The new opportunity for marketers this year – referral partners

“Wait, marketing is expected to increase revenue by that much?! And with zero increase in budget?!”

We’re all being challenged to do more with less, but there comes a point where you just can’t optimize existing channels enough to satisfy the growth objectives of executives. My guess is at budget planning time this is the realization that many of you in marketing are facing.

Take solace that you aren’t alone. Of course, many of you will take the “safe” route and try to eke out a few percentage points better results over this year and hope that it is enough to show your worth. Cause let’s face it, that growth objective is downright crazy!

For the rest of you that tie your worth to the growth hack, the hustle and being a demand gen expert – read on.

First, take a deep breath, I’m here with a message of hope.


Wait, I’m not talking about signing up more resellers (which takes a year to get them certified and active). No, I’m talking about a different type of partner that is low touch and highly productive at generating leads that convert to purchase.

Referral Partners.

Stay with me, there are companies out there that you already have relationships with that will never be a reseller. If you aren’t leveraging them to drive referrals to your business, you’re missing a golden opportunity.

How golden? A recent benchmark analysis of referral partner programs showed an average conversion of referral lead to purchase of 31%. How does that compare to your inbound lead conversion rate?

How referral partners can fit into your current partner model

Think about all of the different partners and influencers you already have in your go-to-market ecosystem. Chances are you have one or more of the following that could potentially provide referrals to your business:

  • Integrated Software Vendors (ISVs) – Whether integrated or not, there are complementary software solutions where their sales team can identify fit for your product/service within their customer base. They are seen as trusted advisors to recommend you in.
  • Systems Integrators (SIs) – Chances are they are in more companies than those that have your product. They can be a great source to identify companies with a need for what you offer.
  • Consultants – highly influential and have no desire to be a reseller, these companies can be the eyes and ears on the market to identify a need/fit.
  • Services Providers – Just like SIs, these folks are in other companies, you just need to enable them to know what to look for and how to make the connection.
  • Alliance partners – Sometimes key strategic partners are resellers, but many times there is a co-selling/referral arrangement taking place that is simply a “gentleman’s agreement”. When you put formality around it as a program, you can significantly increase the output from this partnership.
  • Resellers – I know, they are keeping their leads for themselves, but don’t rule out talking to your partner marketing team about the reseller program to see if there are ways that referral software can make it better. Many companies use a referral program as a qualification step before becoming a reseller to better ensure an investment that will pay off. It is also used as an exit point for resellers who are no longer effective at the selling part of the gig.

And that’s just looking at the partners you already have relationships with. You can also look at building out referral partners from a strategic to a local/SMB level. Consider all of the individuals that have influence over your target buyer. If you’re selling to small business, how about their bank or their accountant? If you sell into franchises, how about making a deal with the franchisor to recommend your product to all of their establishments?

Once you’ve figured out who can be a referral partner, you can use your marketing savvy to build a referral program that allows referral partners to easily understand your buyer and value prop, make introductions of your target buyer to your business and reap the reward once a referral makes a purchase. And if you need help, here is a great resource with tons of worksheets and steps to help you build a referral partner program.

Marketers, we’ve spent the last 5 years looking to optimize inbound in order to drive growth. Now it’s time to look to partners. You can make that growth objective with referral partners.

Building a Referral Partner Channel: Step 8 – How to scale your referral partner program

In the last article in this series, I highlighted the key metrics for running a referral partner program. But if you want to grow your program, the best place to start is to benchmark those metrics. You can compare your results to other companies running referral partner programs in the annual data report: The State of Business Partner Referral Programs.

After developing benchmarks, you can now set some goals for growth and identify opportunities for changes that can drive that growth. In this article I will walk you through the most common opportunities for growth and how to capitalize on them.

Key areas to consider to drive program growth:

  1. Do I have great partners, but just not enough?
  2. Is my program too complex or too limited for what my partners need?
  3. Is the incentive not motivating enough activity?
  4. Are my partners becoming disengaged with the program?

