In 2007 Sonos, a manufacturer of luxury wireless-audio systems, struck a deal with Best Buy to sell its products at more than 600 retail locations across the United States. Sonos would be spotlighted in Best Buy stores with live, interactive, multizone demonstrations. In return Best Buy would gain access to the best-reviewed new audio systems in the world. The agreement was a victory for both companies. But 10 years later profit margins were eroding; tension had developed around Sonos’s last-minute promotion changes, pricing issues, and what Best Buy perceived to be a lack of strategic alignment; and Sonos was worried about the departures of key Best Buy personnel and how they would affect the partnership. In 2018, in a cramped, windowless room in Minneapolis, a Best Buy executive gave the Sonos team a de facto ultimatum: Come up with better terms for the partnership, or there was no good reason to continue the meeting.
The two companies framed the conversation in that meeting using a tool I had developed during my two decades as a sales practitioner, researcher, and consultant. It prompted the members of their teams to ask and answer questions such as: What are our combined strengths and weaknesses? What does the other party think of us? What can we do to improve the relationship? The discussion grew heated. The teams were brutally critical of each other. About halfway into the conversation, the Best Buy executive became frustrated. “What is the point of this exercise?” he asked. “We only need a few actions to improve our margins; otherwise we shouldn’t waste each other’s time.”
People from both sides, many of whom had been silent during the blunt back-and-forth, began arguing in support of continuing the exercise. After years of narrow discussions focused on tactics and pricing, it was the first time the two teams had openly spoken about larger issues of strategy and collaboration. Criticism was better than silence, they reasoned. At one point a Best Buy supply chain executive argued that two recommendations Sonos had made—increased process efficiency and more-frequent communication—would have a greater positive impact on Best Buy than a discount would. After that the Best Buy team agreed to continue the meeting—without an offer from Sonos to cut prices. “Aligning for further growth as if we were one firm” became the two teams’ motto for a jointly developed road map. One year later both teams attributed improved business alignment and above-average growth rates to the exercise and the resulting strategy shift.
Many failing sales organizations offer value propositions that prioritize their own products and services over collaboration with buyers, taking a one-sided perspective that lacks critical customer input. Because that approach addresses only one aspect of a relationship, it seldom delivers a comprehensive, mutual strategy. Too many account plans consist of dozens of PowerPoint slides documenting sales history, a competitive landscape, and a future sales pipeline; when it comes to strategy, the content is often alarmingly thin.
High-performing relationships start with a broader conversation about how sales teams can help clients create value through new initiatives—not by fitting existing products into an existing strategy. That insight led me to consider two questions: What are the building blocks of successful business relationships? and How can companies create future-proof relationships that will survive times of uncertainty?
Too many account plans consist of dozens of pages on sales history, a competitive landscape, and a future sales pipeline but lack a clear strategy.
In research conducted from 1997 to 2020, I identified theoretical and empirical answers to those questions: Good business relationships have nine critical building blocks. And enduring relationships depend on strong collaboration between suppliers and customers. On the basis of that research, I developed the triple fit canvas, a sales framework designed to facilitate collaborative value creation between sellers and buyers. Inspired by the blue ocean strategy canvas (developed by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne) and the business model canvas (developed by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur), the triple fit canvas is both a diagnostic and an action framework. It expands a limited, product-centric view to encompass a customer-centric perspective. It shifts the focus from selling existing products and services to helping create new opportunities for mutual growth. In this article I explain the nine key components of the triple fit canvas and how companies such as BMW, Konica Minolta, and The Gap have benefited from it. (Disclosure: I have been a paid consultant for each of the suppliers referenced in this article.)
How Triple Fit Works
Traditional sales processes often start when suppliers identify and target the customers whose needs best fit their products. They then develop a value proposition, which they communicate to the market. Known as “value selling,” this tactic focuses on what a company’s products can do for the customer, rather than on how the two parties can create value together. Studies that my research team and I have done of more than 3,000 relationship cases have shown that only 15% of frontline sellers work with clients to create value. Members of that group double their account value in three years, on average, while companies that apply value selling and similar approaches are stagnant or achieve only moderate growth. Similarly, only 14% of senior managers have adopted a customer-centric, value-creating perspective. These growth champions increase sales and profitability at twice the rate of their peers.
Triple fit doesn’t minimize the existing value of products and services. Instead, it takes a holistic view and places a higher priority on value creation across three collaboration levels: planning, execution, and resources.
