I planned on placing an order for some marketing giveaways, you know, the tchotchkes you hand out at trade shows. Alas! I missed the production deadline Then I got a nasty phone call:
“Ellen, what happened to your order? Our production schedule has to be completely redone. You’ve put us all in crisis mode. I am steaming mad right now. It was really unprofessional of you to drop the ball like that.”
Keep in mind that I had never signed an agreement. He had never provided a final price. We had talked about the items, and I said I would like to order. We both neglected to follow through. Life gets “lifey,”and, sometimes, stuff gets dropped.
I heard him out, then replied: “I take responsibility for missing the deadline. However, I don’t need the angry phone call. This conversation makes me want to not do business with you. Which is a shame, because I like you and your products. You seem really upset about this, and it is not a life-or-death situation. What’s going on with you?”
He took a breath, and shared: “I just had the brass come down on me for missing sales goals. It’s pretty tense around here.”
“Hey, I am in sales, too,” I replied. “It’s disappointing to miss a sale, especially one you were counting on. However, today we have another opportunity and another month of possibilities. How about if you and I just choose not to fuss at each other?”
And we were off and running. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time and money with their company, and they have delivered awesome products and great customer service. No need to kick the cat. (Ever hear that classic Zig Ziglar story? https://bit.ly/2rqXebE)
Don’t expect your vendors to be perfect or to operate problem-free businesses. Like you, there may be parts of the business that your vendor has dialed in. And there may be some organizational challenges. Help them get better, and allow them to help you, too.
Here are several general tips for working well with vendors:
Treat vendors as team members.
Get to know them before you sign on. Ask about their goals and motivations. Find out what they look for in a customer. Visit with past and present clients about expectations and results. Ask questions about business structure and organizational chart. Who is your main contact? Who do you call when problems develop? Start with a small project or product order, and as you gain some experience together, you can increase your spend. Good business is built on great relationships.
Take a chance on the new kid.
Is there a vendor who has been beating on your door for a long time? Someone who regularly checks in, and offers to be of service? Maybe she shares a helpful tip or blog link. Maybe he brags about you in a podcast. Give them a shot and place an order. I love persistence and resilience in a partner. I also like having a primary vendor and one or two backup vendors, for each essential purchase or service need.
Put it in writing, and be willing to pick up the phone.
With manufacturers and distributors, this means getting clear about terms, pricing, delivery, payment methods, invoicing procedures, etc. Take pictures of damaged deliveries. Be reasonable about manufacturer defect returns (you know, the problem could be on your end). Use email and checklists to document agreed upon points. If the communication is getting confusing, get on the phone or visit them in person. You have to be a brilliant writer to communicate nuance, sarcasm or criticism without striking the wrong note. So don’t try. Talk it out – and then document the decision/to dos/resolution in a short, bulleted and polite email.
Refer business to your vendors.
Brag on great performance, and send customers their way. Give them video testimonials and post nice things on their social media. They may do the same for you. BONUS TIP: Vendors can be a terrific source for acquisition leads. Salespeople are in a position to learn of a business owner looking for a quick exit or a strategic transition. If you are using acquisition to grow – I love this strategy – your vendors can be excellent bird dogs.
Specifically, some vendors will work with you on projects, such as implementing marketing, accounting and software.
With these vendors, consider the following tips:
Use steps of delegation.
As you would with an employee, take the time to clarify the scope of the project. Go through the delegation process and determine who is in charge, why the project needs to be done, what it will look like when it is, when is it due, etc. These steps help you get a feel for your vendor’s organizational skills and standard procedures. Don’t be surprised if they don’t have any. They can learn yours. My friend and mentor Al Levi taught me how to delegate successfully. Here’s a link to his LinkedIn blog on the topic: https://bit.ly/2FVryzz
Commit to project management software or app.
These days we work remotely, so paper and pencil have serious limitations. Check out Trello (my fav), Evernote, Basecamp or Asana. They all have similar features, so pick the one that appeals to you. Create a project board for each vendor to document your communications. You can attach files, and alert team members of assignments and production. If a vendor is new to using a project management app, I will “impose” Trello on them. Some of our vendors are already skilled with these tools. Occasionally, I will adopt their app, as opposed to insisting on mine, if they have a good system in place already.
Love 'em or leave 'em.
Do you have a vendor who neglects to deliver priced packing slips and emailed invoices? You may offer to help them get their systems in place. However, like an employee, you are well served to document problems as well as attempts to get things straightened out. Are you making reasonable progress in reasonable time? Is the juice worth the squeeze? If so, continue the relationship. If not, it’s OK to end the relationship. Hence, the need for a backup vendor or two.
Raise their prices?
A couple weeks ago, I was getting ready for a trip and realized I wasn’t going to get my garden beds cleared out before I left. So, I went online and found a landscaper. “Oscar” arrived in rusty old truck, and as he parked, I noticed the oil leak ink-blotting my driveway. His opening line was, “You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?” I do. We were off to a rocky start. However, as I spent time with Oscar, I found him to be a kind man and hard worker, with mad pruning skills and knack for pulling weeds, roots and all. You won’t be surprised that he charged me way too little, and that I paid him twice what he asked. He told me his wife did his bookkeeping, but she was upset with him for a credit card bill that was more than they could keep up with him. I know that feeling. I sent him home with a few business books, and an offer to help him put a basic price book together. I bet you would’ve done the same.
Ellen Rohr is president of the franchise company, ZOOM Drain, www.zoomdrain.com, and offers "in the trenches" insights to contractors and family business owners. Reach her at (417) 753-1111 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For free business tips, problem-solving webinars, money-making tools and lots of love, visit ellenrohr.com.