Consultative Procurement: Asking Questions & Influencing Outcomes

Categories : Procurement Goals | Improve Credibility | Set Strategy Published on : Apr 25 2017

By: Kelly Barner, Owner and Editor of Buyers Meeting Point

A more consultative approach to procurement can bring big benefits. Join Kelly Barner from Buyers Meeting Point as she highlights some key ways to bring your team and organization on board.

Career consultants have a reputation that precedes them. They show up as polished as their highly graphical presentation decks, and there’s an expectation that they have all the answers. Many people think that consultants have seen it all before, and even when they have not, that they are somehow able to extract meaning and direction from any set of circumstances. Perhaps then, the greatest asset of a consultant is their perceived ability to bring independent perspective and voice to challenging corporate discussions.

Many procurement teams profess to wanting to be more consultative — like an internal team that can represent an objective point of view, even from within the organization. In order to be effective in such a role, procurement should strive to be less like stereotypical consultants — think “the Bobs” in the 1999 comedy movie Office Space — and instead function in the image of what the word consult actually means: to seek information or advice.

Understand the Value of Asking Good Questions

The most daunting part of stepping into the role of internal consultant is likely to be the expectation that procurement must have answers to all the organization’s questions. As noted above, consult means to ask questions — not answer them. Answers are always the ultimate objective — but it is perfectly acceptable to take some time to arrive at thoughtful outcomes. But procurement does not have to be the magic eight ball that provides immediate answers in response to each question asked.

In fact, consultative procurement teams should be the ones asking questions. Asking a good question is a powerful step in the right direction. In the early stages of an effort — consultative or otherwise — someone may point out that procurement has asked a good question, meaning that the person asking it is coming up to speed quickly and can participate in conversations as an equal with other experienced professionals. But as procurement becomes increasingly knowledgeable, asking a good question sheds new light on an old issue. And questions don’t necessarily need to be complex to be effective.

Tips for Asking Good Questions:

  • Be on the lookout for legacy-based assumptions regarding how something should be done or what is or is not an option. It often takes an objective point of view to separate a fact from an assumption.
  • Start a question with “have you ever tried—,” to introduce a new option without making people defensive. Even the best question cannot be effective if it also creates an adversary.
  • Do your homework before asking a question — if you cannot find the answer on your own, then there is a chance that you have identified a question worth asking.
  • Do not expect to ask a good question every day or in every meeting. Good questions are rare — almost by definition.

Build Influence Through Action

Being an influencer is another item on many procurement wish lists and is a characteristic shared by consultants. It would be easy to think that professional consultants are the ideal role models for consultative procurement organizations, just like it would be easy to think that knowledge is the key to influence. If procurement wants to build influencer status, however, their focus should be on action and understanding. Influencers earn the respect of others, not for what they know, but for what they enable and motivate others to do. Influencers are effective decision makers and sharp, almost intuitive analysts that provide leadership in difficult circumstances.

Rather than waiting for others to officially confer the title of influencer, procurement should be confident and perform to the best of their ability. Procurement needs a solid understanding of what other organizations are doing. This requires reading, following the news in trade journals and through professional organizations. Not quite the same as observing, understanding connects immediate circumstances with possible alternatives to motivate exceptional results.

Influencers Are as Influencers Do:

  • Don’t be afraid of hard work. By stepping up and taking responsibility for a task, procurement owns that effort and the resulting deliverable(s). That earned territory becomes the basis for authority in future efforts.
  • Break from the pack when background research suggests that a different opinion is worth discussing. Procurement must be ready to back up this position with facts and clear thought — it is not permission to be contrarian, but to present an alternate path as a qualified possibility.
  • Stay calm but visible under pressure, and serve as an example to others on the team that accusations and infighting are nonproductive and noninfluencer responses.

A final piece of advice for procurement teams looking to bolster their consultative presence in the organization is the first thing I observed about career consultants: be polished. Polish is in the details, and while it does not serve as a substitute for performance, it cannot be sacrificed when the pressure is on. Consultants are polished in their appearance, presentations, written and spoken communications, and interpersonal skills. These attributes may seem secondary, especially when everyone on a project team is in the same organization and have typically worked together before, but they are an essential component of creating the desired impression. Investing time and effort in polish will do as much good for procurement’s confidence as it does for the regard of their colleagues.

Consultants may seem like the be-all and end-all of professional services, but anyone who can ask good questions, behave as an influencer and package it with the appropriate level of polish can be exceptionally effective as a consultant, procurement included.


About the Author

Kelly Barner is the owner of Buyers Meeting Point, an online resource for procurement and purchasing professionals. Her unique perspective on supply management is based on her time as a practitioner, a consultant at a solution provider, and now as an independent thought leader. Kelly has led projects involving members of procurement, supplier, and purchasing teams and has practical skills in strategic sourcing program design and management, opportunity assessment, knowledge management, and custom taxonomy design. She earned her MBA from Babson College, a Master of Science in Library and Information Science from Simmons College, and a Bachelor of Arts in English and History from Clark University.  Kelly has co-authored two books, “Supply Market Intelligence for Procurement Professionals” in 2014 and “Procurement at a Crossroads” in 2016.

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