Consider this: You’ve been hired by a high-profile client to undertake an enterprise-wide project, and there are a lot of eyes watching and waiting for you to deliver. Because of several minor setbacks, things are slightly behind schedule, and then the bad news really hits—you expect further delays because your vendor sent components under the wrong specifications.

So how do you deal with an anxious project coordinator interrogating you about the extended delay?

If your first thought is to blame the vendor for its mistake, think again. More often than not, the burden is on the consultant to deliver.

This article explores the importance of a consultant’s responsibility to maintain thorough communication with vendors.

Low margins of vendor error
Consultants who have been in the field for very long likely have solid working relationships with certain vendors. In such a relationship, the vendor enjoys repeat business and market exposure through a longstanding relationship with a consultant, while the consultant gains the benefit of an attentive sales force.

In some cases, the consultant may be able to leverage repeat purchases towards a volume discount of some kind. Such crucial relationships that vendors forge with consultants are sales drivers that vendors make a formidable effort not to disrupt, according to Robert Pillartz, a managing consultant with Connexxys in New York City.

“If I’m going to make somebody my regular vendor, they’re going to deliver,” Pillartz said. “It’s so cutthroat out there—they’re going to try to hustle to become useful to you. If they don’t, then I move on to an alternative, and they know that.”

In Pillartz’s experience, it’s rare that a vendor hasn’t delivered as promised. If things go awry with a shipment, he contends that it’s usually a matter of confused specifications that, all things considered, was probably the end result of poor communication.

The danger of bad communication
While it’s unreasonable to claim that vendors never botch a transaction, consultants can slip into an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality after they’ve made their initial contact with a vendor. When TechRepublic members discussed a conflict between enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions provider i2 and footwear manufacturer Nike in March, a majority of the participants attributed the inventory problems to poor communication between the two parties involved—especially Nike.

At its basest level, the relationship between a consultant and a vendor isn’t that much different than the way that a hiring client responds to the consultant. The consultant “hires” the vendor to provide a product by x date or time. But according to TechRepublic member Dave Fitzpatrick, these kinds of relationships may require some maintenance for optimum results: “Consultants are only as good as the client is at managing them!”

Vendor management
So what’s the secret to successfully managing a vendor relationship in the heat of a project? TechRepublic member Esteven Fulgar, who also participated in the Nike/i2 discussion, believesthat the basic “3 Cs” project management principle—communication, collaboration, and consensus—is an effective means of keeping things on track.

“Both vendor [and] consultant…must be involved at all levels. This is easier said than done, as experience has taught me, but it helps in managing expectations from both sides.”

When Dave Fitzpatrick undertakes ERP implementation projects, he insists on communication among all parties involved: “I always take responsibility for making sure each participant knows what is expected of them and that weekly project meetings occur in which the consultants and client share their concerns…no holds barred. Brutal honesty works well.”

Considering the integral role of vendors in such projects, it only makes sense to include a representative in the communication loop. Although it may involve more effort on the consultant’s part, denying vendors the same attention that a consultant offers anyone else involved in a project could come back to haunt him or her if expectations and requirements aren’t firmly defined.

Do you have tips for dealing with vendors?

Communication may be key, but are there other ways to manage vendors to one’s advantage? Start a discussion by posting a comment below.