Recently we changed our tagline to “We’re Your Product Team.” And it was for a very strategic reason: at stable|kernel we firmly believe when we achieve “partner” status, WE (s|k, client, project, product) are far more successful. Ask our long-term clients.
If you work for a company that serves clients, ask yourself (and your company) this question: are you a partner or are you a vendor? I think it’s very important to delineate between the two -- because there’s a very BIG difference.
Being a vendor clearly isn’t a terrible thing. But in my experience, it’s not the zenith of a business relationship. Typically, it’s only transactional in nature (e.g. client asks for X, vendor delivers X, client pays vendor, relationship ends). In this case, knowledge sharing is minimal -- and likely detrimental to project success.
We fully recognize that sometimes being a “vendor” has to be the starting point. And that’s okay as long as your ultimate goal is to become a partner. And, in a lot of cases, that’s where the relationship needs to begin in order for you to get your foot in the door. But, if you’re looking for a long-term relationship, being a “partner” should be the end game.
Client => Vendor status implies a very clear chasm. One side pays for a service and the other side delivers that service. Sure, it’s super clean and straightforward. But, does it provide the value you’re striving for? And does it set your company up for a long-term relationship?
Rules of thumb for building a great client partnership:
1. How you’re brought in matters.
Procurement isn’t typically a good path to success. I’m betting you’ve never heard this sentence: “Procurement is just a joy to work with!” It’s no secret that procurement is involved in making an apples-to-apples decision. If you work in a services business you know that isn’t often possible. People (see: personalities), custom software, chemistry, velocity and experience are all things that don’t fit very well on an Excel spreadsheet.
2. Take it personally.
I often say, “don’t take it personally, it’s business.” And I mean that. But “take it personally” in the context of a client partnership means taking the client’s business personally. When you make a client’s business your business, you more quickly become a partner. Do as much as possible to learn and understand a client’s business. Both sides benefit.
3. Set goals together.
What are we trying to achieve together? For a partnership to truly blossom, both sides have to communicate their goals well. Doing this upfront, in a transparent way, helps ensure you’re on the same page together.
4. Stand up for yourself.
The word vendor should be treated like a cheap four-letter word. Stop the conversation, and say, “I don’t like being called a vendor. It cheapens the relationship we have. We are more than that.” Or, “Vendor? Really? That’s all this is?”
Achieving partner-level status is becoming more and more difficult. Partner or partnership implies longevity. Many companies want a short term fix -- or staff augmentation. They are less inclined to get in bed with you in a retainer-type (see: long-term) structure. More and more clients are treating their software needs as assignments or fixed bid projects instead of ongoing relationships.
stable|kernel founder Joe Conway, client Arslan Khan from Rheem, software engineer Alex Nachlas
Project work can be challenging for a number of reasons. Firstly, you have to ask -- how do we approach project work? The same level of attention, care and commitment can’t be given — and, in all honesty, it shouldn’t be. It becomes a business decision: what level of product team-like attention is merited for this project? What does the future hold for this project -- or client? Every consultancy should have criteria driven by its mission to evaluate project opportunities and determine how much to commit to each request.
Finally, if you’re a client and you’re reading this, don’t say you are looking for a partnership if all you’re willing to give in terms of time, involvement, information, and commitment is a vendor-like engagement. Vendor or partner? Both are forms of a relationship. If you want a vendor relationship, set that expectation up front. Let them know this is short term.
In the end, if you act like a vendor, you will be treated like a vendor. And if you’re a client and treat your vendors like vendors, expect vendor-like output from them. It’s impossible to accomplish your goals with a small-minded, short-term relationship approach. Partnerships are far more fruitful, both financially and intellectually, when they’re designed in the best interest of both the client and the partner.