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Landing a major enterprise as a customer can be a huge win for a growing business. A large order with a well-known firm might be the catalyst for even bigger growth.
But there’s a big difference between being just another short-term supplier and being a trusted partner — a company that customers consistently prefer to do business with and actively include in their business strategy, year after year.
If you’re trying to make the jump from supplier to partner, focus on communication, said Philip King, a cash flow adviser at C2FO and the UK’s former small business commissioner.
“I think buyers want suppliers to be partners and collaborators,” King said. “To do that, you have to know and understand the businesses that you’re supplying. That level of understanding only occurs when you’re actively communicating with your customers.”
Here are the most common behaviors of suppliers that build enduring relationships with their largest customers.
Good suppliers deliver great products or services on time at a competitive price. Great suppliers do that and try to learn everything they can about their customers’ business, so they can offer new solutions, King said.
Bringing new and innovative ideas is key to being a strategic supplier, said Kristyn Baker, C2FO’s vice president of procurement and sourcing strategy.
It isn’t a matter of just being there when a buyer needs something, but being proactive and showing the buyer things it doesn’t even know it needs.
You can learn some of what you need to know by following your customers on social media and setting up Google Alerts for the latest news about them. But don’t be afraid to ask them questions about their business. What’s their marketing strategy? What are their goals for growth?
If you can, joint business planning with your customer should provide insight into where it is looking to go and what the roadmap will be, Baker said. This will inform longer-term objectives for both parties.
You shouldn’t worry about being intrusive. It’s much more likely that your customers will appreciate your interest.
Most suppliers are so busy filling orders that they never think to ask these higher-value questions, King said. It’s a great way to positively distinguish yourself with your buyers.
It’s a crazy world right now, and enterprise customers value suppliers that can help them adapt to disruptions. So when things fall apart, you want to be able to offer your customers a contingency plan for whatever challenge they’re facing.
Supply chain starts to slow down for a key material or product? Suggest replacements or alternative sources that can fill the gap, King said.
Or maybe a natural disaster takes several of the clients’ warehouses out of play? Offer alternative shipping arrangements. Maybe you can ship directly to retail locations or customers themselves.
Any supplier can fill an order. The winners offer expertise and help that go above and beyond.
“You can make the leap from being a transactional, lowest-price-centric vendor to one that delivers strategic value when you become the hero for your customers.”
Strategic partners make a meaningful impact on businesses beyond dollars and cents, he said. C2FO, for example, offers a platform that delivers convenient, low-cost working capital to suppliers around the world, but the company is always thinking in terms of how it can help enterprises solve significant problems, whether that involves managing supply chain risk, earning better return on capital or pushing back against inflation.
Supplier flexibility can also extend to payment. To get ahead of supply chain shortages, some clients may shake up their ordering schedule. Instead of placing a new order every two weeks, they might buy enough for three months in one order.
But that may play havoc with their cash flow. Instead of paying for that entire order at once, they might need to pay for it over the course of three months.
That said, suppliers should also communicate clearly about invoices and follow up if payment isn’t made by the agreed-upon deadline.
It helps to have a relationship with a specific person in the accounting department if there are questions, King said. “You want to let them know you’re not an easy pushover.”
Earlier in his career, King said, he worked for a technology company that had landed a massive order with a major player. The business was so important that King was warned to treat them with kid gloves. If the customer didn’t pay promptly, he was told not to make a big deal about it.
Flash-forward a few months. The client invited King’s company for a meeting, and the news was very good. The company was earning great reviews almost totally across the board. The only area where they were marked down? The client said the company wasn’t pressing hard enough about payment.
Rather than being offended about being asked about late invoices, the customer viewed it as a sign that suppliers had a healthy respect for financial health — an indicator that its business overall would be healthier and, thus, a better partner.
Sometimes it might feel a little intimidating trying to do business with an enterprise that has a net worth larger than some sovereign countries.
But remember that companies are ultimately made up of human beings. By communicating effectively with people, and doing your best to help them solve their problems, you can build strong, enduring relationships.
“People do business with people,” King said.
A few years ago, he met the UK procurement chief for one of the world’s largest fast-food companies. Floods had hit the country, causing severe damage to the farms that produced its potatoes.
The procurement official called one of his suppliers, a farmer in Lincolnshire, to see how he was holding up.
It was a disaster, the farmer said. The storms had destroyed more than half of his crops. But he told the procurement official not to worry. He’d make sure the fast-food company received its full order, no matter what.
The procurement official asked why. It was simple, the farmer replied. Of all his customers, “you’re the only buyer who called to check on me.”
To build valuable and enduring relationships with their enterprise buyers, suppliers should try to learn as much as possible about those buyers’ business. That will help them propose useful new solutions to their problems — solutions that customers might not even realize they need yet. That kind of initiative and flexibility will ultimately elevate the business relationship beyond the transactional, benefiting both sides.
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