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Inside Public Procurement Episode 3 - Aaron Howell, Kennesaw State University

Episode 3: Why Internal Customer Service Matters in Procurement

Client Service | 36 minutes

Episode Overview:

Compliance or customer service? 

That’s the age-old question in public procurement, right? Well, it shouldn’t be. Compliance is a given…

Customer service is how you win, long-term, in procurement. 

Just ask Aaron Howell, Vice President for Finance / Chief Financial Officer at Kennesaw State University. Our inaugural guest joins the show to discuss the importance of internal customer service for procurement departments. 

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why you need both compliance and customer service
  • The downfalls of an absent customer service
  • How to build important relationships within your organization

You can find this interview, and many more, by subscribing to Inside Public Procurement on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.

About our guest

Headshot of Aaron Howell, Vice President for Finance / Chief Financial Officer at Kennesaw State University

Aaron Howell | Kennesaw State University

Aaron Howell is the Vice President for Finance / Chief Financial Officer at Kennesaw State University.


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You’re listening to Inside Public Procurement by Bonfire, a show celebrating the unique stories and heroic efforts of those on the front lines of public procurement. Each episode, we bring you the latest trends, tips, and real stories from procurement trailblazers like you, who work tirelessly to bring positive impact to the agencies and communities you serve. Together, let’s elevate the field of public procurement to new heights. Now, pull up a chair and let’s gather around the Bonfire. Our show is about to begin.

Omar: So welcome to the podcast. Today’s topic is on the importance of internal customer service to procurement departments. Procurement is often seen as an obstacle in the way of internal clients to get the services and products that they need. But it doesn’t have to be or feel this way. Procurement functions that focus on internal client service,  are often seen as strategic levers within the organization, and also as peers and consultants and as experts to help to get the most out of the spend.

So in this episode, we’ll be exploring what client service means in a procurement context and discuss the strategies that procurement professionals can use, to help improve their internal customer service. In terms of takeaways, hopefully by the end of the episode, you would have taken in how good customer service is viewed from an internal stakeholder perspective, strategies to improve internal customer service, as well as the importance of communication in the procurement process.

So today I’m joined with Aaron Howell, who is the Vice President of Finance and Chief Financial Officer at Kennesaw State University. Aaron Howell was appointed to his current position in February of 2020. He has over 25 experience of higher education. In higher education having previously served as VP for Business and Finance and CFO for Averett University for five years. And prior to that, he was at Oregon State University for 20 years, culminating in his tenure as Assistant Vice President and Controller. Aaron is a certified public accountant. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Finance and then later an MBA from Oregon State University. Welcome to the podcast Aaron.

Aaron: Hey, thank you very much. I appreciate being here.

Omar: So again, the focus today will be on customer service specifically, when it comes to the internal clients that we have as procurement professionals. So before getting into it, would you please tell us about your current role, your team and what the procurement department is responsible for at the university?

Aaron: Sure. So as you mentioned, I’m the Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer here at Kennesaw State. We’re a large university in the North Atlanta area, public part of the state system students enrolled. And we’ve got an all funds budget of about 650 million. So my role is as the Chief Financial Officer overseeing kind of all financial aspects of the university, in addition to several other areas, including payroll budgets, the bursa, or the controller, et cetera. I also oversee procurement and contracts.

And that group is about 17 professionals and we’re responsible for all procurement and contracts, all goods and services procurements for the university. And we buy about probably around $100 million a year in goods and services for the institution.

Omar: So when we’re talking about customer service as being a focus, I thought maybe it’d be good to talk about who the typical customer is, and that will set the context for the rest of the conversation.

Aaron: Thanks. That’s a question that we’re asked a lot and that I use when I’m working with and training my group. Because I think a lot of times I want to say, “Well, our customer is this, our customer is that.” And at one level, I have to make sure that they back up and they say, listen, I have always taken the approach that anybody I’m interacting with, ends up being my customer. I’ve had a passion for customer service my entire career. And so whether it’s my boss calling, needing a report, whether it’s a vendor calling, needing to figure out how to get access, whether it’s a vendor wanting to know why they haven’t gotten paid. So we’ve got a whole realm of customers.

