Improving Customer-Supplier relationships

I’m always on the lookout for techniques to improve the sometimes-strained relationship between customers and suppliers. I recently came across an article describing an interesting approach based on Joint Application Development (JAD). JAD is the name given to a collaborative, structured, workshop-based approach that Agilier has used with great success in eliciting requirements from a large stakeholder community in a short space of time. Such approaches are shown to reduce the time to gather requirements by 20%-60% and reduce the overall time to complete a software development project of 5%-15% (reference: Steve McConnell, Rapid Development).

The article describes how a systems-integration company wanted to explore the marketplace for mobile applications with the nuclear power industry. The company identified key technologies required and some potential suppliers – but no one supplier had the complete solution. The answer was to bring the key suppliers and the key customers together for a three-day conference based on JAD principles in order to identify for what system features the customers were prepared to pay.

During the first stage of the workshop, the suppliers demonstrated their off-the-shelf products in front of the customers and afterwards the facilitators captured customers’ likes and dislikes and turned these into a requirements list. The second part of the workshop played these requirements back to the customers, allowed them to rate the products seen and to gauge sentiment for funding further investigation.

After the conference, a high-level design was established and the suppliers collaborated to provide a cost estimate. Interestingly, the customers felt that the final cost was too high and the initiative was cancelled. It seems likely, however, that all parties saved a great deal of cost and effort using this method.

A couple of observations:

  • The suppliers’ products were demonstrated first – this is important as customers often have take a “I’ll know what I want when I see it” attitude.

  • The conference-based JAD approach described in the article seems worth investigating for those occasions where a degree of industry consensus is needed in an area in order to benefit all parties within a marketplace. The approach is not necessarily restricted to product development; for example, standards or protocols could be agreed.