This level comprises three building blocks—strategies, relationships, and communication—and indicates how closely a company’s strategic direction is aligned with the customer’s. A company must assess the degree to which its sales team takes the customer’s strategy perspective into account and figure out how to use it to develop a joint three-year vision. The sales team must build and maintain multilevel contacts that promote stable relationships and communicate relevant information the customer needs for effective decision-making.
Also composed of three building blocks—solutions, processes, and systems—this level shows how effectively suppliers execute the joint strategy by developing unique solutions and services that create value for customers; executing processes efficiently along the value chain; and implementing adequate systems for IT, financial, and legal support.
The three building blocks here are people, structures, and knowledge. This level indicates whether the supplier has the necessary resources to support customers, including trusted advisers with a customer-centric mindset; an adequately customer-centric organizational structure; and a dynamic learning environment for new-business generation.
Evonik Industries, a German specialty-chemicals group, used an early version of the triple fit canvas in 2006 to integrate customer perspectives into its product development. That large-scale project focused on proactive, strategic value creation for Evonik’s 300 biggest customers. In phase one the company hosted innovation workshops with customers to determine what such integration would look like for each one. In phase two Evonik and its customers used the canvas to consolidate those insights and translate them into tailor-made three-year-growth road maps. In phase three the plans were shared with customers for final validation. Six months after conducting the initial conversations, Evonik signed a deal worth €150 million with one of its largest automotive customers. The company attributed the deal to the triple fit discussion, which had helped the two parties fully understand each other’s capabilities and the ways in which they were complementary. Evonik also believes that the process helped it weather the 2008 financial crisis better than its competitors did.
Step 1: The Relationship Maturity Check
Performing a triple fit analysis involves five steps. To get started, rate the accuracy of each of the 10 statements in the exhibit “How Close Are You to Your Customer?” on a scale from 1 to 5 (ranging from “disagree completely” to “agree completely”) from the perspective of a given customer. The statements focus on how well your company collaborates and communicates with that customer. The first one aims to capture an overall view of the relationship, while each of the other nine represents a building block. To overcome self-reporting bias, ask your customer to rate the accuracy of each statement as well. If you give your team high ratings and your client agrees, you probably have a solid, prosperous relationship. (Low ratings, obviously, signify that your relationship needs improvement.) To achieve a high-performing relationship, you should aspire to as many ratings of 5 as possible.
Sharing your findings with customers can lead to rewarding outcomes. In 2021 Virginie Jackson, a key account manager at DSM, took the company’s triple-fit self-assessment to one customer, a producer of dairy products, for feedback. The customer offered to discuss collaboration hurdles and areas where value creation would be of mutual interest. After those discussions, the two parties agreed to reduce the number of unprofitable SKUs on offer. Next a joint value-creation team initiated codevelopment and sustainability projects to support the customer’s mission to become an all-natural organic-product leader. As a result of that meeting and subsequent conversations, DSM doubled the value of the dairy producer’s pilot program, improving overall client revenue by nearly €1 million in less than a year.
Step 2: Identify Areas for Improvement
After you’ve completed the relationship maturity check, you must identify why you succeed or struggle in particular areas. Asking why you are in this position can help clarify the strengths that led to a high rating or the weaknesses that prevented one. In areas where you received unsatisfactory scores, ask why up to five times, until the root cause is properly defined, enlisting your customer’s help in answering.
To improve its relationship with a major bank, Vodafone’s sales team, led by Keith Shaw, then the Vodafone global account manager, performed a triple fit analysis in 2018. It focused on obvious value deficits between the two companies and the financial and operational risk associated with aligning their values. Teams from the two companies realized that the customer needed to prepare its technology for the future of mobile banking. With a game plan developed using the triple fit analysis, the two partnered to map the technology consumption of tens of thousands of the bank’s employees—information they used to develop the technical requirements for a new “bring your own device” policy at the bank. Also, because of Covid-19, a draft working-from-home policy had to be accelerated, which led to the deployment of new advanced remote-communication solutions. Meetings for top executives from both companies were consistently held to maintain collaborative momentum. They included regular status checks, during which the triple fit canvas was used to initiate new value creation. Vodafone’s business with the bank increased by 11% annually over the next three years, and its opportunity pipeline increased by 30%.
Step 3: Develop Workable Solutions
The results of step 2 are the basis for developing ideas to boost value and mitigate risk. Asking what needs to be done to improve (or maintain) the situation is a simple but powerful way of looking at your full range of options. It is important not to jump to conclusions (or actions) too quickly. Most salespeople with a value-selling mindset tend to skip this step and then wonder why their “solutions” failed. A superior approach maps the spectrum of reasonable options, prioritizes and selects the most promising ideas, and secures the support of everyone who must be involved.
