The definition of vendor provided by the Collins English Dictionary is “a person who sells something”. True; but unfortunately for some seeking to establish a vendor client relationship the word “sells” has negative connotations. A client becomes wary. A client may be so concerned about being oversold that important information is withheld.
Consequently, their communication with the vendor prevents them gaining the best service. Disappointment follows when the quote does not fit the need.
It does not have to be this way. Mutually beneficial relationships are established when the vendor is viewed as a supplier of specialist services. Vendors hold a wealth of knowledge relating to their products or services. A vendor also holds knowledge on utilization within industry. That knowledge helps you, as a client, achieve your objectives.
You may not need to purchase the full range of service; but vendors have comprehensive knowledge that can be tapped into to help you make the right decision. But only if, as a client, you are prepared to share your story.
Finding Your Perfect Match
Does establishing a relationship really matter? And what are the benefits it will bring?
In the case of service vendors it does certainly matter. One of my clients tells me our partnership has to last for 10 years, because in a very large government department that’s how long the training plan is. When that’s the case then you need to make sure the personalities can co-exist and you both share the same vision.
1. INTERVIEW POTENTIAL VENDORS
Educate yourself on the depth and breadth of the vendor’s services, their philosophies in implementing those services, and the general personality of the prospective vendor organisation. It’s almost like culling resumes for a job interview. Some of this information you can gain from advertising and websites, and it is well worth arranging informal phone calls or meetings.
2. MEET WITH SUITABLE VENDORS
Explain your requirements. Be open and honest. Giving the impression that you have an unlimited budget or unlimited training participation time of all staff is wishful thinking generally. As a vendor this is our opportunity to educate you on the range of options we offer, and give you the best solution for your current situation, but to do so we need to know what the situation is.
In a recent meeting, instead of being embarrassed about it, the client was quite clear that our training delivery covered the rollout of software only. After the system was fully implemented their in-house trainers would provide sufficient resources. Knowing that, we made sure a full transfer of knowledge package was included in the proposal to guarantee ongoing successful training.
There shouldn’t be any embarrassment when you are not certain which service to ask for a quote on. Remember you don’t need to have all the answers; that is the reason you’re engaging the vendor. Allow them the opportunity to provide solutions. An experienced vendor will have provided service to a wide range of industry; generally far more within a space of two years than a client will have worked at in a lifetime.
At this stage gather prices and proposals. Even where the contract must go to tender it is worthwhile going through the first two steps. The information gathered will help you establish exactly what service you are seeking and the price range, and enable you to accurately prepare and then evaluate a tender.
Vendors understand that clients need to gather information and proposals and review them with higher authorities.
3. MAKE YOUR SELECTION
Sometimes you will have a preferred vendor, but their price is outside the budget. Contact the vendor to discuss the situation. As a vendor we may have offered an ultimate solution because the client expressed that preference, but a viable and less expensive option is likely to be available. Think of this like choosing a printer. We’d all like the top of the range model, but to meet the budget are likely to decline to purchase the stapling option. You may be able to negotiate an alternative price in a discussion with your preferred vendor.
Sometimes these steps will be covered and completed within a month, but that is rare. Frequently for us the conversations occur over many months. In that space of time we will also have been keeping in contact with the client. By the time we’re engaged a good relationship has already been developed and we both have confidence in the partnership.
Sometimes clients are reluctant to stay in contact when they haven’t finalized a decision. So why do vendors continue to call? Obviously we want to gain the contract, but also we want to make sure we will be in a position to provide the services. As vendors we need to predict your demand on our services. If we receive a call the week before a client has decided delivery is to commence (and it happens) we will not be able to provide training. Our trainers will be fully booked.
By keeping in contact with our clients we can make sure we’re in a position to provide the right services at the right time. If you aren’t ready to make a decision yet, or have selected another vendor, don’t be embarrassed about it, just clear.
Building A Strong Relationship
Once accepted as a partner with an organisation, what things lead to positive/unsatisfactory outcomes? The usual suspects of honesty and trust need to be in place for both parties, but over the years I’ve found there are three other key indicators of an outstanding relationship.
1. OPEN ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND STAFF
As the new people on your team we need information to make our part of the project successful. In a good relationship access to the people who can provide that information will be freely available. As a client you will know some of the places the information can be found, which will be a great help. But there will be other sources that we view as valuable too, which you may not have identified.
A client that dictates who the vendor may talk to in providing a solution will limit the ability of the vendor to find the right solution. For instance whilst talking to a manager about the training for their staff is useful, it is often more helpful to course design to talk to the end users and get to know the practicality of their everyday work, so we can ensure training is transferred to learning.
Where restrictions on access to information occurs it is often well meaning (not wanting to disturb others in setting up the project), but usually leads to a less successful outcome.
2. CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION BETWEEN THE VENDOR AND CLIENT
We all find it easy to communicate when all is going well. There have been initial meetings, phone calls and emails to which both parties were responsive in setting up the project. It is very easy to let this lapse as the project gets underway, and end up in a situation where the only communication is about problems. Or even worse – one party is struggling and shuts down all communication.
It is worthwhile to establish communication expectations from the outset and commit to meeting these. This may be weekly progress reports, a monthly review meeting, or an evaluation process. Telephone calls can be scheduled in just as a meeting with a staff member would. Contact by email or phone needs to be responded to within 24 hours. And most importantly, problems are not ignored. Every project has risks and issues. Be open about these. Identify and discuss them from the outset, but also discuss them when they occur.
3. CLEARLY DEFINED PROJECT EXPECTATIONS
A mutual understanding of expectations is paramount. Assumption of understanding is dangerous. As an experienced vendor (having learnt by my own errors!), we know the questions to clarify. However I’m still frequently an onlooker to other vendors providing their preferred approach, which does not meet client expectations. Both parties need to take responsibility for understanding and articulating the style of the solution to be provided. A project with clear definitions and expectations is more likely to be completed in time and on budget with a continuing healthy relationship.
A healthy vendor / client relationship is rewarding. It’s a team of professionals working together to successfully achieve a common goal. Your partner is a trusted source of information and advice. Your partner goes the extra mile on a project. Your partner brings a fresh perspective and vast experience through the variety and range of people they work with. All because they feel like a valued team member due to the relationship that has been established.
The steps to establishing a healthy relationship sound like common sense when it is spelt out. As the client, avoid taking the view that once the vendor is engaged they should know what to do. A suitable vendor will know what to do, just not the specifics of how your organization needs it done. As a client you still need to work on the relationship beyond the sale. A vendor who asks for extra information, time and effort from you is not trying to avoid doing work themselves. They are trying to work more effectively for you. Give and you will receive.