The Partner Advisory Council
Some vendors have them, some don't. When done correctly they can be a powerful force for both the vendor and the partners. When done poorly, or for the wrong reasons, they can be an absolute waste of time, and actually damage relationships. If you have an Advisory Council, or are considering implementing one, this article may be of interest.
In it's purest form, an Advisory Council is a collection of partner principals that meets with vendor senior management to discuss challenges, business issues, provide feedback and to receive advance information from the vendor. It sounds simple, and most vendors I have worked with over the years have had an Advisory Council. How well they work however, varies wildly. I have seen some exceed everyone's expectations and deliver real benefits, and I have seen some degenerate into unworkable meetings where long-standing relationships, both personal and business, have been broken.
The two most important factors that will lead to the success or otherwise of a council are; 1) Who attends, and 2) What is it's purpose. This may sound quite basic but if this isn't nailed down and widely understood at both the vendor AND the partners then it will inevitably lead to a less than worthwhile endeavour.
Who attends is a big deal. Most councils are aimed at CEO's and Managing Directors. Their time is valuable. A sure sign that your council is not worth the effort is when they start declining and/or sending proxies. Your first decision here is, do you let them? If your council is for CEO's then you can't let them send a proxy. This sends a message to all the other CEO's that their time isn't valuable to your company. If a CEO can't make a council repeatedly, then have a discussion to find out the reason. Coach out of them if they feel it is not a good use of their time. If it's not, ask why!
The other reason you need to stick to your invited participants is to make sure you instil a "star chamber" or "special" feeling amongst the people invited. You want to instil a "we are special" and "our opinions are valuable" feeling among your council members. If you are doing this properly, you will be able to tell when other partner principals are quietly asking if they can be invited to the council. If you are providing a real benefit to your partners they will attend; if you don't provide value, you will know because the apologies will roll in.
Selecting which partners are on the council is also important and must be given consideration. Determine first, how many "seats" are on the council, then stick to it. The best councils I have seen in operation over the years have no more than ten partners attending. A mix of established partners, and growing partners is also a good idea. If you have implemented the Who are your best partners scoring system, you may be surprised at who your attendees should be. Whatever you do, don't just automatically invite the partners with the largest revenue. Also consider partners that predominantly base their business around your product/solutions, i.e. the ones where you have the highest wallet share. To breathe new ideas, it is also worthwhile to have several small but rapidly growing partners in the mix.
The purpose of the council must be clearly defined. I have been to council meetings where the partner principals think they have the right to veto vendor decisions, or to otherwise influence the direction a vendor is taking. If it is labelled as an "Advisory Council", then it needs to be just that. A forum for advice to be given and received. Yes, vendors and partners can consider the advice when making decisions, but an advisory council must remain exactly that. Another major part of advisory councils is for the vendor to "telegraph" or give advance notice of an upcoming change, or potential change, in how business has been previously managed. For example, one vendor I worked with, at their advisory council, flagged that in twelve months time they were going to open a direct sales channel. Now, dropping this information at a partner council meeting may seem like business suicide to some, but it allowed partners to consider the information and it's potential impact a long way in advance. At a further council meeting prior to the direct sales implementation, the council was able to table suggestions back to the vendor on how it could work, a new rules of engagement process, and other areas the vendor hadn't considered. This led to an outcome that although not perfect for the partners, at least provided a few safeguards and ensured an introduction of direct selling that although not welcomed with open arms, was not the disaster that it may have become. As one partner quipped, "You can't stop gravity, but you can get out of the way if you have time".
CEO's will generally be interested in topics that are going to affect their business. It is worth considering having a guest speaker to talk about macro items such as the economy, business climate, changes to government regulations and the like. This will provide an added benefit to the principals and also make attendance at the council more compelling. Remember that your partners probably don't want to be locked away with you for 1-2 days just to hear about you and your company. While you have them, also provide some benefit to them outside the scope of your company.
Circulation of the agenda beforehand, and the ability to accept agenda submissions from the partners is also useful. This will allow you to know what are going to be some of the issues partners will want to discuss. Not only is it important for you to telegraph your intentions, but listen to the signals the partners are attempting to send also. In this way, you can be prepared.
That brings up the next item: Preparation. Lack of preparation shows, and it isn't pretty when it happens. If you have ten CEO's all giving up 1-2 days of their time, then you owe it to them to prepare for the council thoroughly. Send invitations out as early as possible; at least eight weeks in advance. Your partner principals are busy so you will need to get in their diaries early. Internally, set up a weekly review of the council in the lead up to it. As well as confirming RSVP's from your partners, make sure the same is happening with the invitees from your company. If your company CEO is attending, make sure his or her diary is booked also. The last thing you want is your own CEO attempting to send a last minute stand-in; not a good look. Sadly I have seen it happen before and the partners make up their own mind as to how important (or not) they are to a vendor when this happens.
