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Be Sensitive To Ongoing Business Relationships

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(Photo: ©iStockphoto/Joakim Carlgren)

Eric Frederick |

ROANOKE, Va. — I have preached for years the importance of developing close working relationships between the laundry and your suppliers, and similar relationships between the laundry and its customers. Most times, suppliers and customers respect your efforts and agree to make a similar effort to work with you. By collaborating and working together, it benefits both entities.

My recent frustration comes from trying to work with a particular linen company. For purposes of this column, let’s call it Company F. I have worked with this company, in one form or another, over the past 20 years, and it has been able to service my laundry dependably. I have enjoyed working with Company F’s local representatives, who I have found to be knowledgeable and helpful. But over the past several years, I have begun to wonder about its top leadership.

Many of you will appreciate how hard it is to change the print on patient gowns. To effectively change the print requires hours of in-service training and dealing with the frustrations of having to run additional SKUs and keeping them separate while phasing in one line and phasing out the other.

For sound reasons, we made the decision several years ago to upgrade the print and the quality of the fabric used in our patient gowns. This major initiative was well received by our customer base.

During the first year of its implementation, Company F announced that it was substantially changing the print on the gowns. The new, improved print was not acceptable to me or to my customers, but Company F said the decision had been made and the production had already been switched to the new print.

I was unwilling to face the wrath of my customers, so I decided that if Company F were unwilling to continue to supply the print, I would approach Company G about making gowns with a similar print and fabric. To cover our needs for the ramp-up time, I purchased all of the gowns in my preferred fabric that Company F had available.

Company F eventually saw the error of its decision but we were already well down the path with Company G. For the past 18 months, I have been purchasing regular IV gowns and tie gowns from Company G. It has done an excellent job of being able to consistently manufacture the gown just for my facility.

I continued to work with Company F and helped it develop an additional print for this particular line of gowns that could be used for 5X IV gowns. I also finally convinced it to make a 10X non-IV gown for my facility out of the same fabric it was using to make the 10X IV gowns. I felt like I had been a valuable contributor to its product line.

We have now completed the changeover of all regular IV gowns, about 50% of the regular tie gowns, and about 25% of the 5X IV gowns and 10X tie gowns. The difficulties of introducing a new gown line were predominately behind us. Then I learned that Company F had—after Company G had gone into production of the fabric for me—filed a copyright application and was insisting that Company G immediately stop using that print.

So, here I sit with a major dilemma on my hands. My system has entered into a purchasing agreement through our purchasing group that requires me to purchase a large share of my textiles through Company G. This was not a problem earlier because I was already purchasing about 70% of my operation’s textiles through Company G, with the balanced allocated between Company F and Company H. Company G had generously allowed me to continue purchasing certain items from Company F; it respected the business relationship I had with Company F and was willing to exclude 20% of my business from the agreement.

The problem I have now is I cannot move the patient gowns back to Company F without violating the new purchasing agreement. If I cannot move the gowns back to Company F, then my only choice is to jointly develop a new print with Company G and go through the pain of another gown conversion.

The idea of changing patient gowns again seems unfair and unnecessary. My reaction to being forced to switch was to inform Company F that I was moving all my business to another linen company. I regret that the person who really gets hurt in this change is the local representative for Company F who did not cause this problem.

Company F decided, after receiving my written intentions to discontinue purchasing from it, to reinvestigate the situation and rethink its decision; the process is ongoing. The final decision on the parts of both companies has yet to be rendered. My feelings are that once a bell has been rung, once a problem has been created, it is extremely difficult to pretend that it did not happen, that it was just a tragic mistake. 

I am attempting to use this situation as a teaching moment for my staff. We need to be more sensitive to the needs of our customers and try to make sure we do not put them in frustrating, no-win situations. Customers often are not forgiving of our communication missteps, so therefore we need to make sure we do things correctly on our first attempt.

Developing long-term business relationships requires sensitivity to the needs of your customers. Company F could have earned additional loyalty and respect had it initially decided to allow Company G to make the gowns exclusively for my laundry under a license agreement. Such an attitude would have protected their business and encouraged me to continue looking at them to meet additional needs.  

About the author

Eric Frederick

Carilion Laundry Service

Director of Laundry Services

Eric Frederick is director of laundry services for Carilion Laundry Service, Roanoke, Va., and past president of the National Association of Institutional Linen Management (NAILM), now called the Association for Linen Management (ALM). He’s a two-time association manager of the year. You can reach him by e-mail at efrederick@carilion.com.

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