Sales Best Practices

A comprehensive guide to co-selling partnerships

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Serena Miller

Editor, Sales Best Practices

As the sales industry continues to evolve, globally-competitive markets, rising customer expectations, and the challenges of remote work all threaten a business’s success. Sales organizations need new and inventive ways to approach customers and drive sales. Digital transformation has made it more important than ever for businesses to multiple customer needs simultaneously; or risk falling behind.

Where a single sales company on its own may lack the knowledge, resources, or holistic solutions to crack into new markets and close more deals at a faster pace, they can grow leaps and bounds by implementing a collaborative approach.

Co-selling is an increasingly popular strategy for increasing both efficiency and revenue. Sales organizations across every industry are joining forces to bring in new leads and opportunities by better meeting the complex needs of their customers.

Here, we’ll dive into all things co-selling, including benefits, strategies, best practices, and where to begin.

What is co-selling?

Co-selling is a collaborative approach to sales, wherein two businesses join forces to offer their customers comprehensive solutions that meet their needs. Let’s say Parter A, for instance, is a B2B technology hardware seller. They may leverage a co-selling process with Partner B, a B2B technology services provider, who can help customers install the hardware, as well as configure and manage their software. Together, they’re able to build solutions that fully meet the needs of their customer base.

It’s important to note that co-selling differs from both cross-selling. With cross-selling, partners help one another sell their offerings to another department within an existing customer’s business. While cross-selling can be done with or without the help of a partner, co-selling requires two businesses to come together to convert their mutual prospects or existing clients.

Co-selling vs. reselling

Another essential distinction to make is between co-selling and reselling. Reselling is where a partner sells your same product or service, without the added value of a jointly-created solution. Their own offerings are not a part of the puzzle, nor are your business’s sales process or cycles.

Reselling is not as beneficial to customers as the co-selling approach, as they don’t receive a collaborative solution that’s purposefully built to meet their needs. It's also not as advantageous to either partner, since each either wins or loses together based on the outcome of a given deal.

With co-selling, though, there are other potential closing scenarios (e.g. win-loss, win-win, loss-win, loss-loss), so one partner’s failure doesn’t automatically impact the other. There are greater incentives and higher stakes with co-selling, too, with deal referrals, co-selling activities, co-marketing initiatives, and more.

The benefits of co-selling

As businesses look to maintain a competitive edge and ensure a healthy bottom line, they're starting to realize the advantages of combining their efforts with complementary organizations. When properly implemented, co-selling offers a variety of benefits, including:

  • Increased brand visibility - By teaming up with another business, a sales company inherently gets its own offerings in front of more prospects and customers. A partnership is also an endorsement of a brand’s value, trustworthiness, and credibility, since businesses put their own reputation on the line by entering a co-selling agreement. If a customer’s trusted solutions provider partners with a brand they don’t already know, they’re more inclined to have confidence in that brand’s offerings.
  • Access to unexplored markets - There are likely several viable markets that either haven’t yet been recognized as such by your team, or that they may have not had the time or resources to explore. They may not yet have expertise in selling to a particular market, nor access to the types of customers within that market. Co-selling can help them more quickly and effectively tap into those unexplored markets which have already been targeted by a partnering organization.
  • More satisfying customer experience - Co-selling enables both partners to provide more tailored solutions to their customers — which is crucial, since 66% of buyers now expect sellers to tailor solutions to their individual needs. The collaborative approach helps your team demonstrate that they care about the solutions their clients are investing in, and that they want the best outcomes for them. It illustrates that your sellers have thought well beyond the capabilities of their own offerings and have also considered how to improve their customers’ environments even further.
  • Reduced sale cycles - Because co-selling effectively generates social proof from your partners, it’s a great way to convey credibility and boost leads through the sales cycle. Plus, alignment between your own sales and marketing teams and your partners’ will eliminate the workflow silos that can otherwise hold deals up. The result is a more efficient, productive sales team that can push deals across the finish line faster.

    Creating an effective co-selling process

    While your co-selling process will vary depending on your industry, organization size, ideal partners, and more, there’s a general framework you should always follow for success:

    Choose partners

    Not every attractive business is the proper fit as a co-selling partner. Take a close look at market demand, as well as your potential partner’s strengths and weaknesses. Determine whether or their offerings are complementary to your own and evaluate how your customers might benefit from a combined solution.

