Daily Archives: September 26, 2012

Good Advice from HBR on Understanding Suppliers in the Solution Economy

HBR recently published a post on understanding customers in the solution economy in which they noted that creating new value will require suppliers to combine their expertise with their understanding of their customers’ business needs. Which is completely true. They also said that this calls for changes in how B2B companies gather customer intelligence. Specifically, they need to

  • Ask different questions, much more often.
  • Observe the customer directly.

And they do. But since, generally speaking, a company that supplies a customer with a product or service outsources the production of that product, or the implementation of that service, to a third party, the company also needs to thoroughly understand its suppliers’ strengths and weaknesses to select the right supplier to manufacture the product or provide the service to the end consumer.

This means that where the suppliers are concerned, it has to:

  • Ask different questions, much more often.
  • Observe the supplier directly.

The questions need to move away from “do you have the facilities to make this product” to “what value-add do you add in the term of usability, reliability, or warranty support that we can use to meet the needs and want of our customers” and the questions have to be asked every time the customer needs change, not just once every three years when the category is resourced. You may not be able to change suppliers or alter the contract, but if you put in continual improvement and collaborative design clauses, you can at least make sure that subsequent iterations improve in the right direction. Similarly, on the service front, the focus should move from “do you provide service X” to “give us examples of how your delivery of service X met the following customer values and led to higher satisfaction ratings”.

Similarly, it’s not enough to just do a plant visit during the supplier qualification phase. There needs to be continual observation and interaction through the full contract life-cycle to make sure that the supplier undertakes continual improvement efforts, that issues are quickly identified and brought to your attention if they can not be quickly resolved, and that the level of professionalism and attention paid to you does not decrease over time as new customers enter the pipeline.