If you’re a startup or small business trying to build credibility in your industry, it’s a good idea to team up with vendors that customers already know and trust and meet their business needs. That’s true whether you want to resell their products to your customers or you’re trying to get more customers to buy your own products. If you become a dealer for a certain vendor’s windows, generators or mobile computers, for example, then customers may be apt to call you for both the product and the service you offer.
But attracting and retaining customers is not always as simple as attaching your brand to another company’s brand. Customers need to know they can trust you too. That’s something that must happen organically, says Jeff Barteld, a 2021 CRN Channel Chief.
If you have the right vendor partner, though, it can happen fast.
As Senior Director of Channel Strategy & Programs at Zebra, Jeff and his team help thousands of small businesses in the Zebra PartnerConnect program demonstrate their unique value to our customers. Many of these small businesses have, in turn, increased their gross revenue year over year. We asked him to share some of his expert insights and personal experiences with you so that you can make sure you’re getting the most out of every partner relationship you form with both vendors and other businesses you may choose to team with to grow your own business:
Your Edge Blog Team: In one sentence, how would you describe the importance of a partnership in terms of small business growth potential?
Jeff: Depending on your business model, it can either open new doors within the market or open new revenue streams, especially if you’re partnering with an established, well-known company.
Your Edge Blog Team: And the value of the partnership is going to vary depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, right?
Jeff: Yes. If you want to open a sandwich restaurant, you could try to build your own brand or you could become a franchisee for Jersey Mike’s or Subway or Firehouse Subs and have customers waiting outside the door on day one. If you’re a service provider – say a plumber or electrician – and you have customers asking you to install generators, maybe you decide to register as a Generac dealer to become a one-stop shop and increase sales. And, if you’re a technology reseller, it’s going to benefit you to offer hardware, software and accessories from a trusted manufacturer.
Your Edge Blog Team: I would imagine in some cases there’s also a benefit to partnering with more than one vendor.
Jeff: There is. If you’re a small business that’s trying to build credibility as a trusted expert, you might actually degrade that trust if you only sell and recommend a single vendor’s products. That’s not always the case. We have partners that only sell Zebra solutions. However, it doesn’t hurt vendors or the reseller when it can say “we can offer you options from three different printer brands, but we recommend you go with Zebra.”
That recommendation can then be backed by a list of reasons why Zebra is the better option for this particular customer. Maybe it has a unique labeling application that only Zebra printers have been specially designed to support without any workaround requirements. Or maybe Zebra printers have proven to last longer or be easier to secure based on the partner’s experience selling and supporting all three brands of printers for the past decade.
Your Edge Blog Team: What if you’re a technology solution provider, and your solution requires integration with another company’s solution. Or maybe it would deliver better results if deployed in tandem with a specific type of hardware or software platform sold by another vendor. Is there value in partnering with different vendors in that case?
Jeff: One hundred percent. Having collaborative innovation and/or implementation partnerships with other companies benefits everyone: you as a small business, the other vendor and the customer. Everyone is working toward the same goal: solve the customer’s problem. And the customer might end up calling both of you anyway. So, setting up a more formal partnership with that vendor – and any other vendor with which you might eventually need to team – can make things so much smoother for everyone in the long run. And it makes your company more attractive to a customer because your company is providing a solution rather than just a point product. Customers will always associate greater value with vendors who can deliver solutions.
Your Edge Blog Team: Along those lines, I read the other day only 40% of startups ultimately become profitable. I would imagine that tapping into the resources and relationships of vendor partners could help with both lead and revenue generation.
Jeff: Absolutely. If you’re in their rolodex or listed on their website as a dealer/reseller, distributor or other type of partner, you’re going to naturally get leads in the form of introductions, referrals or automatic sales. That can all translate into revenue.
Now, if you’re partnering with a vendor that is a marketing powerhouse – it’s producing brochures, setting up booths at events, executing advertising, running always-on digital campaigns, actively talking to media or establishing its brand as an authority in its industry – then you’re going to get several benefits. The vendor’s direct marketing efforts will generate leads that could be passed along to you. They’ll also help build brand recognition. When you go out into the market to talk to prospective customers, they’re going to say “oh yeah, I’ve heard of that company/brand.” There may be a baseline level of trust already established. Even if customers don’t know much about its offerings, they’ll probably be open to learning more.
