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Are You Really a Partner? Should You Be?

Many people use the word "partner" to describe the role they play as a sales person to their accounts. But I don't know if the word partner is accurate.

The dictionary defines a partner as a person who shares or is associated with another in some action or endeavor. Using that definition, I suppose it would technically be true to say that the buyer and seller are partners. They are sharing in a transaction with which they are both associated. However, I think the word partner, in its common usage, implies something more.

When I hear the word “partner,” I think about someone who is fully invested. I think about someone who cares as much as I do about the things that matter to me. I think of someone who is selfless in certain ways because they are working together with me on something that is of high value to both of us.

This is true of a business partner – someone who has an investment in the business, a concern with the day-to-day dealings of the business, and who is ultimately going to benefit or suffer as does the business. We can also think about being a life partner. The people we choose as life partners are the ones to whom we are very strongly connected. These are people that we share everything with, people who are going to be impacted significantly by the decisions we make and the actions we take.

In that context, I don't know that a seller is ever truly a partner to a buyer. By the very nature of what sellers do, they have their own interests. Those interests may be in direct competition with or conflict with the needs of the buyer. At the end of the day, a seller is not as likely to be affected as other partners would be by whatever  happens with the buyer's business.

Of course, there are some exceptions. Some selling companies are so deeply linked to a particular buyer that they will thrive or fail only if the buyer’s company thrives or fails. They are not operating independently as most sellers do. Similarly, some salespeople are so yoked to a single customer that their very livelihood depends on that buyer. These are exceptions when determining if you're more of a sales rep or partner.

It's important to know this as a seller because you don't want to use a word like “partner” without judicious thought around what it implies -- what it really means to a buyer. It's a word that can easily result in over-promising and under-delivering.

So what do you mean when you tell your buyer that you are a partner to them? For many sellers, this has never been something they’ve thought about. They attended consultative sales training, they heard the word “partner” being used rather loosely, and they just started putting it into their vernacular. After all, it does sound good. But for the other party, this is a word that suggests you are going to be heavily, deeply invested in everything you do with them and for them.

Before you imply that promise, it's worth a moment’s thought to consider whether or not you truly intend to be a partner. Once that decision has made, it's a good idea then to talk about the expectations each partner has of the other. If you are to be a partner, that means you have a very clear and defined role that you must play. As a member of a business partnership you will have some responsibilities and obligations.

It is perfectly okay not to be a partner to your buyers. You are a salesperson. Buyers understand that sellers have a job to do, and that that job is to sell things. You don't have to be partnered completely with every buyer. Sometimes you can simply be a sales person. Being a sales person is, in and of itself, a noble work to do. Don't be dismissive of that noble work by trying to overstate or disguise what it is you are going to do for the buyer.

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