supply chain

COVID-19 disrupted supply chains in nearly every industry, adding another layer of complexity to an already difficult and confusing time for small businesses. Now, more than a year into the crisis, many businesses have had to accept that supply chain disruptions will be a fact of life for a while.

While this is disheartening, it’s important to know that small businesses aren’t powerless: strengthening supply chain relationships can improve outcomes for your business and your customers, even throughout periods of disruption. Here are four ways to do that.

1. Communicate Well

Vendor relationships hinge on good communication. This is especially true now: 94 percent of Fortune 1000 companies have experienced supply chain disruptions during COVID, so your vendors are likely working through issues more often.

To make sure your needs remain top of mind, adopt these communication practices:

  • Schedule regular calls: Checking in regularly means you have a set time to share updates before they become urgent. This helps prevent crises and ensures you have a better rapport with your vendors, should challenges arise.
  • Ask pointed questions about timelines, shortages, and other challenges: Don’t limit check-in calls to sharing updates. Ask about issues you’ve heard about from other business owners or in news stories, such as plans for overcoming USPS delays or predictions about an upcoming rush season. Try to get as much information as possible to keep your planning on track.
  • Share information about upcoming demand changes: As soon as you can predict them, tell vendors about changes to your normal order flow. This helps vendors plan and increases the odds that they’ll be able to meet your needs.
  • Respond in a timely manner: Inevitably, you’ll need to have conversations outside of check-ins. When your vendors initiate these conversations, respond as quickly as you can. This creates goodwill and sets the stage for a similar response time when you’re the one who initiates contact.

These practices position you to consistently deliver on customer expectations or to manage them by communicating in advance when you can’t.

2. Consider Consolidation

As you communicate with vendors, you may find opportunities to consolidate your relationships. This can benefit both parties. Managing fewer relationships means better relationships and more efficiency, plus more revenue for the vendors you stay with. 

In some cases, consolidating relationships may also make you eligible for preferential delivery dates and product offeringsand even vendor discounts.

What’s more, this analysis of supplier relationship management shows that when both parties know and understand each other well, the result is better product quality and consistency for your customers.

3. Take a “People First” Attitude

Even business relationships are, at their heart, relationships between people. When you honor thatand the fact that your vendors are likely experiencing as much disruption as you areyou automatically strengthen the relationship.

The great news is that taking a people-first attitude can be simple: send a card when your representative celebrates a work anniversary (check LinkedIn!) or a gift to celebrate your contract-signing anniversary.

While any personal touch can strengthen these relationships, the most impactful efforts will demonstrate how much you care about the person you’re working with and their community.

Work anniversary cards should include a handwritten note. Gifts should be meaningful to your relationship or your vendor’s life. For example, sending eco-friendly products to your compost vendor demonstrates how much thought you put into their particular gift. 

Or consider sending a gift that creates social or environmental impact. That might include gifts from a company that trains and employs formerly incarcerated people or treats made with ingredients from local farms.

The double-thoughtfulness of your gesture communicates how much you value the relationship – a message that will resonate with most anyone.

4. Embrace Calm Times

It’s easy to reach out only when you have an immediate need or when a crisis arises. If you do that, though, your vendor may come to dread (and avoid!) your calls and emails.

Instead, focus on getting to know your representatives when things are calm. During regular calls, ask questions and share information about your self to learn about them. Take time to offer background information about your business so they understand the larger context of what you do.

As you get to know each other’s goals and communication styles, you’ll become better partners. So when something does go wrong, you’ll be able to tap into the trust you’ve built to quickly find a resolution that works for both of you.

Strong Relationships Are Key to Positive Outcomes

In times of upheaval, the work of managing relationships may feel nonessential. In reality, maintaining good relationships with suppliers and vendors is so important that the International Standards Organization, an authority on global manufacturing and technology standards, considers supplier relationship maintenance a core principle of overall quality management.

After all, when you’re on good terms with vendors, you’re more likely to have the products your customers want and to continue delivering the quality they expect. It’s not just a good idea, but a strategy that can position your business to stay financially strong through difficult times.

Leeatt Rothschild has over 15 years of experience at the intersection of business, sustainability, and brand purpose. In 2016 she founded Packed with Purpose, a corporate gifting company that embeds social impact into the everyday act of gift-giving, from empowering underserved women with job skills to supporting sustainability efforts. Twitter handle: @PackedwPurpose

Supply chain stock photo by Wright Studio/Shutterstock