    Once you’ve identified an ideal partner, it’s equally important to make sure their team is on the same page as yours before diving in. Discuss expectations, willingness to collaborate, objectives and intended outcomes, and how much time and effort their sellers are able to commit to their co-selling deals.

    Host joint planning sessions

    Once you’ve kicked off your partnership, it’s time to bring together key stakeholders from each business to begin planning your approach. Partner managers, sellers, product team members, and marketers should all participate and contribute to your initial joint planning sessions.

    At this stage, brainstorm to establish your target markets and accounts, and discuss each of your strengths and weaknesses. You should also identify the specific areas where your offerings can come together to make the best solutions for both of your customer bases.

    Begin account mapping to determine the regions in which each team will work to avoid issues of overlap. Structure your individual account plans to find your best opportunities, too, following the creation of those higher-level account lists. Identify customer pain points, priorities, objectives, and limitations, and determine how you’ll solve for those needs.

    Then, figure out what you’ll need in terms of marketing. What types of activities will best serve your sales processes and generate the most leads? Iron out the details of when you’ll give each other referrals and how you’ll make connections with one another’s customers. And don’t forget to talk about how you’ll measure your co-selling successes and failures with specific metrics and KPIs (e.g. leads, marketing activities, demos, pipeline, revenue, etc.).

    Establish and execute on co-marketing plans

    Sales and marketing alignment is critical to an organization's success, and this same principle applies to your co-selling process. Establish expectations for awareness, demand generation, and other marketing activities and outline which team should handle what — and why. This will help your teams gain an understanding of how their efforts contribute to both of the business’s larger goals, and will keep them engaged and invested in their work. Plus, it’ll ensure a completely unified approach to attracting customers.

    Be sure to build out valuable marketing content, too, which will help your prospects and customers gain a better understanding of how your own offerings fit in with those of your partner — and vice versa. You should create content that aligns closely with customer needs to show you understand their pain points and objectives. Don’t forget to clearly outline who’s responsible for what, and how the content will be stored, organized, managed, and distributed, so everyone has seamless access to it when they need it.

    Manage leads

    As leads come in, they must be shared between each partner, so hammering down the details of how and when they’ll be shared is crucial. Establish how leads will be distributed between the two companies (e.g. based on region, expertise, experience, etc.) to keep the process fair and efficient. Carefully track each lead and be open and communicative with your partner about any interactions with and outcomes from those leads.

    Handling referrals and new opportunities

    Finally, each business will complete several stages to bring customers through to close. They should handle referrals and new opportunities by executing the following:

    Identifying co-sell opportunities

    To ensure neither team is overstepping or failing to do their part — which can create resentment and conflict down the line — enlist the help of both company’s operations teams. Establish some guidelines for what a good co-sell opportunity looks like and how you’ll handle the identification phase.

    For example, what will each partner do if they don’t agree that a prospect is a good opportunity to pursue? How will each business track and share activities, progress, and performance within those opportunities? At what stage will shared leads be distributed to one another? How will each partner work with product and/or marketing teams to ensure success?

    To avoid muddy waters, partners should review their shared account lists and shared pipelines. They should also share with each other any accounts in the pipeline that may be attractive to the other partner, as well as any leads that they might find interesting. Remember: Co-selling is all about supporting one another to improve efficiency and performance, so it's important for each partner to take an active interest in the others’ potential opportunities.

    Engaging with referrals

    Referrals are qualified leads that one business thinks is a good opportunity for co-selling. They’re labeled as such once the team has determined they’re a good fit (e.g. they have the right budget, they’re ready to buy, they fit the ideal customer profile, etc.). Both partners should qualify leads through marketing and sales to validate that they’re worth pursuing.

    Once the sales team has accepted a referral, sellers from both businesses should connect to build trust, understanding, and a collaborative mindset. Leaders and managers should work to facilitate partner relationships that aren’t competitive, but supportive and mutually beneficial.

    Use your salestech to track activities between each seller to ensure they’re properly completing their work, collaborating with one another, and answering each other's questions in a timely manner; and intervene, as needed. Not every rep will be excited about their new co-selling responsibilities, so find ways to incentivize their participation and performance.

