5 Ways to Build Sales Partnerships

Originally published
Originally published: 4/1/2012

Today’s businesses are complex and have various needs. Because of this, it sometimes is impossible to put together a major sales opportunity without the cooperation of multiple people from multiple firms. Sales partnerships can be a huge help when it comes to developing new business, so here are five steps to building the kind of partnerships that work for the long haul.

1. Identify your strengths and weaknesses.
If you’re going to partner with another individual or firm, you need to understand exactly what you and your company are really bringing to the table. Build a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) to determine what you and your firm have to offer, and where you need help from the outside. Use that SWOT to find the right partners.

For example, if your company has a strong set of products but little experience selling into a specific industry, you may want to partner with a firm that has few products but lots of experience in that industry. Similarly, if your company is heavily deployed in one geographical region but you want to expand, you may want to partner with a firm that has experience in your targeted region (as long as your offerings don’t compete). For example, if you don’t offer plumbing, partnering with an entrenched plumbing company to reach their customers could be a good partnership.

2. Select the right partner.
Just as it’s important to “know thyself,” it’s important to know the strengths and weaknesses of your potential partner(s), not just in terms of their ability to contribute to the sales process, but their willingness (and psychological readiness) to partner. Just because another firm has a core competency you need is no guarantee that they will willingly share it.

Here is a list of the sort of complementary talents to look for in a selling partner:

  • Help in developing and leveraging your core competency.
  • Ability to create valuable synergies in your customer accounts.
  • Assistance in reducing your overall sales costs.
  • Elimination or reduction of duplication of effort.
  • New ideas discovered with their help.
  • Access to new customers and prospects.
  • Help against established and emerging competitors.

3. Build a relationship consensus.
Conduct a pre-opportunity meeting with your potential partner to define who is going to do what and when. Build a plan of action to address the opportunities, spreading the work appropriately among the partners that will be contributing (and benefiting) from the successful sale.

Formalize your agreement with a written outline describing the commitment that each partner has made. Put it in writing, with detailed explanations of activities, expectations, and responsibilities of each partner. If the partnership is to be long-lasting and involves ongoing sales activities, it might be a good idea to have potential problems addressed ahead of time and a formal contract written and signed.

4. Agree on a code of conduct.
A code of conduct reinforces the partnership behavior by following a set of common-sense rules, such as:

  • Be the kind of partner with whom you’d like to partner. This is the sales partnering version of the “golden rule.”
  • Ethics and morals are vitally important. Remember: It’s not enough to be honest; you’ve got to avoid the appearance of dishonesty.
  • Respect others. Every company has a slightly different corporate culture; don’t assume that yours is better or smarter.
  • Think as a member of both your alliance and your industry. As Ben Franklin once said, “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
  • If you have the opportunity to prosper at the partner’s expense, don’t. That’s like cheating in a marriage. 

5. Communicate and celebrate.
Consistently communicate to your partner(s) the value you’ve delivered, and recognize the contributions that your partner has made. If the partnership develops problems, don’t give in to anger. Instead, meet your partner more than halfway. And when you win, as a team, make a big deal out of it. There’s nothing like winning to make a sales partnership stronger!

Author’s note: the above is based on a conversation with Ed Rigsbee, author of PartnerShift, Developing Strategic Alliances (Crisp Learning, 2000). 

Geoffrey James writes a daily column on selling for Inc. magazine’s website and is the author of How to Say It: Business to Business Selling: Power Words and Strategies from the World’s Top Sales Experts (Prentice Hall, 2011).

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