04 August 2020

Building resilient supplier relationships

The pandemic has dramatically shaken supply and demand and put many supplier relationships through the ultimate test, but it’s not just in times of crisis that we should be fostering a positive partnership with our suppliers.

Even in the most settled of times, the relationships you have with your suppliers are at the heart of running a successful business – to deliver your services, manufacture your products and generally meet your customers’ needs. Traditional craftsman cobbler, Andy Ingman of Ingmans of Chesterfield explains how building those relationships was crucial when he decided to change direction from a typical cobbler business to a more specialised service.

“I decided I wanted to concentrate on repairing shoes with soles, which were goodyear welted, as that was my passion,” says Andy. “To give the business the credentials to offer that service on a national basis, we approached the shoemakers we worked with and who supplied the footwear we sold in the shop and offered to help them. They usually offer their own repair service, but we had the skills and the tooling to support that.”

Time and patience to build relationships

It took 12-18 months of patiently building that relationship before the shoemakers started knocking on Andy’s door asking for samples of his work. The business became the official repairer of Barkers shoes and soon added work from Loakes and Joseph Cheaney. What Andy could offer was skilled and varied craftsmanship from his workshop, which simply couldn’t be replicated in a factory environment.

“The relationship has worked because the quality we offer is bang on,” says Andy. “We’ve worked hard to build a reputation that the suppliers can depend on and that in turn has given us the credentials to attract a broad range of customers.”

Creating mutual support

Maintaining those relationships with the business’ suppliers has been a key focus for Andy during the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s proved useful for both parties. Not only has it supported Andy’s transition of the business to high-end specialist repairs, but, during the crisis, when the shoemakers had to close their factories, Ingmans was able to continue to service their customer repairs.

For Andy, supporting the business’ suppliers by continuing to pay bills as they fell due was also important. “We decided early on that continuing to pay our bills was how we wanted to operate,” he says. “Because we had to pay our bills on a low budget, it kept me really focused on taking money even when the doors were shut. Whilst we were nowhere near our normal takings, it met my reduced wage and paid most of the stock off.”

Maintaining open communications

With stock accounting for a considerable amount of cash for a retail business like Ingmans, managing inventory levels is vitally important, and communicating with suppliers openly is key to that. “The ecommerce side of the business, which was always in scope, has accelerated due to the reduced physical footfall over recent months,” says Andy.

“However, we’ve built such a strong reputation on the repair side of the business that we need to ensure we get this absolutely right. That means having the right level of stock to meet customer demand but balancing that with not having cash tied up in too much stock. It’s meant in the short-term, for Autumn/Winter, trimming down the spend on stock and brands but we’re hopeful that as the online side of the business takes off, we’ll be able to make that up and even increase it.”

Describing recent months as an “emotional rollercoaster”, Andy says that in the current environment, “survival is success”, but the relationships he’s built with customers, his own team and with his suppliers has certainly contributed to both the success of Ingmans' transition from typical to specialist repair service and to its survival in tough times.

Top tips for strong supplier relationships

Building stronger, more flexible and more reliable relationships with your suppliers will help your business through both the good and bad times. Here are a few steps that can help.

1. Keep talking – and be understanding
Open communication with your suppliers can help build an understanding of the pressures each of you are facing. Share critical information on changes to volume requirements and timings as early as possible to avoid unnecessary pressure. Creating up-front agreements on how you and your suppliers will operate the relationship can also help, particularly when challenges or opportunities arise.

2. Share the bigger picture
Don’t be afraid to share your broader intentions and strategy with your suppliers. Keeping them informed of developments such as new product releases and promotions will help them plan in advance and understand the pressures you’re likely to face down the road.

3. Be a good customer
Paying your suppliers on time so they don’t face disruptions on their side, or giving them notice if you’re struggling to pay and working together to plan to get back on track can help build better relationships. If you have financial flexibility, consider using it. Buying in bulk may get you a better price and help your suppliers improve their cashflow during a challenging time, for example. Demonstrating that you’re a reliable and transparent customer, makes it more likely that your suppliers will go the extra mile to meet your needs and adapt to any new requirements.

4. Don’t be over-reliant on existing suppliers
While it’s important to respect and support your existing suppliers, if they’re struggling to fulfil your changing requirements, looking for additional suppliers to share the load can potentially help you and them. It can protect you against a potential dip in supply, while taking the strain off your supplier while they adapt to the new requirements. Of course, introducing new suppliers may also help reduce costs and speed up supply.

5. Be a ‘partner’ not just a customer
Working with your suppliers as partners will help you to build a relationship that has mutual trust and loyalty. A true partnership will allow you to work together to get the best for both parties, and for you to share responsibilities for delivering on the overall objective. Once you have built a good relationship, keep fostering it. This rapport will bring you the security of supply you need, especially in times of market instability.

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