No small vendor can fill a customer's every need. But instead of playing dumb when clients must find another supplier, leading them to a competitor will improve your standing in the long run. That's what Frank Sennett of General Machine, located in Windham, Maine, has learned.

Sennett runs a shop that makes parts for electronics manufacturers. His customers sometimes need parts he either can't make or can't price competitively. So, he helps them find another supplier, even if it is a direct competitor. Although he might be turning away short-term business, he says it helps secure long-term advantages.

"Helping our customer gives us a 'team member' image," he explains. "If they're going to seek this information anyway, our position only gets better if we appear helpful, honest, and unthreatened by their request."

Acting like a partner encourages customers to communicate openly, too? that's the payoff. "We're better able to assess their needs and make early adjustments to our service to match changes in their operations," Sennett says. Two regular customers now include him in their new-product-planning sessions, as the plastic-parts expert. "I'm in on the ground level on new projects," he says, "so I can get the cream-of-the-crop jobs."