You need one gas boiler, a slew of pipe collars, and a handful of radiator valves for your current customer projects. Where do you get them?
As a small- or medium-sized field service business, you probably don't have manufacturer representatives banging down your doors; manufacturers often refuse to fill small orders, according to an article in Entrepreneur. You're more likely to be purchasing parts and supplies as you need them from online or brick-and-mortar retailers like Plumbase, Wolseley, Plumbcenter, or Trade Only Plumbing & Heating Supply.
Since you're buying small amounts of product, your first instinct might be to choose the closest supplier and be done with it, or to select the one you've heard has the lowest prices. That's a great way to simplify your parts purchasing process—and also a great way to waste money, lose time, irritate your customers, and tank your business's profits.
Even for small- and medium-sized field service businesses, it's important to carefully select the dealer you purchase parts from; after all, if their parts are too expensive or their delivery is slow, it reflects on your company. So set aside a few hours to do some research and ask yourself these seven key supplier evaluation questions.
1. What is most important to my business?
You may have seen the saying 'Good, fast, cheap—pick two' on a humorous sign in someone's office. This is actually referring to a well-worn project management adage called the 'Triple Constraint': If service is good and fast, it won't be cheap; if it's cheap and fast, it won't be good; and if it's cheap and good, it won't be fast.
The witty saying applies here, too: You probably can't get everything you want from a single supplier, so you need to prioritise the criteria that are most important to you. The Next Level Purchasing Association offers eight common supplier evaluation criteria:
- Quality & Safety
- Social Responsibility
Before beginning your search, think about which of these criteria are most important to your business, and which are the least. You may have some criteria of your own, as well. Add them to the list and start ranking.
2. Which suppliers offer more of what we want?
Now it's time to create a list of the suppliers you want to evaluate based on the criteria you just chose. A Google search for online suppliers and brick-and-mortar retailers in your area will turn up a lot of options. Handily, UKPlumbersForums conducted a poll of its members and compiled a list of The UK's Most Used Plumbing Suppliers - 2017.
Of course you can purchase parts at multiple retailers, but the benefit to choosing one is that your chosen supplier is more likely to offer extra help, favors, and discounts if you're a frequent purchaser and loyal customer.
Once you have your list, visit the retailers' websites to compare how well they fulfill your most important criteria. For example, if price is your main consideration, compare how much the same parts cost at multiple locations. If it's speed of delivery, check out what delivery options the different retailers offer and how much they charge for each one.
3. Do other field service businesses recommend these suppliers?
You check user reviews when choosing a restaurant, looking for a new car, or deciding between the Dorco Pace 6 razor and the King of Shaves Azor System on Amazon. Why not let user reviews help you choose a parts supplier as well?
Trade associations, the trade press, and online forums like UKPlumbersForums are all good places to find opinions and experiences from your top candidates' actual customers. You can even reach out on forums, LinkedIn Groups, and email discussion groups to ask what members' experiences with a particular supplier have been like.
4. Do the suppliers offer trade accounts?
Many parts supply retailers offer trade accounts that come with perks like discounted prices. Cheaper (but still quality) parts can mean more profit for you, so be sure to check.
5. Are the products actually less expensive with the trade discount?
Buyer beware: Just because a supplier offers a trade discount doesn't mean they're your most cost-effective option. Some field service businesses complain online that certain suppliers raise their prices so they can then offer 'discounts', and the net effect for you is null. In other cases, a supplier may simply have higher prices in general, so the trade discount doesn't make the prices cheaper than their competitors'.
6. For a brick-and-mortar merchant, are they willing to match internet prices?
If you want to support your local parts supply retailer but don't want to pay a premium for the privilege, find out if they'll match prices you find online. This goes back to what we mentioned above: If you convince the supplier you'll be a loyal, frequent customer, they may agree to price-match for you.
7. What does my gut say?
Once you've gathered data on how the suppliers match your top criteria, it's time to choose the big winner. If you have two or three close contenders, sometimes it comes down to your gut instinct.
While many business owners scoff at the idea of using instinct to make decisions, experts say intuition should have a place in your decision-making toolbox. 'Leaders gather data and seek input but at some point, they reach the over-thinking tipping point', says Shelley Row, MBA, author of Think Less Live More: Lessons from a Recovering Over-Thinker, in an article on Forbes.com. 'That’s the point where the time needed to gather more data and input exceeds the value. They must decide and move on'.
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