We all have to work with vendors. Sometimes it's a great experience, and sometimes, well, it's not so great and you just have to suck it up. This is especially true of vendors that are entrenched and can't easily be jettisoned, such as ERP vendors. Of course, even working with these entrenched vendors can be a positive experience as well.
I have some key items that I bear in mind whenever I work with a vendor — new or old, large or small.
1. "Partner" status is a treasure and tough to get.
I can't begin to tell you how many phone calls I get from vendors that lead the conversation by saying that they want to "partner" with me and Westminster College. Oftentimes, the phrasing stops there, and other times the sentence continues and is sprinkled with a few more words from the sales manual.
You know what? Some 9.9 times out of 10, this is simply not going to happen. Partnerships don't just appear. They're built on a solid foundation of trust that is earned, and simply leading with that line isn't going to make magic happen.
Of the dozens of vendors I do business with, I can count on one hand the number of them that I consider partners without whom I would have major difficulty. The rest, while I value their services, are interchangeable; they have not differentiated themselves in any significant way and their goods and services can be had by anybody.
Among the vendors that I consider partners are:
- Our ERP vendor. This has taken some time, but it's happened. Our ERP vendor has been going out of their way to really help us succeed in a number of key areas.
- Our network gear supplier. Yes, infrastructure gear is a commodity, but getting an incredible vendor that will stand right beside you in thick and thin is worth every penny.
- Our leasing provider. We wouldn't be where we are now without our current leasing vendor. They totally "get" how I work and what we're trying to accomplish and have helped us every step of the way.
Now, do I simply take everything on blind faith from my partners? No. I can't. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't do due diligence on an ongoing basis by validating what we're getting and making sure it's a fair deal.
2. Feedback is king.
Obviously, this isn't a two-way street. I get great stuff from our vendors, regardless of how deeply I value the overall relationship. What the vendor gets in return is a customer that will always be honest. Even with — and maybe even more so with — the companies I see as partners, I'm more apt to share feedback — whether that feedback is positive or negative — and make recommendations for how they can fix it. For example, after a recent project with our ERP vendor that had some difficulties, I sent an in-depth note to our project manager on their end outlining where, on both sides, we succeeded and where we failed. Apparently, that feedback was well-received as I was told that it had been forwarded to the CEO — in a good way. I didn't hold back in the letter, but I did respectfully explain where I think we had challenges. When I inquired as to why they liked the feedback so much, they told me that they were used to just getting feedback that was either 100% good ("It wet well") or 100% bad ("You blew it") without a lot of backup information.
By the way, our ERP vendor now really goes out of their way to make sure we're very well taken care of.
3. I will never, ever share other vendor pricing.
I've had a vendor ask me, point blank, to send them actual copies of quotes so that they can "make sure their quote is comparing the same thing." In another case, I was told that if I wanted a vendor to beat another vendor's price, I'd have to share a copy of the quote.
I won't do that. It's unethical. Sure, I might save the College a few bucks, but, again, I value the relationships that are built with my vendors.
4. Yes, cost is important, but so is service.
Cost is very important; that's obvious. But, even if it's a primary factor in a decision, it's almost never the only factor. I expect that vendors I work with will provide fair and reasonable pricing. I do, however, verify that I'm getting good pricing. After all, maybe a former "partner" has decided to start charging much more because we're locked in. So far that hasn't happened.
I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't let someone provide information about their services, and I do so on a regular basis, but cost is only one factor, albeit a large one.
5. If you're a jerk in your first call, you get added to our "no business" list.
Recently, I received a cold call from a vendor that wanted us to give him a chance to show that he can beat anyone on price. When I respectfully declined, I got ten calls like it every day. Since I simply didn't have time to agree to take all of them, he told me, and I quote, "You don't have a choice as to whether or not to give me a shot." When I asked him how he arrived at that gem, he told me that, as a college, we were bound by law to allow anyone and everyone to bid on anything they wanted and I could do nothing about it. At that point, I calmly asked him if he was aware that we're a private college, not a public institution. There was a long pause on the other end followed by an "Oh." I indicated to him that he would not be welcome to bid on any college project. I then went to the business office and explained what happened, and they agreed that the company would be added to our "No Business" list. Life is too short to be forced to deal with people who want to operate like that!
In short, I very much value the real vendor partnerships that are good for both sides of the equation. I want my vendors to make money and be successful, and at the same time, I want them to understand what I need to be successful at Westminster College.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.