Before an official partnership can actually happen, you need at least 10 face-to-face visits between the prospective partners.
Sung Park knows his way around partnerships.
He's the founder of Umagination Labs LLC (U-Labs), a joint venture between IDEO (the elite design firm) and WPP (the global marketing agency). U-Labs invents, patents, and market-researches consumer products for large manufacturers and retailers. Their business model is built around partnerships with these manufacturers and retailers. All of which means that Park has plenty of practice at starting relationships--and building trust--with big companies.
Park has also worked as a venture capitalist and is a two-time company founder. From all of these experiences, he has found that it often takes 10 in-person visits to establish a formal partnership. But even if you take his wisdom to heart--and recalibrate your expectations about how long it can take for two organizations to reach an agreement--there's still a lot more to the art of partnering than simply recognizing that it can take a while.
For example: How do you initiate the first meeting? How do you space out the 10 visits, so that you're persistent without becoming pushy? How do you build trust?
From Park's perspective, here are the keys to mastering the 10-visit approach:
Network your way to the first visit. Do not rely on cold-calling or cold-emailing. Instead, find someone who can introduce you to a key employee at the prospective partner. "The first meeting is usually the hardest to get," says Park. "People are jammed for time. They have filled calendars for a year." Getting their attention won't be easy, and that's why you shouldn't try it until you've found a mutual colleague who can make the intro. (For a great blueprint on how to do this, read this profile of OpportunitySpace, a Boston-based startup.)
Start early. Since you'll probably need 10 visits, it can't hurt to establish the rapport with the potential client as soon as you can. So start the process as soon as possible.
Find an internal champion. To complete a B-to-B sale, Park notes, you'll need to convince several groups that your product/service is worth their while. Those groups are the techies, the everyday users of the product/service, and the actual check-signer or decision-maker in the C-suite. "In all cases," Park says, "you need a champion. Someone who, when you're not there, can lobby for your product internally." You might not find this person until after your first few visits. But finding her is essential. The right champion will help you navigate among the several groups that you'll need to convince.
Figure out the client's buying cycle. To some extent, this is sales 101. But it's especially important when you're mapping out a 10-visit strategy. Most buyers have a natural cycle or time frame for making purchases. You need to tailor your visits around this. Don't make the mistake of using your sales calendar. The last thing you want to do is pressure the buyer because your quarter is ending. Empathy for the buyer's cycle also allows you to position yourself as a win-win partnership-seeker and problem-solver. "If you're truly solving a problem, you want to show them how you're doing it--and you want to be a resource," says Park.
Create an ongoing dialogue. The subject of the dialogue should be the problems that are keeping the prospective partner up at night. By keeping the focus on the partner's problems over the 10 visits, you'll be able to build up your likeability and trust. When the partner is ready to buy, they'll already feel like you've got the verbal basis for a healthy partnership.
Offer multiple solutions. Say you and the partner are discussing how to solve the prospect's top problem. You want to suggest more than one way to do it. This makes the correspondence much easier for the prospect. If you make three solid suggestions, it's as if you've given them an easy multiple-choice test. The prospect can then reply to you by saying something like, "Actually, option No. 3 is one we've discussed internally." Now you've learned more about the partner. And you have a leg up in terms of how to drive the dialogue toward a formal collaboration.
Above all else, Park says, you need to make empathy for the partner your top priority. They'll partner with you when they're good and ready, but not a moment sooner--and not because you've pressured them. You want to come off as a great partner, not a pushy-salesperson stereotype. "When you're ready to buy a car, you're ready," says Park. "You don't want to be pushed."