Turn Vendors Into Partners

Marketing executives are always looking for ways to improve how work will get done among teams that are stretched thin. A great place to start is by resolving to make the best use of vendors, suppliers, agencies, or whatever you like to call them. These unsung heroes can be your company's greatest HR-stretching friend.

Partnering with vendors—true partnering—takes discipline, strategy, and a corporate culture that sees the vendor-client relationship as a unique opportunity to achieve your goals.

Select the right partner

It all starts with the account rep.

When selecting a vendor, your company's team probably puts a lot of work into researching their financial stability, past work, and capabilities, but gives little thought to the sales rep pitching and ultimately servicing your business. All reps are not created equal. The most talented reps have the luxury of choosing the accounts they pursue. Accounts are currency to a salesperson, and are frequently used as leverage in hiring the most seasoned players; they are sometimes as important as the comp package. If you merely need someone to deliver a commoditized tactic, the expectation you have of your rep is limited to his ability to comprehend your needs and meet deadlines.

For more specialized or integrated projects, a talented rep can mean the difference between a stellar program or a failed execution. In-demand reps pursue accounts where they feel valued, where they are brought in early and are given the opportunity to help develop strategy. Your work becomes meatier and more meaningful to them. Your business is their business; they become an extension of your team. Calling a rep once the strategy has been completely defined could mean you are losing out on valuable insights in that rep's area of expertise.

The best way to extend your resources without adding staff is to get free quality work from the best vendors out there by establishing your vendor relationship as a partnership. Your creative, resourceful vendor can and will happily be a strategic resource. Allow them access to the decision maker. I almost always learn something critical that improves my recommendation when I hear the objectives from the horse's mouth. Take it a step further and give your rep's manager access to the decision maker's boss. This will ensure you get the best thinking against your objectives and means the vendor is more invested in winning the business, as it will be a win for the rep's boss too.

Remember that some "added value" elements come in the form of experience. Ask the question up front about who will be handling the day-to-day should they win the business. I've seen all too often my competitors send in the big guns for the pitch, only to assign the business to a junior (read "less expensive") rep when they win it.

Become a preferred client

You don't have to be the biggest account in a rep's roster to be the most desirable. Often, it's about setting up your internal culture to support the relationship.

Teach junior staffers the value of vendors. A classic mistake is delegating the vendor relationship to a junior executive without senior managers first setting the culture of vendor partnership. Manufacturers are artists at training optimal interaction with retailers, but only a few I've seen take a 360-degree approach and train proper vendor etiquette.

Commission on deals can range from 20 percent to 100 percent of a rep's income, so placing a call or sending a "Dear John" email should come with some sensitivity and respect. This requires proactive training of your staff. A vendor scorned will not be as willing to jump through hoops as they might once have been. I was once notified by the most junior person on a brand team that we would not be executing a program that we had conceived, tested, and successfully launched nationally over multiple years, because they were taking it in-house. Aside from the two-line email with my name misspelled, this deserved a personal note or call from the marketing director. When their internal execution began falling apart and they needed help, guess who got a call THEN from the marketing director?

Tell vendors why they lost (or won) your business

A meaningful response to a request for proposal deserves a meaningful explanation. It will benefit both vendor and client in the long run. Let the vendor know why they lost the business. As vendors look to grow and improve, offer insight into what was missing in the proposal to help them innovate to better meet your needs the next time around.

Conversely, explain why vendors won your business. Letting the vendor know why the contract was awarded sets clear expectations and helps ensure you get what you want.

Make "vendor" a dirty word

We vendors know that we are selling important services that marketers require. Still, we don't like to be called "vendors"—the implication is too tactical. "Partners" or "prospective partners" are preferred. It may be semantics, but it sets the cultural tone within your organization as to how you expect your partners to be embraced.

One last secret: Some companies want to sell whatever you're willing to buy. Make sure you understand the distinction between what they "do" and what they "can do." Smart vendors are evolving quickly these days, so don't automatically discount a potential partner just because they haven't done something before. Rather, ask about other projects they've won when they developed a new capability and executed well.

Your new vendors, I mean partners, are ready, willing, and eager to dive in to fill in the ranks of your team. All you need to do is resolve to set up the relationships for respectful success.

Sherry Orel is the chief executive officer of Brand Connections, one of the largest targeted global media and marketing services companies focused on reaching consumers by creating and integrating media, technology, and product experience networks for national and global brands.

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