For the vast majority of my career, I’ve been on the agency side. I’ve either owned or worked for a company that provided services to multiple clients. We help them accomplish tasks that they don’t have the in-house team to handle, or provide outside expertise and perspective when the client needs it. The Internet has made this kind of work situation even more possible than before. All kinds of companies now rely on consultants and vendors, sometimes for one-shot projects, and sometimes for ongoing work that is fully integrated into the company’s regular business.
But all too often, consultants and companies don’t mesh well. You see a lot of this when companies ping-pong from one consultant/agency to the next. This has become practically a tradition in the advertising business, and I am beginning to see many companies adopt a similar structure for their digital creative work, as well. Likewise with IT work. These kinds of services are often viewed as ones that either require special, outside expertise, or they simply aren’t core competency to the business, so they’re eligible for outsourcing.
Let’s be clear: Sometimes, perhaps often, a one-and-done is the right kind of project for a vendor. Every agency relationship doesn’t need to be long-term. My concern isn’t with companies that hire an agency to do a project or two and then move on. It’s when a company outsources a body of work to an agency, and then outsources the same body of work to another agency the following year, or churns every couple of years.
I also see a number of companies hire multiple vendors for different projects, when one vendor could do all the projects. Why does this happen? One of the things that contributes here is ignorance, and I mean that word in the absolute friendliest sort of way. I don’t see a lot of movement between corporate America and agencies — in any discipline — so I think there aren’t enough people with a full sense of what it’s like to walk in the other person’s shoes. Given that, I also think there are all too few efforts to train corporate folks to manage vendor relationships well. On the other side, there are certainly some agencies that do a better job than others of helping their clients manage the relationship well, and who provide outstanding service.
But fundamentally, I think there’s often a mismatch in expectations between agencies and clients that can lead to vendor hopping.
Challenges in Vendor Management
- Thinking the vendor can fix it. Whatever is broken about your system, we can’t fix it. We might build you a new one, but if something in your system made the first one break, it will eventually make this one break, too. We can often tell you what’s wrong, but fixing the stuff that’s wrong usually requires political capital, willpower and culture change.
- Not giving the vendor enough leeway. Don’t call me if you want an order-taker. Call me when you want an honest assessment of where you are and how I can help. In the case of content strategy, if you want someone to take orders, just hire a copywriter. They’re a lot cheaper than I am. (But you won’t get strategic results. You’ll just get new copy.)
- Tying the vendor’s hands. Here’s my favorite: Hire a vendor to do Project X, with components A, B and C. Once the deal is signed, then tell the vendor, Oh, well, we don’t have any control over A. Hmm, item B is really managed by that other department who reports to someone else, so that’s off the table. And, OK, challenge C isn’t in the budget for this year. But let’s get busy on Project X!
I suspect these kinds of challenges feel pretty familiar to corporate types and agencies, too. Fear not! I am not suggesting you quit hiring vendors. Quite the opposite. (Hey, I am a vendor, after all!) But when you do, keep these things in mind.
How Companies Can Improve Vendor Relationships
- You have to be willing to change. Any project could bring about the need for change. When you’re working on strategic projects, assume that you will be required to do business in a different way than you have in the past. A good vendor will point out the opportunities you have to improve your operations, and help guide you through the changes as a partner. Be willing to go there.
- A good vendor totally gets it, but you have to let them in. A good vendor knows that you are smart; they know you are doing the best you can with the bizarre hand you’ve been dealt. Be willing to share the real challenges you’re facing. Anything you hide from your vendor hurts you in the end.
- Be a partner. A good vendor will counter your questions with questions of their own. They will help you explore a problem with a fresh perspective and soon you’ll both see things in a different way. If you want someone to do what you say, I’d tell you to consider hiring an employee, but frankly, you won’t get good results that way, either. A partnership with a vendor or an employee means that you’ll gain new perspective, if you’re open to it.
What do you think can improve client/vendor relationships? (And coming soon: What vendors can do to improve relationships.)