Is a business partner a customer?

This has been hotly debated internally at every vendor I have worked with. As a professional channel manager the answer is so obvious that I am amazed that people even need to ask this question. 

I remember meeting with the CEO of a new business partner who had built their business up over 20 years primarily with another vendor and they were becoming a bit jaded with that vendor. They felt that their business was being taken for granted. Over a lunch we were discussing how that vendor was operating with them and there was one thing that made me comment "I wouldn't ask that of one of my customers".  The partner principal stopped dead in her tracks and asked me to repeat what I had just said, so I did. It was if a thunder-clap had just exploded over her head. She could not believe that a vendor was referring to her company as a customer. This obviously got the new business relationship off to a flying start, and suddenly, my company was the new darling, not because of our products or services, but because of my philosophy on treating her company as a customer!

Whatever company you work for, never let anyone sway you from the fact that a business partner is a customer, full-stop.  Some people will tell you that a business partner is not a real customer, it's only the "end-customer" that is a real customer. In fact, both are customers. Go back to the basic premise of the definition of a customer; a person who purchases goods or services from another. By definition, if a partner is buying goods from you (or via your distributors), they are a customer and must ultimately be treated as such.

Now, let's have a look at the definition of a partner: part·ner, pronounced pahrt-ner, -noun: a person who shares or is associated with another in some action or endeavor; sharer; associate.

This is where some vendor sales people get confused. Generally, you can look at your business partners as a working partnership, a cut above a customer. This is a relationship that is built on trust, integrity and shared goals. It is still a supplier-customer relationship at a base level, but it has evolved to the next level. Sometimes you will hear sales people talking about moving from a customer-supplier relationship with the end customer, to a "trusted advisor" relationship. That's where you are already with a business partner! But there are some important things to remember about working with a business partner: You are working with someone who "shares or is associated". If you are not sharing and working together towards a common goal that is mutually beneficial then you don't have a partnership. If you don't have a partnership, then all of a sudden you are dealing with a customer again. When you bully or upset a customer they tend to go and buy somewhere else.

An easy trap to fall into is the "They need us" mentality. The larger your share of wallet with a business partner, the more your risk increases also. Like the new partner mentioned in the example above, millions of dollars per year were being transacted with the original vendor. Over a period of less than a year, those millions were now with the company I represented and the original vendor was now getting less than twenty percent of what they were used to. One of the requirements of a channel manager is to grow a business, but you also need to protect what you have. Remembering to treat your business partners as a customer and with respect is a good start. 

So, a business partner IS a customer which must always be nurtured and respected.

That's my two cents worth!


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