Almost every organization that I speak with desires to be perceived as a strategic partner with their best clients. It is frustrating when after years of investing in a customer relationship, one is still treated as nothing more than a supplier. The key to building strategic partnerships is clarity of purpose. Clarity of purpose is two-fold:
1. As a supplier, you must be crystal clear on your client’s mission. At the highest level, what is it they are trying to accomplish? Once you know their mission, you must become aware of the pressures and challenges in their external environment that are interfering with their ability to achieve their mission. While there are challenges and pressures that are internal, as a vendor, it is far better to initially focus on the external challenges and pressures. This is because:
- Clients often feel that they have the ability to take care of things that are under their control.
- It can be perceived as presumptuous to initiate discussions based on what the client feels they should be able to take care of themselves.
- It is impossible for client executives to be fully aware of all of the changes in their external environment that can have an impact on their business.
- Often, the more time executives spend in an organization or in an industry, the more they can become blind to what’s going on around them. You can become a great resource if you bring fresh insights and ideas to them.
2. You must be clear on your objective for the relationship. Your objective should be “mutual indispensability”. Clearly, being indispensable is desirable for you as a supplier, it means you have differentiated yourself from your competitors in such a way that the competition no longer matters. What is also means, however, is that your client is knowingly making themselves vulnerable to you. They have put themselves in a position where they cannot do business without you. You have become embedded in their organization. For this to work in the long term, however, it cannot be an exploitative relationship. Mutually indispensability means each side cannot do business without the other and both sides are vulnerable should the relationship deteriorate. Many vendors, who are happy to think of a client that cannot do business without them, panic at the thought of being vulnerable to a client. Strategic partnerships work because of high trust and an equal and genuine desire on both sides to help the other win strategically.
When one fully understand the nature of strategic partnerships, it becomes clear that this is not a desirable approach for every business. Many businesses do well as nothing more than suppliers. However, as our marketplaces change, as competition becomes more intense, and as almost every market faces unforeseen disruption, the ability to form strategic partnerships with clients creates synergies that can lead to unprecedented and sustainable profitability and growth.