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Procurement during COVID-19: Experts share their 4 lessons learned

May 15, 2020 | Emily Lambert

Woman working remotely reading blog on procurement during COVID-19

It’s no secret that COVID-19—and, for many, the added challenge of working from home—is changing how procurement is done.

In our “Working Remotely” webinar, Bonfire’s Chief Client & Product Officer, Omar Salaymeh, sat down with four public procurement professionals on the impact this crisis has had on their processes and how their teams are adapting to a new remote work reality. Despite the diversity of the panelists’ industries spanning local government, higher education, and public healthcare, four trends emerged as major lessons learned in overcoming obstacles during this critical time.

It just goes to show that procurement teams across North America are facing similar challenges, and we hope this summary of procurement best practices learned by fellow experts in the field can enable you to continue tackling these unprecedented procurement challenges with confidence.

Creativity is key

To meet your constituents’ new and unexpected needs at this time, creativity is a critical skill for procurement teams.

For Jay Ayres, Director of Group Purchasing Organization at St. Joseph’s Health System, sourcing innovation starts with asking the right questions. “When there is an emergency and a need, the first question isn’t ‘what product do we need?’” said Jay. “The first question is ‘what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?’ That made a big difference in how people thought and approached things.”

He then gave the example of a long-term care facility, where residents could no longer eat in the dining area and needed overbed tables so that they could eat in their rooms. With many other facilities across North America facing similar challenges, national shortages meant that Jay’s team needed to find another solution that would address the problem they faced—which included sourcing folding TV tables.

Paul J. Brennan, Director of Purchasing for the County of Rockland, also noted that, in this climate of national shortages, sourcing methods need to be creative, too. The County of Rockland had a lot of success using LinkedIn to discover suppliers with available inventory. Paul’s team also started partnering with other agencies to procure supplies from vendors that had minimum order quantities that were higher than their organization needed.

Vendor relationships are more important than ever before

As inventory shortages continue to present challenges to public procurement teams, all the panelists on our webinar agreed that this crisis has further highlighted the importance of strong relationships between procurement and suppliers.

“We have been doing unconventional methods of procuring PPE,” said Joel Neaveill, Director of Procurement for the Louisville Metro Government. “It really comes down to, where were your relationships prior, and how can you leverage those relationships to get closer to the manufacturer and those supplies.”

Jay had a similar experience. When looking for overbed tables, vendors who didn’t have any inventory were able to give them a lead to who might. Following those leads, Jay’s team was able to create a list of vendors who distributed overbed tables, consistently communicating and interacting with the vendors to know when stock would become available. “Two weeks later, we got a call from somebody who works for a city,” said Jay. “They said, ‘we have an emergency in our long-term care facility, and we need 20+ overbed tables immediately.’ Instead of spending three days, we were able to resolve their issue in less than two hours.”

According to the panelists, strengthening their relationships with vendors in this time isn’t on pause—it just looks different. Jay’s team at St. Joseph’s Health System was able to help out their vendors (and simultaneously shorten their cycle times) by exporting previous RFPs from Bonfire that included information on lead times, pricing, warranty, service, and training into a spreadsheet. Rather than having vendors start from scratch, Jay’s team sent them the spreadsheet, and then confirmed their permission to proceed and asked if there were any changes. “What would’ve taken weeks for them to do, they were able to give it back in a day,” said Jay.

Procurement has a unique opportunity to support local business

In the midst of economic uncertainty, procurement is critical to stimulating the economy. After all, government procurement accounts for 12 percent of GDP. All the webinar panelists agreed that procurement not only has the responsibility to engage local business at this time—but local businesses might also be the key to overcoming some unique procurement challenges.

“What I’ve found to be very helpful is not to count out the little guy,” said Paul. When major medical supply distributors were experiencing shortages, Paul’s team happened to find a local dental supply vendor that had excess inventory of gloves, masks, and PPE.

Joel also understands procurement’s role in driving the local economy, and his team is coming up with new and innovative ideas to support local businesses in this time. “Our local economy, like everyone’s local economy, is just hurting so much, especially the restaurant and hospitality industries, so we’re turning to them to help supply part of the response to the emergency.”

These projects included mobilizing local caterers to feed seniors, using hotels to house first responders who are healthy but don’t want to risk infecting their homes, and commissioning a sewing shop to custom-make face masks for Louisville Metro Government employees. “We also have a list of minority- and women-owned businesses to ensure we’re equitably responding to this emergency,” said Joel.

A lot of these changes are here to stay

When we asked the panelists if they believed the changes caused by COVID-19 and remote work would continue once things go “back to normal,” the answer was unanimously yes—for the most part.

“We want to go back to campus,” said Travis Temeyer, Director of Purchasing and Procurement at Eastern Michigan University. “We love being with our students. But we’ve realized that more of our faculty and staff can work remotely, and that is something that I think is going to stay. From an academic perspective, the marketplace wants online education, so we’ll probably have more offerings of that.”

Paul believes that new technologies, including virtual meetings, will continue at the County of Rockland. “Our county government is two main campuses, about 15 minutes apart,” said Paul. “When you have to drive back and forth for different meetings, you’re wasting an hour of your day. This crisis has pushed the use of virtual tools out there, and I think that’s definitely going to continue going forward.”

Jay has also seen one big change that he hopes will continue; when procuring expensive and complex medical equipment, their process previously required a site visit to physically view products from the top three vendors of choice. Often, these site visits required international travel. In lieu of this, Jay’s team has been doing virtual site visits to view the equipment and ask questions. These virtual site visits have been highly successful, and have saved the agency a lot of time and money.

Even as some organizations start to go back to the office, Jay believes it’s important for agencies to ensure their procurement processes are still work-from-home-ready. “We need to be ready for COVID coming back or the next pandemic that’s going to arrive,” he said.

To hear even more procurement best practices learned during COVID-19, watch the full panel webinar here.

About the author

Bonfire Blog Author Emily Lambert

Emily Lambert | Bonfire Interactive

As the Content Marketing Strategist at Bonfire, Emily writes thought leadership for procurement teams in the public sector. Best practices content for procurement professionals doesn’t have to be a chore to get through—which is why Emily strives to strike the balance of writing educational yet engaging content that inspires sourcing experts and equips them to make the best purchasing decisions.