If you were to ask a VP of IT what his biggest pet peeve is when it comes to suppliers’ sales outreach, what would you guess he would say?

I was recently surprised when I hopped on a call with Kroger’s former VP of IT and he shared that the sales jargon he hates the most is the misuse of the term “partner.”

To help unpack the “partner problem,” we broke down when and why it’s appropriate to use the term “partner” and some other words to use instead.

What it Means to be a Partner 

“Partner” has become an overused terminology in the sales world—and its meaning is most often construed as disingenuous by its recipients. According to Kroger’s former VP of IT, if your idea of “partnering together” means bringing in your sales team, pitching your solution, getting a contract signed, and beginning to receive payments for licensing and maintenance straight away, you’re not trying to partner, and you lose all trust and credibility with your buyer. 

Most Fortune 500 enterprises today are so densely complex that software installments take their due time to be ironed out. At Kroger for example, it could take the organization two years after a software is first implemented to begin seeing its benefits. If you understand the complexity of your target organization as a supplier, it’s not fair to call yourself a partner if you’re looking for an investment from the get-go. 

To Kroger’s VP of IT, partnering means you “Win Together, Lose Together.” IT buyers want to partner with a supplier that is willing to make just as much of an investment in the enterprise as the enterprise is willing to make in them. That could mean if your customer doesn’t get to see ROI for a few years…maybe you don’t either. You have to be confident enough in the success of your product that you’re willing to plant the seed and wait for both parties’ crops to reap. 

It’s also important to acknowledge that although a technology leader may not be investing CapEx into your solution straight away, they are still investing time, personnel, and resources into the project, which factors in their own substantial risk. Oftentimes, your willingness to demonstrate similar levels of risk will set you apart from your competitors and allow you to be seen as a potential long-term strategic partner.

Emissary advisor, Steve, Mckesson’s former VP of Data Center Services, offers advice for sales leaders on how this can be done:

“Sales leaders need to say, ‘If I can’t deliver X, this will be the rebate’. It tells me a lot when someone can sit across a table, look me in the eye, and say, ‘My solution is so good that I’m willing to do x.’ I think that’s what gets people’s attention.”

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Once you’ve established the terms of your agreement, and you’re implementing a pilot or PoC period, your involvement during this time will speak volumes to your longevity as a supplier. What you do now will determine whether or not your own initial risk was worth it. Steve from McKesson’s biggest advice is to stay on the grounds (figuratively) and keep up with the day to day of what’s happening within the account:

“One of the biggest things that can alienate a vendor once they’re live, and something you need to think about upfront, is if the customer knows they have a problem with your solution before you do. It’s pretty embarrassing when you get on the phone with your account owner after the sale, and he or she isn’t aware of what’s going on in your account. That’s looked at very negatively.”

Particularly at a time when most businesses are adjusting to new normalities or focusing on recovery efforts, the extent to which you’ll take an active role in providing support and adapt the “win together, lose together” mentality is more critical than ever.

Kroger’s VP of IT advises:

“This isn’t a time to try to negotiate a contract or facilitate an internal audit. It’s a time to offer up a technical expert of yours to be on their grounds to help – or provide physical hardware that will be useful to them at this time. They’ll remember whatever additional support you’re able to provide, and it will go a long way.”

Beyond providing ample support, Emissary advisor, Jim, former CIO of Procter & Gamble, also notes additional ways you can highlight the strategic value you’re willing to bring to the table as well in a partnership:

“Stay optimistic, but especially passionate about your customers’ business results. You will build an incredible relationship with your customers if you are bringing in great ideas on how to drive value. Conversely, you will not be relevant if at the time when the company needed you the most, you were focused “inwardly.”

The Bottom Line

There’s a lot of expectations and hard work that goes behind true supplier-enterprise partnerships. Before you send off that email offering up your willingness to partner, be prepared and equipped to deliver on what that promise actually means.

The risks and investments you put forth from Day 1 will continue to be worth it if you treat your customers as true partners throughout the entirety of your relationship with them.