Inventing is a tricky business. It’s hard to know what people really want without the benefit of hindsight. So it’s nice that history tends to be kind to great minds. Otherwise, we might recognize Edison as the “concrete house guy“, Kellogg as the “yogurt enema guy“, and B.F. Skinner as the “pigeon-guided missile guy“.
Instead, we think about light bulbs, corn flakes, and the Skinner box.
Okay, maybe you don’t think of the Skinner box right away. But if the name Skinner is familiar to you, it’s probably because of his work in psychology, specifically reinforcement and behavioralism. And the Skinner box, or more officially the “operant conditioning chamber“, was where Skinner put many of his theories to the test, observing animals as they responded to a variety of positive and negative stimuli. You know, rats pulling levers to get food while scientists make notes on their clipboards. Typical lab stuff… but also a metaphor for something bigger.
Because the thing is, we’ve all spent time inside the Skinner box, scurrying around to meet the demands of others, responding to positive and negative conditioning. And we’ve all spent time on the outside, pushing buttons to administer shocks or deliver food pellets. We just don’t usually realize it at the time.
I was reminded of this recently while working on a project for a long-time agency client of ours. This agency brought us to the table to develop a research approach for one of their client accounts. It was a pretty unique situation requiring a very customized solution, and we put together a great plan. We thought it was great. Our agency partner thought it was great. Their client thought it was great. In fact, their client thought it was so great that they decided to get other companies to bid on the same approach. You know, to make sure they could get this great solution as cheaply as possible.
Think this is a unique situation? Nope. Another one of our agency partners lives this scenario every day. They have multiple accounts that they share with other ad agencies, so every time anyone brings a good idea to the table, everyone gets to bid on it. Lowest bidder wins, naturally.
This kind of thing happens all the time — to agencies, to research firms, to manufacturers and healthcare providers and financial planners and everyone in between. It’s nothing new.
And anyway, what’s the big deal? Can’t fault the client for wanting to save a few bucks, right? We’ve all been there, and it’s tempting to squeeze our suppliers to protect our own budgets and margins.
Here’s the problem. Constantly wielding the low-bid hammer sends one of two messages:
- I don’t trust you to give me an honest price, or
- I don’t value your innovative thinking and I don’t intend to reward it.
While the first message is insulting, the second message (especially when it’s true) is much more insidious. If you stop rewarding your suppliers for bringing unique, original, innovative thinking to the table, then why should they bother? Say goodbye to a great source of new ideas and fresh perspectives!
So what’s the solution? Learn to think inside the box. What kinds of reinforcement do your suppliers need from you?
Want mediocre solutions as cheaply as possible? Make everything a bidding war! No need for positive reinforcement, electric shocks are fine.
Want truly engaged strategic partners? Then be prepared to invest in your supplier relationships. Fill up the treat dispenser!
Just remember: your suppliers are responding to your cues. Are you sending the right message?