Partnerships: Start With a Story

Quick Summary: Customer Focus, Legal Protectionism, Business Issue Focus, Mutual Benefits


Quite often, after a high-level decision is made to discuss the formation of a partnership, one company or the other presents a “standard contract”.  With this simple first step, positioning is likely to begin and individual company protection efforts take center stage.  Often the word “customer” never enters into the picture which, of course, is the only reason for forming a partnership.  Start with a story about the customer and consider contractual issues last.

Probably the quickest way to doom or totally stop a partnership discussion is to start with the contract.  Contracts, in turn, require lawyers and lawyers, by their training and mandate, focus on protecting a company and attempt to avoid any item that can go wrong or can be harmful.  Instead of focusing on what can go wrong, the discussions need to center on what will go right.  Also, contracts are between the two partnering parties and their interactions.  A far better approach is to focus on the joint customer and create a story of how both companies can help the customer be successful.  Once the story is developed and embraced by both businesses, there will be plenty of time for the lawyers to get involved and develop a contract.

Even with the best intentions, if either party presents a contract and even states that all terms are negotiable, “battle lines” will have been drawn.  Items such as exclusivity, intellectual property ownership and protection, minimum payments, and termination rights are some of the items will be on people’s minds even before the mutual benefits to both parties and, more importantly, the benefits to the customer are understood.  Removing the preconceived conditions found in a contract presented during the early stages of discussions is as difficult as unscrambling an egg.  The conditions will impact the overall discussions.

The suggested story should start out as a general description of how the joint prospect will have benefited from the combined product offering.  No distinction should be made as to which partner provides what.  In the end, the customer wants a problem solved with little regard to “who does what”.  Note the tense used in the story description given above:  “how the joint prospect will have benefitted…”.  This part of the story is the last chapter.  The story needs to be written from the end backwards to the beginning.

After the last chapter is written, the next chapter that needs to be prepared is a description of how the customer will be supported after that:

  • How the customer was trained
  • How the product or service was installed and became operational
  • How the product or service order was fulfilled
  • How the product or service was sold
  • How the partners’ joint activities were coordinated to develop the product or service
  • How the partners coordinated their offerings and timing
  • How the partners shared information, training, and day-to-day coordination
  • How each partner supports the other partner

In essence, the story, beginning with a satisfied and supported customer, will trace the entire customer fulfillment process back to the beginning of the partners’ interaction.  The actual development of the story can begin with a few sentences for each topic.  Once the overall story is written, more details in each topic will become obvious and can be resolved one-by-one always with the last chapter that describes a satisfied customer in mind.

This document, written in simple to understand English becomes the stake-in-the-ground description of how the partnership works and should be shared with all groups and individuals involved in the relationship.  The contract, when completed, can be left on the shelf, hopefully never referred to for dispute resolution.

After the story is completed and the business people in both organizations agree, the next step is to develop a tabular listing of expectations  that each partner can assume of the other.  This list of expectations will provide a concise summary that will avoid or at least minimize future misunderstandings.  This document, following the notion that “good fences make good neighbors” will be the most important working document for the partnership and should be included in the contract (when it is finally started).

The mutual expectations document needs to include many tactical lines items.  It in turn, will provide guidance of all operational personnel in defining what they need to do to meet the other party’s expectations.  Although highly tactical, the mutual expectations document should be based on both the story and the fundamental goals of each company: what they expect to achieve through their investment in the partnership.  Other articles in this section discuss potential goals for each partner.

The concept behind the suggested story methodology is to change the discussions from “protecting me” and “defining us” to “satisfying the customer”.  Satisfying the customer is the only method of assuring that the investment made by both partners has a chance of success and providing an acceptable return.


Article Number : 5.050202   

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