Supply chain management is more data-driven than ever, and while we should be excited about the technological advances that are changing the function, let’s not lose sight of the critical role that relationship building plays in the profession’s success.
Building and maintaining robust working relationships with customers has always been a foundational skill in logistics, and it still is.
Understanding its value is especially important from a talent management perspective. We continue to focus on ensuring that young recruits have the mix of skills required to meet customers’ current and future demands. Relationship building has to be part of that mix.
What specific capabilities are needed?
Two key components are trust and credibility. This is where the “building” part of the equation comes in; these qualities are put in place over time, brick by brick.
The process starts with getting to know the customer, and not just through emails or phone calls (even though these are important channels of communication). If you really want to connect with a customer there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, especially at the beginning of the relationship.
This can seem like an uphill struggle if the customer is unwilling to talk in person or is uncomfortable with making contact on both social and business levels. Offering them tribal knowledge is a good way to break the ice and drive the conversation.
It can take a while to reach this stage—which is why effective relationship building requires patience and tenacity.
Young recruits, including the current crop of Millennials, need to be particularly mindful of the need to stay the course. At this early career stage there is a tendency to be impatient and expect good things to happen overnight.
Another pitfall is overestimating how much you know. The increasing number of colleges that offer degrees in logistics and supply chain management is one of the most encouraging talent management trends in the industry. Graduates of these programs are off to a great start because they already have a wealth of technical knowledge.
However, new entrants need an education outside of the classroom in order to become skilled relationship builders.
Acquiring a broad-based knowledge of the industry and service applications, as well as a deep appreciation of what makes working relationships tick, requires on-the-job experience. Young employees must also be willing to learn from senior managers, including those who might not have benefitted from a specialized degree program, but who have worked hard to become extremely skilled relationship builders.
If you are not naturally inclined toward being an effective communicator, be prepared to augment your skills. Programs that take you outside of your comfort zone such as public speaking classes and role playing exercises are very useful.
Keep in mind that while the value of technical knowhow has increased tremendously in the profession, the value of relationship building has always been, and will continue to be, at a premium.
Good data opens the door—relationships take you into the customer’s business.