January 2017 Feature

What Do Your Partners Really Think About Working With You?

Px surveys give vendors a chance to listen to and learn from their partners.

by Hobart Swan

Kathy ContrerasMany vendors are very good about asking their partners how they can help the partner generate more revenue, meet pipeline goals, or engage in a particular vendor program. What vendors often fail to ask, though, are questions about what it’s really like for their partners to do business with them. Vendors may invite partners to join advisory boards or councils, which are perfect settings for getting feedback from specific companies. But to Kathy Contreras, Research Director for Channel Marketing Strategies at SiriusDecisions, this falls short. Vendors need to think seriously about implementing an additional approach to get an ideally anonymous—and, hence, more honest—snapshot of their partners’ experience as a whole. That tool is the partner experience survey.

Contreras is a marketing and channel professional with more than 20 years of global experience. Prior to joining SiriusDecisions, Contreras led an executive consulting firm that focused on emerging and established companies in California. She has previously served as vice president of marketing for Abaca Technologies (acquired by Proofpoint), and held global marketing leadership and senior channel management positions at Audatex, Phoenix Technologies, Dantz Development Corp. (acquired by EMC) and Sendmail (acquired by Proofpoint). Contreras began her career at Sun Microsystems, where she held various positions in alliance and marketing management. Her experience over the years has made her a passionate advocate of the partner experience survey model.

A One-Way Survey that Provides Two-Way Communication

“Channel managers tend to focus their communications with partners on product and sales-related issues,” Contreras says. “But it’s not always about the profitability of the relationship. Sometimes, it’s about how easy it is for the partner to work with the supplier, how much channel conflict there is, or maybe something in the channel the supplier isn’t even aware of.”

“When suppliers are not reaching out and listening to their partners to understand the level of satisfaction in the relationship, then they don’t really have good insight into where their programs may need to be adjusted—or into the actual health of their partner ecosystem.”

The partner experience (Px) survey, she says, is an opportunity for partners to be more transparent with their opinions—primarily because it is one of the few times when they can voice their opinions anonymously. It is an opportunity for partners to tell suppliers what they’re doing wrong and ask for improvements. And it’s a chance for suppliers and vendors to show that they really listen to partners and are willing to make those changes. But for these surveys to be effective, they must conform to best practices. Contreras has assembled a number of such practices after years of working with vendors and partners to create more productive channels.

Be Clear on the Survey’s Purpose

With so much pressure on vendors to find the right partners, the next big stars, or the highest achievers, it’s understandable to think of Px surveys as yet another way to build out partner scorecards, populate partner evaluations, or complete quarterly business reviews (QBR). But that’s not their purpose.

“This is a chance to ask questions in a way that allows your partners to provide unguided, unguarded feedback about their satisfaction with the supplier experience,” Contreras says.

Of course the surveys won’t help you assess individual partners for the simple reason that they are meant to gauge the partners’ satisfaction of their experience with the supplier; not the partner’s performance. Also it is recommended that they be anonymous (although Contreras does say that vendors should consider providing ways for the survey taker to voluntarily make their identity known should they want to engage further with the vendor on a specific question or their feedback/response).

And Contreras notes that having the wrong focus can cause vendors to miss the fact that even the most successful partners may not necessarily enjoy working with the vendor. Vendor over estimations of partner satisfaction can have serious repercussions the next time partners adjust their vendor portfolios.

Video Vendors, It’s Not About You

To make the survey worth the cost of creation and implementation, vendors need to keep in mind that its main purpose is to find out what partners are thinking, not to gather partner opinions on what the vendor is thinking. If the vendor doesn’t understand this difference, the survey can become little more than an expensive lesson in lost opportunity.

“I remember one supplier who wanted to ask their partners a question like this: ‘we understand profitability is your key focus area. Can you give us more insight as to what you’re looking for regarding that?’ The problem with that question,” Contreras says, “is that it assumes both supplier and partner are thinking the same thing. Luckily, the supplier agreed to remove that question from the survey because once the results came in, the supplier discovered that profitability was, in fact, not a major concern in terms of overall partner satisfaction.”

“Suppliers should be careful not to include leading questions in the survey,” Contreras says. “It assumes both supplier and partner are thinking the same thing.” For example, questions like “We understand profitability is a key focus area” presumes that the partner’s key focus in on profitability, and that may in fact not be the case. The point, Contreras says, is that vendors should give partners every opportunity to reveal what is important to them. Vendors must prepare for feedback about things they hadn’t even thought to ask about, but which matter a great deal to partners.

Ask Demographic Questions Up Front

Contreras cautions vendors to be careful about how they ask survey questions. First, the survey should enable the anonymous respondents to provide basic demographic information.

“Is this respondent a certain partner type? Are they above a certain partner tier? Do they have certain offerings that they’re responsible for? Especially when you look at very large companies that might have hundreds of different products, the feedback is going to be relative to that partner’s experience with those products.”

And what is the role or roles the respondent plays as a partner? Contreras notes that the response you get from a partner business owner may be quite different from what a sales or marketing representative has to say.

“If you’re seeing low satisfaction scores from people in technical roles, you might start thinking about ways to adjust your program to make that persona happier. A good survey can help you understand how best to use your resources to raise satisfaction among the most dissatisfied.”

