In my past role as VP of global marketing for a leading supply chain planning software company, I hired vendors to help deliver on strategies that would help achieve the 30 percent growth target. Unfortunately, the relationship always turned out disappointing me. The best part of the experience is at the start when they try to sell you stuff and pull out the big guns. I get to talk to their most experienced consultants, who give good advice and do great follow-ups. But once the contract is signed, the experience goes downhill. The great consultants disappear, the person working on your account is inexperienced, and the delivery quality feels like assignments were done by disorganized interns.
After several bad experiences like this, I decided that investing in developing my in-house team would be time better spent than complaining to my account manager about poor service. But frankly, that’s not a good solution either, simply because it would take two or three times longer if you factor in recruitment and training/development time—not to mention there is no guarantee of success. I think every CMO or marketing leader has had an experience like this, caught between a rock and a hard place, the heartburn alone killing productivity.
What is it about a B2B customer relationship that is so hard to maintain, let alone build? Why is it so hard for vendors to be the partners that you need? In this two-part blog post, I’ll discuss the strategies clients and vendors alike need to have in place to build a better relationship.
As a client engaging a vendor
Now that you’ve made up your mind and decided that you will sign with a particular vendor, consider the following:
1. Treat the relationship as an effort in change management
The early stages of the relationship are where trust-building needs to happen. Like it or not, when working with a new vendor, you are introducing a change into your organization. Therefore, having a plan where transition and change are managed is crucial for the success of any engagement. For example, when 2X is engaged by a client, we are either augmenting an existing function, or we are starting a completely new program like account-based marketing (ABM) or revenue impact marketing (RIM).
In the staff augmentation scenario, we include a learning phase during onboarding. The 2X team receives training to get familiar with the client’s systems, workflows, processes, and stakeholders. This takes up to two weeks in most cases, but by the third week, the team is working as part of the client organization, taking instructions and work assignments and delivering to the client. During this period, we start to stress test the existing processes and workflow and adjust along the way. This allows both the client and vendor teams to get a good cadence going.
It is also during this phase that we advocate a weekly meeting between teams, and we favor video meetings over audio calls so that team members can associate names to faces. Since we all know communication is not just verbal, being able to see the people on the other side of the world helps create healthy relationships. This includes resolving any issues quickly during these meetings, rather than over emails.
In a new program scenario, change management isn’t as significant; however, there is still the need for the new function to be explained in terms of how it relates to the existing client team. We know that any marketing activity done by the new team will have an impact on the existing one, and this should be a good thing. Therefore, the free flow of information between the teams should be encouraged, and can be established by a key member on the client side acting as the bridge, facilitating the conversation to deliver results and bring teams closer together.
2. Measure your vendor’s performance
Don’t outsource and forget. You should be measuring your vendors with a few key metrics—namely on utilization, efficiency, and quality—to see if they are on track with your expectations. These numbers allow issues to surface and will provide you good points of discussion with both your team and vendors. For example, when utilization is low for a vendor’s team member, it means there isn’t much work flowing through. The issue could be that your in-house team is finding it difficult to chunk out work because the existing workflow wasn’t designed to accommodate an outsourced team member. Watching out for these sorts of signals early in the engagement brings up important issues that should be addressed. And because discussions are fact based, there is little room for blaming.
You should be able to see your vendor team getting better and working faster as they become more familiar with your brand, messaging, systems, and processes. A good benchmark is how they measure against your in-house team members in terms of efficiency and quality. After a few months, there should be no significant difference in terms of delivery from a vendor team member compared to an in-house team member. If the efficiency and quality remain low, it could be that your vendor is frequently swapping resources out, or, the quality of the team member is questionable.
3. Set expectations with clear SLAs and work processes
Disappointment often happens when expectations are not met. That’s why service level agreements (SLAs) are key things to spell out in a contract with your vendor. SLAs do not only cover the vendor side but should also clearly state the responsibilities and response time of the client, especially when work is meant to be collaborative.
SLAs are used successfully in 2X to manage expectations so that when an out-of-the-ordinary request is made by the client, there is a special arrangement on how it is handled. This is an important point because this fosters mutual respect on both sides; for example, if there is a request to work on an urgent task over the weekend, the client would agree to a higher rate to secure availability, and the employee would get overtime compensation.
It takes two to build a successful B2B customer relationship. Part 2 of this blog series is written for vendors who want to improve their customer relationship management skills. I will talk about strategies for developing and maintaining a good relationship with their clients (though this post is also relevant and should be read by clients, too).
In the meantime, I would love to hear about your experience as a client working with vendors. And if you like this post, you may also enjoy this other one on the new alternative to hiring a marketing agency.