What do your customers really expect of you? What do they look for when you put forward your services? What makes them turn away or take you up?
These are questions that must cross the minds of all suppliers during the course of their careers, but getting the answers isn't always as easy as looking at the tender's demands. Director-e turned to three uniform purchasers in wildly different sectors to ask them what they really want.
Barclays: Banking on success
Jayne Richards is the corporatewear manager for Barclays, which is not only one of the UK's biggest banks and a major finance service provider across the world, but has been in operation for over three centuries.
Of course, having spent all that time in operation, the company has a very strong idea of how it wants its staff to look, as Jayne told director-e: "We asked our customers what they thought of our corporatewear and most of the people we spoke to said that if everyone looked the same, it was like the staff were just part of the furniture.
"That gave us the desire to build a corporate wardrobe that would offer the staff a range of clothing that was varied but obviously came from the same family. Our corporate clothing has a visual identity, but it's not regimented."
Clothing for the 'Elite'
The result is a rather unique corporate clothing structure that sees new staff choosing from the bank's unique 'Elite' range of shirts, blouses, trousers, skirts, ties and other officewear that is designed to be fashionable but professional.
Once the staff members have been with the company for a period of time, they are given access to the 'Couture' range, which features clothing cashmere, pure wool and other highly desirable materials.
With no demands that the staff take a specific number or style of garments, and with clothing being swapped out for new designs if it becomes unpopular, the result is a rather unusual and perhaps unpredictable supply model.
However, Jayne says that the system's piecemeal structure ultimately allows for easier updates to be made to the wardrobe.
"We can put in an out of the wardrobe at any stage," she said. "If garments look good and are popular with the staff then they may be retained for four years, but we tend to refresh garments every 18 months.
"I means that instead of doing a big bang approach every few years, you have a gradual transformation - we like to say that it's an evolution, not a revolution.
"Admittedly, supply prediction is difficult but we take their orders three months in advance and we do them made-to-order, so that takes out the variance. Otherwise it would be unfair to the supplier," she said.
Finding the perfect supplier
It's a demanding brief, which is why Jayne and the group sourcing department at Barclays are careful to make sure that everyone they offer the tender to is capable of doing the job.
But of course, if everyone is capable of doing the work, they will have to find other ways to gain an advantage. Jayne elaborated: "We tend to focus on additional value - things like making sure their ethical, environmental and corporate responsibility standards fit with our own.
"The people we will deal with are a key part as well - we have to be able to get along with the account management team and the directors, since we'll be dealing with them constantly and that means there can't be any clashing personalities."
Of course, for any company money is a vital factor - and Barclays is no exception, as Jayne explained: "There are always charges and management fees, but I would like any supplier I work with to be open to the possibility of reducing prices without reducing quality.
"We're big enough and brave enough to accept that product costs can only be cut down by a certain amount, but that doesn't mean those reductions have to be made at the expense of the clothing.
"You can work smarter to bring costs down through other means, such as using technology to improve operational costs or changing logistics. At the end of the day, if it makes us choose them it's a win-win situation for both companies."
But for Jayne, it's not just about agreeing on ethical, emotional and financial levels; the perfect supplier needs to have a creative engagement with Barclays as well.
She said: "Over and above everything, I'm looking for innovation, for the appetite and enthusiasm to come up with something that's different, because if I can excite the staff and make them feel good about themselves they will perform better in their jobs. I honestly want them to feel proud to wear clothing from Barclays."
The fire brigade: safety first
A world away from the comfort of bank work, firefighters like Martin Fraser have to combat the Earth's most dangerous element - and that means they need the best protection available.
But as well as being a firefighter, Martin is the project officer for the Integrated Clothing Project (ICP), which aims to deliver a 'national identity' for the Fire Service and a standard specification for clothing, which will provide value for money and address equality and diversity issues.
Martin is currently going through the tendering process for the ICP and has experience of PPE procurement. He said: "The first thing ICP did was to carry out a risk analysis to identify what injuries are likely to occur, what control measures are in place to prevent injuries and - if they fail - what protective clothing can do to prevent or mitigate the injury.
"Of course there are all the mandatory requirements such as the European standards, but you need to see if you need more protection or other attributes to be included in the clothing's design. Once you have those, you can put out the tender."
Using a broad brief
The details of the tender will alter from brigade to brigade, but in the ICP's case it was extremely broad. "Some fire services say exactly what they expect in terms of design. What we did was turn it around and ask them to tell us what they could provide for that output specification.
