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The Art of Conversation: Opening a true dialogue with your suppliers to build partnerships at scale

Retail leaders are increasingly recognising the value of open and honest dialogue with their suppliers at a scale beyond what is possible through the traditional buyer to account manager relationship.

As is the case for the Internal Communication function, centrally facilitating and curating channels that foster trusting and collaborative relationships between your employees and those employees of your suppliers results in greater productivity and better outcomes for both parties.

However, understanding when to begin a conversation, around which topic and practically how to go forward and execute is key.

Where conversations with suppliers can add value

Whilst aspiring to have more conversations with suppliers is admirable, true conversations are not always necessary or beneficial. The transactional nature of retail means it’s important to pick situations and topics that a conversation can add value to by identifying where there is a possibility to:

  • uncover new perspectives
  • solve problems; or
  • grow mutual understanding.

The Golden Rule for supplier conversations

Even if the focus of your planned conversation passes this first test of potential value, it may still not be wise to open a new dialogue.

The golden rule for any conversation with suppliers is only to begin if you have the capacity and intention to respond or act upon what is said in reply. The word “conversation” evokes a sense of mutual participation and exchange, for which - if broken - goes against millennia of social conventions and will end up doing more harm than good.

Therefore, whenever you wish to have conversations at scale as part of your supplier communication strategy, remember that principle: it must be a two-way, reciprocal dialogue.

Should you jump in at the deep end?

Using our ordinary walks of life as an example, there are many different types of conversations. These range from trivial group chit chat in the office kitchen to one-on-one soul-searching dives into the meaning of life. Similarly, there are different types of supplier conversations.

Understanding which to use will not only help you manage your capacity (and as such your ability to respond and react), but also set clear expectations for what suppliers can expect in return. I recommend you consider:

  1. depth of knowledge or information being communicated,
  2. scale or size of supplier audience; and
  3. frequency of interaction.

Here’s a handy table to help you pick the right channel for your conversation:

Channel Example Depth Scale Frequency
Broadcast email Monthly newsletter Low High High
Webinar Getting started with this new system Medium Medium Medium
Instant messaging  Affinity™ Conversations High Low High
Focus Group Supplier voice forum High  Medium

Medium

Top-to-top Retailer director meeting supplier CEO High Low

Low

 

Five principles to leave you with

Whichever channel you choose to communicate with suppliers, all conversations will benefit from these five principles:

  • Be clear on the purpose or goal of the conversation
  • Frame the conversation within that purpose with a good question and share that question with supporting information in advance
  • Select the suppliers who can add most value to that question and limit the attendance size based upon the channel you chose
  • Employ a strong Chair who keeps the conversation on topic and to time
  • Be prepared to act based on what your suppliers say and be transparent with your progress

Practical advice for retail leaders

If you’d like to better understand how to introduce conversations with suppliers into your plan to execute upon your own brand strategy, S4RB’s Own Brand Advisory can help. Our award-winning consultants have pioneered own brand supplier engagement with the world’s largest international retailers.

David Taylor

david.taylor@s4rb.com

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