How Customers and Suppliers Can Elevate Each Other

There’s no reason we can’t elevate business partnerships to be forces that drive innovation and improvement on both sides.

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Having a business relationship is more complex than just increasing your revenue. It’s also about improving. We expect that by having the other party there, we’ll gain a competitive advantage. Better pricing. Shorter lead times. A stronger supply chain.

But is that the whole story? It doesn’t have to be. There’s no reason we can’t elevate business partnerships to be forces that drive innovation and improvement on both sides. We want to find a partner who brings us new ways to save money and boost productivity. That should be the goal. 

Consider this a guide to creating a more robust business partnership where you can reap benefits beyond the status quo. Whether you’re a buyer or a seller, a customer or a supplier, you can start down the path to an elevated partnership by answering these questions. 

Where to start?

Unsurprisingly, the best place to begin is with yourself and your organization. If you’ve ever done a SWOT analysis, you already know where this is going. 

By knowing your strengths and weaknesses, you can find a partner to help with your opportunities and threats. 

Five Starter Questions 

  • How do you see yourself?
  • Can you be honest about where your organization currently is?
  • Do you know where your gaps are?
  • How do you approach them?
  • Do you know where change could help, or are you looking for that information?

Consider these questions and then move forward. 

How do you create momentum?

Take two steps. First, build around action. Action matters because a perfect plan alone doesn’t help. Having 75 percent of a good plan that has milestones and creates actionable energy is far more meaningful than a 100 percent infallible plan.

Second, embrace productive discomfort. Is the way you’ve always done things the way you have to do it in the next five years? If so, your hands may be tied. If not, start thinking about what you need next. 

  • Know how to prove a new partnership will help.
  • Plan out what implementation would take.
  • Learn from the losses; they are going to happen.
  • Don’t hide your wins. Have a solid way to share them out.

Target the right areas: Identify places in your organization that are interested in change – locations that are hungry for change. Select sites that will have the best return on investment as soon as possible. When in doubt, go with the team that is most likely to succeed. 

Why this partnership?

When you come to the table with any potential partner, you both need to be ready to say, “Here’s what I’m good at.” You shouldn’t be afraid to also say what you want help with. 

Being open about your situation is key. A good fit can be found by being honest about the current state of your organization. Ideal partners will have ideas on how to blend both sides together to get an outcome that’s good for everyone. 

How do you invest in each other?

Investing isn’t limited to capital. To invest in a business partnership, the upfront costs are going to be time and energy. You’re going to vet different people and organizations. You’re going to examine your situation. Those are costs that you hope ultimately lead to positive change. 

Regardless of which side of the table you’re on, you need to communicate in an open manner. Feedback isn’t an attack on your team — it’s an opportunity to improve. Consider it positive friction: The way pressure makes diamonds, pressure and friction can create long lasting relationships.

How do we make this mutually beneficial?

Perhaps the most important way to invest in each other is to identify project champions on both sides. You need to have a champion in the other organization. They need to be able to fight on your behalf. They become an honorary member of your team. They will be the branch that can poke around until both sides are getting the customer service-driven relationship that they need. 

Together you can outline specific expectations for both organizations. But don’t just identify KPIs; that’s only half the battle. To finish the fight, you need to know how to measure them. You have to be able to prove something was a success on both sides. Because success has value and can always be quantified.

Create a plan that identifies gaps and has ways to tackle them. Remember, you’re not going to get 100 percent on everything. So, define what an acceptable win looks like. 

If you get stuck, consider these three points:

  • Be agile.
  • Give everyone a clear path to success where possible.
  • Both sides need to give enough information to provide value in both organizations.

The biggest land mine to change and partnership? Ego. If your ego is driving the bus you won’t find a positive partnership.

What can I do on my side?


First, be honest with yourself. Understanding your organization is key to finding a successful partnership. Think about “change management.” If you recognize your organization needs to move forward, make the change, and set the expectation that people will follow it.

Do your homework. Yes, you should look at your organization first, but then you need to be able to measure the available market. Who are the big players? What kind of program do I need? It’s common to want a high-level distributor, only to later find you want integrated supply. Knowing this ahead of time can save headaches.

Be ready to lean on their expertise. You are the expert in your world, so find someone you feel comfortable trusting to be the expert in their world. (Example: If you’re an expert manufacturer, find a supply chain expert who understands your world. Trust the innovation and the investment your partner is making.) 

Set goals. When you’re at the table with a partner, you’ll need to have real conversations about expectations. How will this partnership be measured? How will we be able to see that one side is elevating the other? 


Be able to flex. You’ve seen a lot, and you probably have some idea of what could help the team that’s sitting across the table. But what you don’t know is how unique their work is. Cookie-cutter solutions tend to miss the areas that fall outside the standard template. 

Understand the situation. Many people want one-size-fits-all solutions. Guiding the people on the other side of the table to the answers that best suit their needs is your main job. 

Be a good listener. Need to know what's going on in a facility? Listening is how you’ll learn their culture and environment. Understand how their reactions will apply to a future change management strategy and to the cost to change.

Coach throughout the change. If you’re interested in working with someone and have experience in similar implementation, you can set the course. How you manage the upcoming changes on their side will define your side of the partnership. 

Market your success. Make sure you’re able to share success stories and even lessons learned. History tells the story of the future – the same applies with moving partnerships forward.

What’s the takeaway?

Regardless of what side of the table you’re on, the goal is the same: build a partnership that’s as unique as the situation. The creation of an elevated, strategic partnership is about having a holistic understanding of your organization. You need to know where you excel and where you don’t. Then you work to gain expertise in needed areas through business relationships.

Not every partnership offers the chance to elevate both sides. So, when you find the right one, lean into it. Cultivating this new partnership can lead to multifaceted growth. 

I want to break people out of the traditional ways of thinking about supply chains. I’m a senior national account sales professional at Fastenal, and I’ve been with them for 11 years. My focus is on the areas of oil & gas, refineries, and downstream, midstream and upstream. I’m ready to help you understand the power of inventory management with automation and real-time data. Contact me at [email protected].

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