"We wanted something fresh and new and we didn't want to limit our options. There was also a question of whether we could be sure that what we thought was the right design was really the best one available."
This invitation didn't just help the ICP team gather new designs, however - it also helped pick out those suppliers who ignored design conservatism and refused to rest on their laurels.
"A complaint I've often heard in the past is that we're given what the clothing industry thinks we want, not what we actually want," he said. "So suppliers will come to fire services with a particular garment and say, 'this is what we think you should have' and we take it even though it may not always be perfect.
"But I don't want to be critical of the industry - it's the dynamic nature of our job that is really the problem. For example, there are now many more women coming into the fire service but it isn't always the case that women's needs are being taken into account with clothing.
"That means a woman's fire boot might not be available because it's not cost-effective - but we say women in the fire service are here and they deserve clothing that has been designed for them. It's something that the industry has sometimes had a hard time adapting to but it's something we need from our suppliers."
Another important factor is good after-sales service. Martin said: "It's important that we have a good, ongoing relationship that doesn't end when we sign the contract.
"When we sign a fully managed contract, for example, there is a great deal of responsibility on the contractor to provide good service for the duration of the contract. It's very important that they do that efficiently - we can't be prevented from attending incidents because our clothing is not up to scratch or unavailable.
"There's a whole host of things that we could specify, but the bottom line is that the clothing is an integral part of the job so it needs to be in the right place at the right time."
But in the end, it's the performance of the PPE that makes the biggest impact on Martin. He said: "When it comes down to PPE, the safety of the firefighter is the most important thing of all.
"When we're evaluating this for the ICP, what we've put above all else is the standard of performance and the only way to do that is by subjecting the garments to rigorous tests and wearer trials because we need to know how good they are in the field."
British Airways: runway success
Such concerns are just as important for British Airways (BA), the largest airline company in the UK and the third largest in Europe. Its uniformed staff numbers around 36,000 people in various roles, including baggage handlers, engineers, check-in staff and cabin and flight crew. David Crawford, procurement manager, is responsible for kitting out each one of them.
The company is currently in the middle of long-term contracts and is happy with its current supply base, which, David said, has delivered the perfect uniform with the perfect style.
"The image we put forward is one of professionalism, security and pride," he said. "We don't tend to go for colour schemes that are very faddish because they date very quickly; we want people to feel that we are reliable, safe and secure.
"We briefed several top fashion designers on the workings of the airline, our core values and our corporate colours and asked them to design a new customer contact uniform that would reflect our core values, be practical for everyday use in a wide range of climates and bring some glamour to the skies.
"Our staff were heavily involved both in the selection of the chosen design and in the uniform’s development into the final corporate wardrobe.”
Once the design work is finished and the uniforms are rolled out, however, it is important for the company to keep the supplies coming - and for BA, that means keeping them as close as possible.
"We source directly with the manufacturers as far as possible to reduce cost, using factories all over the world. However, we insist that all of the suppliers that we deal with hold stock in Europe to facilitate replenishment of the two BA uniform stores within seven days.
"It is BA’s fitting service which ensures our staff look fantastic in their new uniform and that the uniform is worn correctly."
BA's cautiousness also takes in the past performance of potential tenderers; David elaborated: "When we're looking for future tendering possibilities - because we always do our own research into who is worth approaching - we look for companies with a good history.
"They need to have a solid track record and customer base that demonstrates stability, because the textile market is very volatile and unpredictable these days."
That history also takes in the quality of their products. "The actual quality of manufacture and rigorous quality control is vital," he said. "Given the lead-time of bespoke products from the far corners of the globe, we cannot afford mistakes; the clothing needs to be well crafted and reliable at all times."
However, although BA has exacting standards for its clothing, the supplier in question doesn't have to be at the forefront of sales technology as long as they can do the job properly.
"They don't have to be the most up-to-date, computerised, sales orientated company; we look for companies who invest in modern, efficient equipment, who invest in developing and retaining the skills of their staff and who have the ability to develop garments in their own right," David said.
"That last point is very important - all of the companies have to have their own design capabilities in-house, so that if there is a sudden requirement for a rapid change, they can present some ideas without delay.
"We work together to arrive at solutions, rather than impose changes to design requirements on a factory that can't support them."
But sometimes the secret behind finding that perfect company isn't quite as tangible as finances, resources and logistics.
"A lot of the tendering process is judged on feel and trust. We look for win-win long-term partnerships capable of delivering future cost reductions and innovation rather than one-off opportunities," he concluded.