Whatever the nature of your organisation the chances are you have a relationship with your members/ readers/customers that is unique to you.

They interact with you in a slightly different way to other organisations and they have slightly different expectations of you as a company.

This is true even of organisations that fundamentally offer the same services or products and who may have similar core values. Both ASDA and Tesco stand for customer value yet the shopping experience, customer service and approach of both companies is very different.

Your identity as a business has been built through the delivery of a set of consistent values, tone of voice and approach to sales etc. Your customer has an expectation of you. But, what is that expectation?

We’ve put together the 9 Key Steps to Successful Partnerships to help answer some of those challenges you face:

Rule 1: Any third party product or service you offer must meet the expectations your customer has of your organisation

This sounds obvious but is often not achieved or even worse ignored. Risk is a key element of any potential partnership and if you are not honoring your brand through your third party promotions you are risking brand damage and customer attrition.

Rule 2: It is beholden on the client to instruct any provider on what is expected of them

The provider brings the expertise and knowledge of their service/ product; the client must be the expert on their own customer.

It is important that both the client and provider share responsibility for meeting the expectations of the customer. It is beholden of the client to set these out clearly for the provider.

Let’s look at an example of where this has worked well: John Lewis.

The adverts for the John Lewis Home Insurance product are consistent with all the other promotion activity they conduct for their business. In fact you can buy every item shown on the advert from John Lewis. The tone of voice is the same and the proposition meets their brand standards. I have not been through the claims process but what would your expectations be of that process?

If any element from purchase, to claims, to renewals were out of step with the brand it would kill the “Magic”! They understand this and own the delivery of this with their partner RSA.
We will not embarrass anyone with the bad examples, but there are many more than those that are good. If you catch up with us at the next Meeting of Minds event we can talk you through some of our favourites!

The most common mistake we see made is to focus everything on the upfront sale and not give enough regard to the other consumer contact points.

Rule 3: You must honour the brand at every moment of the interaction with the customer

We will cover this in more detail later, but this is becoming more and more important for brands to consider.

We know of a client that recently had its name in the national news because a blue-chip third party provider had outsourced elements of the sales process and not monitored their behaviours correctly. The client involved had no understanding or oversight of decisions made by the provider that could damage their business. They were too focused on the initial selection and did not fully understand the potential for issues after launch

During the selection process ensuring that the provider you choose is compatible with the customer expectations is vital.

How far removed from their core business values are your requirements?
Is there a cultural miss-match between the organisations and if so how can this be overcome within the partnership?

We don’t prescribe to the theory that you necessarily need to have identical cultural values i.e. there is no reason why a commercially driven organisation can’t be a good partner for a charitable organisation. But it helps if there is synergy. The further apart your values are the more work you, as the client, will need to do to keep them honest and on track.

It is important to understand the business drivers of both parties and to understand the impact that may have on the relationship and the distribution strategy.

  • How confident are you that they can deliver the level of bespoking required?
  • Do they have many partners with lots of variations? How is that managed?
  • What are the IT impacts of the changes they are bringing and do they have the systems to deliver these?
  • One of the hardest things in partnerships is that the areas most difficult to assess and measure are normally the most important.
  • How committed are they really to you?
  • How strategically important is your partnership to them?

Rule 4: Wherever a provider is offering something unique you need to be comfortable that this is viable and achievable for them. Don’t just trust the bid team!

If they are building something specifically for you it is likely to require significant on-going resource and management time.

It is important to look the P&L owner in the eye and get their assurance that this works for them. Understand their business drivers.

• What levers can they pull easily and what are difficult or expensive?
• If your proposition is a work in progress- how flexible are their systems and what are the areas they will be unable to develop and amend?
• If you have areas where you are uncertain of consumer requirements do they have the capability to learn and adapt their proposition over time?

Getting the balance right between customer expectations and business capability is one of the key drivers of success.

Rule 5: meeting the expectations of the customer is not just about the moment of sale!

As mentioned earlier; if your customer has a strong expectation of your organisation they will expect that to be met, “at point of sale”, at renewal, at claim and every other service touch point.

One of the most common issues we see with partnerships is that all the attention is given to the sale and not enough to other points of contact the customer will have with the provider. This is particularly relevant if they are carrying your brand through the activity.

If they answer the phone with your brand are your values being met in that call?

What does the renewal literature and process look like?

Many distribution partnerships have strong joint or white-labelled branding at point of sale but this fades through the sales and servicing process ending up with the providers branding for the “back end”. As the client you must ask yourselves how this effects the customer expectations of your business.