1. Do I have great partners, but just not enough?

While you may have referral partners already, in order to meet your growth objectives the question becomes how do I get more of those successful referral partners? There are a few things to consider here:

  1. Have you exhausted the pool of partners that you would categorize as similar to the ones that you already have? For instance, if you have a referral program aimed at small business accountants, there are probably a bunch more out there you could recruit.
  2. If the answer to the first question is yes, there are no other partners like the ones you have, then it’s time to consider who else in your partner ecosystem could be a referral partner? What about all of those ISVs that sell to the same target buyer as you? Fundamentally, you need to think about who touches your target buyer and consider if they are in a position to refer your product or service.
  3. If you are still looking for more options, how about your resellers? I’m not talking about your top tier resellers, but rather think about referrals as an entry and exit point from a reseller arrangement. For entry try establishing a referral program as a qualification step for a future reseller to prove they can reach the target buyer before putting in the effort to make them a reseller. Regarding reseller exit, there are times when your business model changes (like the shift from on premise to the cloud) and not all resellers will be able to make the shift.

2. Is my referral partner program too complex or too limited for what my partners need?

The red flag here might be initial enthusiasm, then a drop off in activity. You may want to survey your partners to understand what the issue is. There are a lot of referral software out that that allows you to automate processes for partners to make it easy to join by reducing barrier to entry, track referrals,  and receive referral incentives.

Automation also removing operational hassle from the partner and making it easy to make referrals. This helps you gain their trust and increase their desire to keep referring business your way.

3. Is the incentive not motivating enough activity?

If you’ve got lower than expected participation, it just might be that your reward isn’t high enough. Revisit Step 4 in this series – How to incentivize referral partners to get a better feel for industry standards and approaches. If you are questioning your incentive, I’d encourage you to go back to your inbound marketing team and ask them what their CPL and CPA is. The goal is to be less that the cost of a marketing generated acquisition, but not so low that you are cheating your partners.

If you’re considering a change in incentive to drive more activity, make sure you also consider reward structures that encourage repeat referrals.

Lastly, make sure you aren’t “punishing” your partners for earning a reward. Put payment transaction fees and currency exchange in your budget so that the partners get what’s been advertised.

4. Are my partners becoming disengaged with the program?

Lack of engagement with a program is a daily struggle for any marketer. Luckily, there are a few key things you can do to help here with minimal effort.

  • Communicate – but automate first.  As a part of your referral tracking, each time a referral lead hits a different status milestone (think opportunity stages) you can trigger an email to be sent to the partner to let them know that their referral is making progress.
  • Let the data trigger touchpoints. Setup email that trigger based on dashboards/reports that provide you the list of those partners that haven’t logged in in over 30 days, those that have made referrals, but haven’t been successful, those that have been incredibly successful, etc. See previous article on Key Metrics to see examples and get other ideas of what to track. [add hyperlink once live]
  • Give partners full transparency. Nothing frustrates a partner more than not knowing the status of their referral and/or reward. Make sure they also have access to all the data from their personal referral activity in their referral portal.



referral partner program, referral partners, channel partners
If you can relate to any of these four points it is probably time to automate your referral partner program. The good news is that referral partner program software can remove the operational hassle of referral tracking, attribution and reward fulfillment.

I talk to a lot of people running an existing referral partner program and it is all too common for me to hear, “Honestly, I haven’t promoted the program much because I just can’t handle the manual management of the program without hiring more people . . . and that isn’t going to happen.”

Don’t let this powerful channel go underutilized because you’re still using spreadsheets! Learn how you can scale your referral partner program today!

Previous articles in this series:

Step 1 – How to identify potential partners

Step 2 – How to engage and recruit partners  

Step 3 – How to enable referral partners

Step 4 – How to incentivize referral partners 

Step 5 – How to onboard referral partners 

Step 6 – How to keep referral partners engaged

Step 7 – Key metrics for referral partner programs

Building a Referral Partner Channel: Step 7 – Key metrics for a referral partner program

Once you’ve got your referral partner program running, you’ll want to collect data that will help you to optimize and grow the output from your referral partners. To do this I will outline a number of metrics that aren’t merely to measure against but actionable as well.

5 Key categories of metrics for a referral partner program:

  1. The referral pipeline:
    1. # of partners
    2. # of referrals
    3. #  of successful referrals
    4. revenue
  2. Partner activity:
    1. % of partners that have made referrals that period
    2. % of partners that have made multiple referrals that period
    3. % of partners that have had successful referrals that period
    4. Avg # of referrals per partners
    5. Avg # of successful referrals per partner
  3. Top performers:
    1. Top partners by # of referrals
    2. Top partners by # of successful referrals
    3. Top partners by revenue
  4. Under performers:
    1. Lowest partners by # of referrals
    2. Lowest partners by # of successful referrals
    3. Lowest partners by revenue
  5. For those running a to and through partner program – you’ll want to look at the referral pipeline by partner entity as well.

