With a regular blog titled “Confessions of a Forensic Interviewer,” you’d think that every week I’d have something to say about interviews. I do. But here’s the thing: I’m a solution provider now. In order for me to write regularly, I have to write about my experience, and what I’ve experienced since transitioning from retail loss prevention five years ago to solution provider has been, well, A LOT.
Thinking back to when I worked for various retailers over the years and bumping into “vendors,” let’s just say I was mostly underwhelmed (though sometimes pleasantly surprised) at the service we received.
My role brought me into contact with field technicians and occasionally a manager, if something had gone haywire. I was there during installations as the eye in the sky or checking on the work after it was done, and saw a whole range of behaviors on the job, from taking extra-long lunches, to flirting with store staff, to just plain shoddy workmanship. Not everything was negative, as I said; there were pleasant surprises too: techs who showed up on time, with a name badge, checked out at the end of shift and walked me through the work that they did.
Through all my years of working with vendors, I never once had a supervisor, project manager or account rep call and ask me how the job went. This was curious to me. Wouldn’t they want feedback from the customer directly?
I always thought to myself that if our vendors would communicate with us more often, then they would become solution providers. Now, having lived on the vendor side for five years, I noticed that communication isn’t always easily forthcoming from the retail side either. And I re-learned what my experience as an investigator first taught me—that communication is a two-way street.
So this will be a two-way article. I’ll offer suggestions for improving the retailer-vendor communications from both sides, so regardless of which side of the table you are sitting at, you may find a helpful nugget.
Being a Great Customer
If you are a retailer who wants a rockstar vendor, don’t just sit back and wait for it to happen on its own. When you’ve gone through all the trouble to select a vendor—or even if you have a long-term partnership—talk about your expectations and then follow up on them. Almost every retailer has a service-level agreement (SLA) or master service agreement (MSA) in place, but how many actually talk about those things that make that SLA run?
For instance, you may have an SLA in place that states your vendor needs to respond to service calls within five days; however, are there any mechanisms in place to make sure each service call is placed with a maximum amount of information from your end so the vendor’s tech can properly complete the job when on site?
If your store isn’t satisfied with something about their service, can they document the issue, or does it go by word-of-mouth to the loss prevention manager?
You’ll see a common thread here: it’s communication.
Many times, frustrations start to develop because the retailer waits too long to share the issues. The larger the organization, the more delays there are, and the quicker these frustrations pile up. Do you have a regular touch-base with your vendors? It may not be the most exciting conference call of your week, but regular calls can help to develop a rapport and you may be surprised that information starts to flow and things will bubble up that otherwise may have stayed dormant and festering.
Being an Awesome Solutions Partner
One thing I’ve learned as a solution partner is that every retailer is different, and they all communicate quite differently. Some don’t want to hear from me at all unless they have a problem. Then there are those who I can pick up the phone with, pick their brain about a new product and we have a great chat.
What needs to stay consistent is the attempt to communicate, from day one. Outlining the critical processes and double-checking that there is consensus is crucial. If your retail customer has a different expectation than you thought, it’s only going to become exacerbated as time goes on.
Don’t hesitate to call your retail customers with bad news. We all have those tough calls to make; things don’t always go perfectly. But the longer you wait, the worse it will get.
As my friend and boss, Steve Sell, likes to say, deliver good news fast and bad news even faster. Communicate truthfully. People can smell BS a mile away. Retailers have enough to worry about without having to deal with a vendor who is colorful with the facts.
We also have to accept that sometimes people don’t click. Personalities may clash, or there may be history of some kind you have no control over. Communicate anyway. Ask the other party: how would you like me to communicate? What works best for you? What have you experienced in the past that you’d like me to do differently?
Treat others with respect. This goes both ways. I have seen retailers treat vendors like indentured servants and I have also seen vendors acting like they own the place. These attitudes don’t serve anyone and only further build the walls between the two sides. If you are a retailer and have a procurement team who handles your LP buying, may I suggest sitting in on a conference call or meeting to see how things are going?
A finely tuned partnership between retailer and vendor can only result in benefits for both sides. Just think of the idea sharing, problem solving and money saving that could arise if ideas were exchanged freely and on a regular basis!
To illustrate this, I’ll leave you with an example as a final thought. I let one of my retail partners know I was going to be in his area recently and we made plans to grab lunch. He was telling me about a problem they were having with some auditing, and I was able to recommend a company to him that might be able to help. You could write this off as normal networking, or even run-of-the-mill sales stuff, but I disagree. This came about because we have good communication and feel comfortable with one another. Comfort and easy exchange of ideas only come about with some work upfront on communication. We’re there. And you can be too.