I remember starting my procurement career in British Aerospace. To be honest, I probably hadn’t thought much about my first proper job’s business sector; it was more about location, getting into my chosen profession and learning. Four years later, I moved from manufacturing into financial services, thinking one procurement job is just like the next. Boy, was I wrong.
I went from talking about products on aircrafts (such as starter buttons, windscreen wipers and pilot’s handwheels) and walking through hangars full of partially built planes and (im)patient engineers each day (waiting for supplier deliveries to allow work to continue) to predominantly office-based meetings discussing software on something called a mainframe (stored elsewhere in a big warehouse that had something to do with running a bank). The sectors were so different and, in many respects, confusing but it was a great opportunity to learn, get to know the right jargon, and (more importantly) gain experience in what I was procuring. (This included visits to that warehouse which I subsequently learned was called a data centre).
Now I can hear all of you saying, “This is a great example of a procurement person not getting it.” The feedback from your profession is the tenders we (procurement) issue often don’t make sense and that we obviously have no idea what we are buying (“It’s a service we are supplying, not widgets!”, you cry!).
Without getting into the politics of that consistent feedback (aside from saying each profession has various levels of skills and competencies, including yours!), one of the best bits of advice I’ve received was to know your customer. That sounds obvious, but it doesn’t just mean having a great relationship with them. It means really understanding how what I buy impacts them. This is why I am incredibly passionate about “A day in the life of…” experience, either for my consulting clients or their own end clients.
I’ve visited customer offices, listened in on call centre calls and visited car garages (to name but a few). I have gained direct insight through these sessions into how the market is changing and what the future might hold. Asking the right people the right questions – even the dumb questions – builds an invaluable knowledge to help shape procurement strategies for the future. For example:
- I discovered a great piece of software that would revolutionise claims handling for both the end customer and the claims handler but it had two fundamental issues that hadn’t been considered by those building the software.
- I understood the frustrations of those who are being supported and/or governed by a corporate centre who they felt didn’t represent local interests.
- I learned car garages have moved on from those oily back street workshops (like the one portrayed in a popular UK soap opera) to being a workspace where health, safety and cleanliness are paramount (i.e., clean enough you could almost eat your dinner off the floor).
I have also done “A day in the life” with suppliers, sometimes in the form of regular dialogues (not driven by tenders or renewal cycles) to help build up a detailed picture of the art of the possible. Current hybrid working approaches can hinder this a little (Teams calls don’t quite give you the same useful reference points) but that doesn’t stop me from having water cooler moments or coffee catch ups. I am just more innovative in how I run these remotely.
“A day in the life” even applies to my own profession. Even though a lot of my current business doesn’t come from my procurement network, that doesn’t stop me looking at what others do. A great example is how others deal with sustainability in today’s world – how they gather and measure information and how they communicate success. The greater the gap in our sectors, the bigger the share so we can both potentially learn from it.
As far as sector expertise goes (having worked across public and private sectors), I have only been challenged once by a potential client about my lack of sectoral knowledge. This particular sector (to rename nameless) was a bit of a ‘closed shop’, which in my opinion limited its ability to think differently. (I’d even suggest it had a level of staleness from only using suppliers selected based on prior experience in the sector.) However, they decided to take a risk on me as I had previously bought their services in a buyer’s role. I was able to show them that different approaches and bringing best practices and learnings from other sectors could only enhance, not limit, their own offerings.
So does a lack of detailed sector and product knowledge mean you can’t move around? No. Learning and correctly using industry jargon will build credibility; embracing new tools, technology and artificial intelligence will ensure you’re forward-thinking.
Taking the “A day in the life” approach will guarantee you’re not standing still.
This article was written by Beth Wallace.
Beth has worked in a number of sectors, starting out in aerospace manufacturing but also working in financial services, media, hospitality and legal to name a few. Her career has spanned both negotiating deals as well as managing supplier relationships, from simple projects to complex outsourcing.