Friday Rant: Lessons I Learned From Dating — Flirting With Your Suppliers

Over the past few months, I've reflected quite a bit on my personal life. And what I've decided is that what matters most is that I'm in my mid thirties with already quite a lot to show for it on the family side -- a great wife and two healthy and fun-loving kids. But flash back ten or twenty years and things were different. It was bad. It's painful to even think about it. I was about as socially awkward around the fairer sex as they come. But I did manage to get a few dates here and there by blind luck and a limited fear of rejection, I suppose. Moreover, I was not deserving of the women who dated me for any period of time, knowing what they had to put up with.

Despite the fact that my geekiness came out more often than I wanted it to in both the RFP and supplier management side of my personal life, I even learned a few things about flirting along the way. Usually, such behavior backfired, but maybe 10% of the time, it worked. And as guys know, batting .100 ain't bad, especially if you don't mind rejection. Granted, I was never a Tucker Max (warning: not a good site to read in the office) -- not even close -- but I wasn't a complete screw-up during those single years either (and heck, it must have worked, given that I did not deserve the one I ultimately landed). But what can my dating and flirting lessons from early in life teach us about how best to get information from -- and influence -- our suppliers? Quite a bit in fact.

For one, we don't flirt enough. For those who aren't familiar with the concept, flirting, at least in dating circles, centers around small talk and subtle gestures designed to illicit at least some type of response, or some type of information, that can be used as an entrance into further conversation. Above all else, flirting is a form of opening people up (don't read into the Freudian interpretations of this previous statement). It's a way to get people to talk, to make them feel more comfortable and even, in the best possible way, to influence them. Which is precisely why flirting is essential when it comes to getting information from -- and winning over -- suppliers.

Nowhere is this better known than in the reverse auction world when it comes to recruiting and winning over suppliers. I was chatting with a friend the other day who just started working this year at a sourcing company. One of his biggest surprises was how good the successful members of the organization were at "flirting with suppliers," in his words. The conversation immediately brought me back to my days at FreeMarkets when we used the exact phrase to describe how best to recruit and get suppliers excited about the sourcing process (when there was no rational reason -- based on the typical statistical odds of non-incumbents winning material business -- that they would spend the time they did with us).

But flirting with suppliers is not just limited to getting them stoked to participate in a sourcing process. Supplier flirting can play a key role across numerous other initiatives including better understanding the health of a supplier's business, figuring out how important you are to them as a customer, and developing thoughtful insight into a supplier's competitors, among other motivations. Moreover, I'd argue that flirting with suppliers is probably the best way to catch folks off guard when they'll share information that would otherwise require a couple of martinis and an evening out on the town to get.

What are the best ways to flirt with suppliers so that you can beat my previous .100 batting average in the dating area? It's easy. First, become a woman. I mean it. This may sound incredibly sexist, but when you're dealing with a mostly male supply base (especially in manufacturing) women are better at getting information over the phone. It's just the way it is. The best guys can do it today, but women, on average, seem to be more successful at it. Aside from the gender tip, there are numerous other ways to successfully flirt. For one, learn the art of small talk and opening a conversation as if you were a friend. Next, move away from the boilerplate language you've been told to use to try to sell someone on a process or how best to develop and maintain a relationship. Try to connect as a person, not as a business partner (or potential partner). Along similar lines, the best flirters always make conversation a personal thing, adding their own flair and lines versus ever sounding scripted.

I also interviewed my better-half about the subject (Lisa's one of the best in the supplier flirting arena, especially from a sourcing perspective). Here's her advice for supply management flirting:

"Ask questions for which you think you already know the answer so that you're actually asking questions that make you appear slightly less smart than you really are so they feel that you're not overly bright. This always draws people out."

“You want to be able to give them market insight into what's going on from your perspective because they're interested in learning about what you're seeing (e.g., demand patterns). It's like commenting a bit on the competition across the bar in a nice but casual way."

"Drop hints to where there has been potential dissatisfaction in the past. Expressing some elemental level of dissatisfaction with either the current supplier or the process in general gives the supplier a chance to feel like they have a shot at business."

"As Jason says, it's like dating. You need to make your opportunity attractive enough so that they want you. If you don't treat them with the responsiveness they expect, why should they work with you? It's like asking someone for a Saturday night date. If they call you up on Thursday night for a date on Saturday, you should blow them off, because it shows you were not their first choice. You want to make yourself attractive so that they're attracted. Read between the lines."

"If you've done a good job of understanding what makes you attractive, and you have communicated that to the supplier, there's an understanding that the supplier will be responsive."

"Solicit hypotheticals on the phone versus in written feedback. Create a relationship of trust between people versus an application or RFQ."

"Get them talking. Understand the motivations. You want the supplier to dictate to you what a good customer looks like. What can you do as a customer to make yourself the most attractive to a supplier? Get the supplier engaged to the point of telling you what their drivers are. It's like walking into a bank and asking, I want to get your 'best' customer service. How much do I need to have with you to guarantee that service? In other words, what do I need to do to get the "A" treatment? Get suppliers to tell you this."

"If you're a consultant and you're working as an outside party, you have the opportunity to say how you will level-set a process such that the supplier has a fair shake and an opportunity that they did not have previously. Establish the fact you're creating a level playing field. Be philosophical about the process. Unbiased and more fair. That's how you make them more comfortable with you. Also if you're a consultant, communicate that you don't have a bias -- 'we're not predisposed in any direction,' in other words."

Enough from us. What are your supplier flirting tips?

Jason Busch (and Lisa Reisman)

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