But I guess, probably to the point that you’re, you’re getting at across the university, a lot of what we deal with most directly, ends up being our academic partners. And so those are our professors, our department heads or deans, and at an institution like Kennesaw State being a research too institution, the research mission is extremely important. And so the research endeavor and those that are involved in it. The researchers, the primary investigators, those folks also end up being very important to us. So it’s those that are delivering the mission of the institution and those missions surround around academic offerings and research offerings.

Omar: Yeah. And the nuance there when we talk about the internal. So first is the vendor experience, which they are customers and probably something we would cover on another podcast episode. But focusing on the internal, I think it just to kind of remind ourselves that those individuals who are interacting with the procurement function, typically have their own full-time job, with their own focuses, and they’re really busy.

And so from their point of view, they just want to get whatever they need to be purchased done, or whether it’s a service or a product. And it’s kind of the actual, the procurement process in the back of their mind. And so at the same time on procurement, we still have to focus on the compliance aspect of it. And it’s like, how do we bridge that gap, is really what we’re going to be talking about a lot more.

Okay. So with that, what is, in your opinion, the internal customer looking for, from the procurement function? We could talk about maybe the researcher who wants to buy an equipment, or the professor, just to kind of bring it a little bit more, bring it more home.

Aaron: You made an interesting point about how these folks have day jobs. They’re focused on teaching, they’re focused on running their department, they’re focusing on running their research projects. And I would say that it’s actually probably on procurement just being in the back of their mind. They don’t have a knowledge of what we do in a lot of cases. And I think that creates a real opportunity for you to either excel, or to make things really difficult both on them and you.

So maybe historically or traditionally, the perception of procurement groups, is that they’re going to get in their requisition. And as soon as they find one thing wrong, they’re going to bat it back to the end user and say, “We’ll fix all this stuff and then send it back.” And then it goes into the whole black box of what procurement actually does. And they’re just hoping that at the end, it spits out something that’s good.

And so the traditional answer unfortunately, some of these end users that may have experienced or had a bad experience with procurement in the past, is a lot of times now and they’re not just saying, “I hope I get the quality I’m looking for. And I hope I get it at a good price because I too need to stretch my dollars. And by the way, I hope they can get it to me sometime this fiscal year.” What I’ve kind of learned though really, if I stepped beyond that and I said, I don’t want to be constrained by the perception of traditional procurement, but what can I really deliver?

What would I think that they really want me to deliver, is that they want procurement to have an empathy for them. And what they’re doing to take an interest in their work and the challenges that they face. When I’ve had some of what I consider kind of a key breakthroughs in my relationships with my customers and my end users, are when I go that extra step to get out of my office and I walk across campus and I darken the door of their research lab. And I say, “Hey, Professor Smith, I know that you’re asking me to buy this. I thought it was interesting. I wanted to come over and maybe get a little more information about it and to find out how you’re going to be using it.”

And it’s a really amazing, how you can change your relationship by doing that. By reversing the stereotype and by going over and doing that. And not only do you get an opportunity to deepen the relationship, but you can provide some training while you’re there. You can say, “Hey, if we do it this way, next time it might be a little simpler.” Or, “Hey, I understand that now what you’re trying to get to, and here’s a simpler way of getting it done.”

So it’s a great way to deliver customer service. But I really do think that they hope for somebody in a best practice as a utopian version in their mind of what procurement is. Really somebody who’s a partner, who understands and helps them solve their challenges.

Omar: And I think we’re kind of touching on this topic, but how do you define good customer service specifically in the procurement context?

Aaron: Yeah. I don’t know that there’s any one way to really define it, because good customer service is through the lens of our customers. Right? We can define it all day and the customers can say, “No, all you’ve done is put stuff up on a website that tells me how to do your job.” And I’m like … Or how hard you’re working. We processed the 1000 purchase orders last month. That must be good customer service. Well, not necessarily.

So again, as defined through the customer’s lens, but as an organization, the way you identify if you achieved it, is through the implementation of strategies that prove themselves effective in your organization. And those vary depending upon who the organization is, or what the setting you’re in. And a lot of it is really surrounding the attitude that your procurement organization has toward their customers.

