Recruiting Customers and Suppliers to Help with Your Continuous Improvement Efforts

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I wrote earlier about the value a closed loop employee suggestion program can provide. These do provide significant benefits, but there is no need to limit continuous improvement suggestions to those inside the company. Customer and supplier surveys can provide great insights into such opportunities while also enabling the company to collaborate better with key partners. However, like employee initiatives, if they are not managed well, they can leave you worse off than if you never asked your suppliers and customers for their help.

Designing the survey is important – this is not the time to ask leading questions or pressure the recipients to provide high numerical scores because somebody’s annual performance review or bonus depends on it. If you want to obtain honest answers, understand what the customer or supplier values, and receive useful responses on what is working well and what is not, objective survey questions are needed. It is great to ask about their level of satisfaction with relationship-specific functions. For a customer survey, this could include asking about responsiveness, on-time delivery, quality, etc. For suppliers, this may involve questions about purchase order and other documentation accuracy, on-time payment and more. You may also wish to ask some higher-level questions, such as:

  • What is one thing that we are doing that we should keep doing the same way?
  • What is one thing that we are doing that we should improve?
  • What is one thing that we are not doing that we should do?
  • What is one thing that we are doing that we should not do at all?

The quickest way to turn this into a negative experience is to ask customers (especially) and suppliers to spend time completing these surveys and then nothing is done with the results. They will have an expectation that their time and opinions are being valued. Failure to respond will create frustration – I have seen this firsthand. Similar to the best practice for employee suggestion programs, before you send out surveys to customers or suppliers, it is critical to commit the resources to:

  • reading, evaluating, and consolidating the responses
  • developing and executing improvement initiatives based on those comments
  • promptly responding to the survey respondents on what actions are being taken based on their survey participation

 

Depending on the actual responses, it may be necessary to also diplomatically explain why certain requests are not being acted on – we can easily imagine a customer utilizing the survey answers to ask for unrealistic price decreases or other concessions. Surveys can be periodic (quarterly or annual) independent events or incorporated into Quarterly Business Reviews or other meetings.

Some suppliers may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with customers requesting their honest feedback. Their past experience with other customers (and even with your own company) may be limited to customers telling them what to do better and never asking for their insights. They may be afraid that if they provide honest continuous improvement feedback it will not be well-received and may even be held against them. It may take assurances and several iterations before they trust the process. It is essential that your company receive these suggestions as they would acknowledge ideas from the customer, demonstrate that they appreciate them, and act on them as appropriate. Once that level of trust is established, suppliers can be key partners in improving how you enable them to support you. I have had to work with suppliers to help them get comfortable with what to them was a novel request so don’t accept the response that everything your company is doing is great.

I recall one occasion when I was responsible for combining the best New Product Introduction processes between two different divisions of the same firm. Aside from taking the time to understand each group’s steps, I found it valuable to ask the shared external manufacturing partner for their input on which of those differing steps best assist their ability to support our needs. Of course, showing where their advice was used to implement new standard processes or explaining why certain suggestions were not utilized was important to this closed-loop process.

Your key customers and suppliers can be some of your strongest allies in your quest for continuous improvement. A robust closed-loop survey process can be an effective tool in this effort while simultaneously creating a stronger, more collaborative relationship with those external partners most critical to your company’s success.

Steven Lustig is founder and CEO of Lustig Global Consulting and an experienced Supply Chain Executive.  He is a recognized thought leader in supply chain, manufacturing, and risk mitigation, and serves on the Boards of Directors for Loh Medical and Atlanta Technology Angels.

 

Updated: Jun 11, 2024

About the author
Steven Lustig of Lustig Global Consulting is a member of XPX Atlanta

Lustig Global Consulting that helps companies create risk management programs, establish robust manufacturing and supply chain strategies, and enable sustainability initiatives.