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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.


Setting Expectations

At some point, the supplier is awarded the business, and the program begins to take shape. Most suppliers will establish an implementation team, which will work directly with their customer counterparts to put the program in place. Implementation will involve financial/accounting, IT, program administration, and other functions, depending on what program is being implemented. Heading up the team is usually an account manager, someone from the supplier side who will provide overall strategic service and management for the supplier. On the customer side, the fleet manager is usually the counterpart.

The supplier will generally establish a day-to-day contact, a customer service representative who will handle the daily calls and service. It is at the strategic level, however, where the true relationship will develop.

Account managers (we'll use this title, although there are several others) are the supplier contacts who will visit the customer on a regular basis, several times each year. They'll likely conduct client reviews, where program activity is reviewed and suggestions are made to improve the effectiveness of the program. Here is where the question is posed of how close the relationship between the supplier and the customer should be.

Lunch and More?

The account manager, as previously mentioned, is tasked with handling the relationship primarily on a strategic level, although there will be some "spillover" of day-to-day customer service issues. Account managers operate either within a particular geographical territory or are assigned a list of accounts. Either way, face-to-face meetings are scheduled at least every quarter, more often if the account is a particularly large one. They will usually take place in the customer's office; however, occasionally the customer will travel to visit the supplier (including client advisory board meetings).

What do these meetings accomplish? If properly planned, a great deal. The supplier will review period and year-to-date performance, often will go over any service level agreement (SLA) benchmarks, and offer advice and counsel as to how the program might be improved, or how the customer can use it to better advantage. However, the meetings seldom begin and end with business.

It is common for such meetings to revolve around lunch, or perhaps another meal. Gone are the days of the "three-martini lunch" for the most part; it's more likely a salad with iced tea or water, then back to work. Sales and client service staff who travel a lot generally try to invite a customer to lunch, as they are on a budget, and can better stay away from fast food if accompanied by a customer while traveling. Certainly there is nothing wrong with sharing a quick bite with an account manager or even a salesperson when they visit. (There are instances, particularly in the public sector, where accepting even a short lunch with a supplier is prohibited. Most companies in the private sector, however, have little or no problem with it.) Having lunch with a supplier is also a good way to deepen the relationship, which is important if a program is to be successful.

So how close do good business practice and business ethics permit a supplier relationship to become? That's where the "more" comes in. We've all seen it at industry conferences: suppliers in the hotel lobby waiting for their customers to arrive to go out to a ball game, play a round of golf, or maybe even spend a day out on the town. After all, there's nothing wrong with a little recreation on the supplier's dime, is there? The answer is a bit more complex than first glance would indicate.

How Far is Too Far?

Developing both a business and personal relationship with a supplier is good business, for both sides. Using that relationship as leverage to get better service, or more business from the customer is fair game. Most companies leave it to the good judgment of employees to ultimately decide what sort of relationship goes too far.

Business ethics, in general, advise customers to avoid making decisions based upon a favor provided by a supplier. Such favors can include, but aren't limited to:
■ Free merchandise beyond "de minimis" value.
■ Discounts on purchases.
■ Free services.
■ Personal gifts.
■ "Lavish" trips or other entertainment that cost more than would be considered minimal.
■ Cash.

What do all these have in common? Lack of specificity. They most often leave the decision as to what is prohibited up to the individual. This usually isn't much of an issue. A quick lunch during a visit or even taking in a ball game isn't something that any normal person would allow to color his or her decision on whether to use (or continue to use) a supplier. A fur coat or a week's free stay in a beach condo are a different story altogether. Common sense should rule any decision.

[PAGEBREAK]Here is the ethics policy for one Fortune 500 company:
"Employees may accept meals, refreshments, or entertainment of nominal value in connection with business discussions. A common sense determination should dictate what one would consider lavish, extravagant, or frequent. Employees are not permitted to accept gifts from individuals, firms, or representatives of firms who have or seek to have business relationships with [the company]. Employees should report to the Ethics Office any instance in which they are offered money, gifts, or anything else of value by a supplier or prospective supplier."

Relatively straightforward, asking that employees simply use common sense in deciding what is ethical and what is not. And it requires the employee to report to the company ethics office any instances where he or she has been offered something of value that the employee feels is inappropriate either in value or frequency.

When a supplier is chosen, fleet managers should determine what is within the bounds of an ethical relationship and what is not. Use the following questions as a guide:
■ Is there a "quid pro quo" behind an offer? Does the fleet manager see either a tacit or an implicit demand for something in return for whatever the supplier is offering?
■ Where does one draw the line? If lunch is acceptable, is dinner? Tickets to a ball game or a Broadway show? A weekend of trout fishing?
■ Should your spouse come along if the supplier invites him/her?
■ What would make you feel uncomfortable?
The spouse question is a good one. If the supplier is in town for a business meeting and invites the customer and his/her spouse to join him for dinner, it would be fair to ask "absent our business relationship, would this supplier invite my spouse to accompany me? Would he even invite me?'

Sales vs. Client Relations

There is also a difference between the relationship a fleet manager might have with an existing supplier and one he or she might have with a potential supplier. In other words, an account manager might offer to take you and your spouse to dinner at a fine restaurant with nothing in mind other than the existing relationship. But when that business is out for bid, that same supplier might have ulterior motives, i.e., "I'd better start treating this customer in a very special way, in order to keep the business."

