of the coolest things about living in the Shopify world is that it truly is a global community.
When I Skyped with Matt, it was 8:00 PM Monday my time, and 10:00 AM Tuesday his time, which means our conversation bordered on time travel. I found out that he has a few clients that do need inventory management support/don’t want to pay a ton for it — clients right in our wheelhouse. As such, he’s in the process of referring these folks to us. We’re getting new customers, he’s getting a rev share, and strengthening his relationship with them.
This relationship doesn’t require much more. It’s the definition of a straight referral dynamic ‚ with an added bonus: while we don’t get a ton of inbound Australian clients in need of design work, I do have that base covered in case it does happen.
A few weeks ago, we secured a much more involved partnership with Commerce Acceleration, a San Diego agency that handles a broad swath of services: dev, design, marketing, and analytics.
We found that our client segments have a lot in common. Many of their clients need a multichannel platform, and many of ours need the sort of support they can provide. We’ve worked on co-marketing efforts, launched a campaign in tandem, and maintain constant contact.
This is much more emblematic of a proper partnership. Both sides have invested time, work, and money — but the yield is much greater. It goes beyond recruitment and revenue share. My work with Acceleration has allowed me to grow as an ecommerce expert. I learn by working with them.
Being a good partner
To conclude, I’d like to go back to the original partnership criteria we discussed. I’ll show you how my SaaS fulfills each of these in our relationships with other experts:
This component of partnerships was initially an issue for us. By the time clients reach us, they typically already have a site and sales channel(s). The help they need outside of our purview requires a marketing, analytics, or strategy expert. That said, the majority of Shopify experts are setup folks and designers. We knew we wanted to team with many of these firms.
That’s why we developed our revenue share. We realized we’d likely be getting a higher volume of clients than we’d be able to refer out. As such, we offered a direct financial benefit for working with us. The monthly recurring revenue model is a coveted one — we offer it simply for good guidance. Help your clients and make money in the process. That sh*t is for real.
So, yeah, we give in a few ways: exceptional service, a strong level of communication, return referrals, and a financial incentive.
New customers. That one’s easy. And with every new customer comes the opportunity to watch a business thrive.
We work toward a greater good
Remember that email I sent to Jim? The last paragraph said:
I can tell from what I’ve seen that you really care about clients. We do too — and aim to create a community where all sellers can get the best Shopify services out there.
That’s the greater good. Playing a part in something bigger. I like my clients. Some of them are funny, some of them are cool, some of them are just plain bizarre. But they all share an entrepreneurial spirit. They’ve got that small business brand of heart, and that’s something that truly speaks to me.
Small business — it’s a term that gets thrown out quite a bit by politicians and in the media. But very few can discuss specifically how they contribute to this awesome venture. We can. And our partners can.
I’m extremely proud of my company’s modest contribution to the global small business community. I’m vested in it. And in working with others who share the same sentiment, my contribution can grow.
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