From the May 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

Partnering has been a business buzzword--and an effective practice--for some time. But to make partnering pay even higher dividends, find ways to do it your competitors won't think of.

"Seek out [businesses that] want to accomplish the same things you do but that might have different perspectives or organizational backgrounds," says Scott Anderson, president of Anderson Services and Consulting Inc., a Raleigh, North Carolina, marketing and business development consulting firm.

For example, one of Anderson's clients had an idea for a new product. The traditional business approach would be to find a design firm to build a prototype, then either set up a facility to make the item or contract out the manufacturing. But the client had more ideas than time and resources, so Anderson suggested the unconventional approach of licensing the product to a university, where students could handle the design, manufacture and marketing, and the entrepreneur would receive a royalty from sales.

Once you've identified potential partners, Anderson says, consider how they'll benefit if you're successful, what their skills and resources are, and to what extent they'll be willing to contribute to your efforts. Rank them according to potential, and contact them with plans that will benefit you both. And remember, it's not necessarily the type of partner that makes the relationship unconventional, says Anderson; it's how you structure the relationship.

"You're using a resource at no cost to you that your competitors aren't using," Anderson points out. "You'll have more resources dedicated to achieving your goals. If you become an advocate of your product, you can give your potential partners a fire-in-the-belly kind of willingness to work with you that they wouldn't otherwise have on their own."

You may find partners who want to work with you simply for the benefit it will bring to their operation; others will want a commission, referral fee or some other compensation. If that's what it takes and you can afford it, Anderson says you should be willing to pay. "This is business," he says. "It's not goodwill--everybody's doing it for some sort of advantage."

Finally, if you implement a partnership, monitor its progress to be sure you're getting what you need out of the relationship. If you're not, Anderson says, either make the necessary changes or find another partner.

In The Short Run

It doesn't pay to plan too far ahead.

Conventional wisdom says you need to have one-, two- and five-year plans for your business. But speaker and trainer Terry Brock begs to differ. "It worked well for Alfred Sloan when he was running General Motors [from 1923 to 1956], but it doesn't work that way today," says Brock, 42. "Now we've got to roll with the punches, because technology has literally changed everything."

Brock, president and owner of Achievement Systems Inc. in Orlando, Florida, says today's business plans are tools to use--and change--on a daily basis. Ideally, they should include six months of detailed strategy, a year or two of general planning, and a vision for the next five years.

A few years ago, Brock says, he would have recommended planning your tactics for the next year. "Now a six-month time frame makes sense in our environment, and that could change again to more like three months," he says.

One example of how technology lets you--even forces you to--change your business strategy is the advent of color printers, says Brock. Five years ago, they were too expensive for the average small business. Today, you can buy one for less than $200. With a color printer, you can change your marketing materials more quickly and easily, so if a strategy isn't working, you can change on the turn of a dime.

Also consider how technology will affect your customers. If your competitors begin offering extended services on their Web sites, can you afford to dig in your heels just because it's not in "the plan"? To avoid being overwhelmed or left behind, you have to pay attention and stay flexible.

Perks Work

Give your part-timers a good reason to give you their best.

Part-time employees are an essential segment of the work force for many businesses, but it's not always easy to keep them motivated. They often do low-level work, may not have much opportunity for advancement and are frequently ignored by full-timers. But regardless of how many hours someone works each week, as an employer, you're entitled to get the maximum benefit from the time people spend on the job.

So how can you keep part-timers enthused and productive? Linda C. Haneborg, vice president of marketing and public relations for Express Personnel Services in Oklahoma City, offers these tips:

  • Introduce new part-timers to your full-time staff. "It's important to build a foundation for part-time employees just as you do for full-timers," says Haneborg. "Give them a tour of your facility, and explain what your company does, what its goals are and what your vision is."
  • Provide benefits. Make your part-time employees eligible for the same benefits full-timers receive, such as insurance, vacation and tuition reimbursement. Most companies prorate their benefits based on hours worked--usually a minimum of 20--so what part-timers receive is comparable to what is given to full-timers.
  • Train them. Everyone needs to be adequately trained to do their job, no matter how many hours they work. Provide ongoing training to enhance and expand their skills beyond basic job knowledge, and to groom part-timers for eventual full-time positions.
  • Create an inclusive environment. "You need to create an atmosphere that makes part-timers feel they're as worthwhile and productive as full-time employees are," says Haneborg. If you give gifts at holidays or recognize birthdays for full-timers, do so for part-timers as well. Invite part-timers to participate in company social events, sports teams and incentive programs. Encourage them to participate in safety and quality programs.
  • Develop career paths. Although many part-timers choose to work on a temporary basis because it suits their needs, a signifcant number of them are looking for advancement opportunities. Take the time to find out what their skills and goals are, and, if possible, develop a plan for growth within your company that will let them use their skills and meet their goals. Along these lines, you can also help them avoid burnout and reduce your turnover if you give part-timers a variety of tasks and not limit them to "grunt" work.

Holding Back

How to give customers more by selling them less.

Should you sell something to a business customer just because they want it--even though you know what they're asking for may not be the best way to meet their needs? Absolutely not, says John Broer, director of Strictly Speaking, a corporate training and consulting firm in Sylvania, Ohio. "We have to put the customer's agenda before our own," he says. "The old school of `Shove it out the door at all costs' is being replaced by a more cooperative philosophy of `This is what you need, and when you need more, we've built the kind of relationship that you'll come back to me.'"

This idea is especially important for businesses that supply retailers. Today's savvy suppliers not only get to know their customers, but take the time to educate them on how to get the most out of their products and services.

Suppliers can increase customer loyalty among retailers by doing such things as assisting with inventory management, helping customers identify their consumption patterns to reduce spoilage and avoid having excess cash tied up in inventory, providing training on proper storage and handling, offering sales and marketing advice, and participating in joint promotions.

But it all begins with educating the customer about your willingness to do these things. "You have to find innovative ways to differentiate yourself," Broer says. "Vendors need to make a concerted effort to help their customers be more effective. Building a strong relationship with the customer and creating a mutual reliance makes for long-term business and effective growth."

Tips

http://www.deepfun.com/workingfun.htm

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Contact Sources

Achievement Systems Inc., (407) 363-0505, terry@terrybrock.com

Anderson Services and Consulting Inc., (919) 845-4255, scanders@mail.com

Express Personnel Services, (800) 635-1608, lchaneborg@expresspersonnel.com

Strictly Speaking, (419) 824-9608, http://www.talkgood.com