Peter’s Perspective: Partners in the World of Customer Engagement

May 16, 2022

Peter Armaly

Category: Customer Success as a Service, Customer Success Maturity, Customer Success Strategy, Partner Success, Voice of the Team

“Heaven and earth and all things change and transform into something new every day.”

Guo Xiang, c. 300

That’s kind of complicated, right? That idea that everything is in a state of constant change? Ah, the joys of physics and metaphysics.

Here is a shortlist of other things that are complicated.

  1. Three-dimensional chess
  2. A baseball triple play
  3. Flying to, landing on, and returning to Earth from the moon in 1969 with only a small fraction of the computing power used by today’s iPhone
  4. In math, the Diophantine equation, sometimes known as “summing of three cubes”
  5. Addressing global climate change
  6. Working through business partners to ensure customers are receiving the experience they need in order to be successful

I’ve only ever observed 3D chess in sci-fi movies. I have been on the running side of a triple play (i.e., the losing side). I wasn’t part of the moon landing project in 1969 but I have read an entire library worth of material about it. I only know of the Diophantine equation because of an old friend whose Ph.D. was in math. Her eyes would drift skyward, and she’d have a faraway look as she talked about it.

Of all these examples of complicated things – including understanding how heaven and earth are constantly changing – far and away the most complicated, the one that has confounded the most brilliant minds, is the last one, working through business partners to ensure your customers are successful. Just kidding. But maybe not by much if I can speak for those who have been working for many years in the complicated environments of multi-modal, multi-channel, and multi-layered customer engagements in the enterprise world.

Partners, what good are they anyway?

The decision to execute a business model through a framework of partners opens the door to, yes, complication. But it also presents tremendous opportunities for revenue growth through the ability to amplify brand and reach new customers in new markets, by broadening and increasing opportunities to leverage innovative approaches that are otherwise challenging to do natively, and by reducing risk. All those benefits might be more difficult to realize for companies (let’s call them providers) insisting on doing everything directly with customers and entirely on their own. Those are hard benefits to ignore. The truth is that, in many cases, at least in terms of size of company and scope of offerings, partners are heavyweights and often have the kind of global reach that most providers can only dream about. To execute their business in the same scaled way is, for most providers, unrealistic and potentially financially ruinous. That’s why so many providers believe that partnerships never go out of style.

But with exponential reach into new markets come challenges. Often it becomes difficult to maintain a clear line of sight about how customers are doing and what they might need. The ability for a provider to influence its customers is therefore only as strong as its relationship with its business partner. All information becomes filtered through a partner lens. And there are perfectly justifiable reasons for that.

  • Partner companies are business entities themselves, just like providers, with their own employees and leadership teams, their own boards, and their own investors. They therefore have their own specific business focus and associated goals that may be nowhere near the same as the provider’s.
  • Customers might (often? mostly?) have stronger relationships with the partner than they do with the providers. It might sting to hear this, if you’re a provider, but the customer likely trusts the partner more than they do you. The converse assumption (often accompanied by shades of arrogance) is a mistake I see repeatedly being made.

What does the relationship dynamic mean?

Typically, providers wish to oversee and positively influence the customer’s experience and nudge it in the right direction so that the customer will decide to renew their investment when the times comes. But insert a partner (or two) into that straightforward equation and all of a sudden you have something more complicated. That level of oversight and influence is harder to come by.

Why? Because in many cases, all of the customer’s perceptions of the product, its value promise, ability to deliver on that promise, the support for it, and its usability, are filtered through the partner lens. And depending on the arrangement, the partner can effectively be the only face for the product to the customer even though the customer sees the provider’s name when they open the product or application. What is their perception then of the provider’s brand when they see the name? Do they blame the partner, or do they blame the provider when things go wrong or don’t work as expected? The provider doesn’t always know when something has gone awry. If that filter between provider and partner is murky and ends up inhibiting transparency, the provider will struggle for views of the customer’s experience and of their ability to adopt the product or service.

But that’s the tradeoff companies make when they team up with partners to extend their reach and/or leverage the greater skills and capabilities of partners. It’s a reach that can bring great benefits that they otherwise would not be able to realize on their own. But it’s usually accompanied by opacity.

So, the good comes with a level of risk. What can be done?

Hopefully, by now I’ve been able to make the case for the provider to establish a mechanism to ensure that it has a better line of sight into the progress of its customers and to influence the partner to be the best representation of the provider’s brand while they interact and support the customers. A Partner Success (PS) program should be that mechanism. I’ll go even further and argue that PS should be part of the Customer Success program, because even though they serve different constituents, they share similar areas of focus:

  • Drive activities that help advance revenue-generating business objectives (retention, expansion)
  • Act as a conduit for bi-directional flows of information (product info, escalations, etc.)

Establishing a Partner Success program under the umbrella of Customer Success will ensure:

  • Complimentary strategies are carried out programmatically
  • An ongoing alignment of messaging and expectations
  • The enablement for the Customer Success program to reach and influence many otherwise unreachable customers, through the relationships those customers have with partners

This isn’t a theoretical exercise I’ve been engaging in by writing this. ESG has already done this with key clients by piloting and rolling out Partner Success programs, and those clients are enjoying far greater alignment of their Customer Success programs with the partner companies that they work with. All through their new Partner Success programs.

You can learn about how those clients did it (with the help of ESG) by staying tuned for Part 2 of this short blog series, which I’ll be co-authoring with ESG Partner Success Program Manager, Nick Mitchell.

Will Partner Success solve all problems? No. But it will help address some of them, especially the great unknown ones. And this topic of partners reminds me of something that Albert Einstein said about complication…

 “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”

If one thing is absolutely indisputable about Customer Success, it’s this. Each step forward creates new opportunities, and each step forward should also create even more awareness that we increasingly need partners.