Meet Katie Zeitlin, Director of Channel Partnerships at Riskified. In this insightful interview, Katie shares what she's learned about building trust with partners and why you shouldn't be afraid of being vulnerable.
Welcome, Katie! How did you end up in Business Development / Partnerships?
I started my career in a direct sales role. I did telesales initially, but I didn't love cold calling, which is why I left as quickly as I could and moved over to partnerships within a software company. I found that I really enjoyed the longevity of the relationship that you build with partners, which tends to be different from direct sales environments where you work a deal and then move on. With a partnership, you develop that relationship overtime so you can see real growth and get deeper into what makes businesses tick. I think that's why I’ve ended up sticking with partnerships all these years.
Can you tell us a little about Riskified?
Riskified provides a software-as-a-service platform that uses a combination of behavioral analysis, elastic linking from our network of other payments, and machine learning to detect and prevent e-commerce fraud across the globe.
Has your previous experience in direct sales helped with your partnership roles?
Yes, it definitely helps. I think I have a direct sales head on a partner person body, if you will. The people that I’ve hired into my teams previously have all had direct sales experience, and I think it's easier to train a direct seller to becoming a partner person than the other way around.
How has managing partnerships been different at Riskified, which is much smaller than your previous company, SAP Concur?
It’s not so different. At SAP Concur, I managed two programs: a referral program and a resell program. Though the size of the businesses vary, I brought the same methodology to Riskified in terms of how we go about partnering with businesses – the logic, strategy, and the sense of unity that you need to spread across partnerships.
One of the big things is that you have to really understand why you're partnering in the first place. What is the customer gaining from the partnership of two other companies? How does it benefit everyone? If you start from here, you can then determine the value of the partnership and understand each side’s needs for the relationship to be successful, and this foundation will set you in good stead for long-term success.
"A foundation for long-term success is really understanding why you're partnering in the first place. What is the customer gaining from this partnership? How does it benefit everyone?"
What’s your favorite part of working with partners?
I really enjoy talking to them about what they're seeing within their own businesses. It's very easy for companies to get tunnel vision. I love the education that you get from your partners because they have a slightly different take on things. You can learn so much from them and understand how to better serve your customers and get new perspectives. Your partners’ insights help you understand the entire market rather than just looking at the market as it relates to you. If you listen to your partner and can build other perspectives into your conversations, customers’ perception of you will be elevated as you demonstrate greater understanding.
What’s a common misconception you hear about Partnerships/BD?
I’ve got a pretty long list. The first one is that partner managers spend their day having drinks or playing golf, not doing any real work. Whilst good relations are key for working with partners, this is a business relationship and the core needs to be anchored in business rather than the bar. A second misunderstanding is that partnerships is just simple demand generation. If that’s the case, you will need a partner program model that explicitly states that so everyone’s expectations are set.
Finally, a big misconception is the sense that partnerships should be an instant success. What many people don't realize is that a partnership is about long-term mutual trust. You might have negotiated for years to get a signed a commercial contract, but signing the contract is the easiest part. It's what you do next that’s the important thing. The partner won’t instantly introduce and sell your solution to every one of their customers.
Nothing will happen if partners don't trust each other, because without trust there’s no communication, information sharing, desire to learn, or confidence. Trust is something that must be earned. You don't meet someone in the street and marry them the next day. You have to establish a relationship and find early, mutual success to build on.
How have you built trust with partners?
This year I've been working on building a behavioral piece into the way we work with our partners. Not simply telling them, “Here’s where to do a registration, here's where you get your marketing content, here's your enablement collateral, here are blog posts.” I want us to agree on how we’ll each act and hold each other accountable.
There are various ways you can establish trust quickly but it doesn’t happen in a day. It’s just like managing people. You need to set expectations upfront, explain what you're going to do, and then do it. You have to demonstrate some success and repeatable, good behavior to establish trust.
Another interesting way to build trust – though it can be tricky – is to show vulnerability. You might be afraid to admit to weaknesses or mistakes. But when something does go wrong or you can’t do something, the most important thing is to own it, admit it, and have a candid conversation. You might have to approach your partner and say, “Listen, we can't do this like this” or “I've messed up” or “I'm so sorry.” Instead of covering up or spinning the situation, be honest. You’ll be establishing real credibility.
