Maintaining relationships with suppliers is important for a happy working relationship, and it helps to build the groundwork for successful business deals in the future.

But the landscape is changing, and now technology and globalisation make it more likely that your suppliers will be international. After all, 45 billion pounds of goods imported to the UK came from China in 2017.

This guide will show you how to maintain these international relationships so both parties can enjoy a strong business relationship.

Clarify terms of service and expectations

Supplier relationships break down when there are unclear expectations. Nothing can derail a relationship faster than one party feeling like the other is ‘moving the goal posts.’ According to NI Businessinfo UK, it’s important to:

‘Draw up written contracts that are clear and unambiguous, and clearly set expectations of service and quality for both parties.’

It's all about granular, precise clarity that leaves no wriggle room.

Service level agreements (SLAs) are an important tool for this. Here’s an excellent guide for making an effective SLA. Of course, as the relationship develops over time, you can re-negotiate services.

Always pay your supplier on time

This is big. A relationship will break down rapidly when a supplier isn’t paid. 27 percent of UK invoices aren’t paid on time. Don’t be one of the bad actors.

Clarification of the following is essential:

  • The form of payment
  • The amount of payment
  • The timing of payment

Then pay the right amount, in the right way, and on time. Always.

Establishing and clarifying terms of service is an important part of this, but so too is ensuring your finance department is proficient.

Remember that you aren’t the only client

When you’re unaware of your suppliers' other clients, it can be easy to feel like you’re the only one. This can lead to an ‘only-child-like' sense of importance that becomes destructive. Does this sound familiar:

  • You become annoyed when a supplier doesn’t get back to you?
  • You always expect fast turnarounds on your orders?

If so, consider re-adjusting your expectations and appreciate that your supplier has other clients. According to Paul Noël, senior vice president of procurement solutions at Ivalua:

‘This type of mutual understanding will create natural rapport and motivate suppliers to spend more time working with your company.’

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Build a deep relationship

Building a deep relationship with a supplier will ensure your relationship navigates rocky waters. Below are some ways to deepen your relationship:

  • Talk about your business plans and strategy so they know how they are involved, and how they can help.
  • Consider them as partners and build a friendship that moves past ‘business-only’ conversations.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring up issues with them, and make it clear you are open to feedback on how you can improve.
  • Enquire what their business plans and goals are. Step into their shoes so you can consider how to better serve them.
  • Send them a bottle of wine or other presents at Christmas (and/or other appropriate occasions). Write the card yourself and make it personal.
  • Invite them to office parties, and out-of-work drinks.

Developing a deep relationship that isn’t just business-only will mean that they stay on your side and make both businesses stronger.

Be transparent

No one likes it when another party is being evasive or distant. Instead, build trust and create a transparent relationship with your suppliers. Indeed, transparency and openness are crucial to your brand’s success in general, as Steve Jobs once said:

‘A brand is simply trust.’

Technology can be a great tool to facilitate transparency. Communication channels are the bedrock, but also consider tools that enable everyone to access the data that affects their business. For example, tracking codes for parcels enables business A to know precisely where their shipping from business B is.

Understand cultural differences

When you’re working with international suppliers, it becomes more likely that there will be meaningful cultural differences between your businesses. This can be a barrier to developing a strong relationship. To prevent miscommunications, consider:

  • Researching the culture thoroughly, especially their business practices.
  • If your company is big enough, hire someone from the culture to lease directly.
  • Be open with the supplier: tell them it’s your first time working with someone from their culture. This will give you the opportunity to ask how you can follow their cultural norms. It also buys you some time to push through potential errors.
  • They’re in the same boat as you, so open up to them about any differences your culture has that might be helpful for them to know about.

Talk regularly

The basis of every relationship is clear and effective communication. And maintaining relationships with international suppliers this is truer than ever. When communication is clear, there are fewer misunderstandings, greater trust, and more efficient daily operations.

When choosing a supplier to work with, it can be helpful to consider how effective future communications will be. If a supplier is in a different time zone, that will hamper instant communication, and if there are language barriers, that leaves the door open to misunderstandings.

Once you’ve begun a relationship with a supplier, consider doing the following:

  • Build bridges outside of work. This might be just a 5-minute conversation before or after a call to talk about things non-work related.
  • Communicate consistently. Any prolonged periods without communication will hamper a relationship. Establish the optimum cadence to ‘touch-base’ and then stick to it.
  • Use technology to make communication easy. Use tools like Slack or Skype to empower communication anytime.

Maintaining supplier relationships is good for business

Writer Julia Fournier explains the benefits of maintaining a strong supplier relationship exceptionally well. When you have a good relationship with a supplier:

‘They’ll go to bat for you, make exceptions for you, and work their hardest to meet your quote, deliver your goods in a timely manner, provide the top quality that you need, and provide the support that you require.’

It’s just good business to maintain strong supplier relationships. With this advice, it’s easy to maintain relationships with suppliers no matter where they are.

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