    Closing the deal

    Again, there are several deal closing scenarios that can occur in a co-selling environment:

    • Loss-loss or win-win - Both partner And Partner B either win or lose in this scenario. Be sure to share the outcomes with your partner and also review what went right and wrong to identify areas for improvement or repeated success
    • Win-loss or loss-win - Partner A wins and Partner B loses, or vice versa. This can be frustrating for the team that missed out on the deal, but it’s important to track your data and make meaningful improvements to better support one another throughout other deals.

      Best practices for co-selling

      As you implement your co-selling partnership, it’s important to steer clear of some common missteps. To get it right, leverage these key best practices:

      Choose the right partners

      It’s vital that your business doesn’t shoehorn a co-selling solution where it doesn’t fit. Sure, well-known brands and highly successful businesses make great partners in theory; but if their offerings don’t complement your own in a logical way, a collaborative sales relationship won’t succeed. You’ll both waste time, resources, and money, and potentially cause distrust with your sales team members and customers alike.

      As you look for potential partners, trust your gut and do your research. Make sure the partners you choose are on the same page as your team in terms of expectations, responsibilities, and goals. Keep a close eye on the results, and don’t take your sales team’s feedback lightly: After all, they’re the ones executing your co-selling strategy. And don’t be afraid to call it quits if it’s just not working out. If you’ve already attempted to resolve ever-present issues and aren’t seeing improvements, the partnership may not be worth the effort.

      Be transparent

      Your co-selling policies should always be well-defined and transparent to reduce the margin for miscommunications and error. Don’t simply operate on the assumption that you and your partner agree on something. Talk out every detail and then get it in writing.

      Always follow those agreed-upon processes and procedures (like sharing leads when you’re supposed to) and be honest and forthcoming about issues before they become larger problems. If your sales team is feeling that the partner team is under-performing, be communicative and solutions-oriented so that it doesn’t lead to conflict.

      Track your KPIs and OKRs

      Data is everything in the sales world, and it’s no different with co-selling. It’s absolutely vital for you and your partner to define metrics, KPIs, and OKRs to see where you’re succeeding and falling short, and to course-correct before it’s too late.

      This will also help you see if one partner’s team is putting more time and effort into co-selling initiatives and to mend those issues, too. By carefully and analyzing key metrics, you can see whether or not your partnership is worth it and show relevant stakeholders exactly how the business is benefiting from the collaborative arrangement.

      Use a partner ecosystem platform

      Outdated tools (like spreadsheets, emails, Slack, etc.) don’t provide the insights you need to have a successful co-selling partnership. They don’t offer a holistic view into everything that’s going on with both teams’ efforts, and aren’t capable of thoroughly tracking their progress, activities, performance, and outcomes.

      Traditional technologies and disparate systems result in out-of-date, missing, or duplicative data, which leads to errors, miscommunications, and dropping the ball. These problems are only exacerbated as your teams grow, since each team (and each individual within those teams) must work from different versions of the truth. Partner portals won’t cut it, either, as they can’t help you and your partners manage collaborative processes, sales cycles, marketing initiatives, or seller activities.

      To reduce inefficiencies and reduce the gap for potential error, your teams need a centralized place to see all deal engagement and activities on both sides. Everyone must be active in the co-selling process, and the right tool can help you ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.

      Modern partner ecosystem platforms (also known as eco business management platforms) help you and your partners keep track of all the minute details. They help you verify that sellers meet their deadlines, follow up quickly, answer each other's questions, and push deals along. Team members on both sides of the partnership have seamless, real-time information at their fingertips to make the best decisions possible, quickly and efficiently. 

      Powerful platforms are also easily scalable, so as your business and partnerships grow, your teams are still empowered to perform at their best. And they offer deep insights into your most crucial metrics, so you’re always well-equipped to make data-backed improvements for better outcomes.

      Intelligent tools for a strong co-selling partnership

      To crack into new markets, boost your team’s efficiency, and provide excellent and profitable customer experiences, your organization needs a collaborative approach. Co-selling is an effective way to reach more customers and provide better, more holistic solutions — but it can be challenging to implement if you lack a system that supports your team.

      Outreach’s Sales Execution Platform helps organizations maximize their prospecting efficiency and optimize their sales execution. With tools for managing pipeline health, optimizing your sales playbooks, plus mutual action plans that take partner and customer collaboration to a whole new level, Outreach can help you knock your co-selling initiatives out of the park.

      Learn more about how Outreach helps sales organizations (and their co-selling partners) close deals faster, or request a demo today.