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Migrating from Vendor to Partner

Mar 31, 2008
So, it's been another round of price squeezing. Very painful! They want it cheaper and your company has tasked you with protecting margin. To make matters worse, the prospect called you one of the worst things possible, a vendor! At this point, you have probably decided that sales really isn't fun. There is hope! You can change the entire playing field by changing your style, your approach, and your game.

Let's look at two restaurants: McDonald's and Morton's. When you go to McDonald's, you are there because you are hungry. When you go to Morton's, you want a dining experience. McDonald's offers value meals. Morton's offers a high cost a la carte dining experience. If you are concerned about price, Morton's is not for you. The McDonald's experience involves you ordering a meal and the order is provided quickly and accurately for you. The question asked of every order at McDonald's is, "would you like fries with that?" (Apparently, fries go with everything.) At Morton's, the wait staff make initial recommendations, listen to the diner, make additional recommendations based on the dialogue, finish receiving the order, and the end result is a stellar meal. While both are successful restaurants, this is a metaphor for the vendor/partner relationship.

With that in mind, consider these definitions courtesy of Websters:

Vendor: someone who promotes or exchanges goods or services for money.
Partner: one who participates in a relationship in which each member has equal status.

Now consider these:

Customer: one that buys goods or services
Client: one that depends on the protection of another

So if you put this together, customers have vendors, but clients have partners. Let's make a deal, we won't call them customers anymore and they won't call us vendors because at the end of the day, people really want to be treated as clients. Vendors don't have clients. I suspect that this isn't overly revolutionary for you, but let's contrast the vendor/partner relationship.

Vendors provide data, but partners interpret the data, analyze it, and make recommendations. For example, if you were having a business review meeting and told them how many widgets and gadgets they bought, you behaved as a vendor. If you asked them why the location in Missouri bought 30% more than the past, you behaved as a partner.

Vendors take orders, partners inquire as to why they want what they want. Out of the blue, you are asked to provide a different service than you have previously provided to your client. The vendor gets it done, and probably pretty quickly too. The partner asks questions to understand why this is desired and determines the optimum way to solve the business challenge at hand.

Vendors are reactive, or even responsive, but partners are proactive. Many sales people confuse handling issues quickly as being a partner. However, a true partner looks at the business and makes recommendations before challenges are experienced by the client.

Vendors take a narrow look at the world, but partners see the world in totality. If you were selling windows and your discussions exclusively focused on the windows and their benefits and functionality, you function as a vendor. If you discuss the entire house in conjunction with "the how" the windows purchase is related, you behave as a partner.

Vendors ask for the business, but partners share their perspective of the synergies that have been identified and ask how to put a marriage together. One of my favorite vendor questions is, "what will it take to get your business today?" There was a lesson I learned at a very young age when using a similar approach. I was selling to someone and we offered a point of sale incentive for buying on the initial visit. After presenting this, the man stood up and said if the deal isn't good tomorrow, it isn't good today. It was over seventeen years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. No one wants to be sold. Trite sales expressions create the vendor aura.

Vendors make sales, but partners formulate mutually beneficial relationships. This is all about matchmaking which will be explored further.

In the movie "Wedding Crashers," true love is defined as the soul's recognition of its counterpoint in another. Wouldn't it be great if client relationships worked the same way? Well, they can and they do. When true business partnerships are formulated, both parties grow as a result. In essence, one plus one equals four. But how do you find a match?

As a sales person, it is all about the mindset. If you wake up each morning with the goal of selling something to someone, the likelihood that you will formulate a partnership is probably equal to, or less than zero. Your mindset is about peddling your wares, not understanding and solving business problems. Business partnerships come together by identifying the synergies between organizations resulting in strong benefit for both.

The mindset of a matchmaker is very different than that of the traditional salesperson. Matchmakers wake up each morning with the goal of finding common bonds with business associates. Think of Velcro. The tighter the bond between the two surfaces, the more difficult it is to separate them. Thus, the ideal business partnership is created.

But what does it take to do this well? First, you have to master your half of the equation. You need to know every bit of what your company does and who the right audience is for it. You need to understand industry challenges and issues impacting your users. The best sales people are often viewed as industry experts because they understand the pertinent issues impacting their clientele. They have invested time to study and learn what is important to their clientele and mastered those elements. Most sales people never do this. They continue to repeat the same boring sales mantra over and over again. "Can I have your business, please?"

The second component is the ability to ask key questions of the potential business partner and synthesize the information. Launching questions into the air and failing to process the information is a common mistake. When preparing for the meeting, you should know what questions you will ask and the possible responses that you might hear. You can then prepare the appropriate direction for the conversation based on those responses. Another common mistake is asking questions that have little or nothing to do with matchmaking. There are just so many questions that someone will tolerate in one session, and in totality. Therefore, you need to ask the most relevant ones. Again, proper preparation on your part will help you to avoid this pitfall.

As a salesperson, there are a number of things you can do to establish partnerships instead of vendor relationships.

* Learn and understand your company's capabilities so you can clearly articulate them.
* Study the industry you are in. Become well-versed on the issues impacting users of your product or service.
* Ask global questions to understand the overall perspective and direction of the company, not just relative to your solution.
* Analyze your client's data. Ask questions of them and make recommendations based on responses.
* Focus on match-making, not selling.
About the Author
Lee B. Salz is President of Sales Dodo and author of "Soar Despite Your Dodo Sales Manager." He specializes in helping companies and their sales organizations adapt and thrive in the ever-changing world of business. Lee is available for keynote speaking, business consulting, and sales training. He can be reached via his website at Sales Dodo or by phone at 763.416.4321.
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