During my Career so far, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some excellent vendors but it’s also been an education in learning how to work with a vendor when you’re working very closely with them during the project lifecycle.
Vendor relationship management is sometimes one of the forgotten areas of working with a vendor as there’s the expectation that they’re hired, do what they need to do and then leave. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that this is rarely the case and it’s not as black and white as it first appears.
The type of relationship that you’ll have with your vendor may also differ depending on several things such as the type of contract that you have with them, the ‘health’ of your project/ organisation and quality of the vendor themselves.
One of the first things that you need to do when working with your vendor is establishing clear boundaries and guidelines of responsibility for what each team is responsible for. This will likely be done during the detailing of the project plan but it’s also likely that you’ll need to make sure that each team is aware of what is their responsibility and where they are accountable.
Team Building and avoiding the Blame Game
If I’m going to be in a close working relationship with a vendor, at the start of the project, I’ll work on team building between the two teams. I’ve found that this helps to get to know the ‘new’ members of our enlarged team but also gives me an opportunity to learn more about who is working on the team and the good dynamics that we can pair against. I’ve found doing this team building at the start of a project helps limit issues coming later such as ‘the blame game’ where team blames the other for a fault or issue. If you can create one single team unit then it reduces the ‘them and us’ philosophy which is very common when working with vendors.
It’s a lack of communication
It shouldn’t happen whilst working with a vendor but one issue that I’ve seen when issues become prevalent or known is that the vendor becomes impossible to reach and there is a distinct lack of communication regarding status, updates or latest information. I’ve heard a lot of Project Managers have the same experience and the resolution that was done was either to escalate this to vendor management/ internal management or try to work with the vendor directly. In my experience, the best way to initially approach any communication issues is to talk to your counterpart at the vendor to try and understand what is going on and what can be done to bring the communication back to a clear and acceptable level.
The lone wolves
A major issues that I’ve seen with a vendor is an unwillingness to work together. Whether this has been on individual tasks or just working together to deliver status updates etc. the vendor refused or delayed the process unnecessarily. To resolve this, I made an attempt to work closely with my partner Project Manager at the vendor to build a good team cohesiveness. We would break down tasks together or work on things together to encourage the team to adopt the same behaviour. I also made clear statements when both teams were together about the priority of the project and that working together as one team was the only way that we’d achieve our end goal. Having the support of my counterpart at the vendor support me on this item was invaluable.
If you’re working with a vendor where there is a clear separation of tasks and responsibilities, being able to hold them to account is your biggest advantage here as a Project Manager. Whilst working with one particular vendor they were proactive in reporting their status, feedback and delivering their items as needed. Having them accountable to a clear set of tasks, helped me track their progress but also motivated them in knowing what needed to be done and to what extent it was done.
So what can you do?
One thing that I’ve recommended to Management before is that there should be a full analysis done on the Vendor relationship and likely issues during the RFP process. This does not have to be extensive or time consuming but it could just be understanding from them how they work? what their issue and resolution process is like? what is their team dynamic? If you’re able to know these things, then you’re likely to be able to establish whether this vendor would ‘fit’ into your organisation well and whether as a Project Manager you’ll be able to work with your counterpart.
Working with vendors has a lot of advantages and if you keep to some key principles mentioned here, then you’re on the route to success! But I’d love to know what you think about this? Do you agree? Have you had other issues working with vendors?
Hi EM the PM!
Yes – I have experienced problems working with vendors many times and have had many issues. I think you hit on the main points. These pop to mind for me:
– Clear delineation of responsibilities
– Clear contracts outlining deliverables to be produced with schedules and escalation paths when deliverables are not delivered, or are not up to par
– Deliverable descriptions as schedules or addendums to the contract and signed by both parties, outlining what quality means in relation to each one
– Sign off assignments and timelines for review
– Clear communication, preferably using collaborative portals for single versions of facts, decisions, plans and documents
For fixed price contracts, it is easy to slip into the trap of thinking the vendor will deliver the agreed item on time, but when they don’t, or when the quality of the item is poor and needs re-work, every dependent line in your project schedule will slip. Best to not leave things to chance, and insist on regular progress reporting.
I also believe in asking the vendor probing questions about their project management processes. Vendors who fly by the seat of their pants can throw your project into a tailspin.
Thanks for your insightful article!