5 Forming Business Relationships to Learn about Forming Business Relationships

Dr. Lisa Papania

SFU Students Buying 100 Mile Catering Food
SFU Students Buying 100 Mile Catering Food

BUS 444: Business Marketing


I’ve been using experiential methods to teach for almost 10 years because I believe that students—well, all people, really—learn best when they do, when they are able to put theory into practice in different contexts and see how applying theory produces particular outcomes. Whether I’m teaching business marketing, marketing research or product development, I want to make knowledge real for students so that they know how to make real business decisions when the time comes.

I have taught BUS 444 since 2011, usually twice each year. By working with, or on behalf of, businesses to develop business-to-business products and services, the students learn about the actual business operations and customer problems that businesses try to solve. Students have the opportunity to directly experience the economic, technological, environmental and social challenges that businesses and their customers face on a daily basis. They also develop new, real business solutions and present these solutions to decision-makers and experts who evaluate the viability, sustainability and impact of these ideas.

BUS 444 usually runs as a CityStudio partner course. CityStudio is a partnership between the City of Vancouver and local colleges and universities in which students work with key municipal staff to conduct research that furthers Vancouver’s “Greenest City” goals and share their findings with other city staff, students, academics and members of the public.

The challenge of learning about business marketing

Business marketing is primarily about strategic relationships. This means that organizations need to consciously pick customers whose values align with their own to ensure that all organizations in their supply chain act in each other’s best interests. Organizations can then begin to understand how best to offer value to these customers to ensure both their own and their customers’ continued survival and growth. This understanding relies on the development of intimate relationships with customers, including in-depth knowledge about the customers’ businesses—what they do, how they do it and for whom, plus an understanding of the problems that customers face in providing value to their own customers.

However, during the first seven semesters in which I taught this course, the students never gained any real knowledge of the businesses’ customers or any insight into their problems. Rather, the students only hypothesized about the needs that the products and services would meet for these customers. Therefore I was, in effect, teaching business marketing students that you could develop products and services for business customers without developing strategic relationships—which meant that I was failing in my efforts to teach students about business marketing.

I decided to change the course so that the students could develop strategic relationships to help them understand how intimate knowledge of customers enables businesses to develop value-adding products and services that ensure both the business’s and the customers’ success.

The idea

In the fall 2013 iteration of this course, my students worked with businesses in the hotel industry to identify opportunities for making hotel restaurants in the Vancouver area more sustainable. As students conducted research into the food-buying practices of hotel restaurants, they made two key findings:

  1. Hotels were reluctant to provide details about their food suppliers and so shed little light on how strategic relationships with these suppliers informed and guided their business decisions.
  2. Very few hotel restaurants prioritize environmental sustainability in their operations or in their business relationships.

While this activity provided the students with many opportunities to propose new, more sustainable business practices for the hotels’ real-life business partners, it crystallized for me the need to provide better opportunities for my students to actually experience business relationships in the development of new products and services for business customers.

In spring 2014 I revised the course so that student groups would actually become the supply chain for a sustainable student start-up catering business, 100 Mile Catering. 100 Mile Catering was the brainchild of one of the BUS 444 students, Matthew Wiebe, an aspiring entrepreneur with exceptional culinary ability who had partnered with a master chef and former Teen Chef Canada, Gianluca Russo, to cater events and parties. Matt and Gianluca were interested in setting up a low-cost vegetarian fast-food service that also included local ingredients. I proposed that they test their business idea with BUS 444 students, who would function as their supply chain organizations and would be tasked with figuring out, for example:

  • What ingredients were available locally
  • How to get hold of ingredients cost-effectively
  • The competitive landscape for low-cost vegetarian and local fare
  • The market for local low-cost meals
  • The opportunities and costs involved in waste diversion

100 Mile Catering would become the focal business customer with whom the student groups would develop relationships. Student groups would effectively act as the supplier organizations, and the students’ success would depend on 100 Mile Catering becoming successful. In turn, for 100 Mile Catering to be successful the students would need to understand and meet its business needs.

The project

Students worked with 100 Mile Catering to prepare and deliver 200 vegetarian, locally sourced, low-cost meals per week by identifying and developing opportunities for local food sourcing, distribution, disposal and recovery. Students worked in groups, each with responsibility for an element of the supply chain, to quantify the market for locally produced organic food—producing/sourcing, distribution, aggregation, re-use, waste diversion, etc.

Overview slide from student presentation at Vancouver City Hall
Overview slide from student presentation at Vancouver City Hall

Week by week, students built up their knowledge to efficiently and effectively complete their tasks in the supply chain. Through this iterative process they learned the importance of business relationships in business marketing and they experienced how business strategies must be aligned with customers’ strategies to provide value to customers and in turn ensure their customers’ success.

The students had to navigate many unknowns. For many, it was their first experience of setting up a new business venture and the first time they articulated what a supply chain looked like or how it might function. Also, for many it was their first exposure to experiential learning. Although I didn’t provide a structure for the supply chain or tell students what organizations would be needed to provide the required services for 100 Mile Catering, I did facilitate the discussion about these requirements (see the visual record of the discussion of tasks/services required below). I also facilitated the group formation process since some tasks were much more popular than others.

