Most of us have seen the fruits of a vendor relationship gone rotten. Perhaps it’s that surly “consultant” who has his own desk adorned with photos and has been kicking around the water cooler for longer than most employees. Or, it may be a hardware or software provider that is universally disliked, constantly misses their deadlines, and charges rates just shy of extravagant, but never gets replaced. As we wallow toward the end of the global economic slowdown, these obvious examples may be less manifest, but there are often vendors or providers that key management have a sneaking suspicion aren’t meeting their targets, without an ability to put their finger immediately on the cause.

It may be human nature to stick with the “devil you know” and keep a third party around for longer than necessary, but just like individual relationships, this can often be damaging to both parties. While purchasing groups at large companies have grown more sophisticated in helping IT evaluate its vendors on a regular basis, this process can be painful and disruptive, usually coming when you least need another large and complex project. Rather than waiting for what amounts to an inconvenient intervention, lay the groundwork for evaluating your vendors at the time when their capabilities, promises, and strengths are at the forefront of your mind: during the RFP.

Get your money’s worth from your RFP

As someone who has frequently participated on both sides of the RFP process, I have found them to be overwrought, overly complex, and downright painful, although, unfortunately, it’s the best available process for soliciting a long-term relationship with a third party. What is most tragic about the RFP process is the zeal with which all parties abandon it once a third party is actually selected, despite thousands of hours of work invested in the process.

In terms of evaluating your vendor’s future performance, RFPs formally lay down your expectations of the vendor, and often the closed door discussions and evaluations after several rounds of “dog and pony shows” contain poignant anecdotes about why one vendor might be preferred over another. Rather than chucking this analysis into the dustbin only to wonder how you ended up with such jerks eighteen months later, spend a few hours capturing both the metrics laid out in the RFP and some of the anecdotal support for selecting a vendor. If the vendor made a particular series of promises, from providing specific staff to a compelling capability, note all these things and produce a two- to five-page checklist that can be revisited every six months.

This checklist need not be wildly complex or attempt to supplant contractual obligations like service level agreements — that will be closely followed by purchasing and legal — but, rather, should serve as an internal reminder of the commitments made by the vendor and the aspects you liked about that particular vendor in the first place. This document can be passed to others should you change position and also serve as an early warning device of sorts, providing a quick check of a vendor’s performance before activating a time-consuming full review with purchasing and legal.

Should the time come to replace a vendor or should you wish to send more work to a particular vendor, this document also serves as a great starting point, noting what the vendor promised, what initially impressed you, and how the relationship developed past those heady days of newfound “love.” While it may be tempting to immediately bin the RFP after months distracted from more important work, take the few hours to make this document far more valuable in the long run. Who knows, your RFP just might save you from a bad relationship years after it helped start it.