Clearly we also have to consider the regulator and what is pragmatic. The fact the client brand does not go through to the end of the servicing process does not in itself cause a problem and may not be essential. We would argue that there is a need to monitor performance of the servicing area even if you have limited or no brand carry.
One of the interesting debates in the market is concerning the use of Appointed Rep versus IAR (Introducer Appointed Representative).

Clearly this decision affects the level of branding and type of marketing that can be conducted. Traditionally IAR has been seen as simpler and reduces the risk for clients.

At Affinia we are not convinced that this process is fully understood by some clients. Getting expert advice on this subject is a very important step in any partnership strategy. Don’t rely upon the approach taken by competitors as they may have it wrong!

The customer expects the product or service to be competitive when you sell it to them not when you signed the contract!

When you are selecting a provider ask them to demonstrate how they will meet your values in all aspects of their promotion.

Is there is a clear hand off point between you and the provider? If you are the source of the lead your brand is associated with it even if your brand is not carried through the sales process.

A key judgment you have to make as a client is the level of expectation the customer retains of you during the lifetime of the transaction.

This is likely to vary depending upon many factors:

  • The level of “white labelling” or branding that occurs. Be wary of believing that not having your brand on the activity exempts you from customer expectations!
  • The nature of the introduction. An introduction of a “one off” special offer from a third party will have very different customer expectations than a John Lewis style Home Insurance proposition
  • How close the proposition is to your core business. If you are a financial services business promoting a financial services third party product, the customer expectation and association of/with you will be greater than if you are not a financial services company.
  • How strong are your core values with the customer, what areas do those core values cover and to what depth? The customer expectations of Aston Martin and the complexity of their expectations are likely to be much greater than they would be for an organisation that is more price driven e.g. Ryan Air. However you would definitely rather break down in the Aston Martin!

The real key, with all of these points, is to have taken sufficient time to have considered each of these questions and taken a view on what is really important and less important for your organisation. This will help your ability to understand where you can compromise and where you must stand your ground.

The next critical stage is how you are going to monitor delivery against your set core values.

Ongoing Management
It is all well and good having a clear idea of what is expected of the partner the tricky thing is being able to check that it is being achieved!

Incorrect MI, irregular MI and insufficient MI are the killer of partnerships. However, it is often very difficult and expensive for providers to change their MI.

We have sympathy for product providers who are constantly asked for variations of their MI offering. Our advice generally is to resist that change and be consistent across their partner portfolio as too many variations can often lead to error.

However a provider structures the MI, you as the client need to be satisfied you have sufficient tools and information to enable you to monitor the performance of the partnership against the values you have set.

Be realistic and utilise the reports the provider has as standard as the base. Most providers have a range of MI that should cover your needs. If they don’t, be suspicious of a provider that claims they can build bespoke sets.

Manual reports pulled together specifically for you will almost inevitably lead to error. There have been countless times we have seen incorrect MI lead to incorrect decision-making.

Recognise that MI doesn’t only have to be provided by the provider; ensure you utilise the other tools in your box as well:

  • Mystery shopping
  • Regular market benchmarking (In most cases the provider can provide this for you)
  • Customer research
  • Site visits
  • Quality sampling
  • This takes time and effort, but will reap rewards in the short, medium and long term.

A partnership where there is detailed monitoring of performance improves results adds commercial value and reduces risk.

Rule 6: Providers must embrace the need to bespoke not look for ways to avoid it

If you as a provider are going to build distribution partnerships with third party organisations you are doing so because you see the value of their brand or association with your proposition. If you are not going to maximise the impact of that association you are reducing the effectiveness of the partnership.

Yes, a provider may be able to drive slightly cheaper acquisition through partnerships for a time but it is unlikely to have longevity and has potential of brand risk for the client.

At Affinia we deal with several Media partners where there can be a fine line of differentiation between advertising and partnership arrangements. This holds true of all partnerships, if you are not tailoring your proposition to the brand and the unique nature of the customer relationship you are effectively just advertising in a different way.

Rule 7: Be wary of internal conflict of interest

Direct to Public (DTP) activity by a provider will tend to be a difficult bedfellow with a partnership distribution model. The DTP area will always be concerned that the partnership is cannibalising the direct business.

This is particularly the case where you have bespoking and there is a risk that consumers see better deals through partnerships.

