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Choosing a HubSpot Onboarding Partner: HubSpot or a Partner Agency? [Interview]

Choosing a HubSpot Onboarding Partner: HubSpot or a Partner Agency? [Interview] Blog Feature

John Becker

Editorial Content Associate, 15+ Years of Content Marketing Expertise and Teaching

October 2nd, 2019 min read

If you’re planning on purchasing and implementing HubSpot, you need someone to help you through that process. You can either purchase HubSpot’s standard onboarding program to go through on your own, or you can contract with one of HubSpot’s many Certified Agency Partners to do some customized onboarding as part of a larger service retainer. 

Nick Salvatoriello and Jess Palmeri, who have come to their HubSpot expertise through very different avenues, discuss the pros and cons of each onboarding approach in this frank, illuminating discussion.

John Becker: Our broad topic today is the difference between HubSpot's onboarding process and what a company might get with a partner agency. So, before we dive into the particulars, let’s clear up one thing: Who's in the situation to need this advice?

Jess Palmeri: This conversation is for anyone who is seriously considering purchasing a marketing automation software, has HubSpot on their shortlist, and is weighing the pros and cons of the initial investment. 

I think that someone who is motivated to get started and wants to really dive into this process is naturally going to be looking at their options for how to quickly get started and go in-depth from the very beginning.

Nick Salvatoriello: Jess is right, to be successful with any platform, especially HubSpot, you're going to need some support. It might be technical knowhow about what features to adopt first, but also there's going to need to be accountability to make sure your team follows through to do the things that you envisioned doing with all of the amazing HubSpot tools now at your disposal.

Ask anyone who has spent any time working with HubSpot. Would-be customers need some form of onboarding to be successful with the platform. 

The good news is, to help supplement the onboarding that HubSpot provides directly, there are agencies that are part of a very vibrant and trained-up HubSpot Partner Program that can help provide onboarding services. 

You can either go with an agency, or if you don’t, you have to buy onboarding support from HubSpot’s team directly.

JB: So you need something.

JP: Yes.

NS: You need something, otherwise the statistics show most customers are not going to adopt the tools as fully or as fast — and thus they’re not going to be as successful with the platform. 

JB: So, what do you get, how long does it last, and how does onboarding end? 

NS: Onboarding with HubSpot's Marketing Professional edition is for 90 days, and the finishing point is when you've set up one campaign inside HubSpot. There's a series of phone calls and email access to your implementation specialist to help get it all done. 

They don’t publish the pricing on the website anymore, but based on recent experience it's about $3,000 for the HubSpot Marketing Professional edition, and it may go up by a couple of thousand dollars if you go up to Enterprise. There’s phone access, but those calls have to be pre-scheduled. You can expect light email access for questions in between those onboarding calls as well.

JB: After that standard set of onboarding calls is complete, it would be ad-hoc consultation, which would be payable by the service or by the hour?

NS: That's correct. HubSpot’s Professional Services team has a number of very affordable subscription services for other niche or more advanced topics that have been developed over the years.

JP: IMPACT is one of HubSpot’s Agency Partners that also offers customized onboarding services for all of the tools in HubSpot’s Growth Suite. IMPACT’s HubSpot Onboarding Consulting retainers start at $2,500 a month. And it's an ongoing relationship. It can last as long as you want to (after a 90-day minimum). We have no long term contracts, we only ask for 30 days notice before cancellation.

As we typically work with our customers over longer periods of time, we identify key objectives every quarter, and the goal is to get you to work towards those evolving key objectives through each weekly consulting session we host with your team. 

The relationship is highly dynamic, defined by what you want to accomplish, and continues as long as you feel it’s valuable for you. We are there to meet your needs, but there’s also accountability. We make sure you’re learning the tools and producing the necessary content to meet your team’s goals.

You have access to us every day, all week, and in between the weekly consulting and training calls we host for you. We guide your team’s work and we vet your set up at each stage to make sure that you're setting things up properly so you can be self-sufficient.

JB: Jess, could you go into your time working at a company who bought HubSpot and what that experience was like?

JP: Absolutely. So from 2013 to 2019, I worked for a SaaS company.

In 2013, right after I started, my organization made the decision that inbound marketing would be the best way to launch our most recent product offering. 

We went agency shopping across inbound marketing experts. My leadership team, which included the director of new business development, the marketing director, and the CEO, decided that this investment would be worth it to launch our new product. 

