Those awkward conversations with suppliers

If you’re in supply management, you are likely to have experienced tough or awkward conversations with suppliers when you’re at a loss for the best response, the right thing to say. No matter how challenging, most tough situations can be addressed. You’re never going to have all the answers. Often rebuttals in tough conversations only escalate problems. Just listening and asking some good questions can begin to get the conversation and even the relationship back on track.

Examples of awkward customer-supplier moments may include:

  • The customer needs to discuss with a supplier how it has failed meet its performance expectations, such as quality issues or late delivery.
  • The customer wants the supplier to fix a problem that he or she feels that the supplier caused
  • The supplier blames its problems on the customer organization
  • A supplier tries to offer gifts and entertainment to make the buyer feel obliged
  • The customer does not want to accept a supplier price increase
  • The customer needs to end the relationship with a supplier

While it’s human nature to avoid friction and awkward conversations, there are ways to ease the tension and make the outcomes potentially more productive. In her article, 7 Tips for Difficult Conversations, Daisy Wademan Dowling offers some useful tips that, while universal, can apply specifically to situations I’ve described. Here are some approaches to awkward customer-supplier conversations:

  1. Reduce the stress of a tough conversation by focusing on being well prepared
  2. Give the bad news first and don’t beat around the bush.
  3. As they say in continuous improvement, “Fix the problem, not the blame”. Rather than focusing on who’s right and who’s wrong, focus on finding solutions and moving forward.
  4. You can only control your own behavior and reactions , not someone else’s. Be prepared for the other party’s bad reactions (denial, blame, etc) and try to control your own.
  5. While the tendency may be to try to control the conversation and keep the other party from denying and blaming, you may need to hear them out, as unpleasant as that may be, in order to get the issues on the table and dissipate frustration.

Sometimes the tension may lessen as you hear the supplier out. Your demeanor reflects upon your company. It’s preferable to maintain professionalism and not “lose it” in a heated argument. It’s human nature to dislike criticism. Even when it’s not at all personal, negative feedback can feel personal and provoke emotions and bad reactions. The challenge is getting the best outcomes.

-Sherry R. Gordon


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