As a consultant that helps companies reduce their cost of goods, I find that many suppliers try to avoid me. That’s understandable – some of consultants out there don’t do what they say or say what they do, or even try to consider the suppliers requirements/business needs. Most suppliers have war stories about bad experiences with these types of consultants. I like to think that my company is an exception to that “bad consultant” rule, and feedback I get from suppliers at the end of an engagement normally confirms it.

That said, some suppliers have taken avoiding consultants to an extreme and incorporated avoidance into their standard business processes. I suspect many even train salespeople on the “avoidance process”, because within the same organization I see different salespeople using the same tactics over and over again.

I would like to give examples of two suppliers that utilize this practice and note the similarities and differences in their approach. The first, Supplier A, is a well known small parcel shipper, and the second, Supplier B, is one of the major domestic office supplies distributors.

Supplier A has been in the stall business for years. When a consultant initially contacts the sales rep as an agent for a mutual customer, Supplier A will do their best to avoid the request for meetings and information for as long as possible, sometimes up to a month. The goal here is to see if this is a serious process or a fishing expedition.

When the supplier finally realizes the consultant is not going away, their next step is to put an NDA in place. The NDA is a fair way for Supplier A to protect their interests, and I take no issue with it. However, getting a copy of the NDA can normally take over a month, with numerous requests just for Supplier A to send the file, and excuses such as “we just made changes and I need an updated version from legal” or “I haven’t been in my office this week to get the file off of my computer”.

The next step is getting the NDA signed. The NDA that Supplier A sends over will leave gaps in certain sections, including the term of the NDA and the purpose of the NDA. These sections are left for the customer to fill out. Once you add and send the changes back, they need to go to Supplier A legal for approval. The process of getting approval for changes made in sections that Supplier A purposefully left blank can easily add two weeks to the process.

Finally, an NDA is signed. It may take an additional 3-4 weeks to coordinate meetings and get the reports we are asking for. Fair enough, but at this point Supplier A will actually honor their commitment and work with the consultant. Not so for the new player to the stall game, Supplier B.

Supplier B is relatively new to stalling (in my experience) but I believe they are following some examples from Supplier A in how they run their “patterns”. The process of getting the supplier engaged will again take several weeks, and the NDA process several more. A notable difference here is that in most cases, the supplier will refuse any direct contact with the consultant, and instead traffic all information through the customer. Keep in mind the customer has typically hired a consultant because they don’t have the time. Supplier B’s goals here are clear – keeping the customer as the middle man will either slow down the process or frustrate the customer enough to simply give up. It also opens up the envelope for all types of misunderstanding that happen when two parties that need to work together have a “gatekeeper” passing the information back and forth.

The biggest difference between Supplier A and Supplier B, however, is what happens after the NDA is signed. As I mentioned, at this point Supplier A will normally engage. Not so with Supplier B - they will continue to stall to whatever extent they can. Information will still be passed through the middle man, and timeline commitments go unmet. The relationship, which becomes increasingly adversarial, only improves when elevated above the primary sales contact within Supplier B’s organization.

All the tactics used by Supplier A and Supplier B can be effective in holding off the inevitable – a true evaluation of their total value offering to the customer. However I have never seen stalling successfully end an engagement, which is the true goal of the approach.

Here are a few things for suppliers utilizing the stall strategy to keep in mind.

First, if you pride yourself on customer service, you need to find a more creative solution than stalling to use when dealing with consultants. In many cases I have seen the stall tactic put that supplier in an unfavorable light with the customer, and in the final analysis, loyalty is lost.

Second, you might not be seeing the forest for the trees. Suppliers can go through great lengths to protect existing business while ignoring the opportunity for growth that a consultant’s involvement brings. Sure, you might have 50% of the customers business, but if 50% more is available you have a lot to gain (I did that math in my head). Not only that, but a consultant typically has many other customers and similar projects that they can bring a supplier into, depending on how this first interaction goes.

Third, while the supplier was probably brought in by purchasing, administration, or some other department, the consultant is typically brought in at the C-Level. The consultant has visibility within the organization and political capital that many suppliers can’t compete with. Does it really make sense to piss them off?

Finally, just as not all suppliers are created equally, not all consultants are created equally. Before you take the stall approach do some research. Have other sales people within your organization worked with this consultant before? What has their experience been? This may be your opportunity to get the exposure you were looking for within the customer organization, and an advocate to improve the business relationship. Not all consultants’ value long term sustainability and good customer/supplier relationships, but some do. It may be a challenge, but in the long run you might have more to gain than you have to lose.
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Joe Payne

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  1. Great post!!
    Thanks for sharing.

    Management consultant in Netherlands!!
    Financieel adviesbureaus -the best business consultant.