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Opinion: How to turn a prickly vendor into a team member

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I planned on placing an order for some marketing giveaways, you know, the tchotchkes you hand out at trade shows. Alas! I missed the production deadline.

Then I got a nasty phone call.

“Ellen, what happened to your order? Our production schedule has to be completely redone. You’ve put us all in crisis mode. I am steaming mad right now. It was really unprofessional of you to drop the ball like that.”

Keep in mind that I had never signed an agreement. He had never provided a final price. We had talked about the items, and I said I would like to order. We both neglected to follow through. In life, sometimes stuff gets dropped.

I heard him out, then replied, “I take responsibility for missing the deadline. However, I don’t need the angry phone call. This conversation makes me want to not do business with you. Which is a shame, because I like you and your products. What’s going on with you?”

He took a breath, and shared, “I just had the brass come down on me for missing sales goals. It’s pretty tense around here.”

I responded, “Hey, I am in sales, too. It’s disappointing to miss a sale, especially one you were counting on. How about if you and I just choose not to fuss at each other?”

And we were off and running. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time and money with their company, and they have delivered awesome products and great customer service.

Here are a few tips for working well with vendors.

• Treat vendors as team members. Get to know them before you sign on. Ask about their goals and motivations. Find out what they look for in a customer. Visit with past and present clients about expectations and results.

• Take a chance on the new kid. Is there a vendor who has been beating on your door for a long time? Give them a shot and place an order. I love persistence, and resilience, in a partner. I also like having a primary vendor, and one or two backup vendors, for each essential purchase or service need.

• Put it in writing, and be willing to pick up the phone. With manufacturers and distributors, this means getting clear about terms, pricing, delivery, payment methods and invoicing procedures. Use email and checklists to document agreed-upon points. If the communication is getting confusing, get on the phone or visit them in person. You have to be a brilliant writer to communicate nuance, sarcasm or criticism without striking the wrong note. So don’t try. Talk it out, and then document the decision and steps in a short, bulleted and polite email.

• Refer business to your vendors. Brag on great performance, and send customers their way. Give them video testimonials and post nice things on their social media. They may do the same for you.

• Love ’em or leave ’em. Do you have a product vendor who neglects to deliver priced packing slips and emailed invoices? You may offer to help them get their systems in place. However, like an employee, you are well served to document problems as well as attempts to get things straightened out. Are you making reasonable progress in reasonable time? Is the juice worth the squeeze? If so, continue the relationship. If not, it’s OK to end the relationship. Hence the need for a backup vendor or two.

Don’t expect your vendors to be perfect or to operate problem-free businesses. Like you, there may be parts of the business that your vendor has dialed in. And there may be some organizational challenges. Help them get better, and allow them to help you, too.

Ellen Rohr is an author and business consultant offering profit-building tips, trending business blogs and online workshops at EllenRohr.com. Her books include “Where Did the Money Go?” and “The Bare Bones Weekend Biz Plan.” She can be reached at ellen@ellenrohr.com.

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