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Bridging the Gap Between Vendor and Partner Relationships

According to Training Magazine, in 2018 companies spent an average of 14% of their budgets on training outsourcing—twice what they spent in 2017. As organizations increasingly rely on outside vendors for everything from training delivery and strategy to technology, it’s becoming ever more crucial to evolve from “suppliers” into “partners.”

Bridging the gap between client vendor relationships can often be elusive in our industry. But the payoffs can be great in terms of increased partnership, performance improvement, revenue, and client satisfaction. I recently sat down with Kevin D. Wilde, GP Strategies Advisory Board Member, former CLO of General Mills, and co-author of “Power Up Your L&D Partnerships” to learn more about bridging the gap from Kevin’s perspective.

Kevin, what’s the difference between a supplier and a partner? What characteristics differentiate the two? And how can a supplier evolve into a partner?

A supplier or vendor relationship is primarily transactional—you reach out to each other as needed. A partnership, however, is more value added and moves you toward being part of strategizing and deliberating before, during, and after the transaction is needed. You build a relationship, a knowledge of each other’s working styles, and a natural cadence of communication that’s not based entirely on scheduled meeting times. When the client starts to reach out to you unplanned, recognize that this is a clue that you’re becoming more than a vendor. Alternately, there’s no reason why you can’t ask for more strategic involvement.

It takes both sides to evolve into a partnership. But partnerships develop over time on a foundation of trust. Partners can share updates and concerns openly in a safe environment. They can ask for the why behind the work. When invited to the table for strategic planning, a partner will contribute, instead of sell. Partners work through challenges together. Both sides go above and beyond and are committed to each other’s success. All these things build trust, authenticity, and credibility. Sometimes trust starts with something small and builds from there. It takes time. And, I have to be honest—chemistry counts, too. But if you look at a client-vendor relationship, both sides assume risk. The client risks a loss of control by bringing someone in. The vendor is taking a risk by jumping in not knowing everything the client knows regarding the inner-working of the company or situation. In that sense, they’re even. And a partnership arises when both sides are ready to say, “OK, let’s move beyond ‘even.’ ”

You write, “Powerful partnerships are becoming increasingly critical as client organizations face continual disruption in the marketplace and search for new solutions.” As the speed of change continues to increase, how can suppliers help their clients prepare for the disruption and change, especially if the change  relates to their core business?

A few things come to mind. Inasmuch as we may be contracting to get a short-term piece of work done, let’s assume that not everything goes well or things dramatically shift over time. How do we build that possibility in? How do we plan for more agility and more value?

Second, I would ask the supplier to make it simple to work with them. As the rate of change continues to increase, being relevant and agile and all of that is great, but can we get the job done simply? Because so much energy is being spent on the client side by just getting the work done that we’ve contracted to do, being agile and intentional—and also simple—helps.

I would also add to that is to see beyond the request. We may have a skirmish going on, but aspire to get the sense of the whole battlefield. See how the whole thing is evolving. Then consider designing a solution that is relevant even if things change.

What is the responsibility on the supplier side for when they’re trying to help their partner see the disruption that’s coming, but the client is not recognizing it? What is the accountability on the supplier side? How aggressive should they be?

It comes back to the principles of trust. If I trust the partner, I might be more willing to see their vision or view. If I don’t fully trust them, they may not be able to break through. There has to be a readiness to see disruption, too. If you trust and value your partner and they’re seeing things differently than you do, it would be very productive to have that conversation, in the right environment. So, asking the right question at the right time plays a role. Sometimes things are very busy and they just don’t have the time to think. They may be thinking, “You may be right about this, but I just can’t think about it because I need to get this near-term thing done.”

Part of having a powerful partnership is helping the client not only with their strategies for today, but also for tomorrow. What are ways suppliers can be helping their client organizations prepare for the future of work?

That is a hot topic, and there have been many things published on automation, machine learning, AI. There are pockets of that taking off, and there’s a sense that, at some point, we’re going to be at the tipping point of those things. And the smart orgs are preparing for that. So that’s an example of the right time to ask powerful questions or bring in samples of work other clients are doing.

The other day we were talking about a 70:20:10 ratio, but it’s not the learning industry example you know. It’s the notion that leaders spend 70% of their time on current work, 20% on something needed 6 months or a year from now, and 10% of time spent on something beyond that. It would be interesting to apply that ratio to a partnership. Let’s spend 70% of our time getting current needs done, but let’s reserve some time for the 20 and the 10. Whatever the ratio, let’s reserve time to think further down the line and be glad we did.

One way to approach this is to say, “Given the way your role is expected to evolve over the next year, what do you think you’ll be needing to learn?” When we asked that question at a conference of global learning leaders, one answer was that it was important to understand all the contemporary thinking on learning around hot topics like neuroresearch and stickiness and habits. They wanted to know if there was an easy way to come up to speed on these things. If you want to build a powerful relationship on both sides, consider helping each other grow as industry professionals. Chances are, you know the best articles, blogs, books, and conferences to help them grow and develop. Share those resources with them. You already have a pulse on innovation, and they would like to learn. As long as it doesn’t lead to your product all the time, it’s a good way to build trust and loyalty.

 Kevin, we’ve talked about commitment, communication, collaboration, and the ability to evolve from a partner to a supplier. Could you share one more strategic approach you believe would help further the partnership between supplier and client?

 One idea comes to mind, who is responsible for results? And I think the difference between good and great comes from wrestling that question to the ground. In great partnerships, you don’t just get the job done. You’re fully invested in getting the job done. When things are tough, who is your go-to person, your go-to partner? These partners have a few attributes:

  • They help get really clear on the valued results. They help you work through the fuzziness of what you think needs to be done to what the real result is. And we do that, so that [fill in the blank]. What is the product of the product?
  • They do some really great planning. What are the milestones we need to reach?
  • Courage and energy. They bring some chemistry to it. That’s part of the magic of great partnerships, on both sides. Do you bring that extra thing—the magic that makes it all happen?

To learn more about evolving from a vendor to a partnership, be sure to read “Power Up Your L&D Partnerships” by Kevin D. Wilde and Stephen L. Cohen.

About the Authors

Keith Keating
With a career spanning over 20 years in learning & development, Keith Keating holds a Master’s Degree in Leadership and has experience in a myriad of areas ranging from Instructional Design, Leadership Coaching, Operations Management, and Process Transformation. More recently Keith has been leading clients on the development and execution of their global learning strategies. Regardless of the role, at the heart of everything Keith does centers around problem solving. He studied Design Thinking at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and found Design Thinking was a perfect tool to add to his problem solving "toolkit". Since then, Keith has been utilizing Design Thinking to help clients tap into understanding and resolving unmet customer needs.

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