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Managing supplier relationships is key to business success. Most companies rely on external suppliers for smooth operations, cost control, and maintaining quality. Strategic contract management can help businesses get the most out of their supplier partnerships.

Good supplier management isn't just about choosing the right suppliers. It's about carefully managing the relationship at different stages to reduce costs, improve quality, and lower risks. A well-planned approach can boost efficiency and strengthen supplier relationships.

However, not all businesses are great at maximizing their suppliers' potential, which can lead to inefficiency and rocky relationships. Having a clear contract management plan helps with this. It lets you track supplier performance, improve communication, and increase transparency, leading to better supplier management and stronger partnerships.

This article examines key ways to improve supplier relationships through strategic contract management. By using these strategies, your business can get the greatest benefits from these important partnerships.

  1. Identify key stakeholders for efficient management

Effective supplier relationship management begins by clearly identifying key stakeholders. Miscommunication can lead to costly delays, so it's essential to establish upfront who will manage the project and serve as the primary contacts on both sides. This clarity helps set the stage for a smooth collaboration from the start.

It's beneficial for an organization to assign specific individuals or a small team to oversee various aspects such as supplier procurement, contract management, and logistics during project execution. Depending on the organization's needs and resources, this responsibility can be assigned either permanently to an employee or on a project-by-project basis.

By assigning a dedicated leader or team to manage supplier relationships, you can ensure that projects start on a solid foundation, promoting better management and smoother operations throughout the contract’s duration.

  1. Standardize the supplier evaluation process

Don't overlook the crucial step of standardizing your supplier evaluation process. Just as you optimize your operations, apply that same level of standardization to finding and assessing suppliers. It can bring major benefits to your business.

Create a formal screening process to ensure you evaluate all potential suppliers consistently and fairly. This is especially important if you're in a sector like the government with specific protocols to follow. A standardized process reduces subjective judgments and errors, giving you a more objective decision basis. It also clearly guides your team members new to supplier assessment, ensuring everyone follows the same criteria.

Establish a standard evaluation framework that lets you continuously improve by analyzing less successful contracts. This helps refine your selection criteria and increase your chances of building successful supplier relationships. By regularly fine-tuning your evaluation process, you can more effectively adapt to changing market conditions and supplier capabilities.

  1. Organize of supplier contracts effectively

Get your supplier contracts organized effectively to maximize the benefits of your supplier relationships. If your system is disorganized, efficiently managing contracts becomes a challenge. For instance, many businesses struggle with a basic requirement like quickly finding their top 100 contracts if they don't have a well-structured system in place.

Businesses differ widely in how they approach contract organization. There's an ongoing debate about using a centralized system versus letting individual departments manage their own contracts. There's no single right answer—the optimal solution depends on your specific business needs and situation.

Consider a hybrid approach that combines centralized and decentralized elements. Create a shared database where key business leaders can access important contract documents. This will improve transparency and make contracts easier to find.

At the same time, give individual branches or departments the autonomy to make and carry out certain contract-related decisions independently. This flexibility allows for contract management tailored to the diverse needs of different parts of your business and ensures contracts are handled in the most effective way possible.

  1. Leverage technology for contract management

Leverage advanced software solutions to significantly boost the efficiency, accuracy, and visibility of your contract lifecycle management (CLM) activities.

Ramp can help optimize your contract management. It provides a full suite of financial solutions, such as corporate cards, expense management, bill payments, and accounting automations. It also offers powerful procurement software for effective contract management.

Ramp's procurement platform has various features to streamline your contract management process. One of its key capabilities is automating the entire procure-to-pay process, including creating, approving, and executing contracts. By automating these tasks, Ramp helps eliminate manual errors, reduces approval bottlenecks, and ensures all your contracts comply with your policies.

Ramp also enhances contract management through its centralized intake system. This feature lets you capture every contract request in one place and create custom intake forms with dynamic questions that adapt based on previous answers. It streamlines the contract creation process and enables you to issue purchase orders or virtual cards directly from approved requests.

Ramp provides comprehensive visibility into committed spending related to contracts. It automatically generates purchase orders and offers a consolidated view of every contract request and purchase order. Check out Ramp’s Procurement software →

  1. Foster strong supplier relationships

Build strong supplier relationships to achieve mutual benefits and drive project success. The best supplier relationships work like partnerships, with both sides engaging in ongoing dialogue to maximize opportunities. Your suppliers are often experts in their specific areas and can offer valuable insights that benefit your collaboration.