All of the presentations or information that your company is going to deliver needs to be well prepared and rehearsed. Potential questions that will be raised, and the answers given need to be formulated. One of the most embarrassing things that can happen during the council is for two people at the vendor to give answers that are different. This just shows that despite the veneer, you (the vendor) are not all on the same wavelength. You need to have planned who is going to be answering questions for each session. When answering, DON'T make policy on the run: It is quite acceptable at this level to say that further discussion needs to be had, and a response in writing will be forthcoming.
The structure of the council is important, and should have a brief welcome from the most senior person from the vendor attending (hopefully the CEO) before outlining the agenda for the period of the council. Topics that should be covered include:
Company performance over the last 12 months
This allows your partners to compare how their businesses are performing compared to yours. If you are with a large vendor, your performance may be seen as an indicator for the industry as a whole. Don't fudge the figures, and don't embellish them. If results are poor, state it. If results are above expectations, state that also. Remember that you are talking to CEO's who are facing the same challenges. It is expected that in this environment, a lot of the marketing and hype will be left at the door.
The next year and beyond
This is where you are able to outline your company's plans and direction for the coming period and beyond. If there is anything that may affect a partners business, this is where it is first tabled. You owe it to your partners who have invested time, resources, staff and more to be briefed on anything that may significantly affect their business with you so that they have time to make their own decisions to position their businesses. This part of the council may be where you give an economic, or market outlook, any upcoming structural changes that are coming and the like. Once again, it is important to telegraph where you are going. If you are working with partners that are doing tens of millions of dollars per year with you then this is an absolute necessity.
Product and Marketing updates
From each of the major parts of your business, ensure a strategic top-level update is given. CEO's are not interested in WHAT a product is, but more what are the opportunities and changes that products may allow them to do with their customers. A council is not the place to be talking about features but it is the place to talk about impact on the market, emerging opportunities and competitive threats or advantages. An overview of any changes to marketing or social strategies should also be conveyed.
Topical Guest Speaker
A welcome addition is a guest speaker that can engage the council members on an area relevant to them, not you. This is how you can provide real value to your council to ensure that your partners view the council as a valuable use of your time. It also gives the participants a small break from your company during the day.
Ensure that the council has a session that allows any topic to be discussed or raised. This can give you valuable insight into what your partners are thinking, and allows you to deal with festering issues before they get out of hand. It is important also that any advice given by the council be given true consideration, and not just lip-service. If a partner brings something up for discussion, try to understand the "why" behind it. You certainly will not be able to do everything your council requests, but having a period of consideration is healthy and shows corporate empathy. Emotion has no place in a council meeting so keep an eye out for it. Passion is fine, but negative emotions are not. Also keep an eye on how engaged the participants are. If a particular topic seems like it is being discussed to death, it can always be visited one on one. Make sure that the discussion remains relevant to the majority of attendees.
Yes, it's important to have time where everyone can unwind and relax a little. Networking should be encouraged and all CEO's should be chaperoned to ensure they meet as many people as possible while the council is together. If you have partners that are doing well and are predisposed to your company, now is the time to introduce them to your newer partners; let your best partners sell your company to the new ones. You'd be surprised at how effective this can be, especially after a drink or two.
Minutes and Follow Up
It goes without saying that minutes should be kept at all formal sessions, and an accurate to-do list is also kept. After the council, but within several days, ensure that the minutes and action items are sent to all participants of the council. Also solicit feedback, comments and how the council may be improved.
One last thing, but often overlooked: Ensure that ALL of your frontline channel managers are at the council. They do not deserve to be blind-sided and not know about what happens at council. The most successful councils I have attended have always involved the channel managers. If the information is too sensitive to share with your own channel managers, then it is far too sensitive to discuss with your partners. By having your channel managers in attendance, not only will you all be on the same page, you are endorsing them back to your partners.
Some do's and don'ts to wrap up:
- Define what level of person attends and stick to it
- Prepare and plan early
- Hold twice a year, in an offsite location
- Limit to no more that 10 partners, one person from each partner
- Add value through a topical guest speaker
- Take notes, assign tasks, and follow up after council
- Telegraph changes early
- Have a published agenda and stick to it
- Don't have more than one person per partner attending
- Don't allow proxies to be sent
- Don't forget to confirm attendees within your own company
- Don't hide or embellish the truth
- Don't let discussions become emotional
- Don't make up policy on the run. Note, consider, then feedback later.
- Don't leave the frontline channel managers out
In closing, recognise that Advisory Councils are a powerful way for you to have business discourse with decision makers. Treat the council with the respect it deserves, but remember that it is not the board of your company either.
After all, that is why they are called Advisory Councils.
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