Supplier relationship management and when it’s the right time to throw a penguin

Supplier relationship management and when it’s the right time to throw a penguin

Supplier relationship management is an art that takes years to master and very few actually achieve true mastery. I have a fairly low opinion of myself in this respect. I find it difficult to deal with suppliers I don’t like on a personal level. And while I don’t suffer fools gladly (who does?) I do aim to operate on genuinely friendly terms with suppliers. This, I know, can hinder your objectivity. It’s difficult to be hard on an under-performing supplier when you are anxious that personal relationship will be  threatened – but I like to sleep at night.

This dim view of myself was contradicted recently by a colleague. “You’re very good at supplier relationship management” she said. “You’re not always the good cop – and you know when it’s the right time to throw a penguin.”

Purchasing Insight logoI’d forgotten about that. I need to leave out a few details of this story in order to protect the guilty but she was referring to a real situation when I called a strategic suppliers in for an account management meeting. It was a tough session. The supplier had let us down badly – it was a trivial error on their part but the impact on our project was inordinate and it was time for some tough talking – and I don’t mean tough love. This was not going to be a session for sharing home truths for the supplier’s benefit so they could learn and get better – this was going to be a thorough roasting.  They were going to have to fix what they’d broken, or else…

Or else what? Or else not a lot to be honest. As an incumbent strategic supplier, we needed them as much as they needed us and my challenge was to find a form of words that would get all the right messages across in the right tone without breaking the relationship either on a business level or on a personal level. But despite psyching myself up beforehand as soon as the meeting started, I threw away the script. My emotions took over, I got angry and that’s when I threw the penguin. I threw the penguin at our account manager and it hit him squarely on the head.

Obviously, it wasn’t a real penguin. It was a promotional gift from another supplier. A supplier that in complete contrast was over performing. I’d brought it along to the meeting as a kind of benchmark – a benchmark of what level of service we expect from suppliers. And, to his credit, the account manager took the gesture in good spirit – it didn’t hurt him and left only a slight and temporary dent in his ego – it got the message across.

I maintain my preference for dealing with suppliers that I like on a personal level and I think I’m in good company and while it’s nice to have friendly relationships with suppliers, it’s also important to know when to throw throw the penguin.

Pete Loughlin can be found on twitter @peteloughlin