One of the baselines, is if you see yourself as part of the bureaucracy and you take pride in that, then you’re probably going to fail in your customer service. It’s really about how we … We’re the ones just like I was mentioning before, we’re the ones who know what we’re doing. These folks are doing their day job. They don’t know and nor should they really be expected to know this myriad of regulations and hurdles, things like that, that we have to get them through to get their goods and service.

And so we really should be the shepherd that are leading them through all these challenges, in the easiest way we possibly can. So again, good customer service is defined as the feedback being positive that we get from our customers. And that is a challenge in and of itself as well. How do I get feedback from those that are upset about something that failed? But how do we identify the trend over time?

And there’s a lot of science and a lot of heart behind that, whether it’s through surveys, or gathering of anecdotal kudos, or complaints, or whatever. But I will say the one thing, because it’s so challenged, I will say that the more effectively you engage, the more they will engage back. And it has to be consistent and effective, but it also has to make sure it’s not coming across as white noise to them. Because if you’re spamming them all the time, then they’re going to shut down again.

So being able to find that in between place, where we’re asking feedback in a way that’s easily provided and measurable over time, it’s really the result of that tracking over time to see if you are improving. Now and I will also postulate, that you never get perfect at customer service. No matter what those numbers say, there are always that you can improve. And every interaction you’ve got, is an opportunity to develop a relationship that allows you to deliver good customer service. And you should be striving for that every time.

Omar: So yeah. Focusing on customer service, what are the downfalls of not delivering a good customer service from a procurement perspective?

Aaron: Well, I think most of us who work in a career, have experienced the downfalls from time to time and know that they’re to be avoided. But I would say they include things like complaints to our senior leadership along the lines of, how come Aaron runs such a screwed up procurement organization? And how come they can’t get something done in less than nine months? But another thing is kind of that concept of leaked dollars, where people go around the system, or purchasing less than optimal ways that don’t contribute to good buying power, which makes things better for everybody.

There is a disrespect I think that can come along for what we do in the procurement profession. And not being invited to the table, where is where we want to be. To be able to provide good strategic advice to the organization right up front, about strategies that they can use to achieve their needs. And then there’s that attitude of, I’ll just do it and ask for forgiveness later, which I think the concept is, oh, this’ll be fine, but we know that it ends up creating a lot of messes and a lot of cleanup time.

And really, although it may work once and they may get what they’re looking for, everybody ends up having to spend a lot of time cleaning things up. And sometimes it just creates more and more rules that we have to put in place and layers of rules that make things even slower and more complicated. So I think all those and more kind of ways that we suffer from poor customer service that we deliver.

Omar: Yeah, yeah. And some of it is even stemming from the lack of appreciation for the strategic nature I think of procurement functions. I know there’s an anecdote that comes to mind on this. It was also from an academic setting, where a professor had seen at a trade show, research equipment. I guess he wanted to a booth and he really liked it. And he goes to the procurement department and says, “I want to buy this.” And the director of procurement at the time said, “Great, well, let’s do some market research. And kind of, instead of just thinking of this particular vendor, let’s just see what’s out there.”

And through the process, they actually found better products that perhaps were not represented at that trade show and for a better price. And what that person told me was, that professor’s view of procurement changed dramatically after that experience. Because they came in with this preconceived notion, you guys just buy me this and then they ended up with a way better product for the budget that they had.

And I think that’s again, that tells the story about when we actually engage and when we teach other organizations within our university, for example here, about the power that we have, the skills sets that we have and the value that we can bring to the table, is slowly how you kind of win them over. The challenge remains though. And it’s not often that you get the same people dealing with procurement all the time, right? You almost have to have an ongoing education, to let people know what you guys can do.

Yeah. Okay. So we talked about kind of the worldview of the internal customer. We talked about some of the downfalls. We want to focus now more on like the strategies. Given how important customer service is, what are some of the strategies that you can share with the listeners, to improve their own customer service?

Aaron: There’s no one strategy, or no one facet of a strategy that’s going to change and end up being the magic pill for customer service. But I would say, the one thing that I’ve seen that is consistent, is one of the things we mentioned earlier, it’s that tone from the top setting, the culture within the organization. The organization has to know one, that they’re valued. I have to recognize and celebrate their achievements, but also to hold them accountable.

