When times get tough for businesses, they use the tools at their disposal to manage through till things get better. The tools that can make a difference quickly are blunt instruments that often have detrimental side effects. There has been a lot of creative thinking this time around about the wisdom of one of those tools, layoffs, and possible alternatives.
There is another set of tools that is easily used but which has not received as much scrutiny–shifting some of your issues to your suppliers. The favorite of these is s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g out payments. Perhaps, rather than paying your raw-materials vendor, or outsourcing provider, in 30 days, you let that stretch to 45, or 60, or more. Perhaps you wait till suppliers lose patience and escalate before you pay, and then, pay only the oldest invoice. You can also dispute invoice items and hope the supplier eventually credits that amount to you. Voila! Better cash flow.
In the current issue of the Wall Street Journal Business Insight supplement, Robert Handfield of North Carolina State University makes a well-reasoned case as to why companies should think twice about trying to solve their problems on the backs of their suppliers (”United They’ll Stand“). In particular, the costs of a significant disruption in the supply chain can overwhelm any savings in working capital due to slow-paying.
Handfield recommends an open dialogue between vendor and customer to ensure that risks to the supply chain (like the vendor’s ability to survive) are identified. He also urges customers to engage more closely with its best suppliers to ensure they have a relationship that will last beyond the current crisis. (In other words, if you want to take out your suffering on your suppliers, you may pay later by losing them.) Finally, he makes the point that times like these are ripe for innovation, including improving how companies and their suppliers work together.
Handfield writes, “The decisions of supply-chain managers in the current crisis may be among the most important they’ll ever make.” Rather than distance yourself from your suppliers, this is the time to bring them close. And that may mean, God forbid, staying current with your payments to them.