Take this primer from Kerry Patterson, co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, on how to excel in vendor relations at startup.
Entrepreneur: How can you make sure you have appropriate professional boundaries with your vendors?
Kerry Patterson: To set clear expectations, first address the product or service specs. Specs include quantity, price, deadline and quality. When clarifying each, provide precise constraints, using numbers when possible. For instance, never tell a vendor you need a product ASAP. That merely communicates a sense of urgency, not a real deadline. Instead, explain that you need it no later than 3 p.m. tomorrow, for example. When clarifying your quality standards, use a picture or an actual prototype to identify what you need and don't need. All this goes a long way toward avoiding violated expectations. You may also avert common potential problems by clarifying mistakes you want to avoid.
Entrepreneur: How do you communicate with vendors effectively over a great distance?
Patterson: Use technology in the way it's best suited. For example, when sending simple and routine exchanges in an order, e-mail can work quite nicely. When working through a problem that requires information from both sides, use the phone. And if problems become particularly complicated or sensitive, meet face to face to have the crucial conversation.
Entrepreneur: How can you make the entrepreneur-vendor relationship mutually beneficial?
Patterson: Each partner needs to treat the other in a way that considers the long-term effects of each decision. Communicate as issues arise to maintain a relationship that is both candid and respectful.