Partnering Won’t Win Customers

In sales meetings everywhere today, someone is going to stand up and say something to the effect of, “We aren’t looking for customers, we want partners.” The idea is that a client that values your relationship in this way will remain loyal and be less price sensitive over time. My point today is that this is not a sales technique; it’s an outcome.

The basic premise of partnering is that the relationship is mutually beneficial.  As the seller, your hope is that the customer will overlook your occasional shortcomings and mistakes, while you are more flexible about theirs. The assumption is that someone actually wants this relationship. In growing economies, businesses tend to seek partners during periods of growth in lieu of adding infrastructure themselves (or having the time to find a better supplier). In the 1990’s there were many more “partner” opportunities than today. While many of you can cite key longstanding relationships with customers where one if not both see the other as a partner, as a percentage of your customers the number is negligible. As a percentage of revenue though, partners often run into the double digits in terms of the overall revenue they represent. And this fact perpetuates the myth that partnering is the goal and standard we set for customer relationships.

So, there is a good side to customers as partners (if you stumble upon the opportunity). However, sales teams that focus on finding the partner relationship are killing deals. Let me put this into one of my metaphors: If you are looking for a spouse, you don’t stand up in a bar and announce it hoping for takers. Nor do you visit the singles one by one and ask them if they want to get married. Agreed? You date. And as you date two individuals may develop trust and friendship that transcends mistakes along the way. Never mind the multiple partners metaphor, it’s hard enough to keep one partner happy.

Here’s where partnering goes bad.

  • What most customers want is relationship in which they have the advantage. Not surprisingly, that is what most sellers want too. Knowing this, what kinds of deals will ensue? The implied trust of partnering will only last if neither partner examines the relationship too closely. In the current economy, both the buyer and seller would be making a fiduciary mistake if they did not look more closely at their business arrangements.
  • Sending sales teams in search of business partners instead of customers often find neither. The goal is unreasonable. A profitable transaction should be priority number one. A customer for life should be priority number two. Partners may or may not develop out of customers, but I would rather have a lot of customers than one partner.
  • When a customer finds a supplier that they trust and value, they will tend to hang around. When something goes wrong or the circumstances become challenging, one side or the other may play the “partner” card. When this happens, you can count the days before the relationship is over.

Perhaps the biggest issue of all is that partnering denies the fact that the customer decides what the relationship is going to be. Partners become jealous, and when the seller expresses dissatisfaction the relationship can quickly end. Customer-seller agreements are integral to long-lasting business, but the illusion of that these relationships will be or should be fair creates unreasonable expectations on the selling side. By building sales and marketing efforts around an unsustainable goal, we sabotage our sales strategy.

Leave a comment: