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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

2 April 2014

8 Tips for Successful Supplier-Client Relationships

Contributor Ethical Fashion Forum

Mehera Shaw Customer

Are you a supplier working with international clients? SOURCE speaks to Shari Keller, fashion designer and director of Indian fair trade manufacturer Mehera Shaw, on how to ensure your business relationships deliver value for you and your client.

Following on from our previous article: 12 Tips for Best Practise Manufacture In India SOURCE speaks to Dr. Shari Keller the founder of Mehera Shaw, a fair trade production studio and private label manufacture based in Jaipur, India.

In this second article, we focus this time on the supplier, sharing some key advice on how to build successful client relationships and smooth, stress-free production runs.

These tips might also be useful for designers or anyone responsible for production. This might help you decide what qualities to look for from your supplier in order to create a successful project and healthy, sustainable relationship.

This piece was put together by SOURCE in-house researcher, Phoebe Moss and Mehera Shaw founder, Shari Keller.

1) Form a relationship with your client.

Understand the project you are undertaking, right from the outset, and make sure that your client understands the context of your business to avoid any misconceptions.

Invite the designers to your manufacturing site. This way they can begin to understand the context in which their designs are being produced and the people who create them.

Skype the perfect opportunity to meet and discuss with international clients should this not be possible and for continuous discussions throughout the course of the project.

Creating this open dialogue between supplier and designer from the beginning helps to create mutual confidence in being open with one another and will in turn help prevent any future mishaps.

With new designers whom may not be used to dealing with external suppliers and the technicalities that may arise, this relationship can be mutually beneficial. You may also be dealing with individuals whom have never worked in your country before and are not yet accustomed to the cultural differences and different styles of business etiquette.

2) Be honest with your capabilities.

Highlight your strengths and what makes you stand out from potential competitors, don’t take on an order unless you have the actual capacity to fulfil it to a high quality standard. In India it is common throughout business and social culture to always say ‘yes’ to a question or request being made in an effort to avoid disappointment.

Make it clear to clients as to what it is you handle and what you do not. It is safer to be on the side of caution, than to take on orders that you may not be able or prepared to meet. It’s more disappointing when a promise you’ve made is not delivered or a high level of quality is not achieved.

3) Transparency throughout the manufacturing process

Be clear and honest about your situation throughout the entire production run – capacity, working time, stresses, cultural and practical contexts or limitations. This will help designers develop a product which works to both their and your best abilities and time frames; and to be flexible if lead-times shift.

Mehera Shaw production team at work

4) Understand your client; different cultural business etiquette and their past sourcing experience.

Different nationalities conduct business in diverse ways and it is important to be open to working with people whose communication style is a little different to yours. A good partnership will be a mutual effort from both sides to jump this hurdle.

For instance, Indian suppliers are often concerned that any news that is less than positive would be upsetting to the designer so tend not to share the honest details. When in actual fact, even bad news can be reassuring and allows for the designer to reconsider their original ideas and creatively resolve those problems.

It may be that a supplier will not want to ask the designer any questions, fearing they will appear incompetent – whereas in reality, the designer will take comfort in being asked extra questions and feel the manufacturer is being extra careful, thereby minimising potential future problems.

Clients will also come to you with varied backgrounds and different working knowledge of outsourcing suppliers. There are typically three types of different clients you might encounter:

  • Those who have significant experience dealing with larger factories or factories in China, usually of which are not fair trade;
  • Those who have some experience, have perhaps travelled in your country and are passionate about fair trade and artisans;
  • Those who are completely new to design, the fashion industry and working in your country.

The first type of client will generally have a good technical background and provide technical packs in ready to go condition. You may instead need to offer some insight in to the fair trade, ethical credentials of your business and emphasise the differences between industrialized production and artisan production. The desire to build a relationship on a more personal level may not be something they are used to either.

That second type of client will often be a little more culturally in tune but say be surprised by the total cost of production.

And the third type of client will potentially require for the supplier and its team of artisans to help play a bigger role in the design finalisation and technical pack finishing.

It’s a wise idea to ask plenty of questions at the outset of working with a new client to figure out how much or how little knowledge they have about the process and what their communication style is.

5) Provide designers with templates for production orders and garment specification sheets.

It can be a very good idea to construct your own templates for production orders and garment specification sheets as this will assist new designers and brands in collating the correct information to ensure accurate production.

By using your own template you will also become in charge of a formula you are familiar with and thereby identify problems and areas that may need addressing earlier and quicker.

Mehera Shaw tailoring unit

6) Communication is Key: Communicate clearly and often.

At every stage of the manufacturing process it is important to communicate with the designer. Check over any detail, no matter how small or large.

If you are unclear, or there are changes from the production sample, make sure to communicate this with the designer. This will prevent any surprises for your client at the end.

Suppliers should ask questions for even the smallest detail if there is any doubt at all or if the type of work requested poses problems for the manufacturers.

Here communication gaps can arise due to the simple fact that the designer mainly wants clear information and the supplier often wants to simply reassure the designer that all is being taken care of.

Honesty and attention to detail throughout the production process is best.

In order to create a sustainable relationship Shari suggests there are two levels of communication of which are important to establish and maintain:

  • The ‘Big Picture’ communication which is of upmost importance for small suppliers dealing in artisan-based production and should occur right at the beginning of a potential partnership. This is because the services generally being supplied have the potential of accompanying limitations such as variation in quality, seasonal changes and changes in lead time. These constraints are not always familiar with customers coming from across Europe, Austalia and the USA, etc. Work to make sure a customer’s expectations are in accordance with the reality of what you specialise in and are capable of. So accurate, transparent communication from the outset is vital here.
  • ‘Detail Orientated’ communication means that you’re keeping customers up to date, raising concerns, clarifying details. Keeping them informed and asking questions throughout the production process. Consistent, regular emails are great for this. Maintaining correspondence with a single individual can help maintain continuity throughout communication.

7) Understand the Market you are supplying to.

Suppliers should try to understand the market they are supplying to. Studying market trends from recent fashion week presentations in Milan, London, Paris and NYC, etc. helps to build cross-cultural awareness. Places to look to for such information include:

  • VOGUE: Published monthly in 23 countries as well as having a strong online presence, this fashion and lifestyle magazine highlights all of the current trends from major international fashion houses with a gearing to the country of origin.
  • WGSN: An online Trend Forecasting and Analysis resource used by many successful designers, brands, as well as students. Mainly focuses on Fashion, with colour and print focuses too, but also looks at interiors and accessories as well as social trends and broader technical and product developments which may impact fashions. You need to subscribe to the website to read reports, but they do have an equally stylish blog too, which can be accessed for free.

By educating members of staff, particularly the pattern master and cutter and stitchers of the current trends in fashion regarding cuts, styles, colourways, prints and advertising, they are able to make more informed decisions, be a much more engaged part of the design and production process and give more accurate advice when required.

Mehera Shaw pattern cutter

8) Respect for the individual and importance of teamwork.

How you structure and organise yourself as a supplier will have a domino effect on the relationships you build with your clients and the way in which you handle your business and projects.

It is therefore of fundamental importance to create a respectful, transparent and strong work force where individuals are given the opportunity to speak freely. A good way to do this is to create an open discussion forum that meets regularly where workers can update and input.

Regular group meetings to share ideas or voice concerns, between artisans and management will create an egalitarian structure that not only will serve to create positive, sustainable employment opportunities, but the strengths of your business infrastructure will enable you to build confidently upon your business relations.

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