June 2019 | ISE Magazine 33
change to boost
In turning customers to partners, there are
plenty of new ideas under the sun
By George F. Brown Jr.
34 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Managing change to boost relationships
“I cant change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to
always reach my destination. – Jimmy Dean
Those of us in business markets accept that change is
a constant reality, one that spans people, technology
and just about every dimension of activity. Rela-
tionships are often among the factors that change,
sometimes for the better, sometimes involving a
significant disruption to at least one of the firms
involved. Executives and teams responsible for strategic cus-
tomer relationships in business markets are acutely aware of
the potential for change and must invest significant resources
to secure relationships with key business partners.
What has emerged from new research on such relationships
is that additional groups within the supplier organization, in-
volving engineering, service and product development teams,
are increasingly important to the goal of securing such strong
It is an omnipresent goal in many organizations to trans-
form traditional supplier-customer relationships into long-
lasting business partnerships. Achieving that transformation is
complex and challenging. Several years ago, I published an
article in Industrial Engineer, “Turn Your Customer Into a Part-
ner,” (https://link.iise.org/IMJan2012Brown) summarizing some
of the dimensions of complexity involved in that transforma-
tion. Figure 1 offers a quick summary, one that most business
executives and members of their teams will recognize as a fact
of life in their world.
It is a major challenge to progress to even the strong pre-
ferred supplier-customer relationship level shown in the figure,
and in fact only a minority of business relationships progress
beyond the traditional transactional, on-again and off-again
relationships common in business markets.
In the early years of this decade, working with a colleague
and with the assistance of the Strategic Accounts Management
Association (SAMA), we did a fascinating research project de-
signed to understand actions a firm could take to progress to
higher-level relationships. That research was summarized in
several articles in the SAMA journal Velocity, and the findings
remain quite valid today, as reinforced by work with numer-
ous business-to-business suppliers and their customers over the
years. The findings from that research have enabled numer-
ous firms to identify issues hindering the health of their key
customer relationships and enabled them to implement action
plans designed to drive growth.
But as the quote from Jimmy Dean suggests, change is a
constant reality so it becomes necessary to adjust your sails
from time to time. In the case of managing strategic customer
relationships, that adjustment involves recognizing some new
factors that now enter into the equation and influence the
ability of a firm to raise relationships to the preferred supplier
and partner levels. Those changes do not eliminate the need
to focus on the basic competencies identified in that earlier
research, but – and isnt it always the case? – add some new
themes that must be addressed. And, again not a surprise, some
of the new themes that have been identified are close cousins
to those spotlighted earlier.
Perhaps the most important finding from this new research
– when customers spoke about the quality of support they were
getting from their key suppliers, their reference points within
the supplier organization expanded, going well beyond the
sales and account management teams. They explicitly focused
on linkages to the supplier’s product development, service and
other teams, with an emphasis on the supplier’s engineering
and technical skills.
In the research and articles cited earlier, the key relationship
management competencies were clustered into three catego-
ries: relationship competencies, implementation competen-
cies and innovation competencies. The new themes that have
emerged from research conducted with clients serving strate-
gic accounts in business and government markets fall into all
these clusters. But as noted, what customers are looking for in
each of the three categories has expanded in important new
New challenges facing
relationship management
In the previous research, we learned that the first hurdles that
supplier organizations must address involve showcasing strong
relationship competencies. Without those, skills in other cate-
gories are unlikely to move the needle much, as customers that
are not condent about the relationship are unlikely to place
much trust in the supplier organization. Showcasing strong
competencies in that category involves developing familiarity
with the customer’s organization, being collaborative, show-
casing knowledge and having a commitment to the customer.
Good advice still!
What has emerged is the new theme of coverage. In numer-
ous interviews with customers about their key suppliers, what
is heard recently about how they evaluate suppliers increas-
ingly involves coverage along multiple dimensions. Several re-
cent quotes from executives in customer organizations suggest
what they are looking for along this theme:
“We are so different than we were when we first began
to work with (supplier). Then, we were basically a U.S.
company. Today, over 70% of our sales are outside the
U.S. They are good in some countries but absent in others.
Thats an issue.
“In the last few years, we have become a major player in the
internet of things. Any supplier that isnt similarly focused is
going to have trouble working with us. We not only need
to see that expertise, but to know the people involved and
work regularly with them.
June 2019 | ISE Magazine 35
Once, our business was selling prod-
ucts. Now, we are actually categorized
by the business publications as a service
rm. We have to have suppliers that
can help us succeed as a service pro-
vider, as well as offering ingredients
we need for our products that are easy
to support as part of our service offer-
ings. We need our suppliers to help us
deliver services, and that starts with
product design and goes through 24/7
technical service support. Thats what
we expect in a key supplier.
In Figure 1, the importance of success-
ful connections throughout the customer
organization is shown as an important el-
ement of higher level relationships. The
geographic dimension to this is probably
obvious to most executives; if your cus-
tomer is active in China and Brazil, you
had better be able to serve them there.
