How do you deal with difficult strategic suppliers who won’t listen? 

By Allan Watton on

difficult strategic suppliersIt’s a question often asked, “how to deal with difficult strategic suppliers who won’t listen?” Do you… sometimes perceive that your strategic supplier (partner) is not listening to you. You feel they become defensive at everything you raise with them. You feel as though they are deliberately avoiding remediating the problem you perceive and despite you continually raising issues, you are failing to get any decent traction in remedying the problem. Some of the typical responses and behaviour you may experience from difficult strategic suppliers include: 

    • Pointing the blame back at you  
    • Diluting issues you have raised – implying that it’s not that important
    • Outright denial or refusal to recognise that an issue exists – or blaming a third party for the issue 
    • Being masterful at redirecting the discussion onto something not directly related to the issue you have raised. 

6 Steps to Help you Deal with Difficult Suppliers

If this sounds like your experience, there are six key steps you can take that will help you to get much faster traction, bring the issues into laser-like focus and enable you to remain constructively assertive until they are resolved: 

  1. Reconfirm ‘What Good Looks Like’ 
  2. Understand the contractual escalation process 
  3. Focus on the evidence 
  4. Arrange a senior level supplier meeting 
  5. Lead by example: the meeting process 
  6. Governing the meeting. 

Step 1 – Reconfirm ‘What good looks like’

Your contracted requirements may have been misunderstood between you and your strategic supplier. They may argue those requirements weren’t clear at the outset and you may argue that ‘common sense’ based on their expertise should have meant you didn’t need to document every single individual item, as that would have been unreasonable. Alternatively, your requirements may well be clear, and the partner hasn’t delivered to your expectations, or accuses you of stopping them from being able to do so. In any event, before you escalate matters with your strategic partner: 

  • Re-check and clarify your contracted requirements. Remember there is case law that supports if you are using a strategic partner that is an expert in its field, it usually has a “Duty to Warn” you of any areas of your stated requirements that were ambiguous before they accepted the contract. If they didn’t warn you, it would usually be up to your partner to remediate the misunderstanding over your requirements at its own cost, not yours.  
  • Internal stakeholder agreement of what a good outcome looks like. Be clear between your internal stakeholders and have a facilitated agreement about what outcome you want overall and by when. In other words, think through that if the partner was already delivering to your expectations, what will have changed with the service, what objectives will you have achieved and what hurdles will you have overcome. Then capture and document what that looks like, making sure you articulate it really clearly so that your internal stakeholders can ‘sign off’ on it and that your partner is likely to understand it. This will be the basis of your future conversations with your partner and will form the foundations of how you measure whether the services they are delivering are improving or not. 

Step 2 – Understand the contractual escalation process 

You may not want to hear this, but it’s really important: that dust-laden bundle of paper, the written contract and schedules, (if you can find the real signed version of it), will outline the process of how to go about escalating matters and it is important that you follow this process. Note – this is in your interest, because if you don’t follow the contract and the issue(s) you are raising end up having to be legally formalised, the first thing the supplier will do is argue your escalation is not valid (even if it is). This may result in you having to start the escalation process again – if it hasn’t contractually ‘timed out’, as then you may be time-barred from being able to deal with the issue. 

Step 3 – Focus on the evidence 

When raising issues with a strategic partner that is unwilling to listen or collaborate, it is critical to focus only on the facts and the evidence you have to support the facts: 

  • It is important to avoid being subjective, no matter how tempting it may be to do so.  
  • If you don’t have evidence, go and get it – don’t be tempted to ‘cut to the chase’ and present something half completed – or worse, biased, where it is clear you haven’t taken a balanced or objective view.  
  • What evidence is useful? Ideally chronologies of when the issue started, an email trail of clarification of the issues, comments/discussions from your service users/recipients and issues/risk logs that have captured the issues, along with operational and financial consequences. If you want more details of the evidence to consider, please see pages 12-15 of our paper, Improving Strategic Supplier Relationships. 

Step 4 – Arrange a senior level supplier meeting 

You will have already tried to get your supplier counterpartand even a position or two above them, to listen and remediate your issue. If you are continuing to experience push back from the supplier and subject to how serious the issue is and/or how persistent the issues you are experiencing are, having checked your contractual escalation process, you should: 

  • Arrange a meeting from the CEO down, to walk through your concerns. CEOs and senior level people may well not be aware of the frustrations you are experiencing 
  • Send an agenda that outlines your concerns, the context and how you will discuss the evidence of the issues you are experiencing 
  • Make it clear you will attempt to be objective and balanced and you would appreciate the supplier CEO acting in good faith in a similar manner 
  • Likewise, outline that if there are any counter-accusations (the supplier says it’s not their fault and it is the client’s fault), then the supplier needs to put forward the appropriate evidence so you can objectively assess it and check back with your team. 

Step 5 – Lead by example: the meeting process

If you believe that your supplier is genuinely not delivering an appropriate level of service, solutions and/or expertise, and you have objective evidence to back that up, then it is likely your supplier is not discharging it“Expert Responsibilities” and/or its “Duty to Warn”Review this and you can then determine the correct approach to take. 

