Lessons from the customer-facing frontier: What PRM can (and should) learn from CRM

In business, as in life, managing relationships is one of the most important skills to develop. But in the world of business, tech, and complex systems, it’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that human relationships stand at the center of it all. So I think it’s well worth reflecting on how we can humanize Partner Relationship Management (PRM) and keep people at the center, in an era of rapidly increasing scale and automation. 

Thankfully, this isn’t a wheel we need to reinvent. In many ways, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) has blazed the trail for us. All we need to do is be open to learning some lessons. Here, we’ll unpack some of the biggest insights that PRM can take from CRM, to help us build better, stronger partner ecosystems. CRM tech has revolutionized the way businesses interact with their customers, and I think that PRM platforms can do the same, given the central role that they play in partner management. 

I firmly believe that the future of partner management is in making partners feel valued and keeping them well informed - like customers, but in a different way.

Trick Question: What is CRM?

CRM platforms are indispensable business tools. And yet, you’d be hard pressed to find a consensus among marketers about what CRM is, exactly. If you were to survey marketers and ask them to define it, here are just some of the answers you might get:

  • Email marketing
  • A handy win-back channel
  • The cheapest way to fill that funnel

But if, like me, you’ve spent time in the world of CRM, you’ll know that it’s all of these, and more. It’s a framework for building relationships that last, by reaching out to customers and guiding them through a journey that you have curated for them. Developments in CRM are so exciting precisely because they have turned this all into a relationship, rather than a mere transaction.

And that - even more than the product or service you’re selling - is what excites people, and fosters loyalty in the long term.

So how does it work? 

Courting customers: How CRMs make it easy to match expectations

At the most basic level, a CRM system tells you who your customers are, and why they became your customers in the first place. Beyond that, it helps you to understand them and their needs, through key metrics like their purchase history and their current status. All of this makes it easier to spot changes in their behavior, and respond effectively if you’re on the verge of losing them. Special offers, personalized messaging, loyalty programs - these are all proactive steps that you sales and marketing people can take when this information is available.

All of that would be next to impossible to manage manually, but there is now a variety of CRM tools you can use to automate the heavy lifting while delivering seamlessly personalized experiences for customers. Customers get the information and care they need, customer relationship managers get to focus on the fun stuff. That’s the type of win-win that I’m suggesting we can also enjoy in PRM. 

Hold the phone: Partners ≠ customers

Before we go on, I should clarify: I’m not implying that you should start treating your partners like customers. They are, of course, two very different categories with different needs and interests. But what they have in common is that they’re people. And as people, they’ll appreciate being treated as individuals, not resources. 

But how do you know if you’re treating your partners in a way that makes them feel valued and important? Here are some important points to consider.

  • Do they feel valued? How do you know?
  • Do you keep them informed and engaged? How?
  • Consider your company mission. Do your partners understand it? Do you have their buy-in?
  • If your partners experience problems, do they have a clear way to raise them with you?
  • Have you asked them for their input on your own product development?

If the answer to any of these questions was “no” or “not sure”, you may have some work to do.

Here are some practical steps you can implement to start turning it around.

Baby it’s cold outside: opening the door to direct, regular communication

Customers want (and expect) businesses to guide them, keep them in the loop, let them know when important stuff happens. So do partners. After all, your partnership with a particular organization is actually a network of relationships between you and the people that make up that structure. You should focus on ensuring that partners are receiving a regular stream of highly relevant information from you. That keeps you top of mind, and it keeps the flame going. Without it, the relationship goes cold, and will need reactivation (which is much harder).

And it’s not just about what you send them: how you send information is equally important. Direct, personalized messages excite your partners. Sending them to yet another partner portal…doesn’t. Choose a communication channel that your partners will want to be in, not one that is more convenient for you or easier to manage. That’s yet another critical insight from CRM, where communication channels get chosen very carefully to minimize friction for customers. 

Catching their eye: the importance of being interesting

Any marketer can tell you that the attention of customers and consumers is increasingly hard to get. That’s why they invest so much time and effort in finding ways to be interesting, and measure how successful they’ve been. After all, we’re living in an era of information and content overload: attention is a hot commodity.

Picture this: every day in 2020, 306 billion emails were sent and received. In only two years, that number has grown to 333 billion. The only way your communications will make it past the click is if you make them relevant, on point, and worthwhile.

In the world of CRM, marketers address this challenge through hyper-personalization. They ensure that no interaction seems robotic or drafted. Automation has to ensure relevance to have an impact. Gone are the days of mass mailings (well… a dying breed of marketers still rely on spam…). And it’s something that we should definitely adopt in partner management. 

Embracing the future of PRM

I’m optimistic about the future of PRM. We’re going to see huge growth over the next decade, and we’ll be able to ride the wave and succeed thanks to advancements in technology. The partner management stack of the future will empower partner managers to build real relationships (at scale) through best-in-class software, custom workflows and methodologies.

Simply implementing a PRM won’t be enough. The PRMs that win will be those that integrate with other tools, and we’re already seeing these emerge. For account mapping, there’s Crossbeam, Reveal and PartnerTap. For partner engagement, there’s Superglue. 

All of this will make it possible for partner management teams to increase their reach, improve partner experiences, and reduce the amount of effort it takes to achieve that. The result will go far beyond increased PRM portal adoption; partner experiences will be more profitable, driving revenue and powering growth.

Note: A slightly different version of this blog post was first published as a PartnerHacker op-ed. I highly recommend you sign up to their newsletter and check out their blog! 

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