Compliance is a given. Because again, we talked about the fact that there’s this fear by some in our profession, that if we focus on customer service, that means we’re leaving compliance at the door. Well, no, that’s not the case. Compliance isn’t given for me. We’re never going to do it wrong. We’re always going to do it right even when it’s complicated. If that’s the given, then let’s focus on how we can deliver the most effective customer service. Let’s make sure that I am continually repeating and then I’m modeling good customer service.

For example, my procurement people have to increase the level of individuals procurement card. And so they have to send me why they’re asking for it. Well, I endeavor to turn that around within an hour or two at the most, so they can get back to doing their job. So I’m modeling one aspect of good customer service, which is responsiveness. I have to make sure that I’m modeling and I’m always communicating and consistent in my message that, our customers are customers. And that they’re not out there making our lives difficult, or to creating workload. Or a lot of the ways that you can negatively spin that. It’s like, no, we’re not going to give a negative spin. We’re going to give a positive spin.

And we’re also going to say, we’re not going to take the approach as well. This is their job. They have to do their job before I can do my job. It’s like, you have to be on the lookout at when somebody’s struggling, because that means they don’t know how to do their portion of this project. And in fact, I was talking with my Vice President for research the other day. And we were talking about how there’re still pockets of this, where they’re expecting too much out of the researcher, or the professor, as opposed to trying to stretch our processes to include more of the things that sometimes they can be asked to do.

Is because we have to remember again, just like we’ve talked about this isn’t their primary job. They don’t know what they’re doing in this area. And so we really got to reach out and do that. And so again, all of these things to me, began to create that culture of customer service. And when there’s that consistency of the message and when our folks are held accountable, they know that they need to embrace that culture of good customer service and begin delivering it.

So again, that’s my overall umbrella. And then I think if that is the umbrella from the leadership about the tone at the top and creating that culture, then within each particular organization, you’re going to have things that work well for. Another thing that I would say that we struggle with at institutions, because again, you can never be perfect at it, and persistent outreach and training where needed. You can never kind of hit everyone all the time, but you have to also remember to balance it. Because I talked about that concept of becoming white noise and you don’t want to get there.

But how do we appropriately be communicating out to departments? And it also has to not be any one method of communication, or directed to any one particular level, but it has to be multifaceted. So it has to have levels that are going top to bottom and wide, so that you can kind of hit as many people as you possibly can. Knowing again, you’re never going to be perfect, just continue to work hard at it.

We use some things here, including embedding buyers in departments for a week or two at a time, which begins to create some of that empathy that we talked about before. Because they’re seeing what’s going on in the departments. Dedicating resources to prioritize areas. For example, we have a dedicated buyer for our research enterprise. Not that that’s the sole resource, but they are consistently focused on that. And we’re in the process of hiring a contracts officer, who will be again, focused on research type contracts.

Providing opportunities for regular training, focused on customer service to our internal team. So that they again, just another way of reinforcing consistently, that expectation of customer service. And I mentioned before celebrating successes. If it’s always the negative side of things, then you create that hardened view. A good friend of mine who’s a lifetime procurement professional also, to try to engage with the recognized most difficult customers to get their buy-in first.

They always say, if you can get that person to agree and they use some colorful language about who that person was. But if you can get that person to agree, or to be turned, or whatever, and be supportive, then a lot of times that’s your biggest challenge and the rest of the organization, they follow suit. Because a lot of times those most difficult customers, are sometimes the most loudest too. So I think those are just a variety of different tools that we’re kind of continually working on.

Omar: Yeah. Well, thanks. Those are great. The one I was curious wanted to dig into a little bit more. The idea of embedding buyers within other departments. I haven’t actually come across that before. And I’m curious, what was the outcome of that? And if you can give us a little bit more detail about how that worked? What did it mean for them to be embedded in those other department?

Aaron: Yeah. So this was pre-pandemic and it was actually, our first phase was roughly in the middle of it when the pandemic hit. But we were literally sending out a buyer into various areas across the campus, whether it was to sit with our auxiliary, or to go over and sit in the college of science and math. And because we’ve got laptops and so much of our work is electronic, they can take it, they can go sit anywhere, they can pop-up and talk to somebody now who’s at the next cubicle, instead of across campus, they just overhear things.

