Want to be a great supplier? Read on to find out the qualities you need to keep your clients happy and boost your profits.
Price, reliability and quality are three things you most definitely need to offer as a supplier. Disappoint your clients or be outperformed by your competitors in any of these areas, and you’re on course for disaster. But you’ll also need to do far more to keep your clients loyal and happy. Growing Business spoke to a handful of successful suppliers to provide you with the ultimate checklist for success…
Excellent communication is a beautiful thing. Steve Wallis, head of procurement at buyingTeam, which finds efficiencies in the supply chain for technology giants Canon and Siemens, advocates regular dialogue. For his company, this means weekly project status reports and quarterly strategic discussions at a more senior level. Award-winning pre-employment screening firm Powerchex, which boasts HSBC among its clients, says speed is also key. “Calls are answered on the third ring and all queries are resolved on the first phone call,” declares founder Alexandra Kelly, proudly.
Customers want to feel special. “It’s all too easy for corporate customers to get the impression that they’re just a ‘number’,” says Alex Cliffe, operations director at telecommuications supplier Elite Telecom which works with Air France/KLM, Intercontinental Hotels and more. “Obviously, the personal touch is particularly important at times like Christmas,” he continues, “but we encourage our account managers and support team to note client milestones, such as birthdays, weddings and births. We find sending a card, flowers or simply acknowledging special events gives us a human touch, showing that we’re not simply faceless people sat behind desks.”
“Our clients have access to their own suite of online reports, so at any time they can view the latest campaign response figures or check their stock position,” says Stephen Bentley, chief executive of Granby Marketing Services, which provides outsourced call centre services for the government and Sainsbury’s among others.
Offer senior input
Don’t just hand new business down the chain of command. “Customers need to have access to, and regular meetings with, the senior relationship manager, and not just interface at a lower level,” says Ben Gladstone, chief executive of outsourced IT service provider Conosco, which works for online greetings cards outfit Moonpig and designer handbag brand Anya Hindmarch.
Discuss risks or potential issues openly, advises Sarah Hunter, account director at Berkshire Consultancy, which was named Supplier of the Year in the 2009 Home Office Supplier Value Awards. The management consultancy serves both private and public sector clients, and was acknowledged for making organisational “efficiency savings” of almost £2.2m for one happy customer.
Gloucestershire-based Ethical Workwear is reaping the rewards of having a social conscience. It supplies a number of large organisations, such as Adas UK, with polo shirts, fluorescent jackets, hard hats and heavy-duty boots. “We have had a fantastic response to the business,” says founder Joanna Dale. “We are introducing more of our own-label products, which carry a small Ethical Workwear label, so that others can see that our clients are putting their money where their mouth is in terms of corporate social responsibility.” Clearly, we can’t all claim such ethical credentials, but you should at least check the provenance of materials used.
Granby Marketing Services works to PRINCE 2 standards for project management. “It is not totally prescriptive in its use, but acts as a guide to best practice,” says Bentley.
Put it in writing
“Never surprise by invoicing above expectations unless agreed in writing,” counsels Simon Lake, managing director of corporate communications agency Likemind. “Have a contract that covers payment and service delivery. If they owe you money, chase it politely through finance and only become involved when it is vital.” This is one way the company has won business from British Airways, O2 and Marks and Spencer.
Corporate hospitality works, according to Elite Telecom’s Cliffe. “We regularly use it at events such as the British Grand Prix and Six Nations rugby, as well as golf and football matches to have face-to-face time with our customers – there is no substitute,” he says. However, it’s vital to make sure that any client entertaining is appropriate to your guests, not overly ostentatious and not viewed as simply a jolly. “Ultimately, your customers’ fees are paying for the hospitality, so keep it simple,” warns Conosco’s Gladstone. “Deliver a great service for the price and let them decide how they would like to be entertained.”
Network your customers
“We hold a dinner twice a year where senior folk from across our client base are able to network. It helps clients understand the range of services we provide,” says buyingTeam’s Steve Wallis, who explains that it has also boosted his company’s cross-selling opportunities.
Continuing the people theme, you’ve got to have a great team. “The people factor is also extremely important as we are all relationship managers to some extent,” says Bentley.
“We recruit and train well, and by doing so we have low attrition, happy staff and satisfied clients. Subsequently, our productivity is higher, and we can, therefore, be more cost-competitive in our charging.” buyingTeam’s Wallis adds that his company typically hires staff with large-company experience to aid client understanding.
Treat every client as equal. Although some may be giving you more business than others, Powerchex’s Kelly says no client should get special treatment.
Balance the client book
For Granby’s Bentley, a single client should not account for more than 25% of your turnover. Powerchex’s Kelly sets this level at 16%, stressing that the balance is crucial for healthy cashflow and an ability to deliver. “We have made a point of recruiting several smaller clients to balance out our top five, which currently represent 40% of our sales,” says Kelly. Chris Quigley, founder of online opinion research company Delib, which works for government departments and the BBC Trust, has also taken this route. “In the past, we’ve relied on one or two big-ticket clients, but now we have a greater number of smaller ones meaning that cashflow has improved,” he says.
“We used to talk to our main customer contacts about their requirements, but we missed end-users’ opinions. So we’ve created ‘IT Wish List’ wallcharts for our customers, enabling the actual end users to note down their needs,” says Conosco’s Gladstone. He adds that it’s also a good idea to carry out formal reviews, such as focus groups with templated questionnaires.
Visit the shopfloor
Conosco’s technical managers make regular site visits. These are not simply to fix specific issues, but to talk to the staff and scout for niggling problems, says Gladstone. The Berkshire Consultancy is another supplier that heads to the shopfloor to deliver its coaching.
Tell the client something they didn’t know at every meeting, suggests Likemind’s Lake. “We find that by giving them information about industry best practice, regulation and new developments, we are seen as trusted advisers, as well as suppliers,” adds Cliffe. Delib’s Quigley works with clients in the US and UK, and is similarly proactive about sharing learning, including ‘briefing papers’ relating to his company’s offering.
Talking of being proactive, go over and above the call of duty when you can. Add more innovation and more ideas; don’t just fulfil, recommends buyingTeam’s Wallis. “As a customer, you don’t want suppliers calling you up every day, but most organisations would be receptive if you staged a workshop a couple of times a year to share ideas on the market,” he says.
Avoid stupid mistakes
“Don’t make silly errors, such as being late for meetings, sending emails with spelling mistakes and not returning calls quickly,” says Lake. And own up if you do mess up, rather than trying to cover it up.
Pass on savings
This may have you wriggling uncomfortably, particularly when many suppliers are currently being squeezed like lemons, but it will aid your reputation. “Our pricing is fair, and when we negotiate better prices from our suppliers, we always adjust our rates to our clients,” says Powerchex’s Kelly.
Keep in touch between contracts
Finally, don’t forget good clients when you’re not working for them, says Berkshire Consultancy’s Hunter. You never know when they might come back.