CWS 3.0: August 21, 2013

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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

There are a lot of similarities between a buyer-supplier relationship and dating. Here, I want to focus on when that relationship ends. Breaking up, splitting, getting dumped — they are all phrases for when a personal relationship has ended. Most of us have been on either end or in both of these scenarios in our lives. However, the scenario exists in the business world as well, especially between a buyer and a seller.

The reasons you as a buyer might dump a supplier are somewhat similar:

  • Someone better came along. You weren’t looking, but another vendor came along that provided better service, pricing, quality or all three.
  • Broken trust. The supplier violated your policy/ethics and you send the supplier packing. “I know you have a no contact policy, but I just can’t help myself.”
    • Growing apart. Let’s just be friends/it’s not you, it’s me/we’ve grown apart, something that says we’re just not a good match for each other. Neither is wrong about how they want to do business, but it’s just no longer a fit or never really was.

How a supplier reacts can resemble dating as well. Do any of these responses sound familiar to you?

  • Go psycho. This is where they don’t go quietly and actually make a transition more difficult. Even worse, they attempt to hurt the buyer, which eliminates the chance for reconciliation down the road.
  • Assume no blame. They go away quietly, telling everyone that it had nothing to do with them and it was all your fault. 
  • Grow from it. They try to understand, asking what they could have done better to keep your business. They ask if they can check back in six months to share how they have improved their service/product based on your feedback?

In the last 12 months, I have been through each of those scenarios. In two cases, my suppliers had failed miserably, but they politely stayed in contact, learned from our feedback and asked for another chance. After 12 months, it was granted. One of the suppliers has become one of our largest suppliers and the other one is making tough placements with one of our most difficult customer groups. In both situations I am glad we gave them a second chance, and I think they are happy they took this approach to improve. Those are my successes.

On the other hand, we gave one supplier numerous opportunities to improve, but the company never made the commitment to seize those opportunities. We had to walk away from a really long relationship because we just felt taken for granted. 

Another case was much worse, and instead of parting as friends that could someday get back together, they will never be a supplier for us again. The company has never taken ownership of its errors and just blames us or another supplier for its own shortcomings.

Through these experiences, I have learned some lessons I would like to share:

  • Be transparent with your suppliers. Let them know what they are doing well and what needs to improve long before you decide to say goodbye. It feels good to know that they shouldn’t be surprised unless they have ignored you or been in denial.
  • Recognize when you might need to change or adapt because a supplier has a new way of doing things that could really help you if you give them a chance. Listen first and then determine if it is right for you.

What I would tell suppliers:

  • Always be courting! Don’t forget your current customers while you are chasing new ones. No news is not necessarily good news — are you pushing yourself at this client to be their best supplier? The one they count on in tough times? Or, do you just take it easy because you are established and have been there a long time?
  • Learn to say no. Sometimes it is not a good match. Don’t try to change your customer. But if you say you are going to meet their needs, make sure you can. It is OK to say “That is not what we do, but I can give you two names of someone who does.” 

I will admit that I am the last person to give anyone dating advice, but I hope you can use some of what I’ve shared to make your buyer/supplier relationships the best they can be.

Greg Muccio is manager, People Department, Southwest Airlines.

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