Building a Relationship with a Supplier

Aug. 1, 2023
When picking the right supplier, it needs to be about business first.

Countless crime dramas over the years have served to remind us that "it's not personal, it's business." Such sentiments ring true even for those who don't have such "colorful connections." Keeping it friendly, while fostering a professional relationship with vendors is often a crucial step on the road to success for any business. For those who provide a service to the customer, suppliers can be the lifeblood of a business and key to its success.

With that said, it is still important to remember that business relationships need to be about business first and that is absolutely true when it comes to finding the right supplier, even if there are times when there is a clash of personalities. It can be all too easy for a shop to find that it doesn't have the right relationship with its supplier – and that can keep the operation from running smoothly.

The Challenge

Suppliers are a critical part of the shop equation, and shop owners and operators, therefore, need to ensure that they have access to the right tools, as well as the parts that customers may need. Shops also need to build and maintain a relationship with those suppliers.

A major challenge can be in establishing communication with a supplier and making it work to keep things running smoothly, says Adam Tatum, director of operations for Jiffy Lube franchise Virginia Lubes and columnist for NOLN. It all begins once a shop has found a supplier that is the right size for the business.

"In this instance, it really comes down to pricing and availability together," Tatum tells NOLN. "A smaller vendor may be able to give you a better price on oil filter A and B, but they would have to outsource themselves the volume that you would need, causing delays."

When time is of the essence, delays won't work.

Vendors need to understand this fact, and that is where it begins with communication. Yet, many times, if there wasn't a communication channel set up, parts could all too often get back-ordered.

"This would then increase your costs by having to grab from a parts store," warns Tatum. "In the end, you have to decide what is good for your business. In my case, I don't mind paying a little more to a vendor if I am able to get my needs consistently and be able to reach out and have a conversation if something is wrong."

Moreover, it is also possible that the supplier's inventory isn't the problem. It could be the point of contact's personality that is an issue. That is as much a problem as one who doesn't have what you need when you need it.

"Now if you are the best supplier in the world and if I can't talk to you, you won't be my supplier," Tatum admits. "A big issue that sometimes comes up is when you have a product issue that causes a claim, and the vendor is dismissive in helping with the solution. This will make someone leave a vendor in a heartbeat."

The Solution

Part of addressing a relationship that isn't working out is determining as much. It is all too easy for a shop owner or operator to believe they're the problem. Sometimes it is even hard to see that the supplier isn't fulfilling their responsibility.

Determining that there is a problem shouldn't really be all that challenging, says Tatum. If the vendor doesn't have what you need, then they're not the vendor you need. Other times it comes back to building the relationship with a supplier that not only has what you need but that it can also deliver. If that isn't the case, find another vendor.

"This one is easy. When you are consistently having to order outside to get products to operate," he explains. "If your volume is high enough, you should look to a high-volume vendor. Do your due diligence in this. Call and speak with the sales reps. Determine what is important for your business and if they can handle those needs. Be prepared to pay a little more for consistent service."

The Aftermath

Finding the right supplier can result in a successful shop/supplier relationship. Again the key is finding a supplier that can meet the shop's needs and one that isn't a headache to call. A supplier doesn't need to be an owner's or manager's best friend, but the supplier should never be an enemy or adversary either.

If something isn't working, communication is necessary to solve it. If that doesn't work, it is time to find a new vendor.

"The biggest thing is the open channels of communication," says Tatum.

Though many shop owners may still be "old school" and believe that communication is about dialing a number, today there are multiple channels of communication. It can include email, text, Zoom calls, and even social media. Shops need to be flexible when it comes to connecting with vendors today, but again, never to the point that a shop owner is doing all the heavy lifting.

"Another thing that I believe should be taken into account is their technology capabilities. I personally like being able to submit orders digitally and being able to search for items that I may want to try out. A third thing is being a one-stop shop. If I am looking to make a move to a vendor, I would want to know what they carry and what I can get."

The Takeaway

In the end, it is important to remember that this is a business relationship; first and foremost. While the supplier may never be your best friend, it is also just as easily not advisable that the relationship gets in the way of business. In other words, you can be weekend buddies with your contact at the supplier, but if the supplier doesn't have what you need, that can also be another problem.

Don't feel it necessary to stick it out with a vendor that can't deliver, and perhaps look for one that goes a bit above and beyond. Remember, suppliers need customers to buy their products so they should be just as proactive as reactive.

"Again, communication is key. For myself, I am big on True Brand products and additives," said Tatum. "When new products come out, I get told about them. They have great trainers and are willing to get you the help you need."

In the end, it is about good communication that is friendly but professional.

"If you have a good communication channel, a vendor may be willing to send you in the direction of someone that could help if they can't serve your need," adds Tatum. "I live in the keep-it-simple world. If I can talk to you and you are a well-rounded business with quality products, you are my guy!"