Companies seem to be struggling to react swiftly to ever-changing customer expectations and needs in a business context of shifting market conditions and financial swings. Stephen M Dent (Partnership Relationship Management) noted: “Outmanoeuvring competitors involves capitalising on highly effective internal and external relationships that ensure the business has the capabilities to support its mission and evolving growth initiatives. The strategy of connectivity to other people and entities is now crucial for innovation and overall success. Businesses today must propagate connections that provide resources they don’t possess in-house and enable them to move quickly to profit”.
Involving customers in the creation and refinement of products and services is more than “putting customers first”, finding mutually satisfactory solutions to shared problems or a dedication to excellence in every sale or service encounter – it also requires commitment to forging long-term relationships that create synergies of knowledge, security and adaptability for both parties. Herein lies sustainability – creating customer partnerships helps the business maintain the focus it needs to make good decisions and harness the power and commitment needed to weather volatile times. Vadim Kotelnikov (Coaching by Example) emphasises: “Partnering with customers represents your firm’s capacity to anticipate what customers need even before they know they need it”. Dent adds: “Creating a partnering culture in your organisation will foster collaboration and position the organisation to accrue four chief benefits:
These chief benefits enable business transformation and thus impact the bottom line”.
A partnership is where two or more parties work together to accomplish goals while building trust and a mutually beneficial relationship. This means that the partnership is agreed upon voluntarily, built on the desire to have trust and based on agreed-upon mutual benefits. Dent, in his well-researched white paper on partnership relationship management, notes the following characteristics of effective partnerships (though difficult, even tough, to apply to a partnership relationship with customers, the principles are still relevant):
- Partnerships are entered into voluntarily – they cannot be forced. Business leadership can, however, invite customers to partner with them.
- Partners perceive themselves to be equal in power and accountability – the only factors that might make one partner’s perspective take precedence over another’s are greater knowledge or more experience.
- Partners have equal access to and openly share information and knowledge – the emphasis always being on the task or outcome for which the partners came together in the first place.
- All partners are perceived as equally valuable, albeit in different ways – as the contribution of all is required to meet objectives, all partners are acknowledged for respective inputs.
- Partners look for opportunities to discover they are wrong – as they want to arrive at the best possible solution, they are open to any and all information that will help them achieve that.
- Partners seek out and support success for others – partners bring to a relationship an outlook of abundance. They seek success for others as they know that this doesn’t detract from their opportunities to be successful as well.
Michael Hammer noted: “The more you do for customers, the more of their work that you undertake, the harder it is to find the line that separates you from them. Companies that perform more of their customer’s work in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors and earn higher margins are, in effect, integrating themselves into their customer’s operations”. Some examples of companies that have succeeded in partnering with customers include the following:
- BMW – the company constantly seeks to discover new technologies and design features to build into future vehicles. To harvest the insights of creative minds outside the BMW Group, the company’s Virtual Innovation Agency (VIA) is the point of contact for all external innovators who do not as yet have contacts within the firm. VIA makes it easy for enthusiasts to communicate their ideas through its website.
- Nypro – a company that designs injection processes, it shares ideas with the customers’ own engineering and marketing departments to solve their specific problems. Nypro situated its new plants next door to its customers and integrated its processes with theirs.
Fierce competition forces businesses to become more creative, agile and flexible in their dealings with customers to give them exactly what they want. Creating a partnership with customers helps an organisation focus on real needs and deliver on customer expectations.