What to Expect From a Supplier
Suppliers or fabricators are referred to sometimes as producers or factories who produce tile, slabs, cut to size, or other special works such as fireplace surrounds. These suppliers sometimes are misunderstood. Everyone communicates differently with suppliers and most often different prices are given to different customers as well as different qualities of workmanship. This can all be most frustrating to buyers. What to buy and from whom is always a buyers concern. Perhaps everyone should define what they expect from a supplier either in writing, verbally, or through trade associations. Everyone wants basically the same thing, but no one really says it. The following is my outline of a good supplier.
Suppliers should communicate in the language of the customer or buyer. They should be clear in their communication whether by fax, letter, or phone. Being clear means being detailed like a newspaper reporter does when they are trained to think of the 5 W's: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. So many times suppliers tend to give you part of an answer and not all. For instance, a supplier may say "Your shipment is being prepared and the freight costs will be approximately ___?" Later on you get upset when you forgot to ask, "Well, when will this shipment leave?"
Suppliers have a problem communicating with customers and vice versa. I have heard many buyers ask "how much is it for cut to size granite?" The buyer never stated the quantity, what size, when he needed it etc. Such general questions can really get a customer and supplier into trouble. Too much is taken for granted. The supplier and the customer must learn to communicate clearly and come to a common understanding of the facts.
The supplier must be responsible to ask the questions, supply all the answers clearly and in a timely manner. So many times delays in shipments are not reported to the buyer until the buyer asks "Where is my shipment?" The supplier should be communicating periodically to the buyer about what is happening, give documentation when available, and keep the buyer informed. When problems occur, which in the stone business they so frequently do, the supplier should communicate this immediately. If the stone is varying in tonality or veining more than what the buyer expected, the supplier should get approval of this variation from the buyer in advance of shipping.
All suppliers must be judged on whether they are reliable. Reliable should mean responsible to ship quality merchandise in a timely fashion. For most buyers this is understood. For many suppliers this is not true. Suppliers must understand that the buyer is always correct. If a supplier wants to maintain a relationship with their buyers than they must ship quality materials in a timely manner. Too many times suppliers have lost their customers without knowing why. Later on they find out the quality was not good or they took too long to ship. Delays in shipping can cost the buyers money.
Buyers are looking for a program. This program may be, for example, to have 25 granites in the production program consistently and regularly. Some of these granites may have to be commodities while others can be exclusive to one supplier. For example, in Brazil, a buyer may want a supplier to have Juparana, Capao Bonito, Negro Tijuca, Lavras, Kinawa, and Lila Gerais which are all considered commodities. The remaining granites can be others which the supplier wants to promote. However, it is important the supplier be able to supply quickly the quality material they are promoting and on a regular long term basis. The supplier must identify his niche in the market and let customers know what to expect from him. Too many times suppliers try to be everything to everybody. Eventually, this lack of specialty and direction will cause problems.
There is nothing more frustrating to a buyer to find out that the material he has been selling is not available today or sometimes ever again. What kind of program is this? Today you have a granite and tomorrow you do not. What happens to that job that you sold 800 S.F. of and only have 500 S.F. in stock left? What do you do with that stock?
Further, how can the supplier expect a customer to build a relationship and regular sales if the supplier can not offer a regular program? Buyers would also like to have a supplier who can service all their needs and that may mean offering slabs and tiles from one supplier or even cut to size work. Tiles need to match the slabs in tonality and color and veining. It is frustrating when a buyer is forced to buy slabs from one supplier and tiles from another and then when the shipments arrive, they do not match.
Suppliers need to have a marketing program. This means a clear and proper useful catalog with specification and testing details. Proper color rendition of the stone they are selling also helps. Sample boards with proper names, not fictitious ones, should also be available. Advertising in magazines helps to promote not only the supplier but their customers. Too many suppliers do not have advertising or marketing. A clear a proper price list is also required.
Telephone solicitation is sometimes required by the supplier as well as periodic visits to his clients to understand their needs and how they are servicing them. Trade shows are becoming so big that a supplier is now conspicuous by his absence. Many buyers think the supplier is not serious about their market when they do not attend and exhibit.
Investing in a market is a long term goal and must be treated with reverence and respect. Consistency in marketing and innovations are the key. The repetition of being put in front of customers gets the suppliers orders and gives credibility to the suppliers. Pricing is not the only way to sell. Sometimes having key representation or an office in the market you are attempting to sell into is a must. Buyers want to have communication easily and quickly with their suppliers.
