Vendor relationships: Five ways partners can forge closer ties

Want to grow your business with your top product vendors? Here are five tips for channel partners seeking to create closer ties.

Expanding your services and solutions is a smart and necessary way to build a better business. Yet, with a broader and more advanced line card comes the challenge of managing multiple vendor relationships.

CompTIA's recent State of the Channel research said, on average, channel partners manage eight different vendor partner programs. The study also notes several reasons why a partner would drop a vendor. Topping the list are high cost of membership and the simple fact that the vendor portfolio is no longer a fit for the partner's business. That all makes sense, but what if everything is in check and you simply want to grow your business with your top vendors?

Here are five ways many of our best channel partners are building stronger working relationships with their best vendor partners and turning some of the common, everyday challenges into real growth opportunities:

1. Always begin with service in mind

senior director, Ingram MicroJohn Fago

This may sound backwards, but the best approach to vendor management is actually the same one you use to develop long-term customers: Keep a focus on their needs and align them with your expertise so the relationship is mutually beneficial.

Partnerships go both ways, and if you ask "What more can I do to make this successful for both of us?" the doors swing open and the conversation moves quickly from superficial to strategic. For example, if you're looking to get closer to a particular vendor, ask the question of your rep: "What more can we do to close deals faster?" Or, if you're working with the vendor through a distributor, make it known that you're interested in being interested in being an industry voice and advocate for the vendor among your peers and the markets you serve. Vendors often have marketing development funds (MDF) generally available to partners through distribution that can be used to produce your own collateral and host events, for example. Ask for the MDF and welcome the opportunity to be seen and heard as a testimonial for your vendor and distributor. Being featured in a video, news article, advertisement or case study that demonstrates your success and is professionally produced is a big deal. Remember, a little celebrity goes a long way, and in many instances, you can repurpose and share the vendor-funded results.

2. Seek to understand

On a similar line of thought, one of author Stephen R. Covey's pearls of wisdom in his famous 7 Habits of Highly Successful People was to "Seek first to understand, then be understood." This applies perfectly to building lasting vendor relationships. To be successful, you need to invest the time to truly appreciate and relate to your vendor contacts, learn their culture, and understand their goals and objectives so you can identify how best to work with them and get to your goals and objectives.

This approach requires more questions on your part, and more listening than speaking in many cases, but it works. Be open with feedback and honest about your expectations. You'll be a better partner when you each understand the other's expectations from the partnership. Moving from good to great vendor relations is similar to the difference between acquaintances and friends. With friends there is a deeper relationship because each person knows where the other is coming from. In business, relationships built on a deeper understanding will lead to more meaningful exchanges of ideas and value.

3. Never impose or assume

There are many similarities in the way business is conducted across the globe, but there are also some key differences, including differences in laws as well as the way people operate region to region, country to country. It is important when forming vendor relationships internationally or globally not to assume things work the same way as they do in your immediate country/region. Do your homework. Ask around. Listen and learn. Remember: You're better working together than working in silos. Get to know the lay of the land and then engage and offer your insights.

4. Make connections that matter

Strong vendor relationships aren't hard to come by if you're willing to put some skin into the game.
John Fagosenior director, Ingram Micro

We live in a network economy, where mutually valuable connections are our currency. Meaningful client relationships make businesses work, and they build equity for all parties. Be a connector; be the person who can bring the right people together. Without fail, the best leaders have great support networks behind them. Your network determines your net worth and your vendors and distributors are an important part of that network. Make sure you're associating with the right people within your communities and professional circles -- especially those stakeholders who possess the skills, experiences, and perspectives you lack and who can complement your business goals. Successful partnerships are key to long-term prosperity.

5. Embrace accountability

Take it upon yourself to ensure proactive communication is happening between you and your vendor. Be heard and be accountable for your actions and promises. Do what you say, say what you do and make people aware of it along the way. This is especially important when you and the person you're communicating with are not in a direct-report role or there is an overlay of responsibilities. Follow through. In the absence of being face to face, credibility rests on others trusting you to make good on your promises.

Strong vendor relationships aren't hard to come by if you're willing to put some skin into the game. Take time to get to know the vendors you do business with and find ways to build your business and show success. In doing so you'll find that your vendors will be much more inclined to provide you with the same level of support and responsiveness that you give to your customers. The relationship will become more mutually beneficial and strategic.

John Fago is senior director, Global Vendor Management, at Ingram Micro, where he manages the overall relationship and mutual growth of the company's VMware business globally. Prior to his current role, he was the executive leader for the comprehensive account management function for Agency Ingram Micro and led strategic oversight and development for Ingram Micro's four partner communities.

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