10 Tips for a Successful Association/Vendor Relationship
Becky S. Corbett, MSW, ACSW
Published in 2013 for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership’s membership.
As a former association executive, I was fortunate to implement successful projects over the years because of my working relationships with key vendors. These projects included outsourcing, adding member benefits, and streamlining operational functions to shift or decrease costs. Recently, I asked a few of the vendors, “If there was one behavior you wish your clients would exhibit, what would it be?” The following 10 tips are compiled from their insights and my experience as a chief operating officer.
1. Identify Your Real Needs Early and Ask for Help
As an association leader, I understand there are times when it is difficult to acknowledge you need help. Remember though, if you had the human resources or the systems or the technology to implement the project, you would have done so already. And, you certainly wouldn’t be contacting vendors if you didn’t need something from them. You have an inkling and you know what you need. Let them assist you in peeling back the layers of the onion. Accept the help and create a true partner mentality.
2. Trust Your Relationship
As they say, “It’s all about relationships.” The request-for-proposal (RFP) process establishes the core working relationship with your vendor. Go with your gut. If you don’t have the trust, or something just doesn’t click with the individuals assigned to your project, then don’t sign the contract. Projects are implemented by people, and if you expect to reach your association’s goals, it is important for you to have trust in the relationship.
3. Prepare Your Team for the Project
Establish the importance of the project for your association. Create board and staff buy-in. Explain the “why.” Develop the major deliverables. Identify human and financial resources. Acknowledge the multiple departments and teams working together to reach the identified goals. Give authority to who needs it. Projects create change within your association. Change can be scary for some staff, so lead your team. They may need help embracing the change and accepting the vendor’s assistance.
4. Communicate: Be Candid, Direct, Open, and Honest
Provide timely, accurate, and meaningful communication with your vendor. If you are wondering something, ask. If you are concerned about something, say it. If you have an idea on how the vendor can do something more effectively, tell them. Explain to your vendor colleagues when they should contact senior-level management. A five-minute conversation goes a long way to stop miscommunication. Sometimes you need to step-in and provide clarification. Take the opportunity to remind your team why the association is implementing the project.
5. Assign an Internal Project Manager/Champion to the Project
This could be a staff member or a third-party paid consultant who represents the association. The individual’s goal is to manage the project and be your eyes and ears. He or she reports to you.
6. Respect the Scope of Work
Make sure you understand the scope of work, also known as the “Statement of Work” or “SOW,” prior to signing the contract, agreement, or order. Ask other colleagues in the association to review the paragraphs that they may have knowledge of or are an expert in. For instance, review with counsel, IT staff, accounting personnel, membership and marketing teams, and others. If you think you will be getting “X,” confirm in your own words this is what you will be receiving. Understand your teams’ roles and responsibilities and follow through with the agreed-upon tasks and timeframes you and your team are given.
7. Give More Weight to Opportunities Than to Obstacles
Commit to the project from start to finish. You have heard the phrase, “analysis-paralysis.” Remind your staff and your vendor that failure is not an option. Explain we will implement “X” by “when.” Remember, work will exceed the time. Have the team establish milestone dates and create an ongoing steps, tasks, and an action-items list. Acknowledge and thank team members throughout the project implementation.
8. Streamline the Decision-Making Process
Clearly identify who the vendor goes to when they get “stuck” or need assistance. Is your door open? Ask yourself, “Am I stalling for a decision, and why?” If you need an additional approval, know your association’s protocols and keep the project moving along.
9. Hold the Vendor Accountable
Time and money. Is the vendor delivering? Require ongoing project meetings with documentation within one business day. Have them clearly state who, what, and when a task is due. Insist you receive invoices timely. Ask your internal project manager/champion to review all invoices for you. Communicate any concerns in a timely manner.
10. Acknowledge and Thank the Vendor
Thank your vendor publically and personally. Thank you to the vendors who worked with me over the years. We appreciate: Boxwood Technology, CommPartners, Edwards Project Solutions, Intelice Solutions (formerly WatkinsIT), Keller Benefit Services, Knowledge Bank, McGladrey, McKinley Advisors, Novick Group, Quatt Associates, PNC Bank, Raymond James, SunTrust Bank, Tate & Tyron, Watkins Meegan, and Xerox.