Buyers expect and take for granted that a supplier has quality controls. This is a mistake as not all suppliers have quality controls. What is quality is another question so often taken for granted by buyers and suppliers. However, there are standards and the supplier must take the responsibility to define and adhere to quality standards. Perhaps the ISO 9000 applies to the stone industry and perhaps quality is defined by the M.I.A. Design Manual or A.S.T.M. test data requirements of performance on stone. Whatever, the standards the supplier is using, they are responsible to make sure that it fulfills the requirements of the buyer and the market being sold.
Buyers expect suppliers to have consistent sales techniques and define those in the beginning. As an example, some suppliers do not know which market segment they are selling to eg. contractors, distributors, architects, owners, fabricators etc. Suppliers need to be consistent and not try to sell everyone. If they do sell different markets they need to be aware of the different pricing levels in each market. Some suppliers sell a slab for the same price as they sell a container of slabs. A distributor does not want to hear that his supplier is also selling and marketing to his customers.
Most times the suppliers have no knowledge of the market they are selling into. They only want to sell. Thus the market becomes even more confused and the distribution channels are thwarted. All buyers want is to have a supplier who has a consistent and dependable sales program.
Many suppliers have failed in this market based on a poor sales program.
Suppliers must be aware of the competition. The supplier must make a profit as well as price their product competitively. Many suppliers do not know what the market prices are or try to think that their higher prices can be justified because of their better quality. In today's age when so many people have similar machines and qualities of production price becomes a major factor in sales. Those suppliers who adjust their prices to reflect the current exchange rate more quickly have an obvious advantage.
Many times the supplier depends on the machinery people who sell him that machine to tell him what he can charge for the finished product. Never listen to a machinery supplier. They will many times mislead you into a comfort area and make you imagine that you will make a larger profit than is realized in the end. A supplier must study his market himself and know the customer demands for pricing as well as the competitors.
For example, some suppliers did foresee the Spanish exchange rate of the dollar changing from 100 to 135 pesetas per dollar. They reacted quickly by either faxing or phoning all their customers with new dollar prices. These lower prices got them immediate response and orders.
Suppliers must be consistent in their pricing. Too many times buyers receive a price and 30 days later when they are ordering find the prices have changed. Sometimes, suppliers have taken orders at one price and shipped at another price. There are reasons for this of course, but it can be a sure way of losing a customer.
A supplier who wants to sell in a market should know the terms of workmanship in that market and sales. If the buyer wants a quirk miter he should not have to explain to a supplier what this means. The M.I.A. puts out a list of terminologies as well as Stone World and it would behoove the suppliers to know and understand the various terms.
A supplier must be able offer quick and reliable replies. For example, so many times a supplier says they offer cut to size work but when you ask them for prices you may or may not see them reply for a week or at all. Many times the supplier is not capable of quoting cut to size or does not have an in house estimator for figuring jobs and prices. Further, the pricing levels are sometimes not clear nor consistent. What a supplier calculates today for quirk miters may not be what he figures tomorrow.
Sometimes the supplier does not have a man responsible for quality control at the factory. Thus what the outside sales people have sold is not communicated to the factory workers nor to the block buyers. This can cause tremendous problems. Later, during the job, the buyer may have trouble communicating with the salesman who sold the stone, for he knows and controls very little at the factory.
The supplier must be able to implement communication control within the office, the factory, and to the client. Documents must be prepared and many times faxed copies to the buyer in a timely manner. The original documents must also arrive in a timely manner to avoid delays. Shipping methods, packing controls, and on time vessel or truck departures are also important. Organizing all this in a suppliers office can be difficult as the person who is also the international sales manager may be responsible for everything. Suppliers many times do not hire people to service the needs of the demand that is put upon them. Having a factory with good machines is not enough to satisfy the problems that will and do occur.
Buyers want to know that a supplier is responsible and stands 100% behind what he produces and sells. A guarantee or warrantee would be nice. When there are problems, the customers want to know that the supplier will respond quickly and resolve the problems. Suppliers need to be honest not only to themselves when understanding their own limitations but also to the customer in communicating what they can and can not do. Many suppliers say "No Problem" when they realize up front they may have problems. When dealing with stone, there are always problems. How the supplier handles these problems with his buyer may determine how good a supplier he really is to the market.
To summarize, communication, reliability, marketing, quality, sales procedures, pricing, terminology, office procedures, and responsibility all play a part in determining what makes a good supplier. It is the suppliers responsibility to constantly update and review the companies image, direction, needs, and role in the market which is ever changing. Today so many suppliers are going out of business or changing ownerships. Many have lost sight as to what made them successful in the beginning. Of course it is easier to sell stone in a sellers market. However, in most parts of the world today, it is a buyers market and there are more suppliers than buyers.