Sometimes the terms we use to describe things impart meanings that aren’t always accurate, even when those words are widely accepted and used all the time.

For example, I have to admit that I have a problem being called a “vendor.” Yes, I have been a supplier of products since 1982—and am proud of my role with Taylor Technologies supplying water-testing products to the pool and spa industry and others—but I always viewed my business/service as being solutions to our customers’ needs. That means I have always worked to find ways to add value and contribute to improving their process or sales. I do not want to be viewed as a “vendor”; I want to be viewed as a “partner” in their businesses.

The vendor drops off a product and an invoice and says, “Thank you for your business!” In fact, the term itself evokes images of vending machines or street vendors, which provide immediate access to product and nothing else of any value. By contrast, a partner cares about their business, gets involved, and looks for ways to make a difference. That’s why I say, please, no more “vendor outings” and “vendor appreciation days.” Let’s start calling them “partner outings” and “partner appreciation days.”

In my five years in the pool and spa industry, I’ve seen a growing belief among fellow manufacturers (and certainly in our company) that partnership within the industry is essential to growing the industry. By partnering with each other, by helping dealers find solutions to their problems and challenges, the industry overall is better able to provide a quality product and experience to the end user. Through partnership and the effective problem solving that comes from it, consumers ultimately have a better experience and that translates directly to growth.

Let’s face it, as discussed in many industry meetings, we’re competing for discretionary dollars. If we want to earn more of those dollars, the people who buy pools and spas must be happy with their investment. The best way to ensure that happens is to work more effectively together as an industry. That’s what partnership between suppliers and the people who buy our products is all about.

There are a number of factors that go into working as a partner rather than a vendor. You can break it down any number of ways, but I like to start with the concept of empathy. Being able to listen to your customers and understand their challenges, their needs and even their pain is essential in becoming a true partner. And empathy is something you can’t fake. If you’re just there to make a sale and move on, the customer knows that and more often than not they can’t wait for you to leave.

By stark contrast, when you step into their world and genuinely pay attention to what they say, they view you in a very different and more positive light. You’re no longer intruding in their day, but instead offering help, guidance, and solutions. You become a consultant. This is where my father, who was in the automobile business, excelled. He listened to what the customer was looking for and led them to their best solution.

So often when we call on people they’ll say, “I only have a couple minutes for you.” That may indeed be the case, but that really means they’re not interested in a sales pitch. It’s always fun when someone says that but then you start talking about what they really need and how you can help solve their problems, and all of sudden you’ve been talking for 45 minutes or an hour.

People will spend the time with you if you’re truly there to listen, understand and ultimately help them. All of that leads directly to the need to be truthful—a human quality that extends to all aspects of living a productive, decent, and happy life. Good partners, real partners, in whatever capacity, tell you the truth.

We all eventually know when someone is on the level and when they’re not. Most of the time the truth just sounds different. And that leads directly to your reputation. Ultimately, being empathetic and honest leads to the most essential of all partnership qualities: trust.

Trust is the basis for all good relationships, in business and otherwise. When customers trust you, they will tell you what they need and why. If they don’t, they’ll do everything they can to show you the door. Of course, trust takes time and effort; it’s not something that happens overnight, which is why true partnerships require an investment in time, attention, and effort to develop.

Sometimes that means not making a sale. If you don’t have a product that solves the customer’s problem, don't try to sell them something that doesn’t for the sake of making a sale. Instead, become a resource they can turn to for useful information. If that means referring them to another company you know that does have the right product, then do so knowing that referral builds trust. Odds are, next time the customer has a need they will look to you, the trusted consultant.

If you’re a good partner, your customers will be glad to see you walk in the door. They value your presence, respect your input, and above all else know you’re honestly there to help them succeed. That’s the kind of partnership it takes to be successful and ultimately the main ingredient in elevating our industry. 

Chris Golden is a vice president for Taylor Technologies.