3 Tips for Nurturing Win-Win Supplier Partnerships

When Jason Steinmann moved from private to public sector procurement in 2014, he knew his supplier relationships were going to drastically change. In the private sector, his supplier partnerships didn’t require much bidding or quoting. He drove his own vendor sourcing and selection and wasn’t restricted by extensive rules and regulations, so strong value-add partnerships were built naturally.   
To remain fair, transparent, and open, Jason kept suppliers at an arm’s length his first few years purchasing at Granite School District (UT). But as more time went on, he saw how much value both his organization and the suppliers were missing by taking this approach. Strong buyer-supplier partnerships CAN be formed in the public sector. More work just needs to be done on the front end to uphold public procurement ethics.  
Reenergized by this belief, Jason worked extremely hard to build thoughtful, value-add partnerships between his end users and suppliers. Here are three of his most important tips:  

Treat End Users Like the Experts They Are 

As a public purchaser, chances are that your expertise isn’t in playground equipment, furniture design, plumbing, or any of the other dozens of categories you buy for. Before you create the solicitation, meet with your end users to understand their needs. This is your opportunity to ask a lot of questions – your end users have the most experience with using what’s being purchased and will be able to offer invaluable insights on what qualities the purchase should have. These insights will help you craft a solicitation that requires bidders to directly address the agency’s highest priorities and ultimately select a supplier best equipped to be a long-term partner.  
In our interview with Jason, he shared how he worked with an agency within the Granite School District to solicit a playground surfacing vendor. The District had some issues with a previous vendor, and both procurement and the agency were determined to find a long-term partner this time around.  
Jason met with the end users and together they determined the expected playground surfacing needs for the next five years. And, the agency had the opportunity to communicate the challenges with their previous supplier and what they needed to be different.  

Decipher Needs vs. Wants to Build Your Solicitation 

This is where your expertise as a public purchasing professional come into play. End users are not thinking about procurement ethics, RFP frameworks, or lowest qualified bidder requirements – just the job that needs to be done and the path of least resistance to get there. As a public procurement professional, you need to navigate end user requests and think critically about how they fit into your jurisdiction’s purchasing laws.  
Pro tip from Jason: work hard to decipher needs vs. wants. Including too many specifications in your solicitation can back you into a corner, as well as limit the ability for suppliers to propose creative solutions you may not have thought of. Remember – the goal is to find a long-term supplier partner. Ask the follow up question and educate on procurement. Extra effort at this stage will save you major time and headache in the long run. 
Once you have a clear understanding of agency priorities and how they fit into procurement requirements, bake those specifications into your solicitation to attract the right vendor.  

Commit to Open and Transparent Communication 

Once you find that perfect supplier, the balancing act begins! Determined to find the win-win scenario, Jason is constantly asking himself, “Am I going to bat enough for my end user? How about my supplier?” It is important that each side feels heard and valued.   
Jason recently had to apply this concept to a furniture contract. The school district has standardized office furniture and has a fantastic vendor-partner who helped build this standard. What happens when a department does not want to use this furniture?  
Jason had to balance both sides here. On the one hand, his job is to validate the agency’s needs and maintain a strong relationship with the end user. On the other, the furniture vendor has been a fantastic partner and earned the school district’s business. Jason needs to maintain a strong relationship with his supplier, too.  
This is where the hard work in creating value-add partnerships pays off. Jason brought the agency and vendor together to allow them to communicate openly with each other. After this meeting, the vendor ran with the relationship and drove several meetings with the end user to find the best alternative solution. Supplier wins more business, agency finds a solution that best meets their needs, no further solicitation needed. Win-win-win.  

It’s Up to Us to Create Strong Supplier Partnerships 

Through sourcing and vendor management, procurement plays a major role in shaping their jurisdiction’s supplier relationships. Taking thoughtful steps at each stage of the procurement process can help maximize value for both sides of the partnership.  
This post is based on our interview with Jason Steinmann. Click here to listen to the full interview. 
  Bernadette Launi

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