The Schindler Group, a Switzerland-based manufacturer of escalators, walkways, and elevators, had been in contact with a multinational construction, property, and infrastructure company for several years. In 2019 Michael Dobler, Schindler’s SVP of global key accounts, proposed using the triple fit process to codevelop new business. The infrastructure company was intrigued: It had never discussed business issues beyond product and price configurations with a supplier. The conversations led to cost-saving initiatives and increased product quality and safety levels. Triple fit helped the infrastructure company save more than $16 million over a two-year period. The customer awarded Schindler a large portion of its business and full visibility into its project pipeline for the next 10 years. Schindler still uses the triple fit canvas to evaluate potential relationships and to draw a strategy road map for joint value creation with existing customers. “The triple fit canvas helps us develop high-value relationships with customers and project partners and run them like a business,” Dobler says.
Step 4: Differentiate Between Long- and Short-Term Actions
Step 4 divides value creation proposals into quick-win actions for 90-day projects and longer-term initiatives that will last up to three years. To garner stakeholder support, use the motto “Show me the money” to describe exactly how each action will be executed and deliver value.
Konica Minolta applied this approach to its relationship with the BMW Group. Konica’s business solutions division had recently started deploying multifunctional devices, printers, and plotters for BMW. Both parties soon recognized that BMW’s intense focus on price and hardware was hindering value creation. The Konica team ran a triple fit analysis with BMW to see where it could improve. The collaboration led to multiple immediate innovations—among them enabling BMW employees to print documents and images from any device and import scanned data onto mobile devices—along with several large-scale, longer-term improvements in mobile-device workflow productivity. As a result, BMW saved money and improved processes at its global production centers. Both companies recently agreed on a long-term partnership that increased the size of the BMW account by 300%.
Step 5: Persuade Your Stakeholders
In the fifth and final step, your consolidated triple-fit findings must be summarized in a central message and pitched to stakeholders. Product-minded salespeople have difficulty shifting to big-picture thinking and collaborative value creation. You must persuade them that the process is in their short- and long-term interests. You must also persuade senior leaders to adopt your central message, provide funding for the associated initiatives, and accept the benefits and risks.
Christine Dickson, Maersk’s global key client director in charge of its account with The Gap, was tasked with disrupting Gap’s 30-year relationship with one of Maersk’s shipping-industry competitors. She believed that conducting a triple fit analysis of Maersk’s work with Gap would determine where the relationship could be improved. As partners they struggled with several triple-fit components, most notably strategies, relationships, and structures. She also wanted to identify areas where Maersk could cut into its competitor’s relationship with the retailer. Dickson knew that she couldn’t simply walk into a meeting with Maersk leaders and tell them that she wanted to conduct a triple fit analysis with Gap. Only after developing a clear understanding of what would be involved in such a process was she able to persuade her leadership team to try this new approach.
With her Gap counterparts, she conducted a detailed cash-flow analysis, which identified opportunities for savings by reducing Gap’s inventory, discounting obsolete clothing lines, and shortening lead times while increasing Gap’s speed to market. She then selected the Gap warehouse in Carson, California, to run a proof of concept. Because Covid-19 limited travel and in-person meetings, Maersk flew a drone inside the warehouse to capture potential areas for improvement on video. As a result of Dickson’s analysis, Gap and Maersk developed transparent delivery schedules, priority lane access to warehouse docks, 24-hour processing, and guaranteed delivery, all of which unlocked significant value across the nine triple-fit building blocks. The initiative reduced Gap’s logistics costs by more than $25 million during the pilot phase, and Maersk increased its revenue and profitability by 300% within two years.
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Historical information obtained from customer data analysis and surveys is seldom responsible for unlocking opportunities for innovation. It’s important to study that data, which can help improve decision-making and guide innovation. But it won’t be as valuable as charting a new course with the customers a supplier aims to serve. By working with them to craft a joint value-creation strategy, companies can develop leading indicators that predict new problems rather than analyzing lagging indicators that reveal old ones.
As the examples in this article suggest, the triple fit canvas can not only help you determine where you’ve struggled but also help you identify valuable opportunities for future innovation and growth. Most sales teams miss those opportunities and stifle potential collaboration with buyers, which leaves money on the table and puts the teams at a major disadvantage when relationships founder or global financial markets slide. The best-prepared sales teams work with their customers using a one-company mindset to unlock new sources of value.