Print Share Home

eSide Supply Management Newsletter Logo


Listening. Communicating. Connecting.


Elaine Whittington, C.P.M., CPCM

September/October 2010, eSide Supply Management Vol. 3, No. 5

All three skills are critical for maximizing buyer-supplier relationships.

Strong buyer-supplier relationships are among the most critical aspects of successful supply chains. These connections can be strengthened only when key elements exist and are supported by both parties. Today, supply management professionals know we must have a team rapport with key suppliers. Overall, suppliers must believe they'll have a long-term affiliation with us, their customers.

Additionally, suppliers should be able to participate in decisions which affect their products. They need to be able to take responsibility for necessary changes to their products' manufacture and end use, as well as have their performance evaluated and the results shared on a regular basis.

Moreover, suppliers ought to know that we, the customers, are concerned about their welfare.

Most of all, it's critical that supply management professionals are able to communicate clearly, and often, with our suppliers.

Please! Just Listen

When I went to school, I learned to read, write and do arithmetic. These were the essentials for getting through the curriculum. Interestingly, I don't believe I ever received instruction on listening — yet, it's the most important part of communicating.

Listening is something very few of us are good at. Typically, when we are engaged in a conversation, we listen until the conversation triggers a subject we want to respond to. At that point, our minds begin calculating possible responses. At that point, it's also possible that the other person might stop talking because he or she knows we've stopped paying attention. We usually don't hear another word they say.

Listen: Business man talking to a business woman using two cans connected by a string.

Our reactions to ideas being shared are another important aspect of communicating effectively. One of the biggest mistakes we make is to attack the person rather than to question the idea. One might respond by saying something along the lines of, "I knew you'd be sure we caused the problem" rather than, "Let's analyze what might have caused that issue."

The latter approach allows us to begin to work together to solve the problem, and to find a solution both parties can use to their advantage. Using this approach, risks and options can be equally and openly discussed. Then, a workable plan can be established and procedures for tracking its progress put in place.

Two important concepts here are to 1) focus on ideas, and 2) listen without judgment. As Rachel Naomi Remen, a pioneer in the mind/body holistic health movement and a nationally recognized medical reformer, once wrote: "I suspect that the most powerful way to connect to another person is to listen."

Bringing It Back to the Profession

The economic downturn the world at large is experiencing presents a new communication challenge for supply management professionals. More and more often, suppliers are finding themselves faced with economic shortfalls and production problems. By keeping the lines of communication open — as well as maintaining an attitude that allows a supplier to trust and share information with you — you will benefit from knowing when financial problems arise. This way, both parties can look at ways to solve the problem before the supplier is forced to take drastic measures, such as filing for bankruptcy.

Also, remember that causation sometimes escapes discovery. The real cause of a problem might not be the most obvious one.

Be Sure to Get Buy-In

As you set out to create outstanding supplier-customer relationships, you must demonstrate your ability to get management's help and support when necessary. Establishing this in the early stages of the relationship can be invaluable. But, keep in mind that managerial lip service isn't good enough; a direct promise — or even a cell phone number — works best. (Just reassure management that it will be used only as a last resort.)

Never lose sight of the fact that communication has two sides. Sometimes, we focus solely on negative communication, forgetting to reward success.

Additionally, problems can be solved much more easily if the attitude is one of What can I do to help? instead of What are you going to do to correct this? Communication is a two-way street, whether you're a buyer or a supplier. In either scenario, evaluation results must be communicated in a positive manner, with attention directed at any improvements which emerge, no matter how small. Motivation to improve is crucial.

Take a Look in the Mirror

Granted, the concepts I've presented here regarding communication aren't new or groundbreaking — but, are you actually practicing these skills with your suppliers right now? And, most important, are you listening?

The next time a key supplier calls on you, sit down afterward and make a list of what they shared. If your list of takeaways is very short, you probably weren't listening, communicating or connecting. Really ask yourself: Do I communicate with my suppliers, or do I just talk?

Elaine Whittington, C.P.M., CPCM

Elaine Whittington, C.P.M., CPCM is an educator for G & E Enterprises. In 1966, she was hired as Lockheed-Martin's first female buyer and was the 2000 recipient of the J. Shipman Gold Medal Award from ISM (formerly NAPM). To reach this author, please send an e-mail to

For more resources on supplier relationship management, visit the ISM articles database.

Take me to the eSide home page.

Back to Top