But the other quotes suggest it goes much further than ge-
ography. A strong supplier must be effective in working across
the customer organization, with the “e” teams, the service
groups, those designing products that can easily be supported,
etc. Customers have made it clear that coverage enters into
their decisions about how much faith they will put into each
supplier relationship. It is a competency that firms working to
achieve strategic relationships must demonstrate.
For suppliers that have mastered the key relationship com-
petencies, the recommended next area of focus is implementa-
tion. We have learned over and over of relationships shattered
by implementation failures. The core competencies in this re-
gard involve a firms processes, its ability to link effectively to
its customers, whether it is viewed as a best-practice supplier
and the cadence of interactions it has with customers. Again,
these remain valid areas of emphasis, which is not surprising.
Two additional and related themes have emerged in recent
research with customers. One represents a bit of a sea change
from the past: Many customers expect their strongest suppliers
to take ownership of the implementation process.
“We arent looking for them to do a hand off. We expect
them to get it done.
“If (the supplier) is making changes in its product or along
some other dimension, we expect them to take responsibil-
ity for the changes we’ll have to make as a result. Not just
tell us about it. Do it.
Those quotes dene ownership. Earlier, the “boundaries”
of implementation were largely centered in the suppliers do-
main. As a simple example, customers expect on-time, in-full
But those boundaries have expanded, and customers now
expect implementation involvement and support that extends
into their own domain. In my experience, few suppliers are
skilled in this regard, and the competencies required of a team
handling implementation support are quite different, often re-
quiring high-level engineering and product know-how. It will
take some real work in many firms to master and showcase this
The second emerging dimension involving implementation
emphasizes integration. To some degree, this theme is an ex-
plicit recognition of change. Customers emphasize that they
are changing, and their suppliers have to change with them
in a consistent and integrated fashion. Many of the comments
heard from customers focused on the future, the evolution of
their own business environment and the need to evolve with-
out unnecessary delays or lags.
The supplier that waits for us to tell them what we need is
behind the curve. They have to be working with us, ahead
of the game, doing what is needed so we stay ahead of the
Delivering along this dimension requires strong insights
about technology, the possibilities for innovation, disruptive
change and other such factors going well beyond “being a
good listener and following through on what is heard.” This is
highly demanding, and in truth requires quite an investment
in the relationship to reach the point where the supplier orga-
Turning customers into partners
A summary of the steps needed to take business relationships to the next level required
in today’s environment.
Strong preferred
business partner
Basis of
Transactions and
defined business
(e.g., RFPs)
approach to
context and
focus of
and smooth
A focus on the
future and the
successes and
Touch points
Sales and
groups involved
in transactions
Multiple functional
and geographic
touch points
Frequent and
executives (sales
and purchasing)
Inherent in
Strong preferred
business partner
Basis of
Transactions and
defined business
(e.g., RFPs)
approach to
context and
focus of
and smooth
A focus on the
future and the
successes and
Touch points
Sales and
groups involved
in transactions
Multiple functional
and geographic
touch points
Frequent and
executives (sales
and purchasing)
Inherent in
36 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Managing change to boost relationships
nization knows where its customer is going, let alone gains its
trust to be welcomed as a partner on the journey.
But hard as it might be, the messages from customers clearly
dene the importance and contribution strong integration
competencies can make to a long-term relationship. Involving
the right people in the relationship will be a new challenge,
one critical to success.
Finally, for suppliers that have the potential to reach the lev-
el of a strategic business partner, having developed the needed
relationship competencies and showcased strong implementa-
tion competencies, the focus expands to include innovation
competencies. The basic skills seen as important there havent
changed: creativity, energy, breadth and timeliness. Those
were always cited as characteristics of the suppliers viewed as
the best at innovation by their customers. And, in truth, those
competencies always demanded contributions from across
the organization. But, again, an important new theme has
emerged that expands upon those core strengths.
That theme reflects a customer need rarely heard in earlier
research: the importance of renement savvy. The expecta-
6 tips to strengthen customer relationships
1. Understand what your customers value. To find out what your customers value, always listen to what they say and how they say
it – and adjust your approach to match their expectations.
2. Show you genuinely care. As a general rule, people want to connect beyond the professional level. That’s why it pays off to be
friendly and personal. Find out what you have in common with customers and engage on that subject; follow up on key details; ask
about their kids or wish them a happy birthday.
3. Adapt to their pace. If a customer picks up the phone and is clearly in a hurry, don’t slow them down with small talk and pleasantries.
But if a customer calls and wants to chat, make sure you don’t rush them off the phone.
4. Let your brand be your guide. Your branding and marketing make a promise about customer experience and your organization as
a whole and it’s essential to deliver on that. If you claim you’re always there for customers but people can’t get beyond your voicemail
when they call you, then you’ve failed to meet your promise.
