Many of our service providers aspire to be business partners. Personally, I think it would be great if more of our service providers were partners. I am sure that if we had business partners rather than service providers, we would be able to provide much better service to our users and life would be much easier for my team and me. This got me thinking, if they want it and I want it why doesn’t it happen more? As I pondered this, I felt the first thing I needed to do was understand exactly what is meant by the word partnership in the context of an IT supplier and a corporate IT customer? I searched for a definition. For a phrase that is bandied around so much I was surprised to find relatively few definitions of business partnership except for definitions of formal legal partnerships.
I found that Wikipedia had the best definition. It quoted Tony Lendrum (author of the Strategic Partnering Handbook) in its definition of a business partnership as being “the development of successful, long term, strategic relationships between customers and suppliers, based on achieving best practice and sustainable competitive advantage”.
Being a customer, I assume that the focus was on the customer achieving best practice and sustainable competitive advantage rather than the supplier (Wikipedia made no mention of this topic).The supplier in turn receives profitable fees / revenue, a strong reference site and likely future business based on good service.
Here’s the rub. While many suppliers talk about best practice and sustainable advantage in their marketing material, their actions are often at complete odds to this. Here are some of my favourite examples:
● A company that comes to me and talks about how they can provide competitive advantage, but then won’t provide resources when we have issues with a critical system.
● A company that will not respond to our repeated requests for support until we fill in their customer survey (because customer satisfaction is very important to them) and we give them a very low rating. Then it is important (I wonder how they are paid?)
● A company, whom while confirming licensing arrangements, includes only the possibility of a one-way ratchet rather than a true up for actual usage. (Is this partnership or revenue gouging?)
● A company whom having won the initial contract immediately raises rates to the stratosphere knowing you have no choice.
● A company whom justifies non-performance on the basis that doing what they committed to is unprofitable.
These are all, slightly altered, but real examples. As Stephen Covey says, it is impossible to talk your way out of problems that you act yourself into. These companies have acted themselves into no possibility of partnership.
If everyone is agreed that partnerships are the way to go, why do companies act this way? I don’t know for sure, but I believe that the heart of the issue lies in company cultures that value and reward predominantly short-term results and behaviour. There is no time to build a deep, trusting relationship when this month’s sales target has to be met.
Please don’t take any of the above as a representation that we are perfect in the world of partnership. We have our elements of short term-ism and in the absence of a substantial track record we will negotiate hard and make you work for the right to be a partner.
We are, however, loyal to companies that show the ability to perform consistently and whose actions show they have our best interests at heart. My favourite example of this is a company that flew a processor out from Australia for us on the back of a phone call, no questions asked, because we needed their help even though it wasn’t their problem. That is the action of a partner and that buys loyalty. This doesn’t mean they win all their work uncontested or that they don’t need to be competitive, but they are included on the short list every time.
OK, so if I want more partners because I believe it will improve my service delivery, what do I expect from my suppliers if they are to become business partners? On reflection the answer is remarkably simple:
● Deliver what you promise when you promise it. This is the entry point. Until you do this, nothing else matters.
● If we ask for help, please, help!
● Bring ideas that will add value to my company and help us be successful.
● Be competitive, always, or expressed differently; never take us for granted.
Simple, yes, but it does mean you will need to give up short term-ism to build a long-term relationship. n
Owen McCall is CIO of The Warehouse. Reach him at owen.mccall@ thewarehouse.co.nz and through his blog http://viewfield1.blogspot.com
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.