Don’t Call Me Partner.
Maybe the short winter days or this lousy cold snap have gotten under my skin. Or perhaps it’s just the post-holiday reentry that’s got me feeling a bit curmudgeonly. Or it might just be something that needs to be said: I’m starting to hate the word partner.
While it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when we all bought into the meaningless proliferation of the word, I think it probably jumped the shark back in the late 90s when an internal ad agency memo intoned, “From this point forward we are to refer to our vendors as partners.” You can’t make this stuff up. Now partner is like a verbal virus that’s attached itself to our marketing materials, presentations, websites, business cards and more. It’s as ubiquitous as those “Have a Nice Day” smiley faces or yellow “LiveStrong” bracelets used to be. Any two people who’ve ever sat through a sales call together are now partners.
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So why all the venom, you might ask? What could be so wrong about such a happy, friendly, wholesome term? Plenty.
In the first place, there’s the question of authenticity. What does it mean to be someone’s partner if the term is so casually applied? Who’s truly my partner if everyone is? In its current discounted state, partner can only confer a false insider status, a faux connectedness that cheapens and muddies our discourse. If my job is to sell you something — advertising units, data, technology services, whatever — then why are you not simply my customer any more? And why do we both reject terms like vendor, supplier and seller out of hand? Why do all of us run to the shelter of ambiguity that a hollow, empty term like partner offers?
Now we’re getting down to brass tacks. I think that sellers and sales organizations use partner because of a subtle sense of insecurity. Either we don’t believe fully in the value of our products and services to the customer, or we’re embarrassed by the idea that we’re actually there to sell something. It can all seem so crass, right? So much better to embrace a warmly vapid concept like partnership than to actually ask the customer to buy something from us. For the artists formerly known as customers, partner serves as a handy tenderizing agent, softening up the seller and setting him up for concessions and discounts further down the line.
Google defines partner as “…a person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others, esp. in a business or company with shared risks and profits.” I would challenge everyone reading this post to measure your use of partnership against this definition and stop using it in the 97% of cases where it really doesn’t apply. Instead, let’s lean into our roles as vendors and suppliers and sellers. When done well, what we do is good and meaningful and the beginning and end of all economic activity in our world.
Now go sell something. And have a nice day.