There is a lot of advice out there for IT vendors regarding what they need to do to ensure happy customers. At the same time, there is a reciprocal need on the part of the customers to try to keep the relationship happy. It's easy to fall into the, "I'm a customer and they must do whatever I want" line of thinking. But at the end of the day, that just drives the vendor away and makes them unwilling or unlikely to do anything for you beyond the bare minimum your contract ensures. Here are 10 things you can do to help maintain the best relationship possible with your vendors.
1: Pay them on time
If you want a vendor's support for you to vanish, try not paying your bill. For whatever reason, some customers feel that not paying their bill in a timely fashion is acceptable. Every now and then, a customer will use non-payment as a sign of displeasure, like leaving a bad tip at a restaurant.
On occasion, the problem is simply that the vendor and the customer have a different idea of when a bill should be paid. Sometimes, the customer has an accounting policy like "Net 60" and doesn't mention that to the vendor during the contract negotiations. As a result, the vendor is surprised when it takes a few months to receive a payment. During your contract discussions, make sure that their expectations of "on time" payment and yours are in alignment.
2: Learn the marketplace
When dealing with a vendor, it's important to know what the marketplace for their services or goods is like. Not that you should be hanging it over their head if you have options, but it is good to know what the norm is and whether you really have any choices at all. For example, if your vendor has a one-day response time but other vendors have four-hour response times, you can use that as leverage for quicker service. In other cases, you may learn that your vendor is the only one you can get the services from at all, so it is in your best interests to play nicely with them.
3: Know their responsibilities, the SLAs, etc.
One of the keys to having a good relationship with a vendor is to know what they must do — and to not expect them to do anything more. Your contract should lay that all out very clearly. If it does not, you need to find out quickly and get the contract clarified. You'll see a lot of items in this list that boil down to the same fundamental issue: a mismatch of expectations. The contract is the only thing you can count on when the going gets tough, so make sure that your expectations are aligned to it.
4: Don't trash talk them (especially in public)
Have you ever sounded off to someone about how angry you were with another person, and that person came to you and said, "Why did you tell so-and-so about this?" Well, it happens in business, too, all the time. And if your comments occur in a public forum (particularly the Internet), it happens even faster. Many companies and people keep Google Alerts or similar services up so they instantly know about anything on the Internet mentioning them. If you wouldn't say it to someone face to face, don't say it on the Internet or behind their back. It can and will come back to haunt you.
5: Understand that they have other customers
All too often, customers act as if they own a vendor or that they are the vendor's only customer. Sometimes, the person you want to work with is helping another customer and you need to deal with someone else. Unless you have a contract for long-term, continued work, you can't expect to shoot an email out with a request and have them start servicing it within minutes of receipt. And so on. Demanding that the vendor treat you as their only customer is a great way to make them resent you.
6: Learn what they need from you
Customers often just want to just wash their hands of a problem and let the vendor take over, but that's not realistic. Just as a doctor can't make you better if you refuse to take medicine and get lots of sleep, the vendor usually needs you to do some of the lifting too. Throughout the course of the work, make sure that you know exactly what you can do to let the vendor do their job and try your best to give it to them.
7: Separate the people from the company
Many times, a vendor's employees are handcuffed by processes, and it is easy for customers to get angry at the person for not doing what they want. When your needs are not being met, ask the person whether it is the process that is saying "no" or the person making a decision. For example, recently when working with technical support, I was been denied a transfer to level two support. I asked the person, "Is the problem that your phone system or process won't let you transfer me or that you don't think I need to work with level two?" As it turned out, their call center had a policy that level two support can make only outbound calls. They didn't even have a phone number to level two! After speaking with a supervisor, we were able to make the transfer. It would have been easy for me to blast the person I was talking to for the bad decisions of their company, which would only have made my next call even more unpleasant.
8: Meet them halfway
A customer/vendor relationship is ideally a partnership. The vendor is going to have their own way of doing things, and it will be different from yours. Just like you expect them to adapt to your company's policies, you should be willing to make exceptions for them as well. Back to the billing example, I worked for a company that had Net 90 built into their system, regardless of what vendor contracts said. It was simply impossible for many vendors to work with them because they could not afford to have inventory and labor costs unpaid for so long. The only way business could be done was to enter the invoices backdated so that they would be paid in a timely fashion. Needless to say, this company could have enjoyed much better relationships with their vendors if they were willing to bend a little bit.
9: Make your expectations known early
It is easy for a customer to feel steamrolled by a vendor, especially if the customer is much smaller and the vendor has a strict set of policies and procedures in place. The earlier you make your expectations clear to the vendor, the sooner you will find out if and how they can be met. The best time, of course, is during the initial discussions — and to have those expectations baked into your contract. But there are lots of things that get omitted from contracts. By talking to the vendor, you can find out what is and is not possible. Without that discussion, you will simply be disappointed and upset.
10: Remember: They're human too!
A vendor's people make mistakes, just like you do. It is easy to think, "I gave this to the vendor so they can do it better than me" and hold their toes to the fire over every slipup. Sometimes, vendors truly are awful and deserving of your anger. But often, the mistakes are the kinds of everyday goofs that we'd do ourselves, things our own employees might do. There's no need to get bent out of shape over a simple error, which just makes the relationship go bad.
Justin James is an OutSystems MVP, architect, and developer with expertise in SaaS applications and enterprise applications.