Customer relationships vs. supplier relationships

Jul 12, 2017The Ripple Effect Blog

Most people I have met believe that how you treat your customers is different to how you treat your suppliers.

The basis for this belief is the “customer is king”, and as we are the customer of our suppliers, they need to care for us.  We in turn need to focus on caring for our customers.

As much as this view makes sense, there is a fundamental flaw when considering the bigger customer service picture: Our relationships with our suppliers impacts our customers.

So, while we wait to be serviced properly, our customer is waiting to be serviced properly.  It is wonderfully convenient, when justifying poor service to a customer, to lay the blame on a supplier not delivering; but how lame does it sound when you do?

Customer service strategies should thus include supplier accountability strategies.

Now take the modern concept of outsourcing ground handling duties by airlines to suppliers of ground handling services.

We have a situation where the care of a customer, the traveller, is outsourced to a supplier.  Going back to the customer service/supplier relationship disconnect described earlier, who really treats the traveller as king?

The airline believes that the outsourced partner should treat the airline as king, while the airline has outsourced the care of the traveller to a supplier while believing their supplier should now treat the traveller as king.

I know what happens because I get to experience it about 6 times a month.  The traveller is no longer seen as the customer.  It generally gets better when I step on board the plane and I cannot but think this is because the airline still owns the relationship with me as traveller while flying.

Service standards are sorely lacking

Some of my experiences with the outsourced partners I see make me believe the setting of service standards and the assurance of the standards is sorely lacking.  Not surprising when nobody sees me as a customer while I’m ‘on the ground’.  Do you experience the same?

  • Check in staff don’t acknowledge the customer.
  • Delay announcements are made after the delay or not at all.
  • Boarding personnel chew gum.
  • Team members stand in the bridges, where they stop you – after boarding you before the plane is ready (in order to improve their boarding time) – with hands in pockets, yawning and generally looking bored.
  • If you do happen to complain, staff just stare at you.
  • When planes are delayed no information is shared – simply “it is late and further announcements will follow”.
  • The idea of uniform is ‘wear it like you want’ – it reminds me of school children challenging boundaries and using the idea of pushing back to express their idea of individuality.
  • People don’t speak.  The way you know you must stop when walking down the bridge is the raising of a hand.
  • After landing, your bags take an absolute age to come out while nobody from any company (airline or ground handling) are to be seen.
  • The rules set for travellers (size of carry-on luggage etc.) is not enforced – it seems as if nobody wants to hold the traveller who disobeys the rules accountable, so the on-board experience is negatively impacted.

In some way maybe the airlines are hoping that, we as customers, will simply get used to the lack of care and stop expecting it.  I’m not sure if this is what they should be aiming for.  From my perspective, I still choose between airlines based on service.  In some cases I do choose a flight based on time, on an airline that I would prefer not to fly with.  I do so knowing that I’ll receive bad service.  Imagine THAT as a customer service strategy.  One tick (flight time) does not tick all the boxes and it sure doesn’t make of me a brand ambassador or a loyal customer.  What it does say is that where I have a choice I’ll go elsewhere.

How does this apply to you and your customers?

What does this all mean for you if your business is not the ‘flying of people’ from point A to point B?

  • Have you outsourced your customer care to somebody else? – This somebody else could even be a staff member that you do not hold accountable.
  • Do you have a customer service ethic that has been communicated and bought into by all? – This means you are not relying on individual interpretation of service to determine what gets delivered.
  • Do you have any form of Quality Assurance in place? – This is critical for you to have in place as you should know what is actually going on and not what you hope is going on.
  • Do you know that by taking back control of your customer’s experience you could just create that difference needed – in a competitive environment – for your business to thrive? – Until a study shows absolute proof that customer care is no longer a requirement of success, build the necessary internal controls into your business to ensure you deliver.
  • Do your customers feel heard when complaining? – Please remember that I (as your customer) am not the customer of the outsourced partner therefore why would they care about me?


Your team members need to own your customers like you do.  Anything less is outsourced abdication.


By Louis Gerke

Development FacilitatorThe Ripple Effect

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By Louis Gerke

Facilitator |  Coach | Trainer | Speaker

If this post interests you please feel free to share it: