Whether business is onboarding a vendor partnership, an entrepreneur is seeking financial investors or an account manager is engaging a new client, communication is the single most important factor in the success of every relationship. Strong partnerships rise and fall with trust, and earning that trust is rooted in honest communication. Partners who communicate and listen inquisitively, genuinely and consistently build the trust required to create a long-term partnership that will sustain inevitable ups and downs. 

The most successful partnerships, the ones of the highest value, characteristically engage in an open flow of communication. The most effective business partnerships involve collaborative communication, which means going beyond the giving and receiving of direction, opinions, or information sharing. Even the best business seminars on growth, champion the importance of listening first to understand, then to be understood — credit to communication gurus Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey. So often partnerships are launched with checklists, but the open flow of interpersonal communication is overlooked, or worse, communication is considered a soft skill only required when goals aren’t met. It is important to remember that open communication is the foundation for building a successful business partnership. 

Strong business partnerships involve collaboration, problem-solving and addressing the hard questions. Both parties’ abilities to understand how they can best help solve each other’s problems will be hindered by ineffective communication. The information essential to help partnerships succeed will not be forthcoming. Most importantly, honest communication about issues requires trust because it requires participants to be vulnerable. Partners must be comfortable in the relationship for communication to flow. Nothing will always fall in place, and both parties must feel comfortable being asked the hard questions and providing vulnerable, honest responses. 

“Strong business partnerships involve collaboration, problem-solving and addressing the hard questions.”

Asking for input and sharing knowledge is essential to engaging in quality communication. While a set of partners can meet weekly, share metrics and end the meeting with a thoroughly covered agenda, this doesn't mean the requirements for good communication were met. Also, this doesn’t mean that partners discussed their problems, asked for help, or offered solutions. A meeting can feel productive but may not move the relationship forward. On the other hand, partners may meet only quarterly yet engage in a high-value forum exchanging ideas that build a long-term, successful partnership. Communicating collaboratively in the meeting creates comfort for each partner to reach out as needed between prearranged meetings and even become a sounding board for each other. 

Communication Aligned to 3 Partnership Stages 

In each partnership stage, communication will go deeper, opening more significant opportunities to develop the relationship. 

VETTING: Before starting a partnership, both parties evaluate each other to determine if the arrangement will be mutually beneficial. In this early stage, critical topics will be openly discussed. This is the kickoff stage; initial communication sets the scene, and expectations are benchmarked for the relationship’s lifecycle. In a new vendor partnership, the potentially tricky conversations around margins, sales, logistics, and shipping will need to be addressed. As the partnership moves forward to the next stages, difficult conversations will need to be held with the vendor, and both parties must be comfortable asking and answering the questions. Finally, because the foundation has been established, the partnership is set up for success, and the most successful ones are centered around ongoing communication. 

ONBOARDING: When onboarding a partner, important dates must be kept, and deliverables must be provided quickly. Quality communication regarding what is needed, details of an agreement, and next steps are delivered at pivotal points at this stage. Competing priorities are often a factor when multiple partners onboard simultaneously. Onboarding is another opportunity to capitalize on building trust critical to the relationship. At this early stage, there is the opportunity to begin collaborating for problem solving and identifying solutions together. Brainstorming is an effective communication technique to bring participants together; however, it requires trust since sharing unfiltered ideas makes a participant vulnerable, and the communication space must feel safe. 

RETENTION: The true measure of success is the longevity of the partnership and retention or loyalty over time. Here, good communication flourishes. Check-ins with partners are regular, and conversations over what’s trending and missing are often topics exchanged in a matter-of-fact style. Communication is constant and comfortable. There is a level of comfort in picking up the phone and knowing the partner will answer your call and vice versa. 

Vendor partnership business reviews will typically address margins, volume and response time, but great partnership reviews will have a cadence and a synergy in which all parties contribute beyond the numbers on the spreadsheet. Great review meetings will address what is coming down the pipeline and look ahead to areas that partners may foresee needing support or areas where partners may be able to provide support. 

Never Too Late to Improve Communication 

If communication isn’t flowing in your business partnerships, here are some tips for improving communication. Successful communication is two-way and requires engagement by both parties: 

  • Gain agreement between you and your partner on your shared goals. 
  • Schedule consistent time for communication. 
  • Never hesitate to over communicate. 
  • Be honest with your partner regarding your challenges and ask your partners about their biggest challenges. 
  • Reach out to your partner between prearranged meetings to engage them in industry topics and opportunities they may not see. 

Remember to maintain consistent communication with partners even after the partnership is built. Successful partnerships are not developed haphazardly or out of luck. After investing the time to create a strong partnership, never take it for granted.