Does this ever happen to you? A glossy-eyed blank stare and semi-smile that creeps across someone’s face when they ask “What do you do?” to which you reply “I am a procurement consultant.” or “I work in strategic sourcing.” Then they quickly change the subject or ask a disinterested follow up question in hopes you will politely respond and then the conversation can move on to something you both have in common. It happens to me regularly, typically causing me to stay away from the topic of career in a social setting. I realize the procurement industry is niche and new to most non-business persons, but it would be nice if it was more relatable.
I have tried to explain procurement and strategic sourcing in many ways over the five years I have been in the industry and still struggle. Even my parents have a difficult time explaining what I do to their friends and relatives, despite the numerous conversations we have had about my career. It can be frustrating to point of isolation, at times.
The way I have described the procurement industry has evolved over time. I used to give the restaurant example: “You open a new restaurant and you needs chairs, tables, place settings, etc…, so your company would hire my company to help negotiate the best pricing for those goods and services.” This example is usually received well but doesn’t quite capture the nuanced nature of procurement consulting, boiling it down to the tactical activities we perform. I have also tried the long-winded example: “I work with many companies in a variety of industries to help them identify and execute sourcing opportunities to cut costs, avoid cost increases, streamline purchasing, and/or improve the quality of goods and services.” This explanation may make sense to professionals familiar with the way modern businesses run, but is still usually met with a glazed eye and quick conversation change (or my personal favorite: a nice smile and nod).
In recent months, I have altered my response to the “what do you do” query. Instead of starting out with “procurement,” “consulting,” “strategic sourcing,” or other industry buzz words and launching into an example of what I do, I respond with “I work in business services. My firm helps businesses understand their buying habits and offers solutions to help them meet their organizational goals.” This approach has been met with more interest and a slower rate of change in conversation topics. My current example for what procurement does centers around mergers and acquisitions. It has helped to refer to recent headlines about companies that are merging business operations and to explain why strategic sourcing business services are critical in the current market.Procurement, and even consulting in general, can be difficult topics for many to relate to. Even those who are familiar with Procurement can cringe when hearing we’re getting involved in their business unit. Traditionally understood as budget slashers and cost cutters, it’s a harsh interaction we face daily as procurement professionals. However, it doesn’t diminish the value we bring to the table. Even at the individual-level have the ability to change Procurement’s brand identity and perception. It should be our goal as industry professionals to speak more clearly and plainly about what we do and the benefits our work produces. It is clear to most that teachers and medical personnel are immensely valuable to society because everyone has encountered these professions. As procurement professionals we need to be better ambassadors about how our work helps cut out unnecessary costs so companies can focus on growing their business, creating jobs, compensating employees better, and producing their core products and services to the benefit of all.