How mastering communication with customers helps supply chain leaders succeed

The personality of a politician. The empathy of a counselor. The analytical skills of an accountant. Supply chain managers must be so much more than their titles suggest.

In decades past—and especially during economic downturns—procurement specialists have been stereotyped as the Ebenezer Scrooges of their companies. Working out of dark rooms in basements, they miserly doled out supplies, counting pencils and paperclips and making everyone’s job harder. But in well-managed organizations, that profile is outdated.

“Supply chain management is an extra-ordinary leadership challenge,” says Ken Thomas, president of Taith Group, a supply chain management consulting group based in Indianapolis. “They have this brilliant perspective on any business—they’re full of really good ideas,” Thomas says.

Yet the biggest challenge is getting people to want to listen to what you have to say. Here are three ways to develop deeper relationships with internal customers, and ultimately improve your department’s performance:

1. Talk to people—on their terms.

On the surface, it seems like such a basic idea. Talking to customers is a given. But the way you communicate with them influences your relationships.

“Supply chain managers often want to talk to internal customers about lead times and inventories and customer service levels,” Thomas says. “First of all, your customers probably don’t understand that language. And more important, it’s not what they care about.”

He compares it to a utility company. “When you turn on your lights and your water, you expect them to run,” he says. “The only time you call the power company or the water company is when they don’t.”

Supply chain management is the same. “It can feel like the only time you get noticed is when there is a problem,” Thomas says.

You depend on information from internal customers to keep your system running smoothly. But how do you relate to so many different personalities in so many different departments?

“The best way to entice people to do something is to make it interesting—explain what’s in it for them,” Thomas says.

He advises meeting with managers and frontline workers in every department to learn more about their jobs and their needs. Learn to connect with them at their comfort levels rather than expecting the entire hospital to follow your agenda.

“Don’t blurt out facts and figures—that means nothing to most people,” Thomas says. “Instead, you’ve got to get people interested, comfortable and feeling safe with listening to your perspective.” Ask about their jobs, their challenges and what they’re concerned about. But there’s one question that Thomas says a supply chain manager should never ask: “What can I do for you?”

“That requires them to understand your job,” he says. Ask instead about their problems or opportunities, then you take on the burden of figuring out what to do.

“After you learn about their problems, then you can connect the dots,” he says. “Good doctors don’t describe to patients the exact steps of a surgery and the specific tools they’re going to use. They relate to patients as human beings.”

2. Get out of your office.

It’s impossible to get to know your internal customers better if you leave your office only to visit the vending machine. Supply chain managers must be a visible presence in a hospital’s halls.

In the mid-’80s, the theory of “management by wandering around” gained attention. The thinking is that managers should get out of their corner offices and into the daily grind with their employees. They should make themselves accessible to chats, lunches and quick meetings in order to solve small problems before they turn into larger ones.

Thomas says this theory works well for supply chain managers, too, but only if they’ve laid appropriate groundwork first.

“It’s great to get face time with people you work with,” he says. “But it isn’t about going out and talking to whomever you bump into. On the surface it may look like wandering around, but underneath, there’s a plan and an intention.”

And there’s also a history. Management by wandering around is effective only after you’ve already spent time getting to know the challenges of your internal customers.

“You don’t just go out and talk,” Thomas says. “You establish a relationship first and then you check on that person on a regular basis to make sure everything is still running smoothly. There’s a purpose to the wandering.”

Some supply chain managers subscribe to a method of continuous process improvement called the Shewhart Cycle. This four-step management method consists of 1) plan, 2) do, 3) check and 4) act.

So for supply chain leaders, plan what your customers want, do what you say and deliver the product, check to find out how it’s going, and then act if something needs changing.

The process should happen during the check part of the cycle. “You’re going out on a regular, informal basis to bump into key customers and find out how it’s going,” Thomas says.

3. Use technology wisely.

Smart phones, laptops and iPads have a huge role in hospital management. The technology allows users to access information faster and solve problems sooner. But Thomas believes that human interaction will always trump new technology—especially when it comes to building relationships.

“While technology might provide you with more efficiency, you first have to determine its effectiveness.”

You can have the fanciest system in the world, but it won’t help if no one wants to use it. Thomas warns that you can’t expect customers to change their reporting methods to fit into a new IT program simply because you want them to.

“Ultimately it’s human activity that leads change,” he says. “When you’re trustworthy and interested in what the other person needs, they’ll be more open to tell you their problems and listen to your advice.”

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