100 Mile Catering supply chain: recordingstudent discussion
100 Mile Catering supply chain: recording student discussion

Each of the eight teams was responsible for one of the following tasks:

  1. Developing relationships with farmers—sourcing local produce from farmers and farmers’ markets and recovering/rescuing blemished but perfectly edible produce from supermarkets that would otherwise be landfilled
  2. Data mining—identifying product availability, pricing and food miles and cross-comparing this data to attempt to reduce costs and carbon footprint
  3. Purchasing and budgeting—controlling spending ($1,000 budget) and monitoring and reimbursing expenses
  4. Shopping—purchasing from supermarkets the goods that didn’t come from local farms
  5. Customer relationship management—coordinating communication between the groups and facilitating communication between 100 Mile Catering and the groups
  6. Marketing—building awareness of 100 Mile Catering on the SFU campus
  7. Waste diversion—minimizing waste that is landfilled; e.g., by providing zero-waste stations at events and teaching customers how to use the bins
  8. Food recovery—ensuring that no prepared meals are landfilled; e.g., by setting up relationships with local charities and delivering left-over meals to low-income/homeless people

The result

This experiment far exceeded my expectations! Student groups worked exceptionally hard to plan and implement the requisite tasks. The result was that these groups actually became the supply chain organizations that I’d hoped they would. Students learned how to communicate within their teams, and teams learned to communicate and work with each other. Close to 400 low-footprint, eco-conscious vegetarian meals were made for students at the SFU Burnaby campus on six occasions, and the leftovers were diverted to charitable organizations, all while educating SFU students on responsible waste disposal practices.

Students presenting at HUBBUB conference, Vancouver City Hall
Students presenting at HUBBUB conference, Vancouver City Hall

Besides presenting the fruits of their labour, quite literally, as delicious meals, the students also presented their work at the Beedie School of Business’s Opportunity Fest at SFU Surrey, and at the HUBBUB #2 event at Vancouver City Hall.

Furthermore, in only 13 weeks, and despite the steep learning curve and the high costs associated with small production runs, the class broke even and repaid its full $1,000 investment/loan!

My learning

I learned as much as, if not more than, the students, and despite hiccups with securing a dedicated space from which to sell the meals and the general discomfort caused by trying something for the first time, I think the course went well. I’ve honestly never seen students gain such thorough comprehension of the course material in any of my previous BUS 444 classes.

Running a second iteration of the 100 Mile Catering experiment would be difficult, even if only because of its reliance on the unique culinary duo of Matt and Gianluca. However, I’m already planning the next BUS 444 course and I will definitely keep the course component in which students act as a supply chain for a coordinating business. I will:

  • Provide a comprehensive theoretical framework to support students in making better decisions
  • Choose a simple core coordinating business
  • Ensure that the tasks each group needs to complete for the core group are clearly identifiable and manageable, while ensuring that the tasks to be completed in each group cannot simply be completed by one person. Teamwork and reliance on each other are key
  • Check in with all groups each week, provide them feedback, and identify and deal with issues
  • Check in with the core business each week and resolve any logistical, production or administrative issues quickly
  • Establish deliverables and milestones that require students to work within and across the groups, so that they can confront and deal with problems early and work together effectively

Students’ learning

A fundamental learning objective of this business marketing course is the ability to estimate customer demand. Never before in my classes have students so fundamentally grasped the concept and importance of estimating demand. The spring 2014 students grappled first-hand with how many people to deploy, what to buy, and what to do without first fully identifying, understanding and quantifying the customers’ desire for and intention to buy their product. Students gained a very real appreciation of the importance of estimating demand that I don’t think will soon be forgotten.
Students learned the importance of business relationships. One student commented:

I discovered early on that working cohesively with channel partners and building relationships on trust and good communication was vital. Particularly, the success of my group … was dependent on the success of our customer. Thus, our role was to fully understand and meet the needs of our customer through the formation of strong relationships with channel members. In turn, building such relationships requires adaptability and … initiative in all aspects which address the customer’s needs … [even those] beyond the scope of [your group’s] role. However, since these activities help our customer succeed they are ultimately within the scope of our business.

Also, students learned how to make business marketing decisions in practice—what to do, when and how. They unfortunately learned the consequences of making bad decisions, but—more importantly—they experienced the consequences of making well-considered decisions that took the success of the customers into account:

Even though concepts learned in classes [included] examples, I knew there were factors being left out. Through running a painting business for the last two summers, I could relate some ideas discussed in lectures to the real world, but it was only segments of those ideas. Until this … 100 Mile Catering project I didn’t know the extent to which theory and application correlated … I have been able to reflect individually and in groups about how these experiences relate to business-to-business marketing … Even though it seemed at times hectic and unorganized, I could appreciate knowing that this is the environment that businesses often find themselves operating in. What has been avoided in every class other than this one is that businesses have to push through the rougher patches to reach the end goal of being successful.

The same student exclaimed, “Until this point it is fair to say post-secondary education seemed to be completely theoretical.“


LisaPapaniaDr. Lisa Papania, Lecturer, Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, lpapania@sfu.ca, 604.780.5258




Experiential Learning Casebook Copyright © 2014 by Dr. Lisa Papania. All Rights Reserved.


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