1. The referral pipeline

Understanding the flow of referrals from partners and their employees to closed won revenue is important for seeing trends. Additionally, this is your direct ROI to demonstrate the clear value of the program to executive leadership. You’ll want to have this data and manipulate it by the current time period as well as chart it over time to see trends.

You won’t take action on this data on a daily basis, but it is important to watch if something falls outside of your expectations or is under performing relative to business objectives. If so, start diving into the metrics below to diagnose possible issues.

referral partner, partner referral program, channel partners, referral partner software, referral partner program


2. Partner activity

Continuous engagement and promotion is important to keeping partners referring. Monitoring their activity levels is key to knowing when an additional nudge is needed or a full out calling campaign from channel sales to encourage repeat referrals. Keeping tabs on both percentage of partner activity as well as monitoring averages will help you to identify overall performance problems that you can address holistically.

3. Top performers

It’s great to know the overall trends for your program, but there is incredible value to identifying top performing referral partners. This is an opportunity for personalized recognition or expansion of the relationship. As with any marketing activity, it pays to focus on the best performers and give them additional resources to get even more out of them.

referral partners, referral activity, partner referral program, referral partner software, referral partner program

4. Under performers

While it is great to spend time with top performers, there are some very basic course corrections that can be made with under performers that can keep them engaged and get them successful. My favorite report is partners who have made a lot of referrals, but haven’t had any make a purchase. Chances are these partners don’t understand your target buyer or they aren’t positioning your product value correctly. A simple email and follow up calling campaign to have this discussion can go a long way to save these partners from getting frustrated and churning.

partner referrals, referral partners, partner referral program, referral partner program

5. Referral pipeline by partner companies

If you’re running a referral partner program where you have a relationship at the corporate level to enable their sales team to make referrals to you, of course you will want to look at performance by each partner entity. Understanding how many employees they have enrolled, the activity level and success rates is key to encouraging that partner to help you internally promote. Certainly, if this is a managed relationship with SLAs, you’ll want to play close attention to their progress so you can make a call as needed to bring their attention to lackluster results or to call and recognize them for going above and beyond expectations.

What about referral partner program incentives?

There are a long list of additional metrics that we see on partner referral program dashboards. They all have a place in understanding the details of what’s working and what’s not in your program. But, if you’ve got limited time and resources (don’t we all) just focus on those five areas I mentioned above and you’ll be able to do great things!

Now many of you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned incentives as a key metric. After all, this is a huge part of operating a referral partner program. If you are doing this manually, by all means you’ll want lots of reports and data to manage that function. Ideally, you are working with a software vendor that automates incentive calculation and fulfillment. If so, this isn’t something you need to worry about as a key metric.

In the final article of this series I’ll go into even more depth on how you can use this data to optimize your program.  

Previous articles in this series:

Step 1 – How to identify potential partners 

Step 2 – How to engage and recruit partners

Step 3 – How to enable referral partners

Step 4 – How to incentivize referral partners

Step 5 – How to onboard referral partners

Step 6 – How to engage referral partners 

Building a Referral Partner Channel: Step 6 – How to keep referral partners engaged

Once you’ve onboarded your referral partners, you’ll need to find ways to keep them engaged and referring. As I discussed in Step 3 – How to enable referral partners, you’ve got to make it easy for partners to make referrals and give them full transparency into their progress. This is the foundation for engagement, but let’s build on that with ways to keep the productivity high.

Here are 7 activities to keep referral partners engaged:

  1. Regular status update communications
  2. Regular program and success story communications
  3. Involvement of sales to drive referral activity
  4. Special promotions – both internal and external
  5. Coaching programs – to improve performance of struggling partners
  6. Escalating incentives to encourage repeat referrals
  7. Non-monetary recognition

1. Regular status update communications

You can have the best portal in the world, but unless you are getting the attention of your referral partners, they’ll forget to visit. Automated email communications alerting them to status changes in their referrals is a great way to stay top of mind with little effort. Typical statuses to alert on would be when a referral lead is accepted by sales/qualified, when it becomes an opportunity, when it hits the various opportunity stages and of course closed won. In addition, you’ll want to notify them when they have earned their reward – which might be at closed won or after a retention period.

