by Adam Zouak and Chris Izquierdo

“What do you mean our main distributor just signed with our biggest competitor? Don’t they know we already have the features those guys just announced?” I have heard stories like this many times. Some of those tales were from years ago when my dad managed a distribution network. And some of those stories are very recent. The saddest part was that many of the problems were avoidable, particularly if some wisdom was taken out of the pages of great corporate communications. Let’s get into it.

Why do we communicate with our partners?

The answer is painfully simple and is along the lines of we want them to easily sell our stuff, and not sell our competitors stuff, and of course, we want them to sell lots of it. To make that happen, we want to give them the latest product knowledge and all the support they need. At least, that’s the pitch. The reality has sadly fallen short.

Most organizations employ two strategies for communicating with their partners:

  • Partner Portal
  • Email

In the early 2000s, we called Partner Portals – Extranets. They were to be bastions of business to business engagement, the bigger and bolder cousins of Intranets. They were going to be our strategic advantage over our competition. We were going to do so much. Oh, those heady days of big dreams and lofty ambitions.

Today, most Partner portals are even less well maintained than most Intranets, with even less engagement. Instead of providing the latest and greatest information that’s just a click away, they’ve been optimized to support posting quickly and sadly don’t happen as often as they should.

Many organizations fall back to email blasts, figuring “if they won’t come to us, we’ll send the information to them.” But with no way to differentiate between emails that are about product updates, or incentives, or discovered issues, or all of that in one. They become noise and get ignored.

In dealing with partners, just like in corporate communications, there are different types of information:

  • Nice to know
  • Need to know
  • Must know

It’s also very important to segment your audience based on the type of information you are sharing. If you tell everyone about everything, no one is going to listen to anything. And when something happens that is critical your partners know, it can feel like the tale of Peter and the Wolf, no one is listening. Here’s such a tale from the real world.

A painful story

Several months ago, my dad shared a story with me about a company that went from titan to financially devastated. Had they looked at partner communications like mature, modern corporate communicators do, their fate would have been very different.
To make the story easier to tell, let’s pretend they were called LockCo and manufactured hotel room door locks. LockCo sold through distributors, and those distributors sold to hotel chains.’

LockCo had their partner portal, but it was only updated once a quarter at best. Once a month, they sent out an emailed newsletter to all the partners filled with everything. They had content about new incentives, new features, and occasionally a tidbit about product issues.
Sometimes they would get excited and send out extra emails to their partners about an incentive that was starting right away, or a feature they felt was so important it needed to be called out, again.

More often than not, when they did that, they ended up having to send an email or two to clarify things.
The partners went from complaining to just shrugging, and so life went on with no one caring that much. The product was fine. It rarely changed much, so life was at a delicate equilibrium. And then one day, the balance was tipped.

LockCo discovered a grave issue with its best selling product. The hotel door lock was able to be easily opened without a key. It was possible in the newer model to install it such that the issue didn’t happen, but the older models had to be recalled. LockCo struggled with whether or not to reveal this to their partners (an issue unto itself) but finally sent out an email, then another clarifying the first. Very few distributors took them up on their recall offer. Everyone shrugged and moved on, until six months later.

That was when the hotel patrons started suing the hotel chains because of the defect, and the hotel chains sued distributors. The distributors sued the manufacturer for not telling them.

The folks at LockCo tried to claim that they had posted it on the partner portal and emailed the partners about it, but they had no proof that anyone had read it. More importantly, they had no evidence that anyone was aware that they needed to take any particular action.

Steps to Better Partner Communications

No one wants to be in LockCo’s situation, but it can feel just as devastating when a key partner starts selling your competition or drops you all together. It can seem like it comes out of the blue, but often the truth is that it’s been a slow, gradual slide. More often than not, companies resort to additional financial incentives to smooth things over, but money is only a temporary salve at best.

Here are three things to consider in putting together a better partner communication program:

  • Look at your partners not as single entities, but rather as a collection of one or more individual users, each one may have a different responsibility or area of interest. When you look across your partners, you’ll likely see alignment in interest and function.
  • Understanding that the answer is not a partner portal or email, those are two channels that will work for a small part of the population, but you need a media that has active notification – like a mobile application or a Microsoft Teams/Slack plugin.
  • How can you group types of information (aka topics) so that it’s clear what is being communicated and aligns with those different user audiences?
    • e.g. Announcements, Incentives, Product Updates, Operations, Support

From there, let’s talk about three things can help make a difference in making everyone feel like they are getting the right information.

  • Segment the types of partner users and decide what information needs to be seen by which group and what information can be optional. For example, people in support at partners need to see the support issues updates but those in sales might not.
  • Have a concrete way to differentiate different levels of importance for messages sent to the partners.
  • Ensure you have a way to get an active confirmation for critical updates (like recalls in the LockCo example) that can be reported on. Active acknowledgment tracking is vital and makes it clear to the reader what’s expected of them.
  • How can you be confident of what’s working, what’s not, and who has read those critical updates?

The job of partner communications has to be about providing them with the right information to help make their job easier. Become great at partner communication, and you may hear your competition’s curses as they exclaim in frustration why, despite being offered some significant discounts, that partner just won’t leave you.

For more information about how Sparrow support partner communication reach out, we’d love to help.

Sparrow Logo

Sparrow is a powerful, easy to use, and economical omni-channel communications platform built for communicators. Whether its corporate communications or partner communications, Sparrow will help you drive up engagement, build trust with your users with relevant content, and have the analytics to let you know what’s working and what isn’t. At Sparrow, we believe great communications can be transformative. Sparrow – Built for Communicators. Book a conversation with us today.