This article is from Matthew Stoyka, Chief Relationship Officer at Rackspace.
For startups that are aiming for fast growth, building strong partner relationships can make all the difference.
Since founding RelationEdge, a Rackspace Company, in 2013 I have learned a lot about building and maintaining successful partnerships. The partner relationships we built in the early days of RelationEdge were pivotal to our organization’s growth and helped drive the business to where it sits today, as a key part of Rackspace’s global offerings.
To measure my own partnerships, I’ve developed what I call the six cylinders of alignment. A six-cylinder engine needs all cylinders maintained and operating efficiently to achieve its maximum output. Similarly, there are six pillars that make up the foundation of a business partnership — and just like an engine, you need to be firing on all six cylinders in order for the relationship to be successful, sustainable, and achieve maximum output for both parties. This model has allowed us to build mutually beneficial partnerships with AWS, Microsoft, Google, VMWare, Salesforce, and more.
Here’s more on the six cylinders of alignment, and how you can use them to start new partnerships on strong footing and maintain successful relationships that help all parties thrive.
The six cylinders of alignment for successful partnerships
1. Executive Alignment
From the very start of the relationship, alignment needs to come from the executive level. Clearly outline your goals and ask your partner to outline theirs, to ensure that both parties understand each other’s needs and the shared goals for this relationship.
Continuous improvement requires ongoing communication about goals, progress, and new ideas. Establish a communication plan that’s agreed upon by both parties — if possible, document the plan for both parties to reference. A partner communication plan should answer the following key questions:
- How often will we meet and when?
- How will we hold each other accountable to our goals?
- How will we measure ourselves and the success of this partnership?
- How will we plan to deal with conflict, disagreements or change management?
Be clear in answering all of these questions, so neither party is left guessing at what the other one expects of them.
2. Alliance & Channel Alignment
Get alignment on what your business alliance will look like, how it can grow moving forward, and how to measure success. This should be defined in concrete, actionable terms with benchmarks and milestones — more than simply setting a goal to ‘bring more customers’ to your partner organization.
Many large businesses have alliance programs that provide formal structure to their partner relationships — Salesforce, for example, divides its partners into tiers (such as Silver, Gold, or Platinum) that pertain to specific metrics they use to measure the evolution of each partnership.
If your partner already has an alliance program, make it your mission to get to know their program deeply. Understand what is required to move up within their formalized plan, and set specific goals for your own organization that pertain to that plan.
If there isn’t a formal partner program, think about how you will measure continuous success for this relationship. What metrics or milestones can tangibly show value to your partner? Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) that you can both agree on, and measure against them consistently.
3. Product Alignment
Find opportunities to participate in early discussions around your partner’s new products or services and provide real-world feedback. Make it a goal to become a thought leader or member of an advisory board with your partner. This will allow you to be seen as an expert in your field, showcase outstanding work being done at your company, and be an early adopter — providing value to your team and customers.
Similarly, before you build a new product or service, connect with your key partners to get their perspective. Include them in discussions around research and development, or invite them to a demo or early launch. Be open and receptive to their feedback; remember that their insight is likely to help your own offerings perform well in the market.
4. Sales Alignment
In a good partnership, you should be continuously asking yourself: How can I help my partner win? This requires alignment between your sales teams. Strive to understand their product well enough that you can pitch and sell it as if it were your own. You don’t need to be an expert; just be able to speak to it intelligently enough for your partner to come in with an opportunity.
When field sellers can work together, they can identify better leads and close more deals. Find a way to measure your own sales team and theirs against the goal of bringing each other business and collaborating on deals. When they know they can count on you to call them in when you uncover a hot lead for their products, they will do the same for you. It’s easier to win together!
5. Marketing Alignment
Get alignment between your marketing teams across every channel you each leverage; branding, events, digital channels, thought leadership, and more. Identify where your target audiences overlap and where they diverge. Leverage each other’s campaigns and collaborate where you can.
With a joint marketing strategy, your two organizations can tell a better and more cohesive story to your audience. Tie together the perspectives from each of your marketing teams to deliver a message that resonates deeper with your target audience. When you bring together two strong marketing teams, 1+1 can equal 3.
6. Service Delivery Alignment
True alignment requires a symbiotic relationship around service delivery. You have to deliver with — and for — your partners. The right partner gives you access to capabilities that complement your own, and vice versa. Your partner should be getting access to the skills and people on your team who can help them better deliver solutions to their customers.
If you are both benefiting from access to each other’s knowledge, skills, and talent, you are going to win every time.
Using the 6 cylinders to evaluate your partner relationships
In order to use the six-cylinder approach effectively, there are some wider principles to keep in mind when evaluating, building, and maintaining your partnerships.
Strive to Out-Give Your Partner
The six cylinder approach provides a framework for how to operate, and what areas to focus on. When building a new partnership, try to identify one tangible way that you can be generous for each pillar. Right from the start, this gives you six ways to begin providing value and building trust between your organizations. The same approach can be used to nurture and grow your established partnerships.
Identify the Right Partners — and Be Selective
A strong partnership requires firing on all six cylinders, and it’s impossible to do this well if you spread yourself thin. When it comes to good business partnerships, especially for a growing startup, quality is better than quantity.
Not every potential partner will be the right fit for your business. Be selective in identifying the right partners for you, to ensure you focus your time and resources in fostering the relationships that matter. Having one or two partners that are an exceptionally good fit for your business is better than having eight partners that you can’t give enough attention to.
Assess the Health of Your Partnership Regularly
Maintaining a strong business relationship takes continuous effort. As your business and your partner’s business evolve, the nature of your relationship may morph over time.
Evaluate your business relationships with equal focus on each cylinder to ensure that your partnership engine is operating at peak performance. Regularly assess each cylinder, and be radically honest with yourself and your partner: What is working well? What isn’t? Where do you need more support, or where do you feel you have room for improvement?
- Measure: Use the KPIs you have set for each cylinder to measure the current success or progress in that area.
- Report: Report on the metrics and progress for each cylinder of your partnership, so that you can measure growth over time and identify changes or areas that need improvement as the partnership evolves.
- Communicate: Share your metrics and reports with your partner, to showcase the positive ways in which your partnership is growing, and to highlight areas of improvement and collaborate on ways to address those areas.
- Make Data-Driven Decisions: Use the data and metrics you’ve gathered on each cylinder to make concrete decisions for how to move forward to improve your partnership.
If I ever feel that we are not giving enough to one of our partners, I check in using the six cylinders of alignment to assess which ones are going well and which are being neglected or have room to improve. By using this framework, I almost always find that the gap in the relationship is a solvable matter. Usually, it means there is one or more cylinder in which we aren’t giving enough and could be doing better.
When all six cylinders are firing, you are achieving maximum output with your partnership. When you’re at a high growth stage, a strong partnership can be pivotal in your business. Manage your relationship well and both you and your partner will see the results.