‘The faintest ink is stronger than the best memory’
One site visit brought me to a food distributor’s frozen warehouse in Florida. I had not thought to bring a coat — we were in Florida, after all. As we entered the warehouse, the temperature threatened frostbite of the extremities.
Make a note: You may want to bring your gloves when visiting a food distributor. Site visits are indispensable when you use remote vendors and manage multicultural customer relationships, but thorough preparation is also critical.
The founding four
The four basic types of site visits are social, certifying, investigative, and monitoring. If you prepare carefully, each type of site visit can provide an enormous amount of information about potential suppliers.
The social site visit, which may not have a specific agenda at all, is simply a way to build a relationship with the other party. In some cultures, you must develop a meaningful relationship before you conduct any business.
Often it’s an engineer who completes a certifying site visit, which is specifically designed to test a supplier’s ability to meet specifications consistently. Normally you should conduct such visits when you are seriously considering awarding business to the supplier. A supplier who meets all of your established criteria is certified and can become an active source of products. If the supplier fails to meet the criteria, you must either give him a set of corrective steps to complete, or dismiss him from consideration.
An investigative site visit is a combination of social and certifying visits. This is the type of visit you would use to evaluate the basic capabilities of a supplier, as well as his hunger to land your business. At the same time, you will be selling your company to the supplier as a good customer.
A monitoring visit occurs after the supplier/customer relationship has been established. This type of meeting reviews the performance of the supplier and customer and develops corrective actions and cost reduction programs as appropriate.
Use the following steps to make the most of your site visit.
Collect your team. A site visit allows you to experience a supplier with all your senses. It will create a picture much more complete and complex than you could communicate through words. Because of this, it is critical that all key stakeholders are represented on the visit.
Qualify. Conducting site visits can be expensive in time and money, especially when significant travel is involved. Consequently, do not visit every supplier who is interested in your business. Instead, pre-qualify suppliers by evaluating them in terms of financial strength, breadth of services, past performance, industry position, and their response to your request for proposal.
Profile. Before you visit, build a one-page profile to capture the supplier’s basic history, sales level, number of employees, locations, product offering, financial strength, recent news stories or press releases, examples of past performance, and an assessment of the potential risks of working with that supplier. This profile will give each team member access to helpful information throughout the meeting.
Ask general questions. Questions are great. They allow you to start discussions and learn about the other party, and considered questions are not likely to make concessions or offend anyone.
Conduct a gap analysis. In addition to general questions, you should develop customized questions based on a review of the supplier’s proposal, company information, past performance, etc. For example, you might ask a supplier to explain his view of a recent service failure, and how he plans to avoid similar problems in the future.
Develop your presentation. The site visit gives you an opportunity to clarify your business needs and sell your company as a good customer. If you don’t plan to develop a collaborative relationship with the supplier and are only looking to price shop, you might skip this step.
A typical agenda might include time for personal introductions, an overview of your sourcing strategy and the potential role of the supplier, where you are in the selection process, the goals for the visit, and a calendar of future steps.
Communicate before the meeting. If you do complete every other step in this list, but omit this one, you risk losing most of the substantial benefits of the visit. Since you are selling yourself as a customer, it does you no good to sell to anyone but the decision maker. Therefore you need to confirm that the appropriate officer will be at the meeting. Consider sharing the agenda so the supplier can make all the right people available.
Watch and learn
The materials you prepared for the site visit will give the day structure and maximize your ability to be creative. Since the basic ideas and questions will be written, you won’t have to concentrate on generating them during the meeting. Instead, you will be able to observe, listen, and improvise.
Here are some of the things you can learn by observing:
What is the condition of the property? Look closely at the company parking lot. Is it full or empty, smooth or in need of repair, well lit or dangerous? You may notice similar attributes about the company’s building, grounds, or equipment. These points may be helpful in evaluating the financial stability of the company.
Is a high degree of order evident? Are there inventories in the aisles, disorganized cribs, dirty floors, faded lines?
Does the plant have the right equipment and systems to pursue its goals?
Show grace. Don’t forget that you have been received as a guest. Never lose control or treat the supplier with disrespect. If you remain calm, you can think better and maximize the chances that you will succeed in your visit.
Finally, document your visit. As Mark Twain observed over a century ago, the faintest ink is stronger than the best memory. As you and your team complete your sourcing process, you will need to compare many alternatives. Clear and complete notes will help you to consider all the evidence as you make your selection.
The site visit will give you the opportunity to learn about each function and about the supplier’s people. Consider asking the following types of questions in your visit:
- What are your strategic plans for the next three to five years?
- What would make us your best customer? Tell us about your best customers.
- What important trends do you see in your industry?
- How can we help you to reduce costs? How can you help us to reduce costs?
- How does your cost structure compare with your competitors’?
- How are your employees measured and rewarded?
- How do you define customer satisfaction? How is it measured?
- How do orders flow through the system? What can we do to simplify the order process?
- What is your process to notify a customer that a delivery will be late?
- How do you ensure a defect-free product? (“Defect-free” means that it meets all of our specifications.)
- What is the available capacity of your facility?
- How is your relationship with your largest suppliers? Best suppliers?
- How do you measure your suppliers?
- What concerns do you have after reading our request for proposal?
- Who assures that corrective action has been taken?
- What new products will you be offering? Explain your view of research and development.
- Are you profitable?
Another method to increase what you learn is to ask questions of various people at different levels and in different functions within the organization. This will give you multiple points to consider and a feel for how consistent the ideas are within the company.
Check it out
Regardless of the specific questions you ask and the approach you take, make sure each of these items is answered before you take your leave:
- Is the strategic direction of the supplier in line with your needs?
- Does the workforce have the same understanding of its role and priorities as management?
- Is the supplier financially secure?
- Does the supplier have the process controls and manufacturing expertise to ensure consistent quality?
- Does the supplier run a safe and legally compliant operation?
- Does the supplier want your business?
- Is the supplier ready for your business?
- Is the supplier preparing for future success?
Site visits can be extremely expensive and time-consuming. They can also save you from using suppliers who could cripple your business, and they can help you uncover diamonds in the rough. Many are the hapless companies that have been burned because they contracted with suppliers who could not live up to their proposals.
A structured and well-prepared site visit will eliminate such suppliers from consideration and elevate the truly professional service providers.
Timothy Van Mieghem is a founding partner of The ProAction Group, a consulting firm that helps companies leverage their supply chain to serve shareholders’ and customers’ interests. He is a member of the Transportation Board of Advisors for 3PLEX.com, a 3PL-focused transportation exchange, and author of Implementing Supplier Partnerships. Van Mieghem can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and by phone at (312) 726-6111.