How to Fall in Love With Your Vendors

Several years (and several companies) ago, I was on a team responsible for launching a new careers website. I was working for a large, well-known multinational company, and in keeping with our stature, we worked with a very prestigious advertising agency.

Things had been going pretty well, when for some reason we stopped hearing from our account director. We were on an aggressive timeline, and needed the branded graphics we had been promised in order to meet our website launch deadline.

We tried everything we could think of to get our ad agency to respond to us, including calling and leaving numerous messages and sending countless emails. In desperation, I decided to leave a very polite and diplomatic message with the account director’s vice president.

As if by magic, three things happened almost instantly. First, my company’s senior HR VP was whisked off to an expensive lunch at a very exclusive restaurant. Second, my direct supervisor’s family was treated to a Broadway show in New York City. Third, I received my graphics, unremarkable in every way, and we eventually saw the very same images in several other ad campaigns for completely different companies.

I left my company not long after that for unrelated reasons, but when I did, that advertising agency was still in place, smugly and arrogantly.

More recently, I was on a team charged with selecting a new exhibit-group vendor for my company (another large multinational). All we needed was someone to store our exhibit displays, and we had worked closely with our procurement department in identifying promising leads.

After reviewing our options, we had narrowed the choice down to two. I was particularly busy at the time, and was none-too-thrilled by the prospect of visiting two companies that, on paper, appeared to be offering identical services for similar costs.

We visited the first, and I saw pretty much what I expected: a large warehouse, a fleet of trucks, and a dedicated team. But when we went to the second, we were absolutely blown away by what awaited us.

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The second exhibit group company had gone to great lengths to prepare for our visit. They had read everything they could find about our company. They had prepared “idea books” to show off their creative folks. They talked about how excited they were about the possibility of doing business with us, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt how they were the only possible choice for storing our booths.

We ended up selecting them, and over the next 18 months, they took on dozens of other successful projects for us.

Helpful Hints for Working With Vendors

Selecting vendors carefully is one of the most important tasks that we as talent acquisition specialists have. Think of how many vendors you work with right now: applicant tracking system providers, advertising agencies, background screeners, job boards, consultants, and more.

Here are some hints I’ve picked up through the years that can make your vendor relationships the best part of your job:

  1. Stop awarding business on price alone. I can’t claim credit for this one; this is one of E. Edwards Deming’s “14 Points for Management” from his famous book Out of the Crisis. If a vendor’s culture and ethics don’t match those of your own company, you’ll end up overpaying dearly in the long run (both in financial terms, and also in terms of lost opportunities because your vendor doesn’t really understand you). It’s also a terrible way to build relationships based on trust. I am NOT suggesting that cost be eliminated as a consideration; rather, that it not be the only one. I have seen too many examples to name where a vendor was selected because of a ridiculously small “price advantage,” then provided such lousy service that it took years to undo the “guilt by association” created in colleagues’ minds.
  2. Tell others when you’re happy. People are often surprised when they learn how freely and willingly I give out the contact information of my favorite vendors. I can’t help it! When I find a person or company that does something well, I want to share in their success. Some of my proudest moments have come when vendors tell me that a contact I initiated at a meeting or convention resulted in new business for them. This is an ethical way of rewarding a vendor for a job well done, it reinforces the type of vendor behaviors you like, and it helps ensure the company is around to serve you in the future.
  3. Be brutally honest when you’re “dating.” If you deal in impossible deadlines that will ultimately be passed along to a vendor, you need to tell them that up front. If you have a strange billing cycle and need your invoices at odd times, you need to make the vendor aware of it. If you like receiving acknowledgements to all your emails, expect your account rep to be reachable at all hours of the day and night, or demand final approval on all decisions (no matter how small), be clear from the beginning. Sometimes the best decision you can make together with a vendor is that you really shouldn’t do business with one another. This is as successful as finding the right vendor.
  4. Call and visit your vendors just to talk. Once you’re working successfully with a vendor, you’ll begin to see a synergistic effect start occurring. As a recruiting expert, you probably have some pretty good ideas; your vendor also has some good ideas. When you take time to brainstorm together, however, you’ll come up with frighteningly great ideas. If you don’t already experience this on a regular basis, please do yourself a favor and try it. Some of the most novel and innovative ideas I’ve ever seen in the recruiting business actually came about from conversations between vendors and their customers.
  5. Acknowledge when there is a problem. I don’t mean acknowledge the problem to your vendor! I mean acknowledge the problem to yourself and your organization. When I was younger, I used to wonder why companies used horrible systems, consultants, or software. It took a while to realize that the reason was that someone actually picked that system, consultant, software. Further, they probably asked their boss for a lot of money to purchase it, likely committed to a “successful implementation” in their goals and objectives, and will do pretty much anything it takes to avoid admitting they made a mistake. It doesn’t have to be that way in your organization; when something is fundamentally wrong with a vendor relationship, commit to fixing it right away. If it can’t be fixed, do both of yourselves a favor and move on.

If you don’t find yourself smiling when you get a call or email from your vendors, it’s probably time for some reflection. How were they selected in the first place? Do they like working with you? Do they understand what you want from them?

In a nutshell, do these vendors take pride in helping your organization be successful or will they just send your boss to the Broadway show? Having the right partners working with you makes a world of difference.

He started his career as a research chemist in the laboratory. Now, Michael Kannisto has tried to apply a similarly disciplined and science-based approach to the fields of recruiting and talent management. His long-term interests include employment branding, multiple generations in the workforce, and using Six-Sigma methodology to improve recruitment outcomes.

His current passion is the development and use of mathematical models to predict future staffing and development needs (a remarkably more accurate form of “workforce planning” than what is traditionally employed). Call it predictive modeling, call it “big data” ... but the information sitting in your HRMS right now has the potential to change the way you think about talent forever.


2 Comments on “How to Fall in Love With Your Vendors

  1. What a great reminder.

    I would suggest some additional items for consideration:

    1) Structure the contract so that satisfactory delivery is tied to the payment terms (e.g. milestones)

    2) Look for opportunities to cross promote your vendor if they prove themselves (this can affect pricing and add incentive to doing a good job

    3) When selecting a vendor ask for specifics of how they have done before what they would like now to do for you (I’m particularily frank with direct-placement agencies about this item)

    4) Challenge a vendor’s ‘flexibility’ by asking for examples of what they have done out of the ordinary and references. The goal here is to minimize response such as ‘None of our other clients have asked for that’ or ‘Our architecture doesn’t allow for that’

    5) Hold quarterly business reviews (where appropriate). Typically this has been taken to mean an appointment where a client complains to a vendor – and not what I mean. My company holds quarterly meetings (for example) with our on-site temp agency and their associate vendors for us (the client) to brief them (vendors) on what our company is doing and plans to do in the next quarter. This is meant to better inform them (therefore make them better at recruiter for my company) and demonstrate sincere appreciation for what they do and highlight how we can work better together.

  2. I could not agree more. Treating a vendor like a partner rather than a servant is the key to a successful relationship. Early in my career I thought I could manage all aspects of staffing and did not feel that utilizing vendors was a wise or necessary investment. Thankfully I quickly learned that by partnering with vendors and allowing them to help me, I was able to achieve more and focus my attention on the areas that most needed it.

    During my tenure at Cingular Wireless vendors played a key role in helping to build an efficient and effective talent acquisition function. Now that I have transtioned into a consulting role I am committed to helping my clients identify and partner with the ‘right’ vendors to help them achieve their goals.

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