There’s No Such Thing as Vendorship

vending machine coils
Stephanie Chadwick Photo

7 minutes

Reflections on forging solid credit union-supplier partnerships and how that applies to marketing to your members.

Sponsored by Edge

At Edge, we refer to our clients as “client-partners.” We refer to our employees as our “team.” These terms make a difference in how we see and treat each other as well as how each individual involved in making the relationship successful views themselves and their own influence.

To market from the heart without losing your soul, you must treat your “vendors” like partners. A vendor relationship feels like something you can easily trade out or throw away. A partnership, in contrast, is a long-term relationship that gets refined over time, often over periods of conflict or obstacles that are overcome. Likewise, we’ve learned to behave as a partner, not a vendor, so we can play a part in the big picture of our clients’ stories. 

A vendor says “yes” and “thank you.” A partner comes alongside the customer with empathy for current circumstances and keeps the interests of the customer in mind. A partner will push back and engage in thought processes and conversation to attain better understanding. A partner may say “no” and “I don’t think that’s a good idea and here’s why…”

Alternatively, on the client side, a client-partner will treat their vendor-partner like part of their team. They’ll trust them with information. They’ll be vulnerable, both with data and information, as well as relationally–with their own hopes, dreams, struggles and frustrations. A partnership only works if it goes both ways.

Vending Machine Vendor Example

Behind every provider is a human being who wants to know and be known. Even a literal vending machine company can be a partner with the right approach. Here is an example of how representatives from two vending machine companies might approach a potential client company’s purchasing manager. Notice the difference.

A would-be vendor calls and says, “I can supply your office with vending machines filled with snacks, gum, bottled water and soda. How many would you like? How often do you want them restocked? Here is our menu and schedule. Check the boxes of the stuff you want and put a credit card on file for billing.”

A potential partner calls and offers, “I was hoping to schedule a tour of your building and talk with you about the food and beverage needs of your employees. I provide vending machine services and would like to observe how your team works so that I can recommend the best placement and model for each machine to best serve their usage patterns.

“And, as part of our process, I would like to ask your employees about their personal preferences and any dietary restrictions so that we can tailor the products to meet their unique needs. You can count on us to monitor the most popular items and provide recommendations for similar items, as well as check in with you regularly to make modifications as needed.

“If we decide to work together, I can connect with your accounts receivable team to outline what billing and invoice process works best for you. We are happy to customize invoices by department, product type and more. I am excited for the opportunity to partner with you and help boost morale and productivity in the office by providing refreshments that your team is excited about.”

The first vendor rep in this comparison is not thinking about the people that will be using the machine. That rep is thinking about checking the “sell something” box. When a vendor rep makes the connection between what you are selling to the actual customer, they transform from vendor to partner. Consider this side-by-side comparison of perspectives:

Vendor Partner
Puts the burden of communication on the customer Takes ownership of communication and next steps
Does not consider the end user of the product Considers the employees’ preferences first and foremost
Handles the sale in the easiest way possible for them, perhaps never seeing the physical space and doing everything over the phone or by email Immerses themselves in the company culture and environment to better understand how their product will be used
Fills the machine with whatever is selling best with other customers or whatever is cheapest to distribute Takes extra steps to have an in-depth understanding of the needs and preferences of the people, customizing the offerings. Takes calculated risks in offering new products based on consumption habits
Tells the customer to check boxes next to what they want—deferring any responsibility for the choices made Takes responsibility if the products in the machine aren’t moving. Offers to remove and replace items
Talks about money before people, in the framework of what’s most convenient for them. Options offered are few, if any. Custom options are off the table Talks about people first, even when it’s about money, in the framework of what is most convenient for the people. Options are practical and customizable to meet the customer’s needs
Talks a customer into the sale, even if it’s not a great fit for the customer

Talks a customer out of the sale if it’s not in their best interests or a different solution is recommended


Transactional Versus Relational Interactions

There are two ways to look at the concept of transactional and relational interactions. One is from the perspective of the partner. This affects how you approach business and marketing and also whom you choose to work with. Notice I said “whom you choose” because with a partnership mentality, you chose who you work with; you don’t just take business from whoever is buying.

The other way to look at this is from the perspective of the customer. As a customer, a consumer, a buyer of things, a decision-maker, you have a choice as to how you treat those with whom you transact with. You can treat them like a vendor, or you can treat them like a partner.

In one instance during the Covid-19 pandemic, I swung by the pharmacy drive-thru and noticed a sign on the window, thanking customers for their patience and kindness (the word “kindness” was in all caps and a larger font) as the staff navigated extra responsibilities (administering vaccines and tests) during bottlenecked supply chains and a labor shortage. Their sign thanking people for their kindness was not really a “thank you,” it was a request—a plea: “Please be kind to us, we’re handling a lot right now.” It was a call for empathy.

The same woman had been working at this pharmacy for about 10 years. As a regular, I looked her in the eye and said something along the lines of: “We really appreciate you guys. I know you’re handling a lot. Thank you. I hope you have a great rest of your day.”

Her posture changed. Her shoulders went back, and her eyes brightened. She saw that I saw her as a person. And now, every time I see her, she recognizes me and has a smile in her eyes. Instead of approaching the situation as an order-filler, she makes eye contact with me. We created a human-to-human connection. Each of these interactions creates an opportunity for compounding results—negative or positive.

Partnership in Marketing

How does this all translate into the world of marketing? As you market to your target persona (person), be thinking of yourself as a partner. Put yourself in an empathetic mindset. This could mean that you go somewhere to physically experience what it would be like for your target customer to interact with the product you are selling.

Imagine a company wanting to sell waterproof snow boots to working moms in Wisconsin. To succeed, they try the boots in the environment, making notes along the way. Are they tall enough to keep the snow out? Are they grippy enough to keep me from slipping? How do they transition from outdoors to indoors? Are they practical to get on and off during a busy day?

The company observes that business professionals are wearing boots into the office and changing into dress shoes to wear inside the building. What do they do with their snowy boots? Should they be marketed with a stylish and functional case to keep snow out and make the presence of the boots more discreet?

How do the boots look with dress clothing as well as casual clothing? Should they feature a few colorways that look sharp with slacks and dresses? What about an optional sock liner that could be pulled up to protect pant legs so that they didn’t get wet on the way into the office from the car? Or keep legs warmer for those wearing skirts and dresses?

When you market from your heart, you’re thinking about the person on the other end of your strategic marketing tactic. Think about the person first and you’ll handle the situation with honor and integrity. You’ll see people instead of transactions, relationships instead of interruptions, opportunities instead of inconveniences. You’ll be filling your bucket with ways to market with your heart and putting people first.

Stephanie Chadwick is the CEO of Edge, a full-service marketing and advertising agency specializing in partnering with credit unions. With 30 years of experience in consulting and management, including roles at CBS Radio and Nordstrom, Chadwick has helped grow Edge into a team of experts providing design, video and audio creative, web development, digital services, media buying, reporting, copywriting and content strategy as well as a proprietary website calculator, Formulate, inspired by collaboration with CUs.

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