I’m a big proponent of the osmosis effect of cubicles in offices and having office doors open. So if you hear a conversation occurring down the hall and you go, “Hey, that’s something that I was working on, or that I can help out with whatever.” So those types of things can happen when they’re embedded. And I think a lot of it too, was just this realization by the customer groups, that well, this is new, they’re really trying, they’re wanting to understand what we’re doing. And so it creates that kind of breakthrough to the relationship. Not always, but fairly consistent.

And so as we come back in the fall and Georgia and the university system of Georgia and Kennesaw state, are all in the anticipation and planning to be kind of life as normal, when we come back. And so we will be having a conversation about whether or not we want to reintegrate that as an opportunity. Now, obviously you’re not sending all your buyers out all at the same time, but if you can have this rotating thing every two weeks, I think it’s good for the buyers too. So it’s good for our customers, because they see that we’re trying, but it’s good for our buyers too.

Because one, they maybe get away from the boring office for a couple of weeks and really get to see something that’s different and hopefully expands their skill sets and makes life interesting for them. But we’ll see if we want to go ahead and integrate another phase of that. It’s been a really interesting project.

Omar: Yeah. No, that’s really good. And I’m curious, probably following up towards the end of the year and see if the initial, that started up. And there is also an element of, you just know. There’s a name or a face behind the name behind the acquisition. And similarly on the customer side, they know the buyer and now they can empathize on both sides, which yeah. I’m just thinking of the other, the specialization aspect that you mentioned. And so the stent in which they spend some time with another department, is important for the things that we just talked about. But also … And like you said, it’s not like this one buyer’s only doing this type of procurement. But what are the benefits that you’ve found there of having buyer specialized in a category, or dealing with a certain department?

Aaron: Well, yeah I would say it’s more in dealing with a specific department and other than research. Research is really our first foray into the dedicated resource. But depending upon how that goes, I think we would be willing to look at it for other areas as well. I should correct myself a little bit. We also kind of do the same thing for exhilaration. In that we’ve got, whether it be finance professionals, or budget professionals, or whatever. We have a number of them that really serve the auxiliary specifically And then they liaison and with the procurement folks.

And so we haven’t … Because 17 on one hand may seem like a lot, but when you start splitting them up into the jobs that they do, the jobs are specialized, but they don’t end up specializing within a particular category, or buys as much as could be I guess, the opportunity with a larger group. So there’s an expectation too, as these lessons are learned by being in the departments that the buyers or the contract officers come back then.

And they’re supposed to be this cross-pollinization. Here’s something that I learned when I was sitting with the college of science and math last week that I wasn’t aware of before. And that information is valuable not just to that individual, but to the others who are dealing with them too. So cross training and backing people up and sharing the knowledge that they’ve gained, is really an important goal for us as well.

Omar: Cool. So we’re just going to wrap up with a question here. It could be about customer service, or it could be just broad. But tell us about our achievement that you’re particularly proud of with regards, maybe providing good customer service. Again, it could be outside of that too.

Aaron: Well, let me kind of take two different cracks of that. From the concept of kind of celebrating the victories, as we were wrapping up last fiscal year, right in the midst of all fear and everything that was kind of going on crazy with the pandemic and all the complications that came from it, I was really … So we’ve got some, Georgia as a whole is pretty stringent on our rules and regulations, maybe more so than Oregon.

And so some of our timelines are difficult, especially as we get to the end of the year to try to get things done within the fiscal year. And we really challenged our procure group, to be parallel processing, to be creative, to be finding out ways to get the purchase done first and make sure that the documentation follows. Again, not breaking any rules, but just being creative in how they were doing it.

And I was really proud of their ability to push out probably more than they’ve ever done at the end of a fiscal year, last year. And they did a great job and it was my challenge to them to get it done. But then again, as they were doing it, I was making sure that I was telling our president, “Hey, look at what they were able to achieve. I’m very proud of them able to get all these things done. All these projects that you asked, we got them done without fail.”

And so that was an example of customer service to the institution at large, that I was very proud of and it just came from that challenge. And also making sure that they knew that whatever happened, they were going to have my support and that we would get things done. When I was thinking about that, I thought, well, how did I … Because I really I’m a massive proponent of customer service. And one of the things in my entire career, even though it’s gone from procurement to finance at a broader definition is, really wanting to be of service to others.

