You’re Wrong: Musings on the word ‘Partnership’

I used to complain about the word “partnership” all the time. It seemed like such a buzzword, especially when the relationship between customer and vendor was really something different than “partners.” Truth be told, in many cases the word is not just overused, it’s plain untrue. So when do you know if you’re partners with your customer or vendor? The answer is not revealed when things are going well—it’s when they’re not that you’ll discover what your relationship really is. My theory is that a partnership is all about an honest discussion regarding faults, without fear of retribution.

Let me start with a counterexample. We did a wonderful marketing piece for a customer and then made the unfortunate error of putting the wrong title for the recipients on the mailing label. It was our error, no excuse. The piece itself was beautifully produced and everyone who was supposed to get the piece got it. Although it was irritating for some, most of the recipients got a laugh out of the wrong title (mainly because most got an increase of stature in the mistake). We then had what I thought was a great meeting with our client. We got to the root cause, guaranteeing that it wouldn’t recur. We apologized sincerely and offered a discount as a show of good faith. The customer even admitted that it didn’t have that big of an impact on their business. Then they fired us! Partnership? I don’t think so.

It’s clear when something isn’t a partnership, but how can you tell when it really is? Certainly it’s a feeling, but I think there are three things that speak volumes on the true nature of partnership. While there are probably others, here are the top three that I think make a partnership real:

1. Take ownership of your mistakes. Unlike in Love Story, this means having to say you’re sorry and admitting it’s you who made the mistake. It also means being clear that you’re doing something about it. There’s nothing like avoiding blame to let your customer know you don’t take responsibility for your own actions. You certainly need to know your audience and present your failure appropriately, but the truth really does mean being willing to admit your own failings and being prepared to face the music.

2. Tell customers when they make a mistake. No one likes to poke a customer in the eye and I’m not saying that’s how you do it, but you do need to be able to tell them when an error is their fault. If you can and they accept responsibility—and will also do what they can to fix it—it shows they’re willing to act as you do in the interest of success, not in the interest of blame. It also maintains an even playing field between the companies. Yes, the customer is always right, but partnership means that when they’re not, they accept it, do what they can to fix it, and move on.

3. Connection at many levels. Even with the best intentions and the admission of guilt, you still have people working together and potentially getting on each other’s nerves. With connections at many levels, there’s a safety valve. If those in the thick of it can’t see beyond the trees, there’s nothing like management having the type of relationship where a different level of conversation can help keep the view of the forest. We all want everyone to get along, but we also know disputes happen. The more connections there are, the more the partnership works.

This all sounds simple, but anyone involved in a partnership will tell you it’s not. As marketers, we appreciate the value of a true partnership. We also appreciate the work it takes to make one.

John Sisson is president of Universal Wilde. Learn more about Universal Wilde via the company’s blog. Read more from John in Direct by Design.

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