5. Model the behavior you want to see. The way you treat your employees shows them how they’re supposed to treat your
customers. If you’re always trying to cut costs, your employees may assume they shouldn’t be offering discounts or adding value in
other ways, which can go a long way toward exceeding customer expectations.
6. Remember that relationships are built over time. BDC Client Experience Manager Chris Palin says that while it’s important
to go above and beyond, “You don’t need to hit a home run with every conversation.” He notes that some companies use customer
relationship management software to help manage their relationships over time.
Source: BDC, https://www.bdc.ca
June 2019 | ISE Magazine 37
tions of customers about their suppliers has evolved in a unique
way, as reected in these messages:
We used to have model cycles, with all the changes com-
ing when we introduced a new model. Now we evolve and
rene products over their life. Our suppliers need to under-
stand and contribute to today’s business model. It’s every
day, not every three years.
“With so much of the value associated with our product
involving software, we can make changes that create value
at any time. Suppliers that help us to identify such opportu-
nities are the ones that we treasure. They are the ones that
work with us to stay fresh in the marketplace, delight our
own customers and capture value in the process. Doing that
goes on day after day.
In describing this important area of contribution, customers
also frequently cited how much they love positive surprises.
One executive told of the difference among his firms suppliers
with the statement “When (another firm) calls, it’s usually bad
news and causes some sleepless nights. But when (preferred
supplier) calls, I get excited because its usually to tell me of an
idea we can implement to grow the business we share. I love
those calls.
That same executive went on to say that the best positive
surprises involve renement opportunities rather than cold-
start new launches.
Every case study we heard from customers that involved a
success story related to renement was centered on the relation-
ship between the engineering teams in the two organizations.
One such case history included a customer quote that best sum-
marizes the challenge: “If those people didnt know each other
and interact all the time, (this achievement) would never have
occurred and we would have missed a golden opportunity.
Taking action
There are two important steps business-to-business executives
and their organizations can take to build upon the new insights
that have emerged, enabling them to elevate key customer re-
lationships. The first such action requires expanding the dash-
board that specifies the performance metrics to be measured
relating to each of the themes identified earlier, along with
explicit and largely quantitative goals for each of those metrics.
Too many significant business relationships operate without
an explicit statement of important performance goals. A key ele-
ment of managing change involves new metrics and measure-
ments and making sure the right people and groups are aware of
and care about them. The metrics and targets are almost certain
to be unique to each strategic customer and the core elements
of knowledge about that relationship are critical ingredients in
thinking about how to dene and quantify them.
Having worked with many firms on incorporating these
new insights into their plans, it is clear that even dening the
metrics associated with these new themes can be a challenge.
But as we have heard so often, “If it isnt measured, it doesnt
matter.” And, as noted earlier, the groups that will have pri-
mary accountability for achieving targets will often be differ-
ent than those on which the earlier spotlight was focused.
The second key action step recognizes that in the best-in-
class business relationships, there is a constant focus on the
future. Therefore, a second priority in creating foundations
for long-term strategic relationships is dening the future-
oriented topics on which the two firms should collaborate and
thinking about which people should be involved in that col-
laboration. That future focus is a necessity in thinking through
how a supplier can contribute along the dimensions of integra-
tion, ownership and renement savvy.
All of those contributions have a future dimension to them,
one that will dene the areas in which the supplier organiza-
tion, across many of its units, will have to deliver contributions
to its strategic customers. Again, experience suggests that these
themes are more challenging and impact more broadly on the
supplier organization than do some of the long recognized
core competencies. But the winds have shifted a bit, and the
sails need to be adjusted in response.
Strong business relationships can yield rewards for both
rms involved, a reality long recognized by most business
leaders. Proactive steps are required, however, to ensure re-
lationships remain strong despite the inevitable changes that
will take place in both organizations and in the business envi-
ronment. New competencies will become important to even
a supplier’s strongest customers, and new groups within the
supplier’s organization will have to step up to showcase them.
Changing customer needs must be understood and acted
upon by any supplier that has a goal of building and sustain-
ing strong higher-level relationships with its key customers.
George F. Brown Jr. consults on growth strategy and change man-
agement through B-to-B Advisors. Throughout his career, he has
worked with industrial firms and government agencies on strategy
and change management. He is co-author of CoDestiny: Over-
come Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your Custom-
ers Overcome Theirs (Greenleaf Book Group Press of Austin,
Texas) and has published frequently on topics relating to strategy in
business markets. He is a member of the board of directors of Charles
River Analytics of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a firm specializing
in advanced technology and research and development. Earlier in
his career, he co-founded and served as the CEO of Blue Canyon
Partners Inc. from 1998 to 2013. Previously, he was senior execu-
tive ofcer responsible for the ICF Kaiser Consulting Group and
of DRI/McGraw-Hill, two large consulting and information firms,
and served as the Theodore Roosevelt Professor of Economics at the
U.S. Naval War College. Brown has a B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. from
Carnegie-Mellon University.