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Making Positive Steps with Vendor Relationships (Part 1)

“I’m working with a vendor, and I really like the product, but I find their responsiveness to be lacking. What suggestions do you have for steps I can take to improve the relationship to help ensure success for both of us?”

Other Institution Laundry: Robin Kramer, St. Michael's Laundry-University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind.

I think we have all been there. We chose a product mainly based on the company’s reputation. The majority of the time, the product functions just as you envisioned it would. 

But then, there’s an issue. The severity of the issue determines the type of response you need. Despite your best efforts, you feel stuck with an inferior product or service affecting your business.  

Take a breath—think about your current efforts to communicate the problem. Have you talked to your contact? Do you have a contact? The question of serviceability really started when you made the initial agreement with the vendor. Some things are non-negotiable and need to be made clear at the conception of a working relationship. The most important being that service or information requests must be met in 24 hours or less.

If that didn’t happen then, do it now. Pick up the phone (follow up with a meeting or put it in writing and send them a copy). Don’t talk in circles. Don’t try to be crafty or sneaky or hide your disappointment and or desperation in innuendo or double-meaning. Nobody is going to take you seriously if you can’t say what you need and when. Say it plain and clear. 

Don’t be scared to apply a little bit of pressure, but you don’t have to be a jerk either.  

Nowadays, I think everyone’s complaint department is social media. The most recent stats I’ve seen are that 55% of customers use social media to complain about customer service. I personally don’t find it that effective in our industry, but more and more laundries and laundry vendors are getting social media accounts so that is changing. 

If you decide on that direction, remember your own ethics and forewarn them, then copy/tag them in the post or tweet and don’t be rude. Customer service reps are not as likely to spend time working with a “hater” who’s more interested in being angry on social media than actually receiving help.

Going forward, keep ongoing notes about your vendor’s responsiveness, communication, processes and ethics. Together, be proactive and decide how solutions to unforeseen problems can be efficiently resolved. Be eager to maintain a good working relationship. Keep in mind, this may mean some periodic compromise (again, be sure to note it so your efforts can be used in the future).  

My experience is that there are only a few in the company that are truly able to help you during a crisis. So, network, network, network—attend their customer appreciation events, plan a plant event with a short tour and some simple refreshments and invite them, then, build a relationship with the one or two people in the company that you feel you can count on. Call them periodically to say things are good, offer a cleaning discount just for them—they’ll be more inclined to stop by and “check on you.” Yes, schmoozing is effective.

Most importantly, make it clear that your main goal is to keep your company’s reputation intact, and that if they negatively affect that, your relationship will change.

Equipment Manufacturing: Brock Pellerin, Pellerin Milnor Corp., Kenner, La. 

“The effectiveness of communication is not defined by the communication but the response.” — Milton Erickson

Because of our industry’s unique business environment, there are occasional difficulties with between end-users and vendors. Lack of transportation options, price increases, resource availability and supply chain issues are causing disruptions globally. However, most of these issues can be remediated with better communication, and if you make a simple action plan, you can avoid headaches for you and your business. 

First, and most importantly, you need to address the issue with the vendor. It is important to state your concerns in a matter-of-fact tone, clearly and concisely. It is your decision how you choose to address the issue with the vendor, whether it be a face-to-face meeting, a phone call or an e-mail. 

Second, ask your vendor how they intend to address your concerns. Third, set up a timeline to make sure your concerns are rectified within a reasonable timeframe for you. Fourth, follow up with the vendor to make sure they are fixing the problem. Fifth, start making a backup plan if things cannot be worked out with the problematic vendor.

It is much easier to be in contact with a vendor than to wait for a problem to come up before re-engaging contact. 

Most vendors appreciate feedback from customers because when there is a problem they want to be proactive to the problem rather than reactive. This is because many times problems arrive in batches and not in one-off instances. Therefore, you might feel as though your problem is unique but perhaps your vendor has seen the issue before and can apply a fix more quickly.      

Communication is still key even after the vendor has applied a fix to the problem. If you are dissatisfied with how the vendor fixed the situation, how is the vendor to know if you do not tell them? The vendor will assume the situation has been corrected unless they receive feedback to the contrary. 

If you use a key performance indicator (KPI) to judge the vendor’s work, maybe it is a good idea to start sharing that data with the vendor. Sharing the KPI keeps the line of communication open but does it in an objective way to avoid people’s feelings being hurt. 

If you feel as though, after exhausting all efforts with your vendor, that you still need to find another source for the product or service, do not hesitate to start looking. 

If possible, it might be a good idea to find multiple sources going forward to replace the single sourced vendor. Applying a multiple-source method for the vendor might help you avoid any disruptions in your future business by giving you the freedom of being able to change sources more quickly than a single source. 

Chemicals Supply: Kevin Minissian, Norchem Corp., Los Angeles, Calif.

As a vendor myself, I can certainly say customer service is the key to any successful, long-term relationship. If a vendor does not address the needs of their customers in a timely and regular manner, especially after attempts by the customer to reach out, then the vendor does not value the business and has made a critical error. 

One of the important characteristics to look for in a vendor is “proactiveness,” especially if the product may require technical service and support. However, if you find that the vendor is falling short and want to continue using the product, here are a few suggestions worth trying. 

The first thing is distinguishing whether you are purchasing with a distributor of the product or purchasing directly from the manufacturer. The process of working with each has its differences.