Simple, automated emails on referral status can keep them involved to influence the referred opportunity, but also reminds them of your program and how they can earn more. Links in your emails drive referral partners back to the portal to keep referring.

2. Regular program and success story communications

Not all referral partners will always have a referral in the pipeline to get status notifications on so you need to also provide regular communication on the program. A monthly newsletter can be a great way to do this, but make sure the content adds value to them and isn’t just “hey, remember us, we have a program”. Instead, focus on how you can make them a better referral partner. Give them fresh content on the target buyer and tips on how to make referrals. More importantly, showcase success stories of other referral partners.

This can be a simple as giving kudos to top performers, but the real value is in telling their story. How did a partner get 10 successful referrals in 1 month? What is the advice of your top referring partners? What is the key to their success? Take a few hours each month to interview a partner or two and highlight their story. I guarantee it will help to motivate and drive activity from your referral partners.

3. Involvement of sales to drive referral activity

If your direct and/or channel sales teams are not involved in recruiting referral partners and sourcing referrals from them – they should be! This has been proven as the most effective way to drive referral success.

To get them involved, make sure there is sufficient motivation in place. This doesn’t have to be compensation. For a direct sales team, consider breaking lead assignment rules so that every referral lead that comes from a partner they recruited goes to them. For business development, ensure your compensation plan accounts not just for partner recruitment, but also for the production of referrals from those partners.

You’ll also need to ensure sales has the right tools to input and track their activity. Enable sales with:

  • A one-click invite in Salesforce for partners who aren’t yet in the program
  • Ability to input verbal referrals in Salesforce
  • Ability to “own” partners – sales leadership can then track with reports in Salesforce to drive activity and sales ops can use to route leads
  • No hassle – everything tracked and automated so they can focus on selling/biz dev versus rewards.

4. Special promotions – both internal and external

Sometimes you need to do something special to get people to take notice and take action. Some of the most successful referral partner programs have big bang promotions to drive a ton of activity in a short period of time.

This can be a promotion internally to sales where there are special incentives for the latest tech gear, special trip, or whatever motivates your sales team. Get buy-in from sales leadership that during this day or week period that they spend the majority of their time filling the pipeline with leads from referral partners buy getting in front of them and asking.

The special promotion can also work going direct to your referral partners and adding a bonus incentive for referrals made during a short period of time. That incentive could be a higher bounty or percentage of revenue, but it could also be time with the CEO or training that they would normally have to pay for.

5. Coaching programs – to improve performance of struggling referral partners

Some referral partners will struggle. They may have signed up to become a partner thinking they were going to make a killing, made a ton of referrals only to have none of them make a purchase. You’ll also have some referral partners who are tentative to refer. Run reports each month on these under performers and make a point to have marketing or sales reach out and have a coaching session with them. Find out what their issue is. Some typical issues are:

  • A lack of understanding of the target buyer and persona profiles – meaning they aren’t referring the right people/companies.
  • Not making one-to-one referrals – blasting in social media is not the way to drive referral leads. A specific ask done in a direct digital or verbal conversation is the way to initiate interest.
  • Not sure when to make the ask – some partners may be leery on the best time to recommend your product to their network.
  • Not sure how to properly message the value of your product or service – hopefully you’ve got a lot of this baked into your referral methods, but even so, make sure your partners are solid in the value propositions that drive interest with your target personas.

6. Escalating incentives to encourage repeat referrals

Many referral partner programs work because you can go broad with volume of partners and even if they only make a few referrals a year, it can drive significant revenue. If you can increase the average number of referrals made across your referral partners, you can make a big impact. One of the best ways to do this is to provide increasing incentives attached to achievement levels.

This could be increasing percentage of revenue based on the number of successful referrals during a year period. Alternatively, you can bump a referral partner to a higher incentive level if their referrals move quickly through the sales cycle or if they played an influential role in the process. And certainly, there could be a bar at which the partner relationship could expand to a reseller.

