by David Jonas, Executive Editor, Business Travel News& Sarah J.F. Braley, Senior Editor, M&C | May 01, 2014

The discipline of supplier relationship management can run the gamut from formalized processes and data-driven performance  assessments to periodic meetings and shared user feedback. Number-crunching on key performance indicators and service-level agreements can help organizations determine if they are maximizing value, while such strategic activities as joint product development and participation on advisory boards -- as well as simple, open dialogue -- often are more important elements.

Travel buyers want good service and value for their dollar. Sellers want as much of the buyers' business as they can get. But successful and collaborative enterprisewide relationships go further to include engagement from individual travelers up to the C-suite. They may involve fostering responsible corporate practices, reducing risk, sharing goals and driving innovation.

"The challenge for procurement departments in organizations has been the balancing act between the traditional role of negotiating the most beneficial form of commercial agreement, whilst also facing the challenge of maintaining a trusting partnership," according to Kirsten Schipper and Thomas Dahm, authors of a segment within a Capgemnini Consulting research report, Supplier Relationship Management Research 2012-2013. "Many 'old school' procurement professionals have been struggling with the balance of negotiating with a supplier, and being the manager of a partnership with that same supplier. ... Today's challenge is to set up structures to successfully measure and manage suppliers and build processes and procedures to intervene if KPIs are not met."

Many of the key tenets of any good supplier relationship are foundations for the most successful ones with travel suppliers. "It's transparency; having a very open and honest and clear relationship," said Gordon Wilson, president and CEO of Travelport, which provides technology to managed travel programs, travel agencies and other travel suppliers. "If there is a misunderstanding or distrust, or people aren't getting the full information, that's a problem. The other thing is related to data. Every corporate I speak to -- every single one -- complains about data: lack of data, inconsistency of data, the form it comes in, the possibility of reconciling it. That's a key area that relationships increasingly pivot on but actually is poorly served."

Of course, it's a two-way street. To pursue meaningful relationships with their suppliers, buyers need a clear strategy and well-defined goals. The best clients "task us at being better at what we do," said Balboa Travel president and CEO Denise Jackson. "They push us to be innovative."