Are You a Vendor or a Partner?

I have a friend who runs the purchasing department for one of Las Vegas’ larger casinos. His job, obviously, is to save the company money by negotiating volume contracts and the like.
He was telling me about a contract that was coming up for renewal, and about the discussion he’d been having with the vendor. It was something along the lines of, “look, we’ve been paying you our contract rate for the past however many years. In the meantime, you’ve been completely absent. You’ve never come in here and offered to help me save money elsewhere, never notified me of any new deals or offers, nothing. In fact, I’ve been purchasing far more than our contract required, and you’ve never dropped by to see if we could settle on a new price for our higher-than-expected volume. I give you more and more business, and you give me nothing. And now you want to renew at a higher price, even though I know you’re offering better pricing to others in town.” Vegas is a small town – you can’t be dishonest with someone for long, here.
Anyway, the whole conversation got me to thinking that there really is a difference between a vendor and a partner. In the case of my friend, a partner would try to make a good profit for his company, sure, but he’d also recognize the value of a long-term relationship and try to help optimize that relationship so that both sides benefited. He’d regularly check in to see if there was room for improvement, and proactively look for opportunities to strengthen and deepen the relationship. But he didn’t – he played the role of vendor and, if I remember the story correctly, lost the deal to another company.
I had a similar experience with my auto insurance several years back. I was talking to a financial advisor who used to work in the auto insurance industry, and he offered to look at my policy. “Your limits are way too low,” he said, “and you don’t need some of these other coverages.” Rental car coverage, for example, was costing me about $27/month. That’s actually what it would cost to just rent a cheap car per day, meaning I was paying for 12 days of rentals per year, and never using them.
And my insurance agent never said a thing. Never offered to review my policy, never suggested why I might need to raise my limits (which makes him more money), never suggested considering those other coverages. He wasn’t a partner, in other words – he was just a vendor. And, since he brought nothing of value to the table, he was easily replaced.
It’s something I think everyone needs to consider in their career. Imagine, for a moment, that our legal system allowed everyone to be an independent contractor, rather than being an employee. Would you be a partner to your current employer, or a vendor? That is, would you be providing a simple commodity service that could be replaced, or do you provide a unique value-add that makes you worth keeping around, and possibly paying a premium?
For example, do you look for ways to save your employer money? Do you automate and optimize? Do you invest in yourself to gain the skills needed to automate and optimize? Yes, those skills benefit your employer, but they also benefit you, and it’s worth investing that time.
Do you look for problem situations and try to solve them? For example, when I helped a former employer migrate from Lotus cc:mail to Exchange+Outlook, I came up with a little brochure that we distributed to company employees, helping them quickly find the most common functions in the new software. That saved a lot of help desk calls, so even though it wasn’t strictly my job, everyone benefited from it.
Your suggestions don’t always have to be implemented – and don’t get discouraged if they aren’t. Continue to suggest, to optimize, and to improve. Make yourself an indispensable partner, and never let yourself become an easily replaced vendor.

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Wonderful thought. Presented in equally wonderful way! Thanks!