What can Partnership Development Learn from Sales?

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By Jane Thurlow,  Ethicore Associate

Talking to a friend with a lifetime’s experience in sales, I was struck by how good sales strategies can be used to inform approaches to successful partnerships.  Astute sales people understand the art of collaboration and relationship building more than most and have a battery of tools, which can be equally valuable when approaching a  partnership.

The key to having a successful sales relationship starts with understanding your customer’s perspective.  Being a good listener helps.  If you’re a naturally collaborative problem solver, even better.  You’re looking to help your customer define the problem and then co-create solutions with them.  Sound familiar?

Good sales people will help their buyer recognise the problem, rather than seeking to define it for them. There are specific types of questions that can help[1]:

  1. Build context and understanding: Discover facts and background information, as partnerships are often situation based.
  2. Help your partner ‘self diagnose’ the problem: Asking about problems, difficulties or dissatisfactions can help with problem diagnosis.
  3. Enquire about the effects or consequence of a problem, examining the implications. These questions are particularly powerful and can stimulate the need for action.
  4. Explore the value or usefulness of a proposed solution to understand the need-payoff. Skilled questioning can encourage people to recognise the need for a particular solution.

Equally important is understanding the ‘buying’ process: who the users, influencers, buyers, deciders and gatekeepers are.   This is complex stuff and understanding how to match individuals from your own organisation to your customer’s (or in this case partner’s) is key.  Think about their organisational roles, but also their behavioural styles. [2]  Got a highly analytical influencer?  Bring your best technical people to the table to explore possibilities.  An expressive gatekeeper? Then you’ll need to consider a communicator who can incentivise them.

Building relationships is the first step in developing partnerships. Once you’ve built a solid base, you’re onto long-term value creation for partners. More on that another time…


Jane has over 20 years experience working in research, strategy, innovation and marketing in the commercial and charity sectors. She enjoys informing thinking and decision making, highlighting the strategic choices that an organisation needs to make.

[1] SPIN selling, Neil Rackham, McGraw-Hill Education

[2] Social Style Model, Tracom Group, http://tracomcorp.com/social-style-training/model/