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According to Forrester, 75% of world trade goes through or involves a partner before it is delivered to the end-user. This underscores that partners are an increasingly important route to market. For some businesses, it is your partner who provides the customer experience. So how can you be sure your partners have what they need to be successful? To represent your brand accurately and positively?

Since partners are on the front line of the business and often have deep relationships with customers, it pays to pay attention to what they know and what they can tell you about what is going on at the customer front and what they need from you. There are many ways to set up this communications channel. Customer surveys, partner surveys, social media listening and instant messaging channels all have their place.

Partner Advisory Councils (PACs) are a great supplement to all of these communications modes and should be part of the mix because they bring something different: a personal connection and real-time conversation on the issues that matter most to partners and their relationships with you.

PACs generally bring together a small cross-section of your partner community for a rich conversation. They can be highly formal and structured or as casual as a Clubhouse chat. Here are some tips that I believe are key to a successful PAC.

Prioritize PAC meetings — face-to-face is best, but virtual is better than nothing. As we have all experienced in this time of Covid-19, face-to-face encounters have had to be reimagined into virtual events. The important thing is that you meet. You continue to keep in touch with your council and solicit their guidance. Those relationships will be even more valuable once we can meet again.

Keep groups small enough to be conversational. You may have a ginormous partner community, but if you want candid and thoughtful feedback, then keep the council small. My suggestion is to include no more than 10-12 people. This could mean that you might want to start several PACs — maybe by region or by industry. If you want to ensure an enlivened conversation, keep the group small enough that you can sit around a table and see everyone and, most importantly, hear everyone.

Keep the topics strategic. You may find on your initial PAC meeting that partners want to vent about trivial annoyances. Let them get it out, but then move to topics with substance. This is precious time, so maintain a focus on a strategic agenda. Topics may include industry trends, raising the quality of customer experience or partner economics. Consider bringing in a guest speaker to stimulate thought, like an analyst or industry expert. Do not use this time to talk about whether they like the deal registration portal.

Choose your partners carefully. If you have only one PAC, try to get the best cross-section of your partner community. Aim for geographic representation, business model representation, small companies and large. You want diversity of voices. The person representing each partner is important as well. Your partner managers are likely able to recommend who within the partner company can best speak to the needs of your relationship.

Get your executives involved. Bringing your senior executives into the council discussion is a double benefit. For example, you may be telling executives time and time again that partners need green widgets, but they do not really hear you. But when they hear it from a partner, all of a sudden, it is, “Why aren’t we giving partners green widgets?” On the flip side, partners will likely feel valued and that their feedback is meaningful if you put the senior executives in the room to listen to them.

Remember it is a listening session! And to that last point, be sure to emphasize with your executives that it is a listening session. Their inclination may be to sell the partners on what a great company you are, how great your products are, how great the opportunity is, etc. Let them know about what they might hear beforehand, and coach them to listen, not to be defensive, and to be open-minded. It might be difficult and awkward for you to do this, but if you hire a third-party facilitator, one of their tasks can be to coach and prep the executive team.

Establish a regular cadence. A PAC is not a one-and-done event. I have found it provides the most value if you establish a regular cadence. Once yearly is a minimum. Quarterly is better. Quarterly in-person meetings are hard to keep populated, so alternating in-person with virtual may be the winning combination for you, especially if you recruit PAC members to serve in that role for a “term of service.” Continuity is important. It helps you build trust and camaraderie within the PAC so members keep coming back and are more open and helpful with their insights.

Take notes and follow up. A PAC should be more than a feel-good event. It should change things. This only happens if you take note of the feedback and take action. Let the PAC know, “This is what we heard, and this is what we are doing about it.” Then at the next meeting, be sure to report out on the outcomes and impact of your actions. This is where you realize the ROI of sponsoring PACs.

If you are not doing PACs with your key partners now, I recommend you start immediately. Especially as so much has changed with customers and with partners over the last 18 months. It is never too late to start listening strategically to keep informed of changes and to collaborate with your partners to meet those challenges.