B2B marketers have many business partnerships – with intermediaries, customers, and others. And as a B2B marketer, you often want to build close relationships with your partners. After all, close and long-term B2B relationships would probably be more profitable.
But how do you know you are in a close relationship?
- Partners take care of each other.
- The partnership is long-term.
- A network of numerous links exists between the two partners.
- There is a lot of formal and informal communication.
- Problem solving is proactive and focused on prevention.
- Trust prevails.
If you look at this list, you will find that close relationships with business partners look very similar to close relationships with personal partners. The fact is that they are similar – both for understanding and creating.
And as much as you want close business relationships, as well as personal relationships, there are two questions you need to consider:
- Does every potential partner want a close relationship?
- Does every potential partner want a close relationship with you?
It turns out it comes down to: First, what kind of partner are you? Second, are you perceived as good in long-term relationships?
When there is a mismatch between what two partners are looking for (e.g. one wants a close relationship, the other is bad or bad at close relationships), disagreements arise and problems cannot be easily resolved. In short, it just won’t feel like an easy relationship.
Now you can have two business partners who don’t want a close relationship – and that can work very well. But in this scenario, you’d better have the lowest price and best deal on the market. That’s because your partner only sees you as a transaction and can easily go elsewhere. But that should work for you too, since you don’t want a close relationship either.
B2B relationships: Not everyone wants or needs a close partnership
In business, being dependent on you is key to knowing if a partner needs a close relationship.
For example, if what you provide to the relationship is so important that when it doesn’t work, your partner suffers badly, then that partner wants a close relationship with you. However, if what you’re selling is easily compatible with what other vendors can offer, your partner probably doesn’t need a close relationship.
Here are some simple examples of both types of relationships:
- For example, suppose you sell highly customized computerized systems to a customer who is heavily involved in databases and highly specialized software programs to make their business work. If the databases fail or these specific programs fail, your customer’s business is at risk as there are no other vendors who can help them.
- For example, suppose you sell phone services to the same customer. This is a much smaller long-term commitment to customers as telephony services are much more compatible between providers. Customers are less at risk here.
So you can see that some partners (customers in the examples above) need a close relationship, but others don’t.
Subterfuge Alert: Partners who don’t need a close relationship often have an incentive to convince you to do so. In this way, they can get all sorts of obligations from you, even if they don’t plan to stay partners for long. So you need to have a good understanding of the dependencies in these B2B relationships.
But when you find a partner who really needs a close relationship, the question is, are you good at relationships?
The easiest way to be good in relationships is to make sure that your partner can trust you. For example:
- Are you willing and able to make adjustments to the relationship to cope with changing circumstances?
- Can you inform the other person in good time about events or changes in your company that may affect them?
- Are you perceived as committed to making improvements that can benefit the entire relationship, not just your own company?
B2B Relationships: Credible Commitments
The best way to signal your commitment to a close relationship is to make credible commitments.
When is a commitment credible? In short, when it has little value in other relationships.
A simple example of credible engagement is giving someone fresh flowers. What makes fresh flowers believable is that they wither and die and it is not possible to give the same fresh flowers to someone else. (However, dried flowers can easily be given to multiple people over time – so they are not believable.)
Now think about doing individual training for your partner. The customization makes it believable as the specialization doesn’t work with another partner. However, give general training to the same partner and it is no longer a credible commitment.
The same applies to customer-specific devices (which are dedicated to this partner – such as devices which are specific to this partner) or special procedures.
Since these are specific to the partner, they in turn indicate that you are committed to that relationship.
Well if this seems hard to do – it is! However, you can always send signals that you are committed to the relationship. Just make sure that the signal you are sending is not the same signal you are sending to others (if you do, it will no longer be believable). So make sure they don’t know you’re sending the same signal to everyone. When you do this, it looks cheap (because it is).
For example, grocery stores and consumer goods have these programs called “Just for U”. As a consumer, do you feel like it’s just for you? In fact, you know it is for everyone.
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Not all customers want close relationships (but they have an incentive to say they do). When choosing partners who want close relationships, you need to develop and nurture close and long-term partnering skills!
More resources on B2B relationships with customers and partners
The six pillars of B2B Customer Experience Excellence
How to measure and improve B2B customer loyalty
Successful B2B marketers know that customer experience is a three-legged stool