Learning to build co-operation between businesses

In bquest we are working with a client to help them develop a long-term ‘strategic relationship’ with a new customer (call it what you will – alliance, partnership, co-operation, collaboration, joint venture, understanding). The client wants the relationship to go beyond a simple seller/buyer relationship (a short-term transactional relationship) to one where both sides expect to work and learn together long-term, sharing some of the risks, for mutual benefit. The relationship might turn out to be a loose one or it might evolve into something more formal and contractual.

The approach we have taken is firstly to get our client into the same room with the intended partner. Face-to-face contact is essential. There have been exchanges of emails and telephone calls beforehand, so the first face-to-face meeting had an agenda of working together on a particular task, in this case the development of a new product. Focusing firstly on a joint task makes it easier for both sides to interact as they are both in their comfort zones.

During the meeting, actually a series of meetings held over two days, we started mixing work on the task with social activities, like having chats over coffee about family and having dinner together, and also with ‘prompt questions’ (from bquest) to elicit:

  1. Shared goals and values. Do both sides share a core set of goals and values? Are there any differences which are deal breakers?
  2. Each party’s vision of their own future, and what their vision of a relationship might look like. Are they more or less in alignment?
  3. Can they get along together. Working on a task gives both sides a common history, itself a powerful aid to a long-term relationship, but can both sides laugh together? A shared humour is so powerful.
  4. Their degree of trust in each other and, importantly, can they grow that trust? Are they prepared to open up, to be transparent?
  5. Practical actions, the concrete next steps to take to progress the task. Relationships work better when there is a common task to achieve and when both sides can see real progress being made.

The above forms a simple framework to measure the potential for a sound long-term relationship. If you can put a tick next to each one, you have the basis for progressing and deepening the relationship.

A sixth need, once both partners agree to progress the relationship, will be to develop:

  1. Some more or less detailed ground rules for managing the relationship and the differences (conflicts) that may emerge as circumstances and actors change. ‘Rules’ may be out on the table or they may be undeclared and only assumed; if assumed, they may need to be checked, and rechecked periodically, to avoid later misunderstandings.

The above model isn’t rocket science. Isn’t this the basis for most strong business (and personal) relationships? But do you use such a model in a conscious way? Do you use prompt questions carefully and purposefully to investigate and confirm that both sides are in agreement about the relationship?

If you are not an expert in asking the right prompt questions, maybe bquest can help you.



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