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Dating Your Vendors

Getting the best value from vendors requires nurturing long-term relationships

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The holidays are behind us and the hint of spring appears on the distant horizon. Most of your New Year’s resolutions are barely hanging on. With a fresh start about to bloom, it’s time to make sure your relationships with your vendors get a fresh look too.

No, I’m not talking about inter-office relationships. I’m talking about having a relationship between your company and a vendor. You may be a small business trying to decide to keep a process inhouse or outsource it. You may be a large company looking for a new product or service. In any case, selecting a vendor is a task that is both laborious and tedious at times, but essential to finding someone that complements your business and goals. The goal is to have a mutually beneficial relationship with someone that makes you both sides better than they were before.

In its most simplistic form, a vendor is someone that offers you something. Whether it’s a product, service, license or their expertise, a vendor is someone that helps you accomplish your business goals. Vendors do not always have to be someone you buy from; they can be people that you respect and refer your customers to (no money involved) creating a strategic partnership between yourself and their company.

“Vendors should always tell you the truth, not just what you want to hear. You are a team. Open and honest conversation is the best way to achieve the results that will ultimately benefit both of you.”

If you are making metal building systems, your vendors can be anyone that helps you get your product out the door. If you are a contractor or installer, your vendors are not only who you buy from, but can be your subcontractors too. Your subs are an extension of you, your work ethic and quality. Properly vetting your subs can help keep you from being liable for faulty work or other issues that may arise.

This article explores seven specific topics to help you get to know your vendor better. Most of these will compare selecting your vendor to a dating relationship, and in its most basic sense, that’s what it is. Now, in full disclosure, it has been many years since I have dated and I am aware that many things have changed, but from what I can remember, it goes something like this.

Finding the One

We have all heard the idiom, “there are plenty of fish in the sea.” Granted, it is usually not used in this context, but it is true nonetheless. Chances there are thousands of companies that offer what you are looking for. Starting out, there are a few basic things to consider.

Vendors will find you or you can go out and look for them. What will the attraction be that gets the conversation started? Will the attraction be reputation, values, awards or your bottom line? Whatever it is, a vendor must be attracted to you as much as you are attracted to them. If there is no attraction, there is no catalyst to begin the conversation.

One way to find lots of vendors all in one place is a trade show or trade association meeting. Trade shows are like speed-dating. You move from booth to booth interviewing and inspecting what they have to offer. At the end, if you like what you see, you leave your card. It may not lead to anything permanent, but it can always help you network, meet new people and just maybe find the one you are looking for.

“Trusting others with your reputation and name is not  always easy, especially if you do not know much about them."

Once the initial attraction has taken hold, you have to ask yourself, “Does this vendor make sense for me logistically?” Where are they located? Do they have branches to serve customers far away? All of these are important, especially if you are depending on a vendor to service your customers directly or provide service to you personally. Maybe a long-distance relationship works for you, but will it work for your customers and personnel?

Who Pays?

So you found one. Next, you will follow up; let’s call it a first date. You meet, Skype or have a conference call to start off. Immediately, the question creeps in, “What is this going to cost me?” Money? Time? What about more than that? Your reputation has taken you years to establish, build and maintain. Can you comfortably promote them as your vendor, unashamed of their reputation or product offering? Once you leave this meeting and begin working together, you will now be subject to the fallacy of guilt by association. You will now be known publically as together. Your partnership should include a mutual interest in the success and failure of your offerings.

To answer the topic question, you should both pay. It is important for all parties to be invested into the relationship early on. When you make an investment, you are stating that you are committed and ready to move forward for the success of everyone. Use caution to not set up the other party for failure though. At this point, you should equip one another with what each needs to succeed. What do they need from you? What do you need from them to make the next steps meaningful and productive? Sharing information should be the priority at this point to obtain and provide enough information to get this new relationship moving.

Do Your Values Align?

So you’re off and moving. Although you have found a vendor that meets all of your requirements on the surface, you still have to do business with them in a professional setting to get a feel for how they conduct themselves. This allows you to establish a good rapport with your vendor as well as learn more about their business and values.

Trusting others with your reputation and name is not always easy, especially if you do not know much about them. Site visits to their facility or job sites can be a good way to keep your finger on the pulse of their operations and practices. If your new vendor is a supplier of materials, regular quality audits are a good idea and do not have to be done in person, but random samples of a product can be a good way to keep things in line.

It shouldn’t be strange to think that a vendor can offer an attaboy sometime. By being proactive and supporting your business, they in-turn support their own businesses. It should be a constant goal of vendors everywhere to selflessly support our customers—not only in product and services, but moral support and resources to better serve your customer.

More often than not, the job of selecting and working with a vendor falls to a purchasing person or another representative within the company that does not get the respect they truly deserve for daily fighting for the good of the company and keeping money in the bank. Our purchasing agents are frequently the unsung heroes of our companies and work hard for little recognition unless we run out of coffee in the break room. The amount of trust and authority a purchasing agent has is unrivaled. Their decisions can easily put your company in business with a vendor that does not hold the same high-quality standards that you do. Whether it is someone from purchasing or someone else within your organization, it is very important to periodically ask yourself:

  • When did we last hear from this vendor?
  • Do I know who to contact at this company? Who is my point person?
  • Have I shopped prices lately to make sure they are giving me the best deal? If they are not, can I freely talk to them about it?
  • Have they done anything for me to show they are working to develop and stay on top of their game and offer the best products and services?

