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Defining partnerships as a service

Illustration of different people holding products, with arrows pointing to a warehouse.

There are many types of ‘Partners’ that exist across business and e-commerce; technology providers, referral partners, affiliate partners – the list goes on. This can make defining Partnerships as a division within a company difficult. Even within organizations, helping internal teams to understand one ‘Partner’ is different from another can be a tough undertaking.

This gets trickier when we start talking about Partnerships not as an activity that provides good PR, but as a unique service offering that actively connects customers with trusted solutions that help to grow their business. 

For the sake of clarity, we like to think of this as ‘Partnerships as a Service’ (or PaaS, for those who are fond of acronyms). But how exactly do Partnerships constitute a service? And what is Partnerships, anyway?

Defining Partnerships (With a capital P)

It’s the pleasure (and sometimes the burden) of Partnership Managers to define Partnerships for the benefit of customers, stakeholders, and potential Partners. So, let’s dive in.

At the most basic level, a partnership is simply two organizations coming together and marketing themselves as compatible on a strategic or technological basis. Obviously, there’s a lot more underpinning a successful partnership than that (more on this later!)

The best way I’ve personally found to think about Partnerships (aside from the wearer of many hats) is a mix of Sales and Customer Success with a splash of Marketing added. Shake, strain, and serve, and you have a delicious Partnerships cocktail.

So, Partnerships is not strictly about increasing revenue – though this obviously plays a role – but rather building relationships that lead to improved outcomes for everybody’s customers.

Informal referrals and recommendations for other solutions happen all the time, especially in a space like e-commerce which has a lot of moving parts. So, when are Partnerships a distinct service, as opposed to something that businesses do on an ad hoc basis?

Adding value by offering services beyond in-house

Let’s face it: One organization cannot be a one-stop-shop solution for everything – and they shouldn’t try to be. 

Every business starts out with a specific problem they’re trying to solve. If they’re good at what they do and have a compelling value proposition, they’ll win themselves a loyal customer base.

It’s tempting to add new solutions in a bid to reach more customers. But every business should always be asking themselves the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ behind any new initiative. If it’s not obvious how or why certain services should be offered, it’s a sign this venture isn’t set up for success. 

This is where a curated selection of partners adds serious value. These partnerships allow you to extend your services beyond what you can offer in-house, especially in areas where you don’t have enough internal expertise to build a high-quality solution. 

Being able to connect a customer to a valued partner who can solve an outstanding need or pain point may not sound like a massive achievement. But opting for collaboration over competition is one of the best ways to build trust. If customers feel comfortable asking for recommendations – and a Partnerships team feels confident in referring a customer to a partner technology or solution – this opens up a wonderful dialogue based on mutual trust and a deeper understanding of your customers.

Identifying (and filling) gaps in the customer experience 

Creating seamless experiences in e-commerce is no picnic. Advances in technology may have opened up more opportunities for brands to connect with customers – but on the flip side, consumer expectations are a lot higher, too.

If there’s no easy trail of breadcrumbs for customers to follow from the moment they enter your website, this can cause customer churn and cart abandonment to skyrocket.

By connecting with current customers, Partnership Managers can suggest best-in-class solutions to combat weaknesses in the brand experience. Regularly touching base with questions like:

  • “What are your business goals for the next year?”
  • “Where do you want to be in the next six months?”
  • “What technology are you using today that you can’t live without?” 
  • What is the biggest challenge you’re currently trying to overcome within your business?”

These can provide insight into how best to plug experience gaps that are impacting operations efficiency, opening a door to more proactive business planning. 

Helping brands to scale

A lack of scalability is one of the most overlooked causes of customer churn and poor growth. If a business has a best-in-class solution but is struggling to reach new customers, that’s a lot of revenue that disappears out the door as they max out the revenue they can earn from their current audience. 

By partnering with brands or solutions that have an established presence in a market that complements their own, businesses can build longevity in the marketplace by leveraging their partner’s customer base to find suitable prospects – and vice versa. Recommending the right technology solutions to your customers also means unblocking them and enabling faster growth, which in turn delivers more revenue back to your business.

What makes a great Partnership?

A focus on mutual success

It’s easy for businesses to get in their heads about ‘going it alone’ and seeing everyone in their space as a competitor. But finding prospective customers doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. In a space like e-commerce, it’s the norm for businesses to share hundreds, if not thousands of mutual prospects. And as the old saying goes, many hands make for light work.

Joining forces with a partner to court a joint prospect is a lot more likely to bear fruit than doing the same thing alone. When both of you are pursuing the same target customer, you have a lot more levers to pull to get their attention. 

Think integrations that streamline key workflows, compelling customer success stories, or spotlighting a partner in your next newsletter. A partner that’s willing and able to participate in these kinds of co-marketing opportunities is one that you can really go places with. 

Being open to new initiatives

Ensuring that you and your partner are getting what you want out of a Partnership can be a balancing act. How a partner interprets the idea of partnership activities may be different from the activation and co-marketing opportunities you want to pursue.

A common misconception is that a good partner is one who does things the same way you do. But this causes organizations to miss out on some really valuable learning opportunities. For example, if one Partner is in the habit of running quarterly webinars and this is a new area for you, this knowledge can be incorporated into other areas of your business. So, why not say ‘yes’ to the opportunity and take the learnings from it?

Activities like this enable partnerships to flourish and continually add value to your business. I like to think of these as ‘cactus’ partnerships, because they are evergreen and deep-rooted. Cactus partnerships are low maintenance, don’t require a lot of watering, but have a really high impact. This differs from ‘fern’ partnerships, which are seasonal, require more time and attention, and fail to thrive if the conditions aren’t exactly right. Basically, your partnership network should be a terrarium of succulents, not a fernery!

A compelling joint value proposition

Aligning your business with big-name solutions in your space can be a great way to build legitimacy – but it won’t achieve much else if you don’t have anything in common with each other. Every potential Partnership should start out with a thorough mapping of mutual prospects, shared customers, and most importantly, a shared outlook and value proposition.

A joint value proposition should provide a concise answer to a simple question: “Why should people come to us as a joint solution?” This doesn’t have to involve a technical integration, but there needs to be a clear reason why your solutions work better together or help solve a specific pain point. After all, no partnership should ever be a one-way street; it should be bi-directional and offer value on both sides. 

Walking away, hand in hand

Every great Partnerships person knows that the key to a successful relationship is not just mutual value, but clarity and transparency — this builds trust between you, your partnerships, and your customers.

Often, I hear brands and customers use the term ‘partner’ to define their 3PL and vice versa, we say a customer is a great ‘partner’ because we work better together and have high trust in our abilities to deliver on our mutual goals.

This can’t be understated, that Partnerships as a Services, serves the same mantra —  source and maintain relationships with solutions and technologies that build on our mutual best interest. From more sales through net-new channels, to launching a new ERP, having a partnerships team within an organization you work closely with, could be a winning differentiator for you.

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