Blindsided by a Mental Model

This is isn’t about a deranged runway exhibitionist. It’s about suppliers’ frustrations with customers’ behavior in service relationships. Does the following scenario sound familiar?

You’re a facility service supplier. You’ve been working with a relatively new customer for two, three, maybe four months. The customer contact may be someone new to you because this is a new account, or a new person in that position. Either way, your contact is an experienced property or facility manager.

And you’re feeling good about your growing relationship of trust and partnership. You’ve worked hard to ensure service quality has been wonderful. You’ve delivered; your contact has told you so.

The Earth Opens at Your Feet

Out of nowhere comes an email from your contact saying that unless an “issue” is resolved immediately they’ll have to put your contract out to bid early.

Issue? What issue? You see this person several times a week, if not every day and you haven’t heard about this “issue”.

On second look at the email you notice it’s been cc’d to their boss at their corporate office and to your boss at your corporate office.

Within nanoseconds you have radioed, emailed, text messaged all your operational staff and gotten the skinny on the so called “issue”.

You now meet your contact and bring them up to speed on their “issue”. It happens it wasn’t an “issue”, it was a “request”. One that was on schedule to be carried out as originally discussed.

You ask your contact respectfully why did they call you on the carpet, threaten you with cancellation, and cc: everyone’s bosses because of this “request?”

Their answer: It was intended to get your attention. They knew you would respond faster if they lit a fire under you.

As they walk away confident they’d behaved reasonably and logically, you worry about the dental bill from your teeth grinding. What’s just happened?

When Mental Models Get in the Way

Your contact’s mental model elbowed you into realizing they see the world, the customer-supplier world anyway, a whole lot differently than you do.

Mental models are sets of beliefs and values we use to make sense of the world and our part in it. They guide our behavior and decision making in solving problems and getting what we want.

When it comes to customer-supplier relationships we’d like to think everyone works from the same mental model. Not so, as we all have learned. Here’s a brief look at two sides of the same model.

The Supplier-Customer Mental Model

Suppliers would like to believe that in a service “partnership” their customers recognize and respect some universal truths for a strong relationship. Suppliers want both parties to interact with:

Open Communication

“Give it to me now so I can fix it, don’t withold information so it becomes bigger than it need be”


“Please, tell me like it is, I can take it. How can I resolve it if you’re not telling me the straight story?”


“Once you tell me you’re going to do something, I trust you mean it. You know I will do what I say.”

The Customer-Supplier Mental Model

Customers (some, most, few –> you choose how many) believe suppliers are adversaries to be bested in the course of business. They see the customer-supplier relationship as a zero sum game where they can only win if you lose.

Of course all customers don’t have this model. There are those knowledgeable customers that are well versed in supplier relationship management (SRM). They know how to get the most from their suppliers through collaboration and trust. But if you have only those types of customers, you wouldn’t be reading this.

So, for the sake of this post the following model is a brief look at how some customers see their relationship with suppliers.

Keep information close to the vest

“I’ll not tip my hand and give suppliers more leverage over me. They’d make too much profit, and that means I wouldn’t be getting as much as I could from them”.

Sugar coat it until the guillotine falls

“I’m not going to upset my primary supplier by telling them their failings. First, they should know where they are failing so I shouldn’t have to tell them. Second, if they take my criticism badly, they could cancel and leave me embarrassed. So, a little misinformation isn’t all bad. It helps keep them guessing and on their toes”.

Commitments to suppliers are flexlible

“I don’t have time to keep suppliers up to speed. If I have to make a change and it breaks a supplier commitment I’d made earlier, so be it. If that supplier gets mad, well then there’s always more suppliers where they came from. I’m the customer and I’m always right, even when I’m wrong”.

What Can You Do?

I’m sure suppliers would like all customers to have their mental models rewired to include:

  • Open communication
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Win-win, instead of zero sum where one side wins at the others expense

However that’s the stuff of sci-fi novels, to rewire other people to our way of thinking. What we can do is use a model that works for strong personal relationships to better manage the customer-supplier mental model.

Next week I’ll share some thoughts about how suppliers might go about reshaping customers’ mental models, but first I’m curious to hear how you’d do it, or have done it. Specifically:

What do you do to “educate/train” customers to truly partner with you?

Let me know your thoughts or experience in comments to this post, or if you prefer anonymity you can email me your thoughts directly at

Chris Arlen
President, Revenue IQ

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