by Anthony Noel
The fourth in a series about business-to-business relationships examines how to get the most from your vendors.
A long-time friend of mine uses a simple test to gauge the value of his business relationships: Are those in question being held to the same standard to which we hold ourselves?
This is really just another way of stating a theme we have discussed often in the first three installments of this series. Namely, that as customers of the folks who provide us with goods and services, we have every right to expect the same level of responsiveness from them as we strive to give our own customers.
There is still another way to look at this premise: One reaps what one sows.
If you give the impression to your laminate rep, hinge dealer, insurance agent or accountant that you are not too concerned with the quality of their service or product, guess what? You will get services or products that satisfy exactly that criterion - good enough, but not excellent.
I often hear people complain that, 'They don't make 'em like they used to,' or 'Good service is a thing of the past.' Hogwash. What is really going on, I believe, is that many of us are reluctant to tell our vendors what we expect and to penalize them if and when they don't deliver.
In an expanding economy such as ours, there are any number of companies competing for your business, and the number grows almost daily. That means that the odds of finding a vendor representing a firm that still does 'make 'em like they used to,' or one (or more) who offers good service, are growing, too.
Despite this competition, you will not find goods or services of the quality you seek until you apply my friend's test to your less-than-perfect business relationships. And you can't realistically hold them to any standard if you have failed to make clear what that standard is.
I am talking here about two things: communication and assertiveness.
I have already made clear my disdain for sales professionals of certain persuasions (OK, just one persuasion, car salesmen). And while it is tempting to get buddy-buddy with whomever is repping for whatever company you are dealing with, remember: It is the salesperson's job to make his offer tempting. The trick is to cut through the feel-good nonsense and get to the heart of the matter. Can he provide what you want, when you want it, at the price you need to pay?
Getting an answer to that question requires solid communication. And if you feel that you have communicated your needs clearly and you still haven't received what you were promised, that requires assertiveness.
Let's look first at communication. Let's say that for years, you have been buying a particular item from ABC Company. You're happy with the quality, the price and the service you get. Your customers are happy - they have never complained about this particular component of your work.
One day, a rep walks into your shop from XYZ Inc. He begins, 'I see you're buying your widgets from ABC. Fine company. Good service. Nice product.' The line has been cast. He's about to set the hook. 'But what would you say if I told you I could provide the same quality, the same service, for half the price?' You think, 'Duh! What does he think I'd say?' Then you say it, 'Where do I sign?'
Now, there are two possible conclusions to this story. 1) This vendor stands by his word and delivers the same quality and service you have come to expect while providing a big cost savings, or 2) he doesn't.
Unlikely as it is, let's say for a minute that you are the happy recipient of Conclusion One. Great. You've cut your costs with no impact on quality or service. Stranger things have happened.
But how do you react in the more likely event that you have wasted your time and when this vendor provides a mere shadow of the service and quality you demand at little, if any, savings?
You communicated what you expected. He said he could provide it. He didn't.
Well, my friend, then it's time to switch into Assertiveness Mode, and that switch is much easier to make when you've resisted the initial temptation to get too friendly with your sales rep.
Now, I should say that I'm a pretty patient individual, sometimes probably too patient. I'm often willing to give a rep several chances to prove he can deliver what I want. That's especially true with small-ticket items, whereas the larger the order, the more demanding I am. But in either case, when something is not right, I make sure my salesperson knows about it and that I expect it to be right the next time.
You don't have to be a monster to do this effectively. In fact, it's really just a matter of recounting the communication that led to your order and then making your point: 'When you told me you could match ABC's quality and service and beat their price, I figured I'd be a fool not to give you a shot. But if this is your idea of good quality (or service) and a dramatically lower price, we've got a problem.'
I really hate to generalize about sales professionals, but in this case, I'll do it anyway. There are certain words they hear better than others. 'Problem' is one such word. Saying 'problem' to most salespeople is akin to screaming 'Earthquake!' at passing motorists on a Southern California bridge.
'You're not happy?' your salesman might say, sensing the impending drop in his commission check.
'Right,' you say. 'Now, what can you do to make things better?'
I really do hate to generalize about salespeople. But, let's face it: They, like you, are in the business to make money. The more direct you are about making your expectations clear (or your displeasure, when appropriate), the better your chances of having a relationship that benefits you both.
We said earlier that sometimes a rep comes along who really does deliver good service and quality at a better price. However, it is truly rare to be able to cut your costs on anything by more than 30 percent, so be skeptical of anybody offering really big savings.
What purchasing goods and services is all about is equaling or improving upon your current level of quality and service, while cutting your costs. You must decide how much of a cost savings will make it worth the effort necessary to switch suppliers.
For instance, if a sheet goods dealer can save you only a penny or two per foot for material which is equal to what you are currently buying elsewhere, it may be more trouble than it's worth to make a switch. Vendors do have a tendency to reward loyalty. If you need something in a hurry on a day when the truck doesn't usually run to your shop, who is more likely to get it to you - a vendor with whom you've built some mutual trust or one with whom you have no history? (Don't answer too fast, however. Depending on how badly the latter wants your business, it might just be he.)
If you're confused, don't be. Vendors will often go to great lengths to win your business. Just remember that the true measure of a good relationship with any vendor is whether it provides room for honesty above all else.
Hold your vendors to the same standards you hold for yourself, and you'll be on the right track.
Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.
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This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.