Relationships with suppliers have been redefined. Let us count the ways.

When I entered the packaging business back when the wheel and fire were relatively new, the relationship between packaging supplier and packager was pretty simple. One sold; the other one bought. “Hi, we have a brand new shiny widget. It can do this, that and the other. Do you want it?”

Throw in a few lunches and dinners and an occasional round of golf, and that was the extent of the so-called relationship. (Lest I forget, you better add a few adult beverage drink tabs-some of which were imbibed in the early morning hours at trade shows. We all partied like rock stars back in the day with Jack, Stolly and others. Sleep was for wimps.)

As the ’70s turned into the ’80s and then the ’90s, the word “partnership” started to become a staple in most business conversations. (For you newbies, it was yesteryear’s version of “bandwidth.”) Some suppliers tried to delve into their customers’ needs to better understand how to provide goods and services. But, many threw the word around much like a useless mission statement. (I wonder if anyone has ever done a study on the number of hours wasted creating mission statements that never had a purpose other than occupying a space on a website or letterhead. Occasionally, when I run into one these days, I think…that is so ’90s; please join us in the next millennium. We have a whole slew of new buzzwords we can introduce you to. But, I digress.)

Enter the latter part of this decade and more specifically, the current economic downturn, the Great Recession, the thing that is messing with my early retirement-or anything else you’d like to call it.

For what it’s worth, my two-cents is that I have never seen workload being pushed upstream to this extent before. Gone are the days where suppliers just make and sell whatever it is they are making and selling. Customers are now asking suppliers to help them solve their problems. Scratch that. It’s more of an expectation than a request. It’s the new definition of a partnership.

From my little office in the sky, here is what I am seeing.

1. What do my customers want? More and more suppliers are engaging in research to help show packagers what their customers want and, more importantly, what they will be willing to pay more for. It’s one of the newer definitions of partnership.

2. I need it my way. Off-the-shelf is oftentimes not good enough anymore. Packagers are asking suppliers to go the extra mile to fix their problem, which may or may not be applicable to anyone else in the solar system. Take my pain away, Mr. Supplier, and I will reward you with more purchase orders.

3. Speed freaks. “You say you need six weeks to turn it around? That doesn’t work for me. I need it in four. You figure it out.” These days, the supplier heroes are those that are so creative, so nimble that they can make things happen hyper quickly. It’s kinda expected.

4. The work day is eight hours long. Not! I couldn’t even type that without laughing. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen so many nocturnal and weekend e-mails in my life. (Okay, since I’ve only been getting e-mails for 15 years…let’s say since the mid ’90s.) Just about everyone I know is working scary hours. (If you must know, as I type it’s 6 p.m. on a Sunday night. I’m trying to get this done before Desperate Housewives starts. A girl has her priorities.) Why is this happening? Simple. Another definition of “partnership” in this recession is that your workload just doubled. Deal with it.

5. Survival means sucking it up. There is no whining in a recession. We are all stretched über-thin. You just have to do whatever it takes to keep business coming your way. People who produce/service/fix/support have better job security than those who don’t. That’s just Survival 101 for those who slept through that class.

6. Tell your story. A wise colleague said to me recently, “The recession is making it even more critical for us to market our capabilities.” Unlike others who are slashing marketing budgets like accountants gone wild, savvy companies understand that now is a great time to put a positive message out. No one wants to partner with someone who hides in a dark corner. Players want to do business with other players. (I think this is why celebrities only date celebrities.)

7. Love your employees. If you are a senior manager reading this, when was the last time you kumbaya’d your staff? Seriously. Even in a recession, would it kill you to order some pizzas during lunch? With everyone working like lunatics, how about an impromptu “go home a couple hours early” on a Friday? What about taking the time to write a kind e-mail. One of my clients took the time to write me a short note of appreciation today. It made me feel better than the winning the lottery earlier in the week. (Don’t get excited. It was only $2.) But, you get my drift. It’s not only about partnering with your customers. It’s important for your employees to feel like your partners, as well.

8. Sustainability only works if the economics can support it. This really needs no explanation, but for those that need a picture drawn-if it can’t be justified from a cost perspective, your fancy schmantzy biomeltdown material package ain’t gonna fly. (You should go shopping with my elderly mother sometime. She’s not interested in sustainability. She wants to know if she can use her coupons.) Partnership means understanding both the technology and the economic side of the fence.

9. Dance with the one who brung ya. I’ve always wanted to use the quote Ross Perot made famous. I guess today is the day. Packagers, if a company has busted its posterior trying to earn your business, try not to dump ’em like a hot potato the second someone else can save you a few pesos. Give the original partner an opportunity to come up with a mutually beneficial alternative. In short, respect your end of the partnership deal.

10. People have long memories. The recession will end. That is an absolute. And when it’s over and business becomes bullish again, people will remember who was a good partner during these times. You have the power to make sure you come up on the right side of that list.

Sophia Dilberakis

Sophia Dilberakis founded Chicago-based SD Communications in 1998, a public relations and marketing communications practice specializing in representing packaging and plastics companies. From 1979 to 1992, she was on the staff of Food & Drug Packaging(the predecessor to Food & Beverage Packaging.) She held a variety of positions including editor-in-chief and publisher. Sophia has written for the 20th, 40th and 50th anniversary editions. She hopes to be retired by the time the publication’s 60th anniversary rolls around.