Several years ago we were buying a specific product from a vendor named Carlsons Wood Products. It just so happened a few years later that we started making some of our own products that were in that same product segment. One day I called Carlsons to place an order and to my dismay the sales manager said “we’ve closed your account and are no longer interested in selling to your company”. When I inquired what had occurred that caused them to make that decision the manager referenced the fact that we were now making some similar products and they had no interest in selling to a competitor. The interesting thing about this was the products were similar but not the same and in fact there was little cross-over between the two as they had pretty distinct markets and clients. After trying to convince the manager that this was unnecessary, he held firm and restated their intention of ending our relationship.
Several years passed and I was sitting at a manufacturer’s conference at our annual tradeshow. A very nice gentleman sat down at the table beside me and we began exchanging pleasantries. When he got around to asking me which company I represented he was a bit shocked when he realized I was his perceived competition. When I realized he was the owner of Carlsons I proceeded to unpack our past experience with his now former sales manager and expressed an interest in re-establishing our business relationship. He was a bit taken aback and was curious why we would be interested in buying products from him. Once I explained the subtle but very distinguishing elements he said he’d be glad to start our relationship over again. Now understanding the product differences he asked if we would be willing to reciprocate and sell them the product we were making. I told him we’d be glad to do that. Soon after we were back to buying from them and within 12 short months they had climbed the ranks to become our third largest customer.
I think too often in business we lock ourselves into an adversarial mindset that can keep us from discovering some of the most strategic partnerships. Some of your largest clients might be disguised as the competition.