An Uphill Battle with a Poor Supplier (Part2)

Recently, I wrote a post about my experience cycling in France and how the problems from a particular supplier tarnished the image of the otherwise excellent cycling tour company. Charles Dominick asked me several good questions that I'll address in this post.

First he brought up the question of whether a company with this high-performance culture (and others like it) should insource these types of customer-facing tasks (i.e., have them performed by employees, rather than suppliers). I believe that the importance of finding suppliers whose culture and values mesh with one's own can't be overemphasized. However, in this particular case, the supplier had a positive attitude. He was pleasant but incompetent despite his outward customer-service demeanor. So the problem in the situation I described wasn't particularly a culture clash. It was a capability issue. Ideally, companies with a high-performance culture should insource important customer-facing tasks. But depending upon the situation, this may not be financially feasible. The company I wrote about offers independent cycling tours all over Europe (plus guided cycling tours and walking tours). So to have capable employees who can be all over the continent on any given day for the independent tours would probably not be cost effective. I think important customer-facing tasks can be outsourced if the supplier is carefully qualified and chosen and their performance is continually evaluated.

He brought up the issue of cultural mismatch between a customer and a supplier in another country: how do you feel a customer can best infuse a supplier with its vision and culture, especially when the supplier is in another country?

To some extent, the vision and culture of a customer can be infused into a supplier. But I believe that the potential for a cultural match has to be there in some form to begin with and it has to be more than lip service. Otherwise, no customer cultural infusion or indoctrination can overcome a cultural mismatch. Interestingly, the company I described rotates French employees back and forth between France and the U.S., a good approach to this challenge. Capable local employees who understand the company vision and culture as well as the situation on the ground in a particular country can help choose and work with the appropriate local suppliers. The excellent interactions with the company came from a capable French employee working in the U.S.

And last, Charles asked me for my thoughts about what type of oversight and feedback mechanisms I would put in place if I were the company.

It goes without saying that an adventure travel company of this type should use feedback surveys immediately after each trip. In addition, I would ask clients to inform the home office of any problems immediately during the trip so they can be addressed on the road (depending on the problem, via a network of cycling shops, the locally-based employees or from the U.S.). To their credit, this company does give contact information for a French office and did try to resolve problems when they occurred. There are, of course, challenges in rural areas of getting qualified assistance (which may explain why the tandem bike couple was initially sent to a tractor repair shop). I would have the company's personnel meet with key suppliers regularly for company updates and education and to address any issues that have arisen with clients. Good feedback loops between the company and its clients and between the company and its key suppliers can help resolve current issues and, very importantly, prevent future ones. However, one should not assume that all problems with a supplier are its fault. There needs to be a two-way flow of information between the clients and the travel company and between the customer (travel company) and its suppliers. A good feedback mechanism that includes appropriate communications with suppliers can help the company determine whether problems can be resolved, mitigated or prevented or whether it needs to find a new supplier.

- Sherry Gordon

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