Even though supply chains are becoming more automated, people still play a critical role in successful interactions and product flow. This is especially true for most small businesses. Relationships and conversations matter much more to small businesses because they don’t have the power of Walmart or Apple to rely on novel-length contracts and impersonal automation. Instead, phone calls, personal visits, special favors, and constant cooperation are what keep small companies alive and their products flowing. So it makes sense that the ability to win friends and influence people in your supply chain is a powerful skill that is needed to help your company survive and flourish.
I recently finished listening to the business classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People (HTWF&IP), by Dale Carnegie. Although originally published over 75 years ago, it’s still a consistent bestseller because it’s simply a great book. The lessons are timeless and apply directly to everyday life in along the supply chain. I’d like to share a few simple examples of how I’ve seen the book’s suggestions directly help me solve problems with vendors, customers, and fellow team members.
Always Make the Other Person Feel Important
“There is one all-important law of human conduct. If we obey that law, we shall almost never get into trouble. In fact, that law, if obeyed, will bring us countless friends and constant happiness. But the very instant we break the law, we shall get into endless trouble. The law is this: Always make the other person feel important.”
“Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.”
― Dale Carnegie, HTWF&IP
The strongest takeaway I gained from the book is that making others feel important can help solve most conflicts. The key, however, is to do so in a sincere way. Never use flattery or give undeserved phrase. However, by recognizing the important roles that others play – and seeing problems from their perspective, you can give them the due respect and honor that you would like to be given if you were in their place. Often problems vanish as soon as the other person feels acknowledged and respected.
I’ll first share an embarrassing example I’ve realized about myself. My company often gets last-minute rush orders that fall outside our normal fulfillment time. We have a standard lead time, but sometimes to win the sale, our salespeople must promise delivery in a much shorter period than our standard. When those orders are thrown at me, and I’m ordered to make it happen, I find myself reluctant to do so. However, when someone approaches me kindly, acknowledges how busy my team is, and asks me to please consider making an exception this one time, my attitude is completely different. I feel important and thus do everything I can to make sure the order succeeds. Of course, I recognize that I need to work on helping all orders succeed equally, but you can see how powerful an extra 30 seconds of conversation can be.
Utilizing the same principal, I recently helped schedule a delivery appointment with a key customer even though we thought it couldn’t be done. Our warehouse supervisor had called for an appointment at the end of the month, and because the customer was fully booked, the customer said we couldn’t deliver until several days later. Our CEO wanted us very much to deliver within the month, so I called back. I talked with the same receiving clerk for a few minutes. I acknowledged how busy he was and listened for a minute about everything he had going on. I praised him that he’d be willing to handle that much on a Friday. After just a minute of getting to know him a little more, I explained that our order was very small, just a few cases, and he would be doing us a great favor if we could sneak it in between his many other important shipments. He said it wouldn’t be a problem – and we delivered that afternoon. Not only did the order get delivered on time, but I now have a friend at our customer’s warehouse that I look forward to talking with again.
Make others feel important – and do so sincerely.
Continuous Improvement through Continuous Praise
“Let us praise even the slightest improvement. That inspires the other person to keep on improving.”
― Dale Carnegie, HTWF&IP
Enabling others to improve is one of the most rewarding and effective methods of improving your company and supply chain. Through improving and encouraging the job skills, creativity, and problem solving abilities of others, your entire network will benefit from more engaged players and improved processes. In fact, a key tenant of the Toyota Production System is to encourage improvement through the creativity of every one of its employees and supply chain members. Imagine if Toyota managers were dictatorial, constantly shouting out commands and berating employees for mistakes. It’s not a stretch to predict that Toyota would be out of business if that’s how they managed their people.
Praise, in contrast, has an almost magical effect in motivating others to improve. Based on this principal, I’ve watch my company grow one of our key suppliers through targeted praise – and withholding the occasional frustrations.
When we first started producing one of our new products, we found a small firm of just a few people that was eager to work with us. Although eager, they often had quality control problems, delays, and incongruent processes that come from being a young company. I became frustrated many times, and recommended dropping them as a supplier – even though that meant they would likely go out of business.
