Depending on the nature of your business, suppliers may play a key role in your success. Your supply chain could be simple or it could be quite complex and include suppliers that you deal with day in day out as well as more remote suppliers who you deal with occasionally and/or you do not have a direct relationship.

The general term “supplier” is used in this note but there are a lot of terms (e.g., contractors, consultants and freelancers) used to describe a person or business that you might use to provide goods or services to your business, that may or may not form part of the goods or services you provide to your clients or customers.

+ Negotiating with suppliers

You may think a good deal is one where you get everything that you want. That might be okay where you have with a one-off transaction with a supplier but is it really such a good thing if you want to do business with a particular supplier again or have an ongoing partnership with them?

If you want to establish a good supplier relationship and get the most out of that relationship then it is important to consider the bigger picture. Relationships can be unsuccessful if one side feels forced into a corner or “ripped off”. For successful long-term supplier relationships, aim to start off on the right footing with both sides feeling comfortable and happy with the agreement.

Before you start to negotiate, here is some “negotiation strategy” homework you can do to put yourself in the best, most informed and confident position:

1. What is important to you?

What are the key items that are most important to you? What are and aren’t you prepared to compromise on? Be realistic in your expectations – if you’re not prepared to compromise, the negotiations won’t get far.

2. What is important to the supplier?

What are the key items you think or know are important to the supplier? Where do you think they be willing to compromise? Where will the sticking points be?

3. How strong is your negotiating position?

Does the supplier have competitors? Are they a new entrant to a particular market? Will you potentially be their main customer? Might they be willing to offer good deals to get your business?

4. Potential areas of agreement/common ground?

Can you find any potential areas of common ground or agreement that could establish a good starting point?

5. Potential responses/scenarios?

What offers or compromises the supplier might offer you? How will you respond so you don’t get caught off guard?

6. Research actual costs.

Can you find out what it costs the supplier to make their goods or provide their services. It might put you in a good position to know how much wriggle room there is in price negotiations.

7. Get price comparisons

If you are only dealing with one supplier, then it could be useful to get quotes from at least another 2 suppliers, so that you have a good idea of what a reasonable price is.

8. Learn the lingo

Take the time to learn the supplier’s industry lingo and basics, so you know what they are talking about and you at least sound like you know what you’re talking about during negotiations.

9. Who should do the negotiating?

Who are the right people to do the negotiating for you? Who are the people you want to deal with from the supplier? It is a good idea to have people at the right level of seniority who have the information, knowledge and authority to make decisions in the negotiation. Make sure everyone from your end is aware and on board with your negotiating strategy and priorities.

10. Is timing important to your negotiating position?

Negotiating at the right time can be an important strategic tool, for example, if the supplier needs to make targets. However also think about timing from your own point of view, e.g., you ideally do not want to be negotiating when you are under pressure to deliver for a client or customer.

When you start negotiations, the following strategies/tactics can be useful:

11. Positive attitude

Be positive and confident in the negotiation and always remain calm, professional and friendly.

12. Dealing with pressure

Don't allow pressure to force you into agreeing to a point you're not happy with. Ask for a break if you need one – don’t get stressed out. If you are getting nowhere on a particular point and discussions are getting heated or bogged down, then suggest putting it to one side and moving on to something else, then return to it later with clearer heads.

13. Keep notes

Each time you agree to a point, clarify that you've understood it correctly and write it down. Recap the agreed points at regular stages and clarify what remains to be agreed.

14. Bargaining chips

Keep some bargaining chips in reserve! Try to hold back a few things that you're prepared to concede or compromise on until later in the negotiations, so that you can offer them in exchange for the supplier conceding or compromising on other points.

Supplier negotiation doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does help to have a plan so you are prepared to meet any bumps along the way. Good preparation and using these suggested negotiation tactics in your meetings increase the chance you’ll walk away with a good deal and a good supplier relationship for your business.

+ Terms and conditions

Once all the key points have been agreed with the supplier it is best to get a written contract drawn up and signed by both parties. If you are in a strong enough bargaining position then you may be able to insist on the final contract being based on your own terms and conditions rather than the supplier’s terms and conditions. Sometimes you will end up with a mixture of the two sets of terms and conditions or indeed a completely bespoke new set of terms and conditions. It really depends on the circumstances and the outcomes from the negotiation.

You should consider getting legal advice to draw up your final contract with the supplier, or at the very least ask a lawyer to review your proposed draft to ensure that it covers all the required legal provisions and each party’s rights and obligations correctly.

The basic terms for a business to business contract for goods/and or services will typically contain:

  • Details of the parties entering the contract.

  • Definitions of the key terms used in the contract.

  • Commencement date/duration/termination date.

  • A description of the goods and/or services.

  • Details of price and payment terms.

  • Delivery schedule/dates/arrangements.

  • Obligations of the supplier.

  • Obligations of the customer.

  • Service levels/specifications/minimum standards/levels of care.

  • For goods – a clause covering when risk and ownership are transferred to you, the customer.

  • Remedies for poor performance, non-conformity, delay or non-delivery, non-payment and other breaches of contract.

  • Compliance with laws and policies.

