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5 Ways To Build Great Relationships with Your Most Strategic Suppliers

5 Essential Design Principles For Better Supplier Relations

The business battles of this century will be won by harnessing the power of suppliers. Therefore, APQC has been focusing much of our research this year on how organizations can improve their relationships with key suppliers. Leading organizations recognize that the playing field of procurement is no longer one of lowest cost or best value but one of highly collaborative relationships with suppliers that can help drive transformation and innovation.

Against a backdrop of increasing change and connectedness, and because every business partnership is unique, it's important to recognize that supplier relationships exist on a continuum, with purely transactional relationships at one end and investment-worthy equity partnerships at the other. Understanding the purpose of the business relationship along that continuum helps to determine the appropriate scope of work, the performance management approach, pricing approach, and governance structure.

In their book Strategic Sourcing in the New Economy: Harnessing the Potential of Sourcing Business Models for Modern Procurement, APQC research advisors and supplier relationship management (SRM) experts Bonnie Keith and Kate Vitasek (along with their co-authors) argue that when organizations treat every business relationship the same, they miss the vital concept of using design principles to create an interconnected system or sourcing business model. Here are five essential design principles to get the greatest value from the most strategic relationships.

Five Essential Design Principles for the Most Strategic Supplier Relationships

1. Shift to an outcomes-based business model for strategic relationships—For these relationships, rather than contracting for specific transactions, organizations should spell out their desired outcomes. This requires the right sourcing business model to ensure a best-fit approach (for relevance), a shared vision statement (for perspective), and a statement of intent (for behaviors). These efforts align the buyer and supplier on the underlying constructs and ground rules for the contract.

2. Focus on objectives, not how the work is conducted in strategic relationships—Suppliers are empowered by a mutually developed statement of objectives to determine how to reach the desired results. The supplier may make significant changes to improve processes, but the statement clarifies who does what and helps to build a formal taxonomy and workflows that drive clarity and alignment. With this effort, the buyer and supplier understand the end-to-end process, the delineation of responsibilities, and shared objectives for collaboration.

3. Clearly define and measure desired outcomes for strategic relationships—Performance metrics should be developed collaboratively with a plan that precisely gauges the attainment of desired outcomes, identifying which party is responsible for which process elements. Both partners should agree how performance results will be reported and acted upon. Each partner can then conduct and internally scrutinize activity-level measures. 

4. Optimize pricing model incentives for strategic relationships— Procurement functions will eventually hit a wall by flexing muscle for the lowest cost from suppliers, often ending up with lower service levels and decreasing quality from suppliers that are seeking to protect their margins and profits. Rather than focusing on the lowest possible transaction price, organizations are best served by creating a pricing model with incentives for the supplier to innovate and improve efficiencies in reaching the desired result. The incentive-based pricing model should be collaborative, transparent, and flexible so that both parties are empowered to invest in target processes and are rewarded for partnership success.

5. Establish an insightful governance structure for strategic relationships— Governance should move beyond oversight to generate insight. A sound structure should provide cohesive policies, processes, and decision rights that enable a symbiotic relationship. This requires relationship management (which involves establishing joint policies and mechanisms), transformation management (which provides a framework for changing processes in a controlled manner and adjusting to market conditions as needed), and exit management (which outlines a credible, transparent plan for unwinding the relationship).

Embracing these design principles and leveraging an appropriate sourcing business model for each key supplier relationship empowers suppliers as well as buyers to drive innovation and provide competitive advantage through a shared sense of risk and reward. APQC’s quick poll on SRM found that about 80 percent of organizations have implemented or are at least moderately likely to implement SRM in the next two years. Unfortunately, APQC's quick poll also shows that many organizations are focusing SRM in the wrong areas and failing to drive value as a result. Only a minority of organizations (38 percent) are using SRM to drive innovation or provide a competitive advantage (45 percent). Fewer than half of organizations currently leverage SRM with these benefits in mind, and these organizations will find themselves moving ahead of the pack in an increasingly interconnected and rapidly changing business environment.

For additional information, read this APQC white paper on Reinventing Supplier Relationship Management which is part of this collection on Next-Generation Supplier Relationship Management


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