Relationship status: It (should not be) complicated Partners vs Vendors

Dr Leda Glyptis 11:FS Foundry CEO
5min read

In my entire career to-date, I never heard a vendor describe themselves as simply a vendor. We do a thing, you pay for the thing, we shake hands and go our separate ways.

Even though most of procurement is exactly like that, the language to describe it is almost always unexpectedly emotive: partners, communities, ecosystems. And by using the terms too much we allowed ourselves to forget just how huge the gulf separating a partner and a vendor is.

This is really not about money changing hands. Of course partnerships in a business entity have a commercial component. And legal documents. And very serious parameters of success. Yet partnerships are different animals altogether.

I trust you with my future

Rasmus Figenschou, DNB, Group Executive Vice President, New Business:

In a partnership we are not only looking for someone who shares our perspective of the future we are moving toward, but also someone who challenges us to go even further based on the perspective they bring to the table.

Partnerships are about building a desired future. They are about looking at today and saying not only will I take a stab at what I think tomorrow looks like, but I am going to do it with you. It is not a transference of responsibility.

It is not a case of ‘I pay you to do this’. It is a case of ‘I have a plan, a vision and a dream and I want you and your capabilities to be a part of it’. Sure, money changes hands, and commercial models are discussed and lawyers become involved. But that is the case with vendors too. What is different is that a partner is someone who is given the power to accelerate your future, and vice versa. To build it with you. Implicit in that is that you trust them not to break it.

That goes beyond any contract, runs deeper than any commercial discussion and is what really separates the people you do business with. Being ‘just a vendor’ is no bad thing. You can be an amazing vendor whose clients trust them and keep coming back for more. But until you stand around a whiteboard and say ok. The future. Let’s build it.

Until that moment, you are not a partner.

I trust you with my reputation

David Brear, CEO 11:FS:

In really big undertakings, success is based on culture and passion. Frustratingly you cannot buy those. You have to instil them. This means you cannot take on the future with people who do not share your passion because if it is their passion, not yours, driving who is in control when hard decisions need to be made?

This passion has to be shared. Energy matched. And like any relationship, this takes real effort on both sides and cannot be bought.

Partnering entails public vows. It tells the world you see those guys over there? We are connected, we are tied, we are part of a family.

It entails a moral judgment. A vendor that proves to have questionable practices gets dropped, no harm no foul. A client that does business in ways that are not palatable can be dropped with some careful wording and a shake of hands. A partnership, however, stays with you even after it is finished. It is seen, and rightly so, as a choice that went much beyond expediency. As a choice that was about identity, intention and integrity.

A partnership is about a deep conviction that the other side won’t let you down, with a depth horizon far beyond your accounts payable. No matter how much you like their physical products, software or services, most of your vendors are not part of this thinking. They don't need to be. That intensity is only needed for those who partner for the road ahead. Sharing risks, opportunities and that fire in the belly.

I trust you with my people

Alison Rose, CEO, RBS Commercial and Private Banking:

In a true partnership, you don’t maintain the traditional vendor/client distance. You do not hide behind it. A true partner is someone you trust to tell you when you are wrong. And help you navigate calibrating the right solution for the clients. A solution that will keep evolving, as the clients do. So each launch is a beginning. But the partnership is for the journey.

A partner is not at arms’ length. They don’t have a handler and a quarterly review with procurement. They have access. To all your people. They sit in your offices as you sit in theirs. For days and weeks, not meetings and roundtables.

Partners see your culture because they are immersed in it. They see your weaknesses because they practically live with you. They see your strengths and share the responsibility of supercharging them. That intimacy is special and can’t work for everyone. It is not needed with everyone. It is not sustainable or even advisable with everyone you buy stuff from. You can like them without all this.

Your partners are the people you trust to hear the hard stuff from. The ‘you are being less than you can be’ conversations. The ‘this may not be the right thing to do’ conversations. And to allow them to have those with you, you trust them with your people as much as your people. You welcome them into the family. And expect them to behave accordingly.

You complete me

Rasmus Figenschou, DNB, Group Executive Vice President, New Business:

A partnership is also about acknowledging our own strengths and weaknesses and finding the right match of who completes us the most, and where we complete that other party. Each challenging each other in either direction based on their respective experience, knowledge and position.

Just like a marriage, a partnership is about building the future. In less prosaic terms and just like a marriage, that means joint work today. It means embracing a common fate as part of the future strategy that goes beyond alignment in methods of work and exchange of service for value creation.

If it sounds intense that is because it is. ‘With the best partnerships – be they in life or professionally’ continues Rasmus ‘there is an aspect of deep-rooted respect for the other party and acknowledgement of ones’ own strength and weaknesses in relation to the other. And with that; a realisation that the outcome from the partnership far exceeds the potential of either party.’

Partnership relationships are not linear. They are not transactional. And before we go down a rabbit hole, this is not about ‘better’. This is not about being a better version of the thing that you are. A very good vendor is not a partner, no matter how much they use the word in their marketing literature. Winning battle of the bands in your living room doesn’t make you a rockstar. Not because you are not good (you are awesome, totally an undiscovered wonder) but because these two things are not connected, they are not even related.

You need vendors. In fact you need more vendors. And you need vendors all the time.

Your partners will be few, future-oriented and aspirational. You don’t need many. You just need the right ones. And when you find them, the rest is hard but really not very complicated.

Want to know more? Click here to see what partnerships can accomplish.