Partners Are Customers Too

There are many things about the current customer paradigm that need closer examination. For example, what’s the right designation? We seem to use customer and consumer interchangeably, but are these words interchangeable? Some might say it’s a difference without a distinction, but I disagree. The words overlap in meaning, but I suggest that thinking of your customers as consumers is as passé as referring to women as girls.

Customer implies a roughly equal relationship that both parties benefit from—a sort of mutualism in symbiotic terms. But symbiosis also recognizes two other categories: commensal, in which one party benefits but the other is not harmed, and parasitism, in which one party definitely injures the other. Obviously in business it is best not to develop parasitic relationships, because they tend not to last and when they fall apart, they can be nasty.

But between commensal and mutual, there is a lot of ground to cover. When I put on my biologist’s hat, it seems to me that the history of our industry is layered with attempts to move the needle from commensal to mutual, and that’s roughly the change from consumer to customer. Certainly the recent and ongoing move to social media is an example of a desire to develop mutually beneficial relationships between vendors and customers.

As a free marketer, too, I know that the move to mutualism is not the result of some altruistic impulse on the part of vendors; it is common sense based on the better aspects of the survival instinct. Simply put, today’s markets are saturated. There are multiple products in most niches, and selling more means either taking someone’s customer away or reselling to your own customer base.  

Either way, a new deal is far easier to consummate with customers who believe they received good value from the last interaction and product. Our shorthand for this attitude is ensuring the adequacy of the customer experience, and it is a good and valid approach. Too often, though, we limit our vision of what a customer is to a person or company that directly uses our products and services. That leaves out another powerful constituency for many vendors, their partners, and the partner channel.  

In some industries, such as technology, the partner channel generates more than half of the revenue. Partners are the last mile of the chain that might start at the raw material suppliers and pass through multiple component manufacturers to a final assembly plant and then a distribution system that can be substantial.

What about the partner experience? Let’s coin a term—the partner experience. For as long as there has been CRM, partner relationship management, or PRM, has been the poor stepchild, and software vendors have either ignored this market or attempted to stuff it into a version of CRM. But partners have their own business processes and unique needs.

For example, partners might compete among themselves in the same territory or adjacent ones, so deal registration is a big deal for them. So is getting and using marketing funds from the OEM to drive specific programs in the territory. In line with that, the OEM typically needs to supply supporting campaign materials. Just as conventional salespeople like to track their quota performance and revenues, the partner organization also needs to have accurate accounting. It goes on and on—the channel is adjacent to conventional direct relationships, but it different enough to require special handling.

So the partner channel is a big deal, albeit one that seems to stay out of sight for most of us. Nonetheless, vendors that sell through channels are feeling the same kinds of need to understand their partners as those who sell direct to the end customer. And just as we’re learning to be less commensal and more mutual in CRM, the same demands are rising in the channel.

The savvy channel manager seeking a more mutualrelationship has to offer more than a discount these days. For example, deal registration, is nice but what are your rules of engagement including deal size or how you avoid channel conflict? What is your partner service level agreement? How often do the two organizations communicate and at what level of granularity is the data exchanged?

It’s only by setting these expectations properly for both sides that you can have a successful channel. I’d like to say that all this is old news, but for many channel organizations it isn’t. That’s why I am suggesting that the partner channel is as important as the direct channel and why we need to apply the same approaches to building mutually beneficial relationships between parties using modern technology tools and social approaches. That’s where partner experience management comes in.