How to Be More to Your Vendors Than Just Another Customer
Whether it's a latte or a vacation in Belize, we're all accustomed to paying for a service and receiving the benefits. For the most part, these simple give-and-take transactions of our personal lives deliver what we need. But, when it comes to interacting with vendors for your business, it's a whole different ball game.
The relationships you forge now with your vendors can define your business for years to come. Businesses don't grow in a silo, and we all need outside support, expertise and knowledge to get to the next level. This means having authentic discussions with your vendors about where you want to go with your business and cultivating a genuine partnership.
So, how do you change the conversation with vendors to get them to want to really help you and not just win your business? For the answers, I turned to the vendors themselves.
Ask your vendor for a trial run.
Take Monster, a well-known employment solutions firm and a company which I serve as a vendor. With a client base that includes corporations, and staffing and recruiting firms, as well as millions of job seekers in more than 40 countries, Monster is no stranger to productive customer relationships.
One way it has grown effective partnerships with its customers is through an open-minded trial period, without overthinking the cost investment, terms and testy legal requirements right out of the gate. Although these items are critically important a bit further down the line, you're more likely to get creativity and insight from potential vendors if they loosen up in the early stages.
Penny Queller, senior vice president and general manager of Monster's Staffing Group, shared a recent success story. Her team's goal was to receive feedback from a potential client on whether a specific solution was an effective recruiting option for them.
"The client was struggling to fill job openings with their current vendor, and was open to a trial period where we came up with a plan to build a customized program," Queller told me in an email.
The trial, which included an Apple Watch contest to drive usage and adoption of the service offering, was wildly successful, resulting in 11 job placements and a newly inked contract. In letting its client try out its solution first, Monster showed its trust and willingness to work on fresh ideas and capabilities, without putting pressure on the client to sign on the dotted line.
Kathryn Madden, co-founder of OfficeLuv, a service that creates happier and more productive workplaces by streamlining office supply ordering, suggests trials as a way to ensure you and your vendors' goals are aligned before you dive into a lengthier agreement.
"Trial programs can be effective when the focus is on developing a quality relationship vs. quantity or price discounts," Madden said to me. "That means we don't offer trials to everyone because our product isn't right for everyone. If a potential customer is just looking to save a buck or find a quick win, they probably aren't a good fit for us."
Treat your vendors like part of your executive team.
Vendors are much more likely to deliver when you tap them for all the insight, creativity and knowledge they have accumulated over the years, in turn, viewing them as true strategic partners. This is the mindset that vendor Bullhorn, a provider of CRM and operations software for the staffing industry, takes with its more than 7,000 clients.
"I love to feel like a key part of a customer's executive team," Ryan Murphy, vice president of global enterprise strategy at Bullhorn, a company I currently work with, told me recently. Murphy recognizes that it's a challenge to get to that point with a customer, but once you do, it's likely to pay off in dividends (literally and figuratively).
"Even though we don't specifically work at the company, our domain expertise can bring valuable and provocative ideas -- with ears and eyes on the macro trends that are impacting a customer's business and industry." Often, this can be a true difference maker, which is paramount when you're just getting off the ground.
Remember: Vendors are people, too.
Whether you are in startup mode or made it to the Fortune 500, always remember that your vendors are more than just suppliers of products or services.
SpotHero (a current client of mine), a parking service provider with over 500 parking operations clients, always prefers clients who think of them as partners.
"It's all about partnership, transparency and mutual respect for one another's business objectives," Matt Sullivan, SpotHero's head of supply, said to me in an email.
That reverence is especially key in the tone of client conversations, whether you're in the early stages of an agreement or working out the kinks of an issue down the line.
Sullivan added, "The most harmful attitude a client can take is to think of us, their vendor, as products vs. people, because products can be limited -- but people who are partners to your business never are."
Christine Hutchison, co-founder of Proxfinity, an event engagement and analytics company, told me in an email that she also encourages companies to keep an open mind and, "not think of our offering as just another commodity. We invest time and resources to involve our clients in the design of an engagement platform that will be most effective for them, and as a result, we become a strategic partner rather than just a vendor."
Bullhorn's Murphy agrees that when you view vendors as only a third-party or a second-class citizen, "the engagement can manifest into order taking, mediocrity and a whole lot of YES," which isn't the foundation for successful business outcomes, on either side.
Get by with a little help from your vendors.
Vendors directly impact quality of products and services, competitiveness, customer service and even finance -- all priorities for entrepreneurs. Plus, when you view a vendor as a partner instead of an order-taker, you may also get the opportunity to try out new things, push the innovation needle, and support each other through ups and downs.
It may require a few shifts in approach, as well as practice, but viewing your vendors as partners allows you to get more from them and leverage them as the hidden growth assets they indeed are.