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Denise Robitaille


Helping Your Suppliers Help You

If you don’t, who will?

Published: Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - 22:00

A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of understanding your customers’ requirements. We looked at requirements that exceed the traditional scope of product specifications such as labeling, packaging and documentation.This month, we’ll take a look at how we communicate our requirements to our suppliers, which is the flipside of the customer-supplier relationship. Consider how frustrating it is for you when a customer complains that you haven’t delivered the product they anticipated and you realize there were several expectations that hadn’t been adequately defined. The situation is awkward because you both know that, first, the customer didn’t clearly state the requirement, and second, you made some inappropriate assumption due to the lack of clarity. In other words, you guessed.

Now ponder your supplier’s situation. The roles are reversed, but the script is relatively unchanged.

When you finally realize that the vendor sent you the wrong parts because that’s what you ordered, it’s time to get to work. Don’t get into a pointless blame game about accountability. It’s best to address the root cause of this problem and develop purchasing processes that will ensure that you—as the customer—don’t impede your supplier’s ability to serve you. Hopefully you’ll conclude that you need to do a better job of communicating to your suppliers exactly what it is that you want.

Every placed purchase order is a contract between you and your supplier. It’s a documented statement of requirements. The better job you do of communicating what you need to your suppliers, the better they can serve you. Following are a few tips on what you might want to include in your purchasing documentation:

Product requirements (including service contracts)

  • Ensure that the specifications are clear and complete. Include part numbers, revision numbers, exceptions and any additional information required. If the contract is for a service, make sure the requirements and deliverables reflect what was discussed, and include any applicable contingencies.
  • More is better when it comes to product information. Don’t assume the vendor will know what you want.
  • Resist the temptation to take short cuts, especially with critical information. Stating “Same as previously furnished” can get you in trouble if you’re ordering a part that has had multiple revisions during its lifecycle.
  • If you’re ordering from a catalog, double-check the part number. If the catalog is older than one year, verify that the part number and specification haven’t changed.

Secondary processes

  • When sending parts out for plating, cutting, heat-treating, etc., make sure that paperwork accompanies the material. If the supplier makes a mistake because your information was incomplete, the loss is not only the raw material, but the cost of all the time and labor, too.
  • If the supplier will need to use a print, send one along. Don’t assume that they have the one you sent with the original request for a quote.

Industry standards

Some industries often accept criteria that are either commonly recognized or described in an industry-specific publication. You must determine two things:

  • Does your supplier conform to the accepted industry practices?
  • Do your requirements exceed or in any way differ from the conventional industry norms?


  • Make sure that the delivery requirement makes sense. Don’t plug in the date you enter the order for the due date as your subliminal message to them that you want the parts “now.”
  • Insert a delivery date that’s reflective or your actual requirement or the best date you’ve been able to negotiate with the supplier.

Additional requirements

  • Labeling, packaging, certificates of analysis, beta testing, on-site inspections and aftermarket tech support are all examples of requirements that need to be clearly specified on the purchase order or contract.
  • The importance of the requirement should influence your decision as to its placement on the purchase order. If something is highly important, it shouldn’t be buried in boiler-plate language or fine print on the back of the order form. Highlight it, put it in bold or insert the text within a distinctly noticeable border. It’s unfair to expect your suppliers to scrutinize orders looking for any special requirements.
  • Ensure that there’s consensus in your organization as to where and how special requirements are indicated on purchase orders.

Electronic media
Ensure that you understand how your vendor’s Web site works. The increase in efficiency that both parties enjoy through the advent of e-commerce is sometimes offset by the loss of that “personal touch.” You can’t easily override items such as minimum order value or standard-sized packaging. If the vendor’s Web site states that orders processed after 2 p.m. will go out the following day, then you can’t expect overnight delivery if you order something at 2:15 p.m. Being aware of the constraints ahead of time diminishes the risk of disappointment caused by unanticipated contingencies.


  • Ensure that there’s consensus in your organization about how changes to purchase orders and contracts are documented. Do you generate a change order, simply amend the original order in the system or make notes on a hard copy?
  • If you authorize changes through e-mail, make sure that those e-mails don’t remain locked in one person’s password-protected inbox.
  • Identify who’s authorized to change contracts and purchase orders. Sometimes it’s even important to ensure that your supplier knows who in your organization has the authority to amend a contract.

Don’t blame your suppliers if you thwart their ability to fulfill your requirements. Communicate what you need clearly and adequately to ensure that they’ll be able to serve you properly.


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.