How to Nurture Fulfilling Supply Chain Partnerships
In the print and promotional space, the supplier-distributor relationship is the bedrock of success. Some may wonder if there’s a special formula for creating fruitful alliances, and, yes, there are unspoken rules to follow. But what they don’t realize is that they’re already honing their partnering skills in their day-to-day lives. That’s because such ties are built on the same things we desire in our interpersonal relationships—trust, integrity, honesty, fairness and communication. It sounds oversimplified, but it’s true. If you’re a distributor, your supplier partners are looking for someone they enjoy working with and that creates a mutually beneficial partnership. Knowing how vital those partnerships are in this industry, it’s important to be the best partner possible.
To get some firsthand knowledge on the subject, Print+Promo spoke with Rich Lippmann, owner of Lippmann Printing, St. Louis; Tony Heinl, president of Repacorp Inc., Tipp City, Ohio; and Lynn Hakenson, sales manager for Specialty Graphics, Des Moines, Iowa.
Trust the Process
As we mentioned earlier, the base of any solid relationship—business and otherwise—is trust.
“You just have to be open [and] honest,” Hakenson said. “Communication—that’s the key to the whole thing. Just communicating with the distributor that you deal with. Tell them what you can do and what you can’t do. And work with them on things that, if they want something done today, but you can’t get it done, try to find a solution that you can maybe get it done tomorrow.”
Be sure to create a situtation where trust is reciprocal. Don’t oversell your capabilities; it not only makes you look bad, it damages your partner’s reputation and the job overall. Even if you make a mistake, keep your partners aware of the situation and how you’re going to fix it, rather than try to brush something under the metaphorical rug.
“Like anyone, you want the truth coming out of them,” Hakenson added. “If a mistake is made, be open about the mistake.”
He used an example of a distributor who might not be well-versed on the print industry. That could lead to them giving bad specs, which is what the supplier bases its quote on. When that happens, people get upset and it makes repeat business down the line much harder.
This brings us to our next point.
Know Your Stuff
Just like you should be able to trust your partners to tell the truth, you should be able to trust that they know what they’re talking about when it comes to their products.
“The conversations that motivate us to do business with a company are the conversations we have with those who know the product, know what they are selling, know the details about what their customer is looking for and how the product will be used,” Heinl said. “When we deal with a knowledgeable distributor, we can dig in deeper to make their project a success. We aren’t just selling a product for a price, but solving a challenge and creating a better product for their customer.”
There’s the old saying that luck is preparation meeting opportunity. Opportunity abounds in the print and promotional industry, so being fully prepared with the knowledge of what your company offers is paramount. When your prospective partners and customers are asking questions (and they will), you should be able to answer all inquiries confidently and fully.
“The most common mistakes distributors make are not having enough information or knowledge,” Heinl added. “Know what you are talking about—know the product. Know more about your customer’s needs and their challenges. If you really don’t know what your customer is asking for, it is hard to compete competitively. You need to know specifics to get the bid.”
While you should certainly be familiar with your own product offerings, there is always more to learn. It’s wise for distributors to know a great deal about products they might not offer themselves, because those leads can turn into sales opportunities down the road. What’s more, they might be things that future partners do offer, so when that time comes, you’ll be prepared.
All too often, Heinl observes print distributors sticking to the basics, rather than exploring their curiosity for new product. Many suppliers have more to offer than distributors are asking for, and by using the extent of a supplier’s capabilities, it creates an even more in-depth partnership for both parties.
“We need distributors to be open and to educate themselves about what else is out there,” he said. “We offer RFID labels, digital labels with an instant quote module [and] shrink sleeves, and we are getting into flexible packaging. Distributors can better serve their customers, and grow their business and bottom line with an open mind and a little bit of education about the other products their suppliers offer.”
Talk the Talk
Even the most knowledgeable distributors are ineffective if they can’t fully communicate what their client wants, or if they communicate in an inefficient way. For as much as we rely on technology, Lippmann said there’s no substitute for face-to-face conversation.
“We need more verbal communication and not relying strictly on email, especially when working on large projects together,” he said. “The distributor needs to just talk with us and use our over-20 years in business knowledge of the industry to their advantage.”
When you leave out details, there’s room for mistakes to be made. Also, relying on email and other less personal means of communication hinders the personal connection these types of relationships can foster.
Let’s create a hypothetical scenario: Let’s say you give your friend an item that he’s been talking about for a while as a gift. He hates it, though, because it’s the wrong color. Rather than telling you, he buries it deep in his closet, never to be worn again. Meanwhile, he vents to another friend, who, in turn, surprises him with a new gift that’s more like what he wanted.
You’d feel betrayed and frustrated that your friend wasn’t upfront with you in the first place, right? These types of situations arise in the business world, too. And it highlights the importance of clear communication throughout the process.
“One of our resellers had a large order, so we sent a sample material roll to be tested in the end-use environment before we produced product,” Heinl said. “The material sample was signed off on by the distributor. We produced the order and sent the first batch of labels to the customer. The customer didn’t like the label’s adhesive because it was too aggressive. They put the product in the corner, and continued to order labels from their old supplier. We continued to produce and ship the product our distributor ordered, and the customer continued to stick the product in the corner. After about a year, we were told the product was defective and they wanted to return it. We tested the product and found it not to be defective. Our distributor had signed off on the material, but the customer never tested it.”
Once the distributor actually communicated the issue, Heinl was able to rectify it.
“We changed the material to one with a less aggressive adhesive, and the distributor’s customer loved it,” he added. “However, there was still a year’s worth of product that needed to be eaten because of bad communication and short cuts taken by the distributor. Turns out, the distributor signed off on the material and did not have their customer test it and sign off before we produced labels.”
The bottom line with your partnerships with suppliers boils down to this: Be the partner you would want to have. Be honest, clarify what you want and know what you have to offer. If you follow those guidelines, you’ll find yourself in long-lasting and fulfilling alliances.