Another bonus is that many larger vendors will let their partners co-brand their sales and marketing tools, so small businesses don’t have to spend too much time or money trying to come up with their own. They can just update the tools with their logo, contact info and differentiated value proposition.
Your Edge Blog Team: Like what Zebra does!
Jeff: That’s right. Our PartnerConnect members get the benefit of Zebra’s brand recognition in addition to co-marketing assets they can use to reach further into the market and amplify our efforts in a way that benefits them.
Your Edge Blog Team: Are there any potential pitfalls to aligning your brand with someone else’s?
Jeff: Whenever you partner with another company, its reputation can impact yours. If it’s known for great customer service and high-performance products, customers will probably expect you to deliver great service and products too because you’re an extension of that vendor’s brand. On the flipside, if the company is in the news for a recall or word on the street is that technicians for “XX security brand” consistently don’t show up for install appointments, prospective customers may worry that’s how “XX security brand” does business and avoid anyone associated with it.
If a company is not financially stable, that could also hurt you as a small business/partner, especially if your business success is closely tied. If it can’t fulfill orders and you, as the dealer, can’t get what you need to get customers what they want, that’s a problem. And if it goes out of business, who will handle warranty and service down the line? So, it’s important you do your research and understand everything you can before committing to any partnership.
Your Edge Blog Team: If a small business wants to formally join a formal partner program, such as Zebra PartnerConnect, or become a franchisee or reseller, what kinds of questions should they ask first?
Jeff: Confirm what you will get from the vendor. What’s the benefit of becoming its partner? Will it give you co-marketing assets or conduct public relations outreach on your behalf so you don’t have to hire your own agency or beef up your in-house marketing team? If so, is there a cost-share model, meaning the vendor partner creates the materials but you have to pay to print them or run the digital ads?
Also ask about discounts and promotions. If the vendor is allowing you to buy its products at a reduced rate or extend its discounts to your customers, that helps your margins. And it’s important to understand the warranty and service structure. If something breaks, does the customer call you or the vendor? Is the repair covered through the manufacturer warranty? And will the vendor offer you 24/7 priority support if you’re trying to troubleshoot the issue and get stuck?
This is important. Understand how much support you’ll get in general. Will the vendor be there on an as-needed basis or will you be meeting weekly to talk strategy, tactics and execution? Will it send you to meet with customers alone or will it be a collaborative, united approach? Make sure you aren’t just getting permission to use the vendor’s brand. You should become an extension of its team, and its team should become an extension of yours.
Your Edge Blog Team: They should also confirm the vendor’s expectations of partners, right?
Jeff. Definitely. Make sure you understand if there are certain sales or marketing goals you must meet to stay in good standing with the vendor. And be sure you can comply with all the vendor’s requirements, whether that’s from a brand usage, order fulfillment, communications, or service perspective. Read the fine print and ask questions. It may also help to talk to other small businesses that have worked with the vendor to see what their experiences have been.
Of course, expectations for a technology distributor may vary a bit than those defined for an integrated software vendor. But that’s even more reason to have a conversation with the vendor up front to ensure everyone is on the same page and all terms are acceptable.
Your Edge Blog Team: What’s the best single piece of advice you can give to small businesses that want to partner with other companies but are hesitant to put themselves out there?
Jeff: Very rarely can you go it alone in business. You’re going to need to team with another company in some capacity to ensure you can deliver what customers need and want. The sooner you can form those relationships, the better. Otherwise, you could find yourself spinning your wheels trying to break through a very cluttered and competitive market for months. When you finally call the vendor or other solution provider to talk about a partnership, you could be working from a financial or reputational deficit.
So, identify vendors and other potential partners that have the reputation, resources and relationships you need to get your small business on solid footing – and take advantage of everything they offer! I can’t stress this enough. If they give you the opportunity to co-present in a webinar, print up new coupons every week, extend trade-in discounts to your customers, participate in media interviews, contribute to their blog…do it! These are all tools that will help your business, and there’s very little work required on your end when you consider the payoff: visibility, credibility, leads.
Plus, if you focus on building strong relationships with the right partners from the start, you’ll be able to ramp faster through each growth stage of your business because you already have momentum with both the vendor/partner and in the market with customers and prospects.
For more insights and advice from Zebra’s small business experts, subscribe to the bi-weekly Your Edge blog roundups or check out our SMB and SOHO channels at your convenience.