We needed to hire an agency because our in-house marketing team was only two people: me and my boss, the director of marketing. Rather than build out that team, the decision was made that we would just hire a team of experts and have them lead the way for us. 

The agency brought us to HubSpot.

JB: Nick, tell me about your time at HubSpot.

NS: I worked at HubSpot from 2011 to 2016, and my first job was to be what is now called an "implementation specialist."

If you were an internal marketing team and you wanted to buy HubSpot directly for your company and you paid the onboarding fee for HubSpot, you got someone like me.

nick-sal-at-hubspot

It was an entry-level position. I was helping customers — and did this for over 200 companies while I was there — get the product adopted. And it was great to see that program take form, get more efficient, start to build more structure around it.

I think I started by onboarding 30 or 40 customers at a time. We were able to stretch that (through efficiency, standardization, and scheduling) to up to 70 accounts at any given time. I would get between 8 and 12 new customers every month. That's how I built up to that number. There was a lot of phone calls throughout the day.

HubSpot was just growing fantastically (as it still is), and they were always thinking about how to scale their services. The customer success team was really there because we found if a company didn't do the onboarding calls, it didn't adopt the features. You needed some point of accountability.

What I transitioned into doing was joining HubSpot’s Agency Partner Program team. There were a number of agencies that were really interested in formally partnering with HubSpot so they could bring more of their clients onto HubSpot, and help those customers be successful with inbound. 

What I basically did was provide onboarding directly to those agencies for their own copies of HubSpot so they could get a feel for how we do it, and then we would talk with them about how they could do that for their own clients.

We eventually launched a certification program so we could be sure that the agencies understood the best practices and could earn a certification badge. 

JB: Having seen this from various points of view, what does successful HubSpot onboarding look like?

JP: My initial experience in 2013 was successful from the perspective that my company was brought on board quickly. Our system was implemented and built out quickly, and we were using marketing automation features and website landing pages, email marketing, and social media tools within, I would say, four to six weeks.

Everything was set up for us. We were fully in the tool within a relatively short period of time. But we experienced longer-term issues from moving too quickly. The speed of that initial setup was great at the start, but created long-term problems for my organization.

It's sort of like hiring a driver versus learning how to drive a car yourself. We hired an agency whose approach to HubSpot onboarding was to drive our marketing machine for us. They were the experts. Everything was set up. We just handed them the keys and said go for it. And there was very little forethought on the part of my leadership team thinking, if this relationship doesn't continue, who's going to know how to drive?

So I, as the new hire, was volunteered to learn this marketing machine while there was no immediate need for me to do anything. No one else seemed to have an interest in learning marketing automation because we had an agency to do that for us. They were driving the machine. So there was a hands-off approach from a leadership perspective. 

But it became clear to me that it would be beneficial to learn it. So I went through about 40 hours of HubSpot Academy webinars in the course of a month. Many of those hours were sitting in on webinars hosted by Nick when he still worked there. That's how we initially met. I was one of his students.

And I brought myself up to speed, but it always felt like I was at best backseat driving when the agency had their own methodology, their own way of doing things. And I had a little sliver of understanding of why they were setting up workflows this way, or why they were setting up lists that way.

JB: Do you feel that that particular agency’s approach discouraged clients from having expertise in HubSpot?

JP: Yes and no. I think that when my company expressed an interest in me learning the software, [the agency] made their team available to kind of do a rudimentary version of HubSpot consulting. But it was basically a Q and A.

There was no formal approach of “we want to get you to be an expert in this.” They wanted to appease my leadership team, so they set up one-on-one calls with someone on their team so that I could basically send emails.

It was a concept of, “well, they're asking for this, so we'll give it to them. But we're not going to teach you all of our methodology. We're not going to give you the secret sauce to what we're doing, because you don't need that level of understanding.”

They thought I didn’t really need the strategy of why they’re sending emails this way or how to run reports, or how to connect everything through campaigns, or how to write lists, or any of the more strategic-level functionality. 

They were delivering that service to us. I was just trained so that my leadership team felt like someone on staff had basic idea how to use the tool.

JB: Nick, what does successful HubSpot onboarding look like to you?

NS: The good news is this: whether it's onboarding provided by an agency or by HubSpot’s implementation specialists, each team wants the customer to be successful — that is, to have a good return on their investment in HubSpot. 

