I actually hate the term “trading partner management.” It sounds so dry, so lifeless. So devoid of any emotion — positive or negative. But that is what the business world uses to describe how we interact with our customers, partners, and suppliers, specifically when it comes to exchanging data with them.
Before I started working at Adeptia, I thought exchanging data with other companies was easy-peasy. What could be so hard about sending a file? Just send an email. Or do Dropbox. What’s the big deal? Well, I was rapidly educated — it IS a big deal, especially if it’s data that needs to be transacted upon. Sending someone an email with a datasheet attached (welcome to MY world) is very different than sending them an EDI shipping notice, a benefit enrollment, or a claim. In the latter cases, they have to unpack the data, process it into their format, then bring it into their back-end system to push out a good or a service on the other side.
When you consider the diversity in businesses out there — small, large, low-tech, high-tech — as well as the variety of applications they are using, along with the many formats that data can take (EDI notice, Excel spreadsheet, XML, free-flowing script, web form, etc.), and the many ways that data can get to you (secure FTP server, web services, email, phone, and fax, etc.), you then have an explosion in the number of processes you have to manage just to service a new customer. And then your brain wants to explode because there could literally be as many processes as you have customers!
This one is large and wants to send you EDI shipping notices over secure FTP. That one is small and wants to fax you a handwritten order. And so on and so forth. So here are 5 pieces of hard-won wisdom you will want to have right out of the gate when it comes to trading partner management:
Before you sign that contract, conduct a B2B connectivity and technology audit. Otherwise, you won’t be cheering, even though it means top-line growth to have a new customer. Past that point? Well, if there are integration issues, you should still do the audit, because it’s crucial to understand the technical capabilities of your new partner. This way, you can plan the best B2B infrastructure required and the support they will need.
As I was saying before, some of your “trading partners” will be low-tech, others high-tech. Some will be EDI veterans, while others will say, “What’s EDI?” There are PLENTY of businesses out there using Microsoft Excel as their main tool, so in order to trade with these companies, you’re going to have to be able to seamlessly handle Excel documents. Other partners may lack the internal resources and technology infrastructures, making simple web-based forms the most effective means to exchange B2B information.
Exchanging B2B information effectively is only part of trading with a new partner. It is important to ensure that your supply chain can be monitored end-to-end and in real time. When onboarding new trading partners, you’ve got to consider how you achieve this level of visibility and how you deploy the information captured to improve the service you provide to customers (and/or receive from suppliers).
No one ever knows which way the wind will blow next, not even the meterologists. With economic uncertainty coloring our lives these days, it is extremely important to make sure that your B2B platform can scale seamlessly up and down with your business. The most important thing to figure out? How you onboard new trading partners fast and divest yourself of partners you’re no longer doing business with fast. What happens to your service contracts when your traffic volume increases or decreases? Today, the pay-as-you-go models available from cloud-based platforms can be very attractive.
One area of onboarding people often overlook is the role of partner data within your own back office systems. ERP systems, especially, are notorious for containing a high proportion of externally sourced data. The problem is, if you have issues effectively integrating your partner systems, you will have downstream impacts on the quality of data entering your network. Ever hear of garbage in, garbage out? So keep in mind that successful back-office integration will pay off in additional benefits to your B2B platform — not least of which is improved cash flow and reduced order-to-pay cycles.
If your business exchanges information with other companies for operational purposes, take our advice and plan for success in managing hundreds — no, thousands — no, hundreds of thousands — of trading partners. Here’s to your growth!