Five steps for building long-term partnerships

In today's business communications, it's common to read or hear businesses advertise their commitment to building "long-term relationships" or their desire to "partner" with their customers. Although they look and sound great, what's really being done to accomplish these ends?

Unfortunately, most think that it only means understanding the customer's needs and offering solutions. This is an important aspect, it's only surface in nature. Implicit in the definition of partnership selling is the concept of adding value to the transaction beyond the simple acquisition of a product or service.

To truly realize "long-term relationships" or "partnerships," consider these five proven ways to lay the foundation.

  1. Training.

    Product, technical or sales training offers a lasting contribution to your client's future prosperity. Although many pay lip service to this idea, those who reap the most benefit take the time to train customers to gain the full value from the product or service purchased.

    We have a client company that provides an excellent example. They are a manufacturer of home improvement products who once had trouble selling via distributors and dealers to the general public. To increase sales, they began a sales training program to improve the selling skills of anyone involved in selling their products and services even though their main distributor represented 15 other companies.

    Think about this: Our client invested time, money and expertise in teaching their distributors skills they could use to sell the products and services of any one of 15 different companies. Yet the distributor realized the investment our client had made in them, and consequently, focused on offering their products and services. This campaign proved so successful that our client was able to dominate the market.

  2. Specialized expertise.

    Many firms possess specialized expertise that can easily be leveraged into added value. For instance, perhaps you or someone within your organization is a wizard at strategic planning, marketing or trade-show selling. By making such skills available at no charge to your customers, you can differentiate yourself from the competition.

    Offering your company's expertise without a price is priceless and aids in creating partnerships in several ways, such as: your customer feels you're truly interested in his/her success, not only a sale; you're offering a very valuable service without an additional charge.

    Another of our clients, a manufacturer of industrial equipment, has a senior-level executive who is a true visionary. His firm makes him available to some of its key customers to assist in the development of their overall strategic direction and approach to the marketplace. His specialized expertise is invaluable and, even better, it's provided without charge.

  3. Referrals.

    Although many firms give referrals, to really do it right you have to provide more than just names. If you take time to make it a personalized reference, it quickly becomes clear how true a business partner you are. An easy step you can take is to call the individuals you mean to refer and tell them why you feel they should use that firm. Then, call your client and provide a brief background and the contact information. By briefing each, you demonstrate your interest and concern in the success of both parties and help the rapport step be achieved more easily.

    One of our vendors that edits some of our business communications is a source of high-quality leads. On several occasions, the president of this company has spent time briefing her own clients on our services before handing me the referral. When I contact them, they are invariably receptive and new partnerships have resulted that were likely impossible without her assistance. What do you think my answer is when someone calls claiming they can do a better job for less money?

  4. Forming an association.

    A recurring concern with many salespeople is the number of competitors vying for the same accounts. If these people would only commit to adding value to their sales and creating true partnerships, it wouldn't matter how many companies sold the same product or service.

    I know of one firm that makes shop towels which are basically industrial rags. As well as showing their distributors a list of 47 different points of added value for these rags, the company has formed an association of distributors to share business knowledge for the common good. If all this can be done for shop towels, think of the potential with your own product or service.

  5. Build a strategic relationship.

    Once you have established your own integrity and professionalism in the eyes of your customers, you are ready to take added value to the next level: building a strong strategic relationship.

    This is where you tailor your products to your customers' needs and become totally involved in their business. It can mean acting as an adviser or helping them to formulate key points of strategy.

    An excellent example is a Southern California advertising specialty company that does much more than supply pens, key rings and desk pads. One of its clients, for instance, was experiencing legal challenges in the safety arena. The advertising specialty company developed a safety incentive program, using various means of communicating the message to employees.

    The result: an $8 million reduction in workers' compensation claims in one year. That's adding value to your product or service.

    Add value to your product or service to avoid price-slashing wars and soundly defeat the competition.

    By doing so, in the eyes of your prospect or customer, your product or service moves farther from a commodity and closer to a necessity.



Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.