When I worked at HubSpot, successful onboarding was onboarding that scaled. Onboarding was about adopting core features that correlated strongly with the customer being retained. The assumption was by driving the customer to set up core features, like landing pages and blogs integrating with your CRM, the customer would appreciate the value of those tools working together.

HubSpot tracked all of these feature utilization activities and they made sure that implementation specialists were encouraged, incentivized, and evaluated on how well we could help the customer adopt those features so that they would find them valuable and stick around.

HubSpot’s implementation team and any successful HubSpot Agency Partner wants to make sure the customer is well oriented to all of the support resources, to being a successful, self-sufficient user of HubSpot.

I think whether an agency or HubSpot is providing onboarding, a strong indicator of success is the level of self-sufficiency for the user that has been achieved.

JB: Maybe not in Jess' case, it seems.

NS: Yes, indeed. But she eventually got there, it sounded like. 

JB: The hard way.

NS: Yeah, after the fact.

JP: I will say, as a customer, I felt pressure from the agency to adopt more areas of the tool. I don't know if [HubSpot] was measuring agencies at that time by how many tools were adopted, but I remember distinctly there was a conversation about social publishing. My company had a system in place via a third-party app, and it was very apparent that the agency wanted us on HubSpot to sort of check a box.

So we were pressured to use more of the tool.

JB: So, many people would think that having the company that developed the software do the onboarding seems natural. Why would you look elsewhere? 

NS: Jess brought up a good point just now, which is there's pressure to adopt the tools. So when you're doing onboarding with the software company, all you’re eating, sleeping, and breathing is HubSpot. That's usually where your head's going to go if you're an employee of the software company. Can the software help you do that?  Especially since it's such an all-in-one system. 

When you work inside the company that makes the features, there's a lot of pressure to get customers to adopt the core features, try the newest features, sometimes even if that focus doesn’t make total sense for the customer’s priorities right now. 

JP: It creates a dependency. The more areas of the tool that you're using for more aspects of your day-to-day marketing life, it creates this friction point where if you want to leave it would require too much to change to different systems because so much of your data already lives within HubSpot.

All of your marketing history lives there, all of your social posts are connected. Everything is easy all in one system, why would you leave?

NS: It’s different when you work with a reputable agency. If a template needs to be coded or made, if an email needs to be designed, or lists need to be set up, we, as an agency partner, are willing to jump in and help where need be — and it makes sense and do some of that work with you, while still making sure your self-sufficiency is the end goal. 

There was none of that at HubSpot, and for good reason. Because it doesn't scale and it's not in the interest of a fast growing software company to be accountable for deliverable work. They’d like it to be as low-touch as necessary. 

JP: In my opinion, the best case scenario is a partnership between the agency and the organization. They're there to work within your existing marketing efforts to recommend the right tools, the right usage cases for HubSpot, and when maybe you shouldn't use HubSpot.

A HubSpot agency partner can make those recommendations as an unbiased third party, rather than the software provider that's always going to evangelize its own platform as the solution. 

NS: A software company also has some natural boundaries and limitations as to where their true expertise is. Their expertise is in adopting certain features of the software and integrating those features with each other.

The agency partner you'll be with should be talking about additional important aspects of your company that are well beyond the field and scope of HubSpot’s onboarding program: content creation process, video production, branding and messaging strategy, e-commerce, and other human elements that are beyond what the software platform manages.

JP: An analogy I like to use is your PCP versus the urgent care. Urgent care’s focus is in terms of your own health with the problem at hand and the pain points that you're experiencing, but they fail to take a holistic approach to overall health. Are there warning signs or pain points that might become larger issues down the road? 

A PCP will monitor your health over a longer period of time and make sure that you're always in the right track and always avoiding larger health issues. Urgent care just doesn't have the time or energy. They're focused on getting you in and out the door and making sure that that one issue is solved.

NS: That is a very apt metaphor, Jess, because the job of the implementation specialist at HubSpot ends at 90 days. It is urgent care. There was no option, and there still isn't to this day, to keep working with that particular person beyond the 90 day implementation period. At least that's my understanding. 

There are other professional services options at HubSpot, but those are different teams and different people that you get handed off to. Whereas, at a firm like IMPACT, we stick with the client with a single point of contact through the onboarding and into even more advanced tool sets, because our people are trained on all of those as well. 

Being able to stick with the same person beyond your onboarding phase of HubSpot is important to some customers we work with.

JB: But Jess, after hearing your experience, why would anyone go with an agency?

