The traditional view of the sales rep is the "lone wolf" or the "road warrior" who overcomes objections and wins the deal. However, in many B2B selling environments, it's only possible to put together a deal with the cooperation of multiple companies. And that means multiple sale reps from multiple firms working together.
For example, a company selling printing services may need to involve a graphic design company, a shipping firm and a paper supplier in order to clinch the deal. Similarly, the sale of a customized software system may involve components sources from half-a-dozen firms, requiring the active participation of half-a-dozen sales reps.
Unfortunately, not every sales professional knows how to build the kind of sales partnerships that allow teams of reps to pursue and win these complex opportunities. This post contains an easy-to-understand, five step process for creating and maintaining sales partnerships that help you sell.
Illustrations by LuMaxArt
Before you can consider a sales partnership, you must understand what you, and your firm, is bringing to the table. The traditional way of doing this is to use a traditional SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to determine what you and your organization has to offer - and where you need help from outside.
For example, if your company has a strong set of products but little experience selling into a specific industry, you may need to partner with a firm that has few products but lots of experience inside a specific industry. Similarly, if your company is heavily deployed in one geographical region of the country or the world, you may want to develop a partnership with a rep who works in another geographical region in order to develop a global opportunity.
There's also a certain level of self-assessment that's required at this point. It's a natural tendency for individuals to want to keep control of their destiny. As such, many reps feel uncomfortable giving up a certain amount of control over a customer account, which is always part of a partnership arrangement. Similarly, when it comes to selling, the undeniable fact that "knowledge is power" leads many a rep to horde information that, if shared with a team, might result in a quicker sale.
Successful sales partnerships require the development of trust as the foundation for a long-term relationship. Unfortunately, many sales reps, while trained to develop such relationship with customers are often at a loss when it comes to partnering with their peers, particular when those peers are also (in a certain sense) their competitors as well.
A good analogy might be drawn from baseball, where the "All Star" games are often relatively uninteresting because the players have little or no idea of how to work together as a team. The same is true with a complex sale involving reps from multiple divisions or different vendors. If you're going to work together with other reps, you need to be the kind of person who can really be a team player.
If you're going to partner, you need to understand the strengths and weakness 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 has a core competency that you need, there is no guarantee that they will willingly share it.
You need to find partners with whom you can create mutually beneficial value. To do this, you look for complementary core competencies and mutual circles of interest. Here is a list of the sort of complementary talents that you should be looking for in a sales partner:
- Help in developing and leveraging your core competency.
- Ability to creating valuable synergies in your customer accounts.
- Assistance in reducing your overall sales cost.
- Elimination or reduction of duplication of effort.
- Innovations discovered with their help.
- Access to new customer and prospects.
- Help against established and emerging competitors.
As you look at a potential sales partner, go back to your self-assessment to be sure that can deliver the value that the other partner values -- not just the value that you think the potential partner ought to consider valuable. The last thing you want is a situation where one partner delivers "value" that the other partner did not consider to be worthwhile.
Before you partner with another rep, be sure to conduct a pre-opportunity meeting with your potential partner. Hash out a working agreement of who is going to do what and when. Build a plan of action to address the opportunity, spreading the work appropriately among the partners who will be contributing (and benefiting) from the successful sale.
Now 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. That's the road map for your successful alliance relationship, but it's only a starting place. It will be necessary to make regular "relationship bank deposits" of physical and emotional energy to keep the partnership alive.
If the partnership is to be long-lasting and involves ongoing sales activities, it may be a good idea to have potential problems should be hashed out and a formal contract written and signed. In the case, the sales managers of both firms may need to discussions with their peers in the other companies, in order to reveal potential problems, the nature of the relationship, the scope of the cooperation, and the logistics of the partnering effort.
It may also be a good idea to try to get all the partners using the same CRM system, so that it's possible for multiple sales reps to collaborate and record activity at a customer or prospect site. Without such a system, it can become impossible to keep sales partnering to from degenerating into battles over account control, where the last rep standing gets the commission.
Any partnership between competing reps is likely to be fragile at first, while the individual involved learn to trust. The only way to guarantee that the trust will grow is to make sure that you ALWAYS deliver exactly what you say you will deliver - and then a little more.
The best way to encourage sales partnerships inside a sales environment is to create a "Code of Conduct" that reinforces the partnership behavior and helps to eliminate conflict. Such a code helps create a corporate culture where partnership seems normal. Here is a sample code to use as a model:
- 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 avoid the appearance of dishonesty.
- Respect others, their beliefs, customs and policies. 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."
- When in doubt, don't! You'll probably run across opportunities where you can use the partnership against your partner. That's like cheating in a marriage. Don't do it.
As with any other business situation, great results require ongoing measurement and management. The best ways to do this is through a single CRM system, in which all the partners communicate plans, log activities, request help, and report results. The CRM system tracks what's happened and generates an audit trail that determines appropriate compensation when the sale is finally made.
But even if you're not using a CRM system, be sure to consistently communicate to your partner(s) the value you've delivered. Ineffective communication is the primary reason that partnerships and alliances fail. You want to have enough communication so that both parties can monitor the relationship both at the "macro" and "micro" level. Then, when challenges pop up, you can quickly work together to address them.
If the partnership develops problems, don't give in to anger or frustration. Meet your partner more than halfway. If there's money on the table, dispose of it fairly or offer to buy your partner out. Above all, avoid taking the matter to court. The end result of such court cases is pennies on the dollar for you (if you're lucky) and a fat stack of cash for the lawyers.
Getting your partnership from initial handshake to a done customer deal requires plenty of "emotional" fuel. The partners will need to allocate and expend resources, time, mindshare and energy to turn the opportunity into a sale. As the sales cycle progresses, you'll need to invest in building and strengthening the relationship and the level of rapport.
Most importantly, when the sale is won, celebrate - and make sure that the celebration includes appropriate compensation for everyone involved.
- STEP #1: Identify Your Strengths and Weaknesses
- STEP #2: Select the Right Partner
- STEP #3: Build a Relationship Consensus
- STEP #4: Execute Your Commitments
- STEP #5: Monitor, Measure, and Celebrate