The Burghers of Calais and becoming a preferred customer

(I'm delighted to introduce the first of what we hope will be regular guest posts from Dr Gordon Murray, procurement practitioner, adviser, academic and now excellent blogger with his own Dr Gordy website  -  well written, ranging across a wide range of topics of interest to the profession and  always worth reading).

I wonder how many of you have heard of the Burghers of Calais? No, this doesn't have any connection whatsoever with the horse meat scandal. The Burghers of Calais are to me one of the most fascinating examples from history of how people should  behave. So, recognising that there are memorials to them in a wide range of the world's cities, but most particularly in Calais and Westminster, what happened in 1347 which justifies their memorial and a discussion in a procurement blog?

First, to explain: the statues depict a group of city leaders (the Burghers) with the keys of the City of Calais in their hands and ropes around their necks - ropes ready for the hangman.

The 100 years war was on. Things were not going well for France and the English had led a remarkably successful siege on Calais. Those inside the city walls had reached the end, and total destruction looked likely. The English king, Edward III, gave the city a way out - send out six of your top men with nooses around their necks and carrying the keys of the city, and those who remain inside will be spared.

Six leaders volunteered to give up their lives for the sake of the citizens. Could you visualise an equivalent sacrifice from modern day councillors? Nevertheless, fully expecting a brutal death, a message came through from the pregnant English Queen petitioning on their behalf. The Queen's view was that killing the Burghers would bring misfortune on her unborn child. Edward III, who I assume wasn't known for his softness, had a change of heart. He spared the six Burghers.

So now we have memorials throughout the world to the six Burghers. One, in Calais, depicting the pain, anguish and fatalism of the six Burghers.  A second, in Westminster, depicts the King, having the power to kill, choosing not to - it is similar to the image of the Caesars deciding on whether the gladiator should live or die.

So what on earth has all this got to do with procurement? Well, it strikes me that on many occasions we are faced with the option of 'beating suppliers up'. I am sure you all can think of an example of the 'bully boy' CPO - the tough guy (or lady) who makes sure suppliers know who is in charge. But does that really make sense in the long run?  There are no perfect CPOs - we all make mistakes and need to eat humble pie. When we need a supplier to help us out and the supplier has the choice of whether to be benevolent to the buyer in need, will that be pay-back time?

It has always struck me as strange that many buyers forget that one of the worst things which could happen is the market just deciding it does not want to supply a particular buyer. The more I think of it, the person who gains most in the long-term, isn't the CPO who 'beats the supplier up' continually, but the buyer who shows benevolence and recognises that mistakes happen. That is the buyer who gets preferred customer status. That's not to say that we shouldn't be concerned about good supplier and contract management and push to achieve that - but it is to say that sometimes benevolence is the best strategy in the long term.

Think about it. Nearly 700 years after the event, you're reading a blog about six Burghers who made a sacrifice, and a King, noted for his military success and over 50 year reign, who dealt out mercy.

Dr Gordon Murray


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Voices (2)

  1. RJ:

    Excellent post and a point I am continually trying to press home. I’m just reaching the end of some very tough negotiations with a major advisory firm and have had to advise my client’s CFO not to step in for the “final push”. We’d already achieved our objectives so, while the macho approach might well have delivered a little extra and helped build up his ego, in the long term (and this is for a minimum 5 year contract), the supplier would easily claw back much, much more money and damage the relationship that would drive long-term innovation that was the whole point of the deal in the first place.

    It’s never always a buyer’s market and, as a provider of services myself, I know that I choose who gets my best (or indeed any of my) work.

  2. Planbee:

    Indeed. Calais remained English until 1558 and was described as “brightest jewel in the English crown” . It was the last of England’s French possessions to be relinquished.

    Perhaps that act of clemency encouraged a strong relationship between the inhabitants and the English. An early from of SRM perhaps?:-)

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