Working with Suppliers

Every project manager will inevitably deal with suppliers. Here are a few tips from my personal experience to help you manage them.

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The squeaky wheel really does get the grease

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This is a piece of advice that I received from a colleague of mine. For many years, he worked closely with IT infrastructure companies that serviced our company’s mine.

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Sales people have an awful habit of over-committing their delivery resources. By delivery resources, I am referring to the resources at the supplier that are actually responsible for performing the service or delivering the product that was purchased. Most of the time, the delivery team is very busy satisfying the needs of multiple customers simultaneously. Unfortunately, the team has limited resources and cannot work for every customer at the same time. The result is that projects and customers are prioritized over each other.

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If everything was logical, customers with the closest deadlines would be served first. Or, all customers would be served in the order that they signed their contracts. However, very little in business is logical. My personal findings show that suppliers prioritize customers by who is complaining the loudest and most often. The customer that is more demanding and vocal gets their work done first. On the other hand, more passive customers are served last.

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The solution to this problem is to keep in frequent contact with the supplier’s delivery team. As long as they are meeting their commitments, then communication does not need to happen on a frequent basis. However, if deadlines are missed, or if there is a risk thereof, increase communication frequency immediately. The supplier will see that you are serious about delivery and will ratchet up their service level.

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Once the delivery schedule or supplier performance is back on track, ease up on the communication frequency. Revert back to your previously agreed communication frequency. This will demonstrate to the supplier that you trust them, and will give them space to perform their jobs provided that things run smooth.

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Delivery team not listening? Talk to the salesperson!

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Those employed by suppliers (and more corporations) have an interesting mental mindset. Delivery teams think only about the current deal; sales people think about the next one. Sales people are motivated to sell, which means they have a strong incentive to maintain positive relations with a client. They know that a product that is poorly delivered may cause a client to look elsewhere for future business.

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Delivery teams, on the other hand, are motivated to work on projects handed to them by the sales people. The clients are immaterial; once one project for one client is finished, there is always another project from another client in the pipeline. They are not interested in whether the client is happy as long as some client somewhere has a project to work on.

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Therefore, talk to the sales person when they are issues, especially if the issue is the performance of the delivery team. Explain to the sales person how important the project is, and that you are not happy. Lead them to believe that you may not be interested in a future deal if they supplier cannot deliver what was already agreed. If a sales person fears that they may not receive future deals with a client, they will take action to guard the relationship.

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What does everyone else think? Does anyone have another good tip for working with suppliers?

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