Category Archives: Partner Management

How to create a partner support program

Business men in a hurry run & walk on time clocks

The blog has discussed in the past some aspects of partner eco-systems on support, mostly focused on the motivations of the two sides and the business relations between them. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss support oriented partner programs and the basic building blocks that make them successful. This post, therefore, will focus more on the operational sides of creating a partner program

Companies have different classes of 3rd parties acting as intermediaries between them and some, or all, of their customers. These 3rd parties are sometimes called distributors, OEMs, channel partners, VARs, and more. From a support perspective, however, we are mostly interested in two classes of partners – those who support their own customers and those who do not. In this post we’ll focus on the first group, and we’ll use the term partners for simplicity

Building a successful partner support program requires consideration of four specific points:

  • Which partners should participate – entry criteria
  • What does the company require from the partners
  • what does the company provide to partners in the program
  • What does the company do to ensure partners continue to deliver and what to do if they do not

To join the support program, partners should qualify in several levels:

  • Infrastructure – having a case tracking system, or using the company’s system. Phone access to support staff, ability to recreate customer problems, etc.
  • People – the partner must have dedicated, well trained people to address customer cases. Routing customer calls to services or pre-sales staff in the field is not an acceptable substitute

Members of the partners support program should be expected to provide a certain level of technical expertise and deflect a considerable number of cases before escalating the balance to the vendor’s support organization. It is important to remember that some cases might slip through the net. But, overall the proportion of simple cases that can be resolved via the knowledge base, problem recreation and other relatively simple activities should be much lower than those received from direct customers

Partners are an extension of the company’s support organization and as such their ability to successfully support their customers is key to their customers’ satisfaction with the products as well as propensity to renew their support and maintenance contracts. The company must therefore ensure partners have access to as many information resources as possible, from internal and external knowledge bases through customer cases all the way to training and more. When given access to customer cases then customer identity should not be shown to the partner staff

To ensure that partners continue to deliver the expected service levels to their customers, companies must think of developing a relationship that borrows some elements from the customer success discipline. For example, a periodic business review, where metrics are reviewed and an open discussion of what works and what doesn’t, and most importantly, how to capitalize on the positives and fix the negatives

In short, a successful partner program treats the partners as an extension of the company to ensure its success rather than ignore them, or even worse, create an adversarial relationship

Support and Partner Relationships

This post came to life as a response to a linkedin question on the Association of Support Professionals group (see the entire exchange here, join the group for valuable information).  The discussion started with a question about differentiating partner cases from direct customer cases.  Below is my response, a little enhanced and slightly cleaned up and edited to stand on its own:

When evaluating the way partner cases should be treated it is important to take a look at high level partner relationships and the way they apply to the support world:

The partners’ interests in many cases are:

  1. Get the maximum amount of discount from the vendor,
  2. Invest as little as possible in non-project oriented activities
  3. Deliver a working implementation and charge for the project
  4. Do the minimum supporting the customer and throw any case over the fence so they do not disrupt current projects

Additionally, the partners’ operating environment is such that

  1. Their investment in the product is not high
  2. Switching costs to a competitive solution are not high
  3. The main asset is the customer relationship

Therefore partners tend to always be operating “on the brink”, doing the absolute minimum they can and attempting to get the most out of it.

The challenge support operations face is removing their relationships with the partner from the transactional project-oriented MO of the partner and transition it to a continuous dialog.  In order to do that, it is important to realize several things:

  1. Partners are allowed to take an extra cut of the software maintenance fees for providing support (your contract with them should give you the right to demand some things of them in return, from service levels to auditing rights)
  2. Partners main source of revenue is from professional services projects and not in providing maintenance and support services
  3. Vendors are interested in the long term retention of existing customers and in the reputation their products have in the market served by the partner, which they have outsourced to the partner for the extra cut of the maintenance fees

Looking at it this way, it becomes much easier to provide answers to your questions:

  1. You must treat partners differently, after all they are an important participant in the support chain and therefore should be measured, praised or made to face the consequences of poor performance in the same way as everybody else.  If you treat them like customers, why not treat your own Level 1 team as customers as well?  Most likely they cost you way less than the partners.
  2. Having a separate team or routing directly to level 2/3 is probably an individual operational matter and has more to do with workload, scheduling, availability of expertise, etc., but if you route partners through level 1, then why pay them in the first place?
  3. If you think partners are part of your overall ability to deliver excellent customer experience then you absolutely have to ensure they have the same access as your employees (point made by David Kay).  If you do not give them access to resources how can you expect they do a proper job?

Additionally, I like David’s suggestion of “invalid escalations” – it gives you the ability to both gauge the partners’ effectiveness as well as the ability of your knowledge base to serve them correctly (the suggestion was to measure cases that could have been resolved with existing information without escalation to the vendor).

So, how do you create a successful support partnership with your resellers?  We’ll discuss that in a future post.

Interesting?  Anything to add?  Write a comment or drop me an e-mail.