Supporting Customer Service in a
Channel Partnership Environment

(Originally published as a Customer Service column in the
July 1998 issue of AFSMI's The Professional Journal.)

By William K. Pollock

Many services organizations have begun to use channel partnerships to enhance their ability to reach, and support, an expanded market base. However, the use of such indirect business channels requires that the organization takes its partnership role very seriously in order for it to bring forth the desired marketing and economic benefits. This becomes particularly true with respect to the potential impact of the channel partnership on the company's ability to ensure that its ultimate customers are receiving the appropriate levels of customer service and support.

The true test of any business channel relationship may be measured in terms of answering the following three questions:

  • First, will the channel partnership allow the business to more efficiently provide the products and services that correspond with the ultimate requirements of the marketplace and, consequently, are also valued by the dealer/distributor and VAR communities;
  • Will the partnerships into which the business enters be of value for all participants, providing leverage for each to gain additional market share and/or attain additional revenue; and
  • Will the ultimate customers (i.e., end-users, equipment operators, consumers, et al) receive sufficiently high, and consistent, levels of customer service and support.
Most businesses that enter into such partnerships believe that within each channel relationship, they can provide valuable assistance to their partners by assisting them in:
  • Creating a marketing infrastructure whereby they can more easily deliver the product and service offerings that they wish to provide to their own customers;
  • Facilitating the launch of new product and service offerings to both existing and prospective market segments;
  • Continually expanding, and improving upon, each partner's respective product and service offerings; and
  • Offering both an existing customer service infrastructure as well as guidelines for supporting their partner's customers with the desired levels of service and support.
The establishment of a channel partner relationship may be a very difficult, time-consuming and highly political business endeavor. As such, it is critical that a formal process is involved in moving forward. This process may involve the following steps:
  1. Partnership/Management Meetings
    The first meeting between an organization's key executives and its potential partners is critical to initiating the partnership process. The result of this meeting will also determine the direction and speed with which the two organizations will pursue reaching their partnership goals, including identifying the degree of interest in alliance between the companies; generating enthusiasm for the rollout of the product and service offerings to the partner's customers; developing a consensus on the objectives, next steps and timeframe; agreeing on the levels of service and support to be provided; and establishing an initial formal agreement.

  2. Establish the Alliance
    Establishing the actual alliance is what sets the partnership in motion. At this stage, the objectives become to conduct the internal (i.e., partner) launch; ensure that the sales forces are entirely aware of, and educated about, the joint product and service offerings; and that they are able to consistently articulate and deliver the benefits of the joint offerings to the targeted customers. It is at this stage of the partnership process that the policies and procedures for delivering "seamless" customer service and support, across all company/organizational boundaries, are also established.

  3. Generate Market Interest and Demand
    Once the initial steps have been successfully completed, the program focus should shift to the generation of market interest and demand. The primary goal of this step is to generate awareness of, and demand for, the product and service offerings from among the partners' joint customer bases. The primary issues addressed as part of this step are the identification of the key influencers and sources of information for the purchase decision makers; implementation of ongoing programs of communications with customers and other market influencers; formal market launch of the product and service offerings; gathering of feedback/response from external audiences; communication of that feedback/response to appropriate internal audiences; and development of customer testimonials and references to be utilized in ongoing marketing programs.

  4. Identify Segment Priorities Based on the results of the previous steps, the objective should now focus on the identification of the targeted customer segments that most value the partners' "new" product and service offerings, and what specifically are their needs and requirements for customer service and support. The key issues to be addressed here include defining a common set of needs and requirements to be fulfilled by the product and service offerings; identifying common characteristics with which to categorize and describe the key customer segments; focusing all marketing, sales and customer service activities on these defined priorities; and capturing new business development opportunities in other areas as they occur.

  5. Refine Product and Service Offerings
    The final step is actually the first step in revisiting all of the actions and activities that have led to this point. The primary mechanism for ultimately refining the product and service offerings, and the corresponding levels of required customer service and support, is to incorporate the principal issues of customer feedback and response directly into the partners' respective portfolios.
Overall, supporting the ultimate customer may involve all of the organization's channel partners. The most successful channel partners will be those that can maximize the impact of their relationships once they have successfully completed an effective process for selecting the most appropriate partners at the outset; arranging for the establishment of mutually beneficial partnership agreements on a contractual basis; developing and implementing a plan for working together; establishing reciprocal programs for ensuring consistently high levels of customer service and support; and jointly marketing and promoting the full portfolios of each of the partners' products and services.
William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.


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