The term partnership can mean different things to different people and in many cases that makes sense but it should never just be about the purchase orders. This is a point that has been made very clear recently by Ben Gomes-Casseres. If the shared definition is not understood and agreed by the parties early on, it can frustrate and poison any chance of a long-term relationship – be it one based on sales, marketing collaboration or anything else.
One business may have a key distribution partner with whom they have a complex transactional relationship for sales revenues. Or they may have an affiliate deal that accounts for pennies and clicks. They are key accounts, sometimes called partners. Others however, may call the property they sponsor and pay for their partner, as it could be a particularly valuable or unique branding relationship that is truly ‘impossible to replace’. And a public sector organisation or NGO may need a whole range of special relationships with government and bodies that have nothing to do with revenue but are vital to long-term success. The word partnership has unfortunately often become a fashionable add-on. What we need is clarity. Executives and sales teams often actually mean ‘Key Accounts’ rather than partners and this can easily sow the seeds of later confusion. I have taken so many phone calls over the years from earnest types wishing to ‘explore a business partnership and collaboration’ which after two sentences can be better and more succinctly defined as ‘we have a media sponsorship package we thought you may be interested in’ . To be absolutely clear: there is nothing wrong and everything good about being a Key Account. I love being a Key Account. And when I was a Key Account Manager and Account Director, I liked the running and controlling a clients’ work. It is a customer, service relationship. As a Key Account you are looked after, you expect and demand service and you may have negotiated some decent discounts. A partnership is a much more tailored relationship and is far more likely to involve a more equal sharing of responsibilities, costs, actions. As Ben Gomes-Casseres explains in the article below a true partnership is NOT a just purchase order. You can see Gomes-Casseres article on the HBR blog at A Partnership Is Not a Purchase Order.