Senior management of providers must address these issues and ensure that they don’t compromise the partnership activity. Providers must decide to offer partnerships or not, don’t go for a halfway house that disappoints all involved.

Clients need to ensure that the Provider is fully engaged in the partnership and has senior management support

Rule 8: The provider must make sure their partnership team is fully aligned with the strategy of the business

Partnership teams want to win business and they will do everything they can to persuade their company that this partner is right for them. This can lead to disappointment and brand damage.

The provider ends up in a deal where they can’t deliver for the client and the client can’t deliver for the provider. The consumer ends up getting lost somewhere in between.

In our experience the best way to avoid this is to give P&L responsibly to the partnership team

Rule 9: The provider must know their own business drivers, restraints and strengths

Providers should look for clients where they can fulfill their expectations.

It sounds obvious but we often see too much focus on scale and channel and not enough on understanding the customer expectations.

If you have the most expensive service or product on the market Poundland is unlikely to be a good partner irrelevant of their data or scale.

If you have a target list of partners think though each of them in terms of level of bespoking you can offer and ask yourself the question: “Will that meet the of the expectations customer’. If not, what else is needed?

Compliance Regime
Whatever type of partnership you set up in Financial services you are at some point going to come across the decision of what compliance regime you wish to place your activity under.

Should you become an “Introducer appointed representative (IAR) or Appointed Representative (AR)” Or indeed do you wish to become directly authorised.

Affinia is not a compliance expert, however, what we would advise is that you get good advice In this area as this can be a much more complicated subject that it initially appears. Also don’t necessarily copy your competitors approach as they may have got the rules wrong!

There are quite diverse interpretations of the rules across the industry. As well as affecting promotional activity the compliance environment can also have implications for VAT and risk management.

An interesting development we have seen is where you have multiple providers with multiple interpretations of the regulations. This makes consistency even more difficult across your partnership activity.

Depending upon your level of sophistication in this area you may wish to outsource the risk to an organisation such as A+ who carry the compliance strain and risk for you at a cost.

Who does what in partnerships is changing?
Affinia believes that the partnership arena is slowly changing and the growth of this change is likely to accelerate over the next few years.

The biggest and most obvious change is the expectations of clients’ and the role they wish to take. As clients’ recognise the need for them to take and retain control over much more of the sales and service process their demands of providers are escalating.

This is leading to providers having to reconsider their strategy and proposition design. Many providers now struggle with meeting the needs of clients’ and we think this issue will grow and become more and more significant.

This will lead to two key events:

  • More specialist often smaller more fleet of foot providers will become attractive even to the very large client distributors
  • Who does what in the partnership may well change? We will move away from the concept that all things are done by the provider to a hybrid model where the client may well break the proposition down into its constituent parts. For instance: the insurer still retains the risk someone else delivers and designs the proposition and a further third or fourth party manages servicing.

At Affinia we believe this change is exciting and the organisations that embrace it will do very well. And, we believe that the consumer will benefit and it will increase innovation.

A final thought …
Anecdotally, in recent years, Affinia has seen the partnership market ‘grow up’. The big leviathan brands now (generally) regognise that they can only really justify the required level of partnership interaction and bespoking for strategic partners.

If you are not Tesco most of these companies are now not that interested.

What this has doe is open the door to a whole range of mid-sized companies who have really embraced the idea of bespoke propositions for clients; providers such as the Hood Group, Brightside, Scottish Friendly, responsible Life and Dignity.

These are organisation that have limited direct to public brand stretch and as such truly value the disruption that partners bring.

They have developed partnership propositions to meet the needs of their potential distribution partners. They tend to have shallow management structures, and modern IT platform, and are geared to offering true client level bespoking.

Clients need to take more care in the selection of their partners and also take a bigger role in the development of the third party propositions they sell. Providers need to embrace the challenges of this channel and find ways to fulfill the expectations of the customer within the limitations of their operation model.

We believe that some level of bespoking is essential in nearly all partnerships. The proposition should always meet the expectations of the client’s customer.

One of the great advantages of partnerships is you can bring in expertise and propositions from a wide choice of potential partners. This allows you more flexibility than if you built it yourself.

Get the provider to demonstrate how they will meet the needs of the customer and how they will prove, on an ongoing basis, that they continue to meet the customer needs.

Be pragmatic – bespoking doesn’t need to be complicated. Work with the partner, understand what can and can’t be done and choose partners who are up for it!

Don’t break the magic. And, make sure all customer contacts follow the same rules …