"Another way to build trust is through vulnerability. When something goes wrong, the most important thing is to own it, admit it, and have a candid conversation."
What's one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your role as an ecosystem pioneer?
One of the bigger challenges that I've faced in my last 3 jobs is the direct vs. indirect piece. This can happen when your internal salespeople don’t fully trust your partners. They might be concerned that they’ll introduce a competitor or that the partner won’t come through on their promises. I’ve witnessed many people making up scenarios as to why they shouldn't work with a partner.
What they’re missing is that if you do trust your partner, set the right expectations, agree on a plan, and execute on it, you'll most likely speed up and close the deal and prove the value of the partnership. Guarding information and showing distrust of a partner is not helping close business. Being a good partner and working together will benefit your company most.
What have you seen work well when trying to build strong cross-functional relationships? Has anything not worked well?
There are 2 routes to earn internal support – go to leadership first, and if the leadership isn’t convinced, go lower down the organization. Whichever way, you need to concentrate on wins and proving your success.
Some people within an organization are set in their beliefs and you’ll never be able to change their mind. Don’t worry about it, just move forward and keep your own success criteria and goals in mind. Bring the people along who will agree to come along. I’ve also found that if you can get an internal champion within the organization then they can do the talking for you.
"Some people are set in their beliefs. Move forward and keep your own success criteria in mind. Bring the people along who will agree to come along."
How do you measure the success and importance of channel partnerships?
You have to write your plans in collaboration with your partner, sharing ideas back and forth. I've seen so many channel professionals take their revenue quota, split it equally between the number of partners they have, and say each is responsible for the same amount. Obviously not every partner is going to perform the same, so this isn’t the best approach.
A key piece is knowing the levers that you can pull. Those include the standard KPIs – pipeline, closed-won, and number of deals referred or sold. One thing I’ve always been clear on is the importance of tracking what goes into these deals. I always encourage tracking KPIs around activities, such as the number of marketing activities that are generating pipeline, and the relevant KPIs from each pipeline activity. For example, if we hold an event, how many leads are we expecting as a result?
Another thing to keep in mind is making sure people are enabled and educated. That might look like starting with a partner and enabling 2 salespeople in Year 1, then 6 people in Year 2, and then 10 people in Year 3. These metrics would help prove that you're getting further into an organization. Even with all the willpower in the world, if there’s no marketing activity and no enabled, confident salespeople to push your product, there will be no pipeline or closed-won business.
"Plan in collaboration with your partner. I've seen so many channel professionals take their revenue quota, split it equally between the number of partners they have, and say each is responsible for the same amount. Obviously not every partner is going to perform the same, so this isn’t the best approach."
What are some superpowers you’ve seen in other partner ecosystem leaders?
Credibility, as in experience within a market or the sphere that you're working in. At Concur, that’d be someone who has a grasp on finances. At Riskified, it might be someone who has strength and a network within the payments industry.
Creativity is the other one. When you're working within a channel, you're not only competing with products that rival your own, but you're also competing against mindshare with other vendors. How you stand out to your partner, how you show up for them, and how easy you are to work with all require a degree of creativity. A channel executive who can lead with open-mindedness and curiosity is always much more successful than those who strictly follow a pattern and don’t deviate.
Are there any business books, podcasts, or communities you enjoy that you’d recommend?
I didn’t used to love business books, but I do now. I’ve got two books on my desk today that I really enjoy. One is The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. The other is The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey. It ties into the piece that I was talking about before.
One of the most fascinating books that I read when joining Riskified was The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, which is about working in global businesses and understanding different cultures and how to interpret business behaviors across different cultures around the globe.
I also like participating in the Channel Meetup group here in London, which has branches in other countries as well.
What’s a surprising fact about you that we can’t find on Google?
I used to drive a multi-colored Volkswagen Polo when I was at uni. I was a little famous for that. You don't see them so much anymore, but if you Google it, you’ll see it made a statement!