Whatever your achievement bars, make partners well aware of them so that they can set goals and work to achieve them. Send them regular communications on how they are doing toward reaching the next level (this can be part of those automated status emails). This will keep partners engaged and referring throughout the year.

7. Non-monetary recognition

Of course you have referral fees for your partners, but there are additional ways you can recognize them for their efforts. Mentioning them in the monthly newsletter with their success story is a great way to make them feel engaged. Additionally, you can offer special meetings with the CEO to top performers A call from your Channel Chief thanking them for their effort can also go a long way. From the marketing side, you could show some love by helping to promote their business through your social feeds.

Fundamentally,  you’ll want to identify top performers, make them feel appreciated and encourage continued productivity.

In the next article in the series I’ll cover the key metrics to collect for referral partner programs and the final article in the series will cover how to use those metrics to grow your program.

Previous articles in this series:

Step 1 – How to identify potential partners 

Step 2 – How to engage and recruit partners 

Step 3 – How to enable referral partners

Step 4 – How to incentivize referral partners

Step 5 – How to onboard referral partners 

Building a Referral Partner Channel: Step 5 – How to onboard referral partners

Once you’ve figured out incentives, enablement and recruitment for referral partners you’re ready to provide a smooth and informative onboarding experience.

Here are the 6 key things you need to do during onboarding of referral partners:

  1. Collect necessary information
  2. Educate on the target buyer profile – including personas
  3. Train on how to make a one-to-one referral ask
  4. Train on various ways to input referrals into tracking system
  5. Discuss what happens to a referral lead once they provide it
  6. Educate on referral success criteria, data access and any SLAs

1. Collect necessary information from referral partners

It’s pretty obvious that you need to collect all of the basic information about a referral partner so that you can contact them and pay them, but here are a few additional things you may want to consider.

  • Referral partners are pretty likely to surpass the taxable limit for incentives. This means you’ll want to collect the appropriate W-9 (or W-8) information so your company can submit 1099’s at the end of the year.
  • If you decide to pay partners via direct deposit, you’ll need to collect the appropriate bank and account information to make this happen.
  • If sales (direct or partner) is involved in the program, you may want the partner to select the salesperson that they work with. This will give you the ability to track by salesperson for the partner referral activity.
  • If you’d like to include an approval process, make it quick and seamless for the partner.

With whatever information you collect, make it as easy on the partner as possible. Prefill fields if their contact info is available from your CRM or other systems, make access Single Sign On (SSO) and provide a simple online workflow.

2. Educate on the target buyer profile – including personas

Referral partners don’t need the level of training that resellers do, but they do need to know what type of company and titles within that company are a fit for your solution. Provide videos or webinar training on all of the details of your target company profile from industry to software they use. Make sure you dive into details on the buying center/department and all of the personas. Describe in detail the initiatives, challenges and needs for each persona and how your solution can help.

And if you’ve got a target account/ABM strategy, provide them your list of accounts and watch the referrals get more specific and qualified!

3. Train on how to make a one-to-one referral ask

This step may seem silly, but the fact is, the people making referrals are typically salespeople and referral training is not standard practice. Teach your referral partners:

  • The best times to introduce your product/service to a target buyer – this depends on the type of referral partner.
    • For referral partners like ISVs that are selling a symbiotic product this can be by asking if they have a need during qualification, it can be done in late stages of the opportunity or post-sale as they try to continue to add value to that customer.
    • For referral partners that are leveraging their network outside of a sales process, they can begin to educate their network with social posts and by directly sending content, then contacting them to determine interest.
    • For customer-facing partner employees making recommendations to their customers, detail if they should ask at a certain stage in their customer journey or transaction.
  • The way to introduce your product or service – specify any brand message, value propositions or product information that you want passed along as part of the referral. Tip: Locking in this information to the referral communication method helps to ensure that nothing gets lost in translation.