Communication is Key

Do they talk to you or at you? Talking is not always communication, and communication is not always talking. More than emails and phone calls, true communication is at the heart of any good relationship. Your spouse, family, friends, coworkers and, yes, your vendors. There should be an open channel of communication so a vendor can judge if they are meeting your expectations or not. At the same time, the same channel serves to let you know if the vendor is doing their part to support you.

Don’t assume that you know what your vendor wants, just like you would never assume what your customer wants. Listen, provide feedback and make goals clear so everyone in the relationship is pulling the same direction.

Make the relationship personal in the same way you would approach a customer. You are not a business, you are a person. Connect on a personal level. Make your vendor become a person that you are connected with more than purchase orders or service requests.

You have a successful business. You should never pay money to a vendor only to have them try to offer advice disguised as stipulations on how to do your job. If a vendor is trying to push you a certain way or another, they may have an ulterior motive. Either they are truly interested in you making the best you can, so they want to help by introducing you to a company or person that can do that for you, or their motive is purely self-serving. Vendors should always tell you the truth, not just what you want to hear. You are a team. Open and honest conversation is the best way to achieve the results that will ultimately benefit both of you.

Good communication ensures that your vendor doesn’t change the way they do business without your knowledge. A simple change your vendor sees as an improvement can have disastrous results downstream. Vendors implementing something as simple as a quarterly newsletter or email can save thousands of dollars down the road. The mutual rapport is vital to the end goal. We speak with thousands of builders and installers throughout a year to receive feedback on product performance and service offerings. Listening and responding to the feedback from customers is vital to remaining relevant and current with what you offer.

Rocky Times

No matter how hard you work, in the natural ebb and flow of business relationships, some periods are harder than others. These times readily test our resolve and moxie without mercy. When that time comes, will your vendor be there? It is hard to say until you actually go through it, but there are indicators to look for to make sure when you meet a challenge, you will not be standing alone.

Once again, communication is key. Paul J. Meyer, founder of the Success Motivation Institute and the Leadership Management Institute stated, “Communication—the human connection—is the key to personal and career success.”

Do you hear from your vendor? If so, are you a line item on an email or are you a human connection? Do you know who will answer the phone when you call, and if they can help you or not?

Is your vendor battle-tested? When you call, their first response should always be, “How can we help?” This not only proves their willingness to go the battle with you, but also shows that they will not shy from a challenge to make a customer happy.

Take responsibility for a situation. In the end, it is the vendor’s role to make you look good, even if they have to take the fall. This shows true dedication and commitment.

Breaking Up

As Neil Sedaka sang, “Breaking up is hard to do,” but sometimes it’s necessary. If you and your vendor do not have a vested interest in your success, it may be time for a change. Many times a clean break will heal faster than a messy one, so if it isn’t working, a phone call or email stating it outright can be the most humane thing to do.

Some will take it hard and walk away. This can be taken as an indicator that they were there for self-serving purposes and realize that they have been caught because they stand the most to lose and now realize it. Your new vendor should make the transition easy and make you breathe a sigh of relief. Other venders, who were truly there for the right reasons, will ask for feedback. What did they do wrong? How could they improve? They will grow from the experience and make themselves better for their own future.

Third-party risk management is the equivalent to relationship counseling. It’s not for everyone, but if you are questioning if this will work long term, this may be a path to explore. Due diligence and risk monitoring are good ways to keep moving forward, but have help navigating the tough times.

Taking the Plunge

When it works, it works. As long as everyone continually works to the good of the relationship, you have a long and glorious future ahead of you. This is the point where you look at contracts and distributor pricing to really get the best out of your relationship. The foundation has been laid and the only direction left is forward.

However, like any good relationship, everyone should protect themselves. Mediation with a new partner in a long-term contract is a safe practice and can clearly define roles and goals with everyone involved. This can easily be compared to a prenuptial agreement in marriage.

Now that we have explored these points, I want you to look at this information in a different light: swap roles. You have probably been reading this article as if you are the business and your vendors are the subject matter. Place yourself in the shoes of the vendor. That is what you are to your customer. If your customer were to read this, would you measure up to the same standards you have envisioned for your vendors?

Just like in a dating relationship, if you go through all of these steps and they are still there, they may be a keeper. Congratulations! It’s time to take things to the next level and grow your relationship into something that can benefit you both, and help you grow your business. The end goal is to be involved in a successful relationship from which you, your vendor and, ultimately, your customer will benefit.

Jonathan L. Rider serves as the public relations director of Developmental Industries, the parent company of D.I. Roof Seamers. Rider is very active in community organizations and volunteer efforts. He currently serves in various roles within the industry including Metal Construction Association Board of Directors, Metalcon Liaison Committee Chair, and as a member of the Metal Building Manufacturers Association Associate Member Advisory Council. Rider is also the author of multiple industrial publications and travels frequently, speaking across the United States.