Our next Ecosystem Pioneer is Michelle Torres, Director of Technology Alliances at Zendesk. An expert in building relationships with a wide variety of SaaS companies, Michelle focuses on product and integration partnerships, and explains why an ideal teammate would be a jack of all trades who is curious about product development.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into Business Development / Partnerships?
I've worked in a variety of industries, from financial services to healthcare to augmented reality (AR) and now in customer service. But the commonality is it's all SaaS, it's all technology. I started my career in Account Management within the Sales organization, looking after existing accounts and growing them. After a quick stint in Sales, I realized it was not the path for me. My career evolved naturally from Account Management to Business Development (BD), which is a little bit of both roles. You're almost a hunter and a farmer, if you will, for partnerships. From there, the rest of my career has involved partners, whether it’s called a BD or Partnerships role.
What is Zendesk all about?
Zendesk is a service-first CRM company that builds software designed to improve customer relationships. Its omnichannel product connects over 100,000 brands with customers over telephony, chat, email, messaging, social channels, communities, review sites and help centers.
What roles have you previously held? How have they helped you in your current position?
Account Management requires a lot of soft skills. It’s relationship building, being more consultative when you can, and being an advisor. Though my early career was focused more on customers than partners, those same skills apply to partnerships as stakeholders of yours. Once I got more into the Business Development role and true partnerships, that's where I started to see more cross-functional work. You're working with different teams, but sometimes you also need to be the marketer, you need to be the salesperson, you need to be the enablement person, you need to look at legal contracts. There are so many different facets to this role. It’s not a linear path like sales or law where there are very specific steps you take to climb the ladder. Partnerships isn’t as much of a clear-cut journey, I would say.
"There are so many different facets to this role. It’s not a linear path like sales or law where there are very specific steps you take to climb the ladder. Partnerships isn’t as much of a clear-cut journey."
What’s your favorite part of working with partners?
You just you never know what you're going to get. You're exposed to so many different types of companies. What I personally like is that I really don't know how my day is going to unfold. And that's not for everyone because you don't know what you're going to wake up to in your inbox. Working with such a variety of companies with different missions, sizes, and maturities exposes you to a lot of really cool companies that you would otherwise not know about. And I think you have to be somewhat inquisitive and intellectually curious to learn about these companies.
What’s a common misconception you hear about Partnerships?
Something I’ve observed is that even the word “partnership” means something different at every single company. Any time I talk to a new potential partner, I always ask, “How do you define partnerships at your company? How do you work with them and how do you measure success?” I always try to clear that up in the beginning of conversations with potential partners because you're not always aligned in that vision. It’s useful to define how your company views and wants to leverage partnerships.
Another observation is that most people usually associate partnerships with more traditional partnerships, which are typically channel partners like distributors and resellers, referral partners, etc. If you're coming from more of that traditional mindset, it's usually very focused on generating direct revenue from those partners. The role that I'm in is more focused on product and integration partnerships, which is different. At the end of the day, everyone wants to grow their business, but there are different ways to achieve that through partnerships. One is very direct, but one is more indirect. Having clarity and alignment on how you’re going to measure partnerships upfront is going to help.
"Something I’ve observed is that even the word ‘partnership’ means something different at every single company. Any time I talk to a new potential partner, I always ask, ‘How do you define partnerships at your company? How do you work with them and how do you measure success?’"
What's one of the biggest challenges you’ve tackled in your role as an Ecosystem Pioneer?
There are two major challenges that come to mind. First, how do you prove out to the business and leadership team that the partnerships that our team works on drive business impact and business value? They may not be sending us thousands of referrals and deals to close, but they bring tremendous indirect value through accelerating deals, filling product gaps, and even giving intel on customers we have. There have been times where partners have given us a heads up that a customer is unhappy with our solution. This is super valuable because it helps us get ahead of a potential churn risk with a customer.
Second, partners are not all created equal. In the past we’ve tried to treat them all equally. At Zendesk, we are proud of the open ecosystem we’ve built, which includes a low barrier to entry to our Marketplace. We don't charge partners to be on our Marketplace; we don't take revenue share from them. It's very much meant to be a place where customers have choices to integrate the tools that they want for free, or not make it a ‘pay to play’ model. And that's been great for scaling the ecosystem to where it is today.
The challenge is that newer partners or those who haven't seen as much success expect the same level of engagement from our team or Zendesk as a whole as a partner who's doing really well and drives a lot of customer impact amongst a lot of mutual customers. To address that, we’ve started providing blueprints for being successful and climbing partner program tiers within Zendesk, explaining the requirements and benefits of each level. This has made it easier for us to be more focused about who we spend a lot of time with.