4. Train on various ways to input referrals into tracking system

Providing access to referral methods isn’t enough. Sure, they should be pretty easy to use and not need functional training on which buttons to press to create a url to share. Instead, focus your training on the use case and value for using each method. And above all, train them on how to make one-to-one referrals versus one-to-many blasts. Here are the basic concepts:

  • Lead forms – Everyone understands how to fill out a form with contact info, but coach your referral partners to have a conversation with prospects and qualify them first to ensure a higher quality lead gets handed to your sales team.
  • Verbal referrals – If direct or partner sales teams are involved in recruiting referral partners and collecting referrals, make sure both sales and the partner are trained on who to contact, whether referrals will be accepted in lead stage or opportunity stage or both and how that verbal referral gets into the system to be tracked.
  • Email – Ensure your referral partners understand how to pull in their contacts to easily select them to send a referral email. Additionally, coach them on personalizing the email and making a one-to-one ask versus a group Bcc blast.
  • Shareable URL – If you’re giving referral partners the ability to create a personal, trackable referral link you need to give them some ideas on where to use it. Here are just a few: LinkedIn profile, business website, email signature, blog post or text message.
  • Social media – Social posts from partners can be great to drive brand awareness, but if you’re looking for referrals, you need to train them on using your social posting referral methods for directly messaging an individual to make a one-to-one ask.
  • Print cards – A printed referral card with the personal URL/tracking code on it can be a great way to bring offline conversations on line. Point out to partners the instances like tradeshows and other face-to-face meetings where this could be an excellent leave behind.

5. Discuss what happens to a referral lead once they provide it

Your referral partners aren’t going to blindly trust that you are going to take good care of their referral. They need to understand your process and how you will be communicating with the prospect. Here is a best practice flow, but work with sales to get your specific process.

  1. Once the referral lead information gets to us, we route it to the salesperson that owns your relationship. That way, you can tell your referral exactly who will be contacting them.
  2. The lead information goes into Salesforce and the salesperson can see that you made the referral. They will contact you to get additional information on the prospect and get a warm introduction from you.
  3. From there, the salesperson will guide the prospect through the sales process. You will see status updates in your personal referral portal (and we’ll send you emails too) that tell you the stage of the opportunity. You are encouraged to reach out to the salesperson and prospect during this process to see if they have any questions or need some trusted advice.
  4. Once the prospect makes a purchase, you’ll be notified of that success and the amount of your reward earned and how it will be paid out.

6. Educate on referral success criteria, data access and any SLAs

There are a lot of factors to consider when establishing success criteria and incentives for your referral program. Success is most commonly at deal purchase, but retention periods can also be added. Additionally, some companies compensate at lead and deal close. Complexity is fine as long as you clearly communicate it.

  • If your reward is split on multiple success events, make sure they understand this.
  • If you have a retention period, let them know how long it is and how you will communicate with them during that time period to keep them engaged.
  • If you reward higher for deal involvement, make sure they know how this will be tracked and judged so it isn’t based on verbal testimony.

You also don’t want to spend your days fielding emails and calls from partners wondering where their reward is so make sure you teach them where their referral status data lives and how to access it. Additionally, send them status emails which drive them back into the portal so you are proactively informing them of status. Be sure your salespeople have access to this information within Salesforce so they can handle any inquiries with ease.

If your referral partners are unmanaged, you can still encourage repeat referrals with escalating reward levels by quantity of successful referrals during a given time period. If managed, there may be a higher referral fee with a set number of successful referrals to be brought in each year. Either way, make sure this is clearly understood and that you provide updates (perhaps quarterly) on where they are relative to their goal.

The three video training plan

While I covered a lot of information in this article, most of it can be communicated to your referral partners intuitively through their referral program portal and via a short orientation video on how the program works. An additional video on your target buyer and one on how and when to refer and you should have all the materials you need to get referral partners productive.

With the onboarding process figured out, you’ll want to have a strong handle on how you are going to keep referral partners engaged and referring. To do that, read the next blog in the series about referral partner engagement best practices.

Previous articles in this series:

Step 1 – How to identify potential partners 

Step 2 – How to engage and recruit partners

Step 3 – How to enable referral partners

Step 4 – How to incentivize referral partners 

Building a Referral Partner Channel: Step 4 – How to incentivize referral partners

There are many different mechanisms to incentivize your referral partners. The key is finding the right mix of appropriate amount, structure and motivation – while ensuring you can handle the fulfillment! In this article in our Building a Referral Partner Channel series, I’ll cover those elements and provide best practices so you can make these key decisions.

