Don’t Wait to Ask

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Any good partner program must recognize what each party is, or at least should be, good at.  Vendors design and make products, operate the channel program, and provide advice and resources when partners ask for them.  Meanwhile partners are responsible for running their businesses, understanding the unique features and challenges of the territory, and invest heavily in knowing customers.

Each of these areas requires a delicate balance of input from each party.  Vendors might solicit advice about design and production but the bulk of the responsibility for getting products right is on the vendor.  It’s just the opposite for partners.  They are the subject matter experts on their territories and customers.  They might receive funding and other support for territory marketing programs but the responsibility is mostly on them to produce results.

But there’s one area where the need is so great that responsibility is shared almost equally.  It’s the customer experience and it’s such a big deal that the partner needs to know about it to focus outreach while the vendor needs to understand it to build better products and programs for the partner.  

Because the vendor has superior resources (usually) it often makes sense for the supplier to take the lead in reaching out.  This often raises hackles in the channel but it shouldn’t.  Surveying the customer base should not be seen as big brother checking up on the partner nor should it be viewed as a way to embarrass the partner or interfere with the direct relationship.  It is another tool for running the channel.

A vendor should check with customers periodically for several reasons.  First, to ensure that products and services are to the customer’s liking; second, as a quality control step for the service that the vendor has entrusted the partner to supply.  Finally, a good customer survey will attempt to uncover directly from the customer what unmet needs exist.  A good vendor will measure customer satisfaction through a standardized metric like the Net Promoter Score (NPS) or similar tool and stack rank partners by score.  Leaders can be assumed to have best practices and the entire ecosystem should be made aware of them.  Partners not near the top should view the exercise as something to help them improve and repeated poor showings should be evaluated carefully before taking any action.

As good as all this is, it is not enough.  This is where the duality of the indirect channel comes into view because partners are both customers and vendors and they deserve to have the same attention as end customers.  So a vendor should plan to delve into the channel the same way it asks end customers about their unmet needs and aspirations.  This means at least sometimes, ensuring all responses are anonymous.

One key difference between the partner and the end user might be the relative ease with which a vendor can constantly poll for insights.  While end customers might not welcome a constant barrage of “How are we doing?” questions, partners interacting with a PRM system might not have many compunctions about providing feedback.  

In other circumstances, notably communities, I have been frequently reminded that the rules of the road should include providing a friendly and trusting environment in which people are encouraged to share.  This happens when all are reminded to play nice, no exceptions, otherwise what should be a source of valuable information will dry up.

But remember, this information should be shared so when the news comes in, good, bad, or meh, it’s incumbent on the vendor to post it.  Even if the news isn’t particularly laudatory or revealing, posting it will provide opportunities for more discussion and it will earn you style points for trust which might be the most important commodity in a partner program.

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