In the second installment of a two-part series, the author follows up his advice for client-side researchers selecting new research partners and discusses how to bring the supplier into the fold and manage and monitor the relationship.
Editor's note: Scott Aaron is a principal at Insights for Innovation, a Cincinnati research company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared in the June 10, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.
In my first article, I shared the selection process I used to bring on new research partners during my time as a corporate researcher. But selecting the right partner is only half of the battle! The onboarding process is a one-time-only chance to motivate your new business partner. I've always believed that having motivated, challenged and happy partner teams makes a big difference.
I'm sure on the supplier side, clients have reputations and I always wanted my account to be one that the most talented people want to work on. So I would use the onboarding process to show the partner company that we were excited to work with them and were asking for - and expecting - a full contribution of their expertise.
Intelligent but naïve force
Careful consideration should be given to how the onboarding is done, what information is shared and who will be involved. We are enveloped in our categories and brands all the time and, as discussed earlier, the partner is coming in to the situation as an intelligent - but naïve - force. Often, observations the partner has early in the relationship can help you see your business situation in a fresh way.
Of course, prior to the onboarding you can ask the partner firm what questions they have and what they would like to see. If the new partner is going to work with existing partners, it's a good idea to have representatives of the other firms there as well, if it makes sense and can be done efficiently.
The ingredients of a quality onboarding include:
- Meeting all the critical stakeholders. This can be done during the onboarding meetings and socially, if schedules permit. Bonus points for including senior-level stakeholders.
- Providing industry, business and brand background. Don't forget to define industry jargon and acronyms!
- Crystallizing business issues and challenges you'll face. Most companies have a lot of data and information that could be shared but focusing on the most relevant information is a good place to start.
- Defining success for the work and the relationship. Most of my partners were proactive in asking my team this, as it is critical to the health and success of the relationship but make sure you're clear on what success is. During the session you can define partner evaluation criteria and frequency of evaluation.
- Sharing the company's cultural values (e.g., communication style, decision-making process, timing of requests, how a work day is defined, etc.).
- Holding an initial work-plan development session. Spell out a few choice wins to focus on in the first 90 days.
- Having fun! This is the beginning of a new relationship. There is no baggage and the two entities should work on becoming a team.
On track for success
Once the work has begun and the partner has all of the necessary information to move forward with the project, there are ongoing performance- and relationship-monitoring practices, such as formal reviews, that can ensure the work and the partnership are on track for success.
Formal check-in at 90 days
At 90 days, you will have worked together long enough to do a progress evaluation. If there are things that need improvement, it is early enough to course-correct. If at all possible, this formal check-in should be done outside of the client environment and as a standalone meeting. In my experience, it is less effective to have a check-in as part of a larger series of meetings. It should be a discrete event - not an agenda item.
As always, the more specific the discussion, the better. Generalities don't add a lot of value and can confuse issues. The most senior people on both sides should be the main participants. Here are a few things to discuss:
- Is the work going as planned? What are the surprises (good and bad)?
- Is the client giving the partner what they need?
- Is the partner staying within budget?
- Is scope manageable or creeping?
- Are the wins being achieved?
Six-month formal review
The focus of this meeting should be to follow up on the 90-day topics. After a full six months, both sides should have a clear idea of what is working and what is not, as well as what is changing in the environment that will impact the rest of the year. Based on the discussion at this stage, the annual review should not contain any surprises for either side.
This review should be a formal, in-person review and the client should prepare a thoughtful, written evaluation. The evaluation should be crafted against the key criteria identified in the onboarding sessions. At this stage I recommend soliciting perspectives from the stakeholder groups. The focus of the evaluation should be on how to continually improve the work and the value the program brings to the organization. After all, this is the ultimate - and shared - goal of both parties.
A large undertaking
Certainly the selection and onboarding of a new partner is a large undertaking that requires time and effort, but your investment of both commodities into making the process go smoothly will deliver a high ROI.