Choosing the best reward amount for referral partners

Referral partner fees typically fall between 5%-25% of first year revenue. While many programs use percentage of revenue, for those with a more repeatable product price a simple flat-rate bounty can work as well. The factors to choosing the appropriate reward amount are:

  • Consider if you want to reward higher amounts/percentage of revenue for higher tier partners.
  • Consider if you want to motivate repeat referrals by having an escalating reward based on the number of successful referrals within a time period.
  • Consider if you want to vary the reward based on deal involvement or lead stage.

According to The State of Business Partner Referral Programs – Annual Report, the average reward payment for a referral partner is $182. Keep in mind, this is an average across many partner referral programs with a high variance in purchase amount for the various products and solutions. The best way to checkpoint your reward amount strategy is to work with marketing to determine their cost per acquisition (CPA) of a customer coming from inbound efforts (see calculation below). Your referral fee should always come in much lower than the marketing CPA.

Structuring your reward to meet business needs

There are 4 key factors you need to consider when structuring your reward:

  • Calculation – This can be a flat bounty, a bounty by product purchased or percentage of revenue. And per the amount discussion, you may want to offer different rates for different partner types or deal involvement.
  • Escalation – Setting a achievement levels with higher payouts is a great way to incentivize repeat referrals.
  • Timing – If you’ve got a subscription product, you may want to consider a retention period before payout to the partner to insure that the new customer is sticky. In these scenarios, you may want to consider rewarding at multiple stages to keep the partner engaged. For instance 25% of the reward at purchase and 75% after 6 months retention.
  • Accrual – For highly productive programs, it may make sense to accrue reward payments to reduce transaction fees and provide higher accumulated payouts.

With any incentive plan, make sure it is manageable for you to execute on. The more you can automate in your referral system, the easier this will be to handle. Paying partners fairly and quickly is a key factor in success.


Adding motivation for repeat referral activity

Structuring your rewards with higher levels of achievement and payout is a great way to motivate referral frequency. Additionally, you can consider special reward promotions to encourage volume during slow business periods. Some examples of this are:

  • Holding a “partner day” where the sales team and the partners have extra incentives to collect referrals. This can be an increased reward for any referrals that came in that day or could be raffle prizes.
  • Incentivizing the sales team to collect referrals from your partners is a great way to drive activity. Talk with sales leadership as this is sometimes frowned upon as a “double incentive”, but many sales teams appreciate prizes or swag for quarterly referral winners.
  • Add a big goal reward that would be beneficial to strengthening the relationship with your best performing partners. Set a bar for a high number of successful referrals that is reachable for your top referral partners. The incentive for reaching this does not have to be a cash payout, but perhaps they could get a trip to meet with the CEO or be invited to sales club trips. If the partner is also a user of your product, the incentive could be a free year of your product/service.

Key steps to reduce operational hassle

Anyone who has worked in an incentives or sales ops group knows that incentive programs can be a challenge to manage on the back end. For the scale that you can achieve with referral partners, you’ll need to automate this process or else it will become unmanageable without a drastic increase in headcount. Here are the key steps to automate so that you can focus your time on engaging partners:

  • Automate the collection of tax information. You can do this either at registration or have it triggered when the partner reaches the taxable limit in reward payouts.
  • Set hard-fast rules for reward calculation based on data collected in your referral system and/or from your CRM. If you can’t collect data on it, don’t make it a factor for the reward amount. Once you have clear rules based on data, automate reward calculation so there are never disputes.
  • Similarly, make sure you have clear escalation rules and data so that reward increases can also be managed automatically.
  • Integrate your referral program with a fulfillment/payments vendor so that you don’t have to deal with paying out the rewards. Payouts should be triggered automatically once the success criteria is met (typically purchase).
  • Provide real-time information on rewards earned and paid to your referral partners within their personal referral portals. No one wants to field calls on payments so make it very easy for them to access this information. Additionally, automate email communications to the partner when a reward is earned so they are informed right when it happens.

Now that you’ve figured out how to incentivize your referral partners, you’ll want to ensure you have a smooth process for onboarding. I’ll cover how to onboard referral partners in the next article in this series. 

In the meantime, become informed on the benchmarks that demonstrate a successful partner referral program in the report,  The State of Business Partner Referral Programs.

Previous articles in this series:

Step 1 – How to identify potential partners 

Step 2 – How to engage and recruit partners 

Step 3 – How to enable referral partners