How do you measure the success and importance of technology alliances?
If our customers are getting value from your solution and from the integration with Zendesk, you are important to us because the partner is providing customer value.
At its simplest, there are 2 main factors we look at:
1. Number of mutual customers using the integration (aka app installs)
2. The value of those customers to Zendesk (i.e. how much customer ARR does your integration “touch”)
There are some additional softer metrics too; for example, do we have the best integration with that partner compared to our competitors. This year, we’re trying to get closer to direct revenue. What we’ve started to do more systematically is tracking when Zendesk has a sales opportunity, whether it's a net new deal or an expansion deal, if there were any technology partners that were part of or critical for that deal. For instance, we wouldn't have closed this deal if we didn't have an integration with XYZ. We look for scenarios where integrations are stated as a requirement from the prospects – they won't move forward with Zendesk unless we integrate with their tech stack. We're starting to capture more of that information so that we can tie ourselves closer to revenue. We know it exists. It's just a matter of tracking it properly.
"If our customers are getting value from your solution and from the integration with Zendesk, then you as a partner are important to us because you’re providing customer value."
What does a day in the life of your Technology Alliances team look like?
It's a mixture of planning and executing, and doing a lot of triaging. Like most people, we have a lot of meetings – a pretty even split between internal and external meetings. If we're working on a new integration launch, there's a lot of project planning that involves our marketing team, product team, and the partner. There’s a lot that goes into managing and growing a partnership; and as mentioned earlier, not all partners are created equal. Your day to day can range from product related discussion, to (now that conferences are coming back) planning conference sponsorships, to getting sales teams connected. And of course there are always fires to put out, like an API went down or something broke. I always tell my team that they’re the CEO of that partner category, seeing and tracking everything, and knowing when and who to pull in for assistance.
As your team at Zendesk grows, what are the top traits you look for in a new hire?
Definitely partnership experience. Channel, tech, ecosystem, or product partnership experience – whatever you want to call it – is always a plus. I personally tend to lean towards folks who have a bit of product acumen because technology alliances (for me) means you’re focused on the integration between two products. Having a knack for product or being intrigued by how platforms work, what the use cases are, and how we can get those two systems talking to each other in a way that our customers want is so helpful. I'm not looking for product managers, but I think people who are comfortable in a product setting are great candidates.
The other thing I look for is someone who has done a little bit of everything. Some roles come with a clear playbook, but there is no playbook for partnerships necessarily. You have to be a jack of all trades because you wear so many different hats. At Zendesk, we’re a mid-sized company with about 6000 employees, but the partnership team is relatively small in comparison. We don’t always have access to the resources we’d like, in comparison to what a much larger company might have. So I look for people who have dabbled in all functional areas. They don't have to be experts in everything, but they need to feel comfortable rolling up their sleeves and figuring out how to do things.
"What we’ve started to do more systematically is tracking when Zendesk has a sales opportunity, whether it's a net new deal or an expansion deal, if were there any technology partners that were part of or critical for that deal."
What are some superpowers you’ve seen in other ecosystem leaders that make them particularly effective?
I would say people who understand the dynamics of how you define a partnership and understand that there are multiple facets to it. People who have an open mind and realize that partnerships aren’t a one size fits all. Not only are there different partner types like channel and tech alliances / ISV, but even within each bucket, there are different levers you can pull within those relationships. Being quick to identify the value you can get from a particular partner is fantastic.
I’m also impressed by leaders who inherently know how to work with a partner from a product or an integration standpoint, who can rattle off use cases and see what gaps that partner would fill immediately. Being really in tune with our product strategy and product gaps and understanding how 1 + 1 = 3 without having much context is great. I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by leaders that have that skill, and it's something that I admire and hope to build myself.
What’s a surprising fact about you that we can’t find on Google?
After working in my first job in finance for 5 years, I took a 6-month hiatus to take a break and figure out what I wanted to do next. I was very early in my career and I was nervous that once I was back on the job market, it would be problematic. But surprisingly, no one even skipped a beat when they saw the gap in my resume. If anything, they were excited to hear about my travels.
For people who are considering their careers, having a gap between jobs worried me at the time, but it was what I needed then and was a really positive way to recharge. Today, people are definitely burnt out. If you can financially take time off and you need it, don’t worry about it negatively impacting your future career growth. It had zero impact on my career and where I am today; in fact, it helped me gain more life and global experience.