I’m a servant leader, I’m a public servant and I take that in the best possible way. And I say, well, how did I get to where I was? And I was thinking back, we all have moments in our life that kind of crystallize and we think looking back really affected us as individuals. And my first job out of college in procurement, was at the Hanford Site in Eastern Washington. And I had gone through an extensive training program and then ended up in the contracts office, where it was procurement and contracts, but I was doing more of the formal procurement and a lot of the services side.

And I remember one particular project that came along, not long after I was there. And they said, “Okay, well we need you to work and provide a solution for this particular researcher.” I’m not going to use her name, but it is in my brain cemented for life. And they said, “She is high need and she always complains. And it’s going to be difficult.” But it’s I guess, I don’t know if this is their form of hazing me back then, or trial by fire or what.

But I remember talking to her early on and sure enough, she had a bad attitude toward procurement and contracts. And she knew it was going to be a massive problem with me. And I said to myself, how can I overcome this? Because she doesn’t believe that we’re going to do what we’re going to do. She believes it’s going to take forever. She’s not happy with us to start with, so how can I make the, achieve a victory here?

And it was my first really complicated foray into customer service. And with her, what I found that worked, is I literally called or emailed her every day with an update. And I did that probably it was two to three weeks from beginning to end. And because I was continuously making her aware and letting her know what step we were on and how we were coming and how the negotiation was going and now here’s your contract for the individual that you need and we’re all done. She’s still kind of an interesting individual, but at the end of it, I could tell she was genuinely pleased.

And for me, what I reflect back on, was at the end, when I knew that she was happy, that made me happy. So I mean, not everybody takes pleasure in doing that, but for me, that provision and that demonstration of providing good customer service, was something that made me happy and made me feel fulfilled. And so I’ve applied that throughout my entire career. And again, that’s part of the culture I try to set. Is I say, “Listen, we worked for the government. We’re in public procurement. None of us are going to get Jeff Bezos rich doing what we’re doing, but we can feel fulfilled and we can fill achieved. And this is one way that I have done it.”

And so that was one of those things. Again, looked back on it and I recognize the crystallization of that in me, that helped me identify that this is what I want to do, regardless of how I work or where I work. I want to make sure I’m providing good customer service. Now that may be cheesy, but it works for me.

Omar: No, no, it’s really good because you’re often very impressionable early in your career. And those challenges that you overcome, end up definitely shaping the way you think about the rest of your career. And I think for you, the approach of taking this on as a challenge, but a challenge with an empathetic point of view of, I understand where she’s coming from and I’m going to work with her and I’m going to give her a lot of updates so she knows what’s going on. As opposed to an adversarial point of view and approach to this.

I think that’s kind of … I’m just kind of analyzing a little bit here, but taking that and applying it forward, is kind of what has been kind of your method as you lead other teams. This has been a great conversation.

Aaron: Yeah. Thanks.

Omar: Yeah. Me too. Any final comments on this topic, or just in general relating to procurement?

Aaron: I would just say that, I think that again, this is the approach I take, is that we’re never perfect. And so we always be challenging ourselves to do better in whatever that means to us individually. Our profession has made significant strides over the last decade or so, but the better we do, I think the more we’ll be viewed and treated as strategic allies within our organizations. And ultimately, I think that’s where we would all like to be, is to be valued. And that’s how you do it is, never be static, never be happy with where you are never, or never think that you’ve gotten it all right because you haven’t. So how can you be better all the time? And customer service is a great aspect of that.

Omar: Yeah. No, thanks. And your passion for customer service and public service cubs through, especially on this podcast, that even in our conversations before. And I do want to thank you for taking the time to spend it here and discussing this. Again, the aim of the podcast is to kind of share these stories and we’re strong believers in procurement professionals being strategic levers within their organization.

A lot of the things that you mentioned today are really good. Tactical advice and some strategic advice as well. That hopefully others will learn from. Yeah. So thanks again for joining. I hope we get to chat soon and I’ll be in touch to see if that experiment with embedding buyers and other departments takes off and see how that goes. It’s a really cool idea.

Aaron: Excellent. Thanks so much Omar. I appreciate it.

Omar: Take care. And we’ll talk to you soon.

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