Mask off: The importance of communication in working relationships
Honesty and empathy are the lifeblood of the best supplier-retailer relationships. Knowing you can count on a partnership provides fluidity in even the most turbulent times, and COVID-19 has delivered more than enough turbulence.
When lightning strikes, mutually beneficial and co-created solutions to problems are too often replaced by a mindset of self-preservation. We start to view our relationships exclusively as outlets for personal gain instead of a connection that requires ongoing cultivation. Why is it that 8-in-10 relationships dissolve due to a lack of transparency and trust, becoming simply transactional? The best partnerships are cemented by shared risk and mutual investment, enriched by clear and healthy dialogue between both parties. In great partnerships, the relationship is always protected.
One of the most common things I tell people in coaching sessions is to “take off your mask.” We all go through life portraying an airbrushed version of ourselves, concealing vulnerabilities and being dishonest about how we are doing. Hiding behind your mask creates problems, which are often hard to pinpoint because they are obscured by layers of fear and insecurities. Bluntly and transparently telling a partner about how you’re doing is always better than the sugar-coated alternative, which feels good in the moment, but will inevitably lead to conflict.
Setting an expectation with a partner is essential, as it establishes a target to work towards together. The best retailers act as lobbyists for the consumer, accurately assessing and reporting the consumer’s needs to the supplier. Here are three ways to ensure that chain of information is as smooth as possible:
- Host an annual kickoff meeting to convey goals, strategies and your business interests;
- The target is always moving, so be flexible with your joint business plan and adjust to real-time learnings, new consumer insights or emerging threats; and
- Be proactive in your funding discussions and offer clear justification on why the investment serves both parties.
Though retailers and suppliers are many times seen as two separate entities, what each crave is fundamentally the same: an empathetic partner. Author Daniel Pink reminds us of the following: “The era of information and ‘left brain’ dominance is giving way to a new world in which ‘right-brain’ empathy will govern.” The ability to transport yourself into another’s shoes and understand his or her needs accurately and precisely is akin to a superpower when used correctly. Many times, people will tell you what you are trying to figure out if you just listen for it. The problem is nobody is listening.
- 75% of salespeople emphasize talking over listening;
- 66% of customers believe their supplier partners do not understand their needs; and
- 85% of leaders believe the biggest barrier to growth is internal alignment.
This is not a retailer, supplier or consumer problem, it’s a human problem. Everyone is overestimating the value of their ideas and underestimating the importance of listening their partners. Google, the king of left-brain analytics, views coaching, listening, perception, empathy, supportive skills, problem-solving and critical thinking as paramount skills in team effectiveness. These “soft skills” are so often undervalued and ignored, yet COVID-19 has proven that when a huge external pressure is imposed unexpectedly, connecting with a partner in an efficient and authentic way is priceless. It is the only way to solve difficult problems.
Lastly, I expect partners to finally “walk the talk” concerning agility, transparency and empathy. Now is the time to step up and put your money where your mouth is with these concepts. Companies that step up and demonstrate these attributes in their relationships during this time will be the companies that yield the biggest fruit once the dust settles. COVID-19 is a watershed event creating behavioral change, and I am confident that these behaviors will continue to gain traction.
Can you concisely pinpoint your partner’s needs? Do they understand yours?