Building strategic relationships with suppliers

Nathan Baranowski

What is the difference between a traditional customer/supplier relationship and a meaningful strategic partnership? What questions should charities be asking of their partners to ensure that projects succeed? How do you even make a successful relationship work?


These were the questions we had to answer when we spoke at the Civil Society Charity Technology Breakfast Briefing, on the procurement process in the changing world of IT.

Our session explored the processes charity organisations should undertake before making investments in technology, and how charities can get the most out of their partnership with suppliers. A lack of communication, not outlining clear goals from the outset and not challenging when your instinct tells you to, are sure-fire signs that the relationship won’t succeed, and are problems we have seen many times before.

So, how can charities make it work?

For any organisation, working with suppliers is one of the biggest challenges. The success of the organisation, or of a particular project, depends on prosperous and harmonious relationships with external partners.

Whatever the capacity of the supplier to the charity – be it consultant, strategic partner, project supplier or a transactional provider – the way in which these roles factor in to the collaborative process needs careful consideration.

The typical conversation centres around a need. You identify a requirement, and approach suppliers. In doing so, you are more often or not leading the supplier, who then is seeking to win the opportunity by best responding to your need, rather than providing insight and support to shape your need into a solution.


The result? A mismatch of expectation to solution. Frustration on the solution not meeting your need and spiralling cost as what you actually wanted isn’t what was delivered or tendered for.


Contrast this with a strategic relationship, one grounded on firm partnership principles. The focus moves from solution and sale to understanding need, and delivering value; aligning potential suppliers and their capability to your organisation. Then collaboratively exploring solutions and options that enable the right brief to be written. At this point, all suppliers can then respond armed with all the right information, and respond with the best and most complete price. The outcome: a positive relationship – built on trust, delivering against agreed terms and sharing a common understanding.


Take our work with the Disabilities Trust. There, we fully immersed ourselves in their organisation, understanding their need. We formed a relationship that resulted in ojo solutions undertaking a Director of Technology role for 2 years, as part of their Senior Management Team. Through this process, we had to develop multi-£M strategic partnerships to enable their long-term programme of change and support the ongoing technology needs of the organisation. We couldn’t have done this without trust, listening, respecting everyone involved and ensuring there was a mutually beneficial partnership for all.

To ensure that you have a successful supplier relationship, follow our top tips:

The key to a successful partnership is to trust each other. Trust can feel quite intimate, but the truth is, if you don’t have it then you will never achieve your aim.

You also have to learn to listen to each other and have open and honest conversations. Appreciate what is being said to you, as well as the other way around.

Above all, respect each other. You and your supplier both have different skillsets and expertise – it’s imperative that you work together to use these skills, rather than try and dominate in one particular area. Acknowledge expertise, and feel free to challenge positively, using the trust you’ve built together.

At the same time, voice your opinions and advise against ideas you don’t feel are in the best interests of your organisation. It’s a partnership, and you shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

If you don’t understand what a supplier is saying, keep the lines of communication open and ask them. This is playing into the skillset territory once more; you have to educate each other to make the relationship a successful one.

Question everything. Positively, of course.

Make sure it’s mutually beneficial
Like any relationship, it needs to be mutually beneficial. For suppliers to want to go the extra mile for you and want to pick up the phone, rather than send you to voicemail, they need to know there is something in it for them beyond just a service.

Price should always be driven down. You are a charity after all and they expect that, but best price doesn’t mean bleeding them dry. Sell your organisation, you after all have something they want – a great referable customer, a fantastic cause to be part of and most of all they want to know they have done a great job.

There’s no organisation operating today that has no suppliers – whether internal or external, it simply wouldn’t function.

Developing the relationship between supplier and business is vital to the success of both, and as technology continues to move at pace, following the above tips will be ever more vital in developing that relationship.

ojo solutions transforms organisations through technology. As an independent technology consultancy, we help organisations to define their technology strategy, define the appropriate programme of change and support the procurement process to enable the right strategic partnerships that are not only commercially right, but add value.

If you are looking at your technology procurement challenges and how to leverage your strategic partnerships to meet your organisational needs, get in touch and find out how we can help you.


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