For the meeting itself, you need to lead by example of your constructive, and not negative, behaviour. You need to go in with a mindset to explore how the issue has arisen, but be careful not to be accusatory – even if the supplier is accusatory towards you. Don’t rise to any antagonism – always remain above that. 

What to do if you continue to receive pushback from difficult strategic suppliers with assumptions/speculation. 

Unless you request evidence from your supplier, conversations over performance are likely to become circular with no end point and everyone getting more frustrated. Again, it’s important to lead by your own example. Iyou perceive the issues over your supplier’s performance are having a materially adverse impact on your organisation, you need to articulate those issues clearly with the supporting evidence. It can be difficult and time consuming to articulate something clearly and simply with robust supporting evidence, but if you do this, three things will happen: 

  1. You build trust: By leading by example, you demonstrate ‘partnership’ behaviours by doing what you say you will do, when you say you will do it. This builds trust – even when you are dealing with contentious issues, because by putting in the effort to articulate something well, it shows respect for the other party; that you want it to be clear to everyone. Read more on building trust.
  2. You show support: The clear evidence will allow you to explore suggestions with the supplier of ‘why’ issues have arisen and how they might get put right. This demonstrates that you have a clear mandate of supporting the supplier to get the services rightIf anything comes back from your supplier as a general assertion or general accusation, again, ask for evidence rather than instinctively defend your argument. If you have evidenced your position clearly, it makes it more difficult for them not to evidence theirs – you are leading by example. 
  3. Supplier behaviours will follow: By showing your supplier appropriate respect by going to the trouble of articulating matters well (both good and bad), eventually, their behaviour will follow yours. This is because (a) they won’t want to be on the back foot by not having their own clear evidence and (b) going forward, their senior level management will get to hear (and at some point see) the evidence of good and bad against them and will see it has been compiled objectively. They will then wonder why their own accusations against you as the client have no/poor evidence (your evidential based approach will prompt them to question their own approach by default) and will eventually realise you are all trying to achieve the same objective. 

The key points to take away on evidence for the meeting 

  • If the supplier accuses you of preventing them from delivering its services correctly, ask the supplier to articulate the issue clearly and simply, along with providing objective evidence. If the issue raised by the supplier is subjective and there is no real objective evidence, clearly state you will only table the issue once the supplier has provided you with objective evidence (to be fair, if the evidence isn’t available from the supplier at that point, give them a chance to bring evidence to the next meeting). Until then, the issue you have raised as a service default, remains a default and will be escalated accordingly in line with the contract. 
  • It’s important for you as the client to remain objective and balanced in your approach, because if it is your own client side causing some issues, you need to be aware of that so it can be fixed.  
  • Any issues you raise in terms of the supplier service default, should be balanced and objective. Don’t just focus on the fault, also articulate what the supplier has done well (evidenced) and openly praise this: “this is where we believe you are doing well, and this is where service needs to be improved by X amount and Y date”. Discuss the evidence openly. 
  • If your supplier is more generally intransigent, it is wise to prepare and pre-empt questions or issues, well before the meeting, that your supplier is likely to ask/raise so that you can pre-prepare the evidence available to support or refute the issue, but again, on a constructive basis. In other words, you should put yourself in the supplier’s shoes and think through how the supplier is likely to respond to the issues you are going to raise. 

Step 6 – Governing the meeting

Treat the operational governance for each meeting like a mini-project so that matters get tracked, followed up on and resolved, promptlyYour meeting should have: 

  • A clear agenda stating what is going to be discussed and ‘why’. Anything outside of the agenda is discussed at the next meeting to avoid railroading or ‘unexpected surprises’ at the meeting. 
  • A clear articulation of the outcomes or better certainty you expect to have on each issue by the time the meeting ends. This is critical to keep everyone focused. 
  • An ‘issues owner’ on both the supplier side and client side 
  • A clear record of the evidence for/against the issue from both the supplier and client side 
  • Any actions agreed with dates for responses and further evidence required to explore the underlying causes, how the issues might be resolved and by when
  • Notes of the meeting and ‘why’ actions have been agreedNote, if you only list the actions and not ‘why’ they have been raised/agreed, attendees often forget ‘why’ a particular issue has been tabled. Lesson – always include the ‘why’. 

Clarity on next steps. Before the end of the meeting: 

  • Confirm dates/times and specific contacts for any interim conversations in the meantime for any issues that might need further clarification before the next meeting. It’s important not to let clarification conversations wait until your next meeting. It will just delay and protract getting to evidence-based resolutions 
  • Agree an updated agenda as to what will be discussed at the next meeting and why those items need to be focused on 
  • Again, to keep everyone focused, be clear on the outcomes or better certainty you expect to have on each issue for the next meeting by the time it ends. 

Want to Learn More About How to Deal with Difficult Suppliers?

Download our expert guide: Improving Strategic Supplier Relationships for more advice on how to improve your difficult supplier situation, including 8 steps to improve supplier performance.