How to Know When a Vendor Becomes a Business Partner
Rob Bishop and Barry Klein
"You didn't build that" is now part of presidential campaign history. But here's where we stand with regard to that whole controversy: When we look at our 18-year-old business, we're very confident that we did "build that," but we also agree that there were many people who "along the line gave us some help." Among the people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude are teachers, relatives, early investors who took a chance on us, and the guys who constructed the roads that bring our customers to us.
Then there are the people who fall somewhere in between — our partners. These are the businesspeople who make a difference in our clubs every day, even though officially they are "vendors" and we are their "customer." These are our go-to guys who we know have our backs. If you don't have people and vendors like this in your corner, you need to look for new ones.
Who are your partners? All of your vendors want you to believe that they are. We hear it all the time. "Guys, we don't want to just sell you something. We want to be partners." Our unspoken response is something to the effect that, "Well, we just want to start by buying whatever it is we need. We'll see how good a partner they are over time." Partnership has to be earned, and we go into new business relationships with pretty low expectations.
How do we know when we've found a partner? It's simple — when they do something for free or when they do something they didn't have to do.
Start with your plumber, heating/cooling vendor and electrician. These three professionals can fix most things that could either destroy your buildings or really annoy your customers. Other than the local fire company, police force and EMTs, there's nobody more important than your plumber, electrician and heating/cooling guys.
But what happens when they can't fix something on the first or second try? This happens to us at times, because of the complexity of the systems that service our pool. We don't mind a visit or two for something complex, but it's pretty clear when the guys are guessing, and we don't expect to have a fight when it comes time to discuss billing. When you have a partner and not just a plumber or an electrician, you have your bills adjusted before you can even ask.
When your electrician is your partner, he's looking for ways to save you money on your electric bill, and then goes a step further when those cost-saving measures don't pan out. Our electrician has refunded money to us when things haven't worked as planned, even while we kept the parts in question, and demanded warranty coverage from his vendors for parts that were officially out of warranty but not performing as they should.
Our plumbing company is also our vendor for heating and cooling. When we expanded our main location, it was apparent soon after opening that the cooling system for the renovated upper floor was not adequate. It wasn't long before the company's owner arranged for an extra air handler, thermostats and ductwork to be installed, at his cost. That may sound like an obvious, logical thing that any good businessperson would have done for a valued customer, but we find it incredibly rare. In fact, while those guys were fixing our cooling problem, we were beginning to figure out that the carpenters who were completing the renovations downstairs seemed to be working quite slowly — more slowly than they had in months. It didn't take long to figure out that they were slowing down because they didn't have another job until a few weeks out, so they were trying to milk us. Now that is what we are more used to.
When you find a vendor that you trust and consider to be a partner, you cling to them. We are so pleased with ABC Financial as our billing and software company that we tell competing salespeople not to waste their time with us. There's simply nothing they can say or offer that would get us to change. You don't change when you have a partner who (as ours once did) responds to your request for a financial favor with a) a reduction in your rates and b) a gift basket for you and your staff. We thought we were being a pain in the neck, and their response was to save us money and send us a gift? Who does that? A partner does, and there are many more examples from ABC that we could cite.
Last year, our longtime accountant prepared our personal tax returns for free. On one hand, that was a nice gesture after having been with her firm for so long, but it was really just the latest example of how we have always been treated. We hate to admit how far behind with payments to our accounting firm we sometimes were when times were tough, but the owner never once complained. She was patient and knew we'd see better days — which, knock on wood, we have. That sort of trust and loyalty means something.
Then there's our friend John from Paramount Fitness, who we have blogged about. We are proud to say that we recently purchased quite a bit of equipment from Paramount, after years of John, our local salesperson, staying in touch with us. We'd like to think that he enjoyed our frequent communications, but we're sure he would have enjoyed them more had he made some money from us before this year. But when we finally did business together, John behaved like a partner behaves. A banner arrived that announced our new equipment to our members. On the day of delivery, John was working and sweating with the delivery guys to make sure that everything was done to his, and our, expectations.
While we're on the subject, let's add equipment repair to the list of important tasks for which you'd like to have a partner rather than just a vendor. We recently experienced what a partner does while working with Advantage Sport and Fitness, which services the fitness equipment at our smaller location. When one of our treadmills kept malfunctioning after seemingly having been repaired, they went to bat for us with the manufacturer to get every part we might possibly need, for free. We were glad we weren't on the receiving side of the calls that went to the manufacturer, because they were going to get us those parts — period.
To be sure, it's not easy to find trusted partners. We went through several electricians before forming a long-term relationship with the one we have now. We've had longtime vendors suddenly become difficult to work with — really, you want payment COD after all these years? — which required us to look elsewhere. We'd love to have a bank as a trusted partner, but like most small businesses, we've given up on that dream. It's not easy to find businesspeople and vendors who you trust and who are willing to put their money where their mouths are.
When you find someone who matters to your business and does the right thing for you because — well, because it's the right thing to do — take a moment to realize that you've found yourself a partner. While you may have built it, they're helping to keep what you built standing.
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