Weekend Journal — Vendor Relationships

Weekend Journal — Vendor Relationships

This weekend I had a buddy in town who I’ve known since childhood. It was great getting to hang out with him. But in one of the great ironies of the universe, it came to pass that my best friend is also what sometimes ends up being a perfect foe for an engineer: a purchasing agent. In reality, we work for different companies and work in drastically different industries. So while there could be tension, it usually only comes up as a function of our discussions about what engineers should do and how purchasing agents should act. But on today’s topic, our contention came to a head:

My purchasing friend says that I should not maintain relationships with vendors (platonic, of course). I should not allow them to buy me lunch occasionally. I should not accept sample kits from them. I should not talk to them other than in official capacities for work. 

I’ve written before on EB about the role of vendors. Though there is a lot more I’ll expand on about that later, the idea in that previous article is that a relationship is beneficial to getting work done in the electronics industry; I’ve never experienced what vendors do in other industries, but I have to imagine there are some people in every industry offering useful services (often for “free” in order to win or influence business). This is definitely the case for electronics. And it makes good business sense for the vendors; simple choices by an electronics engineer can end up producing years of usage of a single part and can result in millions (and on rare occasions billions) over time, especially if a finished product is in production for 10+ years.

However, my purchasing agent friend claims that I should do no such thing. Any kind of relationship is an instance of weakness and immediately ruins any ability to negotiate prices with that vendor. The main idea behind negotiating is having lots of alternate options and promising to use a certain part or brand means that you are locked into that solution; it gives the upper hand to the other side and can have implications on how much you have to pay for it in production. On the relationship side, if I am friendly with vendors, he believes that will lead to bad decisions that will affect a purchasing agent somewhere.

There are benefits for the engineer and the vendor being in a symbiotic relationship, especially if each understands why the other party does what they do.

  • For the engineer:
    • A vendor can offer technical support and even offload some of your work if you’re willing to let them know intimate details about your project.
    • They know about parts before they’re released and can help you take advantage of that early knowledge.
    • They offer great networking, both for finding more help (full time and contact) and finding out about new jobs.
  • For the vendor:
    • If an engineer thinks of calling you first, they are more likely to design in your parts.
    • If they make an engineer comfortable enough, they might relax more about price.
    • If the engineer needs multiple components, they can have a “one stop shop” with you, allowing the vendor to sell more chips (or other components).

So will I listen to my friend and sever all ties with the vendors I know tomorrow? Heck no. I told my friend in the kind and gentlest way possible where he could stick his advice. Also that I was going to continue doing things however I wanted to. I’m sure there is corporate policy that states similar things to what he’s saying, but it’s just not realistic these days. Far too much is asked of far too few and the symbiotic relationship with vendors helps to produce things quicker. If price is a huge component of a design, then it is up to that engineer to ensure low prices and design in alternate solutions, regardless of relationships with the vendor.

If the engineer is diligent about research and utilizes trusted vendors at the appropriate time, everyone wins. It’s a symbiotic relationship, so sure, everyone gets used a little bit. And sometimes, that’s not the worst thing in the world (according to Bill, below). Unless you’re asking a purchasing agent.


 Thanks to Aidan Jones for the picture of the handshake.


Maybe the vendor’s salespeople, with all their connections, will eventually help promote your product in some way as in “You know that cool product that Chris did. It uses our ADCs. You should check it out. It’s awesome.”

Purchasing guys live life cranky because what they REALLY want is to tell you what chips you are allowed to use in your design.

Purchasing/Vendor relationships: Adversarial
Engineer/Vendor relationships: Cooperative/supportive (hopefully)

Purchasing will always consider you to be “sleeping with the enemy”.

Agree to disagree with your friend.

When I worked for a major refinery on the Gulf Coast, many of the young engineers would do things that were far more than I have heard here. They would go out on the vendors’ boats and would be wined and dined. The younger engineers would rely on their vendors to give them the correct sizes for their pressure vessels, pumps and relief valves. The young engineers were learning from these vendors instead of asking their senior mentors or group leader. When it comes to this, this is wrong. What happens when the vendor suggests the wrong size and a wrong piece of equipment blows up and kills someone? They have no responsibility in this. Only the young engineer. Whether the company should foster a better relationship between young engineers and mentors is for another topic.

I’m not saying that vendors are not a good source for new products. All I’m saying is that there needs to be some oversight. In some companies, it’s the Purchasing Department. Since we, as experienced engineers, know how to temper good judgment with experience, younger engineers need more supervision until they develop sound judgment and accept the responsibility to do their own work.

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