Startups face a lot of challenges - there’s no doubt about it. We’re familiar with most of them. But there’s one challenge that’s less often talked about. As a startup, you’re just not big enough to easily influence your suppliers, especially when they are large, multinational companies. And when your business depends on their service, this can be a serious problem.
Startup 21 (not their real name), had that challenge. Their key supplier, which was located in London, was dropping the ball on service - big time - and it was hurting them. Customer complaints and cancellations had gotten out of hand. The team was frustrated and annoyed, and it was time to confront this supplier face-to-face. It was a delicate situation. If it blew up, they’d lose 30% of their business and it could be game over. I was brought in on the day they were due to fly out.
The presentation they were planning to use was filled with anger and blame, and understandably so. It included lists of problems, queries and complaints from dissatisfied customers. They were a great team - honest people working their butts off to make this baby fly, and this supplier was killing their dream. My first question to them was: How important is your business to this supplier? Their answer: Not very important - we’re too small. My second question: How much volume would you have to do for them to consider you important? They gave me a figure (let’s say $10M). Question 3: At your current rate of growth, when will you hit that volume? Their answer: in 5 years. My response: “That’s your angle. That’s your reason for the meeting - because if you go in there blaming and accusing one of the biggest players in the industry, you are likely to burn the relationship and kill your company. You have only two points of leverage: future potential and relationship.”
The interaction had to be tactical. It required careful preparation based on two key points from the psychology of influence. First: People do things for their reasons, not yours. It had to serve their interests in some way. Second: People help people that they like. Being told “you’re messing up” and “your service sucks” will not make them like you. In the words of Mary Kay Ash: “Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from their neck saying, “Make me feel important”. In the art of influence, this is critical.
So, here’s how we planned the approach:
Emphasize what’s in it for them:
The message of the meeting was: “We are on track to hit $10M volume in the next five years, which is exciting to ALL of us. But reaching this target will require us to ALL work together. And THAT is what this meeting is all about.”
Create a relationship:
a. Show appreciation - for anything that you can. If their customer service sucks, then think: what else can I show appreciation for? The quality of their products? The opportunity they’ve given us? There’s always something we can be grateful for.
b. Make friends. Be interested in them, in their lives and their daily challenges. Smile. It seems so simple but we are genetically programmed to respond positively to people who smile at us, for two main reasons: it tells us that they like us (and we like people who like us), and it says that they trust us, which makes it easier to trust them. Celebrities know this. Your smile is like a magic wand. Don’t overdo it and try to make it natural (which is not as much of an oxymoron as it might seem). It works, and there is no point fighting human nature.
And what about their legitimate complaints? I suggested they package the entire meeting into a SWOT analysis. Strengths:
The products are great and we’re selling them like crazy.Weaknesses:
Customer service gaps are resulting in lost customers and lost repeat business.Opportunities:
International expansion, new products. Threats:
Negative customer experience is leading to negative online conversations, ultimately harming the company’s reputation.
Although the negatives outweighed the positives, the positives were clearly mentioned, and it was all done in the context of achieving a future goal that was meaningful to their audience. I worked with them for 3 hours - restructuring the presentation to fit the new plan. They flew out that night.
Two days later, I got a call from them. The meeting had been a huge success. The supplier had even proactively suggested ways of managing service issues and the relationship was tighter than ever. They had bought into the vision. When I checked back in with Startup 21 after 3 months, the relationship was still going strong and customer complaints were a fraction of what they had previously been.
But they had dodged a bullet. That could have ended very differently if we had not planned their approach with the individual as central. The cost of burning that relationship would have been millions.
Perhaps the most under-estimated role in business is the Relationship Expert, because at the heart of every interaction is people - irrational, emotional and self-interested. That’s not bad. It’s just human. And we are basically all the same. With an understanding of psychology and human behavior, we can be strategic about our interactions, whether meetings, phone calls or emails. It pays significantly to not only focus on the details, but also on the people behind them. Eli Ezra is a specialist in professional communication strategy. He advises and coaches startups and global tech giants alike on areas of communication, including sales, presentations, conflict management and negotiation. He can be contacted at linkedin.com/in/eliezra/.