In business, you’ll often hear people referring to a “mutually beneficial relationship,” or hear the phrase “partnership.” When it comes down to it, all these references are ultimately about one thing: one organization giving money and the other providing goods or services. In reality, they’re referring to a vendor-client relationship, not a “partnership.”

What's much more interesting to me, and the people I've had the pleasure of partnering with is a more dangerous view - a view of giving with no expectation of receiving in return. Sure, goodwill piles up and many people or organizations will just take advantage of generosity, but stepping through the right process ensures you're setting the right boundaries along the way. Let's jump in:

Step 1: Uniquely Informative

Living in the Information Age means we have an unprecedented level of access. Still, discerning what's both legit and applicable can be a “needle-in-a-haystack” problem. By being a “content curator” where you know your audience and present what is uniquely informative to them, you establish yourself as a thought leader and not only earn trust, but also the right to ask for your (potential) partner's information.

We recently had an opportunity to meet with the executives and operational staff of a B2B firm that were looking to increase their online sales while also protecting their field sales agent staff, who work client relationships and earn a commission. It's a common problem among B2B organizations where a field sales agent sees online automation as an ominous sign to an end to their commissions.

Rather than going in and pitching our product and how it could easily make them more money online, we took the time to first explain the overall online B2B industry, the fact that it was set to be $1 trillion in online revenues by 2020 across North America alone, and while it is common that B2B companies have invested more in a traditional sales model, the B2B buyer is shifting more towards an online channel for both research and purchasing. The information we presented was clear: there is ample opportunity for online revenue gains even without having to transition existing relationship-based offline sales into automated online orders.

The presentation ended with a discussion on strategies we have spoken of with other B2B providers regarding their online plans across multiple channels, what could or should be considered with regards to online product mix and marketing methods, as well as what we've heard regarding their offline to online sales journey. The Uniquely Informative discussion initiated the next step in our partnering process, as we earned the right to ask the organization for more of their data. Once the Uniquely Informative position sets the tone for a partner, rather than a vendor-client relationship, the right has been earned to ask the budding business partner for information. In the case of how Broadleaf defines the “business of eCommerce”, the information might be items such as online revenue and number of orders over a certain period, abandoned carts information, unique visits, etc. The pre-sales contract partners effectively enter into is, "if you give me a little more, I can give you a lot more," bringing us to step two.

Step 2: Collaborative Consulting

First off, collaboration is not, "feeling empowered to help others co-manage their work," nor is consulting, "seeking others approval of a course already decided on," as much as the cynics out there might think!

Rather, Collaborative Consulting is taking the information provided by the budding partner (the “collaborative” part) and synthesizing it with industry, partner, and market data (the “consulting” part), in order to prompt a meaningful discussion around where a business currently sits vs. could grow into realistically.

To take our same B2B potential partner, after the initial meeting with the executives and operational staff, we earned the right to ask for more information relevant to their industry in order to compare them with what we knew based on our data and experience, and against the potential partner's competitors.

The resulting presentation we created sparked immediate discussion among the executives, who were glad to see that immediate lift should occur (as previously communicated and expected) with organic growth off of a much quicker, more user-friendly site. We sensed disappointment, however, when we showed the team additional lifts using different online strategies within their industry - we could sense they were looking for more dramatic, organic lift, without having to shift their offline business online, in order to keep a momentum of growth.

In the following discussion where we sought to conservatively temper expectations with realistic growth potential, we were able to reach an "Aha!" moment: we noticed a product mix missing from our potential partner's competitor sites that appeared to be a clear growth opportunity. We asked about their strategy around this new product mix that had already been proven in other industries like Retail, which everyone could relate to, and we could feel the excitement in the room. Executives started talking about financial strategies to bring the new product mix to market, while the operations team started immediately discussing marketing campaigns and current client up-sells related to the idea.

There's a number of sales books that will tell you companies don't buy products or features, they buy people or vision. When they own the vision and trust the people, the step of Collaborative Consulting has achieved its intended goal.

Still, in the aforementioned example, the deal is still not closed - in sales vocabulary, "close" is a word missing the letter "d" on the end! But notice the process - we've moved from differentiation (being Uniquely Informative) to trust (through Collaborative Consulting) and are moving to closing (Step 3).

With a Uniquely Informative position and Collaborative Consulting process in place, the final step in solidifying a lasting partnership is in setting up a win-win relationship from the start both verbally and contractually.

Step 3: Mutual Negotiation

Years ago I took a negotiation course which included an exercise that has stuck with me throughout my career. We had already learned about defining our BATNA, focusing on interests rather than positions, insisting on objective criteria, etc. We then learned when to negotiate as a spirit animal - from a teddy bear to a shark. Now squaring off with a co-worker, we were each given a piece of paper letting us know who we were in a role-playing negotiation, what we had, and what we wanted out of the negotiation. Out of the two dozen or so negotiations conducted, only a couple of them ended up in a win-win, though every negotiation exercise had the same cards given to the two people negotiating. Why was that?!

The answer is simple: everyone taking the negotiation course was in sales or account management, with a pretty high degree of competitive strength - everyone was out to compete, rather than collaborate.

We were given a potential agreement that could benefit both sides more than alternative options - each side had something the other wanted, but also something they didn't need. For the sparse couple that did negotiate a win-win, their discussion didn't start with what they wanted, it started with what the other person wanted, then negotiated based on what they had that they didn't care about giving up. I learned a valuable lesson that day - though I "won" the negotiation against my partner, I lost the ability to partner.

Now, as part of the sales and partner process at Broadleaf, we truly seek mutually beneficial relationships - a process that starts with understanding what the path to contract looks like, and how each person is valued in the process. After all, negotiations typically center around money, time, rights, and risk. Prioritizing one lever should naturally move others on both sides - otherwise, the benefit is not mutual, and one side "wins" the negotiation, but sets a bad relationship from the start.

After the “partner dance” is over and the inked signatures are dry, that's when the real work begins...hopefully, with a high degree of trust in building and proving the value of partnering - resulting in a trust gained through the partner process.