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How can I communicate dissatisfaction and still foster long term supplier relationships?

I recently had a conference brochure printed by a supplier that I've worked with for three years. Though I warned my sales representative that the job required top quality, I was extremely disappointed with the quality of the finished piece. When I briefly expressed my dissatisfaction to the representative, he offered a discount, but I still feel uneasy. I want the job done right the first time -- not discounts on inferior quality. Plus, this is the second occurrence in the past three months.

Because of a good relationship with the representative, and the printer's ability to meet our company's frequently fast deadlines, I want to keep using this printer. How can I communicate my dissatisfaction to ensure that this won't happen again? Should I keep using this supplier or move on to someone with more consistent quality?

Given your dissatisfaction over not only this project but also previous quality problems, it's tempting to just stop using this printer. Since long-term relationships with suppliers are the key to saving time, money, and achieving the quality you want, I suggest that you try to work this out with the idea that you are both on the same team.

Here's how to find out what happened and how to avoid future quality problems:

  1. Arrange a formal meeting with your sales representative and possibly his/her boss. This should clearly signal your degree of concern.

  2. Before the meeting, create an agenda outlining the major issues that you want to discuss. State that you expect to brainstorm solutions during the meeting. Encourage the printer to prepare properly by presenting this agenda in advance.

  3. Think through what you want to get out of the meeting. What are your expectations? What do you want your printer to do?

  4. Begin the meeting by discussing your history with their company. Tell them that you are interested in continuing the relationship, but in order to do so you need help in eliminating quality inconsistencies.

  5. Communicate your dissatisfaction, but stick to the facts. Avoid discussing "personalities." This will keep the meeting less emotional and will help both of you focus on resolving the problem, not reliving it.

  6. Talk about your expectations and explain the situation according to how you saw it. Show documentation of the damaged product. Express how you evaluate quality.Then use printed examples to make this clear. Use "I" statements, such as "I understood that although this was a rush job, the quality would not suffer," instead of, "Every time we have a rush job, your quality is poor."

  7. Ask how they saw the situation. By listening carefully to their response you can determine:
    • their attitude
    • what caused the problem, and
    • whether or not the problem is likely to happen again.

  8. Give them an opportunity to talk at length. You may discover that you could have done something to avoid the problem.

  9. Once the source is resolved, move on to explore "How can we make this better next time?" Work together to create an action plan. Is the supplier willing to take the appropriate responsibility for its mistakes? If so, what plans do they have to ensure that your projects will be watched more closely?

  10. Ask for specifics-- don't just accept a promise that it won't happen again. Is the sales representative willing to attend press inspections? Will the company ensure that someone in management will review your work personally?

  11. Gain commitment by restating what the printer promised to do "So, for the next several projects, you are agreeing to personally go to press inspections and have the production manager review the work thoroughly before it is sent to me. Is that right?"

  12. Ask your printer to follow-up after the meeting with a letter summarizing what you have worked out and detailing the quality assurance procedures they will follow.

The attitudes and commitments of both your printer and you will determine the success of resolving these problems. Suppliers want to be assured that they will retain your business. In turn, try to work only with printers who want a long-term commitment to your company and are problem solvers.

By clarifying your expectations, confronting problems directly, and developing an action plan with your printer, you should be able to work through most production problems.

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