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Salespeople Need to Think of Themselves as Providers, Not Partners. Here’s Why.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In a typical commercial transaction, the buyer controls the money, which means they own the power in the relationship. Salespeople have tried to improve their leverage by using the word “partner” instead of customer or client. In doing so, some reps have forgotten they still have the weaker hand in the exchanges between buyers and sellers.

Here’s a simple fact: If you’re not a partner in the firm and haven’t signed an official partnership agreement, you’re not a partner. And if you don’t ACT like a partner, it’s insulting to the buyer to call yourself one.

Related: 3 Crushing Mistakes Most Salespeople Make

The problem with calling yourself a partner

Exaggerating your importance as a “partner” suggests you have equal skin in the game or you’re on equal footing with the buyer — and it can lead to disastrous results.

For example, complacency can easily set in with existing clients. Year after year, your clients continue to pay you. As part of your customer service protocols, you might send a holiday greeting, thanking them for another year of a great “partnership.” Eventually, you begin to assume they’ll continue placing orders with little effort on your part.

You’re not a partner, you’re a provider — and if you’re operating on autopilot, you are not a very good one.

Recently, a seller I’ve been doing business with for several years seemed to forget their role. Out of the blue, they wanted a sizeable financial commitment from me with very little detail. The brand-new product they were pitching was not budgeted for. When I asked them to provide more information to a senior member of my staff, they acted affronted.

They clearly expected to do business only with me personally, and they repeatedly ignored my urging to talk to the person on my team who actually has to say “yes.” Perhaps this is because they view me as the “ultimate” decision-maker? The reality is I might eventually sign off on the expense, but if the leader of that department doesn’t want it, I’m not going to force it on her. She’s the one who has to justify it and generate ROI.

Since I’ve been in sales my entire adult life, I’m admittedly more sympathetic to the pressures of their job than most buyers. So, I politely informed them of several concerns we had about the prospectus and waited for them to overcome our objections. Instead, my contact at the organization (who, by the way, was the owner of the company) went on a tirade, claiming that “partnering with my company had become increasingly difficult,” accusing us of being disrespectful and adding a few other choice words. The seller announced, “They also control who they sell to,” and in the future, it wasn’t going to be us.

As a seller, they seriously damaged their credibility going forward. They made assumptions, based on our past business relationship, that nothing had changed in my organization or with me personally. In fact, things had changed, but they hadn’t bothered to spend any time assessing my situation before pushing so hard to close a deal. They also assumed we would jump at the chance to buy something similar to what we had purchased in the past. In this case, the timing was wrong for a number of reasons.

If they would have cared enough to ask a simple question of concern about my well-being, the seller in this true story would have learned the biggest reason we didn’t buy. We were short-staffed because of two things: complications from Covid and the need for one of my key employees to take time away from work to assist a family member with a recent diagnosis. As it stands, the seller left me with the feeling they didn’t care about us or our well-being. Maybe they never did?

The customer is not always right, but they should always be treated respectfully. Exchanges between a seller and buyer should never devolve to this level. The seller clearly entered into this potential transaction with the wrong mindset. Despite never calling or emailing me except when they had something to sell, they believed themselves to be an equal partner with my organization.

Related: Why Your Salespeople Need to Spend Time in Customer Service

The power of the provider mindset

None of my healthcare providers call themselves my partner. That’s my spouse’s role. That doesn’t mean they’re not extremely helpful or important to me, however.

To improve the buyer’s perception of you, change your mindset to think of yourself as a provider instead of assuming you’re their partner. You’re a provider of solutions, ideas, information, expertise, understanding, help, opportunities and money. The term “provider” makes buyers feel like they’re the focal point of the conversation. Every customer wants to feel that way! But when sellers position themselves as partners, it can feel like an attempt to manipulate buyers into considering the sellers’ interests when they spend their money.

No matter how successful you become at sales, you cannot forget the basic truths of the buyer-seller relationship:

  • Salespeople are not entitled to receive return calls or emails simply because they reached out.

  • A lack of an immediate response from a buyer to your unsolicited sales pitch does not give you the right to talk down to them in a snarky email. No, your email didn’t get buried. And they’re probably not ghosting you.

  • The buyer’s silence could be an indication that they’re overwhelmed — or they haven’t seen the value in your pitch.

  • Maybe they’re trying to figure out how to implement it, pay for it or get buy-in, but they don’t feel obligated to disclose their internal conversations.

  • If you’ve sent them a boilerplate proposal because you’ve done business with them before, the buyer may feel you’re taking them for granted. Our proprietary research consistently shows that buyers want to do business with sellers who will go the extra mile to deliver problem-solving solutions.

  • How you respond to a lost sale greatly influences whether you will have a chance to sell to the buyer in the future (this is something I wish my 22-year-old self would have read).

  • You may be furious about the loss because you’ve been counting on a big commission. That’s not the buyer’s fault. Don’t unleash your temper, make the buyer feel stupid or engage in other behavior that threatens your likeability.

  • Your level of credibility and professionalism is revealed by your ability to express disappointment in a way that builds bridges, instead of burning them to the ground.

Likewise, assuming negative intent when you don’t have the buyer’s whole story is a big mistake. You may have lost the sale because you made assumptions about the client, instead of being curious.

Related: 7 Assumptions Salespeople Should Never Make

If sellers forget their place in the buying process, they can easily lose their place in the buyer’s budget. Resolve to have a mindset that will ensure your actions truly serve the buyer, not yourself. Don’t be a partner in name only. Be one of their most valued providers — every time, in every way.

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