Despite my recommendation, my wise manager counseled that we keep them on as a continued ally. My manager was careful to encourage them to improve: he identified and focused on what they did right. When problems surfaced, we took a shared-problem approach and tried to solve the issues in a way that we and the supplier would bear responsibility together for improvement. We rewarded their progress with compliments and increased orders.
Because of the years of patience and encouragement, this supplier is now our miracle worker. We have other, more advanced suppliers. However, when we’re in a tight spot, no one can pull off an emergency order with next to no lead time like that small supplier we’ve grown. Because of this supplier’s expertise at short-notice orders, we’ve been able to catch many sales opportunities that we would have otherwise needed to pass up – or pay much more in expedited freight. I’ve witness how patience and praise can help a supplier grow to a point that boosts your bottom line when no one else can.
Avoid Arguments and Let Others Save Face
“If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.”
“Letting one save face! How important, how vitally important that is! And how few of us ever stop to think of it! We ride roughshod over the feelings of others, getting our own way, finding fault, issuing threats, criticizing a child or an employee in front of others, without even considering the hurt to the other person’s pride. Whereas a few minutes’ thought, a considerate word or two, a genuine understanding of the other person’s attitude, would go so far toward alleviating the sting!”
― Dale Carnegie, HTWF&IP
In the course of your interactions with customer and vendors, I guarantee that points of disagreement and contention will arise. Huge quality problems, incorrect freight counts, painful cycle counts, overdue orders, key stock outs, mountains of obsolete inventory, and…well, I’m sure you could add another 20 problems to the list. Indeed, problems are so common in the supply chain that I’ve heard supply chain management called problem management or fire management. But how do we fight fires while still thinking long-term? Indeed, supply chain success comes not only from solving the temporary problems, but creating long-term cooperation and synergy through strong relationships. Thus, we find ourselves in a precarious balance between the problems of today – “who’s responsible for fixing and paying for this?” – and long-term partnerships to improve the entire supply chain – “how can we improve information and product flow along the chain?”
Better defined, the risk we face is allowing the problem of the day to slow and destroy the progress made on long-term relationships. Even if someone is particularly difficult to work with, venting your frustrations and giving that person a piece of your mind could easily set back months or years of investment. Even if you’re completely right, avoiding argument – or letting your opponent gracefully retreat – may be the smartest move to make.
Certainly when money is involved, the process takes on higher stakes. In the interest of our companies, it certainly befits your and I to recover money that is rightfully ours. However, when arguments or disagreements become personal, bitter, and unrelated to the actual problem – these are fights to avoid.
When dealing with some of our Asian suppliers, this concept becomes especially important. Asian cultures treat conflict differently than other cultures. Saving face is much more important there than in the US or Europe – although we often fail to realize that it’s still quite important in any culture. When problems arise, if we are able to deflect the blame away from any specific person and instead focus on solutions, our suppliers are much more willing to work with us on solving the problem. For example, whenever I send an email to a supplier that dictates, “This was your fault. You need to either do this or pay a significant penalty,” nothing good ever comes from it. However, when I am able to approach the problem as the following, the problem is often rectified: “We noticed this problem. This is not good because our end consumers are not happy when this happens. What can we do to solve this problem?” Working together to solve a problem is always more productive and rewarding than pushing a punishment.
How to Win Friends and Influence people is a great reminder of how we should treat others. It brings together a lot of applicable advice on how to interact with people, and therefore becomes an excellent real-world resource that teaches just what the title professes.
I enjoy spreadsheets, databases, and technology, but relationships with people are more important than any automated email alert. Carnegie cites a study that explains how “even in such technical lines as engineering, about 15 percent of one’s financial success is due to one’s technical knowledge and about 85 percent is due to skill in human [interactions] and the ability to lead people.” I see it as no stretch to say that at least 85% of the success of your business in the supply chain is your ability to interact positively with others.
If you’ve already read Dale Carnegie’s book and would like another great read on improving human relations, then I recommend Leadership and Self-deception.