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When I think about what makes a successful relationship between a customer and a software provider, I think of the term symbiosis. Nice word, right? Symbiosis typically describes relationships that exist in “the wild,” but customer/vendor relationships are human relationships, and humans are animals, after all.

Doing a quick Google search for the definition, I found this:

  1. Interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.
  2. A mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.

This definition sheds light on the business relationships we deal with every day as a Customer Success function. Actually, let me clarify: this is the business relationship we strive to deal with every day. But so many of these relationships fall short. Ideally for both companies, the advantage should be more than just money and deliverables: more than “I pay you x, you give me y.” When the relationship is working optimally, both companies experience growth and success. Symbiosis at its finest.

That got me thinking about the circle of life (the concept, not the song … although try to not get that song stuck in your head now. (Thanks, Elton).

I digress.

When thinking about the types of relationships I typically see between a relatively small software company and a very large company, I can form three distinct categories (all of which I will illustrate with fun and descriptive animal analogies). The natural world works in unique ways, and while all three of these relationships work in theory, there is only one symbiotic, ideal end state between vendors and customers.

So let’s take a look at the circle of life in customer and vendor relationships:

 

First, consider the case of the whale and the barnacle. The gentle whale cruises along the sea with his friend the barnacle hitching a ride. (Okay, “friend” is probably an exaggeration; at best these two are casual acquaintances.) While the whale isn’t affected in any way, he is providing transportation and food to the barnacle without getting much in return.

In the Customer Success world, this is the all-too-common vendor-as-barnacle relationship (have you heard of that one?): the vendor benefits from the easy money that comes with the contract, but the customer-as-whale is not engaging with the supplier as a partner, thus not receiving any value beyond the “tool” they’ve purchased. They are casual acquaintances: no harm no foul, but neither a true strategic partnership nor a mutually-beneficial, long-term relationship. It’s all based in transactions.

Customer Success teams that are overstretched can fall into a trap of viewing these customers as “the easy ones” because they don’t take up much time or effort. But beware: this leads to an unhealthy relationship because you’re constantly at risk of this quiet customer scraping you off on the nearest reef. The absence of a strong two-way connection leads to an absence of value.

As a vendor, I aim to never be a barnacle, no matter how easy or profitable it can be. And if you are a customer providing food and transportation to a bunch of barnacles, you might want to ask for more out of the relationship before you need to scrape them off you.

 

Up next, we meet the Nile crocodile and the Egyptian plover bird. There are big, scary-powerful crocodiles in Egypt. You might say they’re the Fortune 100 of crocodiles. Sometimes they get to feeling like they have a big problem to solve; in this case, it might be that the meal they just ate wreaked havoc on their dental work. They have bits of rotted meat stuck in their teeth (and, of course, their crocodile gums). This causes soreness and irritation, which puts them in a cranky mood. (How do I come up with this stuff you ask?! Not sure.).

At times like these, the impressive beasts open their huge jaws wide to let in little creatures called plover birds that start cleaning those sharp fangs. Amazing, right?

Now don’t get me wrong, these “dentist” birds get a lot of food out of this transaction, but they’re also likely thinking: There has to be a less stressful line of work than this. They’re cleaning up after a mess they didn’t create, and on top of it, trying to fix a bigger systemic cycle of the crocodiles’ feeding pattern. And the crocs know that they hold some serious cards with these little birdies: one good chomp and the whole shooting match goes down. Of course, then the gingivitis sets in, the crocs live with the original pain that the birds were relieving, and all the benefits of symbiosis go out the window.

Unfortunately, in my business, the bird-crocodile scenario is very common, particularly when a small software supplier with a new solution sells into a company 100 times its size. The relationship in this case is surely valuable to both companies: the megacorp gets a new, best-of-breed tech to move the needle on its business goals, and the software supplier gets ample food to keep the engine running and support its business.

But there are limits to how far this type of relationship can grow. With the crocodile running the show and the little birds coming when called, the crocodile is missing out on the true sharing and mutual growth potential that comes from a partnership where each player is on equal footing.

I’ve worked with several companies who have been proud to tell me that they have a culture that is “hard on their vendors.” Sure, that works. The “vendor” birds will still pick the food out of the crocodiles’ teeth and will most assuredly eat well because of it. But long-term, neither party works effectively based on beck and call.

 

And then there is the flower and the bee. It already sounds more peaceful. This is the ideal state for a customer/vendor partnership. Think about a beautiful flower on a blossoming plant. Along comes a busy little bee who starts doing his thing. There is a lot of mutually-beneficial interaction between these two, a lot of contact, a lot of growth, and a lot of productivity.

Think of the bee and the flower as equal partners in this exchange. They help each other survive and flourish. The flower can expand and grow with the help of the bee. The bee can produce more and more. Everyone wins!

What does this look like outside of my metaphor? This is a relationship where both parties enjoy a mutual respect and a sharing of ideas. The vendor isn’t afraid to be open and candid about capabilities and limitations. The client company shares in finding solutions with the vendor. The vendor connects the customer with access to a broader network, best practices, and ongoing knowledge sharing to help the organization meet its business objectives and ultimately blossom with the fulfillment of the tech vendor’s original vision. The customer then helps the vendor with input on the changing market and their business needs. They help the vendor with growth by sharing success stories, references, and ideas for improvement.

Together, both parties understand that everything can’t be done at once, but that fueling each other’s successes can only be positive. It’s symbiosis.

So how does your garden grow? If you are a vendor, I suggest seeking every opportunity for candid discussions around how you and your customers can help each other succeed as true partners. If you are a customer, I recommend you seek more information from your vendor about what will make you successful. And show them that you will not immediately snap your jaws shut if you don’t like the answers.

Then you can plan together in a realistic and meaningful way – not without speed bumps or irritation, but at least with trust and respect and potential. That’s how you make that sweet, sweet honey.

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