Contreras adds that it’s important to remember that many of your partners may wear more than one hat. To recognize that reality, Px surveys should allow respondents to check as many “persona” categories as they feel represent what they do as a partner.

Ask the Right Questions the Right Way

Best-in-class Px surveys, she says, will ask partners to provide both general satisfaction ratings and answers to detailed questions related to their experience regarding what SiriusDecisions considers the five pillars of partner experience. This includes product and profitability, people and alignment, program and tools, process and technology, and promotion and communication. These general questions should be followed by a half dozen or so more detailed questions.

The Px surveys should also enable respondents to choose “N/A” or “Unknown” to questions that are irrelevant or that the respondent can’t answer at the time. If the survey design effectively forces respondents to answer every question, Contreras says, the results may include “false” answers that skew the overall results. Vendors should also pay attention to results that vary significantly from their preconceived ideas of what is important to partners.

“If a survey comes back saying that partners have rated satisfaction in one areas as a ‘1’ and assigns the importance of that area as a ‘1’ too, then that’s not too concerning. But if satisfaction is at a ‘1’ for something that’s rated 3 or 4 out of 5 for importance, then the vendor needs to pay close attention.”

Contreras says the Px surveys should be set up so that the vendor gains quantitative information in the form of multiple choice or numerical responses that can generate useful data. But vendors should also ask open-ended questions such as “Are there specific things you would request that we do to improve your satisfaction in this area?”

Not being numerical, the answers to these questions can’t be turned into “data.” But they can give partners the opportunity to describe, in their own words, the kinds of vendor experience improvements they’d like to see.

Act On the Results

Needless to say, when vendors go through all this effort to collect partner feedback, their next step must to be to act on what they’ve learned. Not only is it important to make changes that will improve their partner ecosystem. It’s equally important to communicate results to partners.

“Suppliers need to continually communicate to partners that ‘This is what we heard from you and this is what we’re doing,’” says Contreras. “Ideally, suppliers will report regularly to partners on the improvements partners have asked them to make and the progress they’re making on implementing the improvements.”

Measure Progress, Show Respect

Contreras suggests the vendors run Px surveys annually. As long as questions are consistent from year to year, she says, the responses can measure changes in satisfaction rates from year to year. But it’s not all about vendors getting a hold of useful data.

“Vendors need to appreciate the fact that partners are taking time out of their day to complete these surveys. You want to make sure your partners understand that the information they provide is very important to you—that it’s going to be impactful, that what you hear from them is going to have a material impact on how you do business with them.”

But if you run surveys too often, she says, you may not have time to implement the changes your partners have called for, or implement changes without time to see if they represent a true, overarching partner demand. Finally, Contreras adds, if you release surveys too frequently, you’re probably spending too much time and energy surveying and not enough time actually making improvements.

So How Do You Go About Creating a Partner Experience Survey, Anyway?

If you have had anything to do with surveys, you know that there is a lot more involved than simply creating a list of questions you’d like to ask, then sending them out. Developing a useful survey is even trickier when its goal is not to gather partner feedback on what you’re thinking—but to find out what they are thinking.

Contreras explains that SiriusDecisions does not offer specific Px survey-related services to clients, rather as a research and advisory firm, they offer frameworks, models and best practice guidance to their advisory clients. SiriusDecisions analysts, she says, can walk clients through best practices, show them models of how other companies have created Px survey campaigns, advise them on how to implement their own PX survey campaigns, and help the client to analyze their survey results.

For those who are not SiriusDecisions clients, she suggests talking with other service providers such as partner relationship management vendors who have surveying capabilities within their platforms. Customer experience vendors can help as well, she says, because they typically understand the structure and best practices of surveys. Or, she adds, you can go straight to survey vendors themselves, many of whom provide more than just automation and can help develop the questions themselves.

Whatever path you take to get to the point of launching a Px survey, Contreras says to remember that releasing a survey is not about sending out a single call for response.

“Ideally, you’re going to release the survey through email and market it just like any other full-scale campaign. You wouldn’t expect an email campaign to deliver the right level of results through a single touch. You absolutely need to consider it a campaign and market the survey to your partners with a plan to get the survey out to all partners and encourage the highest level of participation.”

Keep an Open Mind

Contreras says that there is an almost automatic assumption among vendors that everything is an equal level of importance to the partners.

“I’ve looked at a lot of Px survey results and can say with confidence that that is verifiably untrue. That’s why it’s so important to use these surveys to find out what is most important to your partners—and how good an experience you’re providing on the things they really care about.“

In today’s highly competitive markets in which vendors need to find partner organizations capable of selling new products and services into rapidly evolving niches, Px surveys are one of the best ways for vendors to make sure they are taking the steps, implementing the programs, and streamlining the services their partners want—and doing it all in ways that will make those partners want to continue to work with them.

“There definitely are things suppliers can learn in the process of running a Px survey,” Contreras says. “Suppliers often assume that partners have a certain level of satisfaction working with them—if for no other reason than the partners continue to do so. But once you get feedback from a Px survey, you can start to see things that may surprise you—insights that may lead you, as a company, to develop new processes that give partners what they want, instead of what you think they want.”