Building business alliances that work

Circle Graphics is one of the firms that I've had a successful alliance with for two decades.

Forming alliances is a great way to grow your small business or your solo practice. It is always good to have someone else who is helping you spread the word about your products or services, and this, in effect, is what an alliance does. An alliance can open up a whole new market for you if you join with a company that has made inroads in a space you’ve yet to penetrate. Or it can enable you to take on projects that are bigger than you might tackle on your own. And finally, if you are solo practitioner, an alliance can provide you with a sounding board to talk about your business with since they may run into the same types of issues you do.

By way of illustration, let me tell you about two alliances I have that have produced great results. The first is with another public relations consultant and writer, Carol Savage of Carol Savage Communications. We have worked together in various ways for over 20 years and have both benefited mightily from our cooperative working arrangement. We have definitely been able to attract accounts that were significantly larger than one of us alone could have managed to land. And we have served as each other’s backstop, ready to lend a hand if one of us feels overwhelmed with client work.

I’ve also had an alliance, again for 20 years, with a graphic designer, Pat Mullaly of Circle Graphics. We have worked on numerous projects together, with Pat providing the design and me providing the writing. We have also referred clients to each other many times over the years.

These alliances have stood the test of time because:

• Both sides of the relationship have a similar approach to doing business. Both Pat and Carol are dedicated, as I am, to delivering good quality work on time for a reasonable cost. Working with someone who did not, for example, feel that meeting deadlines was important, would drive me nuts. So my advice before you enter into an alliance is to be sure that your business values are aligned. This requires a heart-to-heart, candid discussion. If the person you’re talking with isn’t even sure what their values are, that should give you pause since it indicates the person hasn’t given much deep thought to how they want to conduct business and treat clients or customers.

• Our personalities are a good fit. That is not to say we’re alike; in fact, in both cases, we are fairly different. In some ways, the relationships work because our strengths and weaknesses complement each other and the whole is stronger than the parts. But most importantly, we appreciate each other and get along extremely well.

If your alliance proves to be effective, you’ll be spending a lot of time working with the other person so it’s important to be simpatico. If a potential alliance partner already does things that irritate you, it would be best not to take the business relationship to the next level because things will only get worse as you’re exposed to each other more.

• We have been clear from day one how we were going to approach the money end of things. Alliances can be managed in many different ways when it comes to money. For example, I have had alliances with people in which we each expected a token payment when we made a referral that produced business for the other person. This is not the case with Carol and Pat; we do not pay each other referral fees, although when I did once turn over an entire account to Carol, she paid me 10% of the business for the first year. The important thing here is not how you handle the money but that you are clear about it with each other so disagreements are avoided.

The most important advice I can share about alliances is to go slowly. Look carefully before you leap. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent listening to colleagues and clients discuss how far off track an alliance has gone and strategizing how they can extricate themselves from the mess.

1 comment

  1. Brian Allman says:

    Solid advice about strategic alliances and joining forces to help secure additional business. I'm a firm believer that two heads can be better than one and also that in challenging economic times like we are currently going through this is a great way for like minded businesses to get a further reaching marketing push than you could do on your own.

    Thanks for the insights…

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