Key practices for nurturing robust supplier relationships include:

  • Maintain open and transparent communication channels with your suppliers, regularly updating each other and being clear about needs and expectations to prevent misunderstandings and build trust.
  • Use contract reviews constructively to understand and resolve any issues, and to assess performance against objectives as part of an ongoing relationship with your supplier, not just at the end of a contract term.
  • Identify and act upon new goals as they emerge, adapting to changes in the business environment and market conditions to ensure the sustainability of your supplier partnerships.
  • Discuss unexpected situations, such as supply shortages or new opportunities like publicity events, promptly with your supplier to make necessary adjustments and work together effectively to meet shared objectives.

  1. Manage contract auto-renewals

Effectively manage your contract auto-renewals to maintain advantageous terms and avoid potential pitfalls from being too passive in your contract management. While auto-renewals can provide security for suppliers and reduce bureaucratic overhead for your business, they also require careful oversight.

Auto-renewals' convenience can lead organizations to miss out on crucial negotiation opportunities. This oversight can result in several issues:

  • Avoid inadvertently violating contract terms, such as "rogue spending" that contravenes an exclusivity clause, by being aware of automatic contract renewals and their associated legal complications.
  • Review contract terms before automatic renewal to avoid being trapped into outdated pricing or terms that no longer serve your organization's best interest, which could result in paying more than necessary or sticking with no longer needed services.
  • Set up automatic reminders before the renewal date to alert stakeholders to review the contract, prepare for negotiations, or decide if contract termination is more beneficial, helping to avoid unintended contract breaches and missed negotiation opportunities.

Bonus - How to negotiate with suppliers?

Negotiating with suppliers is a strategic process that involves several approaches to strengthen your company's position and improve outcomes. Below are some effective strategies to consider:

Introduce new value to your supplier

One effective way to renegotiate terms with a powerful supplier is by providing them with new opportunities, thus rebalancing the power dynamics. This approach can transform a typical commercial relationship into a strategic partnership.

In the early 2000s, Apple Inc. was planning to introduce the iPod, a new product that required small, high-capacity hard drives. At that time, these hard drives were being manufactured by Toshiba. Apple approached Toshiba and promised to buy all the hard drives they could manufacture, essentially guaranteeing Toshiba a new market for their product. In return, Apple negotiated a lower price for the hard drives, which helped them to keep the iPod’s price competitive in the market. This is an example of a company introducing new value to a supplier and negotiating a price reduction.

Another method is to reduce the supplier’s risks associated with price fluctuations. A chemical company negotiated better terms with a supplier that had a monopoly on a necessary component by guaranteeing a long-term contract. This gave the supplier financial stability and allowed the chemical company to secure a 10% discount.

Modify your purchasing strategy

If adding new value isn’t viable, changing how your business buys can also shift the balance of power. Consolidating purchase orders across different departments or even forming purchasing consortia with other firms are proven effective strategies. For instance, various business units of an aircraft manufacturer combined their orders to negotiate better terms with a supplier who had been increasing prices. This consolidation resulted in more equitable pricing and improved delivery reliability.

Additionally, rethinking purchasing bundles or altering the company’s demand profile can force suppliers to compete more aggressively. A consumer goods company saved significantly by unbundling services and negotiating separate deals for data and analytics, achieving better terms for each.

Establish a new supplier

Creating a new supplier could be a strategic move if the market conditions are tough and negotiations are going nowhere. This could involve encouraging a supplier from a different market or industry to enter your space.

Take a firm stand

As a last resort, if negotiations fail and no alternatives seem viable, playing hardball may be necessary. This can involve canceling orders, excluding the supplier from future business, if the circumstances justify such measures. This approach should be used sparingly as it can significantly impact the relationship and should only be considered when other strategies have not succeeded.

Transforming supplier relationships through strategic contract management involves a multifaceted approach. You can significantly enhance your procurement strategies by identifying key stakeholders, standardizing the evaluation process, effectively organizing contracts, and leveraging technologies like Ramp.

Note - Continuously refine these strategies to maintain competitive advantages and achieve long-term success as markets evolve.

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Group Manager of Product Marketing, Ramp
Chris Sumida is the Group Manager of Product Marketing at Ramp, located in Ladera Ranch, California. With almost a decade in product marketing, Chris has a knack for leading successful teams and strategies. At Ramp, he’s been a driving force behind the launch of Ramp Procurement, which makes procurement easier and more efficient for businesses. Before joining Ramp, Chris worked at Xero and LeaseLabs®️, creating and implementing marketing plans. He kicked off his career at Chef’s Roll, Inc. Chris also mentors up-and-coming talent through the Aztec Mentor Program. He graduated from San Diego State University with a BA in Political Science.
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