If you are a client of mine, then you’ve heard me say you should refrain from using the word “partner” when selling to a customer. When a customer hears the word partner come out of your mouth one or two things (or both) automatically happen. First they reach for their wallet, because that is where they believe you are reaching. Second they want to get physically ill. Why do customers respond this way?

The primary reason is that every selling organization out there is telling the customer they want to be a “partner”. And yet, how many actually deliver on the promise? This is perhaps the biggest legacy issue you face. The path ahead of you has been fearlessly cleared by other sales reps who have been spouting all of this partner nonsense for years. I call it nonsense because it really is. The sales rep is being presumptuous at best, for he/she has not earned the right to use the term partner to describe the relationship. This is no different than walking up to a complete stranger on the street and telling them you love them. I realize this sounds ridiculous to you, but that is completely analogous to how you sound to the customer.

I tell my clients that they must first earn the right to describe their relationship in those terms and they are only truly a “partner” when their customer tells them they are. I had the distinct fortune of witnessing this very situation recently with a client. In this circumstance, through truly herculean efforts, my client had produced spectacular outcomes (success) for their customer. As a result, their customer sent an email copying senior management at my client showing a real appreciation for all of the hard work. Additionally, they had included mention of flexibility they had demonstrated. In short, they called my client a true partner and stated the customer really appreciated that relationship.

OK, so there is nothing earth shattering here as this should be a fairly common occurrence (unfortunately it is not that common). It was what the customer said next that I really want to share with you. The primary contact at the customer, who had written the email, had a discussion with his boss where they both agreed my client was a partner, but then they asked themselves what really makes a partner? After much deliberation, they came up with the following definition:

“…a partner acts like an Owner and thinks like a Customer.”
(emphasis was in the original)

I was dumbstruck when I first read the email as I’ve heard many definitions of “partner” but none that got to the essence of what it really means to the customer. Think about this statement a bit for I believe it is profound.

Looking at the first part “…acts like and Owner” tells me a partner is focused on and acts on things that are important to the company. What do owner’s act on? Owners act on outcomes that are critical to the business. How do they act? They focus time, money and resources on outcomes that are critical to the business.

Look at the second part of the statement “… thinks like a Customer” tells me a partner is thinking about the right outcomes. These are the outcomes that are critical to the customers of the company. After all, what is the purpose of any business other than to serve their customers better than the competition?

In short, this profound statement is telling us that a partner is focused on producing critical outcomes and the most critical outcomes are those that are important to the customers of the company. With this definition in mind, ask yourself from the perspective of your customers, “Are you a partner?”

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This is a tough and sometimes unwelcome question often fraught with emotion – especially for the sales team pursuing the opportunity. However, it is imperative they know a B2B opportunity is qualified and therefore worth committing precious hours and limited corporate resources in pursuing.

“It’s an approved project with budget. We’ve met with all of the key buying influencers – and they really like what we have to say!” I am willing to bet this opportunity would easily clear the “qualified” hurdle and would probably show as “upside” or perhaps even “commit” in many a sales pipeline. But is it really qualified?

Meet Steve Thompson

Steve is president and founder of Value Lifecycle TM, a strategy execution consulting practice that helps both selling and buying organizations position, negotiate, and close “must-win” deals. Steve works closely with clients to help them advance their corporate strategy, strengthen relationships with their customers and suppliers, and achieve sustainable business outcomes.

True Compass

Is this opportunity qualified? Do I have a compelling value proposition that will increase my odds of winning?

Does my proposal setup the right negotiation? What is the “right deal” for this opportunity?

Is this customer likely to renew? What is changing with the customer’s business that presents new opportunities for me?

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