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Plante & Moran

What Engineers Really Want

Selling and Serving Customers’ Engineers is Different from Purchasing.

Survivors in the highly-competitive automotive supplier industry will be those companies that are more effective at capturing and executing new business. Profound understanding of the wants and needs of the customer contributes significantly to capturing business effectively. The wants of the purchasing department at customers is usually clearly communicated: low price from a capable supplier. But unless the supplier is executing a low-cost producer model, there are additional and important stakeholders in the supplier selection process. Meeting the wants and needs of the customer’s engineers, for example, can enrich the array of opportunities and/or help reduce the number of viable competitors.

But what do engineers want in a supplier? I conducted an unscientific survey of my automotive engineering friends and former colleagues to find this out. Through casual interviews, design and release engineers from vehicle manufacturers and system integrators explained what they wanted in a supplier. These engineers shared experiences when suppliers delighted them, and when suppliers didn’t even get the basics right.

The diagram depicts the results of the survey presented in the structure of a Kano model. The Kano model illustrates that customer satisfaction (on the vertical axis) is positively impacted by achieving stated performance metrics and unspoken “delights.” Achievement of the “basics” does not positively impact customer satisfaction, but failure to achieve the “basics” can negatively impact customer satisfaction significantly.

Performance Metrics

Similar to manufacturing’s supplier performance metrics cost, quality, and delivery, engineering evaluates a supplier’s performance against timing, cost and quality.

Timing refers to the supplier’s ability to meet the program timing for prototypes, make-like-production samples, program launch and other various milestones. Timing also refers to a supplier’s speed of response to issues such as engineering changes and telephone calls. Engineers have cost targets to achieve, therefore cost is still an important metric. However, design and release engineers are evaluating cost in terms of product features and performance, weight and system quality, not just price.

“Quality” means various attributes to engineers, including: quality performance of the company, quality of samples and prototypes, and quality of designs and design support, to name just a few.


Before an engineer can honestly evaluate a supplier’s performance, the supplier must first perform well on the basics. Poor performance on the basics by a supplier frustrates the engineer, which opens the door for another company to gain access to opportunities and influence the design. The suppliers are expected to be competent in their area of specialization, whether products or processes. One engineer illustrated this point by describing an experience purchasing prototype assemblies: When placed on a test stand, all of the prototypes leaked before they could even be tested. Upon inspection, the engineer noticed that not only were the seals cut, but they weren’t all the same seal. Shipping defective prototypes and lack of attention to detail destroyed the engineer’s trust in the supplier to deliver this assembly in production. As a supplier of a particular product or process, the customer engineer expects the company, as the manufacturer, to possess some level of expertise such that the supplier can:

  • Provide input on design for manufacturing
  • Evaluate and explain the impact of design changes
  • Explain the key manufacturing process or product performance parameters
  • Contribute to trade-off analyses and problem solving
The engineers surveyed said they didn’t expect the supplier’s sales people to be engineers, but they did expect to be able to speak directly with a supplier’s engineers when needed. Some engineers feel at risk if they can’t rely on their suppliers to provide a basic level of expertise. “I have to worry about product performance, targets, integration issues and the [product release] system. The supplier makes the part, they should at least know the manufacturing issues.” Since the implementation of QS-9000 standards, engineers expect suppliers to have a functioning and effective quality system. Tools such as FMEA’s and Quality Control Plans are expected to be complete and accurate. If problems arise in production or the field, the engineers expect to be able to use these tools and others in the quality system in the solution development process. An inconsistent or poorly executed quality system creates too much work for a customer’s engineers to overcome, resulting in lost business over time.

Once the basics are met and the performance is good, there are supplier characteristics that really delight the customers’ engineers. These are the behaviors that satisfy and impress the customer, as well as potentially differentiate the supplier. Design and release engineers really appreciate suppliers that know and can work the customer’s systems, such as product data management, product release and alerts systems. The engineers believe that a supplier who knows the systems will provide complete data and in the necessary format, not ask questions about the process, and perhaps even complete select tasks on behalf of the engineer, thereby making the engineer’s job easier.

In addition to select tasks, the engineer also appreciates a supplier providing troubleshooting assistance. Suppliers using expertise to provide feedback on an engineer’s suggested solution, is trumped by suppliers proactively identifying problems and generating solution recommendations. “It’s great when [the supplier] can act as one of the engineers in my department to attack the problems,” remarked one engineering supervisor.

Engineering changes are common in many systems. What is uncommon is a supplier who is prepared for engineering changes with a quick response of alternatives and the corresponding data on the tooling, cost, timing and quality trade-offs for each alternative. Engineering changes are often driven by high-stress discoveries from tests or trials. Waiting for a supplier to determine, for example, the build status of the tooling, if it can be modified for the change, and for how much only exacerbates the engineer’s stress level.

Engineers value suppliers bringing relevant ideas on improving product performance, quality and cost. Rather than the supplier presenting their process technology and asking the engineer to figure out how it can be used, it is easier for the engineer when the supplier presents what they can do for the customer. Engineers also value suppliers who volunteer to attack problems when they arise, and then deliver on the offer. Simply put, suppliers that pro-actively make the engineer’s job easier are delights, versus those that are hassle to work with or are hurdles to solutions.


The customer satisfaction drivers for design and release engineers presented here are applicable broadly. Engineers within each company and vehicle system will have additional unique unspoken wants and needs. Knowing and meeting the needs of engineering is especially true for business models built around product design, engineered solutions, and customer intimacy. Investing in the time to identify and deliver the satisfaction drivers for the stakeholders in supplier selection can improve a supplier’s ability to capture business. Under the increasing pressures of supply-base reduction and global sourcing, targeting customer needs is a necessary skill in the survival of the fittest.

Jason C. Brewer is a manager in the Automotive Supplier Consulting Services Practice of Plante & Moran, PLLC in Southfield, Michigan.

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