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Running a B2B business can be highly profitable, but building and maintaining a successful business can be challenging. One reason: relationships are often complicated by conflicts, both real and perceived.

A timely example of this can be seen with one of the hottest consumer internet startups of the moment, Groupon. While the company is 'killing it' financially, there's increasing criticism and skepticism over Groupon and it has a lot to do with the realization that, in some instances at least, Groupon may be profiting at the expense of the local businesses it's supposed to be helping.

As I noted in response to a comment on my post about this topic, one of Groupon's primary challenges today is that it has a conflict of interest with its business customers, and it's a conflict of interest that it hasn't yet resolved. This isn't something unique to Groupon, however. The truth is that many B2B businesses have conflicts of interest with their customers. And large or small, these conflicts have the potential to derail an otherwise productive and profitable exchange.

Dealing with conflicts in the B2B environment requires a dedicated effort to align your interests with those of your customers. Here are five tips for doing just that...

Talk to your customers. It should go without saying, but if you're not talking to your customers on a regular basis, it's hard to know what their needs, desires and fears are, and how those needs, desires and fears are changing as the world changes around them. Without this information, it's quite possible to treat your customers poorly without even knowing you're treating them poorly.

Learn, and understand, their business. A lot of smart entrepreneurs and managers fail because they forget a simple truth: success requires more than an understanding of one's own business; it requires an understanding of the customer's. To gain this literally requires that an entrepreneur or manager walk in the shoes of his counterpart at a customer's business.

Recognize conflicts of interest, and address them. Conflicts of interest don't inherently eliminate the potential for a mutually beneficial exchange. When conflicts of interest are acknowledged and thoughtfully approached in a fair and honest manner, they can often be addressed satisfactorily, ensuring that both parties are winning, and more importantly, that neither is losing at the expense of the other.

Remember that your customer isn't an ATM. No matter how much you can extract from your customers, smart businesses know that their customers' success is the bedrock of their own. In other words, if you do what you reasonably can to help grow your customer's bottom line, you'll usually grow your own at the same time.

Focus on the long term. Behind most sustainable B2B businesses is a focus on building long-term relationships with customers. And for good reason: when your goal is to build a long-term relationship, you do all the important things you're not inclined to do if you're thinking 'wham, bam, thank you ma'am.'

Patricio Robles

Published 21 September, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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