JP: That was my initial mindset for years: the agency model didn't work. I was very cynical of it. I had had such a bad experience and I spent years digging out from that mess. I thought, why would anyone want to use an agency to support a software relationship? 

I almost didn't apply for this job [at IMPACT] because I didn't want to be one of those people that seemed like they were taking advantage of consumers. But IMPACT’s unique approach drew me in. They want to empower you to do the work yourself. They want to not hold anything back or keep information secret.

JB: Do you see your younger self in your clients?

JP: 100%. I take that past experience with me everyday into work and I say, "How can I make my HubSpot consulting clients feel like they're a true partner in this relationship?” I want to make sure that they're going to get the most out of this experience. That they're going to eventually get to the point where they feel so comfortable in their HubSpot knowledge and HubSpot expertise that they might not need me.

I want every conversation to be the exact opposite of what I experienced early on.

Everyone is at an information disadvantage, and they are coming to us from a place of vulnerability where they're raising their hand and saying, "I don't know how to do this thing. Can you help me?" 

At IMPACT, our answer is, "Yes, we can not only help you, but we’ll show you how. We can empower you. We can get you to be the expert in your space.”

JB: If you're considering using an agency to help you with your onboarding of HubSpot, how do you evaluate that agency before you get into a relationship like Jessica described? 

JP: I would say look for a partner who is, above all else, transparent, and is focused on educating you to the point of individual success rather than collaborative success. 

Because as much as you want a partner who you can work with, you have to think beyond that initial relationship to what does success look like if the worst happens. If this relationship falls apart, how would I stand on my own two feet?

If there is no plan for how to survive as your own organization, that’s a red flag.  

Or, if the agency is not willing to talk about how you graduate their services, then that's an agency partner that you should be wary of.

NS: Seek transparency as much as you can. And seek to meet the team members that you'd be working with. Anybody that we're going to be doing HubSpot onboarding with, we want to meet them, our consultants want to meet them, and they want to meet us. And we'll broker that meeting. 

No matter what an agency says on its website or what claims it makes, it's going to sink or swim on that relationship you foster with the consultant you’re matched up with and that expertise that you're getting from them.

And second, in terms of transparency, consider, are they going to be showing you how the work is done and evaluating the work as Jess described? Or are they going to take your order and then they're going to go in the back room and they're going to figure out how that's supposed to get done and then come back to you only after it’s finished?

JP: You want to see how the sausage is made 100% of the time. You never want to wonder what's in that meat casing.

NS: You want to know that you can bring an issue to your consultant and talk it out intelligently because they've encountered that issue before and they understand how to help you solve it — versus just giving an order to an agency and turning your back and waiting for something to come out at the end.

JP: I experienced that worst case scenario. We created a partner agency relationship, and what was promised was not delivered. We ended that relationship and we were stuck holding the bag. 

I was the only person within my organization that had any experience with HubSpot, and it was sort of like, okay, here's this portal that's been beaten up for 12 months by an agency with tons of cooks in the kitchen, and we had to figure out how to suddenly take that over.

That relationship ended in November, 2014. We continued to use the platform until November of 2018. 

For four years we would find things that had been set up in a specific way, things that had been configured improperly. I was still digging through the mess. 

Again, they wanted to make sure that they held everything close to the vest. We had to reverse-engineer someone else's work after the fact. 

We spoke on several occasions of just ditching HubSpot, which we eventually did. The platform was too cumbersome to keep using — all because of how it was set up.

JB: That clearly is not what you envisioned when you adopted HubSpot and partnered with that agency.

NS: That’s the difference between agencies. The best ones will be your coach. They will face those difficult issues with you head on and help you figure out where to go further, and they will hold you accountable to it. 

Whereas others might just say, “well, we'll do that setting up for you.” Or HubSpot’s implementation specialist will say, well, here's a HubSpot Academy course to take.

JP: It's really three levels: For one, it's HubSpot’s 90 day onboarding of “here's the article, that's the best we can offer.” Second, there are agencies that are going to totally do it for you, but this leads to problems in the long term.

And then there’s the Goldilocks. 

There are agencies that are going to be a coach and a partner — and that's the best case scenario. Someone who won't hold any punches and will make you the expert in your own software, and never make it feel like you're playing second fiddle. You're the one in the driver's seat. You're the one owning your marketing automation software. And eventually you won't need them anymore.

They offer expertise when you need it, but it’s geared toward your autonomy.

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