CINCINNATI—Learning to be a better buyer will help balance your business, according to Dan Laur, president of Laur Silicone Inc.
He showed the importance of building trusted communication channels and establishing relationships with vendors during his presentation at the Rubber Roller Group meeting in Cincinnati.
"Are we really taking the time to let our vendors know what's really important to us? Are we letting them help us?" he said. "In order for them to help us, they have to know what's valuable."
Suppliers can supply more than just machinery, supplies and raw materials, he said. Businesses can go to them for technical assistance and viewpoints.
"They can bring a lot to the table if you let them," Laur said. "They will help you and they will hold your hand if you ask them to."
While the best way to serve customers is to meet their needs, trying to figure out those needs when the customer won't talk about them can be a frustrating process, he said. He gave a scenario in which a manufacturer gets a roller order with some specifications, but as they ask about what the roller will be used for or which materials it will come into contact with, the answers aren't very useful or are along the lines of "It makes film," and, "We cannot tell you that."
"Unfortunately, from my feedback from customers, this is all too common of an answer. It doesn't really tell you anything," he said.
Getting more information from a customer goes a long way to maximizing efforts, getting the appropriate materials for the job, he said.
"What is the film made of? … What are the operating temperatures?" he said. "It could be any of a host of issues. It could be acid pressure, UV, whatever. You have to know the answers to these questions to give your customers the roll that will work best for them."
Asking about existing problems can be even more difficult, he said. Providing answers for customers is itself an obstacle if the current issues aren't being shared. This makes it especially difficult to guarantee results.
"How are we going to provide solutions if we don't know?" he asked. "My question to you is: Are you doing the same thing to your customers that you complain about your customers doing to you? Would you be further ahead if you took a little more time to define the problem and then share that problem with your suppliers and your vendors?"
Working from general information forces broader solutions that don't always address the specific issue, he said. When an obstacle requires tighter controls, it's likely to need more communication to find a response that will actually address it. Getting the right solution might mean a higher cost or reduced wear.
As an avid fisherman, Laur shared an example of a fishing trip he took on the coast of Hawaii, in which he and his wife went fishing with a guide who took them shallow-water fishing for bonefish with spinning gear, a particular type of fishing equipment. But the way Laur prefers to fish is more streamlined, with just a pole and lure. Because of miscommunication of what Laur was after, he did get an enjoyable fishing experience, but not the experience he had hoped for, he said.
"We, mainly me, should've done a better job of telling the guy what we wanted to do," he said. "I might as well have told him that I wanted an 80 durometer black roller.
"If you want to supply your customers with the best roller than you can, you have to get them to tell you what they really want and what they really value, so you can pass that on to your suppliers," he said. "Remember, these suppliers can be in-house. You don't have to go outside to have a supplier."
To customers, Laur said that suppliers aren't going to be able to guess problems and will struggle to meet requirements without more detailed information.
"Communicate with each other. Tell people what the problem is," he said. "If you cannot trust your vendors with the information they need to know to supply you the products you need, be it a machine, supplies or rubber, you should get new vendors."
Laur also shared some feedback from other voices in the rubber roller industry, which included to be prepared with material names and information, shipment dates and lot numbers. If visual aids would help, provide them. Above all, it's important to treat suppliers and customers both with the Golden Rule in mind.
Treating them ethically is also important, though there can be some gray areas, Laur said. Keep confidential information guarded. Guarding competitors' information will build a reputation among customers that will allow them to more easily open up about potential problems when working on new orders.
Bringing more information to the table also will give suppliers what they need to accurately deal with supply issues and shortages, such as the ones that have been plaguing the silicone industry in the past few years, he said. Laur Silicone hasn't missed a shipment because of a raw material problem, because the company's purchasing department has spent time talking with vendors.
"They have given a good forecast. They have given reasonable expectations. They've worked with them," Laur said. "While we've asked for competitive pricing, we haven't tried to take the last penny off the table. We have tried to be a valuable customer. If you have a good, valuable supplier, nurture that relationship."
It's also important to be fair to suppliers, even when dealing with a message that's not necessarily a welcome change such as a price increase, he said.
"Nobody likes to give a price increase. Nobody likes to tell people about them, nobody likes to get them," Laur said. "But it's not the salesperson's fault that you got a price increase. It's a fact of life."
It would be a fair move to contact the company with a message about how the price increase will affect business, but the salesperson isn't the right target for blame, he said. Along the same lines, having reasonable expectations with both products and timeline also will make a big difference.
Another note from an industry voice is to make certain that bills get paid, he said.
"Nobody likes to tell a customer, 'Yeah, we've got your materials sitting out on the dock. It's ready to ship, it's approved, and we're not shipping it because accounts payable has you on hold.' It's not good for you, it's not good for your customer. And it's not good for me and raising my blood pressure," Laur said.
Building strong communication channels throughout the purchasing process and treating customers and suppliers fairly take effort, but make a big difference for business, he said.
"There's more to it than an 80 durometer black. Trust your vendors. Be prepared. Be fair. Treat your suppliers ethically, and a little loyalty goes a long way," Laur said. "There's more to it than just price. And listen to your vendors. They want to help."