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In Bed with the Enemy

How to Successfully Partner with the Competition

by Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE

Strategic alliances today are commonplace among large corporations, allowing these companies to successfully compete in the global marketplace. Smaller companies can derive the same advantages through alliance relationships. With synergistic partnering alliances, competitors can realize great value by building relationships of integrity with one another.

Finding the right partner is the first step. Suppliers and trade associations can be quite helpful. Suppliers already have a great deal of experience with your competitors. Board members and staffers at trade associations usually are knowledgeable about the players in the industry. Other possibilities include local chambers of commerce and the Better Business Bureau.

The key is to find a partner with the same or similar core values, which will make life together better. A significant point in selecting a partner is to keep in mind that the alliance will only be as strong as its weakest link. Do not build an alliance with a needy person or organization, especially if they/it cannot make it on their/its own.

Next, court the future alliance partner to start building a relationship. Getting them to have an emotional ownership in the partnering paradigm will be the primary mission at this point. Intellectually, the partner can see and realize the benefits of a synergistic relationship, but the fear of losing control might block an emotional ownership to commit. Without an emotional ownership, any commitment made will have been done on a shaky foundation.

Sensitivity and understanding of your potential partner’s situation are crucial at this juncture. Talk about the up sides and the down sides to your intended alliance. Talk about how to deal with the relationship if things do not work out. Plan an exit strategy. Getting fears and issues out on the table rather than hiding them will serve all involved extremely well.

Where are you going to live?

The question is about your individual and combined marketing areas. Also, talk about new buying habits and information recovery systems. You will need to track new information to detect the value gained in the alliance. Selecting the alliance marketing area and service/product mix is no easy task. You will need to pay close attention to the small and large details alike. Might you share warehousing or delivery facilities or possibly even employees to overcome personnel challenges?

Who is going to do the chores?

Alliance partner responsibilities and activities make the relationship a success or failure. Too often this is the area where unrealistic expectations of one another rear themselves. Be clear and commit who will be doing what to writing. It is too easy to forget your commitments in six months, a year or a decade later. Regular value updates on the alliance relationship will be very helpful. The relationship value updates should consist of expectations (met and missed) and profitability targets. This information will assist you in determining whether to upgrade, downgrade or maintain the relationship as is.

Time to tie the knot

The synergistic alliance partnering agreement should be in writing and contain detailed explanations of activities, expectations and responsibilities of each partner. This document will be your road map for a successful alliance relationship. When in doubt, refer to the "Partnering Charter." Now that you are in a relationship, it is be necessary to make regular deposits of physical and emotional energy. Always meet your partner more than half way. By giving more than half, a robust synergy follows. So much more is possible by working in concert, rather than singularly.

Surviving under the sheets

Being in an alliance relationship is much like being married. Once the synergistic partnering alliance is in place, it becomes essential to learn how to become successful cohabitants. While each business is responsible for its own success, consider how one’s actions will affect the other’s business. Be aware of the things you do and how your actions might create a need for the partner to change its strategic plan. Confer before you act.

What happens when your partner takes all the covers?

To successfully deal with the regular, normal issues and challenges of the relationship, get past the "denial syndrome." Too often in conflict, one finds it easier to ignore than confront. A confrontation does not have to be a knock-down, drag-out affair. Open communication is the key element in dealing with missing covers... or anything else.

Going to the marriage counselor

When relationship roadblocks occur, it may be necessary to seek third party counsel for mediation.

It usually is worth the time, energy and expense necessary to rebuild the partnering bridge. Mediation is becoming a popular method for resolving conflict, and it is easier than you might think to find a qualified mediator. During reconciliation, focus on the reasons the partner was selected and the benefits each hoped to receive rather than the anger, rage or hurt feelings.

Oh no, divorce!

It just didn’t work out. Sometimes this happens, but there’s no reason to feel like a failure or declare that you’ll never again be in a relationship. In dealing with separation issues, be the bigger person and again meet your partner more than half way. If there is "community property", dispose of it fairly or offer to buy out the partner. Either work it out, or take court-ordered pennies on the dollar. Only outsiders win in that situation.

We did it, and look at the profits.

Yes, success is my hope for any partnership. Enjoying the journey with an alliance partner and looking for additional opportunities makes all the work worth the energy. Maybe the alliance simply will be a buying consortium. Perhaps it will serve a large multi-regional customer. It could be to share a pool of employees or an advertising co-op. But whatever is selected, have fun in the partnering journey – enjoy the process and the rewards. If built correctly, there will be rewards.

Ed Rigsbee is a Certified Speaking Professional, president of Rigsbee Research and author of PartnerShift, Developing Strategic Alliances and The Art of Partnering. He has published over 1,000 articles and is a regular keynote presenter at conferences across North America. For more information, call 805.498.5720, email ed@rigsbee.com or visit www.rigsbee.com.