The Bond

Strategic supplier relationship management

Dianna Drew once had a supplier leave a family outing on Christmas Eve to help her find hard drives for a storage array that failed. The array ran the authentication server in the Grand Prairie Independent School District in Grand Prairie, Texas, so essentially no one could connect to the network remotely. While it might have seemed like a huge ask, Drew, Executive Director of Technical and Digital Solutions for Grand Prairie ISD, wasn’t too concerned because the relationship her district built with the supplier was rock solid.

“I knew this supplier would move heaven and earth to help us,” Drew recalls.

 In what might have seemed like a holiday miracle for any other school district, Drew was sent tracking numbers the day after Christmas. One day after that, Grand Prairie ISD was back in business.

The Grand Prairie story is just one example of what happens when administrators take time to build the kind of relationships with suppliers that matter in today’s supply chain-challenged landscape. For Drew, knowing who to contact, what they could get, and when they could get it was the difference between the district being connected during a long winter break or not.

“If you and your supplier are communicating accurate information on a consistent basis, you can keep your projects moving forward.”

— Dianna Drew, Executive Director of Technical and Digital Solutions, Grand Prairie ISD

“Strong relationships with key strategic suppliers has always been a critical component of project management. Post pandemic, this need has become even more important,” Drew says. “The global market still has not recovered from the pre-pandemic levels, so the lack of readily available raw materials, decreases in the workforce, and other logistical issues, are keeping most project managers on their toes in the post-pandemic world.”

Knowing who you can rely on is vital in today’s market—and there really isn’t any other way to look at it. But as Drew admits, the secret to success is really not a secret at all. Everything boils down to information and communication. “If you and your supplier are communicating accurate information on a consistent basis, you can keep your projects moving forward. Even when the news isn’t what you want, if you get it in a timely manner, you can pivot and plan around delays, incomplete orders, etc.”

If communication is in place during the entire process, administrators should be able to manage any and all conflicts, and mitigate risks as they occur. But if communication is lacking, that’s when you find yourself in the 11th hour praying for a Hail Mary.

If the aforementioned example of the near Christmas hellscape is any indication, having the type of relationship Drew had with her supplier is what helps her sleep at night.

The devil, as they say, is always going to be in the details. Drew says the tenets of a strong supplier connection include:

  • Turnaround time on quote requests
  • Completeness of the quotes
  • Ordering process, i.e., is all required paperwork turned in as requested, in the allotted time
  • Does the account manager answer questions in a timely manner
  • Once the order is placed, is there good communication during the ordering process
  • Does the order arrive within the promised time window
  • Are there any issues with the chosen shipper
  • Are issues, if they occur, resolved in an easy and timely fashion
  • What is the invoice process like

While having a strong track record—and the tenets to match—is a great way of identifying strategic suppliers, what happens if someone new comes your way or you must find a new supplier? Drew says this is where good old fashioned research skills come into play. “Google searches can only provide you with so much information. References can often be biased. If time permits, I will try to do a smaller, less critical order and critique potential newcomers using the aforementioned points. It is a cradle-to-grave approach that you can build over time to see who your most reliable resources are.”

Your 5-step plan to better supplier relations

The Seminole County Public Schools (SCPS) in Orlando is the 13th largest school district in Florida. As one of Central Florida’s leading districts, SCPS has more than 63,000 students and nearly 7,000 employees.

“Building these relationships involves long-term partnerships with key suppliers. They’re crucial because they promote collaboration, risk mitigation and access to innovation.”

— Greg Long, Director of Purchasing, Seminole County Public Schools

For Greg Long, Director of Purchasing, leading the district’s procurement, sourcing and supply chain duties puts him at the forefront of building the type of strategic supplier relationships that keep the ball pushing forward. “Building these relationships involves long-term partnerships with key suppliers. These partnerships help us enhance competitiveness, ensure a stable supply chain and foster mutual growth. They’re crucial because they promote collaboration, risk mitigation and access to innovation.”

Long, who spent nearly 12 years as the Director of Purchasing at Seminole State College of Florida, has crafted his supplier relationship model into five key areas, which include:

No. 1 – Identifying Strategic Suppliers: To effectively identify and select suppliers aligned with your goals, you must conduct thorough research, assess supplier capabilities, consider track records, evaluate financial stability, and prioritize communication and transparency.

No. 2 – Performance Evaluation: Performance evaluations include metrics like on-time delivery, product quality, cost-effectiveness and responsiveness to changes. Additionally, assessing communication, innovation and alignment with the entity’s goals is vital. Regular reviews, key performance indicators (KPIs) and feedback mechanisms contribute to a comprehensive understanding of a supplier’s performance.

No. 3 – Managing Risks and Conflicts: Key strategies involve clear communication, establishing sound contracts, developing contingency plans, fostering a collaborative approach, and regularly reviewing and possibly updating agreements. Proactive risk identification, open dialogue and maintaining alternative supplier options can help mitigate potential disruptions.

No. 4 – Measuring and Improving Effectiveness: You can measure and enhance the effectiveness of your relationships through performance scorecards, regular performance reviews, and end-user feedback mechanisms. Continuous communication between the entity and supplier, joint planning sessions and mutual goal setting contribute to alignment and improvement of the relationship. Additionally, conducting regular audits, fostering innovation and adapting strategies based on evolving needs help ensure ongoing effectiveness in supplier relationships.

No. 5 – Maintaining and Strengthening Relationships: The keys rest in fostering open communication, setting clear expectations at the start, sharing information and insights, offering incentives for mutual success and resolving issues collaboratively. Regularly reviewing and adapting agreements and staying informed about industry trends contribute to long-term success with strategic suppliers. In the end, embracing a culture of effective strategic supplier relationship management is key to transformative results. Fostering those relationships should be not only a business strategy, but a guiding principle.