As high streets cautiously re-open their doors to shoppers and people look forward to the possibility of enjoying some sort of summer holiday, public health officials try to forecast the likelihood of a second wave of the epidemic and business leaders explore multiple scenarios to assess the consequences that might bring. What’s becoming clear from recent conversations with colleagues and clients is that no organisation can face the future on their own. Relationships with key suppliers and partners will need to change – in some cases radically – and the realities of lockdown can make holding these cross-party conversations challenging. We’ve put down some lessons we’re learning about what can help to hold business relationships together and what can increase potential divisions in these difficult times:

  • Existing performance regimes and contractual arrangements need to be reviewed. The way in which many supply-chain partners just got on with what needed to be done to keep stocks on the shelves and customers supplied has been a very positive feature of the early phases of this pandemic. But variations to existing contracts need to be paid for and performance regimes revised. When the terms of the pre-existing contract performance regime now need to change, it’s time for creative and collaborative negotiations. Starting these discussions early with all the right people ‘in the room’ is vital – the longer you leave it the harder it will be.
  • Pre-existing relationships may have changed. When lockdown started many businesses found themselves frozen at an arbitrary point in key relationships. Some partnerships contracts may have been just about to start in April, others were approaching a re-tender process that was then postponed when existing plans were temporarily rolled forward. Now is a time to systematically review the state of your key relationships, which of these need to be reset, which may just not be required to anything like the same degree in future, and what capabilities might be missing in your ‘extended family’ of partnerships as you contemplate a post-Covid business environment.
  • There will be unvoiced differences in assumptions about the future. As you start exploratory discussions in the re-contracting process, one of the most important things to be able to talk openly and honestly about is assumptions of the lasting impact of the pandemic and future patterns of consumer behaviour. Of course, there are enormous amounts of uncertainty in any scenario planning but one of the biggest barriers to a productive re-contracting process is when different assumptions go un-voiced until a late stage of negotiations.
  • Shared remote working can frustrate communications. The on-line tools that many organisations are using for remote team working, such as Microsoft Teams can have limitations when working with partners on sensitive re-contracting discussions. Many organisations find that different IT protocols or policies either restrict access to people from outside your organisation or only offer them limited functionality, perhaps with no video or the ability to share screens/slides. This immediately introduces an imbalance and a barrier in meetings so it’s worth investing time to find either a neutral 3rd party on-line technology – or to work with your respective IT departments to minimise any differences of access from the outset.