Good Cop / Bad Cop Supplier Management

We’ve all seen the movies:

Bad Cop: Look, we know you did it you filthy piece of poop, if you don’t tell us where the body is I’m going nail your dangly bits to this table!

Good Cop: Look, we want to help you. We want to get this over with as much as you. Just tell us where the body is and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.

The old good cop / bad cop routine is one of the oldest tricks in the book but can it be used for managing suppliers? I think it can be a useful tool to have in your armoury but only when used as an addition to the fundamentals of good supplier management:

Clarity of needs

Your supplier must understand what it is that you need them to deliver. This includes:

  • What is to be produced

  • Timescales

  • Quality requirements

Equally you must understand what your supplier needs from you. This can include:

  • Contract / payment

  • Decisions / sign off

  • Specifications and other information

If you wish to manage a supplier effectively then it is your job to ensure that this clarity of needs in both directions is established and maintained.

Openness and honesty

It is reasonable for your supplier to deliver against their promises. If you are told that 100 servers will be delivered by the end of the month then you have every right to expect that to happen. However if a delay is going to occur then, to minimise the impact, it is useful to know about it at the earliest opportunity. You can only expect a supplier to be up front about schedule slips and other difficulties if you have developed an open and honest relationship with them.

By having such a relationship you will sharpen your perception of how your project is actually progressing which, in turn, enables you to manage the situation more pro-actively. As an example, if a supplier is struggling to meet a deadline you may be able to provide additional resources (people, hardware, knowledge) so that they can still deliver on time. Alternatively you may be able to phase shipment of their goods in a way that does not impede your schedule.

Fairness and integrity

The relationship between a customer and a supplier must deliver mutual benefit. In other words, it has to be fair. Treating suppliers fairly means treating them as equals. Do not expect a supplier to do something that you would not agree to do yourself (like starting work before a purchase order is received).

Your dealings with suppliers should always show integrity so that they are able to trust you. There is nothing wrong with telling a supplier that if they deliver 100 widgets on time then they stand to win a much larger contract, but only if you know that to be true. If a supplier learns that what you say has no meaning then your ability to manage them is severely reduced.

If you are applying these fundamentals of supplier management then you will rarely need to use the good cop / bad cop technique that I am about to describe. So, why is it useful at all? The simple fact is that sometimes you need to get tough with suppliers:

  • If deadlines are consistently missed

  • If product quality is consistently poor

  • If it would be difficult for you to switch suppliers (but you are tempted)

In these circumstances it is time to start escalating issues and putting down in writing what your dissatisfaction is and what you expect to be done about it. The problem is that bringing this kind of pressure to bear on a supplier can work to the detriment of your day-to-day working relationship. Your supplier starts avoiding your calls because they are worried about what you are going to say!

It is against this backdrop that it is sensible to work with a colleague. One of you can play the “bad cop” (writing letters of complaint, escalating, pointing out contractual obligations) safe in the knowledge that the “good cop” will be able to maintain a pleasant day-to-day working relationship. Although in an ideal world you should never have to use this approach, in the real world it definitely has its place. Just try to stop short of nailing anyone’s dangly bits to a table!


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