Be on the lookout for demonstrable changes in how an account manager treats you. If the occasional lunch or round of golf morphs into a fishing trip to Alaska, be wary. Maintain the relationship at the same level as it has always been when that business is out to bid.

Fleet managers do also have opportunities to develop relationships with suppliers with which they do not yet do business - sales staff of such suppliers will always, sooner or later, come calling. In some cases (for a particularly large fleet, for example), the fleet will become part of the suppliers' regular "swing" through that part of their territory. Again, there is nothing wrong with joining a supplier salesperson for lunch, perhaps even that round of golf, occasionally. Nor is there anything unethical about developing a personal friendship with someone who isn't yet your supplier. Logically, there are lines to be drawn; though a genuine friendship may, keep in mind that it can look unseemly to be seen in their company, away from the office, on a regular basis, as opposed to an existing supplier. There is more leeway in the closeness of a relationship with a current supplier.


The Flip Side

Conversely, unless a company has a strict policy against any contact with suppliers beyond formal business meetings, fleet managers do themselves and their companies no favors by refusing to meet with anyone with whom they don't already do business. A wise senior manager at a Fortune 500 company had a policy posted in the company headquarters lobby that said all salespeople were welcome and that the company was always looking for better ways of doing things and better products to use. Fleet managers would do well to keep that thought in mind when they get calls from suppliers.

Of course, that doesn't mean simply filling each day with meetings with salespersons (which would be relatively easy to do for some large fleets). It simply means one never knows what that next supplier might bring in the door, and a fleet manager will likely end up regretting not meeting with that supplier and missing the opportunity to improve the fleet operation. This holds true regardless of the corporate policy regarding bidding and awarding business. Simply tell the salesperson there is still time left on the fleet's existing contract, but you would be happy to spend a few minutes hearing what the supplier has to offer, and will keep them in mind when the business is next put out for bid.

Meet with all potential suppliers, as time and your schedule permit, and be open-minded in listening (that is, don't reject a supplier simply because its process differs from your existing one). Join them for lunch if there's time. No matter how busy it gets, there are always a few minutes in the day to learn more about what might ultimately help do the job better.

Too Cozy?

What any fleet manager must avoid is getting caught in a situation where the supplier has become so close that it becomes difficult or awkward to "read them the riot act" when necessary. It may sound extreme, but the scenario has played itself out many times. The supplier wins the business. The early days of the relationship start off on the right foot, meetings are pretty much strictly business during implementation and the first few months of the program. As things progress, and the program begins to run smoothly and successfully, the account manager comes by regularly and the relationship progresses from lunches and golf to weekend trips, to socializing outside of a business environment with the account manager (perhaps including spouses).

Then, something happens. Day-to-day service levels decline. A major change in program structure occurs. New systems are introduced. A billing issue that doesn't get resolved. Whatever the reason, it's time for a serious discussion about the future of the business relationship. The account manager has become more than a business acquaintance - he or she has become a true, personal friend. Will the fleet manager be able to be blunt about the problem(s), particularly if they've become critical enough that the relationship itself must be leveraged? It's a question that bears some serious thought even before the fleet manager has allowed the personal side of the relationship to become close.

Also, what if the account manager with whom you've become close to is reassigned or takes a new position, either within or outside of the supplier? If the program is running smoothly, a fleet manager must be careful not to let that color the business relationship.


Operating Ethically

All in all, the answer to the question of how close a fleet manager should allow a relationship with a supplier to become rests upon several key points:
■ What is your company policy regarding such relationships? What is permitted and what is prohibited? Lunch, a round of golf, tickets to a ball game or a show, right up to a weekend trip - any employee who has regular contact with a supplier should know what limits, if any, the company places on supplier relationships.
■ Are you currently doing business with the supplier? Recall that there is more leeway with an account manager of your existing supplier than with a salesperson from a potential one. This does not mean shunning anyone calling to meet with you. Nor does it mean a lunch meeting is out of the question (within, again, the bounds of your company policy). But, don't allow such relationships to progress too far, and set boundaries.
■ Certain things should be completely out of bounds, no matter the company policy. Gifts, beyond small knickknacks or desktop items, and certainly cash are never ethical, no matter what the relationship or circumstances. Be polite, but firm in turning such things down - and make it clear that the offer is not appreciated.
■ If there is even the remotest whiff of a quid pro quo ("here, take this, and in return give me your business"), put a fast end to it, in no uncertain terms. If you plan to report any such offer to the company (or to the supplier), be absolutely sure to have proof. Careers may be at stake.
■ Now and then, pick up the tab. If your account manager usually comes by for lunch, grab the check once and awhile, even if you can't expense it. Your supplier will appreciate it.
■ A touchy subject, but avoid any romantic relationships at all costs. Not only will a company frown upon it, but there is no more effective way to poison one's industry reputation than to date a supplier representative. We don't choose who we're attracted to, but if there are serious feelings there, ask that the account manager (or salesperson) to be taken off your account before even considering acting on them. And, if you're married, it's pretty obvious what the answer is there.

One of the great things about the fleet business is its "smallness." It is a niche industry, and you'll generally see the same people over the years. You can make lasting friendships, meet great people, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. The single best weapon against allowing a relationship to go too far is simple common sense. If you are conflicted, ask your supervisor for guidance. There is nothing wrong with making friends, and enjoying some time with them away from the office. But, if it interferes in any way with the business relationship, put on the brakes. FF