On Working with Vendors

One of the features of the DevLearn conference is the Morning Buzz sessions. Morning Buzz sessions are the un-conference conference sessions (as my friend, Roger Courville would call them). With Morning Buzz, learning professionals get together to discuss their experiences and learn from each other.

I led two of these sessions at DevLearn, the first was on working with vendors. Only a handful of people showed up. At 7:15 in the morning on the first day of the conference, I didn’t really expect much more than that. But I also didn’t expect that six people could share enough of their experiences to compile a concise list of best practices for working with vendors.

Before sharing our best practices, we should clarify what it means to work with vendors. In many companies with a learning and development group, certain projects may warrant a budget for hiring vendors that specialize in anything from strategic consulting to a focus on specific technologies, staff augmentation, and everything in between. I have both worked with vendors from within an organization and as a vendor to different organizations. Everyone else in our group works on the company side.

Here’s our list:

Look for people who follow through. In discussing the vendors that really stand out from everyone else, the best vendors “get it,” meaning they’re true professionals. They know what business is all about. They communicate every step of the way, and they deliver. Even if they’re late, good vendors will keep you up to date on their progress, be honest about delays, and present realistic solutions instead of pointing out problems. Look for references, sample work, and thoughtful answers to open-ended questions on things like handling a stressful timeline or change in scope.

Put it in the contract. One idea that kept rising to the top of our discussion was about addressing uncomfortable situations. When it comes to building a relationship with vendors, having clear guidelines about certain aspects of that relationship in the contract gives both parties common ground to stand on when uncomfortable situations arise. Outline who will work with whom, what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable, as well as general rules about timelines, payment, and how deliverables will be handled.

Be clear on requirements (not vague). In line with outlining working relationship details in the contract, organizations should spell out their requirements in detail. This list of requirements becomes the “yardstick” by which deliverables are measured. As a vendor, my experience is that organizations may not always know exactly what they need. This is where the role of consultant really helps. A great consultant can help you spell out these details during negotiations or as part of the work scope.

Communicate (but what does that mean?). Everyone knows communication is important but somehow important details can still be missed. To communicate better, ask questions, especially open-ended ones. Check-in on a regular basis. Listen actively by restating what you hear to ensure you both are on the same page.

Use an iterative (gated) process to ensure accountability. Some vendors work really well on their own for long stretches without any contact, but this is the exception not the rule. In most cases, having regular milestones that double as check-in points over the course of the project helps keeps vendors on track and helps you to know early when the project is getting off track.

Avoid double work when multiple vendors are involved. Some projects will require more than one vendor where different specialized skills are needed. Be sure to look closely at the work each is doing and where both vendors might end up working on the same tasks. Then give the work to one or the other to avoid paying for the same work twice and hurting feelings in the process.

In our modern economy, hiring vendors is sometimes easier than bringing on new staff, especially when help is only needed for special projects that have a clear start and finish. Let us know what your experiences with vendors are. What best practices would you add to this list?


Interested in learning how you can use the power of story to design your training experience? Sign up to receive the latest articles and exclusive updates for an upcoming book on the topic.