If you are purchasing through a distributor, I would recommend contacting your assigned sales manager at the distributor company, or, if you do not have one, try to contact a general sales representative from the company. Request that they meet with you in person and inform the representative of your dissatisfaction with their responsiveness. 

If the sales manager fails to address your concern, attempt to reach out to their superiors or the owner(s) of the distribution company. Sending your message to the top will get your point across, and, while unfortunate that it may take that action, you should be able to get a much better response and improve your relationship with the distributor. I suggest letting them know how happy you are with the product and that you would like to see a better and timely response from them. 

If that fails, then I would suggest contacting the manufacturer directly to see if they have another distributor. It’s also important to let the manufacturer know how their distributor is managing your account and how dissatisfied you are with their poor customer management.

If you are buying the product directly from the manufacturer, I would recommend following the same steps for contacting and requesting to meet with a local sales manager, as mentioned above. 

If the manufacturer sells the product online or via catalog and does not have local representation, then I would ask them to connect you with a technical manager or sales manager who you can either request to meet with you or establish rapport with to address your needs and concerns. Again, let them know that you are very satisfied with their product but would like to see more visibility and activity from them. 

I highly recommend arranging an in-person meeting if it is available so that you can begin to build a face-to-face relationship with the vendor, should that be of value to your operation. If there is no response or if it is an unsatisfactory attempt for their representative(s) to address your needs, learn whether they can offer any other type of customer or technical support. 

If after all attempts the vendor fails to meet your expectations, I would suggest beginning to look for either a distributor of the product, if it is available, but if not, search for another vendor that has a similar product that can meet your expectations of customer service and product quality. 

Uniforms/Workwear Manufacturing: Scott Delin, Fashion Seal Healthcare, Seminole, Fla.

This past year was a year of change for many of us in the laundry industry. Together we experienced and witnessed, firsthand, how the landscape of the healthcare market changed drastically with the merger of multiple healthcare systems.  

We have also seen and felt the tremors of the commercial laundry market with multiple major acquisitions on both the national level and on the regional level. Additionally, we have witnessed the impact the private equity groups have made with their financial input in our industry with multiple laundries coast to coast.

Not only have these changes had an impact on how laundry operators now approach their market segments, but also how we as vendors continue to work with and develop our approach to our laundry partners and customers on a daily basis. 

The landscape for all of us has gotten smaller and more competitive. We all need to present our “A” game consistently if we want to grow and succeed in today’s market environment.

During the last week of 2018, while sitting in my office gazing out my office window, I was reflecting on how the year ended. I thought about the many laundry operators I have been fortunate enough to work with over the years and the relationships developed, both strong and, unfortunately, weak. I thought about the opportunities I was able to check off as closed won, but also those I had to mark as closed lost.  

Fortunately for me, I have a superior product line and support staff that helps me daily as I work with my laundry partners in helping them not only meet their expectations but exceed them as well.  

During my self-evaluation of the past year, I realized that all my customers and partners in this crazy, fun business had choices. They had choices on the products they rent and/or sell and from which vendors they so desire to purchase these items.  

In looking at the wins and losses, I thought about not only what I did right, but also, more importantly, what I did wrong. Where and why did I fail to win some opportunities? Several phone calls and in-person calls were made to customers soliciting feedback whether it be positive and/or negative on my performance and what I could do better to help them grow their business. What could I have done to turn some of the losses into wins? As I performed my self-interrogation, I asked myself the following questions:

  • Did I not have the right product line to present to my customers?
  • Was my responsiveness to my laundry partners lacking? Did I not answer e-mails, phone messages or objections properly and on a timely basis? 
  • Was I friendly in my approach? Did I not smile when meeting with customers?
  • Did I ask the proper questions and then offer suggestions to solve situation or needs at hand?  
  • Did I challenge my partners’ perceptions of what our product line represents and can bring to the table for them to offer to their customers?
  • Did I listen to my customers and offer suggestions to help them grow their business? Offer new, refreshing, out-of-the-box ideas?
  • Did I go that extra mile?
  • Was I honest?
  • Was I an order taker or an order maker?

After this process, I realized that as a salesperson and as a person, I do have my faults. Although I am fortunate to represent a strong company with a superior product line, it is important for me to know my customers, understand their needs and offer suggestions that will take them to the next level. Confidence and enthusiasm breeds success.  

If you are to succeed in today’s competitive market, you need to protect your business and deal with those who bring value and ideas as well as superior products, service and enthusiasm to the table. We need your feedback and we need to learn from it whether it be positive or negative.  

Personally, I want to know if and where I let you down and what I can do for you to make our relationship stronger and help you as you look to grow your business in 2019.  

When you meet with your vendors and review your past year or even recent transactions, if you are not happy with our performance, tell us why. It is important for us to know not only why we were successful, but also why we failed or let you down. We cannot correct a wrong or a situation if we do not know one exists.

My goal for 2019 is to revisit my losses and my wins, take your feedback, learn from it, and win those lost opportunities back. I want to solidify the relationships already in place and establish new ones going forward. Your feedback is important to me. I cannot correct something if I am not aware of how I am failing or letting you down.  

As Peter Drucker once said, and I quote, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” If you have an issue with a supplier/vendor, tell them. Share it with them no matter if positive or negative. 

Check back tomorrow for advice from experts in commercial, healthcare laundry, equipment/supply distribution, consulting.

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].