  • Liability limitations, indemnities, warranties and insurance requirements.

  • Dealing with information – confidentiality and data protection (GDPR).

  • For services – ownership of intellectual property rights, materials, deliverables etc.

  • Termination rights and any exit arrangements.

  • Contact points/escalation/complaints/dispute resolution.

  • Boilerplate clauses that appear in most contracts including governing law.

Details of services, prices, standards, policies etc that are lengthy can be set out in Schedules or Appendices to the contract rather than in the main body to make it more easily readable. Reference should be made to each Schedule in the main body of the contract.

Both parties should agree and sign the final contract and a copy retained by both parties for future reference.

+ Managing ongoing supplier relationships

It’s vital to manage ongoing longer-term supplier relationships to ensure that your business is getting the most out of the supplier and the agreed contract.

Some ideas to think about are set out below. The appropriateness and frequency of these will depend very much the nature of the goods/services being provided and the nature of the relationship you have with your supplier:

  • Performance management: Regularly review your supplier’s performance against the contract requirements and against their competitors. It can help you reduce costs, mitigate risks and drive continuous improvement in your business. See further detail in Reviewing supplier performance and supplier contracts.

  • Contract review: Regularly review the supplier contract to ensure that the deal you have in place still represents the best option for your business and that you are taking full advantage of any rights you have in the contract. See further detail in Reviewing supplier performance and supplier contracts.

  • Key dates calendar: Keep a note of key dates, such as when you need to serve notice to end the contract or when you can seek a price reduction or review.

  • Develop the relationship with key suppliers: Have regular communication to explain the direction of your business, any new plans, and use the supplier’s skills and experience to help you, e.g., they may be able to give you advice on new technologies.

  • Be a good customer: Make sure you fulfil all your obligations, pay your invoices on time and treat the business relationship like a partnership. You need them as a supplier just as much as they need you as a customer, and it’s important to remember that.

+ Reviewing supplier performance and supplier contracts

There are a few key areas to focus on when reviewing your supplier’s performance and supplier contracts.

Scope Review: Does your business still need the services or products? Does the scope of services or products meet your current and future needs? Has there been scope creep? If the supplier contract is an important part of what you deliver to clients then look at the client contract to ensure there is a flow through of the requirements.

Performance Review: Is the supplier doing what they should be doing under the contract? How responsive are they to questions, requests and complaints? Could you get better performance, services or goods elsewhere? Look at the market to see what else is out there, and consider using that information in any discussions with the supplier about renewing the contract. If the supplier has not been performing as they should have been, you may be due a refund or credit for poor or non- performance.

Financial Review: Are you still getting a good deal or could you get a better deal elsewhere? Are there any payment review clauses? You may be due a discount or a reduction for being a customer for a period of time.

Legal Review: Are you reliant on the supplier having certain accreditations, permissions or qualifications in place and do they still have these? Has anything significantly changed in law that needs to be addressed in the contract?

Renewal Review: Is there an auto-renewal clause? Have you got the date noted in case you need to take action? Are you familiar with any break clauses or rights of termination in the contract that could be used if need be?

Contingency planning: How critical is this contract to your business? Would there be any knock-on effect for your ability to perform your client contracts? If the contract was terminated by the supplier, do you have a contingency or alternative supplier you could use?

Key contacts: Are these still accurate or do they need to be changed?

If anything does need to be changed then check the contract to find out the agreed process to amend the contract and follow that process. It is likely that you will need the supplier’s agreement to make changes to the contract, so good communication to get a contract that continues to work for both parties is key.

Remember your clients and suppliers may be carrying out the same process, so it’s important that you look honestly and objectively at your own performance as well as theirs.

Lastly, make sure you schedule the next review date and schedule it well in advance of any auto-renewal dates.

Finding the right supplier can be tricky. There are a number of factors that may be important to you and these can vary from supplier to supplier:

  • price/affordability

  • value for money

  • good relationships

  • quality

  • reliability/consistency

  • responsiveness/speed of delivery

  • flexibility/meeting changing demands and urgent situations

  • shared culture

  • location

For start-ups and small businesses, price and affordability are frequently the key consideration, however, it’s important to bear in mind that cheap suppliers don't always represent the best value for money. If you want reliability and quality from your supplier, then you may need to strike a balance between cost, reliability, quality and service.

Communication is key to ensuring a good working relationship with your supplier, so from the outset make sure that you and the supplier are on the same wavelength in respect of how you will communicate, who the contacts are and set clear expectations about being open and honest, especially if something goes wrong (or is about to go wrong) and needs to be fixed quickly.

When selecting suppliers for your business, consider whether you need to have a choice of supply sources. Buying from only one supplier can be risky if they let you down, or go out of business. Before you contract with a supplier you may want to run a credit check on them to check that they are in a sufficiently good financial position to deliver what you want, when you need it. Also check that they are a legitimate company by running a company search on Companies House WebCheck service.

Finally, it's also a good idea to get references from other customers of the supplier. The supplier should be happy to put you in touch with some of its previous clients, however, remember that they are unlikely to put you in touch with a dissatisfied customer. If you are able to seek references independently, these may offer a more balanced view of the supplier.

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