The Problem Solvers

The basis of any good business partnership is the ability to understand problems and develop a joint strategy to find a solution. In other words, communication and teamwork are essential. These were the central themes throughout NASPO’s 2018 Exchange conference this year in the Big Apple, New York, New York! It was here that purchasers and suppliers assembled to learn, discuss, and contemplate their relationships. Networking flourished while old friends reunited and new professional bonds were forged. The conference served as a platform in which buyers and suppliers took stock of innovative projects they had worked on together as well as learn about the vast resources NASPO has to offer. Conference-goers had the opportunity to attend large general sessions that featured keynote speakers and interactive, state government panels.

During a general session cleverly titled “Problem Solvers,” a panel of NASPO state members and suppliers sat on stage together to identify characteristics of effective supplier relationship management programs and discuss the impact of positive, open communication on the ability to reach successful procurement outcomes. Audience members were able to text their questions to the facilitator, who then asked the speakers to discuss them on stage. It was an effective way to outline strategies that could alleviate conflict in the state-supplier relationship, as well as keep all parties focused on solving the issues at hand. Although each session began with a script, it quickly morphed into a flowing, organic conversation between purchaser and supplier.

First up, Kris Splieth, Deputy CIO of Business Integration, Georgia Department of Administrative Services recalled her experience with Anne Rung, Director of Government Sector, Amazon Business. What was the problem? Kris noticed that her state had a lot of spend with Amazon Prime accounts over the past few years. Moreover, she saw there was a lot of purchasing going on outside of what could be influenced by each agency across the state. Kris observed that “you have to start thinking about e-commerce differently. New technology and algorithms are changing the process of how people want to buy things and it shouldn’t be so cumbersome.” While there was quite a bit of spending on the customer side of her state’s Amazon portal, it offered little visibility and control over the large volume of transactions. “About 80% of all transactions you undertake are low dollar purchases, yet it’s less than 20% of your spending,” she said. The problem was that Kris’ office was getting all the features associated with a standard Amazon Prime account but had limited access to the tools they need to perform fast and efficient transactional work, competitive pricing, and keep up their transparency.

So, what was the solution? Kris wanted to provide the buyers with a chance to see what they were buying before the purchase occurred, offering them helpful features such as workflow approval, tax exemption, the ability to buy in bulk, and spending analytics. She decided the best approach would be to contact Amazon and set up a meeting. With help from Anne Rung, Kris and her team integrated their Amazon Prime accounts with the state’s ERP system so that their Amazon purchases went through a tailored requisition process. Requisitions would go through an approval workflow, enabling the buyers within a state agency to perform their due diligence, and eventually dispatch the purchase order quickly and efficiently. “This process can take time, and in that time Amazon prices can change,” Kris explained. Amazon worked closely with Kris and her team to come up with a solution where their prices remained unchanged for approximately seven days. “Having the engagement and the leadership of Kris and the support of her team was incredibly helpful for us,” Anne added. Kris recognized that she could give everyone the customer experience on the Amazon platform, but by moving them to Amazon Business, could also have the controls, speed, and efficiency she needed. “It was a team effort,” Kris said. “Our CPO immediately realized this was the right thing to do, and the team worked closely together through a series of meetings that would help us achieve each of the tasks and resolve the issues.”

Next, from the Commonwealth of Virginia, Patricia (Pat) Trent, Procurement Director for the Virginia Police department, sat with Wendy Smit, Account Manager for Motorola Solutions. What was the problem? Virginia State Police needed a new state-wide radio system. They had been using a system that was 30 years out of date and tricky to repair. This would prove to be a massive undertaking that would include the police department as well as 20 other agencies across the state. The police department, under the direction of the governor’s office, even created a special team whose sole purpose was obtaining a new radio system. “You can imagine the job we had before us,” Pat joked.

In August, Pat acquired the role of contract and procurement officer over the project. She was tasked with drafting the contract for the new system by the end of December. Her office issued a solicitation with the help of a consultant, who aided them in writing the specifications. After reviewing some rather comprehensive bids, the state decided to work strictly with Motorola. Pat decided that to get the process started, she was going to need help. “When you think of radio systems, you think, ‘What’s Pat’s problem? All she had to do was work on getting radios!’… No!” Pat exclaimed, receiving laughter from the audience. Pat explained that procuring a new police radio system also meant building town sites, working with the Federal Aviation Administration on frequencies, obtaining the receiving equipment needed for the police cars, mobile radios for officers to wear, and much, much more. Pat had meetings with the Motorola project manager and was able to define the goals, objectives, and scope of work. Pat proposed that, because of the size of the project, they create four individual task teams. “It was constant every day, every week, and we had to have teamwork. The state police and the state couldn’t do it alone, we needed Motorola, and we created a great working relationship.” Pat said. The teams met at different times and on different days so that state staff was not tied up in meetings all day. The teams also elected to institute monthly progress reports so they could keep each other informed. All in all, the various agencies were able to procure the necessary equipment and provide Virginia with the radio system it needed.

The truth is there will always be problems. It is the manner in which you construct the solutions that make procurement professionals effective problem solvers. Whether it was between audience and presenter, supplier and buyer, or NASPO staff and NASPO member, there was a universal presence of comradery and sincerity during the Exchange conference and that was highlighted in this session. Stories of small failures and overwhelming achievements helped energize the crowd. Understanding that communication and transparency are likely always to be the key to successful relationships was perhaps one of the most important takeaways of the evening.

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