Managing the Financial Side of Commercial Fleets

Supplier Relationships: Know Where to Draw the Line

Yes, the products and services you buy are themselves important. But, one of the keys to success lies with the relationship you have with your suppliers. How close should those relationships be?

January 2012, by Staff

Click here for a pdf of the print version of this article

You hear about it all the time: Someone buys a product or signs up for a service. It could be cable television, a new car, or a laptop computer. The product itself is fine. It does all it was supposed to do. But, when the time comes that the buyer needs help, the seller isn't always there or doesn't seem to care much once they've got the money. Whether it is tech support on the telephone, a service trip to the dealership, or trying to set up a service call, the relationship between buyer and seller is - or should be — an ongoing one. The ability and willingness a supplier has to be close to the buyer when they're needed can make or break the success of the product.

Nowhere is this more important than in the relationship a fleet manager has with his or her suppliers. Lessors and fleet service companies provide products and services that are critical to the success of their customers' fleet operation. From day-to-day contact to strategic consultative help, fleet suppliers work hard at getting close to their customers. But, how close should these relationships be? Are there limits to how close a fleet manager should get to his or her suppliers?

Planting the Seeds

One of the oldest adages of the sales profession is that the customer buys the salesperson every bit as much as the product or service being sold. The point is arguable; however, it is clear that a likeable salesperson can lower resistance to the sale, and the ensuing cooperation will make the implementation and ongoing use of the product go smoothly. Fleet managers are often inundated with sales efforts - phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and regular mail. They either respond to or ignore them, for any number of reasons:

■ Corporate policy dictates that all contracts are reviewed and bid every so many years, no exceptions.
■ The fleet manager is quite satisfied with existing supplier(s), and has no interest in making a change.
■ Lack of authority to make contract decisions.

When a program or contract is put out for bid, the relationship between the fleet manager and the supplier begins. There may be some phone calls and questions asked for clarification of the bid, but once the suppliers are chosen for in-person presentations, fleet managers can begin to develop a sense of how a relationship might move forward.
Those first meetings set the tone for how the supplier and customer will interact. There may be, for instance, points of mutual interest outside of the job - children, sports, recreation, hobbies - which set both sides at ease in communicating. Sometimes, the two parties simply "hit it off," which makes doing business a great deal easier. Conversely, sometimes they simply do not connect, which then makes going forward more awkward. Thus, the first face-to-face meetings are the most important in developing customer/supplier relationships.

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